Rethinking Our Self-Care During the Pandemic

Shelly Tygielski, who has connected 10,000 families (and counting) to support each other during the pandemic, explains why intentional care for yourself is also needed, now more than ever.

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For several weeks—or even longer, depending where you are in the world—we’ve been finding ourselves trying to gain footing and get used to our new realities, which present differently for each person. As the pandemic continues to unfold, a few universal truths are reaffirming themselves to me: First, in almost all but extreme cases, we have a choice about how we want to respond to what is happening. Second, the cliché and often-time overused metaphor of putting the oxygen mask on ourselves first so that we can help others has never been truer, whether we are on the front lines providing an essential service or finding ourselves at home. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, love and compassion are more viral than COVID-19.

We Have a Choice to Remain in Control

Two weekends ago, as the state where I live was finally waking up to the realization that preparation was in order and that we wouldn’t be spared, my husband and I made a trip to the supermarket to stock up on supplies and essentials. Now you have to understand that I live in a state that is under a threat of hurricanes almost annually at this point, and that what I saw was beyond the frenzy we experience when we are in the “cone of uncertainty” and being told to brace for impact. All around us, people were frantically loading their carts with toilet paper, jugs of bleach, and bottled water. The panic in the air was infectious; we humans are not immune to panic.

I found myself on a mission to not only get as much as I could on my grocery list but also to not panic. For the first week, my husband took up a new hobby as the town crier only instead of announcing the time each hour, he would report the numbers of infected individuals and worse, the number of deaths. On one particular day, my mother called me to report that five people in her synagogue tested positive and that another had passed away the night before. Things were getting real, real fast. After hanging up with my mom, frustrated that I could not properly console her over our video call, I went outside to our backyard, sat on a deck chair and just lost it.

I realized that this virus had me feeling sad—yes—but it also sent me into a tailspin and everything about my schedule, my hours of sleep, and my regular routine was completely out of control.  

In the midst of crying inconsolably, I realized that this virus had me feeling sad—yes—but it also sent me into a tailspin and everything about my schedule, my hours of sleep, and my regular routine was completely out of control.  

Taking a deep breath, reminding myself that I have tools to use, I wrapped up my crying, and began to feel like the clouds had parted. I could see clearly and I knew what I needed to do: Rewrite a new Self-Care Plan. The world had changed in a matter of days but my formalized plan had not—and so it was clear to me that, just as I needed to be adaptable, the plan needed to be, too. Adjusting my Self-Care Plan to meet this new normal was this shift that allowed me to launch the Pandemic of Love initiative (more on that later).

What is a Self-Care Plan and Why Do I Need One?

A Self-Care Plan is an intervention tool that keeps you from being completely sucked into the vortex, saving you when you find yourself standing on the precipice gazing into the dark abyss. It’s a fail-safe, created by you, and filled with your favorite self-care activities, important reminders, and ways to activate your self-care community—even virtually. 

Here are my top three reasons to get on top of this plan, as early as you can (don’t put it off!):  

1) Customizing a Self-Care Plan is a preventative measure. By designing a roadmap that is unique to you, in moments when you’re NOT in crisis, you’re directing your best self to reflect on what you may need (and have access to) in your most challenging moments. The reality is that only YOU know how intense your stress levels can get and what resources are available to you. Write that sh*t down.

2) Having a plan takes the guesswork out of what to do and where to turn in moments of crisis. From a mindfulness point of view, it helps you respond instead of react to the situation at hand. When you have a plan in place, you’ll feel more in control of your circumstances and life won’t feel quite as chaotic. (It also makes it easier to ask for help from those you share your plan with.)

3) A Self-Care Plan helps you stay the course. You’ll find it far easier to stick to your personal care strategy and avoid falling into the trap of making excuses. Having a plan helps you establish a routine, ensuring that you and your self-care partners don’t wind up in isolation, but rather check in with each other (even if it’s virtually these days), hold each other accountable, and share the responsibility to support one another. 

