So often we associate the two together – health and crisis. You can’t blame us really. The headlines brim with the concept weekly. Newscasts run their stock video of obese or frail forms walking down a city street. I have something else in mind here, however – inspired by some friends and readers who I’ve talked to lately. Their stories run a gamut of scenarios from cancer diagnoses to divorce, personal loss to geographic moves to name just a few. The underlying commonality of them all, of course, is major life challenge and/or transition. Upheaval of this magnitude has a way of knocking us out of our orbits. Emotionally disoriented and fatigued, we can feel out of sync, stuck in an oddly passive or at least awkward pattern. Life can feel like it’s happening around us. Even our routines can feel foreign as we navigate days with an unusual detachment. So often we talk about crisis as something solved outside ourselves. We turn ourselves over to a team of physicians and specialists in a health crisis. In times of loss or transition, we access resources, including – again – professionals. While I wholeheartedly believe in availing oneself of every benefit possible, I think something else critical gets lost in shuffle. How do we care for ourselves during crisis?
If you stopped people on the street and asked them, for example, what would get them through a divorce, you’d get a lot of references to Ben & Jerry’s. If you asked about how they would take care of themselves if they lost a loved one, I think you’d get a lot of blank stares. (Do any of us really know before it happens?) If it was a question of job loss or unexpected relocation, I think a lot of people would poo-poo it altogether. Get over it and get back on the horse kind of thing. That’s fine and well until you consider, for example, that research has linked job loss with a surge in serious physical and mental health risk. According to one study, losing your job can put a person at an over 80% higher risk of serious, stress-related conditions like heart disease, diabetes or arthritis. The fact is, from a physiological and psychological perspective, transition often equals trauma, regardless of how our intellects would like to see it.
Reflecting on the aforementioned stories of friends and readers, I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to cultivate health in the face of acute stress. So often we talk about the impact of everyday, run-of-the-mill stress and calmly assure folks that sitting in traffic activates the same hormonal response that legitimate evolutionary challenges elicited. Even on a low grade level, these effects layer themselves over time and wreak major havoc over the long term. We need to learn to “manage” those everyday influences and learn to put it all in perspective. But what about living with the real deal – the undeniable pain of losing a spouse, of watching a child go through cancer treatment, of seeing your whole life and the lives of your children upended by divorce? Where’s the guidance beyond the pat “time heals all wounds” suggestion? What would Grok and his kin do during their own variations of these events?
The resources that people I talked to found were of the most vague nature possible. “Eat a balanced diet, exercise daily and talk to your doctor if symptoms of depression worsen or persist beyond a few weeks.” I know I have my surly side, but is that even worth the paper it’s printed on? Is it just me imagining Grok picking up a rock and hurling it at the person who would say this? While we don’t live with the same communal narratives or customary rituals that may have governed crises and transition in traditional society, we can be thoughtful about what our basic needs and responses are in these scenarios and make choices that address the elementally – primally – human character. I hope those of you who have been through these situations and can suggest relevant groups, books, web communities/sites, and personal tips will offer them in the comment section, but let me lay out a some primally inspired thoughts on caring for yourself and cultivating health in the face of acute stress. Some points will speak more to medical issues and others to personal crisis. In both cases, modern “efficiency” thinking can lose sight of what is inherently human.
Follow the basics – but retool them as necessary.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the basic principles of primal health. The fact is, they matter at least tenfold when you’re undergoing intensive, long-term stress. Crisis can suck us into a powerful undertow of fatigue and inertia. The same routine might not be possible, but in that case revise your fitness efforts instead of relinquish them outright. Keep up with low-level movement, and find something more relaxing like at home body weight exercises if the gym becomes too overwhelming. When it comes to diet, avoid the sugar-serotonin trap. Stay the course with a Primal eating plan, but simplify it as need be. If there are only a handful of things you can make yourself eat, do those. Incorporate a natural fat- and protein-rich shake, and keep up with (or upgrade) a nutritional supplement if you’re not able to eat as diverse a diet. Likewise, try to avoid muffling the physiological messages your body wants to send with the likes of caffeine, alcohol, etc. Emotional stress, for example, takes a physical toll and will tire you out. Medical treatments can do the same. When we buy into the message that we should be able to fulfill all of our normal responsibilities while processing our current crisis, we’re setting ourselves up for a bigger malfunction down the road. Forget the enticement to load up on caffeine to make it through each day. Go easy on medications that encourage skating over deeper issues that should be addressed or that offer a false sense of physical ability or ease. I’m not suggesting making yourself suffer needlessly or refusing anything that can genuinely help move through a difficult time, but I think artificial means allow us to deny our needs in many cases – needs that will eventually catch up with us, be it ample sleep or psychological processing.
