How well do you take care of yourself when the going gets rough? Having a plan in place can make all the difference.

I have a secret fear as a writer. I’m afraid people will read what I’ve written then haul off like Homer Simpson and exclaim, “Well, DOH!”

On the other hand, I’m keenly aware that one person’s “DOH!” might be another person’s “Aha!” For that reason, these Homer Simpson fears rise up, I stare them down, put my big-girl pants back on, and do my best to write something that I believe will be helpful to highly sensitive people (HSPs.)

A cautionary tale about habits

Along the way, it helps me to remember my second year as an oboe performance major at Indiana University. A well-known professional oboist came to teach the summer session. In our first lesson together, he surprised me by asking me to tie an oboe reed in front of him.

This was highly unusual. Certainly, the first step of making an oboe reed is to tie the parts of the reed together, but that’s just the overture. The real performance is the scraping you do to get the reed to play. I was perplexed, until he explained the method to his madness.

He told me about a student he had taught years before who was struggling mightily with her reeds. He couldn’t figure out what on earth the problem was. Finally, in desperation, he took her back to the very beginning of the process. He watched her tie a reed…and discovered she had somehow made it to college without ever having heard of an essential tool called a mandrel.

Tying a reed without a mandrel would be like tying your shoe using one hand and your teeth. In the unlikely event you managed it at all, it would take forever, and the results would be poor. The teacher was aghast at this gap in his student’s reed-making education, and he vowed that from that day forth he would make every student who crossed his path tie a reed for him, just to be sure.

Ninety-nine per cent of students might learn little from this exercise, and some of those might even say “DOH!” under their breath as they did it. Nonetheless, the effort was worthwhile if he could rescue the hundredth student from reed-making purgatory.

As I said, remembering this story helps me muster the courage to write articles and publish them. But it has also taught me a broader lesson: namely, that it’s worthwhile to pause every so often and take a closer look at your habitual behaviors. Specifically, I’m wondering—

Do you fasten your seatbelt when the going gets rough?

I’m asking because things always do get rough, sooner or later. Perhaps you’ve slipped on ice. You’ve broken your wrist. Now you have to do everything one-handed, on top of going to physical therapy three days a week. Perhaps you are dealing with a crisis at work. Perhaps, incredibly, a skunk has died in your basement and you’ve had to move out of the house for two weeks.

Crazy, disruptive things happen. When they do, they send your normal routines out the window. How do you handle this? If you are a highly sensitive person, you need a good answer to this question. Because so much depends on our sensitive self-care, I’ll risk a “DOH!” or two, in order to share my suggestions about how to fasten your seatbelt when the going gets rough.

The seatbelt in this metaphor refers to any necessary measures you take to keep yourself well and functional—just as the crew of one of the old sailing ships would do in rough seas. They’d furl the sails, batten down the hatches, stow any non-essential items, and lash essential items (including themselves) to the ship for extra security.

I “lash myself to the ship” during a crisis in five ways: adequate food, ample water, adequate sleep, 15 minutes of breath and movement upon waking, and a moment to set my intent for the day before plunging into the fray. That’s the bare minimum. By attending to those five items, I keep myself from falling overboard and drowning in a sea of overwhelm.

What items would you put on your seatbelt list? Yours might be very different from mine. Perhaps ten minutes of watching football restores your sense of equanimity in a crisis. Include whatever works for you.

The importance of a sturdy, flexible infrastructure

Beyond the bare minimum, though, we need a way to sustain ourselves through challenging times. In that regard, I often speak of “a sturdy, flexible infrastructure” as an essential goal for sensitive people.

The word “sturdy”, applied to self-care, denotes a routine that can withstand any challenges life throws at you. And the word “flexible” describes the ability to adjust your routine to fit your current circumstances. In a sustainable self-care infrastructure, these qualities of sturdiness and flexibility reinforce each other.

What do these qualities of sturdiness and flexibility actually look like when the going gets rough? How exactly do you buckle your HSP seatbelt under duress? To answer that question, let’s turn to the astute approach I first encountered in an article written by a personal trainer. He described three key principles of personal training: frequency, duration, and intensity.

The author explained that to build an exercise routine in a sustainable way, you should begin by establishing frequency. That is, you try to do something every day, even if it’s only for five minutes. Once you’ve established this frequency of activity, you increase the duration of your exercise. Only when you are regularly working out often and at more length do you begin to increase the intensity of your workouts.

How to apply the principles of frequency, duration, and intensity in a crisis

To keep your seatbelt fastened when you are under duress, I suggest you play with these three parameters of frequency, duration, and intensity—but in reverse order. In other words, reduce the intensity or duration of your self-care strategies first, rather than reducing the frequency by skipping them altogether.

For example, let’s say you are exhausted. Your usual five-mile run feels like too much. Rather than skipping the run, reduce the intensity by walking instead. Or try reducing the duration by running only two miles instead of five.

Similarly, if you usually cook for yourself, reduce the intensity by purchasing takeout. If you were up half the night, try to nap during the day. Meditate for five minutes instead of twenty. The idea is to do something, if you possibly can, however easy or short. Lower your frequency of self-care only as a last resort.

Maintaining some semblance of your normal self-care routine in this way is helpful because it prevents you from falling out of the routine altogether. But there’s another compelling reason to keep this commitment to yourself: in doing so, you are making a strong statement to yourself that your needs matter, even in the face of a crisis.

Sensitive people need this reminder, because giving our needs equal value is challenging for many of us, especially when we are supporting others whose needs are pressing. Have you ever worked yourself into exhaustion rather than let someone else down? HSPs too easily forget that we need to keep ourselves functional if we want to be of service to others. Unfortunately, when we fall apart, we fall hard.

Invoking the power of your intent

Even when you use the three principles of frequency, duration, and intensity to adjust your self-care, a crisis is still just that: a crisis. In the sheer intensity and unpredictability of the moment, you may forget to even try to take care of yourself.

Here’s where it really helps to pause to refresh and clarify your intent. When you are under extreme pressure, you discover the true power of intent to shift you from passive reactivity to powerful proactivity.

For example, if you start your day with the clear intent to sit for ten minutes, or to make sure you fit in three meals, or to get in a short walk, your chances of following through on these self-care activities will increase dramatically.

You can witness the power of intent in a great scene from the second Lord of the Rings film, The Two Towers. King Theoden, besieged in Helm’s Deep and vastly outnumbered by the advancing army of Uruk-hai, sinks into hopelessness, despairing of defending his people.

But….watch Theoden’s face after Aragorn reminds him that even if he may be about to die, he can choose the manner of his death. As one person put it in the YouTube comment thread, “There is no way you’d lose a battle after Theoden’s speech.”

Theoden’s shift from despair to “YES!” is a perfect example of the power of intent to shift our energy. We need this power for those times when life challenges threaten to overwhelm us. Even when the going gets rough, we never lose the power to choose how we meet challenges. That’s the ultimate way to fasten your seatbelt.

Photo: ©2024 Emily Agnew
Note: This post is an updated version of one that originally appeared on Jan 15, 2019.