To read more about Self-Care Plans, you can check out an in-depth article that I wrote for Mindful.org last February.

A COVID-19 Self-Care Checklist

Besides disinfecting and washing my hands, I made a list of the best ways I could take care of my heart and spirit in these times, putting that proverbial oxygen mask on first before I tend to my family, my community, and the world.

Here are eight things that are on my extensive list:

1. Stick with my normal, daily meditation practice. It’s easy to lose track of time when the days blend into one another, but now more than ever, my twice daily meditation practice (20 minutes at a time) is so important. Also, I no longer have the excuse “I don’t have time” these days—all I seem to have is time, I just need to remain disciplined.

2. Maintain contact virtually by creating a schedule. Now is a great time to make sure that we check on the ones who matter to us, and those who we rarely get to see in person because they are so far away. However, it’s very easy to lose track of time—especially across time zones—so having a set schedule of times to check in, hang out and even eat “dinner” together can help to restore some social structure to the day.

3. Get outdoors. If you are blessed to live in a place where there are parks or waterfronts (that are not closed during the pandemic) and you can access them with walks, runs, and bikes, it’s a blessing that should not be squandered. Each day I commit to getting outdoors and moving for at least an hour, plus taking a barefoot walk on grass.

4. Give myself permission to cry. This is actually a point on my usual Self-Care Plan, which seemed appropriate to migrate over in these times. I know that I will inevitably feel sad, disheartened, or downright hopeless at times, but I also know that giving myself permission to feel these emotions fully and turn towards my suffering will help me release any pain or tension and help me see the sun through the clouds once again.

I know that I will inevitably feel sad, disheartened, or downright hopeless at times, but I also know that giving myself permission to feel these emotions fully and turn towards my suffering will help me release any pain.

5. Create a venting-hour. Just like some families have adopted a “happy hour,” we’ve adopted a “venting hour.” It sometimes only lasts five minutes but being that we are all stuck together in close quarters for the next few weeks or months, we make sure that there is an “airing of grievances,” (just like in Seinfeld’s fictitious holiday, Festivus), so that nobody keeps anything inside. I found that it reduces the build-up of tension and makes sure that there is no resentment, which is possible for even the kindest amongst us.

6. Limit how often and through what means I access the news and information. I have personally noticed how I feel when I watch the news or hear certain people speak, so now, I limit myself to 30 minutes of news per day on the television with a news anchor and station I trust. Otherwise, I mostly get my news online by reading articles and transcripts of press conferences. I also make sure to not watch the news before I go to bed, because it can get me all worked up, which is counterproductive.

7. Be of service to others without depleting myself. Within a few days of people in my community being laid off, I started to get emails and see posts on social media from my friends and community members who were scared about having their basic needs met—food, medicines, and other essentials. I realized that because I did not share those concerns, I am in a position of privilege to help others and that I can use my platform to help neighbors, community members and even strangers. I put my grass-roots activism skills to work and launched the Pandemic of Love project, a mutual aid community that has connected more than 10,000 families in need with patrons who can offer help. 

What skills can you bring to this moment in order to be of service? As always, it’s important to recognize and hold the boundaries that are safe for you. This is why your Self-Care Plan is so important. Offering help to others can give you meaning during this time of uncertainty. I know it has helped me stay on the side of hope, even when things seem hopeless.

8. When all else fails, ask myself: “What do I need in this moment?” This is my default question—the one I immediately ask myself when I sense that I am not feeling right, physically or mentally. I just pause, take a long, slow deep breath and ask myself this question. In this space between, I almost always find the answer.

Each day, invariably, I find myself looking at this list. It provides me with a measure of comfort, reminds me that I am in control, and that in times of crisis, I have the choice to either be my own worst enemy, or my best ally. I choose the latter.

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  • Shelly Tygielski
  • February 20, 2019