The neuroscientist and author Magdalena Bak-Maier shares her tips on how to stay healthy and practice self-care during a holiday season that is becoming more stressful due to the rapidly spreading omicron variant.
ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:
And unfortunately, the pandemic is not showing any signs of slowing down yet. In fact, thanks to the fast-spreading Omicron variant and rising coronavirus cases, this Christmas season can feel like the last Christmas season. If you are particularly stressed this year, you are not alone. We called someone who has advice for those of us who are feeling the pandemic holiday blues. Magdalena Bak-Maier is a neuroscientist, wellness coach and author and has just come to us from London.
Magdalena Bak-Maier, welcome.
MAGDALENA BAK-MAIER: Hello. Nice to be with you.
NADWORNY: So what makes the winter vacation season so difficult even without a pandemic?
BAK-MAIER: Well, Christmas is known among psychologists for being a very triggering event, if only because it tends to create a lot of family dynamics. It reminds us of our connection with our relatives, memories of people we may have lost, and the stress that it is quite performative since, you know, we are being asked to be cheerful and happy and maybe all put on masks or partaking in things when some of us may be somehow sitting on the sidelines and really don’t want to be part of it. So there is a lot of Christmas in itself that can be very stressful for many of us.
NADWORNY: What can people do when they feel this way? Any tips or specific steps for people who may be spending the next week more isolated than they’d like?
BAK-MAIER: Yes. If people feel helpless in every situation and we cannot do it on our own, we should definitely ask for help by all possible means and not find ourselves isolated and alone and try to cope with these emotions on our own. On the flip side, there are short-term things we can all do to help us feel a lot better, that is, short-term thinking, as you know, often catastrophic or we think about those fearful situations that our minds make can imagine what is very big, and they can happen on a larger timescale. But often we really have to think about how I can make a really good day today.
So I want to invite people to really think about how you are engineering the next 24 hours. How do you plan to make sure you have some things to look forward to and start to regain that control and sense of agency and really start thinking about how you are taking care of yourself. And that comfort can make your nervous system a better feeling that you can actually survive the moment – and also, as you look back on different situations in your history where you may have had some difficult experiences, to fall back on the feeling that, you know, if you could do this and have been resilient in the past, then your own story suggests you can overcome the next obstacle as well.
NADWORNY: You developed a self-care and productivity tool called the Grid. Can you tell us something about that? And how can we use the grid during this time to keep ourselves healthy?
BAK-MAIER: Yes, of course. Grid is a very simple two-by-two matrix. In the grid we effectively have four areas that people are asked to take care of. And they are life, self-care, work, and career. So the grid just really invites people to create a four row table and say what you can do today or this week or this month or this year that is good for your personal life? What can you do for your job? Then what can you do to take care of yourself? So how can you take care of your emotional wellbeing, physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, etc.? And what can you do to give yourself a purpose or purpose that is below the career section? If we don’t balance these four areas, we end up creating deficits that, over time, create an imbalance in our nervous system in the way we perceive our level of security, connection, and joy that creates a situation in which we feel like we are not as good as we can be.
NADWORNY: You said that the grid is, at least in part, a productivity tool. But I have to ask, you know, to those of us who have been feeling the fatigue of this year – the last two years, really – productivity may sound like a dirty word. Is there a space to be unproductive?
BAK-MAIER: Definitely. And in fact, you know, what I’ve always thought about productivity was more in the sense of meaningful productivity, a very holistic productivity. And the idea of being really productive goes back to some of the good, wise, you know, wise men from different centuries to say how do we live our lives with meaning and in a way that we care for ourselves? – Because of this, the grid has this whole quadrant for self-sufficiency. And that will mean different things to different people. So, you can be productive by taking some time off and making sure you get enough sleep, or by taking the time off people to actually be in solitude to recharge your batteries.
NADWORNY: Why are self-care and developing routines like this, like the grid, so helpful in maintaining wellbeing, especially during times like these?
BAK-MAIER: Well, what we know about routines is the fact that from a neurological point of view, routines are what we are – or our mind, via the basal ganglia, is able to do to the kind of evolutionarily much older parts of ours Brain. In other words, we don’t have to think about them. So the more we can go back to the routine, the less thinking is involved. And this is where routine behavior becomes a kind of safety net so that I know that I will get up, even if it is really difficult for me. And I brush my teeth. And I make my bed. And I treat myself to breakfast. And that’s a really good start, you see? And from then on, your brain develops clues from your actions. As you move forward through the day, your mind gets this cue like, hold on a second. I hold it. You know I can handle the day And that reinforces a kind of positive loop of direct experience that we show.
NADWORNY: That was Magdalena Bak-Maier. She is a neuroscientist, author and wellness coach based in London. Magdalena Bak-Maier, thank you very much for being with us today.
BAK-MAIER: It’s an absolute pleasure. Thank you for the invitation. And I hope everyone can bring some extra self-care into their day.
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