A self-compassionate first aid kit

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Recently, my 9-year-old daughter came home from school and shared an event that had happened during recess while playing a game known as “deadly tick tock” on the tire swing. She’d flashed back to a memory of our family’s car accident the July before, and remembered some scary details surrounding her dad’s head injury. Needless to say, she became upset, and she didn’t know what to do.

This is an especially emotionally-laden example but the reality is that life crashes into each of us, in some shape or form. We’ve all had difficult days, at work or at home – and there are more to come, as long as we wake up breathing. Life is glorious…and challenging, and messy. When our bodies feel as if we are in the middle of a four-alarm stress fire and we’re not sure where to turn, we might benefit from a self-compassionate first aid kit.

When we think about a standard first aid kit, we usually list off the basics, right? Band-Aids, gauze, tape. Maybe bottled water or ibuprofen. A help sign, or a set of flares. When we think about basic self-care, we might start with the body (sleep, movement, water, or food) and also include social or spiritual needs, such as connection with others, leisure or play, and time in nature. For example, Dr. Dan Siegel, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist, offers us the “Healthy Mind Platter” to optimize well-being and health.

The point being, a first aid kit includes things that are simple and helpful and accessible. It’s there when you need it. As lovely as it sounds, most of us can’t jet off to a retreat center or even spend a day in the spa; sometimes, even a bath or nap may be out of the question.  However, if we notice that we’re experiencing discomfort or pain, we can pause and take five deep breaths, or pull out some lavender hand lotion (yep, that’s my thing), or walk outside for a couple of minutes, or pull up an beloved image or song to listen to on our phones.

Over the past year, I’ve found myself revisiting the basic principles of the Mindful Self-Compassion program:

  • Awareness of the present moment (mindfulness)
  • The invitation to self-soothe, to offer myself care because I am hurting (self-kindness)
  • The reminder that suffering is universal and I’m not alone (common humanity)

Curious to see how you score on your mindful self-compassion skills? Check out this useful test and access ways to strengthen these skills.

Over the past decade or two, I’ve accumulated a variety of mindfulness tools. My own self-compassionate first aid kit includes the Insight Timer app, free Mindful Self-Compassion and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction guided exercises, the practices of mindful eating, and articles like this one on taking a self-compassion break. If you are interested in cultivating mindfulness skills, I encourage you to check these resources out, or look for a mindfulness-based therapist, or a qualified MBSR or MSC teacher, or a sitting group, near you.

Nature is also my doorway into mindfulness practice, and a source of self-soothing. In fact, research studies increasingly highlight the healing and therapeutic benefits of nature.  I’m often grounded and soothed by connecting with the natural world.  Below, some lavender plants from my garden – I joke that I’m collecting as many hens and lavender plants as possible. So far I’m up to fourteen hens (and one surprise rooster!), and about thirty lavender plants.

spring lavender row

Stories can be found in my first aid kit, as well, in the form of novels, memoirs, essays, or podcasts.  I seek out stories that resonate with my own lived experience, and I try to learn from voices radically different than my own. Through stories, I am reminded again and again of the universality of human suffering – and how much we all long to feel connected, accepted, and loved.  Here’s a favorite, from courage and shame researcher/storyteller Brene Brown:

And what about food? Food – lovely, delicious, nourishing food. We all need food to sustain us, but too often, it can be a source of shame or struggle, rather than an opportunity to play, be creative, experience pleasure, and connect with nature or those who feed us. Our meals begin long before they end up on the plate in front of us, and our relationship with food grows richer when we participate more fully in the entire food process. How can you lean in and explore what might be possible with food, through listening, savoring, and play?

So how can you use your first aid kit, once you’ve created it? It doesn’t take much time – a couple of minutes, at minimum:

  • Pause and check-in. You might even thank yourself as you notice each thing (“sadness,” “muscle tension,” “neck pain,” “shame”), like a good listener present to offer support but withholding judgment or advice giving. Try watching this clip from the Christopher Robin movie, for a charming example of how to name our experience:
  • If suffering is present, offer yourself something kind from your first aid kit. What does the body need? And what does the rest of you need, too?
  • Remind yourself that you are not alone. In this very moment, millions of people are also experiencing the ups and downs of life, even if it isn’t obvious. Have you heard that old saying? Be careful about comparing your insides to others’ outsides. Seek out a supportive voice, if you can.

In the example I shared with my daughter, we created a “care package,” a stuffed animal and a lavender pillow I’d made for her, that she could put in her backpack. We also talked about how to access her classroom’s “calming corner” or approach teachers, during school hours. I check in with her regularly (and offer lots of hugs!).

It’s wise for us all to monitor when we need to reach for our self-compassionate first aid kit, and when we really need to ask for professional help. If you regularly feel overwhelmed or out-of-control, and are struggling with symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, or addiction that haven’t improved over time, you might consider seeing a licensed mental health professional for a consultation. The Oregon Psychological Association and Columbia River Eating Disorder Network are good local resources.

What do you need to help tune in to your experience, self-soothe, and feel connected? Pack it up for when you need it. Best wishes, and have fun!

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