Back in April not long after social distancing began, I started hearing a rhythmic thumping in my right ear. Sometimes the sound dropped in and out at low volume; other times it would go on angrily for days on end – whoosh, whoosh, whoosh – so irritating that I can’t sleep, think straight, or do anything productive. After a battery of tests and a million and one doctor’s visits later, any life-threatening cause was ruled out, and I was told it was just a case of the pulsatile tinnitus without apparent explanation or a straight forward treatment.
Tinnitus is the perception of noise or ringing in the ears. Pulsatile tinnitus is a rare and distinct form of tinnitus in the sense that what the patient is hearing is in fact real, and it is the sound of their pulse. As such, when my heart beats faster such as when I run up the stairs or when I’m stressed out, the whooshing gets faster (and louder) in my ear. Suddenly, it’s as if I’d been outfitted with a signal alarm for the mind-body connection (which isn’t usually audible or visible), and it blasts “slow down! slow down!” extra loud when I’m physically or mentally exerting myself.
Now many months later, I’ve gotten a little better at managing it, even though I continue to marvel at the fine-tuned piece of machinery – the human body – that does so much without us ever noticing (making sure you don’t hear your pulse constantly is just one tiny example!). Throughout the process, I’ve discovered a lot of things that make my condition more tolerable: some are blunt (wearing ear plugs to sleep or putting on music to mask the sound); others broadly fall in the category of “self care” – activities that are nourishing and rejuvenating physically, mentally, and emotionally.
I share some of these activities here, in hopes that they help you decompress during these chaotic and challenging days. My personal experience is a clear and visceral rejection of the idea that self-care means consuming more, “retail therapy”, or “treating yourself” to a lazy day full of mindless tv-watching and phone scrolling because…so far none of those has quite managed to shut my ear up!
Get a great night of sleep
Friends, it doesn’t get more low carbon than this. And let’s be honest – even without the need to commute, many of us are still a bunch of sleep-deprived zombies fueled by caffeine and snacks! In fact, two nights ago when someone I was chatting with announced “I must go now. It’s 7pm; the child needs a bath and be put to bed”, I thought “OMG THAT SOUNDS WONDERFUL.” If you had the same reaction to “a bath and bed by 8”, take that clue and make it happen! Besides a consistent sleep schedule, three things that help me the most for snoozing more deeply are:
- No TV or phone screen starting at least one hour before bed
- A cool room
- Not taking long naps to make up for a sleepless night (it really messes me up the next evening)
Get lost in a good book
In my opinion, deep reading is the one of the only leisurely activities left that can’t really be multitasked. Any weekend is a good weekend in my book if I can get a few hours of continuous, uninterrupted, and tv-free hours of deep reading. I just finished Normal People by Sally Rooney (yes yes I’m 2 years late) and I’m currently working through Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker – both are binge worthy!
Learn about the natural world
I don’t know what it is about nature’s teaching, but I find the process of discovering or recognizing something new about a plant, an ecosystem, or an animal so delightful and eye-opening. Similar to how some people feel small and insignificant gazing at the stars, I feel deeply humbled by nature and its intricacy, power, and resiliency. The joy and awe I experience when learning about how trees communicate with one another in a forest or how the Saharan dust feeds the Amazon tropics – while being constantly reminded how much humans have to yet to uncover – is the closest to “spiritual” I’ve ever felt as a non-religious person.
A few listenings/readings I enjoyed immensely:
- Robin Wall Kimmerer | Braiding Sweetgrass [book]
- Lulu Miller | Why Fish Don’t Exist [book]
- Ferris Jabr | The Social Life of Forests [NYTimes magazine article, available also in audio version]
- Freakonomics | Forget Everything You Know about Your Dog [podcast/interview]
- Pop Up Magazine | Talk a Walk [immersive audio story, meaning – you go on a 30 minute walk while listening to this]
Spend time in nature (sans cellphone, if you can)
What’s better than learning about nature? Spend time outside! Going for a hike, a run, or just a walk around the neighborhood – even if it’s not the most scenic – always calms me. (I rarely notice my tinnitus outside, probably because of a combination of being distracted and surrounded by other environmental sounds – but hey, I’ll take it.) If it’s possible, try leaving your phone at home. Whether it’s a neighbor’s house painted in a new lush color, or the smooth texture of a birch tree, I perceive my surroundings so much more when I’m phone-less!
If you need the ability to be reached while out, consider unplugging when you can. On weekends especially, don’t feel bad about locking away your phone and going completely AWOL for at least a few hours. No news, emails, texts, calls, social media, ads…there are plenty of opportunities to catch up later.
Move your body
Going straight from cycling over an hour each day to work to sitting on my butt all day working from home in March was terrible for my back and my mental health. It doesn’t help that the Health app on my phone loves to remind me of how many fewer steps I’ve taken compared to before COVID. (“I know, phone, stop judging me.” ) Let’s all get moving more often! Even a few minutes of stretches and planks are so helpful.
Cook or bake something elaborate
Are you even social distancing if you aren’t baking sourdough, bro?! Just kidding, kind of. So many of us have taken up baking naturally leavened bread during quarantine, and for good reasons! The long fermentation forces us to slow down, and creating something delicious with your own hands is such an empowering and fulfilling feeling, isn’t it? Last month I baked so many loaves of holiday breads (babkas, star breads, sourdoughs) and gifted many to family and neighbors – an annual tradition I hope to keep! If you aren’t into baking, find a recipe for something you haven’t cooked before. I saw a friend making pho broth for the first time on Instagram a few months ago, and have been so tempted to give it a go!
Do something just for the heck of it
If your idea of fun doesn’t involve spending time in the kitchen, do something else just because! Painting, coloring, playing a musical instrument, attempting a sewing project, crafting for a few hours, pampering yourself with a homemade facial scrub in the bath…you name it. Conventional wisdom expects us to constantly be producing and maximizing; engaging in something just for fun is, in and of itself, an act in defiance against the societal norm.