Being in relationships means that we play important roles in others’ lives. As life creates challenges for us and for those around us, we find ourselves prioritizing being a parent, partner, son, daughter, employee, boss, sibling, or friend to stay connected and support those we love (or keep our jobs). But what happens when the expectations of our various roles pull us in many different directions at once? Perhaps the school nurse calls in the midst of a significant work meeting, or a crisis call from work interrupts an important family moment. These are the times when we most need our strength and resilience, but also the situations in which we are most likely to neglect our self care.
A recent piece on NPR’s Hidden Brain highlighted the human tendency to develop “tunnel vision” when facing a scarcity of free time. Tunnel vision narrows our perspective to include only the thing on which we are focusing and impairs our ability to see the big picture. When your child is ill, for example, tunnel vision may prompt you to spend all of your free time on WedMD or calling the Pediatrician. This is very useful in the moment, but when your child has a chronic condition or your aging parent develops new needs each week, you begin to live with a narrowed frame of mind and a high probability of self neglect.
One of the best ways to keep tunnel vision from impeding your self care is to keep self care on your daily schedule. We already do this to some extent. Do you stop brushing your teeth or hair during your busiest times? Probably not. (If you do, you are already in a state of tunnel vision, which is expected if you’re recovering from surgery or parenting a newborn, but otherwise is a warning sign to get your self care back on track.) Here are a few routines that can protect your well being no matter what life brings.
- Morning, Noon, and Night Check-ins. Take a moment to tune in to yourself as part of your getting up routine, your bedtime routine, and your lunch routine. It should only take a minute or two. Turn your attention to your body and look for any places of tension or discomfort. If a general check doesn’t yield much information for you, notice one body part at a time, starting with hands, feet, or head and moving back to your center. Imagine directing the love you normally give to others toward those places in yourself. Stretch or move your body to release tension as needed.
- Five minute energy boost. Consider one activity that energizes you and create a five minute version. Cycle through your favorite yoga poses, meditate, or stream a short comedy podcast. I love musical theater, so when I need a boost I open Pandora and launch the Broadway channel. I follow my instincts, and sing and dance along if I need to kick it up a notch.
- Five minute cool down. This is a vital tool for your mental health toolbox, especially at times when your thoughts or feelings are boiling over. Journaling, taking a mindful walk (focus on the sun on your face or the rhythm of your feet), or attending to your sensory experience in the present moment can combat your tunnel vision and ground you. If you struggle with turning off your racing thoughts, recite a favorite poem, sing a song, or consider metta meditation.
- Physical activity burst. Need to skip your exercise routine to make the family schedule work? Use the moments you already have to build movement into the day. Race your child to the corner. Jog in place while waiting for the elevator. Do some jumping jacks while you heat up your lunch. Movement regulates mood and attention, so these are especially important if you’re feeling down or distractible.
- Snack packs (not the pudding kind). It’s reasonable to expect that you might skip or delay meals during extra busy times. Shop once per week to stock up on your go-to healthy snacks. Keep a bag or drawer to draw from so your energy won’t run dangerously low (leading to impulse buys of low nutrient snacks).
Remember that your most critical role is caretaker of yourself. Don’t forget to pause and identify what you need, so that you can use the tools in your toolbox when they benefit you the most.