Self-Care When It's Scary
We're big fans of self-care at Scarleteen, as well we should be. Self-care as a practice can be incredibly helpful for folks who find their brains have cranked the anxiety/depression/other yucky emotion dial up to eleven. We recommend it often, and you can find our basic guide to it here. Taking care of ourselves is also what we have got to learn and know how to do before we can take care of anyone else well -- partners, friends or family -- and before we can take care of ourselves when in relationships with others. "Me first" when it comes to self-care is pretty much always the way to go.
For those who may be not familiar with the concept, self-care generally refers to behaviors that can support your overall well-being and help you manage stress. It really is what it sounds like: taking care of ourselves, not just practically, but emotionally. Now, self-care is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. What makes one person feel better, or feel calmer, will not necessarily work for someone else. Soothing or self-comforting things may be the right choice one time, or for one person, while for another, or at another time, different ways of taking care of ourselves -- including some that might require we step outside our comfort zones -- are the right thing.
But there are some approaches to self-care that are, ultimately, unhelpful to the person using them. I think many of these unhelpful approaches are coming from the belief that self-care will always feel easy, soothing, or will make you feel instantaneously better. That is in many instances exactly what self-care will do. But sometimes, self-care means doing something that's hard for you, is temporarily uncomfortable, or that scares you.
Lets take something we see frequently in our direct services as an example: testing, both for pregnancy and STIs. We see users coming in who are concerned that a symptom they're having means they're pregnant or that they've contracted an STI. The initial answer from us is usually some variation of "The only way to know for certain is to start by taking a test." A common reaction we get to that is "I know I should take a test, but I'm too scared to. Isn't there some way to know without taking a test?" The answer to which is: besides developing psychic powers, no.
This is the kind of situation I'm referring to when I say caring for yourself can mean doing something intimidating.
So what do you do? You use one type of self-care to help you do the other. You find the techniques that help you feel calm or happy and use them to help you through the things that are hard but necessary. If what makes you able to sit in a waiting room to get an STI test is knitting? Then take your knitting with you. But you still need to go to that appointment.
Another aspect of self-care that tends to fall to the wayside is that, sometimes, all we can do is sit with our discomfort for a bit, and do what we can to use it to inform our feelings and choices. It's a pretty human thing to want to do what we can to push emotionally uncomfortable or scary feelings away. But often, if and when we do that, especially as a pattern, we just wind up in the same crummy place again and again, because we don't use those feelings to figure out what we need to do to change things for the better.
This doesn't mean that we want people to sit there and let the brain weasels of anxiety and worry gnaw at their minds. But a big part of learning how to care for yourself is figuring out what parts of a stressful situation are within your control, and which ones you'll just have to wait out. For sure, that can be really hard to do. It will likely take practice. But it's also an incredibly important skill to learn. Because odds are that in any situation there will only be so many things you can actually DO. And a big part of self-care in those moments will be figuring out what steps you can take -- in the present and the future-- and what things you'll have to sit with because they're in the past or otherwise just out of your hands.
Let's say you've had a pregnancy risk and now have to wait until enough time has passed to take a pregnancy test (or for your period). You're anxious, you're worried, and you want to know NOW, for crying out loud. Not knowing, not even being able to take the step that would let you know, is making you feel like crap.
There are two ways to use self-care in this situation that can help you. One is to think about if there are any steps you can take, even if they're small steps like figuring out where to buy the test, or talking now with a partner about different ways you need to do things in the future, like being sure to always use a reliable method of birth control. Approaching the situation from that kind of angle can help ease feelings of helplessness.
Once you've taken as many proactive steps as you can, there is still likely to be some leftover discomfort. The trick here is not to feed that discomfort. Brain Weasels are hungry, hungry creatures, and they like nothing better than you fixating on the scary "what-ifs" of a situation. Do what you can to resist the urge to stay in the stress or panic mindset. If you're pregnancy scared, don't keep reading articles about pregnancy (especially just anywhere and everywhere you can find discussion of it: diving into other people's paranoia or panic is only going to make you feel worse). If you're waiting for college acceptance letters, don't keep reading articles about acceptance rates. Don't. Feed. the Brain Weasels.
This is another time to draw upon all your other self-care techniques and use them to calm and comfort yourself. Bake a cake, go for hike, build a house of cards while listening to showtunes, find a place to go scream, write the meanest letter you have in your pissed-off heart to whoever you are annoyed with and then rip it into the tiniest of shreds. But fixating on the thing that's troubling you? That's the opposite of self-care and you need to resist the urge to do it. That's rarely productive, and often even counter-productive: it just keeps you upset and keeps you from good care.
It can be hard to use this technique at first, because the Brain Weasels will try to convince you that the moment you stop worrying about something is the moment everything goes to pieces. But that's simply not true. Keeping yourself occupied with other things will make the wait much easier. And if the Brain Weasels resurface (because, in reality, it's hard to keep yourself occupied 100% of the time), remind yourself that you've done what can be done for now, take a deep breath, and move your brain on to another subject.
Even when you have to sit with your discomfort, there are still ways you can use it to your advantage. For instance, you can write down all the hard emotions you're feeling and then take a look at them. Laying them all out in front of you might help you identify places where you can take action, or any patterns that might guide you to new ways of caring for yourself. Or, you can try using your discomfort to highlight the place where your life is not what you want it to be and then using that as a jump off point for imagining your ideal reality. Doing so can help remind you of your goals, and reassure that the scary self-care you're doing (or the not scary self-care, for that matter) is helping you reach a point in your future that's close to that ideal).
