Welcome to My Winter Wellness Bootcamp
Updated: Feb 20, 2021
By Melissa Zehner, LPC, Professional Psychotherapist, and Mindfulness-Meditation Practitioner
In art school we were inculcated with the mantra: “think outside the box.” Every painful critique had the looming question, did you think far enough outside the box? Since this pandemic has forced us into boxes of our own habitats, I wake up every single morning and say to myself: think outside the box. How will I practice wellness today, cleverly reinventing the present circumstance and living a life well beyond the confines of this box? My children help a great deal with this. Their world of play is naturally like this. No boxes. Everything has an unset transformative identity or purpose. There’s no telling where this next scene may go. I recently asked my son, “you know what boredom brings?” to which he replied, “ideas!” Exactly. Never before have I been more appreciative of that mentality instilled in me way back then.
Every day I take a photograph of something that awes me; usually something in nature. This act helps to ground me in my physical environment, as opposed to living in my head. It also makes me appreciate all the beauty still abounding this one life I am living now. Not the life I’ll lead after the pandemic, but now, the life I’m leading now. I write something every day. It doesn’t need to have a purpose, it may be something I share, it may be something I hold onto, it may be something that will likely develop over time, a poem, an essay, a sentiment; it doesn’t matter the end result, it matters that I get something out (getting out of my head). I go for a walk every day. Being in nature, seeing beauty, feeling the movement of my body, the cool air on my skin, connecting to my breath; making sure my senses tune in to what’s around me. Once again, GETTING OUT OF MY HEAD, and into something more absolute, something more reliable. The body is always present but thoughts… well they can take you elsewhere, often to great depths of imagined despair. I come back to the body, back to the physical world, back to right now. This is all we ever can be sure of whether living through a pandemic or the time of our lives. Our lives are happening now.
I try on most days to fix myself something to eat or drink that is nourishing. Doesn’t matter if anyone else in my family wants it. This one meal, this one juice, this one piece of fruit, is filled with vibrant color and nutrients and I take it in slowly with mindful appreciation for the care I am giving myself. We often think in this diet-crazed, body-image-obsessed culture that abstinence is the way to practice good health. What “bad” things do I need to avoid in order to achieve a desired goal (or be a better person), which is an outside-in approach to health and a punitive one as well. Instead, what I am suggesting is to think in terms of nourishment. What can I give to my body today to offer nourishment? This is a full-bodied, caring approach to health and wellness and it will serve you far better than a practice of abstinence and guilt-taunting thoughts. In fact, when we regard food in a good/bad, dualistic way, the pendulum of behavior usually swings back-and-forth between restriction and over-indulgence. So, think in terms of nourishment, think in terms of adding (not subtracting), think in terms of kindness, especially when it comes to food.
Exercise can be nourishing as well. As Americans, we like to push as hard as we can in every domain: work, pleasure, exercise. When we set the bar so high it can be (for many) very daunting to even begin. So, think in terms of getting the body moving and the heart rate up for 20-30 min, at your own pace. For you, maybe a brisk walk is enough to do this or maybe it’s dancing in your kitchen while cooking and for someone else, it’s more of an intensive climb. But whatever it is for you, be in your body, experience it with pleasure, feel the expansiveness that comes with even light exercise. Experience the pores of your skin open up, the blood circulating throughout, the loosening of those tightened joints and muscles, engage your core no matter what the activity (you have more neurotransmitters there than in your brain!) and tune into the breath. For me, the best is a walk when I’m able to try on many different paces. At times, I like to walk quickly to match the emotional energy I might be feeling, and then after I’ve tapped into this sufficiently, I like to slow it down, tuning into nature, tuning into my breath, and finding that stillness where movement and breath are synchronized. Regardless of the activity though, practice being in your body with appreciation and get moving- out of that box.
