Simple Self-Care When Life Gets Hard
I had the privilege and deep joy of spending time with Ashley Bush Davis and Elisha Goldstein, among many others, at the 2015 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium last weekend. Both have new books that offer simple but effective tools for managing stress, anxiety, depression, etc. when life gets hard. Simple Self-Care for Therapists: Restorative Practices to Weave Through Your Workday by Ashley. “Bite-sized” practices that work for everyone, really. And Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion by Elisha. Powerful tools proven to work.
Here are exercises from each book, very similar to what I teach. I know they can work and can work quickly. May they help open the door to recovering your own resilience.
Shut Eye from Simple Self-Care for Therapists by Ashley Bush Davis
What: Rest your body with a daytime power nap
Find a place and position where you can comfortably rest your head and close your eyes. Set a time to ensure that you do not sleep more than thirty minutes. Depending on your window to time, anywhere from five to twenty-five minutes will be restorative. Feel the tension drain from your body as you rest.
When: When you are experiencing sleepiness
Why: Although the perfect duration and time for a nap will vary, sleeping for more than thirty minutes will take you into a deep sleep rather than revitalize you. There is a large body of literature showing that the benefits of a short daytime nap range from improved mood and reduced fatigue to improved measure of performance. Adrianna Huffington in her book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining and Success in Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom and Wonder leads a crusade against the sleep deprived western world. She writes, “There is practically no element of our lives that’s not improved by getting adequate sleep. And there is no element of life that is not diminished by a lack of sleep.”
Therapists, especially, are often faced with fatiguing and intensive work environments. A tired body or mind become more vulnerable to stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary traumatization. Thus, sufficient rest is a basic macro-self-care necessity. Naps are the obvious micro-self-care counter-measure to fatigue and poor performance caused by sleepiness. By relaxing into a brief nap, you’ll get a subsequent boost of energy and alertness to take you through the rest of your day.
I am a Smith College alumnae and was listening to a video replay of Arianna Huffington’s commencement speech to the class of 2013. She said, “You don’t’ get to thetop by marrying someone. A much simpler way is to sleep your way to the top.”
Did I hear right? I wondered. Did she just say what I think she said? The audience giggled, confused.
“But now,” Arianne clarified. “I’m talking about sleep in the literal sense.” Ahhh. I smiled with a sigh as political correctness was restored.
She went on to say that she’s something of a sleep evangelist. In 2007, she suffered from burnout, exhaustion, and sleep deprivation to the point where her head fell to her desk, breaking her cheekbone and requiring stitches. Now she speaks relentlessly about the dangers of sleep deprivation in our society. She has even created “nap rooms” at the office of the Huffington Post.
I’m reminded of my first experience with a power nap as a clinician. I had a small but active private practice at the time, three small children at home, and I worked out of a warm and sunny corner office not far from my house. My youngest was still in diapers and many days I pushed through my clients and professional to-do lists suffering from low to moderate sleep deprivation. This day, in particular, I had been up several times during the night, seen several clients before lunch, and there was just no faking it. How many ways canyou disguise a yawn? Or shift your posture just to keep your eyes open? As I closed the door behind my final morning client, I collapsed on the couch and let my eyes close.
With a jolt, I sat upright in a slight panic. What time was it? What day was it? Had I missed my next client? Had the sitter called? I felt like I had slept for hours. One deep breath and a glance at the clock brought me the realization that I had only been out for twenty minutes. Refreshed and with renewed clarity, I ate lunch, finished my case notes, and welcome my next client. I was blown away by the transformation.
These days, with all three kids off to college, I’m rarely sleep deprived. But I remain a true believer in the effectiveness of the power nap. It is the heaviest hammer in my self-care tool chest.
Reflection: What does it feel like to give yourself permission to rest during the day?
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Name and Crack Your NUTs from Uncovering Happiness by Elisha Goldstein
The acronym NUTs is a way of bringing humor to those Negative Unconscious Thoughts that arise constantly in the brain, beneath our awareness, and that feed the depression loop. Examples of NUTs include deep-seated beliefs that “I am unworthy,” “Something is wrong with me,” and “Nothing is ever going to change.” When a challenging event occurs in our lives, these NUTs become a filter that clouds the way we look at the world – and as a result, they can actually make us feel a little nuts! As we begin to bring more attention to what our NUTs are, we become more conscious of what they are. And, if you’ll excuse the pun, understanding our NUTs also strengthens our ability to “crack them,” releasing their hold on us.
