Unconventional Wellness for Trauma
I logged onto Twitter yesterday and my heart sank immediately. A tweet from Roxane Gay, my favorite author, sat at the top of my timeline:
I am not a fan of Louis C.K. I never really watch comedy, outside of the occasional Master of None or Broad City episode. I stick to television shows because they're safer: at least from what I've seen, I'm less likely to encounter racist or misogynist "jokes" in a scripted show than in a comedy special. I've learned not to expect much from male comedians, though of course some manage to be good people.
What sickens me about Louis C.K. in particular is not that I am personally invested in his work, but rather that I thought he might be one of the good ones. As Scaachi Koul wrote when the news broke, "the fact that C.K. spent years making jokes that showed he knew exactly how threatening and how damaging men’s sexual aggression could be to women only makes the revelation of his own behavior feel more like a personal betrayal." I want to believe that awareness of oppressive systems, and one's own possible complicity in them, provides a certain protection against engaging in oppressive behaviors. Clearly, this is not always true.
Thanks to the recent revelations about many of Hollywood's biggest stars, a great deal of my own trauma has resurfaced. I do not wish we could go back; on the contrary, I want to see survivors heard and abusers held accountable, and given how powerful these men are, true accountability requires public naming. These stories have always existed, and we need to bring the open wound of sexual abuse into the light in order to properly address it. That said, hearing story after story is painful.
I have had to make extra efforts to meet my own needs lately. There are the basics, of course, like making sure I eat, sleep, and move enough. Even those are tough to do sometimes, but they're the bare minimum. If all you can do right now is eat, sleep, and move, or even just one of those, that's okay. You are no less strong for it. I need more than the basics right now, though, so I thought I'd make a list for any of you who do, too.
The Internet is already filled with excellent self-care tips (including mine), so I'm putting a twist on it this time. These are my customized, off-the-beaten-path favorites. If the aforementioned lists are a greatest hits album, think of these as the handpicked deep cuts. Just for you.
1. Take it one day at a time.
Okay, so this may be conventional wisdom, but hear me out. Does anyone actually practice this? I know that at least several times a day I think about the future, and whether I'm worrying or making exciting plans, it can be difficult to remain present in the moment. Especially when my mental health is suffering, I tend to get anxious about the fact that I'm not feeling well, which only makes everything worse.
"Self-care" has been commodified so heavily that it seems everyone is expected to have a wellness regimen nowadays. Even in activist spaces, I've seen people beat themselves up for not taking care of themselves as well as movement leaders say they should. How counter-productive is that? Don't put pressure on yourself to be a bath-taking, therapy-going pinnacle of wellness perfection. I talk about self-care all the time, but there were still a few days last month when I was isolated on the couch, horribly anxious, wearing yesterday's sweatpants and watching my fourth hour of Netflix as I just tried to get through the day. Not exactly the healthiest way to deal.
Focusing on what I need right now is often the best remedy, and has the double benefit of making me feel better immediately and taking my mind off the future. So, breathe. Ask yourself what you need right now, today. Do that. And then do the same thing tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.
2. Go in for a tune-up.
I'm not talking about your car; I mean your brain. There is a common misconception that therapy is only for people who either (1) have acute, severe mental health needs or (2) need long-term mental health services. Plenty of people do need to be in therapy for an extended period of time for any number of reasons. When I was getting treatment for my eating disorder way back when, I was in weekly therapy for a full year, and I needed it.
Even those of us who don't need months of therapy could benefit from a session or two, however, and I wish more people recognized that. I haven't been in regular therapy for some time, but I went in for a session yesterday and highly recommend it. We ought to treat mental health like physical health. Just as it's good practice to see a doctor once or twice a year to check in on our body, it's important to do the same for our minds.
Getting a mental health check-up is a bit more difficult if you don't already have a therapist you've seen in the past, since the first session will be spent getting to know your therapist and making sure they're a good fit, but it can still be done in two or three sessions. If, like me, you have a therapist in your area who you already know and trust, reach out to them and request to set up an appointment. If you no longer live near them, ask if they'd be open to a phone session. The space will help you reflect on your mental health and how you can best care for yourself, even if you're generally feeling good.
3. Embrace the weird.
I used to think that there is a standard list of self-care practices that should work for everyone. This is true to an extent - we all need rest, nourishment, movement, and connection - but what makes someone else feel good may not do much for you at all. Be willing to experiment. If a wellness practice interests you, try it. Don't be embarrassed if you find something "weird" helps you - as long as you're not hurting anyone, that's a good thing!
I am a firm proponent of customizing wellness to find what works for you, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Who cares if it's unusual? And furthermore, if a practice helps you, I guarantee there are others out there who use it, too.
Here are some examples of my "weird" or unusual wellness practices: doing a tarot reading for myself daily, reading my weekly and monthly horoscopes, watching ASMR videos on YouTube (here are my fave ASMRtists), and carrying around a bottle of sage essential oil in my purse to dab on my wrists when I feel especially anxious. Yes, even if someone looks at me sideways for doing so.
4. Recognize that your body remembers your trauma, even if you don't.
Trauma, regardless of what caused it, stays with us long after the traumatic event or experience. As trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk writes, "We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present."
We tend to believe that we are the masters of our bodies, and we can be, but only if we're able to address and heal from trauma. Even if we don't realize it, our trauma lives in our bodies and brains, deeper than the rational or conscious mind. We may have triggers that we don't even know about until they activate past trauma and bring it to the surface in ways that harm our wellbeing.
A perfect example of this is my visceral reaction to the #MeToo campaign, which made my stomach turn, palms sweat, and heart race. When I reflected on what was happening in my body, I began to realize that I carried some unresolved trauma connected to a past experience. There are many ways to heal, especially through practices that ground you in your body, but I highly recommend reading The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk for more information.
5. Seek out alternative healing practitioners.
Many mainstream wellness bloggers and content creators are, for lack of a better phrase, overdone. It's not that they don't have good tips; it's just that you've probably seen them before, because these creators are commercially successful. Mainstream wellness also tends to skew white, straight, and cis, taking a one-size-fits-all approach based on culturally dominant identities that simply doesn't work for many of us.
Discovering new healers and wellness practitioners is not only fun, it will also shake up your wellness practice and help you find people who reflect who you are and what you need. I tend to find them through Instagram and Twitter, though certain podcasts like Healers have also turned me on to new people.
Spend some time browsing - hint: check out who your faves follow - to find the healers off the beaten path who best fit you. Then smash that follow button, subscribe to their newsletters, and look forward to amazing new content and ideas! A few of my favorites include Rory Lula, whose daily draws on Instagram inspire me every day; the Astro Poets' advice column in W Magazine; Jenna Wortham's wellness newsletter Fermentation and Formation; and anything Hey Fran Hey does.
These are just a handful of tips, but I hope they help those of you who have exhausted the usual litany of wellness practices and need something outside the box. Remember that you are loved, you are supported, and we'll get through the rest of this dumpster fire of a year together.