Shameless’ Zara McDonald on self-care when easing a stressed mind

It was the end of January and I was lying flat on my back, my hands clasping either side of my stomach after another round of cramps and nausea had kept me sidelined for the better part of 24 hours. The nausea had settled, but the cramps had not. I started crying to my boyfriend.

I’m not sure I can get through the year when this keeps happening? I said to him.

By ‘this’, I meant random and indiscriminate bouts of cramping and nausea that felt a little like food poisoning which were starting to paralyse me every four-to-six weeks. They struck a bunch towards the end of the 2019, assailing my abdomen in knife-like pain. For a day or two at a time, I couldn’t walk, couldn’t work. After a dogged pursuit for answers, I came up empty. “Are you stressed?” the doctors would ask. I wasn’t sure, I told them. I had been running on adrenaline for such a long time, I had forgotten what stress actually felt like. I couldn’t picture its form or texture, likely because its stranglehold had suffocated me for so long, it had a permanent place in my mind.

Perhaps you need to slow down, they said. So, I spent three weeks over summer promising myself I’d come back to work with a calm mind, convinced if I took a good enough holiday, the anxiety consuming my mind would stop settling into the nooks of my stomach. I would be diligent at working at a calm mind, I said to myself before Christmas. I would work and work and work until it felt serene again.

I didn’t even make it to the end of January without my body crumbling under the weight of the first few weeks back at work.

I’m not sure I can get through the year when this keeps happening?

My mind and body were bracing for a year mapped out with precision. 2020 was going to be one of the biggest work years on my calendar, and I stared down its barrel terrified at how I would hold myself together through it all. I needed a few months off everything, I told the people closest to me, knowing full well there wasn’t a world where I could take a few months off, well, anything.

And then came March 2020. Life, in all its chaotic, messy, face-paced glory, ground to a deafening halt. You know what happened next: no bars, cafes, sporting events. No socialising, going to work or leaving the house. In the space of a week I got everything I said I wanted: the time to move slowly. Time to take a two hour walk because there is nowhere else to be, time to watch an afternoon movie because there is little else to do.

As the pandemic descends on our lives and squeezes them until they are almost unrecognisable, I am finding myself in a deep state of cognitive dissonance. I am terrified for what this new world is doing to the people around me: to their jobs and their livelihoods, their health and their homes. I am consumed by fear and yet awash with relief. For the first time in a long time, I am feeling the sides of my mind begin to relax.

It’s a strange thing, being in the middle of global chaos and realising you feel calmer than you have in a long time. That my hair is not falling out in the same way it was before, or my chest is not as tight and my breathing not as shallow.

Over summer, when I worked at calming that restless mind, I realise now I was indulging in a prettier, more palatable kind of chaos. I tried to calm my mind with activities that signal to the world we are looking after ourselves: I got my nails done, put some face masks on, swum at the beach, went to drinks with friends, saw my family and felt connected and was surrounded by stuff.

But self-care at a time when your mind is so ravaged by anxiety and stress it pours out of your body doesn’t look like a beautifully put together day. It looks quiet, like a long day of not doing much at all. Of having no sense of productivity, and being surrounded by half-read books and unfinished movies. It’s going on aimless, lengthy walks and getting a good night’s sleep.

Self-care, I am beginning to learn, is giving yourself the luxury of not always being in a hurry. And I hope I can hold onto that, far beyond this period of calm, quiet chaos.

Zara McDonald is the co-founder of Shameless Media, alongside Michelle Andrews. They host the podcast Shameless.

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