Neuroscientist and author Magdalena Bak-Maier shares her tips on staying healthy and taking care of yourself during a holiday season made even more stressful by the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.
ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:
And unfortunately, the pandemic is not showing any signs of slowing down yet. Thanks to the rapidly spreading Omicron variant and the rising number of coronavirus cases, this holiday season might actually feel like last holiday season. If you’re feeling particularly stressed this year, you’re not alone. We called up someone who has advice for those of us feeling the pandemic holiday blues. Magdalena Bak-Maier is a neuroscientist, wellness coach and author who joins us from London.
Magdalena Bak-Maier, welcome.
MAGDALENA BAK-MAIER: Hello. nice to be with you
NADWORNY: So what makes the winter holiday season such a tough time, even without a pandemic?
BAK-MAIER: Well, Christmas, you know, is very well known to psychologists as being a very triggering event, if only because it tends to set off a lot of family dynamics. It reminds us of our connection to our relatives, memories of people we may have lost, and the stress that it’s quite performative, as in, you know, we’re asked to be cheerful and happy, and maybe masks of all things create or participate in things that some of us may be sitting on the sidelines of and not really wanting to be a part of. So there is a great deal about Christmas itself that can be very distressing for many of us.
NADWORNY: What can people do when they feel this way? Any tips or concrete steps for people who may be spending the next week more isolated than they would like?
BAK-MAIER: Yes. So when people feel helpless in any situation when we can’t handle it on our own, we should definitely seek help by any means possible and not feel isolated and alone and try to deal with those emotions on our own. On the other hand, there are short-term things we can all do to make us feel a lot better, which is to think about short-term things, as you know we often run into disaster or think about those scary situations our minds imagine that are very large, and they can happen on a larger time scale. But often we really have to think about how I’m going to make today a really good day.
So I would invite people to really think about how you’re engineering for the next 24 hours? How are you going to make sure you have some things to look forward to and start taking that control and sense of agency back and really thinking about how you take care of yourself? And that comfort can give your nervous system a better sense that you can actually survive the moment – and also to look back at different situations in your history where you might have overcome some difficult experiences to fall back on that feeling, you know when If you’ve been able to do this and have had a history of resilience, then your own history suggests you can overcome the next obstacle as well.
NADWORNY: You created a self-care and productivity tool called Grid. can you tell us about it And how can we use the grid during this time to keep ourselves sane?
BAK-MAIER: Yes, of course. Grid is a very simple two by two matrix. In the grid, we effectively have four areas that we want people to care about. And they are life, self-care, work and career. So the Grid really invites people to create a kind of table with four rows and say, what can you do today or this week or this month or this year that is good for your personal life? What can you do that is good for your work? Then what can you do to take care of yourself? So how can you take care of your emotional well-being, physical well-being, mental well-being, etc.? And what can you do to give yourself meaning or purpose that lies beneath the career part? If we don’t balance these four areas, we end up creating deficiencies that, over time, create an imbalance in our nervous system in the way we perceive our levels of safety, connectedness, and joy, resulting in a situation where we are in We feel like we’re not as good as we can be.
NADWORNY: You said that the grid is at least partly a productivity tool. But I have to ask, you know, for those of us feeling the weariness of this year – actually the last two years – productivity might sound like a dirty word. Is there room for unproductivity?
BAK-MAIER: Definitely. And in fact, you know what I’ve always thought about productivity was more in terms of meaningful productivity, very holistic productivity. And the idea of being truly productive goes back to some of the good, wise ways of different centuries to say how we live our lives with purpose, in a way that we take care of ourselves? – which is why the grid has this whole self-care quadrant. And that will mean different things to different people. So you could be productive by taking time off and making sure you get enough sleep or by taking time away from people to actually be in solitude to recharge your batteries.
NADWORNY: Why is self-care and the development of routines like this, like the Grid, so helpful in maintaining well-being, especially in times like these?
BAK-MAIER: Well, what we do know about routines is the fact that, neurologically, routines are what we are – or our minds can, through the basal ganglia to the evolutionarily much older parts of our brains. In other words, we don’t have to think about them. So the more we can fall back on routine, the less we think. And this is where routine behaviors become a kind of safety net, so I know I’ll stand up even when I’m having a really hard time. And I brush my teeth. And I make my bed. And I treat myself to breakfast. And that’s a really good start, you know? And from there, your brain develops clues from your actions. So as you move forward throughout the day, your mind gets this cue like, wait a second. i hold it You know I’m getting on with 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 for being with us today.
BAK-MAIER: I’m very happy about that. Thank you for the invitation. And I hope everyone can enrich their day with an extra dose of self-care.
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