What is Spoon Theory? 6 Steps to Survive Stress

“I am starting to lose it,” I said to my husband.

He rubbed my back.

“Yes. The kids said they are worried you are starting to lose it.”

Gut punch.

That hurt because I am at home, in my place of comfort. I have all the tools at my fingertips for self-care, from bath bombs to Disney+. I have a partner who will make me a grilled cheese sandwich as-needed.

I have everything I could possibly need to execute the beyond basics self-care of myself—including a job and healthy family—and yet, I am still losing it.

Why? And also, now what?

You Only Have So Many Spoons

Spoon Theory - Steps to Survive Stress

In order to understand how to survive stress, let’s start with a powerful image. It’s called the spoon theory.

The spoon theory is a well-known metaphor used by the disability and mental health communities. It explains how close to empty your tank may be. If you’ve ever heard of someone referring to themselves as a “spoonie,” they are referencing Spoon Theory.

“The theory uses spoons as a visual way to explain how much energy someone has throughout the day; we all start the day with the same number of spoons. Each action causes us to hand some spoons over in payment,” according to Bonnie Evie Gifford in Happiful Magazine

“For most people, they can rest and recover, with a seemingly unlimited supply of spoons. However, there are others who only have a set number to last them the whole day, and once your spoons are gone, they’re gone.”

For many of us — whether we suffer from diagnosed mental illness or are simply suffering together with stress trauma from current events — our spoons may be getting used up at faster rates than we are used to.

On one particular day, for example, I woke up at 8 a.m. and I was already done. No bath bomb was going to solve this.

(No disrespect to the lotion and good-smelling-stuff industry lol! Aromatherapy can really aid in relaxation).

In times of crisis (as many of us are discovering), surface-level self-care doesn’t cut the mustard. My skin may be silky. I smell like cherry blossoms.

Yet, I still have that boulder sitting on my chest.

What can we do to adapt when everyday self-care isn’t enough?

Survival Tip #1: Try to Be Okay with What Is

Wherever you are in your day, it is OK to be just OK with what is.

There is a perfect little first kindness you can do for yourself on any day when your feelings are low and your mood is dipping.

“Noticing the feelings is important,” writes Unity minister Rev. Patricia T. Bass in “How Can I See This Differently?” “Giving yourself permission to be present to them is vital before you can begin to move forward.”

If noticing your feelings is all you get done today, you did great. You can try to write down your feelings if you want to, but that is not required.

Survival Tip #2: Try to Forgive Yourself

Self-forgiveness is the ultimate act of goodness. It’s also really freaking hard.

Carl Rogers, famed psychotherapist observed this after decades of therapeutic work:

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

Self-forgiveness may not come easily. It requires bravery and clarity, and a willingness to move away from negative self-talk.

During times of crisis and stress, shifting into a self-forgiveness mindsets opens you up to a more truthful reflection of the self, and a more accountable one. 

Survival Tip #3: Try a Different Language

This is a good time to let go of the notion of “making the most” of things! Instead, let’s change to a simple shift in language. Away with “I don’t have” ! Embrace “what I have”!

“When you find yourself disappointed or discouraged, it might seem natural to simply look around for someone or something to blame,” Bass continues. “But when you do that, you start to feel like a victim.

“Instead, ask yourself, ‘How can I see this differently?’” Positive thoughts magnetize: they naturally lead to positive actions and energy.

You may find it challenging to change your language on your own. If that is the case, you can try listening to affirmative meditations and podcasts.

Survival Tip #4: Try Micro-Achievements

Have you ever made a simple to-do list? We are talking very small, very achievable.

In this way, you can help yourself and relieve some of the pressure on your mental capacity. I find Post-it notes are great for this, or a favorite little journal that makes you happy whenever you see it.

Sample To-Do List:

  • Breathe deeply
  • Listen to birdsong
  • Talk on the phone with or text a friend

To-do lists, according to psychologist and author David Cohen, are a highly effective way to “dampen anxiety about the chaos of life.”

“They give us a structure, a plan that we can stick to; and they are proof of what we have achieved that day, week, or month,” he says. By keeping the task list short, positive, and achievable, we alleviate anxiety about failure and return a sense of control to ourselves for a portion of the day.

Survival Tip #5: Find Your People 

When stress piles up on top of me, my first instinct is to crawl into bed and pull up the covers.

But I’ve gotten pretty good at anxiety and depression throughout the years. First of all, I know when it’s OK to crawl into bed and rest!

But I also know who to reach out to. And I know they will respond in a way that holds me in love.

“Love is essential for healing our psychological wounds,” writes Rev. Robert Brumet in The Quest for Wholeness. “The relationship between love and physical healing may not be quite as obvious. Yet love is a key element in physical healing and in the maintenance of physical health.”

Anxiety masquerades as an external reality, but its experience is 100 percent inside of each of us. Becoming aware of these feelings in ourselves, meeting ourselves with loving compassion, setting small goals, and shifting the way we think all begin to change the way we experience the world.

But there is no greater way to move the needle on fear and anxiety than relating with people who understand us.

“Physically, mentally, spiritually, we are intimately connected with one another. We are not as separate as we may think. We cannot become whole in isolation because, in reality, isolation does not exist.”

— Rev. Robert Brumet, The Quest for Wholeness

Survival Tip #6: Recognize That Self-Care Is Complicated

As you get pummeled by emails and social media posts to “take care of yourself first,” you can give yourself this one simple reminder:

Your self-care may not look like mine … and that is okay.

Self-care isn’t any particular practice. It’s an opening up. A willingness.

If you find yourself “failing” to care for yourself, you may also find yourself plummeting into a familiar cycle of guilt and negative thoughts.

Instead, you can try to slowwww down to a stop.

Wrap your arms around yourself and squeeze. Just breathe.

Because this isn’t a race or a competition. It’s a moment-at-a-time opportunity to accept grace from yourself. And do that over again.

A version of “6 Steps to Survive Stress” originally appeared at http://unity.org.

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