Do you find yourself having a hard time taking a break? Janice McWilliams challenges us to consider taking a “better break.”
Why Your Spa Day Isn’t Working
By Janice McWilliams
My therapy session with Cora has its usual, harried beginning. She arrived ten minutes late, rushing into my office with her typical apologies; this week it was traffic, last week, a meeting ran late. But today she’s surprised me by telling me what she did on a rare personal day she took off work.
“Wait, did you say you were submerged?”
“Yes, it’s a floating rest pool.”
“What does it do?”
“It accelerates rejuvenation.”
“Oh, I have no idea, but there’s lots of research. And hey, if it’s fast, I need it!”
“So you lie in it . . .”
“Yes, for thirty minutes.”
“And . . . what?”
“It’s supposed to be as helpful to your body as three massages and ten hours of sleep.”
Cora is lit up, like she often is, explaining this to me. Our sessions are at 7:00 p.m., and she comes straight from the office. It often takes her half the session to stop vibrating from the relentless pace of her workplace. And I truly feel for her; her employer’s expectations are intense, and Cora is wonderful at what she does, but she seems to enjoy her job less and less.
I fear that Cora may think she has temporarily solved this problem with her thirty-minute float. As I consider how to continue, she absentmindedly reaches for her phone, checking the notification that has popped up on the screen.
“That can wait.” She looks up from her phone. “Anyway, I couldn’t spare the whole day . . . too much to do at home. So, speedy float it was!”
“Did it . . . work?”
“Oh, heck if I know! But I’m off the hook for self-care, right? At least for this week.”
Self-care has never been more important or more confusing to apply. In my work as a therapist and spiritual director, I’m alarmed as I see people stuck in cycles of overwhelm > exhaustion > burn out > recover > repeat. It seems that believers are far, far from the “rich and satisfying life” that Jesus talks about in John 10:10. If anything, it seems more people are living a “grinding and hollow” life and wondering how anything can ever change.
Folks like Cora look to things like vacations, spa days, weekend Netflix binges, or even retreat days as the answer, and, while these things can be great, they are better for us when they represent replenishment, not recovery! We’ve bought into the messaging that self-care is something we can only do when we are checked out of our normal routine. Believers will do well to reimagine self-care as an integrated part of their hour-to-hour and day-to-day lives. Self-care, at its best, is both DAILY and DOABLE.
Jesus was really good at daily and doable self care. We might miss his model because we don’t know what to look for. But when we examine his life, we see that he worked hard; teaching in the Synagogue, healing and delivering people, sparring with Pharisees. But he also slowed down; he took naps, prayed in solitude, walked from town to town, had long meals, and allowed himself to be interrupted. His life had pacing and variation, and this is what we often lack.
I’m on a mission to help people model their own self-care after Jesus’ model. Learning that we have the capacity to do things that help us feel better in any given moment is key. The way we spend the moments and hours of our days has a real impact on how we feel overall.
So my first challenge to Cora and to any who relate to her is to learn to take a better break. Most of us take breaks. But, if we’re honest, that break usually involves picking up our phone, which can keep us revved up as it jars us with an anxiety-provoking headline or sends us down a clickbait bunny trail.
A better break involves doing something that down-shifts us. It helps our brains and bodies experience some much-needed happy hormones and gets us in contact with our souls.
My better break often involves sipping a cup of hot tea while I look out my office window into the tangle of trees and vines in the woods behind my office. At mid-day I have a reminder that goes off in my phone telling me to reflect for a moment the fact that I’m deeply loved by God.
A better break could be anything that pulls you out of the intensity of work or family life and only needs to take a couple of minutes to do you a world of good. You could pray, listen to music, play with a pet, hug a friend or your spouse. The better break helps even out all the stress hormone coursing through your body with the addition of some happy, feel-good hormones. And a good balance of those hormones in your body is essential to your sense of well-being in any given moment.
Cora, after much coaxing, was eventually convinced to incorporate three better breaks into her day.
She downloaded an app that guided her through a 3-minute Christian meditation that she started doing in her car in the office parking lot before she went in to work.
She set a 10-minute timer at noon and allowed herself that time to eat her lunch without multi-tasking. This may not sound like much, but Cora had not stopped for lunch in the ten years she’d worked at her current job. She enjoyed the silence and worked towards mindfully focusing on eating and nourishing her body.
Cora started listening to music while prepping for dinner instead of listening to the news, creating a lighter, more restful feeling to that part of her day.
In session after practicing the better breaks, Cora reported, “I feel like doing these things is reintroducing my mind and body to the concept of slowing down. It’s like I’d forgotten how to do it!”
Cora’s interventions only took a few minutes to practice and made a big difference in how she felt. And I believe that God rejoices to see Cora less stressed!
Remember, better moments lead to hours that feel better. Better hours lead to days that feel better. Better days lead to weeks that feel better.
And it all may start with a better break!
Janice McWilliams (MDiv, LCPC) has nourished a lifelong curiosity about human nature. This has propelled her to serve in campus ministry, to speak and train groups in churches and organizations, and to work as a therapist, spiritual director, and writer. Her love of the depths and intrigue of the human experience is matched by her desire to find her place in God’s work of restoring and revitalizing souls everywhere. Janice is the author of Restore My Soul: Reimagining Self-Care for a Sustainable Life. She offers a downloadable set of 50 self-care ideas to build your own better break. Find out more at janicemcwilliams.com.