Since I live in an area where wildfires have been devastating communities, this is some of what I’m hearing in therapy this week:
“I’m having trouble breathing.”
“Should I keep my child home from school or make them wear a face mask?”
“Three of my friends just lost their houses.”
“I can’t seem to focus.”
“I was just starting to get my head around the Las Vegas shooting and now this.”
“I don’t even know how to take care of myself right now.”
“Donating bags of supplies doesn’t seem like enough.”
“I’t’s just one disaster after another- I’m not sure I want to bring my children up in this world.”
These are from people living near the wildfires. Not the ones who directly lost their houses, schools, churches in the fire. So you can only imagine the trauma for those impacted even more directly.
A Little About Trauma:
What is trauma? According to the APA (American Psychological Association) trauma can be defined as:
“an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and… physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives. Psychologists can help these individuals find constructive ways of managing their emotions.”
Secondary trauma can be defined as “the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.” (Figley, C.R., Ed., 1995).
According to Secondarytrauma.org, some of the symptoms of secondary trauma include:
- intrusive thoughts
- chronic fatigue
- poor concentration
- second guessing
- emotional exhaustion
Many caregivers, therapists, nurses, firefighters, emergency providers, and what I call “senstives” or “empaths” experience secondary trauma. Secondary trauma can result from working directly with people who experienced trauma.
But what can we do about it?
If you are feeling the effects of trauma, here are some thoughts on self-care.
- Physical self-care
A friend of mine said recently, “I feel like a baby. I don’t even know how to take care of myself during this.” Actually, thinking of baby self-care is a good clue as to what you may need. Babies need physical care and tending. If you are able to, keep regular routines of sleep, meals/snacks, hygiene (showers and baths), and stay hydrated. Obviously, physical self-care also includes staying in a safe house or shelter. In the bay area, many hotels, air b and b’s, and nearby friends/family members/colleagues are offering shelter for those who have lost their house or residence due to the fires.
2. Emotional Self-Care
When thinking about a time when you have felt grounded, ask yourself what you were doing? It may have been journalling, meditating, or spending time with a dear friend. Although tempting to NOT do these things during times of crisis, it is actually even more important to do them. This is the directive of “put your own oxygen mask on first.” You cannot be of service to others of you are unable to breathe yourself.
3. Help others
Note this comes third on the list. After you make sure you are taken care of and resourced, then you can give, whether it be through providing housing, volunteering, donating supplies, or emotionally supporting people affected by the disaster.
If you are a parent:
Here’s a beautiful acronym/summary of ways to support your child during/after a disaster or emergency from Alberta Health Services:
Remove yourself and your loved ones from danger. During an emergency or disaster, finding shelter, water, and food is the first step. Staying safe and keeping calm is important in helping you and your child in an emergency.
Eat nutritious food and drink water.
Activity. Return to your normal routine as quickly and much as possible. Try to do what your family normally did before the event (e.g., eat meals together, walk together, play games, read).
Take care of yourself! One of the gifts of both recovery and of disasters is that it forces asking questions such as: What is most important? And what do I need to take care of myself right now? Here’s to living our way into those answers.
As always, this blog is not intended to provide or replace psychological treatment.
Mentis in Napa county is one of many mental health centers in the bay area providing mental health support at low fee currently for victims of the California wildfires. 707-255-0966 ext 132 http://mentisnapa.org/our-services/#mental
The National Center for PTSD is a good resource for information on trauma recovery: https://www.ptsd.va.gov
For years I have been following this blog, and the founder, Jill Smokler, who paved the way for moms to be their gloriously imperfect, irreverent, non-glowing selves.
I’m happy to now be contributing to the blog! Today I write about the importance of (Tim Gunn style) self-care for moms and, despite sleep deprivation and new mommy boot camp, making it work. To see the post “Make it Work”, pease click here.
