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How to nourish yourself in a difficult time

When things are hard, feeding yourself and those you care about can be the first thing to go.

Cartoon of a tired woman carrying loaded grocery bags. Denis Novikov/Getty Images

When times are hard — as they have been with alarming frequency lately for many Americans — the first thing to go can be the desire to feed yourself. After two years of the pandemic, increased threats of gun violence, attacks on the fundamental right to control our own bodies, and the ceaseless march of injustice for anyone who isn’t straight or white, it can feel inconceivable to get out of your own head, open up the fridge, and nourish yourself well.

So what can we do? How do we pull back from the pain to a place of perspective, where we’re capable of taking care of our bodies and brains even when the rest of the world refuses to?

My career as a cookbook author, writer, and speaker has been wide-ranging. With my first book, Good and Cheap, I focused on the barriers of cost and access to food, and now my new book, Good Enough, places the focus on mental health and our internal world. I create recipes but also frameworks for thinking about how we feed ourselves and how that expresses our beliefs about ourselves.

Fundamentally, learning how to cook and feed your specific body in your specific life is a transformative healing experience, one I have witnessed in myself and many others. Whether you don’t know where to start nourishing yourself, feel unskilled doing so, or are grappling with something more serious like a disordered relationship to eating, it is essential at all parts of a healing journey to meet ourselves exactly where we are.

Taking good care of ourselves requires many tools, including community care, professional help, and self-care. Self-care, which has become something of a meaningless buzzword but is in fact an incredibly powerful and stabilizing force, can feel particularly hard in this current moment with all the concurrent crises. Central to self-care is nourishment, whatever that means in your and your family’s life, and here I’ll provide strategies for simple ways to feed yourself that build capacity for self-compassion and self-love.

It’s not your fault it’s hard; it’s how we’re wired and conditioned

It can come as something of a shock how feelings like stress, anxiety, and grief can manifest in our bodies. Connecting to yourself when you feel big feelings is the first and hardest step, by far — much like the moment after you accidentally cut yourself, clenching the wound closed to delay the pain before finally letting go to see the damage. But it’s essential to receive all the information about what we are going through so we can understand ourselves and what we need. When we ignore and numb our bodies instead of listening to them, we get stuck.

A healthy nervous system is meant to cycle in and out of two states: the parasympathetic system, where we rest and digest, and the sympathetic system, which governs stress and creates cortisol to help us respond to the cause of the stress. When we are chronically stressed, it can be hard for our body to fully switch into the parasympathetic state where we digest and regenerate ourselves.

This can be felt as a loss of appetite as the gut churns, or a feeling of deep tiredness while the mind races and won’t allow us to sleep. Sometimes we may want to eat a lot when we are feeling bad, but we may just as easily have a loss of appetite as our bodies get stuck in the sympathetic state, trying to solve problems that are ceaseless and ongoing.

Next we need to examine our beliefs. Are we gaslighting ourselves by downplaying how hard it can be? If you are struggling to feed yourself, there are likely many valid reasons for it. Our culture downplays acts of caring and domestic labor, but feeding ourselves — let alone others — is hard work. It’s hard work that requires resources and a set of skills that many of us are not taught or able to access. Feeding ourselves requires money, ability to acquire food, and a safe place to live and store and assemble the food, among many, many other basics. You need time and physical and mental ability, and even if you are resourced and safe, there may be times when what is going on inside is too much, and the work to feed ourselves as we might wish becomes overwhelming.

Complicating matters further is the reality that approximately one in 10 people will be diagnosed with an eating disorder in their lives. BIPOC people are less likely to be diagnosed but more likely to be at risk of eating disorders, so the total numbers are likely higher. If this is you, please seek help outside yourself; you cannot reframe your way out of an eating disorder.

When we validate ourselves for all these realities we can make room for self compassion to arise — and that can give us the energy we need to make moves. Many of us have a tremendous fear that any difficult feeling is going to last forever; sure, thinking goes, you got through today eating nothing but mashed potatoes, but what about tomorrow? And the next day? It can be easy to find yourself in a spiral, imagining your whole life stretching out before you with every day as hard as today, but that is not the case.

Start where you are

Here’s an exercise: Imagine someone you love struggling in the way you are today or in a particularly challenging moment in the past. How would you respond to their needs? Allow these imagined feelings and ideas to move through you and take the step for yourself that you might take with this imagined other.

Next, take just one step toward feeding yourself. If even the first step is overwhelming, take a few deep breaths and think how you can make it easier. Could you get someone else to pick up groceries for you? Could you simply eat the peanut butter and tortillas in your pantry and call it done? Let it be enough. Start where you are and know that feeding yourself — whether it is a bowl of pasta or a handful of nuts shoved into your mouth — is something to be proud of. Just as you would be proud of yourself for showing up for a friend or your child, you can be proud of yourself when you show up for yourself in the same way.

Allow your body to take over. What can you keep down? What feels doable? What is the first thing you think of? That is the place to start. Raw fruit, hummus and crackers, bread and butter, a granola bar? Assembling something out of a few raw or prepared ingredients is a great place to step back to when meal preparation feels overwhelming. Banish the idea of how a meal “should” look. Great job! You did it. Give yourself exactly what you need today.

It can help to find a go-to food that you can rely on without having to engage your mind, where all the worry lives. For me, so long as my stomach is not too unsettled (in which case fresh fruit and nuts are my go-tos) I make a cheese sandwich, or egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich. They are palatable, simple, and settling for me. It’s helpful to have at least one go-to because when you are distressed, making decisions becomes harder.

Let yourself be grateful for what you have done. Take a moment with the snack or meal you made and thank yourself for your efforts even if you want to laugh at them.

When we take steps to care for ourselves in the way we might for a loved one, it can feel wrong at first. It might feel like too much work when you have so little energy. You might feel resentful toward yourself for having needs. Until one day, suddenly, you go to put a squeeze of lemon in your water, not for any reason but just because you love yourself, and those voices and feelings that made it so heavy are no longer there. Or they may be there but they are muted somehow, smaller and sort of pitiable as they cry at you from behind a locked door. That is what you have to look forward to.

Feeding yourself with love and care is an act of faith in yourself and your innate goodness. You may not see it, you may not feel it, you may roll your eyes and scoff, but some deep-down, powerful part of you knows you’re worth trying for.

Leanne Brown is an award-winning cookbook author, writer, teacher, and parent who lives in Brooklyn.