Reach out to a friend or family member every day, check-in, keep the relationships going. Finding true connection via the phone (hearing a voice) and finding creative means to get together in person (seeing into the eyes) is an essential component of wellbeing. Take a deep breath before this engagement, set the intention that you will listen closely, paying mindful attention to the space between the words. Because the inarticulate aspects of love and the abstractions of this pandemic life just can’t be placed inside of words. Try asking yourself, who can I check in on today? To whom can I offer my care and attention? We sometimes get so caught up in thinking about what others aren’t doing for us and get lost in a spiral of self-pitying thought, which is when the box starts to shrink. So, get out of your head, be the one to reach out and offer to another space where true listening can happen. Check in with yourself here: who makes you feel safe, with whom can you process this complicated emotional landscape? You see, we need other humans to survive but we must feel safe with them in order to thrive. Do not rely on social media for this fix; it holds no comparison. That is an imaginary world full of psychological projections colliding and sputtering out in a disappointing thumbs up or emoticon that will likely leave you feeling emptier and all the more isolated. Find the real, find the tangible, be a person of safety for others and identify those who make you feel safe. Then slow it down together, creating space where mutual empathy can be experienced.
We’ve come now to what may be the most difficult aspect of wellness to practice: developing self-compassion or sympathy toward oneself. There’s a lot more to this than what I can summarize in one paragraph so I will offer you this one gem. When negative emotions surge, turn toward them, acknowledge what’s there, literally name it out loud: “ah here you are again sadness, fear, frustration…”. Talk tenderly to such negative emotion, validating its presence and the story it contains. Holding it gently with mindful breathing and statements of sympathy. In these times I also like to incorporate soothing touch: taking both hands, one crossed over the other and placed across my chest, I feel the breath rising and falling under these supportive hands. This is how I caress my pain, letting it be, giving it space to breathe, letting the tears flow as they arise when they do. It is here in this vulnerability where I find my strength, not in the denial of it, but in the gentle acknowledgment of it. Try out this example; fill in whatever words you need to in the parenthesis.
“I hear you (fear), I know you’re here, I know you wish to keep me (safe), and I acknowledge this great need of mine to feel (safe). Our brilliant brains have given us much to contemplate and feel. Sometimes it feels like too much to bear. But I’ll take this moment to be with you here, breathing gently… on the inhale, letting in and on the exhale, letting out… inhale letting in, creating space and on the exhale, letting out and letting go…”
We must still live while living through trauma, which means we have to feel it, little by little. Approaching grief slowly, using soothing touch and gentle statements of acknowledgment, while finding an anchor in the breath. This is how you can skillfully work with your body’s autonomic stress response. All the while remembering that everything in life is fleeting, as are your thoughts and emotions. The more space you can make for them to arrive fully in your awareness, the more you are able to let go of them. And if this is far too scary or lonely for you, then it may be time to reach out for help. You are not as alone as you might feel right now.
Wellness is a discipline that must be practiced, especially for this winter, it must be pursued diligently but not vigorously, nor alone. I call it the Winter Wellness Boot Camp although by now you realize I’m not anything like a sergeant; I am much gentler in my approach to wellness. However, if I were to take on a sergeant’s tone for just one point, it’s for this one: GET OUT OF THAT BOX, whatever it takes, cause its delusional space. Use your imagination, try something new, take a risk, get out of that headspace, get out of the intangible world of social media and get into the real personal space of another and that of the natural world. There is so much mystery to be discovered here, if you remain open to it. There’s a beautiful children’s board book likened to this message called, “Not A Box” and it’s about all the ways this bunny, which is nothing more than a basic outline, invents more and more purposes for a plain box. The box becomes a sailboat, a race car, a hot air balloon, and ultimately a rocket ship… So, redefine your box as often as it takes, keep living in the now, use that beautiful ingenious mind to create purpose, seek vibrancy, and mindfully engage others with your authenticity. Be safe, be clever, and, most importantly, be kind to yourself. I wish you much peace and wellness.