I Can't Self-Care My Way Into Feeling Better Anymore

Self-help won't fix COVID. Here’s what to do when all the pandemic mental health advice feels frivolous.
How can we take care of our mental health when the advice doesn't feel useful anymore?
EThamPhoto via Getty Images
How can we take care of our mental health when the advice doesn't feel useful anymore?

As we barrel toward the two-year anniversary of COVID, I find myself feeling more and more lost. Each day I cycle through rage and apathy. More bad news about variants. More bad news about breakthrough cases. More bad news about long COVID. More bad news about hope for returning to “normal.” Then I go to bed, wake up and do it all over again. It’s the worst version of “Groundhog Day.”

If I were speaking to someone else dealing with these emotions, this is the part where I’d usually jump in and offer some advice. It’s my job as a wellness editor to show people how to practice self-care.

But what happens when self-care feels futile?

I can’t journal away 800,000-plus COVID deaths. I can’t meditate away the endless uncertainty. I can’t exercise away the anti-vaxxers and misinformation putting all of us at risk. There comes a point where the methods we’ve been told to rely on feel more insulting than helpful.

“The effectiveness of self-care strategies tend to fade if the stressor or trauma increases,” Racine Henry, a therapist and owner of Sankofa Marriage and Family Therapy in New York, told me. “You can only journal or meditate so much, and if those habits are not resolving the lack of basic needs being met, you’re going to be more frustrated than soothed. People are really suffering and struggling with things that are beyond their control to immediately fix.”

In May 2020, I started writing a piece about how daily outdoor walks were saving people’s mental health. I wanted to provide readers with something actionable during a time when everything felt helpless and abnormal. I poured my soul into the story’s beginning, detailing my own experience. But the whole time I was writing, I couldn’t ignore the nagging sense that I was putting a metaphorical Band-Aid over a gaping wound. The more I wrote, the more trivial it felt. We never published it.

“The longer it goes on, the less desirable things like deep breathing and going for a walk seem,” Henry said. “I also think the fact that we are aware, thanks to national and social media, that these issues are widespread only makes the situation that much more frustrating.”

Self-help tips and articles that permeate our newsfeeds have a way of simplifying the problem: Follow these steps and you’ll instantly feel better. That’s the point, and it’s generally a good thing. Many times they do truly work. Other times ― when the world is dark and you’re living through a pandemic that people have become desensitized to ― they fall flat.

“I can’t journal away 800,000-plus COVID deaths. I can’t meditate away the endless uncertainty. I can’t exercise away the anti-vaxxers and misinformation putting all of us at risk.”

I’m at a complete loss. I turned to experts for insight on how they’re processing this pain, and many feel the same. None of us can avoid the rage or the apathy. Instead, we’re learning to live with it and do what we can while it infects our lives.

Here’s our brief (and still maybe slightly useless) guide to taking care of yourself when taking care of yourself is a fool’s errand:

Wallow in your misery

Yep, you read that correctly. If you’re going to be upset regardless, pushing it away only compounds your rotten feelings.

“I am a big believer in the healing power of wallowing. Instead of working so hard to fight or lessen the negative emotions, we can use that same time and energy to lean in and accept it,” Henry said. “A lot of things suck right now. Full stop. There’s nothing wrong with embracing the suck and just staying in that moment for a while. As long as you are doing base-level functioning like showering, eating, sleeping, taking care of responsibilities (i.e. work, school, kids, pets), then you can also cry it out or eat the salty/fatty foods, or stay in pajamas all weekend.”

Change your scenery

This isn’t permission to throw all caution to the wind, but you can and should alter your surroundings (as long as it’s relatively safe for you to do so and you’re not putting yourself or anyone else at risk).

“Travel is always my go-to stress reliever,” Henry said. “The pandemic has definitely changed the ease and range of travel, but it’s also provided a good opportunity to explore locally. Road trips and staycations are easy and usually cheaper than flying somewhere. Even if it’s just spending the night at a friend’s house in the next city or state over, a change of scenery can help break up the monotony of being inside so much.”

Make or tackle a to-do list

You know those annoying tasks you’ve been putting off? Now is the perfect time to do them. At least you’ll be annoyed by something other than *gestures wildly* all of this.

“Last year I made a list of things I always said I was going to do when I found the time. And when I feel frustrated or anxious, I take out the list and pick something to do,” Henry said. “I either complete a task and feel accomplished or I distract myself by doing something else, which is fine because at least I’m not anxious or frustrated.”

Set boundaries, even if it’s uncomfortable

This one is a bit less concrete, but still important to note. What we’re feeling right now is a result of grief, trauma and burnout. In order to treat it with a little bit of tenderness, you need to be firm with your boundaries. It’s crucial that you give yourself space, said Jessica Gold, an assistant professor and director of wellness, engagement and outreach in the department of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Sure, skills are nice, and finding a hobby you enjoy can help with finding something that might work when it seems like nothing is working,” Gold said. “But you might also feel better by saying no to things and giving yourself more breaks, vacations, and more balance between work and life. It is not an easy thing to do, particularly in the pandemic, but it is important and key to coping.”

“A lot of things suck right now. Full stop. There’s nothing wrong with embracing the suck and just staying in that moment for a while.”

- Racine Henry, therapist in New York

Watch something mindless on your phone

TikTok has been my mental salve for months (until maybe this week, when all the NYC breakthrough cases started infiltrating my For You page). Stupid, hilarious videos that briefly take your mind away from all the doom are the perfect miniature reprieve. If TikTok isn’t your thing, find something else on your apps.

“Social media is a gift and a curse, but I’ve begun using it to find someone or something new,” Henry said. “I limit myself to the explore page of either Instagram or Twitter and click around until something piques my interest. Or I watch random videos on Facebook of people making an extravagant cake or applying a complicated makeup look. I will never do any of the things I watch, but it’s entertaining and there are endless videos available.”

Go to sleep if you can

You know things are bad when being unconscious for a few moments sounds like a great reprieve. Give your brain the break it so desperately needs and let yourself snooze.

“When all else fails, take a nap or go to sleep for the night,” Henry said. “I remind myself that I’m doing the best I can, nothing can be accomplished when frustrated or stressed, and I need all the rest I can get to try again tomorrow.”

Break or punch something

I always enjoyed boxing, but I really enjoy it now. Is it a form of exercise? Sure. But that’s not why I recommend it. The act of physically expressing my anger (in a healthy way) is cathartic. My mind may drift back to my emotions later, but for a few sweet minutes, it’s just me, my gloves and an outlet. Do something that brings you the same release.

Ask for support

This one is on every self-care list for a reason, so it’s going on this one, too.

“Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness,” Gold said. “Of course the mental health system is inherently broken and saying ‘get help’ is a privilege, but if you feel you could benefit from getting help, I will always advise trying to find support professionally.” (Here’s a list of options to help find affordable therapy.)

Additionally, “it is really important to find someone, at least one person, you can be open and honest and vulnerable with,” Gold said. “This is a way of taking care of you, and knowing you have someone on your side.”

Will any of this soothe our despair entirely? Probably not. But in a time where we feel like we have no control, it might be all we can muster. For now, that is enough.

“There is no right way to feel or cope in a pandemic. Whatever you are feeling is valid and it is important that you let yourself feel,” Gold said. “There are no good or bad or right or wrong reactions ― just reactions. All of them matter and you deserve time and space to express them.”

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