I realized it’s been a little while since I took up a cheerful topic with you all… It’s easy enough to get caught up in negativity, especially with fantastic people like Abercrombie & Fitch running amok in society, or with every third commercial on TV advertising some pre-packaged diet plan that ships food to your doorstep (more on that later, I’m sure). Although it’s productive to focus on the negativity so that we can pinpoint things we’d like to see changed, it can be a little wearing.
And by “a little wearing,” I mean exhausting.
Whether it’s from reading the news headlines, being exposed to media that’s trying to make money off of your low self-esteem, or negativity that’s coming from within yourself, we all need strategies to pull back when things get too difficult. Taking a break from thinking about problems isn’t giving in, and it isn’t hiding. It’s so important to think about your mental health and give yourself some time to breathe, zone out, and do something you enjoy. Even President Obama still enjoys a game of pick-up basketball now and again, and if you think he doesn’t have enough to worry about…
But stepping back and relaxing is easier said than done. Sometimes negativity can seem so overwhelming that you don’t feel like you deserve to enjoy yourself, or you can’t even remember what you used to do that made you feel good. Trust me. I’ve been there. It’s a vicious cycle of feeling bad because you feel too bad to make yourself feel better.
That’s why this edition of Vigilante Positivity is about coping mechanisms.
Now, I’m sure many of you have read lists of ways to relax or to distract yourself from the urge to engage in behaviors. They’re not difficult to find: for example, you can check some out here, here, and here.
My problem was always that reading a list of ways to relax always felt disingenuous, like it was written for someone other than me. Write positive affirmations and put them in a shoebox? I was already tired of being treated like I was eight. Learn to garden? Okay, I wasn’t in a retirement home yet, and besides, my home state is notorious for being 80 degrees one day and snowing the next. I wasn’t ready to sign up to be a plant murderer.
What I’ve learned might seem like an unproductive topic for a blog post, but it’s true nonetheless: all the lists in the world won’t help you until you find what actually works for you. Sometimes you have to go out on a limb and try something that feels stupid or unimportant, but no one can tell you what strategies will work for you other than yourself.
Discovering ways to help you feel good about yourself and relax is a huge step in the recovery process. I’ve gotten to know myself better since I started actively searching for things I enjoyed and evaluating what I did and why I did it. It’s a way to explore what you can do, not what you look like. And it doesn’t have to be limited to coping with eating disordered behaviors. You can use the strategies that you discover for any stressful situation. (Hello, college exam week.)
Even though I’ve just said that you need to find what works for you, I hope it might be helpful for me to share the strategies that I turn to on a regular basis when I’m stressed, sad, or overwhelmed. I’m not perfect at this; anyone who knows me will tell you that I have my days when I just want to sit around and feel sorry for myself. (I call them Wallowing Wednesdays, because I’m a sucker for alliteration.) But these strategies help. And I hope that you’ll find what you need to help you as well.
I know, I just said that I wasn’t in a retirement home yet. But there’s something oddly centering about having something to do with my hands but not with my mind. It’s the repetitive motion that I enjoy, and it makes it totally okay to zone out and think about nothing. I’m especially fond of knitting while watching terrible TV, because even if I am wasting three hours watching Real Housewives of New Jersey, at least I have a hat to show for it at the end.
And on a side note, I’ve been knitting relatively actively for the past three years, and last week I finished the first hat that I actually had any desire to wear myself. (I’ve been donating the rest to charity.) A sign that I’m improving? It’s fulfilling, anyway.
This is a recent addition, because I just received a subscription for online streaming for my birthday, but this is just a more convenient rendition of a previous item: searching the Internet for free streaming of TV shows or movies. They don’t have to be of any good intellectual quality; actually, sometimes I find it’s more relaxing if they’re not. Taking an hour or two to escape from reality and enjoy someone else’s melodramatic life without being counted on to engage with the other person in any way is extremely satisfying for me.
If you’re at a loss for TV shows to lose yourself in, here are some of my personal recommendations (this is a no judgment zone, remember!): Downton Abbey, Sherlock, The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, The Tudors. (That last one is a recent love of mine… I’ve watched four episodes in the past two days. No judgment zone!!)
I’m extremely lucky in that my mother signed me up for piano lessons when I was five and made me stick with it until I learned to love it (around age eight). Music doesn’t involve thinking in words, but it’s a completely engaging emotional experience. If you don’t play an instrument, it’s never too late to try and learn one! Listening to your favorite music is just as effective. Even if you don’t have time to really disengage and relax, listening to music during your commute or while at work, if possible, can really change your outlook. If you want to listen to something soothing, I’ve discovered fabulous hour-long YouTube mixes of classical music or instrumental world music that are great for getting rid of stress.
Not going to lie, this is my go-to. My emotional fuse gets proportionally shorter along with how sleep-deprived I am. The less sleep I get, the smaller my personal space bubble gets, the less patience I have for anything, and the more cataclysmic the smallest setbacks seem. When I wasn’t getting nearly enough sleep between work and stress, I lost one sock in the dryer and it felt like the world was going to end.
It’s important that we take care of our bodies, and while that tends to get conflated with behaviors that, if taken to the extreme, can exacerbate eating disorders, that also means listening to our bodies and giving them what they need when they’re asking for it. If that means rest, make sure you rest.
Take a warm shower with nice-smelling body wash or shampoo (I have aromatherapy honey vanilla shower gel, and I credit that with the recent love I’ve developed for showering), put on comfortable clothes (you all already know about my love affair with sweatpants), and curl up in bed. It doesn’t really matter what time it is. If it’s in the afternoon, set an alarm to go off in an hour and a half. If it’s later, don’t worry about going to bed earlier than you usually do. One night of relaxing won’t kill you.
I’m here to contradict myself, apparently. I’m tired of being treated like I’m eight years old, and yet one of my favorite coping strategies is coloring pages. I can’t really explain it. It’s just another mindless activity to do with my hands. A psychologist might analyze it as a way to regain control, in a world where everything turns out like I want it to and everything fits within the lines. I don’t really care what a psychologist would say, though. It works, and I’m keeping it. You can find some of my favorite sites for free black-and-white printouts here and here.
I really don’t think I need to explain this. It works 85% of the time for me. Maybe it’s a mark of shallowness on my part, but seriously there’s something about a cat dressed as a shark chasing a duck or screaming goats dubbing pop songs that makes life seem less serious.
Those are just a few of my personal favorite ways to relax and step away from stress and negativity. What are yours? Share them in the comments!