BY ELIZABETH MARKLE, Open Source Wellness
Make time in your schedule for these core human needs.
It’s a crazy time. Here in the California, we are sheltering-in-place, leaving the house only for essentials like groceries and medical care. And while we’re all (appropriately) focused on caring for the physical health of ourselves, our families, our communities, and society at large, our mental, emotional, and social health needs are quickly emerging as profoundly important, as well.
I’m executive director of Open Source Wellness, which brings people together to learn and practice the behaviors that generate human health and well-being. Our core idea is that community is a form of medicine. And while we aren’t physically gathering right now, I’m happy to share some of what we have learned for your reflection and personal practice during this time.
Structure in times of chaos
During my first day of graduate school to become a psychologist, a wise, mischievous, provocative professor said to us:
Human suffering is often about freedom and containment. When we have too much containment, we scream for freedom. “Let me be me! I need space! Don’t tell me what to do!” But when we have too much freedom, we start to feel adrift. Fearful. Lost in space… and suddenly we are longing for containment. “Hold me close! I need to feel safe!”
My years of work as a therapist, professor, and community member—did I mention that I live in a household of eight adults?—have made the wisdom of this insight so clear to me. Our interpersonal upsets and inner pain are so frequently a form of rebelling against too much containment (“Don’t fence me in!”) or protesting not enough contact or security (“Where did you GO?”)
What does all of this have to do with a global pandemic, social distancing, and the disruption of everything?
First, our everyday social structures have been altered, and some have even evaporated. These structures normally create connection—in meetings and at the water cooler at work, in class and at the playground at school, at the gym and the coffee shop. They also create distance: We say goodbye to our partners and kids in the morning, and we greet them again in the evening. All of this happens automatically, without much effort on our parts. It’s built in to the structure of our society! And while we like to rail against these structures (“Same old, same old, every day”), when they are suddenly removed, people respond in interesting ways.
Some may initially delight in newfound freedom—the removal of constraint. “I can do whatever I want to! Netflix, pajamas, and chocolate all day!” It’s delicious—for a moment.
Others might be initially terrified by newly imposed constraints. Children home all day every day. Spouses suddenly inhabiting the same space 24/7. No more trips to the gym, the café, or your friend’s house. “I gotta get out of here. I can’t breathe!”
Still others are feeling anxiety, or even terror, about the sudden, yawning horizon of solitude. No social events, no classes, no sports…aloneness. “Is anybody out there?”
Whatever your first reaction, most of us are likely feeling the creeping presence of something we typically like to avoid. A feeling, a relationship, a life challenge that is neatly tucked away into the background, until it’s not, and its emergence from “storage” is unnerving, unwelcome, and sometimes downright terrifying.
The point of all of this? It’s normal to stagger when the old structures are swept away—but we have the opportunity (and the imperative) to create our own. Intentionally. For our well-being, and the well-being of our families and communities, we are called upon to design sustainable structures that produce sanity, safety, and human thriving.
How? At Open Source Wellness, we help folks create daily structures using a “Universal Prescription”: Move, Nourish, Connect, Be.
These are structures you can apply to your life right now. Whether you’re in generally good health or struggling with chronic physical or psychological conditions, we believe that every person needs these four things, every day!
1. Move. Our bodies need to move. They need to stretch, reach, twist, bend, step, sweat, to whatever degree works for our unique shapes and constitutions. They don’t care if it’s at the gym, out in the neighborhood, or in your living room—they just need activity. It’s not just about “staying in shape.” It’s about your immune health and your mental health, as well! Build movement in your structure, at least 20 minutes per day! YouTube exercise videos range from three-minute workouts to more than an hour, and many of them are family-friendly, too.
2. Nourish. You might have a sense of what foods make you feel lively, focused, resourced, and sane, right? And there are certainly those that are just for fun (hellooo, chocolate). At Open Source Wellness, we suggest not banning or outlawing the small treats that bring you joy, but rather setting up a daily structure that (mostly) fills you with nourishing, healthy foods. Always wanted to make a dietary change, learn to meal prep, teach your kids to cook, or sample a new cuisine? Now’s the time! Structure one or two 30-minute chunks of cooking into your days.
3. Connect. This one, more than ever, is key. Humans need to feel connected. We need to feel seen, heard, and understood by another human—and to extend the same in return. And since it won’t “just happen” throughout your day, you’re going to need to schedule it. More to the point, you’ll need to ask for it. To get vulnerable enough to say, “I really want to connect with you. Can we talk?” Tell the truth about how you’re feeling, what you’re experiencing. Invite them to do the same. Listen with kindness. Offer your support with generosity. High-quality human attention may feel like a scarce resource right now, but you can generate an infinite supply of it.
4. Be. Amid all the “doing”—the preparing, protecting, adjusting, coping, responding, providing, procuring—humans need moments to simply BE. It’s not necessarily about serenity, or warm fuzzy feelings. It’s about pausing long enough to let your nervous system come back to baseline after prolonged activation. Experiment with what works for you. If meditation or guided relaxation works for you, great! If watching a crappy TV show while snuggled into the couch helps you to just BE, that’s good, too. And if painful emotions get too loud or overwhelming when you try to slow down, that’s OK, too.
Perhaps start with a little inventory. Of the four aspects of this “Universal Prescription,” which ones are you strongest in? Which ones do you incorporate effortlessly, as a part of your routine? Which ones might need a bit more attention, more practice, more cultivation? Then, pick one to focus on first: How might you structure it into your days?
In short, this is an opportunity to get really intentional. To choose rather than to drift. In the absence of everything that normally dictates our days, we are called on to create the structures that will support our health, physically and emotionally, in a time of profound uncertainty. Try out weaving Move, Nourish, Connect, and Be time into your days, and let us know how it goes for you!
And in case the term “social distancing” bums you out as much as it does for me…try on “expansive solidarity.” We’re right here, in this together…spaciously.
Keywords, stress management, mental health
About the author; Elizabeth Markle, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, researcher, and chair of community mental health at California Institute of Integral Studies. Dedicated to multi-theoretical and multi-level approaches to individual and community health and healing, Elizabeth’s current area of study and innovation is around combining clinical expertise with social entrepreneurship to create sustainable, thriving cultures of health and wellness. She is the cofounder of Open Source Wellness (www.OpenSourceWellness.org), a nonprofit initiative offering experiential behavioral health and wellness via a “behavioral pharmacy” approach in collaboration with health care providers and insurers.