Running on Empty? Here’s How to Help Yourself

I have talked about physical recovery from strenuous exercise in a previous post here. There is also an emotional strain that many people shy from talking about which requires some form of recovery too.  Maintaining a satisfactory level of self-care is crucial not only for our physical well-being, but for our emotional and mental one also. Some days you may not need that much to keep you going, and other days you may require a heavy dose of self-care. Aiming for a baseline though is imperative no matter what’s going on in your life.

On Monday morning I certainly felt like needing an overdose of self-care. I faced the difficult task of saying goodbye to my mother who I hadn’t seen for over a year. When we hugged each other, we knew what we didn’t know. When we will meet again. And that made saying goodbyes so much harder. It was an emotional separation that left us both crying. I saw her figure disappear from the departures in the distance and with her I felt a piece of me was fading too.

As I walked back to the airport’s car park sobbing, for some strange reason the nursery rhyme “We’re going on a bear hunt” echoed in my head:

Uh-uh! 
A snowstorm! 
A swirling whirling snowstorm. 
We can’t go over it. 
We can’t go under it. 
Oh no! 
We’ve got to go through it! 

I made a mental note that this is the day that I need to go through the emotional storm that was taking place in my mind. I needed some space to work through my thoughts and feelings without having to pretend I am ok or trying to distract myself by keeping busy with more work, which for as long as I remember has been my default mode.

Not accepting our feelings as real and valid is a plague of our modern time we live in that everyone appears to have their shit together. I am not going to sugar coat it here,

avoiding your feelings is like avoiding the act of living.

On my drive back home, I planned a walk with the dog in the countryside, followed by a bit of work that needed to be done and a piano playing session – Bach or Mozart seems to hit the spot when I am feeling shit.

Then reality kicked in as soon as I got home. There was a message on my phone from my husband telling me that our son had forgotten part of his sports kit and I would have to take it to school. I thought, “That’s ok, I can do that and then do my thing.”  Sounds familiar when your plans go downhill?

I arrived home, thankfully, not to an empty one. When I stepped into the house, my dog greeted me with his usual enthusiasm, his tail wagging frantically like a windscreen wiper and with a proper doggy welcome. That already made me feel so much better. Any love, even from the dog was very much needed and appreciated.

I took my dog out for a walk and I was soaking every ray of the sun on my face on a crisp cold morning and feeling grateful for being able to enjoy a bright sunny day in England. Then the warm feeling in my body turned into horror, I glanced down to see Copper (my dog) roll his body in fox poo. What’s that all about with dogs? He would require a bath when I got home. So the plan I had in my head to take some time to heal the way I had envisaged was shrinking away. I promised myself that even if I take 20 minutes out to lie on the sofa to check-in, that would be better than nothing. And so I did. After all the things that had to be done. I closed my eyes for 20 minutes and focused where in my body I felt my sorrow.

Why am I talking about this and what has it got to do with fitness?

Because fitness requires both mental and physical self-care. Sadly, my biggest challenge when I work with women may appear to be the cakes, biscuits, the fast food, or Netflix, but it’s not. Those are the symptoms of something deeper that I am very familiar with. Anything in excess, whether that is drinking, eating, or vegging in front of the TV are telltale signs that it’s time for a heavy dose of effective self-care.

I know it will sound a strange thing to say, but even if you know these are poor attempts of self-care, sometimes it’s the best you can do for yourself at that moment. They are not the most healthy or productive ways to cope, but these are quick and easy comforting acts you have learned to take care of yourself. Don’t get me wrong, I still find myself doing these things and every time they give me the opportunity to see them as signs that I need to recalibrate.

What is self-care and why does it matter? Self-care is any activity that we do deliberately to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health. Without it we can be our best for anyone; ourselves or others.

When I ask other women how they practice self-care, often they look at me perplexed, or they tell me it’s a selfish thing to do. I never considered self-care a selfish thing to do, but I did think it was for wimps and low-functioning people that are looking for any excuse to be lazy or self-indulgent. That’s the reason why I’ve spent at least a decade of my life feeling depressed and worn out until my own coach told me: “How’s that working for you?”

You see, when I reflect back to my childhood, all I remember is my mother being exhausted. She was working long hours, had a household to run, and I never remember her taking time to look after herself. Then I grew up and had children of my own, and I learned that you get a badge of honour from other mums depending how busy you were.  It was like a competition about who is busier!

I am not surprised that the people that struggle the most with food are also the greatest givers, especially women.

If you are like the countless mums I have met, you are struggling from the minute the kids get up. Tantrums about getting dressed, what to eat, when the homework is done, arguments with a sibling and the rest are wearing you down on a daily basis – not to mention more serious stuff like your parents getting ill and needing your time too. Or your husband that is always working away from home or the jerk boss you have to put up with at work.  I promise you. You are not alone feeling that you are already dragging your feet by the time you drop the kids at the school gate.  If you are not giving yourself space to breathe through all of this how is it possible to keep going day in and day out? Something’s gotta give. You are running on empty.

No diet plan will help here, the step before the step of eating better is to look after yourself, so you feel well enough to make better choices. It’s about realising that you are worthy to take of yourself the way you do your brand new Mercedes.

When you value something you look after it, so the question is, do you believe that you are worth it?

If you have some irrational beliefs about self-care here are some suggestions of how to reframe your thinking:

  • I can look after myself AND others
  • When I take good care of myself, it stops me from being needing to be anxious, stressed, and resentful.
  • People who care about it me will want me to take care of myself.
  • When I take care of myself, I can give more to others.

It’s never too late to learn how to take care of yourself. If this is a new concept that you are open to experimenting with, it doesn’t have to be something woo-woo like sitting with crossed legs chanting “OM” mantras, smelling flowers, or taking a bath in the dark for hours – if these fill your bucket, sure, go ahead and do them!

Self-care looks different for everyone, so there is no right or wrong way to do it. You could start with taking 5 minutes to sit down quietly with a cup of tea, go for a walk, get an extra hour of sleep or have a nap, go to a yoga or Pilates class, book a massage, light a few candles, try meditation, prepare a nutritious meal, do a relaxing activity you enjoy, or meet a friend.

As women, we are being more stressed, anxious and depressed more than ever. The constant giving and caring for others has left us without any gas in the tank. You can’t pour from an empty cup.

When I decided to practice self-care, I remember that it took a lot of experimentation to discover what fills my mental bucket.  In the beginning, no amount of self-care felt enough, and I started losing hope that this would work for me. And looking back, I realise that I didn’t allow it to work because I had such a long list of “I should do” things in my mind. I should work more,  I should tidy up, I should put a wash on, I should empty the dishwasher, I should do the grocery shopping, etc.  Always feeling guilty for not doing enough. I was under the strict surveillance of my mind. How on earth could I relax by being a total arse to myself?

Remember that self-care helps you be confident and consistent with your healthy habits regardless of what is going in your life. Self-care needs to be something you actively plan, rather than something that just happens. Start small and experiment with what works for you to be well in your body and mind. My rule of thumb is to spend at least 20 minutes per day on something that nourishes your mind and your body.

How do you know you are well balanced? On any given day simply pause for a few minutes and ask yourself, “How do I feel”?

Is your energy high? Do you feel good to exercise? Does your body feel good? Are you feeling good to do your work or look after your family? What self-care are you going to do for yourself today?

Then commit to doing that thing as soon as possible.

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