Sleep, solitude, and other forms of self care
"Have you tried unplugging it?" If you've ever worked with an IT department to fix a technical issue, you've probably gotten that question. It's amazing how powering off, unplugging, and recharging can seem to fix so many problems. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, by Anne Lamott: "Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you."
That's what I'm attempting to do on a week-long vacation on Great Pond, in Belgrade, Maine this week. And while I am not truly "unplugged" (my laptop and two iPhones are all plugged in right now) I am a lot less plugged in than usual. It's been a glorious couple days here on the lake: riding on a Pontoon boat, making s'mores around a campfire, swimming, paddle boarding, floating, waking up at 5:30 am -- not to rush to work -- but to quietly watch the sunrise, holding a hot cup of coffee and listening to the loons. This was a vacation that I knew I needed, and after just 4 days of #lakelife I already feel lighter.
It's taken me some time to realize this, but stepping away from the grind and taking time to care for yourself is not a completely selfish exercise. I used to wear my stress like a badge of honor. I thought being busy was a virtue, and down time was for the weak. In some ways, I think American teenagers are conditioned to believe this: we tell students that they needed to be well-rounded, excelling in sports, arts, and academics in order to get into a good college. I took this to the extreme and put a lot of pressure on myself to be involved in everything and be good at everything. By my senior year of college, it got to be too much. I wasn't sleeping. I had a full course load, two jobs, extracurriculars, and a job search underway. One of my biggest regrets from my college years was not taking more time to be present with my friends and simply have fun. Toward the end of my senior year, I was completely burnt out and overwhelmed at a time when I should have been putting my best foot forward.
Journalism is a career that attracts people who thrive in stressful situations. Some days are chaotic. Some stories are emotionally exhausting. And there is always the countdown clock ticking down to your deadline. For broadcasters, you get the added stress of presenting your work in front of a live audience. And you better look good doing it! I used to think I was managing my stress well because I was meeting all my deadlines and doing good work. But some days I was leaving work with a head ache so strong I could hardly see straight. My energy was depleted. I was often irritable. (I am writing this in the past-tense but if I'm being honest, I still struggle with this.) It is simply not a way to live. And I think if you don't take care of yourself, you can easily burn out in this industry.
As a culture, we may be more stressed and technologically addicted than ever before. But we are also starving for a change. There seems to be more of an emphasis on healthy lifestyles, mindfulness, and meditation than ever before. And it seems journalists are paying more attention to self-care, too. The Poynter Institute, a well-known journalism training and educational organization, published an article about how reporters covering heavy topics practice self-care. You can read it here.
My self-care is not perfect and a work in progress. But here a few things I believe strongly in:
Sleep: It's practically my favorite hobby. I used to brag about how little sleep I was getting and I could "pull all nighters" and now I smile about going to bed at 9 pm. Sleep is the foundation of health and I am vigilant about getting at least 7 hours each night.
Vitamin Sea: Living near the coast has convinced me of the health benefits of the ocean. There was recently a study that linked ocean views to better mental health. The sound, sight, and smell of the water is an instant mood changer for me. One of my favorite ways to unplug is going paddle boarding. I love going out by myself, balancing with the ebb and flow of the waves, almost hypnotized by the sound of the paddle slowly churning through the water. Sometimes I just sit and float on my board with my eyes closed. It's amazing how clear my mind is after a long paddle.
Having a life outside of news: as a young journalist starting a job in an unfamiliar place, it is easy to let the news take over your life. You are working long hours and dedicated to doing a good job, and the only people you know are your coworkers. When your coworkers are your only friends, you end up only talking about work all the time. The negative aspects of the job become amplified, and your personal drama becomes your professional problems. It's not healthy! While some of my closest friends are fellow reporters, I think it's vitally important to establish relationships and have hobbies outside of the news business. It will bring balance to your life, offer you perspective, and give you an outlet for all that work-related stress.
On this vacation at the lake, I have been trying to soak it in and focus on how grateful I am for all the good in my life -- especially the people I am surrounded by. Last December, I committed myself to focusing on gratitude. It was time for everyone to post their 2018 New Year's Resolutions and 2017 end-of-year recaps on social media, and one of my friends posted a question: "What's the best thing that happened to you this year?" I was embarrassed by how long it took me to answer that question. I think I ended up responding that I was able to buy a new car. I knew a lot more good had happened, but clearly I was paying too much attention to the bad. In January, I bought a Gratitude Journal and tried to write down three things I was grateful for each day. It helped me shift my thinking, slow down, and savor the positive parts of daily life a little bit more.
This week I am grateful for the sun, stillness of the lake, company of good friends and family, and my moments of solitude. In a few days I'll be recharged and ready to jump back in to the news cycle -- but for now, the only thing I'm jumping into is this lake.