Life

What is constructive wallowing? Why it’s OK to do the bare minimum during lockdown

Posted by
Anna Brech
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Feeling overwhelmed by current events? A psychotherapist shares her coping strategy for doing the bare minimum during times of crisis.

If you’re anything like us, you’ll have found it difficult to focus in recent weeks. 

You’re hyper-alert to the coronavirus situation, and its fast-changing impact. And its fallout may well be demanding a huge effort from you: whether that’s covering childcare, organizing a community volunteer network or frantically trying to make ends meet with your bank balance.

Going through these motions, however, can feel like wading in treacle. Even as you know how important they are, or how grateful you are to still have a job (if that applies), you cannot make yourself snap to and perform in the same way you would normally.

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It’s no surprise, of course. On some level – and to varying degrees – we are all going through a process of shock and trauma. 

Even if you’re lucky enough not to be directly impacted by coronavirus, it’s likely having an effect in ways you may not be fully aware of.

Perhaps you’re still playing catch-up with events in your own head, or you may be tussling with an undercurrent of worry and “what ifs” about the future.

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For all these reasons, US-based psychotherapist Tina Gilbertson suggests spending time in what she describes as “bare-minimum mode”.

“There are times in life when our energy ebbs, our spirits are low, and we just don’t feel like facing the day,” Gilbertson wrote, in a new piece in Psychology Today. “And yet we must. Because there’s another new day waiting for us to do something with it. At times like these, the best we may be able to do is the bare minimum.”

Why can't I relax?
Cut yourself some slack to recharge

The key to entering bare minimum mode, said Gilbertson, is defining what it means to you. It will be different for every person, depending on their life circumstances and responsibilities. If you’re a key worker, for example, your bare minimum will look very different from someone who is not.

Whatever it is for you, cut your schedule back to basics, taking things one day at a time

“What’s on your list that absolutely, positively MUST get done?” she wrote. “Nothing else should appear on today’s agenda.”

An important part of this process involves choosing the easiest path possible to achieving what you need to do. For example, if you have to file a work report, how can you make the production of it as smooth as possible for yourself? How can you cut yourself some slack?

This might be about allowing yourself some extra time, having regular coffee breaks or simplifying some aspects of your research. Whatever it is that lifts the weight a little, choose that option – with zero guilt.

Woman curled up on the sofa looking concerned
The bare minimum mode is all about recognising your boundaries

Gilbertson is also the author of  Constructive Wallowing, a guide to neutralising “bad” feelings by letting yourself have them. 

And her suggestion for embracing “bare minimum mode” can be seen as its own version of constructive wallowing. You are giving yourself permission to take your foot off the pedal during these challenging times, in the knowledge that doing so will help you recharge.

It’s helpful to accept, if not actively wallow, in your need to step back.

“Don’t let empty moralizing – yours or anyone else’s – cloud your judgment,” said Gilbertson. “You don’t have to fill every hour with productive output. You’re not a machine.

“Listen to your body and your spirit. If you feel pulled toward spending time in bare-minimum mode, you probably need the rest.”

Do what you need to, to get through the day

Mental health activist and author Matt Haig had a similar message recently, when he spoke out about the pressure to be productive right now.

“The current era is crap enough without having to feel guilt that we aren’t learning Greek and painting watercolours of daffodils,” he tweeted. “If you brushed your teeth today and got showered and ate something and spent ten minutes not looking at the news then well done it’s an achievement.”

In another reflection posted on Instagram this week, Haig spoke of his worry and guilt that he couldn’t “do more” next to frontline workers and others directly involved in the crisis. But, he said, “it is okay to be a mess sometimes […] I am letting myself feel the shittiness of it all sometimes, like today, because I know how much stress and psychological tension is caused by trying to resist.”

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The upshot? It’s OK to constructively wallow in the negative feelings you have around coronavirus, as long as you are aware of them (and of the parallel positive feelings that can exist at the same time).

It’s also OK to constructively wallow by doing very little, or less than you would do ordinarily. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s better not to plough on regardless.

Instead, recognise that you can go easy on yourself and do just the bare minimum that you have to. Doing so is not only helpful, it’s necessary. Like tapering before a marathon, by consciously scaling back when you need to during these weeks, you’ll come out the other side stronger.

Images: Getty

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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