Focusing on self-care doesn't necessarily mean alone care
Updated: Oct 4
* The following post is part of a series of fictitious pieces meant to help people who are seeing a therapist (or who aren’t). Each essay expands on a concept, theory or activity that a therapist may (or may not) have suggested in the course of a therapy session. Though the therapists and clients are invented characters, the concepts, theories and activities are readily accepted as helpful and even necessary by psychotherapists and other mental health professionals in the real world. If you feel triggered by anything in these paragraphs, please discuss them with your mental health care professional.
My therapist says I need to focus on self-care.
The thing is, I don’t really know what ‘self-care’ means. In the era of the pandemic, Covid-19 makes to hard to do some of the things I used to do for myself. A massage is no longer relaxing when I’m worried that the masseuse’s vigorous kneading could be dangerous. This is not the masseuse’s fault or, indeed, the spa’s fault.
I just don’t feel safe leaving my house for the services I used to take for granted. And used to do to take care of myself. A trip to the bookstore, a walk through the mall, hanging out in a coffee shop, none of that seems feasible or relaxing at all anymore. Even going to the gym is fraught with things to worry about. Can the virus be spread through sweat? I hate worrying so much about everything. I realize now that I’m worrying waaaaayyyy more than before. If I thought I was anxious back in 2019…that was nothing compared to all the new stuff I’m finding to be anxious about.
And then my therapist said to find someone to hug.
And now I’m thinking about it. A lot.
I miss hugging. And handshakes. And a hand on my shoulder. And a lower arm clasp after the air kissing.
I’m paying attention now to how much I hug my partner and I hold on for a little longer. I playfully keep my children in my arms for a few beats more than usual. The covid clinch is what I’m calling it (well, maybe not, it could be soooooo easily be misunderstood…). It’s my self care.
To be fair, coping these days requires a level of indulgence that never would have passed in my house back in February of 2020. The deal now is to spare me my sanity, so we get take-out once a week. We eat breakfast for dinner often (a bowl of Fruitee-fruit-fruiteeos has some nutrients, right?). And our home cocktail hour starts earlier in the week and earlier in the day --pretty soon, we’ll be having gin and tonics for breakfast.
But self-care through the crisis isn’t about medicating with alcohol or making meal-planning easier. I’m finding that the healthiest, cheapest self-care ritual for me right now is an increase in physical contact. I’m a touchy-feely person. And this might be the best way to fill my touchy-feely needs. And make the pandemic feel less scary.
I will prolong the hugs with close relatives to make up for the physical touching we’re no longer allowed or safe to do out there in the Covid-19 world. I’ll be reporting back to my therapist that long hugs with my bubble mates are my best bet to take care of myself.
Research has been showing us how vital touch is for human development. There were the Romanian orphan studies of the 90’s. It was found that without a minimum of human touch the children’s overall development was severely compromised. They needed hugs so badly their lives depended on it.
I remember reading about two sisters born a few minutes apart, tiny little preemies. The babies were placed together when one of them seemed to be experiencing some distress. Older sister flings her tiny, wrinkled arm around her weaker sibling and both girls’ heart rates stabilise. Hugs are life saving.
The healing effects of hugging it out, of touch with fellow humans cannot be denied. Under the right circumstances it can lower heart rates, calm blood pressure and produce an overall sense of relaxation. I’m surprised by how often a hug comes with a sigh of contentment –usually mine, I’ll admit, but still…
A few months ago, briefly embracing someone upon meeting them was a normal part of my everyday interaction. And I miss it. Not just because I felt it was polite to offer a quick ‘hello-how-are-you?’ hug but also because I could learn so much about a person. Their grooming habits: perfume/after-shave application, shampoo scent, deodorant (y or n?). Their housekeeping routines: laundry soap brand, fabric softener (y or n?). And their sartorial preferences: cashmere, wool or silk, pashmina or scarf, necktie (y or n?). See? That embrace was a 5 second physical interaction and the person is no longer a stranger!
I will wait patiently for the moment when my health care leaders say it’s safe to shake hands and embrace people when we meet them. For now, my family is getting extra. For their continued good health and my self-care.
When my therapist said to practice self care, I learned that self-care doesn’t mean alone care. I think for me, it’s best when it includes others. That’s the beauty of a hug. A genuine hug has a giver and a taker in beautiful, heart-wrenching reciprocity. We touch and are touched and for the duration of the embrace, we are one.
****My therapist reminds me that hugs must be reciprocal. It is not okay to hug someone without their implied or explicit permission.