It's the surest sign of a new year—the inevitable eye roll that accompanies the seemingly inescapable mantras of, "New year, new you!" "Exercise! Diet! More! Goals! Resolutions!"
To say 2020 was sobering would be an understatement. No amount of New Year's Eve champagne could intoxicate the reality, adversity, and uncertainty that was last year. So instead of echoing the narrative of doing more with blind and relentless optimism, I want to instead home in on "leveling up" by...scaling back. Returning to basics at your own pace. Finding utility and yet novelty in what you already have.
This was a theme that revealed itself about halfway through last year, right around the time I started my career in medicine—during a pandemic. By day, I'm a full-time family medicine physician assistant, most recently taking on a few sessions per week at our acute care clinic. Here, patients with respiratory symptoms and/or COVID diagnoses have access to the same day care. This has without a doubt been the most challenging, terrifying, exhausting, and yet fulfilling, humbling, and moving chapters of my life.
When I get home from work, all I want to do is relax. This means the effort that goes into being my own caretaker is minimal. After a few months of exhaustion and self-neglect, I realized I needed to imbue a little bit more care, creativity, and color to days that sometimes felt anemic. And on days when I really need some extra fuel to get this done, I grab an RXBAR on my way out the door. Here are three simple, oh-so-minimal ways I "level up" by scaling back.
It's really easy to feel disconnected from my own body when I'm feeling overwhelmed, fatigued, or in a state of "AH!" And sometimes can require active work to tap back in. To do this, I notice the place where I feel tension most at that moment—i.e., when things get hard, where am I carrying them? Does my breathing quicken; does my throat tighten; do my shoulders tense? I then place my hands there. I envision a warm, soothing wind emitting from my hands and take a few long, deep breaths (inhale for 5, hold for 5, exhale for 5, hold for 5). With each exhale, I visualize my hands serving as the energy to physically melt the tension away. I've done this lying on the floor of my apartment, before waking up for the day in my bed, heck—even in the bathroom at work! It takes 30 seconds and can re-root and reorient to the present moment when my thoughts start to balloon me into the past or future—using my own body, no less! It's a great way to hit the pause on cortisol and put the focus back on calm.
Emergency snack stockpile.
I would first like to acknowledge the extreme privilege of having a job during a time that so many do not. I also know many are working from home and helping with teaching for remote learners, increasing their own workload by tenfold.
Regardless of where you are, perhaps you feel a little less energy available to spend on snack preparation. I'm out of my apartment quite often for work and am wearing a mask all day in the clinic. Wearing a mask certainly presents a challenge for ease of snacking. So having a grab-and-go option is absolutely essential. RXBAR embodies the idea of back to basics (my current obsession is their chocolate raspberry flavor). Their ingredient list is simplistic, pronounceable, and just plain tasty. With antioxidants from nuts, fiber from whole dates, and protein from egg whites—it truly has the most minimal version of the essentials all bundled up into a bar. Scarfed down in seconds, then satiated and energized to tackle whatever comes my way.
Each and every time I go grocery shopping, I take a look at what's ALREADY in the pantry. Is there a forlorn can of beans in the back? Do I randomly have three bags of shredded coconut that I haven't used? Crafting meals from things I already have not only makes me feel like the Picasso of mealtime but, dare I say, it's...fun?
Here's an idea: FaceTime a friend, go through your pantries together, and then find recipes for each other using ingredients of things you already have! I channel the approach of RXBAR's ingredients—aim for a fiber source, a protein, and some fat, too (think quinoa with white beans and tahini dressing or chickpea pasta with tomato sauce and hemp seeds on top). Bonus points if you can toss in some carrots lying around from the fridge, an onion from a drawer, or a handful of frozen spinach! This habit can then steamroll into weekly meal prep, too. Creating recipes based on the ingredients you already have is a great way to get creative while also saving money. And if you find leftovers you no longer need or enjoy (after checking the expiration date first, of course)—find a local food pantry and donate!
The challenges faced this year, in life and in health care, at times seemed insurmountable. But by focusing and appreciating the abundance of what I already have, ensuring time for self-connection and compassion every day, and fueling my mind and body to feel satiated and energized, I got through it. Sometimes one foot in front of the other, sometimes standing still, sometimes feeling as if I was walking backward but through it nonetheless.