Self-care in a crisis

Today I want to talk about another difficult topic: how to look after yourself in a crisis.

Personal crises – bereavement, job loss, health worries, relationship break-ups, financial problems, mental health issues – we can feel all of these deeply as freelancers, especially as creatives who need to be psychologically unencumbered to do our work. It’s only natural that these things will prey on our minds.

Crisis can mean lost income, lost working days, a struggle to balance professional commitments with personal troubles, and a great need for self-care.

Here’s my survival guide to caring for yourself in a crisis.

Acknowledge the problem
You know those people who get into horrible debt and never open that teetering pile of letters from the bank? Or find an evil black mole on their skin and don’t go to the doctor because they’re afraid it might be malignant?

When it comes to a crisis, sticking heads in the proverbial sand does not work.

The first thing is to acknowledge it as a fact. Of course it’s hard, but the sooner we admit that something difficult is happening, the sooner we can empower ourselves to tackle it.

However, this doesn’t mean we’re tough with ourselves. And it certainly doesn’t mean we beat ourselves up about it either – far from it. Simply that we understand and accept the situation, and resolve to do something about it.

You come first
To do this, we need to put ourselves – and our well-being – first, especially if it’s a health issue. Here, being kind to ourselves is essential. If you broke your leg, would you strap it up, bones sticking out, and hobble into work without proper treatment?

The same goes for mental health issues – they’re no different. In fact, they require even more compassion and care, because they’re silent, unseen and can be seriously debilitating.

So, if you need to take a duvet day, or even a week or longer, take it. You can be non-specific as to the reasons, depending on your relationship with your clients. If disclosure’s appropriate, and you have the kind of candid rapport where you can reveal what’s going on, fine – but if not, you absolutely do not have to say why you’re indisposed.

Give yourself the time to feel that way, because fighting it, or pretending it’s not happening, will only make things worse. As the old adage goes, to feel is to heal.

A big part of this, though, is recognising when you do need to get help. For any kind of mental health issue – and especially if you’re finding stress becoming unmanageable – your doctor is the first port of call. From there, you can decide how to take things forward, whether that involves medication, therapy or perhaps another form of personal or practical assistance.

Simply admitting that there is an issue, to someone who’s in the right position to help and support you, can be a huge relief in itself.

In therapeutic circles there is the notion of containment: that by addressing the problem and giving it some structure, it’s in hand. Just knowing you have someone to go to with an ongoing issue, whether a doctor, counsellor, or simply a kindly, non-judgemental listener, can be enough to alleviate anxiety and help you to stay afloat.

Access your support network
It goes without saying here that connecting with others is key to surviving a crisis. Isolation can compound feelings of despondency and being unable to get yourself out of a hole.

Ask yourself:

  • Who is in my support network?
  • Do I have friends or family I can turn to for emotional or practical support?
  • Who is my 3am crisis call buddy?
  • If not, can I access professional services to help out?

Bereavement is the highest stressor on the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, and its effects can still feel traumatic, even if the passing was expected. (Hospices can offer support services to families too, including respite care – so if you are dealing with this, be sure to look into it.)

Stay balanced
This is probably the toughest thing to do when you’re in crisis. You’re feeling off-kilter, desperate, even. But maintaining a sense of equilibrium is incredibly important.

A wise woman once asked me: ‘So, where’s the light relief?’ No doubt this seems like the last question you’ll be asking yourself at a time like this, but it’s a valid one. No one can immerse themselves in a difficult situation 24/7 without becoming negatively affected in some way. It can cause exhaustion, worry, not eating properly, lack of sleep.

Treat yourself like your best friend and ask yourself what, right now, would make you feel better. Hot chocolate? A walk in the park? Calling a friend? A fluffy blanket and vegging out on the sofa with a film?

You know what works for you, so be kind to yourself and take a break from your troubles. Build conscious moments of respite into your day, and you’ll find the overwhelm subsides for a while. It may not make the problem go away, but it will help you to retain a sense of perspective in the midst of a whirlwind.

One way you can do this is to actively practise relaxation. There are lots of online resources with guided relaxation recordings to help you take a mental break, and they’re really effective in relieving stress and anxiety.

Another way is simply to take the pressure off – and by that, I mean completely. Junk your to-do list. Forget about what you have to do tomorrow, next week, or even this evening. Just deal with one hour at a time if you have to. Take care of the now, and let go; allow the rest to take care of itself.

This is the part where you rally yourself and your troops.

First, decide what needs to be done to manage your situation, and gather your support network around you. Good friends and family will always offer to help, so take them up on it.

Can you delegate any of the basic stuff – walking the dog, doing the laundry, cooking? If so, do it, and don’t feel ashamed or give yourself a hard time for feeling that you can’t manage. You’re not a failure. It’s perfectly ok.

Second, do you need to speak to any professional contacts to rearrange deadlines, return work, subcontract or reschedule? If so, now’s the time to do it.

Usually, clients will be supportive and understanding if you tell them as soon as you know. However, if you take the ostrich approach, say nothing and leave it until the job is running late and they’re battering down the door for delivery, they really will be less pleased. So, bite the bullet, send that email or pick up the phone.

If you’re managing a recurring issue or an ongoing condition, taking a proactive stance and building more time into your schedule to account for the space you need is fine.

Again, you can decide whether you reveal the reason to your client; if not, you can find other ways to organise and ensure you’re not pressured during periods when you do need space.

Reassure yourself
The last thing – again, difficult I know – is to allow yourself to be reassured. When it comes to bad experiences, the transient nature of life can be a blessing.

Whatever this is, you will get through it.

It won’t be forever. And you will be stronger and wiser for having survived it.

Take good care of yourself, and be well.


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