Butterfly at the Museum of Natural History. Photo Credit: Jess Silfa
2017, Archives, February 2017, The MFA Years

On (Necessary) Self Care

When I was six years old, I started seeing a therapist. There were many reasons why I was in Doctor Davis’ care—an overactive imagination, inappropriate concern for World War III, existential dread—but the majority of our sessions revolved around relaxation. He and I played this game where we would try to relax as much as possible, calling out the names of the body parts as we felt them loosen and unwind: my neck is now relaxed, my shoulders are now relaxed, now my arms. I would never get past my knees before blurting out something like, “What if Russia invades us?” And then to lighten the mood: “Do you know how hard it is to learn Russian?”

Twenty-five years later I still have trouble getting myself to relax (and surprisingly I’m still worried about Russia). I didn’t change who I was when I entered the MFA. My life didn’t get magically amazing; my insecurities didn’t disappear; my neurochemistry didn’t become more typical. But that’s me. The truth is even if you’re not mentally ill, grad school is tough. It is. You’re trying to balance writing with teaching and personal relationships and diving deeper into writing― your writing, your cohorts’, published authors’ ―in ways you haven’t before. And that’s not even accounting for this exhausting political climate we find ourselves in.

And that is why I’m writing this post. My self care post. My “secure your own fucking oxygen mask” post. Because now is the time to pause, take a deep breath, and give yourself some time. The things I’m mentioning here work for me or close friends. Not everything on this list will strike your fancy. That’s okay. Hopefully, it’ll at least inspire you to seek support in whatever way you need.

Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. I don’t play one on TV. I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. If you feel you need more help than a blog post can give you, please seek it.

Jess’ Tips on How to Practice Self-Care

Use a planner

I know, this is an odd start; hear me out. This doesn’t have to be an actual planner. I use a Passion Planner (which you can try out for free) because it works best for me, but I also loved using a plain notebook. The goal isn’t to have something pretty, it’s to have a useful landing pad to write down everything that’s taking up space in your brain. This is especially important if you’re like me and having trouble sleeping because you need to do xyz. Jot it down, go to sleep, and handle it tomorrow. There are plenty of things I write in my planner that I don’t actually get done on time, but just writing it down helps make the to-do list in my head stop stressing me out as much. Try it out. 

Take a deep breath and ask yourself some questions

Inhale for four counts, hold for six counts, exhale for eight counts. Remember that whatever is going on right now will pass. Repeat this to yourself out loud if you have to. After you can catch your breath, ask yourself if you’ve had water or food lately. If you’ve seen the sun. If you’ve taken a hot shower. If you’ve been sleeping enough. Even my genetic depression is exacerbated by external issues. Being hangry is a real thing, y’all. Some days I have to force myself to go outside and go to the corner store to buy something, anything. A pack of gum. Just getting out of my apartment and getting fresh air helps.

Repeat some affirmations

You can go the “You is kind, you is smart” route or go for something completely different. I have a friend who posts on Facebook every day that Trump lost the popular vote. I’m quite fond of, “You’ve been through worse, Silfa.” Whatever gets you through the day. Find your phrase and repeat it to yourself. We’re writers; let words give you strength.

Pamper yourself

I’m not sure when exactly Korean skincare started taking over but bless sheet masks. You can buy a whole set of sixteen for as little as $10. That’s enough for most cohorts to get smoother skin in 20 minutes. Give yourself (or pay someone else for) a manicure. Splurge on a haircut. Get that purple hair colour you’ve always wanted. Or just turn off your phone for twenty minutes, turn on the hot water in your shower, make yourself some ice water with lemon and sit in your hot, steamy bathroom and pretend you’re at a spa. My point is, take care of yourself. I don’t want to hear that you don’t have time; MAKE TIME. Because if you’re not taking care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone—or anything—else.

Do a random act of kindness

Although it’s not, and shouldn’t be, a replacement for taking care of yourself, doing something nice for other people really lifts the spirits. It doesn’t have to be expensive. Leaving a sweet note on your colleague’s desk or messaging a member of your cohort to say your really loved their last piece totally counts. You can also volunteer at a soup kitchen or sit with some elderly folks at your local hospice. Volunteering on the regular is nice, but don’t be deterred if all you can give is one hour on some random Tuesday. Any little bit helps. It’ll help you too.

Seek help

If you still feel like you’re having a hard time getting through the day, go to your school’s counseling center or find a therapist. Start a journal. Cry. It’s okay to feel blue and it’s okay to feel overwhelmed. But if it lasts longer than two weeks and starts affecting your work, you should speak to someone that is trained to help you through the rough patches. You will not be the first graduate student to do this. You won’t be the last. And you deserve to feel better. <3

Now it’s your turn. How do you practice self-care? Let me know in the comments.


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