In uncovering your NUTs and naming them, you can become more aware of them. You can practice training your brain to make space between your awareness and the thoughts themselves. Getting into that space instantly diffuses their power over you and allows you to breathe easier. As you practice and repeat naming your NUTs, you’ll get better and better at recognizing them and setting them aside.
To explore this more deeply, think about your top five NUTs. Spend a few minutes writing them down in the space below or in your journal. When they’re captured on paper, you can’t help but see the space between your awareness of the thoughts and the thoughts themselves, which allows you to start the process of gaining freedom from them.
Right now, write down your top five NUTs. (These may include thoughts such as: No one understands me. What’s wrong with me? My life is a mess. I’ve let people down. I’m a failure.)
After you write your own list of NUTs, take a few minutes to think about them. What patterns do you notice about them? Do they occur more frequently or less frequently when you’re feeling well? Are they more convincing or less convincing when you’re not feeling well? If you tune in to these questions, more often than not, you’ll notice that these thoughts occur less often and are much less convincing and believable when you’re feeling well and things seem to be going your way. That is proof that thoughts are not facts. If they were, just like the fact that a chair is a chair regardless of your mood, they would always remain the same.
As you begin to see these thoughts from a distance, you’re literally priming your mind to objectively notice them appearing and disappearing more in daily life. You are now relating to them instead of from them, starting the process of dis-identifying from them, reversing the mind habits that keep you stuck.
Crack your NUTs
Let’s take this one step deeper now. Whenever I’m working with people in breaking free from mind traps, I share with them a series of questions from American speaker and author Byron Katie that can help crack the NUTs and expose the lies that they are telling. As you practice continually cracking them, you get better and better at creating distance from your thoughts, dispelling their accuracy and seeing with greater clarity.
To start off, take one of the NUTs you listed above that represents a belief. This might be something like “I’m so weak” or “My future is bleak” or “I’m unworthy of love.”
1. Once you’ve come up with the belief, ask yourself, “Is it true?” Just notice what comes up. You might notice what many people do, that oftentimes the answer is, “Well yes, it’s true.” This is the brain initially reacting; it’s the autopilot you live with and believe is you.
2. Next, ask yourself, “Is it absolutely true?” Can you say that this thought is 100 percent accurate without any doubt? This question gets us to look at the thought again, pause, and gain a bit more distance from it. We have more perspective on the actual thought itself. At this point, many people might say, “Well, I can’t say it’s one hundred percent accurate; I guess there’s a possibility that I can see it in a different way.” Notice if this is your experience as you do it with your NUTs.
3. The third question asks,”How does this thought make you feel?” Here we’re beginning to see the thought as part of a cycle – we might say a part of the depressive loop – that is causing a reaction. Common responses are “It causes feelings of sadness, anger, shame, hurt, or fear.” We can go further and ask, “What impact does the thought have on you when it’s visiting you frequently?” The answer, inevitably, is “It cycles me into feeling moody, depress, or anxious.” This tends to lead us to habits of behavioral avoidance such as procrastination, eating, drugs, alcohol, sex – you name it. But in this process, we’re stepping outside of it and taking the energy out of the looping.
4. Ask yourself, “What would the days, weeks, and months ahead look like if I no longer had this thought or belief?” Check in here and, as best you can, really imagine this. What comes up for you? Would you feel lighter, happier, or more capable? Would you have more energy, be more motivated, or be less inclined to engage in unhealthy habits? Would it change your relationships with yourself and others for the better? Would you feel more hopeful, open, more alive?
5. Finally, “Who would you be without these thoughts?” This dips us underneath the thinking itself and back to that seat of awareness that is really who we are. If you check in deeply, you might even have a sense that you are aware of being aware right now. This is where you are no longer ensnared by the trivial nature of these mental happenings in your head, but can finally taste the mystery of life unfolding.
We are not our thoughts, not even the ones that we are.