It was after midnight and I couldn’t breathe through my nose thanks to the nasty head cold that had taken residence in my sinuses. In addition to my labored breathing, I was experiencing the exhaustion that comes with having two young children, being eight months pregnant, and carrying various professional responsibilities.
Classic insomniac thoughts of how I was going to get through the coming work and mothering day prevented me from relaxing into the sleep my body needed. And then came this recurring thought: How bad do I have to feel to take a day off? In a moment of deepening anxiety accompanied by nausea, I took action. I pulled out my computer and began to email my patients with the apologies that I needed to cancel our session that day.
I couldn’t recall ever having done that in all my years as a clinical psychologist in private practice or academic research settings. It wasn’t a philosophy shift that changed my decision-making process; it was the fact that I felt tapped out. I had hit my own wall. And then the resulting feelings: guilt for taking the easy way out and disappointment in myself for not living up to my responsibilities.
Ironically, as a clinical psychologist specializing in scientifically-informed practices, I frequently counsel patients on the importance of self-care. The science behind self-care behaviors ranging from getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and engaging in pleasant activities is unequivocal. To do our best in all the roles we take on, it is critical to engage in regular self-care. Yet, it is hard—even for a professional advice-giver—to follow the recommendations.
I listened that following day to the news analysis of Clinton’s pneumonia and her cancelled appearance at campaign events. What did it mean that her body couldn’t hold up on the campaign trail? Should the American public be concerned that she needed a break?
The pressure to work constantly is found in so many professional domains. Working parents regularly describe the need to open the computer back up after the kiddos go to bed, or to set their alarms for 4 a.m. to get some productivity in before the children awake. It is common practice for clients and bosses to reach out to workers and service providers after-hours. And we strongly criticize presidents and presidential candidates for taking time off.
While most of us work hard because of external pressures to do so, we also work hard because we want to live according to our values. And, in our modern society, we value hard work and making meaningful contributions, both in our families and in our workplaces. In the context of these values, self-care often gets relegated.
Yet research shows us that high work stress, limited family time, and inflexible work schedules all contribute to decreased work productivity and decreased work effectiveness. After all, even as they may have been irritated with the late cancellation, I doubt any of my patients wanted their hour of therapy with a cotton-brained therapist blowing her nose every other minute. And my academic colleagues are likely unimpressed with mumbo-jumbo I have written in this last exhausting month of pregnancy.
Our bodies and minds inevitably reach a point of diminishing returns, and the only way to get back is to rest and recuperate. But giving ourselves the needed break often doesn’t come until it’s too late. In response to Anderson Cooper’s question about how she was feeling after her pneumonia diagnosis, Clinton stated, “Obviously, I should have gotten some rest sooner.”
So, too, do I logically know that a summer full of a young children, work responsibilities, and growing a new baby probably meant that I should find ways to take it easy. But I didn’t stop pushing myself until I had already hit the proverbial wall.
Interestingly, while secular society encourages us to push ourselves, Jewish tradition reinforces the need to rest. The Hebrew word “Shabbat” literally means “to cease or to rest,” and observance of Shabbat is accompanied by a prohibition of work. With the structured pathway to resting and refreshing bodies and minds, observant Jews have a built, routine strategy to recharge. But in the secular lives so many of us lead, a reinforced commitment to take a break is harder to access. And yet returning to the tradition of Shabbat has the potential to increase our health, productivity, and even happiness.
Despite the science and my role as a clinical psychologist “who should know better,” I know it will continue to be a challenge to pause in my busy life. Still, I’d like to think that turning intentionally to the wisdom of Jewish tradition might be an effective means of preventing future wall smackings. Or, at the very least, reducing their frequency.