Previously, we looked at HALT (Don’t get too Hungry Angry Lonely or Tired), Keeping Consistency, Taking a Social Media Break, Introversion Recovery Time, and Looking for Similarities. Here are 5 more ways to be mindful of your self-care over the holidays. Remember, the intent is to lean toward kindness to yourself. You are explicitly forbidden to use any of this to beat up on yourself for not doing or being enough.
(And, as I say to my new mom clients, the caveat/abbreviated version for Moms is: Take a Shower, Get Support.)
- Practice Loving Kindness
Lovingkindness is both a Buddhist and Hebrew term that is associated with mercy, dignity, compassion, and benevolent affection. Practice this kindness and softening of judgment with yourself and others. I was recently at Mindful Self-Compassion training with Kristin Neff, PhD, author of Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (HarperCollins, 2011). She led us through a meditation in which we imagined a person who we easily love such as a young child, a pet, or a spiritual teacher. We sat with sending them love for a moment. Then we took a posture in our body-imagination of sending and feeling love such as holding this person in a hug or putting your hands on your heart. Then we transitioned to sending that love to ourselves. Try this. Try sending the love you give freely to others to yourself. In the lovingkindness practice, there are also components of sending the wish to be happy and healthy, free from suffering to a person with whom you feel neutral and with whom you feel hostile. Feel free to try this as well. If you feel your heart closes at this prospect, stay with yourself. You yourself most need your own lovingkindness. If you feel resistance toward self-compassion, watch Dr. Neff’s TED talk: Overcoming Objections to Self Compassion.
2. Practice Gratitude
I just finished reading the book The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan (Dutton, 2015). In it, she interviews Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, who states:
“Of all the positive strengths we’ve looked at, people who are highest in gratitude are also highest in well-being.”
It was also shared that if you don’t come by gratitude naturally, “gratitude interventions” can have a big effect. I love that. The founder of positive psychology has a brain that doesn’t naturally turn toward gratitude! Can you relate? It’s ok to have a mind that keeps going back to “bad alleyways.” The work is to train it differently, with compassion and perseverance, like you are training a puppy.
Gratitude interventions include: keeping a daily gratitude journal, writing a letter of gratitude to a friend or loved one and reading it to them, taking pictures of things you are grateful for throughout your day. I’m not talking being Pollyanna here. It has to be authentic or it has no effect or meaning. But it can be simple. Some of my recent examples include: being warm and dry out of the rain, making paper snowflakes with my little one (turn toward the fun and away from the scraps all over the floor), talking with a friend.
3. Be of Service
Being of service can be one of the most benevolent AND personally rewarding things you can do. If you can do something big, by all means DO IT NOW. But it doesn’t have to be big. Mother Teresa said:
“There are no great acts. There are small acts done with Great Love.”
Many, many, many people took very small steps (and many took very large ones as well) together to preserve Missouri river at Standing Rock recently. You may find that healing others with similar struggles helps heal your own. If you are a person recovering from an eating disorder or alcoholism, you have the unique gift of being able to understand someone else struggling with the early stages of healing in an empathic, helpful, and non-condescending way. (Keep in mind that you can’t keep it unless you give it away but you can’t give it away unless you have it. So if you are struggling with your own recovery, find another way to be of service right now and let others be of service to you for your recovery.) The feeling of doing something helpful for someone else has a way of providing meaning that no other gift can.
Here a few other examples:
- Return a grocery cart or pay the bridge toll for someone in the car behind you.
- Smile or make eye contact with someone you wouldn’t normally.
- Let someone else get on the train/bus first.
- Open the door for someone with a stroller.
4. Practice Radical Acceptance.
Carl Rogers said:
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.”
This is a beautiful quote that sums up the environment within yourself that can help ease suffering and, if you want, create change. For the holidays, try practicing “It is what it is.” Look around you, notice and describe what you see, what you smell. Use your senses to bring yourself directly into the present moment. If you can be with that, you will most likely be okay. It is just this moment. Try practicing adding “right now” to aspects that you find difficult to accept and see if that helps soften the suffering of wanting it to be different. This is my body right now. This is my family right now. This is the cabinet of the President elect right now. You don’t have to like it. And accepting is not the same thing as agreeing with or condoning. It is acknowledging that this is what it is right now. The artist Richard Stine is attributed to saying:
“It’s simple. We are where we should be, doing what we should be doing. Otherwise we would be somewhere else, doing something else.”
There can be great relief, power, and spaciousness is the right now. You are right where you are supposed to be. Right Now.
5. Ask yourself what you need.
Only you know what you truly need. Ask the part-of-you-that-knows. Listen and respond.
What do I Need right now? (Only YOU know!)
Whatever it is, be kind with yourself. “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.” – Buddha
Amen (and Women)!
The holidays can be hard. They can be especially difficult for people recovering from disordered eating, alcoholism, depression, or anxiety. The intention of this blog is to help you be a bit more fierce with your own self-care and a bit more compassionate with yourself and others. This is not a list to use to beat up on yourself for not doing enough or being imperfect! May it be helpful, useful, and ease some of your suffering during this time.
Try not to let yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Getting too tired, hungry/hypoglycemic, resentful, or isolating is a recipe for addictive behaviors and/or depression. Imagine yourself to be a little one (this will not be hard for you parents to imagine) who needs regular meals and snacks, regular emotional understanding, and regular sleep. If little ones get too tired/hungry/emotionally not heard, there will be meltdowns. Be a kind parent to yourself. Pack a self-care bag with protein snacks, water, get to bed on time, make plans with friends and/or providers that “get” you so you can feel nourished and grounded. Practice what a friend of mine calls “aggressive self-care.”
2. Keep 1 Thing Constant
Choose one thing – morning meditation, weekly support group, your meal plan, sobriety, journaling, daily inspirational reading. Whatever it is, just keep coming back to this.
A Word About Kindness and Self-Compassion
The intention here is to help you be a bit more fierce with your own self-care and a bit more compassionate with yourself and others… not to beat up on yourself for not doing enough or being imperfect. So if you HAVEN’T kept one thing constant, just restart it. And when you notice you haven’t kept your thing – whatever your thing is that keeps you grounded and sane – constant (We all fall off the wagon on this. It is part of being included in humanity.), notice with kindness and compassion. Imagine you are a puppy. Gently pick yourself up from the place where you are being unkind to yourself and bring yourself back to the place where you are being kind. Gently bring yourself back to the thing that helps you. Just keep coming back.
We all know how easy this was in our former lives. Just hop in! At any time! With no interruptions and for as long as you want! This is no longer the case. However, a shower can make a world of difference. It is actually one of the main action steps I encourage not only new moms, but also clients recovering from depression to take. Cleaning your body helps your mind. It has the capacity to wash away some of the sleep deprivation and frustration. And it has the added benefit of cleaning away stinky-ness having old milk, snot, and poo that your little one may have generously shared. For at least one moment, your body can be clean, and all your own.
Don’t stop reading yet! I know, if one more person tells you “sleep when the baby sleeps,” you are going to punch them. So I’m not going to tell you that. However, I want to encourage you to carve out in whatever way works for you and your family, a good chunk of sleep for yourself. There is a reason why sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. Sleep deprivation can cause difficulties in concentrating, irritability, problems with reading, speaking, and an increase in appetite. If the deprivation continues, disorientation, visual hallucinations, social withdrawal and/or challenges, memory lapses, and breaks in reality occur.[i] One of the main treatments for moms recovering from perinatal mood disorders (anxiety, depression, psychosis), along with therapy and medication, is sleep. And the sleep needs to be for prolonged period of uninterrupted time. (Disrupted sleep is as bad as no sleep – more on this
in upcoming sleep blog).
Here some ideas: hire a night doula, have your partner or grandma take over night feedings for one night, ask your partner to do the middle-of-the-night feeds, or do modified sleep training. Preserve and protect your sleep, however you can. Don’t succumb to the temptation for late night Facebook/Online shopping/Great-ideas-planning-your-new-business-vnture-as-a-mommypreneur. If these are still appealing when you are rested, you will know they are coming from a true need. Otherwise, it’s adrenaline-fueled exhaustion that would be better fed with restoring your sleep.
