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Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom. —Victor Frankl

Powerful, right? Although I sometimes have trouble accessing this elusive gap in time, I find this quote inspiring and motivating. It moves me to remember to literally pause when I feel my throat tighten, my heart rate escalate, and the heat rising up through my body. With practice, it IS possible to learn to notice physiological triggers and to breathe deeply into the self-created “space” that Frankl celebrates—rather than falling into my typical knee-jerk reaction.

When a person’s words or a challenging event triggers you, what happens next? Do you acknowledge your bodily response? How do you slow down the chemical surge, interrupt the narrative in your head, and gain access to reasonable next steps? How do you learn to respond rather than react?

Accept—then act. Whatever the present contains, accept it as if you have chosen it. Always work with it, not against it … This will miraculously change your whole life. —Eckhart Tolle

This quote became a mantra for me during a period of time I spent in an intensely toxic work environment. Tolle’s call to “accept” our circumstances may seem almost impossible to enact because humans are wired to respond to potential threats to our well-being. In my situation, acceptance seemed far from what should be the natural response to a difficult job situation that left me with a dark, heavy sense of dread every morning at 6 a.m. However, my ongoing resistance to the dysfunctional climate was certainly not helping either.

I found that accepting (however reluctantly) also opened my eyes to my options. I could stay; I could leave, or I could carefully devise my “Plan B.” I discovered that acceptance wasn’t really surrender or even forbearance. It prompted me to notice and explore alternatives more meaningfully and realistically—whether in my daily responses to colleagues or in the bigger picture of my career trajectory.

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. —Maya Angelou

As someone whose typical cognitive distortions involve “catastrophizing” (“I can’t believe this has happened!) and “personalizing” (“Is this all my fault? Did I bring this on myself?”), I appreciate being reminded that I actually don’t control everything. More importantly, Angelou’s words fuel resilience—the capacity to adapt and grow in the face of stress and trauma. When the going gets tough, there are many ways to respond and engage in what Anne Lamott calls “radical self-care.” Research-based strategies include engaging in physical exercise, reaching out for social support (online or in person), practicing mindfulness (www.mindful.org), employing strategies to foster distress tolerance (www.linehaninstitute.com), reappraising and reframing thoughts (www.beckinstitute.org), practicing self-compassion (www.self-compassion.org), and employing positive psychology practices to enhance daily well-being (www.greatergood.berkeley.edu).

No matter what daily strategy or tool you choose, the key is PRACTICING it regularly and consistently in order to capitalize on your brain’s plasticity—its ability to re-wire itself over time. Resilience is fueled by a commitment to yourself (not to be “reduced” by another person or event), but it grows and develops through the daily activities and practices you choose to put into action.

I’m having a little trouble getting adjusted to this new season (and school year). My summer was simply too glorious, and I still feel like hanging out at home with the novel I’m reading (Euphoria by Lily King), a blueberry scone, and a cup of chamomile tea. There are also a few television shows on my Netflix list that are calling out to me. (I’m told that Stranger Things is a must-see, but I can’t vouch for it yet.)

Don’t get me wrong; I’m genuinely enjoying seeing my new graduate students; it’s just that some aspects of my university job don’t particularly inspire me today (e.g., committee assignments, institutional politics—and the national political climate, for that matter). Then there are those back-to-school day-long faculty meetings that are, strangely and ironically, called “retreats.”

Today I decided to remember one of my favorite author’s words. Anne Lamott calls for us humans to practice “radical self care” by “being exquisitely kind and gentle and patient with [ourselves], exactly as [we] would be with a friend.”  This is a directive worth embracing, particularly if you work in a helping profession.

So my mini-brain wave during a ho-hum morning was to respond to Lamott’s call on a simple, tangible level by refreshing a little “care package” I keep in my desk drawer—just for me. A small step today, perhaps, but surprisingly beneficial. I visualized the little things (both practical and personal) that make me feel most supported, inspired and nourished during long and emotionally tedious days.

Here are the items I included after raiding my kitchen drawers, bathroom, and hall closet (and followed up with a short trip to the local drug store at lunch):

  • Practical Necessities: A toothbrush and paste, floss, mouthwash, mints, gum, deodorant, nail clippers, nail file, lip balm, tissues, hand lotion, Band-Aids, ibuprofen, a few dollar bills, and a handful of change.
  • Psychological Support: Tea, tea, and more tea; my favorite quote; a book of favorite poems I love by Mary Oliver; a photo of my daughter at the beach; and my phone with its mindfulness apps. (See my website’s “resources” page at amyleva.com for further details on those apps.)
  • Physical Nourishment: nuts, protein bars, assorted snacks, a few dishes, utensils, cups, napkins, and a little chocolate.

As an educational psychologist, professor, and coach, I typically share “research-based” strategies for enhancing well-being. In this case, however, I can simply report, “After collecting and assembling the items above …  I genuinely feel better.” I am more relaxed, energized, and at ease this afternoon. My own coach, Meggin McIntosh, would likely call my little desk drawer refresh project a “calming the chaos” activity. She encourages her clients and workshop participants to devote a few minutes a day to “calming the chaos” (e.g., labeling hanging files, organizing a bookshelf, putting those inbox emails in the right folders.). I know she is onto something here.

What does (or might) your self-care desk drawer look like? What might it indicate about you and the little things that sustain you? Feel free to comment here if you dare to create your own personal desk drawer care package (or refresh it in some way). Would love to hear about it.