How to Boost Your Resiliency During Tough Times

People of any age can make use of the self-care movement's lessons during this pandemic. Here are some starting points.

Self-care illustration
Illustration: Salini Perera

The benefits of self-care

Last March and April, I woke up every morning trying to shake off a bad dream—something grey and heavy, something about a virus. Every morning, I’d realize it was, somehow, real. But even as I have integrated the “new normal” of lockdown and social distancing into my consciousness, the stress, fear and grief of the situation can still overwhelm me.

A difference-maker throughout this time, however, has been my self-care routine, a set of practices and habits that I’ve followed since my 20s, before I even knew there was a “self-care” movement.

While the term “self-care” might bring to mind Instagram hashtags and spa days, it has two legitimate origins. Before it went mainstream, “self-care” was used to describe guidance on what sick people and their caretakers should do to support the work of getting healthy. And, women and Black people used the term to describe the kind of care not provided by a white, patriarchal medical establishment.

It’s fortunate that self-care is now more widespread, as people of any age can make use of the movement’s lessons during this pandemic. Here are some starting points.

Settle your mind

Even before COVID-19 arrived in Canada, we had been experiencing a mental health crisis. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, mental health challenges cause around 500,000 people to miss work each week. And in a recent Morneau Shepell survey, 36 per cent of Ontarians reported their mental health has suffered since the pandemic began.

One pillar of self-care that can help ease the mental burden—and which also happens to be simple, efficient and free—is meditation. The positive impact of meditation on anxiety, depression, focus and even physical pain has been so well-established that it is now used in schools, on sports teams and in corporate offices.

Still, it can be difficult to create and maintain a regular meditation practice. Light Watkins, a nomadic meditation teacher who’s settled in Atlanta for the pandemic, says that a lot of people don’t meditate because, at first, “It doesn’t feel all that relaxing.” That’s partly because meditators are encouraged to sit upright on a mat or cushion on the floor; I like to meditate in bed. Watkins says, “You want to sit in a way that feels absolutely comfortable, like you’re watching television,” and he notes that a sofa or reading chair works well enough.

And while various meditation practices involve focusing on something specific—the breath or a visualization—Watkins suggests to instead try mental “roaming.” With your eyes closed, let yourself think about the past, the future, conversations, songs—whatever comes up. “You don’t want to wrestle with your thoughts,” he says. “The practice is to adopt an attitude of complete nonchalance.” Counterintuitively, letting your mind wander freely allows it to settle.

Meditation won’t reverse decades of accumulated stress, Watkins warns. But with time, you’re more likely to become resilient when you need to be.

Roll away stress

When you’re under stress, overwhelmed or, yes, living through a pandemic, regular exercise can be one of the first healthy habits to go. Yet moving your body is a core principle of self-care and one of the best defences against stress. For anyone who feels that squeezing in a workout is too much right now, Melanie Caines, a yoga teacher in St. John’s, Nfld., suggests movement needn’t mean doing a serious workout every day. “A little goes a long way,” she says. In fact, some targeted, gentle exercises can do a lot to relax your entire body.

Since the average person is inclined to hunch their shoulders when they work, read or even walk, Caines recommends taking a break for shoulder rolls. To do this, start by inhaling, lifting the shoulders toward the ears, exhaling and “smoothly and gently” rolling the shoulders back and down. Caines advises to do this without any “jerky movements,” but instead with “fluidity and ease”—and only if it feels good and there’s no pain.

Another activity that people often don’t make time for is intentional breathing. “We breathe just enough to stay alive and stay conscious,” says Caines, “and we don’t use this incredibly powerful tool that we have in our back pockets.” For a reset at any time during the day, she suggests taking a breath in through the nose, opening the mouth and sighing. “Physically, you’ll start to release tension and soften.”

Get your vitamins

It’s easy to resort to unhealthy foods as a comfort or distraction during a difficult time, which only makes it harder for your body to deal with stress. An important self-care tactic is to be mindful about what you’re eating and consider adding some nutritional support.

In general, this means a balanced diet that is right for your needs. But one commonly overlooked piece, according to Toronto naturopathic doctor Nikita Sander, is vitamin D. She notes that the nutrient is protective in many ways and is key for mental health: “Vitamin D helps regulate adrenalin and dopamine production, and prevents the depletion of serotonin in the brain, making it important for protecting against mood disorders like depression.”

Vitamin D also supports the immune system. Sander notes that deficient levels of it have been associated with certain cancers, autoimmune disease, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. “This suggests that vitamin D has a much greater role in our overall health than we yet understand.”

Sander also encourages people to consider taking an adaptogen, which is an herbal supplement that helps the body cope with stress. She likes ashwagandha, which can help balance cortisol, a stress hormone. “When our cortisol is high, that can often wreak havoc on other aspects of our health, including our energy levels, our ability to sleep and our ability to stay calm,” she says. As always, however, discuss any new supplements with your doctor first to avoid any contraindications.

Self-care can extend in many directions. Over the last few months, I upped my own routine by starting a running program with a friend, taking barefoot “grounding” walks in the backyard and keeping a daily journal. Self-care, as the name suggests, is whatever you make it.

Next, discover how to make new friends—even if you’re all grown up.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada