A couple of years ago I decided to go back to school and train as a nutritionist. True to form, my decision-making process around this undertaking followed my typical pattern: spend a long period of time thinking about whether or not to do something, make an impulsive (and usually late-night) decision to act, then have a little freak out as I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into.
The freak out around nutritionist training wasn’t about the outcome – I’ve long wanted to expand my knowledge in the area of nutrition and I knew that the school I’d selected offered a comprehensive curriculum – it was about the process. I wondered how I’d be able to add a challenging study commitment to a schedule that already felt overbooked.
Turns out I had a lot more “free” time than I told myself I had (all those reality TV shows weren’t watching themselves). With the external pressure of deadlines to meet and assignments to complete, I got a lot more efficient in the use of my time, and became the proverbial busy person who gets things done.
I often think about that when I’m talking to clients about self-care. I don’t imagine any of them are surprised when the topic of self-care is broached in a therapy setting, but as I start the conversation I can see the panic rising in their eyes: “I’m here because I’m already feeling stretched to the breaking point and you want me to add something else to my pile of ‘to-do’s?”
Well yes, yes I do.
When we think of self-care, what usually comes to mind are significant (and significantly time-consuming) things: attending a yoga class 3 times a week, having a daily exercise commitment, getting a massage, doing weekly meal planning and preparation, taking time for a silent meditation retreat or at least a hot bath.
All of those are good practices to aim towards incorporating, but fortunately when it comes to self-care a little can also matter a lot.
Writing in Psychotherapy Networker magazine, Ashley Davis Bush distinguishes between macro self-care (the aforementioned meditation retreat), and micro self-care, which consists of brief, targeted practices that we can incorporate into our daily lives. They are brief, taking no more than one or two minutes to complete, and targeted in that they target the central nervous system activation we’re trying to calm. Here are a couple she recommends:
- Imagine That – Try this when you feel disconnected, anxious, spaced out, or melancholy. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a favourite place, feeling happy and peaceful. You can recall a place you’ve actually been, or imagine a fantasy place of calm and bliss. Summon as many aspects of the place as possible (sights, sounds, smells, temperature, tastes) and let these sensory cues come alive in your imagination. Breathe deeply and stay in your imagined oasis for a minute or two.
- Wring it Out – At the end of the workday, try this as a way to release and relax before you leave your work day behind. Sit upright in a chair and slowly and gently twist your body to the right from your hips to your head. Turn around as far to the right as you can, imagining that you’re a sponge and are wringing out all the stress and tension you’ve absorbed in the day. Then repeat the process on the left side. When you’re done, shake your arms in front of you as you release the day’s work.
Each of these practices takes no more than a couple of minutes to complete. If the goal is to reorganize our neural pathways in a way that improves serenity and emotional regulation, the key is to repeat them daily. As Davis Bush writes: “Small and frequent works better to create desirable neural pathways than big and seldom.”