Did you know that vitamin D is one of the best antidepressant vitamins? Low vitamin D has been linked not only with postpartum depression for the mother[ii] but also increased risk of eating disorders in female offspring.[iii] Getting out of the house can be one of the best ways to bring new perspective to what can feel like drudgery of new motherhood. So pack up all your new accoutrements – diaper bag, pacifiers, bottles, snacks, diapers, etc.- and get out into the sun. It may just be to walk around the block. It may be an adventure like getting to the playground or the coffee shop. You may even coordinate this adventure with another new mom, which leads to the next tip…
It is a recent cultural phenomenon that moms are trying to care for their babies alone, at home, by themselves without a “village” of support. This used to be the extended family, or way, way back in human experience, the tribe. Humans thrive on attachment. Without it, we wither. There is no wrong way to have support as a new mom, other than to not have support as a new mom. Your support could be a mom’s group. It could be your partner. It could be your therapist. It could be YOUR mom. It could be your non-mom friend. It could be your friend who is also a mom. It could be your doula, lactation consultant, or mother-in-law. It could be all of these or some combination of these. But having none of these is a recipe for trying to be Supermom (who doesn’t exist, and lives in the isolated perfectionist imaginations of moms who have no support), which can to Postpartum Depression. I love this quote from Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of emotionally focused therapy:
“Being the “best you can be” is really only possible when you are deeply connected to another. Splendid isolation is for planets, not people.”
If you are providing attachment to your new little one, YOU need to be strongly attached.
Trying to hold, provide food, and give emotional sustenance to your baby without support yourself is like being a tree without roots. You will fall over, you will wilt, you will not thrive. An then this will happen to your baby, too… It is not only okay, but also essential that you have support! Put on your oxygen masks first, Mama.
- Spiritual practice
Last but not least, having a mindfulness practice can be a helpful tool for tolerating the distress and practicing acceptance with all the learnings of new parenthood. This may be 5 minutes of meditation per day. Or it may be one bite of mindful eating during a lunch otherwise filled with Cheerios being thrown on the floor. It may be a yoga class or writing 1 page in your journal every day. You could practice deep breathing every time you hear your baby cry and your stomach tenses up with anxiety or discomfort. For new moms, it is important to Keep It Simple. Remember: the Buddha was NOT a parent when he became enlightened. Unlike him, you don’t have seven days to sit under a tree uninterrupted. You may have seven minutes. Take it. A good practice is to breath in the suffering of all new moms all around the earth and breathe out loving-kindness to all the new moms all around the earth. I used this practice when I was a new mom. It made me feel so much less alone at 3am.
You are not alone, Mama. Keep going. Keep practicing any and all of these self-care practices as much as you can for as long as it takes. You are NOT allowed to use this blog to beat up on yourself for what you are not doing. If you are doing that, stop now. Thousands of other moms are struggling right along with you, trying to sleep, shower, get support, see the sunshine, and do spiritual practice! Try, to the best of your ability one moment at a time, to find the kind mother inside yourself for yourself. This kindness is where the real strength of motherhood is: it is this place that is rooted and flexible, fierce and tender. It is the one that defends her right to practice her own self-care as a way to then be able to care for others. It is the mother putting her own oxygen mask on first. In the words of Sue Monk Kidd:
“You have to find a mother inside yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still have to find this part of ourselves inside.”
You can do it mama. If you can’t find her, keep looking. You may need to grow your capacity to be a good mom to yourself along with learning to be a good one to your baby. That is okay. She is there, waiting for you to feed, nurture, forgive, and grow her. Oh, and shower her, too!
Linda Shanti McCabe is a Mom and Licensed Clinical Psychologist in San Francisco.As always, this blog is written to provide experience, inspiration, and hope – not to provide psychological treatment. If you are struggling with a perinatal mood disorder, a good resource is Postpartum Support International.
