Fourteen years ago my life changed radically in one single day. My husband was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and started intensive chemotherapy. My oldest son was 5 years old and my youngest 13 months. During the 6 months of chemotherapy that followed, not a day passed without me thinking that I might have to raise two boys on my own. And the thought provoked anxiety, disbelief and horror. If you stare death in the face your life changes irrevocably.
Why am I telling you this?
In trying to make sense of COVID-19, lockdown and how we are going to cope, survive and ultimately thrive, I’ve revisited this time of my life and what I did to cope during the toughest times of my life. My husband and boys needed me desperately. I just couldn’t fall apart even though I wanted to… and silently did. I went into survival mode and just took it one day at a time.
This is what my 7 steps are all about.
Is it perfect? No
Is it comprehensive? No
Is it ideal? No
Is it the only way to cope? No
Is it easy? Yes
Is it for everyone? Yes
Will it help? Yes
Is it science-based? Yes
Many people (including the specialists who should…) offer many solutions. They are all valuable and necessary and I support them full-heartedly. Being resilient and adaptable will be your saving grace in the next few months. But let’s look at simple-, basic-, do-able survival tips for now – for today. We can worry about thriving when we have a better idea of what the future holds and what the next phase of our world might look like.
So here are my 7 steps to cope best in tough times:
- Keep a routine. As much as we’ve heard this, it is really important, critical and necessary. Get up at the same time every morning. Make your bed. Brush your teeth. Shave. Take off your pj’s and get dressed in your day-clothes. Put on make-up. Squirt some perfume. You are worth it! And if you look good, you feel good.
- Check-in with your mental mind. Choose one positive affirmation for the day. Write it down. Or better: keep a book or journal to document your self-care every day. Positive affirmation ideas are: I am smart; I am kind; I am brave; I am unstoppable; I am a great parent; I have nice hair. Whatever works for you. Choose one per day. Two is too much. One, all of us should be able to do.
- Check-in with your environment and ensure you are surrounded by self-care, wellness and productivity boosters instead of -busters. Tidy your workspace. Pack away clothing. Wash the dishes. Open the blinds. Declutter. This relates to your primary and most used space for the day. Please don’t try to spring clean the house in one day. Just make sure that your surrounding space for working or learning or doing is as calm and peaceful as possible. And you don’t need to do 20 tasks. Consider what is bothering you in your space and adjust that one thing… or more if you have the energy.
- Check-in with your physical body. We use the concept of a robot (traffic light) to explain the alert state of your body-brain. [In South Africa we call a traffic light a robot.] When on high alert, anxious or stressed you are in red. When your body is starting to feel stressed you are in orange. Your robot-traffic-light should be in green in order for your body and mind to go. In other words, are you feeling calm, focused and present? You need to start your day in the best way for you in order to cope, survive and get through it. So get your body in green to start your day. If you are in orange or red, use the tips in number 5 to get to green.
- Self-regulate and Take 5 to get and keep your body in a self-regulated state. This means being in the green state of the robot-traffic-light. These are simple, easy, do-able sensory snacks (not to eat, but to do) to organize your brain anytime, anywhere, for anyone.
- Breathe – deep breathing is the quickest way to self-calm as it activates the parasympathetic system which is literally the “brake” on stress. I am just throwing in the big words so that you know that I know what I’m talking about.
- Blow – the mouth is a powerful regulator and supports breathing. I love using balloons as it is a fun and easy way to mimic breathing if you are struggling with it. So get some balloons and blow away. You can even sing or whistle. Not when you are in an online meeting though. Blowing smoke from a cigarette doesn’t count… it is bad for you!
- Sip – if you drink water from a water bottle with a spout or a straw you will be utilizing the muscles in the jaw and further support the oral-motor structures that help us to self-regulate. Drinking water in this way will also help to hydrate your body and support the next sensory snack. Other healthy alternatives are eating crunchy apples, raw carrots, celery, cucumber, nuts, etc. in moderation. Crunchy or chewy food types can help with focus and de-stressing. The emphasis however, is on healthy, crunchy food snacks in moderation!
- Move – with a full bladder (thanks to your best friend: the water bottle), you inevitably have to take more bathroom breaks which is a bonus. Stretch, move, stand whenever possible. If you have a swivel chair, that can also help you move from side-to-side while working. Just don’t swivel when you are in an online meeting as it will be a visual distraction for others. Or sit on a ball instead of a chair. Movement is critical for brain breaks and will increase your focus and lower your stress levels.
- Touch – the skin is filled with tiny receptors that process your world in every minuscule way. Deep touch (as opposed to a light tickle) is calming and when combined with movement, a strong regulator. Squeeze a stress ball: the deep touch and resistance will organize the brain. Doodle on a piece of paper. Rub your hands together. Put hand cream on both hands while pressing down firmly on your palms – you can even combine this with your favourite scent. Put both your hands on top of your head and press down firmly.
- Check-out with your physical body. Make sure that you clearly end your activity, learning or work-day. Being able to transition from one task or space to a next will help to prepare your mind and being mindful to do this is important. Close your computer. Close your door. Whatever physical action you need to do in order to indicate that you are done with this and ready for the next step will help. The body prepares the mind and brain to follow. Take a 10-minute quiet debrief time for yourself. You can choose any passive activity of choice. Meditate, think, power nap, pray, practise mindfulness, sit quietly with closed eyes.
- Check-out with your mental mind. Go back to your book or journal of self-care and document one thing that you are grateful for. Make it simple and easy. Ideas are: I am grateful for my health; I am grateful for my child’s smile; I am grateful for the nice message from my friend; I am grateful for the crispy apple I ate. It must obviously be applicable to your life, but simple and easy always does the trick.
These are seriously simple, but I firmly believe that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication in the best or in the worst of times. Remember: it is hard for all of us, for some much more than others. Each of us has different situations, different needs and different hurdles. So we are not in the same boat. We are all in a different boat trying to steer in the same storm. You are not alone. It is OK to not be OK.
My husband fully recovered from his cancer journey. We are still happily married. My sons are healthy and now 15 and 19. I am grateful for life, health and the simple things in life.
- Click here to sign up for our online workshop on 7 Wellness steps to cope best in tough times.