“Oh the nightmares came today/And it looks as though they’re here to stay.” – David Bowie, “Oh You Pretty Things”
Since he died in 2016—a fact I will never cease mourning—Bowie had no way of knowing what lay in store for 2020. (Or perhaps he did; one could never tell about the Goblin King.) Nightmares have invaded our waking hours, and it feels a bit like someone has put us in a dryer and left us to tumble. Down is left, right is Dennis, and we may find it difficult to find our bearings. For the first weeks of the pandemic, I know I was in more of a duck-and-cover, hide-in-my-blanket-fort frame of mind. Now that I’m emerging from that, I’d like to share with you what is helping me maintain my balance.
Some of these things are what I use to return to sanity or are more about treading water. Others are for growing and strengthening. When we’re in survival mode, we can’t even access the higher parts of our brain, the ones that are involved in creativity, so do NOT beat yourself up if you’re not able to use this time to finish that novel or painting or start that YouTube channel. There’ll be time for that, but first you have to pull yourself up out of the dark hole. Sometimes you’ll do both in the same day. These aren’t even suggestions, really; I’m just presenting options you may not have known about or considered, so use what you know works, and, when you’re feeling brave, maybe try something new.
When I feel my shoulders creeping up to my ears and my mind starts racing, I make for my dining room table and work on my current jigsaw puzzle. Puzzles are very absorbing without being taxing, and I usually find that relatively mild anxiety subsides within minutes of beginning. There’s science to back this up, but I don’t pretend to understand it.
When I get in the zone, it can be very zen. It’s especially satisfying for those of you who, like me, crave order and love organization. I start with the chaos of a pile of pieces and go through my steps: flip all pieces to face up; set aside edge and corner pieces; assemble edge; sort remaining pieces into logical groups (similar colors, words, etc.); assemble and begin connecting groups until finished. For added challenge I won’t look at the box, so that I don’t know what goes where.
Puzzles, gardening…? By now you’ve figured out I’m actually an 80-year-old lady who has found a potion for appearing young. But seriously, I have long been a fan of growing beautiful things. And tending to the needs of my vegetation is very therapeutic. Nothing bothers me when I’m in my greenhouse; it is my sanctuary. And gardening also links me to a larger community, via a local garden club and a couple of Facebook groups, which gives me social connection, as well as occasional advice when pests attack. (Not to mention the occasional free plant!) Plus, being out in the sun gets me that sweet vitamin D, which helps ease depression and boost immunity. (Science again!) Even if you just get one houseplant or maybe grow a couple of herbs indoors, plants can do wonders for your health. And, since houseplants have been found to improve a home’s air quality, the benefits are physical as well as mental. More for your money!
Playing an instrument is a great way to distract yourself. It gets you into your body and out of your head. Following tabs or a score requires focus, making it hard to worry at the same time. And playing tunes you love can be a serious mood booster. Don’t concern yourself with any mistakes you make. It’s “practice makes progress,” not “perfect,” and this is for fun.
If you don’t play an instrument, you can try singing, which is great at improving breath control, one of the biggest techniques for calming anxiety. And if you’re really feeling brave, start a virtual jam sesh with others! I got in on a free 3-month trial of Fender Play to improve my guitar skills, and I use Ultimate Guitar Tabs.
I’ve known for some time that meditation is linked to better mental health, so I finally paid for full access to the Calm app. I’ve used the free version on and off, so when it popped up with a discounted offer of $48.99 for a year and I received a $25 iTunes gift card for my birthday (Thanks, Gramma!), I figured it was worth a shot. I can listen to the Daily Calm meditation, or choose from their extensive library. The meditation sessions are gentle and helpful without being what my therapist and I call “woo-woo.” I recently finished a series that’s based on the Tao of Pooh, which uses each Winnie the Pooh character to illustrate a different Taoist principle. Isn’t that adorable?
Calm has some other features you may find helpful, including bedtime stories for all ages, some of which are read by celebrities. I particularly enjoy Stephen Fry’s narration of a trip through the lavender fields of southern France. I’ve listened to The Velveteen Rabbit and the first chapter of A Little Princess several times already and am always out cold by the time the story is finished.
If you’re into the bedtime stories, Audible is currently offering to let people listen to some for free—check them out here. And before Calm I listened to the Sleep with Me podcast for years; Scoots (the narrator) is great at lulling me to sleep with his meandering tales and “creaky, dulcet tones.”
Speaking of podcasts, even though I no longer have regular commutes to fill with content, I still often listen to podcasts while I fold laundry, craft, work on my puzzle, or pull weeds. I’m a true crime junkie, so I love My Favorite Murder; it may seem counterintuitive to listen to details of gruesome murders and such during a pandemic, but Karen and Georgia keep me laughing with their badinage and goofy inside jokes. Plus, they’re very outspoken about mental health, which led me to the new Brené Brown podcast, Unlocking Us, due to their recommendation. The first one I listened to was about anxiety, which I am always working on, and the next one about emotional intelligence was very enlightening.
When I feel like developing my language skills, I have several options I choose among: Français Authentique (which has its own app), Coffee Break French (Ever learned French from a Scotsman? Double the accent fun!), and Duolingo French (great true stories and interviews). And for writing, I love listening to Helping Writers Become Authors; K. M. Weiland offers solid writing advice and support.