All original art images copyright Linda Shanti McCabe
[i] Bulkeley, Kelly, “Why Sleep Deprivation is Torture” Psychology Today, December 15, 2014.
[ii] Robinson et al. Low maternal serum vitamin D during pregnancy and the risk for postpartum depression symptoms, Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 2014.
[iii] Allen KL, Byrne SM, Kusel MM, Hart PH, Whitehouse AJ. Maternal vitamin D levels during pregnancy and offspring eating disorder risk in adolescence. International Journal of Eating Disorders. Jun 26, 2013.
“The body holds meaning…when we probe beneath the surface of our obsession with weight, we will find that a woman obsessed with her body is also obsessed with the limitations of her emotional life. Through her concern with her body she is expressing a serious concern about the star of her soul.
-Kim Chernin, Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness
- Do a daily spiritual practice, no matter how small
This can be a daily reader or affirmation, journal-ling, sitting meditation, a walk. 1 small daily action that connects you with the-part-of-you-that-knows, or your soul self. (Please insert the word or phrase that works for you.) One definition of soul self, from Carolyn Costin (8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder, W.W. Norton and Company, 2012), is:
Your soul self is your essence…connected to the essence of all others and the world. Your soul self practices…pay(ing) attention to what is meaningful, has no judgement, and is not attached to results…Your Soul is the ‘being’ part of human being.
Do your spiritual practice religiously (pun intended) to stay connected with your soul self. Don’t worry about if you feel like it or not- most days you probably won’t. Do it anyway. Do it for all the times over the years that you didn’t listen to your soul-self, that other people didn’t listen to it, or for all the times it got run over with busy-ness, disordered eating, alcohol, criticism or judgement. Just make a space daily- however small- so your Soul can know and trust it is welcome.
2. Approach each day, 1 day at a time, with radical acceptance.
Approach each day as both miraculous, and just another day. By all means enjoy Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s…but try not to make it better or worse than any other. Do not elevate it; do not de-value it. Greet each day with equanimity, another 24 hours of darkness and light revolving and rotating around the sun. There will be aspects you like, aspects you don’t like. There will be pain and joy. It is what it is and just like every other day it will pass.
3. Connect with right kind of support.
Sometimes our families of origin are helpful recovery support, sometimes they are not helpful, and often they are some of both. It can be supportive to have a recovery buddy or team that you talk/email/text with throughout holiday times to help provide the empathy of someone who has “been there” or “is there” with you on the same journey. Set up support phone calls with each other, go for walks together, text each other before and after Thanksgiving dinner. It’s ok to need help and support. Treat yourself and your recovery as if you are a new little baby. Be a good parent to this baby and her needs. Stay with her and surround her with others that are kind and supportive. Protect her as best you can from your and other’s critical voices. Let her know you are here to support her in any and all feelings she is having, unconditionally.
4. Create rituals that have meaning for you
What makes YOU happy? When I was in the first few years of my recovery, one of my best friends was from England. Being English, she didn’t even celebrate Thanksgiving 🙂 We both lived in San Francisco, far from our families and didn’t really want to celebrate Thanksgiving with a “culturally acceptable” binge. We decided that we would have a yearly ritual: every Thanksgiving we would have dinner and go see a movie together. And we did!
I have a friend in recovery that does gratitude jars with her family- filling them with papers of what each of them are grateful for.
Glennon Doyle Melton (Momastery.com), recovered from “food, booze, and drugs” and now a mother of three, uses this poem to guide her holiday shopping. We ask each kiddo to make a list of:
Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.
5. Be curious about difference, look for underlying similarities, and take action.
Many years ago when I was dating my husband, I expressed concern to a mentor of mine about how important spirituality was to me and how he is an atheist. She said to me something that has always stayed with me: she said what do his actions reflect about his values? Do you feel a connection there? There was no doubt in my mind about his integrity, the generosity of his heart, his being of service. I saw that in his actions every day, with me, with his friends, with his colleagues, and in his community. Where I looked to spirituality to find generosity, guidance on being of service, ethics, and finding peace amidst fear, he found in other ways. But his actions reflected values in which I believed.