I'm going to pause here to say that when we talk about sitting with discomfort, there are a few situations where you should NOT do so. Namely, situations where someone is hurting you. The negative feelings that arise when you're in, say, an abusive relationship are not the kind to put your head down and wait through. They're alarm bells telling you that something is wrong. Likewise, physical discomfort is something it's best to act on rather than sit with. If you're having sex and it's hurting you, there's no value or benefit to grinning (or grimacing) and bearing it. Now is the time to put a pause on the action until you've worked out what to do next (be that buy lube or decide that sex is not on the table today). Sitting with discomfort and using it isn't about letting situations continue where we are in pain that is needless, within our control to stop, or causing us suffering that does not help us grow.
Getting back to when it is sound to sit with discomfort, another pattern we see is users mistaking reassurance for self-care.
I want to clarify that when I refer to reassurance I don't mean asking questions, or asking for help. After all, asking for more information or resources can often help you figure out what steps to take in a situation: that's a good thing. Self-care sometimes means reaching out to the people who can help you in the way you need, such as scheduling appointments with a counselor if you feel you want help with something like depression or anxiety. But those actions are very different from asking for repeated reassurance from a source that either a) can't give you the information or help or b) has given you all the information and help they can, but you want them to repeat it over and over again, like a recorded message while you're on hold.
While it feels nice to have someone tell you things will be okay, at a certain point, it only keeps you trapped in the stress cycle and stuck on something obsessively. And that's a problem because it's usually the obsession or hyperfocus that's making you so miserable to begin with. The energy and time you're using to seek reassurance is time and energy you could be spending on self-care that would earnestly help you. Additionally, the relief provided by this type of reassurance is generally short-lived, which means you have to keep asking, which keeps you focused on the stressor rather than on what steps you can take to manage the stressor. In other words, it feeds the brain weasels.
And beyond that, using outside reassurance as your go to method of self-care...well, it kind of undermines one of the strong points of self-care. That is, it takes a process that's about you working out how to care for yourself and makes it reliant upon other people. Like I said at the beginning, self-care should be a "me first" proposition. And that means turning to yourself first as much as it means putting yourself first. Because there are going to be times in your life when time, or location, or situation means that it's on you to be able to comfort yourself. It may take some practice, but the more you teach yourself to do both the gentle and the hard ends of self-care, the more you'll find that the scary moments don't seem as bad as they used to.
But just so you don't feel like you're going at it totally alone, I'm going to finish with a walk through of two different scenarios (both things we see users experience frequently) and demonstrate the ways you can apply self-care to them.
Scenario #1: You had casual (consensual) sex last night. But now you're regretting it. And while protection was used for intercourse, it wasn't for oral sex. You don't know and didn't ask about the other persons STI status. Crap. What do you do now?
- Sit with your uncomfortable emotions for long enough to write them out. Are you feeling scared? Guilty? Be as specific as you can, and write out any reasons that you have for those feelings.
- Look at the list. Are there any worries on it that you can take steps to resolve? If the answer is yes, take those steps (or at least the first step in the process). In this instance, the first step may be to schedule an STI screening. A second may be to acknowledge you are feeling or guilt or shame, see if you can't get a handle on why, and try to resolve some of those feelings.
- Now that you've taken those steps, it's time for the soothing self-care practices to kick in. Sit for a minute and think about what would make you feel better. Come up with a list (mental or physical) of a few things to try and then start doing them.
- Uh oh! The brain weasels have reappeared and are trying to convince you that you've contracted every known STI, and then some we don't even know about yet. Remind them that they (and you) can't know that until you get a test, and that you've already scheduled that test, so there's nothing to do until then.
- Continue to employ your chosen self-care techniques as needed.
- Figure out what all of this means for your future choices, so that the next time, if there is one, you can feel differently. That might be making a commitment to yourself to always practice safer sex, and not just for intercourse; same goes for committing to always have a talk about safer sex and STI status with any partners before any sex. Maybe you have figured out casual sex, period, isn't something that's a good fit for you, so you need to pursue different kinds of sexual partnerships or experiences in the future. Maybe you feel casual sex is still a fine fit for you, but know you need to resolve some of your conflicted feelings first, before trying it again.
- Continue to employ your chosen self-care techniques as needed.
Scenario #2: You feel lonely. Because you feel lonely, your brain weasels have decided that no one really likes you anyway and that you are a worthless failure. Because brain weasels are jerks.
- Just like in the above scenario, approach the more concrete fears or feelings first. In this case that's loneliness. So, step one may be as simple as dropping a message to a friend (or a few friends). If they're nearby, maybe try to meet-up for a walk, or coffee. If they're all too far away, even just texting or chatting for a bit might help.
- The above may sound easy, but can be very hard if you're feeling as though reaching out to folks means you're bothering them. That's the brain weasels again. Remind them that the people in question like you, and will not resent you for wanting to hang out/chat with them.
- If you can't get a hold of anyone, time for those self-care techniques again. Maybe try one or two that involves you going out into the world. Even if you're not hanging out with anyone in particular, being around other folks can help ease that loneliness. Just spending an afternoon in a public park where you are simply around other people may help you out.
- Make or start some long-term plans to pursuing new friendships or other relationships: think about what you can start doing now or soon to get less isolated. Take baby steps. It may also help to try and learn some more things to do by yourself where it feels good to be alone, not hideous. What's actually more fun or comfortable to do by yourself, so you can really like some of the times you have alone time?
- Check in with yourself intermittently to see how you're feeling, and continue to use self-care as needed.