Now that I’m finding my groove, I’m ready to start making the most of my downtime. I have a LOT of difficulty with vague motivators like “better health” or “improved cognitive function,” but I find it hard to quantify my goals for physical and mental health and creativity.
Habitica is an example of how productivity is being “gamified.” The app turns you into an adorable 8-bit RPG character and makes your daily chores and habits opportunities to level your little you up. Like Mary Poppins taught us, finding the fun in a job can make it a game, and that is what Habitica has done for me. I find myself dedicated to doing whatever it takes to get points and obtain items, because, if I fail to complete a daily task, my little character loses health points. If you can get some friends in on it, you can complete quests together, which adds support and accountability to your goals. Not to mention more fun! (Find me @Verisal.)
Habitica allows you to break down your tasks into Habits (again, positive or negative), Dailies (think: chores, stuff you have to do regularly), and To Do (odds and ends; one-off tasks). Habits don’t count against you if not completed, whereas incomplete Dailies will cause you to take damage at the end of the day. And To Do tasks can be broken down into individual steps, which I find increases the points you receive for finishing. Here are examples of the different Habits, Dailies, and To Dos I have set up. As you can see, I have an item on my To Do list that I will be checking off by the time you read this.
You can also use Habitica to help you quit bad habits by setting up a habit you want to drop (smoking, eating junk food, wasting time on social media, etc.) and selecting Negative on setup. I have opted to stick with positives, as I don’t have any major bad habits, and I’ve loaded it up with so many positive things that, in order to complete all of them, there’s no time for the bad. But if you get sick or find yourself struggling, Habitica does have the Tavern, where your character can rest and not receive damage for missing goals. Even adventurers need breaks.
Just like with meditation, the physical and mental benefits of exercise are well-documented; I’ve just been ignoring them. But not anymore! Now that my shoulder is functioning around 90%, I’m making sure I get moving at least 3 days a week, both with cardio and weights. I focus mostly on arms and core because of my shoulder and SI joint issues, but I also do legs and yoga. We’ve taken a couple hikes in the mountains to search for morels now that they’re in season; getting outdoors and into tall trees always replenishes my soul. And when it’s a lovely day in the neighborhood, we take Bowie (our dog, not the Thin White Duke) on walks. In fact, now that we got him a Gentle Leader leash, I can actually manage all 55 lbs. of him on my own because he’s not dragging me along the whole time.
I don’t have specific goals, such as a target weight or pounds I want to be to press or miles I want to run. My goals are things like “not injuring myself when getting dressed” and “being able to carry a full chicken waterer.” Hardly motivating; Rocky certainly wouldn’t have gotten out of bed for that. So, on top of adding working out to complete my Habitica habits, I give myself a dollar of mad money for every workout I do. It may sound simple and silly, but that system is working so far, so I’m not messing with it. And I am finding I have more energy than before. Still can’t open a new jelly jar, but, hey, it’s only been a couple of weeks. Give me time.
I have found it also helps to have a playlist of the YouTube workouts I don’t hate, so that I’m not wasting time trying to find the right video. And, if I’m feeling adventurous/indecisive, I can put them on shuffle and let the algorithm decide. My favorite exercise YouTube channels right now are Yoga with Adriene, HASFit, and Body by Amy. They are all good about giving modification options to either increase or decrease the difficulty and providing low-impact moves. Here’s my workout playlist on YouTube, if you’re curious or want more confirmation that I am secretly old.
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself returning to old favorite books, movies, and shows. Their familiarity and predictability are comforting in times of woe. I’ve been rereading the Anne of Green Gables series—again. I’m also rewatching Bones, Monk, and Avatar: The Last Airbender and listening to my beloved oldies—which, sadly, includes the ’90s hits of my childhood. To assist my French practice, I translate a page of Le Petit Prince a day. (The other day, I got a third of the way down the page before I encountered a word I didn’t know!) That and training my dog are pleasant ways to expand my mind and break up the day. Throughout the day, I try to eat foods that both nourish and comfort me, drink clear liquids (gin doesn’t count), and avoid caffeine, sugar, and alcohol. And at night, I floss and brush my teeth, take my meds like a good patient, and enjoy a mug of Sleepytime tea.
Keep in mind that there is no one system that will make your life work. We all must learn to adjust time and again, for life has a way of tilting just as we think we’ve found our footing. Rigidity will not save you from falling. Take Thomas Edison’s advice to heart and keep persisting: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” If any of these work for you, great. If not, maybe they’ll set you down a path to finding what does work.
And if you’re doing all the things and still struggling to meet your goals, or if you find yourself freezing up and unable to do much more than keep yourself alive, don’t take it to heart. Give yourself even more grace than usual and be kind to yourself.
“I’m sure my theory of kindness can’t be wrong.” – Anne Shirley, Anne of Avonlea, by L. M. Montgomery
As a parting gift, here is a collection of images of David Bowie as represented by sea mollusks. Because laughter—plus Bowie—is truly the greatest medicine.
What are you doing to keep your sanity during the pandemic (and beyond)? Have you taken up an old or new hobby? I’m always on the lookout for mental health tips, so share yours below!