Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What to do when you don't know what to do: Five Ways to Self Soothe

"It's like a jungle sometimes/it makes me wonder/how I keep from goin' under..." ("The Message", Grandmaster Flash)

It's been a helluva week.
In addition to having my hours cut at work by more than half, I had the extreme pleasure of dealing with both medication and insurance issues. Add to this the fact that spring has blown open, I'm grieving my old career and shaking off the ghost of last year's bad job, and I am one hot mess. Tore up from the floor up so to speak.
After nearly twenty years in and out of therapy, I've learned a thing or two about how to deal with tough times. Don't worry, I don't intend to blow sunshine out of my ass or spout some kind of Oprah-esque, inspirational nonsense. If you've stumbled upon my blog looking for puppies, butterflies, or Jesus---you're in the wrong place. I like to think I'm much more pragmatic than that. Let's be frank: life is a life's work. For chronics like myself, coping with physical pain can lead directly to emotional distress. It's hard to live with a serious illness, manage medications, diet and exercise, adapt daily living to accommodate physical limitations, and keep up with one's responsibilities. Simply put, I fight the good fight every day...and sometimes I just want a break. There are a few skills I've learned that seem to help me soothe my weary self.

Quiet time. Not exactly a nap, though I have been known to end up there. Sometimes this just means sitting or lying down in a comfortable position for a short period of time and allowing myself to notice where in my body I am experiencing sensations. If physical pain is the prominent issue, I allow myself to label the body part where I'm feeling it ("neck...hurts"). Then I turn my attention to my breathing, paying attention to the flow of air moving in and out of my nose. If I find myself thinking about the pain again, I gently acknowledge the sensation, and then return my attention to my breath. You don't need to "control" your thoughts, or "stop thinking", as this is what your brain does naturally. Just keep coming back to your breath. If it helps, set a timer and try doing this in short increments, like ten or fifteen minutes. There's something I find calming and centering about this exercise when my brain is working overtime or I'm feeling overwhelmed.

Gentle exercise. Recently, I started taking an Arthritis Foundation aquatics class. While it's always a little unnerving to put my big ass in a swimsuit and go into a pool with other people, hey---a lot of them feel exactly the same way about their asses. So put on the suit and go. The warm water feels fantastic on my sore joints and muscles, and makes me feel a little weightless. The AF class uses only your body and the water as resistance, and is very gentle. You won't get great cardio here, but that's not the point. The goal for me is two-fold: to do something that feels good, and to keep myself moving. Honestly, the hardest part was getting up and going to the first class. Now I can't wait to go back to the pool.

Listen to music. I've taken comfort in music ever since I was little. I lived in a crazy house with adults who fought and screamed constantly, so I learned at an early age to pull out my stack of 45s, turn up the volume and drown out the chaos. It doesn't matter what kind of music you like, if it makes you feel good, then put it on and turn it up. If you feel like moving your body, find a private spot where you can get your groove on. Or if you just want to chill out, get out the headphones and pop on your favorite album rock. Classical, world music, oldies, it's all good for you. As a huge fan of eighties punk, I find myself restored by the Ramones sometimes (yes, Joey and DeeDee and Johnny). Cheezy prog-rock of the seventies---yeah, I love that too. Love Motown, Brazilian, big band, classical. It's all restorative to the mind and body.  Like the Beastie Boys say "kick off your shoes and relax your socks".

Make something. You say you can't even draw a stick figure? Big whoop. All of us are creative, even if we don't realize it. I think the key to mastering this means of self-soothing is this: do it for yourself, not for applause. Expand your definition of creation to include all those things you do regularly and don't even think about. If you like to cook, try out a new recipe. Pick up some silk flowers, a hair clip, and some glue from the dollar store and make a decorative barrette. Paint your dining room, a thrift store chair, or a pair of sneakers. Plant a pretty pot with herbs and place in a sunny windowsill. Try out some lime green nail polish on your toes. Iron a funky patch on your jeans. Heck---make a portrait out of different types of dry pasta. Do something fun, and give it as a special gift to yourself. This is not art for public consumption, and no one else even needs to see it, this is purely for YOU.

Get out. Chronic illness can keep us isolated. The last thing I feel like doing when I'm feeling down or burned out is leaving the house. Sure it's safe at home with all of my creature comforts, my familiars, and my bed. But by the same token, I can get stuck there, and when I'm stuck, I tend to feel sorry for myself. I ruminate, I obsess, I worry. Like spinning my wheels in deep mud, this only makes me more stuck and prolongs my suffering. The old adage "bring the body and the mind will follow" applies here. Sometimes the hardest thing is putting on clothes and shoes and getting out the door. For me, spending time outdoors renews me and brings me back to center. If I'm physically able, I work in the garden, take a short walk, or bike ride. If I'm having a painful day, just dragging a chair onto the back lawn and sitting in the sun is enough. I especially like this at the beginning or end of the day. Last summer we bought an inexpensive fire pit for the yard, and there's nothing like it on a warm night. Birds. Grass. Trees. Outside always brings me out of my misery and back to the present. Don't just do something. Sit there.

By its very nature, illness is unpredictable. Autoimmune and/or other "invisible" illnesses can be a slippery slope. We never know what our bodies will do next, and our conditions are frequently overlooked or misunderstood. It's a battle...and then there's the complexity of just living life itself. Ultimately, all we really have that we can count on is this present moment. And fighting the good fight starts with me having the energy to keep showing up.


  1. I am so happy I found your blog. You are a great writer. I was diagnosed with RA in July 2010.

  2. Thanks, Dutch. I hope you find something useful here. RA sucks, and I'm glad that we can all connect and share info with one another. Keep fighting the good fight!

  3. Thanks. I was just diagnosed with RA last month.

  4. About the time you were all posting, in fact.