Every now and then over the course of my adult life, I’ve made the mistake of taking the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory. It’s an inventory of stressful life events with point values attached to each. At the end, you add up your totals to see how susceptible you are to, well, breakdown.
In my adult life, I have never not scored “300 points or more: 80% chance of health breakdown in the next 2 years according to the statistical prediction model.” Pregnancies, my own chronic illness, serious health issues for my children, hospitalizations, surgeries, a handful of cross-country moves, buying a house, selling a house, conflict in relationships, “in-law troubles” (love how they phrase that), divorce, new jobs, major holidays, etc. (A side note: It will not surprise you that two men developed this inventory; thus there is no item / point value for “100% responsible for children’s health, dental, and orthodontic care, transportation to/from school and activities, ER visits, birthdays and other milestone celebrations, clothing purchases including buying winter gear *before* the snow falls every year, laundry, and every meal ever eaten under this roof”—the care work that most often falls to women and is its own form of stress).
I give you my stress pedigree to establish my credibility in saying: I’ve learned a thing or two about coping with stress over the years, and as we all stand on the precipice of this election, this pandemic, this economic uncertainty, this Everything, I thought I might share what I’ve learned and how I’m trying to cope with the many layers of stress right now. None of these ideas are new, but frankly, I needed a reminder, and so:
lowering my standards
There are times for thriving and times for surviving. These are times for surviving. I’ve learned to lower my standards for what counts as dinner, keeping up with housework, keeping up with work-work (where I am always wont to go the extra mile), etc.
asking myself, what will be least stressful choice for today?
This has been a really helpful coping mechanism for me. When faced with the often overwhelming choice of what to do next, I ask myself this question. Sometimes it means a shorter workout than I had planned; other times it means ordering takeout rather than finishing the dinner I started yesterday for today. Yet other times it means actually responding to student writing rather than putting it off again. Asking myself this question has definitely made my days less stressful.
doing what feels good
I learned this from Molly Fisk, who learned it from the amoebas. Apparently amoebas literally move toward what feels good? And there’s some wisdom in that. Today on my lunch break, having been cold all day, I moved toward fifteen minutes under my heated blanket on the couch with a cup of tea rather than toward taking a walk outside as I’d planned to. It felt good.
“kiss your wrist,” (a.k.a., being as nice to myself as I would be a dear friend)
Many of us have a long and thriving relationship with negative self-talk, and I am no exception. My first impulse when something goes wrong is to blame myself. My first impulse at the end of the day is to list for myself, in a punitive mind-voice, all the things I didn’t get done that day or that I did “wrong.” If I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I am apt to notice first the dark circles under my eyes, my hair that needs a good cut, the tiny but growing creases in my neck. At some point I realized that if I talked to others like I talked to myself I wouldn’t have any friends. At another point I listened to Sharon Olds on Commonplace Podcast talking about being nice to oneself. She said, “Kiss your wrist,” so this has become my reminder, my shorthand for: Molly, be nice to yourself. Now, when something goes wrong or I feel overwhelmed, I say to myself, You are doing GREAT actually! When I’m listing unfinished tasks, I say, But think of everything you did do today. When I catch myself in the mirror, I tell myself, You look fabulous. When life feels hard, I remind myself: Just because something is hard doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. I say these things even if I don’t quite believe them. And I don’t quite, tbh. Weirdly, …it works? I never thought it would. And anyway, it feels good to be nice to myself. Kiss your wrist.
eating what sounds good
Now is not the time to start a New Healthy Eating Program. Now is the time to eat All the Comfort Foods. Yours will be different than mine, but they feed more than the body every time.
not sitting down to write the great American novel
I mean, not that I ever would. But now’s not the time to embark on a big, complicated project (unless of course, that sounds like the least stressful thing for today). Now’s the time to remind yourself: It’s all the work. The poems / essays / stories will out. You are a human being, not a human doing.
middle-of-the-night books. and treats.
Since developing the capacity to contemplate my own existence in 1976, I have never been good at sleeping, but I’ve been particularly bad at it as an adult. One of my tricks when it’s two-thirty in the morning and I can’t sleep is to read from certain books (pictured above) that I’ve gravitated toward in my sleeplessness. These are not my desert island books (well, How to Cook a Wolf might be), but they somehow calm my restless night mind. Reading them in the low light of an oil lamp while eating toast with a good deal of butter and drinking hot milk with a shot amaretto stirred in is even better. Sometimes, I can even sleep after.
taking good, even tender, care of my body
One of the gifts (HA! HA, HA, HA!) of chronic pain is that it taught me to take good care of my body. Nothing is okay when I’m physically uncomfortable. So I’ve learned to take good care of my body by setting timers for taking my meds, getting enough exercise, keeping it warm, dressing in clothes I feel good in, wearing fabulous lipstick, resting when I need to, moisturizing(!), etc. It’s part of the “kiss your wrist” philosophy of life, and 10/10 would recommend.
Research shows that our stress hormones decrease after a twenty-second hug. Sorry, a five- or ten- or seventeen-second hug is not enough. My cat, Mrs. Brown, is not into hugging, and I don’t have any other [*checks notes] options right now #Pandemic, so I try to grab my kids a time or two a day for a twenty-second hug. They don’t always love this, but I’ll tell you what: by second number ten, their body has relaxed into mind, and, again, 10/10 would recommend.
talking to a friend
When I am sad, stressed, overwhelmed; when things are generally shitty, I tend to shut down. Luckily, I have friends who know this and they keep showing up in my texts or missed calls. I know myself well enough to know I should text/call back. So I do. Usually.
seriously, I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but staying active on social media
See above re: shutting down. When I am really (as my big brother would say) deep down in the shitter, I assign myself homework to post on social media at least once a day. Twitter is my favorite place, but Facebook will do in a pinch. The post does not need to be, and almost never is, about being deep down in the shitter, but the interaction with my people—literary Twitter FTW—is good for me.
keeping my routine
Sundays, I fill the lamps with oil. Sundays and Wednesdays, I sweep and mop. I start every day at my desk reading and (sometimes) writing. Then I exercise. Then, feed the cat. Moving through a familiar routine can be anchoring, and I tie myself to it even tighter in times of stress/distress.
undertaking domestic tasks
Tess Gallagher writes, “No matter who lives / or who dies, I’m still a woman. / I’ll always have plenty to do.” Sometimes this feels like a burden to me, but other times it’s a comfort. Cooking, folding laundry, sweeping and mopping… they get me out of my mind and into my body. And that’s often a good thing, especially in Times Like These. Also, bonus!: then, there’s good food to eat; a tidy house; fresh towels stacked in the linen closet. Just the way I like it.
Okay, that’s as self-help-y as I’m ever going to get. Nothing new here. And even now, it all seems a little fluffy for my taste. But I’ve learned. And I needed a reminder. So I’m reminding you, too: These are tough times. Be nice to yourself. Kiss your wrist.