As a spiritual teacher said this past weekend,
“The test of faith is’t what you believe- it’s what you DO because of what you believe.”
The implications of this are as small as valuing yourself and your recovery in your breakfast choices, to helping a person in your daily life such as returning a grocery cart for a mom who is trying to get her baby into the car seat, to as global as treating someone from a different belief system (whether it be 12-step spirituality, Atheism and Empiricism, Catholicism, Judism, or Islam) with the same kindness and respect that you would a friend.
6. Help Thanks Wow
Anne Lamott (author of Help, Thanks, Wow, The Three Essential Prayers, New York: Penguin, 2012) inspirational recovery author, writes how these three prayers- Ask for assistance, Appreciate the good, and Experience awe in the world- make up the foundation of staying spiritually connected.
She has a lovely sense of humor about “God”:
“Let’s not get bogged down on whom or what we pray to. Let’s just say prayer is communication from our hearts to the great mystery, or Goodness, or Howard; to the animating energy of love…something unimaginably big, and not us. We could call this force Not Me, or Not Preachers Onstage with a choir of 800. Or for convenience we could just say ‘God.'”
Last but not least, she speaks to the importance of genuine, authenticity when talking to God:
My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God. If you say to God, ‘I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don’t like You right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,’ that might be the most honest thing you’ve ever said. If you told me you had said to God, ‘It is all hopeless, and I don’t have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,’ it would bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real- really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table.
I just bought myself a book light. Yes, I still read actual books. Every night, while lying next to my child (resorted to this- see Confessions of a Failed Sleep Trainer) I read. I have been using a flashlight that is slowly wearing its batteries down and I have to shake it to get it back on. My eyes have begun to strain. Every night, before going to sleep, I have had the thought “I should get a book light.”
Why is it so difficult for Moms to take care of themselves? It is a given that I bring my child to all of his doctor visits, dentist visits, haircuts. I make sure he gets plenty of playtime, fresh air, exercise, organic food, sleep, baths. We have special time during which he gets to decide whatever he wants to do. We play games and make up stories for all of the themes that he is encountering in growth opportunities. The cars learn how to say goodbye and then come back together, share racetrack time, use their words to say when they feel MAD or SAD. The part of me that is just-trying-to-survive-as-a-Mom, however, has no time for being playful, kind, or patient with my own feelings and needs. This part wishes they would “just go away” because I don’t have time! And yet they don’t. We all know what happens when you try to rush a young child to get through feelings quickly because we don’t have time: they get bigger! Time doesn’t exist in the emotional world. Grown-ups need to care for their feelings, too. Or they get bigger. (Or turn into depression, resentment, eating disorders, alcoholism, etc)
I am in a moms-who-are-therapists group in which we spoke about aggressive self-care recently. We shared about our “ideal, but realistic” days as moms. What would we do? The answers weren’t huge changes. They were little shifts internally and externally that made a big difference: getting up ½ hour early in order to write, enjoying cooking instead of trying to just-get-everybody-fed, going OUT to dinner to have a night off from cooking, going for a family hike on the weekend instead of spending so much time on laundry, getting a haircut or a pedicure.
Why the term “aggressive”? I like this because it expresses how much it truly is an opposite action to take care of one’s self first (or at all) for many moms. As moms, we often defend and protect our child/dren’s well-being. How often do we turn this energy toward our own care? It requires attention, intention, and yes, some level of aggression. Because the cultural messages for moms are often about martyrdom and loss of self. And so turning toward, back to the self, honoring and tending to one’s self, requires fierceness. In case you didn’t notice the quote that my new book light is illuminating:
…every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, “This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this!
And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart, and say, “No. This is what’s important.”
PS By the way, just to name the obvious, you don’t have to be a Mom to practice aggressive self-care. It absolutely applies to eating disorder, codependency, and recovery general good self-care as well. Put on your own oxygen mask first.