In the summer of 2018, I got a college diploma, a wedding band, and a full-time job. It was one of the most joyous times of my life. But by the fall, I was totally exhausted. The transition to working life, to married life, to true adulthood had me stress-eating Cocoa Krispies and binge-watching Gilmore Girls.
I went through yet another big life change last summer when my husband and I welcomed a baby girl during the pandemic. We whispered our first hellos through cloth masks and asked the few visitors we allowed in our home to do the same. I stress-ate apple pie and binge-watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
I recently signed up for another transition: I quit my job and started a small business to spend more time with my daughter. This time, I’m hoping to cut back on my coping mechanisms of choice, so I reached out to a mental health professional to find out how I can better approach seasons of change.
Dr. Helen Coons, an associate professor of adult psychology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, wasted no time in pointing out how the pandemic places extra weight on already difficult times. “We’re functioning in a crisis. It’s not the same playing field,” she said. “We carry collective grief, personal grief, uncertainty, vulnerability. At other times in our lives, these are easier to distance from or navigate and move forward. We need to be a whole lot more realistic in how we’re functioning, how we’re viewing the world and our own commitment to our well-being.”
This realism may not come naturally for many women. Women tend to be perfectionistic, Coons said, and that can make stress management all the more difficult. Women’s strengths may hold them back in this area, too. “We are dedicated. We have a strong focus on our relationships, but it’s all about other people, other things,” Coons said. “It speaks to our caring, but now we’re last on the list. We start to believe that taking care of ourselves is selfish.”
This thought pattern is flawed. When women feel good, we’re more productive. We need to tend to ourselves to tend to others. But we don’t.
“Throughout my career, I’ve seen women back off of the things that make us feel less stressed when we’re stressed,” Coons said. “When we’re in a transition and in a crisis, we tend to back off from these very well-documented strategies that are what maintain and promote our well-being.”
My track record proves I’m part of the group Coons described—the women who neglect themselves as they prioritize what they perceive is more important in times of change. Coons’ suggestion? We as women need to be more realistic in how much stress we take on and the ways we work it off. She offered five ways women can tend to themselves in times of transition.
01. Develop a daily practice of wellness
When Coons talks about stress management, her go-to recommendation for women is to create a “purposeful, daily practice of well-being.” Each woman’s routine will differ. Coons, for example, prioritizes exercise; she works out 90 minutes per day, six days per week.
She recommends everyone incorporate some exercise into their routine, but other women will have different rituals. Some may pick up a book. For others, it’s a paint brush. Whatever it is, in whatever combination it comes in, the key is consistency, Coons said.
02. Sleep a lot and sleep well
Sleep is a critical element of well-being, Coons said. Over time, poor sleep can trigger anxiety and depression, so it’s an area women need to prioritize.
Intense aerobic exercise can help those who have trouble sleeping. Coons also recommended women try to keep screens out of their bedrooms, as poor sleep hygiene can cut back on the quantity and quality of shut-eye.
Making sleep a priority may also help women in their quest to be more realistic about their wellness, Coons pointed out. If a woman is up caring for a child in the night, she needs to try and strategize a way to reenergize herself the next day. If a nap is possible, she should take it. But a brisk walk could help just as much, Coons said.
A long night may give a woman a push to be more communicative about her needs, whether she asks her husband to get breakfast on the table so she can sleep in the next day or she alerts her family to her waning patience.
“Flexibility and agility—women are experts at that,” Coons said. “But sometimes we’ll choose caffeine instead.”
03. Stay connected
When women get stressed, we have a tendency to withdraw, Coons observed. Instead, we need to turn outward toward support; we need to stay connected to those we love.
“I did this the other day,” Coons said. “I had a terribly stressful day last week and I reached out to a friend and said ‘I just really need to hear your voice.’” When you can’t meet in person with those who love and support you, make an effort to connect by phone or text.
04. Look for patterns
Coons encourages women to look for patterns in their behavior and thinking to assess their mental health. She tells women to note how they feel at the end of the day when they’ve taken good care of themselves. Keeping this good feeling in mind can help women set the right priorities in the days ahead: “When you go to bed, how do you want to feel?”
Outside of a daily goal, women can work against what Coons calls all-or-nothing thinking. “Do you really have to get all those tasks done today? Maybe not,” she said. “A lot of times, it won’t matter if we save something for tomorrow morning. We’ll feel better because we took a walk with our neighbor or our kid instead.”
Watching our behavior for patterns that fuel us doesn’t mean being inflexible. If we reschedule a walk, lunch date, or trip to the movies, try to make sure canceling plans doesn’t become a habit. “Prioritize the personal strategies that make you feel better,” Coons said.
05. Ask for help
During a time of upheaval, women may need help to regain their mental strength. Coon’s advice: “Seek help early. It makes me sad that by the time I see so many patients, I see too many women who have waited so long. We could have intervened so much earlier.”
Women can look for several signs that it’s time for professional help. Coons listed a few: They may be unable to quell a stream of worries or negative thoughts; they may struggle with constant irritability; they may be unable to sleep well for multiple nights. Women may simply desire to speak with a mental health professional—“That’s a reason,” Coons said.
Several situations warrant more immediate intervention. Women may think about hurting themselves or others. They may find they care about nothing. They may lack basic hygiene, drink too much, and pull back from their friends and family.
When women are ready to take this step, it’s important they find a provider who has expertise in their concerns and offers evidence-based care, Coons said. As a first step, women can ask their primary care physician or OB-GYN, depending on their situation. They could also ask a trusted friend for recommendations. Other resources include insurance companies, the American Psychiatric Association psychologist locator, and spiritual communities.
As women deploy these strategies, it’s important they keep them in the right perspective, Coons said. “Self-care is not just a task to check off,” she said. “It’s a form of self-respect, an honoring of our well-being, which helps us take care of others.”
I’ll soon be trying to divide my time and energy between a business and a baby. It’s a change I welcome, but I know it’s going to involve a lot of trial and error for at least a couple months. After my conversation with Dr. Coons, I’m planning to tend to my mental health by getting fresh air every day and spending more time reading books I love.
I’m sure I’ll be tempted to push a bike ride with my girl to make room for a call with a client, but I’m going to promise myself to at least ask if the meeting can wait until tomorrow. I’ll be more present then anyway.