Counter the medicalized sensation.
I’ve known a lot of people who have gone through invasive or otherwise grueling procedures and treatments only to say the hardest thing to shake wasn’t the physical effects but the mental sensation of being a medical specimen. It’s not the fault of any physician or specialist per se. Everyone is doing his/her job, which tends to be pretty technically focused in the modern medical arena. We can in many respects be grateful for their expertise. That said, these people’s experiences are fully legitimate responses. The “medicalized” feeling, as one friend put it, was the most traumatic part of her illness. What effectively counters this varies for everyone, but recognizing it (if it’s part of your experience) is a step. While Grok may not have had any deft surgeons on hand, there is something to the myths and healing cultures of traditional societies that preserve a psychic “intactness.” I’m not suggesting anyone forgo modern medical know-how to go chase down a medicine man, but understanding that standard medical practice isn’t going to meet all your needs at this time can be freeing. Take advantage of support groups, relevant readings/writing, art or music therapy (sometimes offered at hospitals) and the support of a therapist.
Give yourself the gift of a retreat.
Let’s face it. When you’re sick or grieving, sometimes others’ constant checking in (as generous-hearted as it is) can wear on you. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get away. A friend of mine took an especially long retreat after her mother died many years ago. It was the biggest help to her and the catalyst for healing, as she puts it. Don’t think about what others in your life will think or how much they’ll worry. As long as there’s no medical reason you shouldn’t, give yourself the time away to reflect in peace on your experience or to escape it entirely. The point isn’t so much where you go but that you have the time to yourself and use it intentionally for your well-being. Furthermore, don’t stop at one. Make it a regular part of your routine even if it can only be for a day at a time.
Spend as much time in nature as possible.
The psychological as well as physiological benefits of nature speak for themselves, but they may have deeper impact when we’re most vulnerable. The mental and physical pain involved in crises can keep us locked into ourselves and our stories. Giving yourself time in wilderness outside of the realm of human distraction puts you in the center of something that can dwarf your experience. For many people, this offers the ultimate – and sometimes only – substantial release.
Prioritize sensory experience.
Following emotionally traumatic events or experiences, some people experience issues with sensory integration. They may be hypersensitive to sensory stimulation like noise, bright lights or crowds. Others experience a “flatness” that can feel impenetrable. Consider investing in pleasant sensory experience with everything from time in water (e.g. hot baths, swimming/floating) or a sauna, massage and other therapeutic body work/spa treatment, music, and hours in calm, visually pleasing environments.
Consider meditation or other centering and restorative practices.
Crisis – whether it’s our direct experience or being a primary caretaker for one who’s in crisis (e.g. parent of a child with life-threatening or other serious condition, caretaker to a spouse with significant illness or disability) so easily co-opts our minds and can overtake our thinking every waking moment. Meditative practices help us counter this surge. Yet, we have to embrace times when we can detach from the experience. Even in the midst of crisis, we’re still living an overarching life and not a single event. While we often can’t find much comfort in the thought of the future, being in a particular moment exactly as it is can be freeing. Maybe it’s sitting (or breathing) with and accepting the dark feelings sometimes, but it can also be asking yourself “Is the worst happening right now in this moment?” You’re not having surgery in every moment. You’re not in a court of law in the present moment. When we can make the choice to come back to what is happening at this particular moment in time (even if it’s a few minutes), we can get out of the traumatized feeling and into sensory reality again. The more time we spend there, the more sanity and healing – inward and outward – we’ll find.
Thanks for reading today, everyone. I’ll be interested in reading the thoughts you have on cultivating well-being during acutely stressful times. Share your experiences and thoughts. Have a great week, everybody.