Flu season is upon us and more than ever we are reminded to Purel, wash our hands, drink plenty of fluids and get much-needed rest. There is a conscious effort by our pharmacies to remind us to get the flu vaccine and to ward away any nasty germs that may come our way.
We take care in building up our immune systems and reminding others to do the same especially if any trace of a menacing virus should be experienced.
This mindset, to bolster our immune systems and fight off illness, is one that I endorse myself, but not simply in the flu/cold/virus department. It is just as important, in my mind, to take this precaution with regard to our “emotional immune systems.” I thought of this recently when at work I felt myself becoming irritable and frustrated. After taking a moment to pause I was able to recognize that my mood was beyond the circumstance and instead related to my level of rest and self-care. Essentially, my emotional immune system was “shot”; I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep for a few days, I was over-working, isolated and not taking appropriate steps that I know I need for myself to have a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
This is common—how often do we feel lethargic, tired or stressed due to our daily tasks and obligations as well as unexpected stressors or contextual elements such as the weather (who doesn’t feel low on a rainy, slushy day)? So let us not delude ourselves into thinking that we are all expected to feel bouncy, light and airy and that anything otherwise is a sign of poor self-care.
It is important to note that we will experience the full spectrum of moods and emotions. My focus, rather, is on those times when we are aware that self-care is simply not happening in the way that we need it to. Those times when our emotional experiences are not being felt or expressed in a manner that will provide comfort, validation or catharsis.
This often happens when we do not communicate as we need to or when we have the experience of life passing us by—feeling as if we are not living life but rather life is “in charge of us.” When we do not take the time to give ourselves what we need, our emotional immune systems suffer and leave us susceptible to pain, stress or perhaps symptoms of already existing mental health issues. This is similar to what happens when we do not regularly drink water and get enough sleep and then leave ourselves more susceptible to viruses, etc.
The Rambam said that just as we need to see a doctor for ailments of the body, so too we must address and tend to ailments of the soul, as it is just as important that we keep ourselves “healthy” with regard to mind and soul as it is we keep our bodies strong. While so much of life is unpredictable, it is imperative that we familiarize ourselves with what we need to do in order to keep that immune system resilient. For some, what keeps our minds and souls strong is also what keeps our bodies strong. Overall self-care may mean appropriate sleep and general hygiene, completing tasks that would otherwise cause distress etc. For others, consuming vitamins and setting an intention for sleep keeps the doctor away as does calling a friend and finding time to watch a television show or read a novel—whatever it is that feels like a moment to pause, breathe and come back to oneself.
In the therapy field, and in many other fields, there is an expression: “burnout.” One can argue that taking care of the emotional immune system is akin to being mindful of preventing burnout—the experience of feeling emotionally fatigued.
I am aware that my emotional immune system is low when I feel irritable or tired or “at my wit’s end.” This is a sign that my depression—or symptoms of it—will feel stronger and more difficult to combat because I have not taken the time to address my needs. I recommend that we all take a moment to figure out not only our “tells” as to what is a sign of our emotional immune systems being compromised, but also what we need to prevent it and address it when this does happen. By doing so, and also by discussing this with our main supports, we enable ourselves and others to have our needs met and fight off any type of illness that may come our way.
By Temimah Zucker, LMSW
Temimah Zucker, LMSW, is the assistant clinical director of Monte Nido Manhattan and works in private in practice in NYC specializing in mental health issues and eating disorders. Temimah is also a national speaker on the subjects of body image, self-esteem and eating disorders and runs a support group for Orthodox women in recovery as well as a generalized coping skills group for all diagnoses. Learn more at www.temimah.com.