Caring for yourself

Focus on the Basics: Sleep, Eat, Breathe, Move

6 minutes

During life’s hardest moments, it's critical to focus on the self-care basics: sleeping, eating, breathing, and moving.

During life’s hardest moments, simple things like eating, sleeping, or getting dressed can seem impossibly hard or totally pointless. If that’s where you find yourself right now, you’re not alone.

At the same time, hardship often brings unexpected demands, like managing last-minute travel or making complicated medical decisions. Sometimes, when you most need everything to stop, it can feel impossible to even pause. So you might be pushing yourself to move forward and problem-solve despite feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and barely able to think straight.

But driving yourself harder won’t change the reality that your brain and body have limits. Research shows that you need to start by prioritizing the self-care basics.

  • Tip #1

    Stress triggers a fight-or-flight response, preparing us to react quickly in a crisis. Instead of helping, this fight-or-flight response leaves us with unpleasant side effects, like a pounding heart, racing thoughts, headaches, stomachaches, and tense muscles. It also amplifies negative emotions, like anger and anxiety.

    You can’t switch stress off, but you can ease the physical and emotional effects by calming your body.1 Taking just a few minutes to breathe and relax can protect your energy levels and make it easier to think straight.

  • How to do it
    • To get through a particularly hard moment, pay attention to your breathing. Taking slow, full breaths tells your nervous system to reverse the fight-or-flight response.
    • If you’re thrumming with buzzy energy, you can drain tension with progressive muscle relaxation. Research shows that simply tensing and releasing muscles throughout your body can slow your heart, ease distress, and reduce pain.
  • Tip #2
    Find a way to get some sleep

    In times of crisis, people are often exhausted but unable to sleep. You might be wide awake because your mind is racing and your body feels wired with tension. Maybe you can’t imagine sleeping in a bed that suddenly feels so empty. Or maybe you’re fighting sleep because it makes you feel vulnerable or you hate waking up to remember your pain all over again.

    Whatever is keeping you awake, you’re not alone. But you deserve the gift of sleep, which makes it much easier to manage hard feelings, solve problems, and stay healthy.2

  • How to do it
    • If you’re feeling edgy, deeply sad, or agitated, give yourself an on-ramp to sleep by winding down. Your nightly routine might look like drinking a cup of tea while reading a book, stretching after a hot shower, or taking 10 minutes to journal before turning out the light.
    • There is no rule that you have to sleep in your own bed when you’re struggling. If it feels easier to sleep at a friend’s house or snuggled with your pet on the couch, give it a try.
    • If your mind is racing, use proven strategies for setting worries aside like picking an official “worry time” for the next day.
    • Give yourself permission to stop—to stop planning, to stop taking care of others, and to stop solving problems. You can’t work through everything today. Remind yourself that you will be better at all of the important things if you let yourself rest.
  • Tip #3
    Eat, even when you don’t feel like it

    You might be skipping meals because you feel sick, can’t imagine being hungry again, or just don’t have the time or energy to sort out meals. But even when you aren’t hungry, your brain and body need fuel.

  • How to do it
    • Even if you have no appetite or everything tastes like dust, do your best to eat every few hours. You don’t need to eat full meals. A bowl of cereal counts. You may want to set a timer for usual meal-times so you’ll remember to eat even if you don’t feel hungry.
    • If you can’t eat, see if you can drink something nutritious. A smoothie or glass of chocolate milk might feel easier to manage than a meal.
    • This is a great place to ask for help. Let people know that you could use a homemade meal, some easy to prep snacks, or someone to sit with you while you eat.
  • Tip #4

    Life’s hardest moments can make you feel weak, shaky, or leaden. It can be hard to get out of bed, much less out the door. But if you can get yourself moving, it can help your body feel a bit closer to normal. Just 20 minutes of activity can unlock energy, boost mood, drain jittery agitation, and make it easier to sleep.3

  • How to do it
    • To get the benefits of movement, you don’t need to push yourself hard or do an official workout. Gardening, scrubbing a bathroom, or dancing to a song on the radio all count.
    • Often, getting started is the hardest part. If being active for 20 minutes feels overwhelming, commit to less. Set a timer for five minutes and give yourself permission to stop when it goes off. Chances are, you’ll find it much easier to keep going than it was to get started. And if you want to stop after five minutes, that’s okay.
    • This is another great place to get help. Ask a friend to meet you for a walk or find an accountability buddy who’s struggling too and commit to getting each other outside a few times a week.

When you’re in the heart of one of life’s hardest moments, treat yourself more gently than usual. This may mean lowering your expectations for what you can accomplish in a day and being intentional about meeting your most basic needs.

Someday, taking care of your basic self-care needs will feel easy again. In the meantime, this is the starting place. Each small act of caring for yourself strengthens you and prepares you for the journey ahead.

Other Lessons


  1. Relaxation training for anxiety: a ten-years systematic review with meta-analysis; Progressive Muscle Relaxation; Stress Reduction Programs in Patients with Elevated Blood Pressure: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis; Relaxation Therapy for Depression An Updated Meta-analysis; Effectiveness of Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Deep Breathing, and Guided Imagery in Promoting Psychological and Physiological States of Relaxation


  3. Effects of Exercise on Brain and Cognition Across Age Groups and Health States; A meta-analysis on the anxietyreducing effects of acute and chronic exercise. Outcomes and Mechanisms; The Role of Exercise in The effects of a single session of mindful exercise on anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analysis; Affective Responses to Exercise; Exercise Effects on Depressive Symptoms in Cancer Survivors: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis; The effect of acute aerobic exercise on positive activated affect: A meta-analysis; Special Issue – Therapeutic Benefits of Physical Activity for Mood: A Systematic Review on the Effects of Exercise Intensity, Duration, and Modality; Exercise training improves depressive symptoms in people with multiple sclerosis: Results of a meta-analysis; Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis; The Effects of Exercise on Mood in Older Adults: A Meta-Analytic Review