Diana Crabb, 63, was overwhelmed and exhausted trying to navigate life in the age of the coronavirus. Then she stumbled upon a simple strategy that restored her vitality.
“Should today be the day I try to go to my parents’ house?” Diana Crabb asked herself as she lay awake in bed. “In between counting the number of chimes the grandfather clock downstairs rang out to mark each half hour I wasn’t sleeping, thoughts of what I should and shouldn’t do to keep myself and my family safe during the COVID-19 pandemic swirled in my mind: Should I have ordered that pizza for delivery? and Am I being safe going to the grocery store even with precautions? It made it impossible for me to fall — or stay — asleep. And my resulting exhaustion only left me more stressed.
“I’ve never had trouble sleeping, even in hotel rooms when I’m on a layover for work as a flight attendant.
But now, even the job I love brought stress because I feared bringing the coronavirus home to my family. So to avoid exposure, I decided to take a five-month leave when it was offered.
“But as the days of rising infection counts and stay-at-home orders mounted, I worried about my frequent visits to my elderly parents — something I did so my dad could have a break from being the primary caregiver for my mother, who lives with dementia. Now I might not just be bringing respite, I could be exposing them to a dangerous health condition.
Decisions that had once been mundane, like Is it safe to go and give my mother a bath? and Did I just jeopardize our health by running to the pharmacy? had never been part of my normal thought process — I just did what I needed to do. But now, I ruminated over every decision, which left me feeling more drained and stressed than ever.
“I even started polling my friends to see if they thought it was safe for me to invite one of my grown children to the house or to babysit my granddaughter, who is five. Then I started feeling silly about bothering others to help me with decisions I should be able to make on my own. The emotional fatigue took a physical toll. I’d sit down for a quick break in the middle of doing laundry and end up falling asleep.
“I found myself stuck in a cycle of worry over COVID-19 and second-guessing every action I took — or didn’t take. Desperate to channel some of the stress and get my energy back, I sat in my family room looking out at my backyard and decided to give myself something else to think about.
“It had been several weeks after the first news reports of infections in my area when I set out to get rid of the weeds in the yard. I thought spending a few hours in the sunlight surrounded by green might do me some good.
Initially, I just hoped to take care of spring cleaning and create a distraction from all of my ruminating.
“I dove right in, pruning and transferring perennials, and spent several hours outside. That night, I fell asleep minutes after going to bed, which I hadn’t done since the pandemic began.
The next morning, I assumed my ability to fall asleep was due to physical exhaustion. And although I woke to the same set of worries, I felt more rested than I had in weeks. Fueled by a desire to relieve stress and get another good night’s sleep, I marched back out to snip my rose bushes and lilacs and transplant some irises. As I worked, I started imagining myself snipping away my worry and stress and leaving my fears in the dirt I patted around the plants. About a week after turning to my yard for solace, I realized I had been sleeping soundly ever since, waking a few minutes before my alarm went off. Having the outlet of gardening was helping me better manage the stress and decisions that I faced.
“When a friend noticed I was no longer yawning my way through phone conversations, I shared how beneficial my time in the yard had been to help me sleep at night. She told me she had read studies about how green spaces can be beneficial for mental health and to reduce stress. I never imagined that something as routine as pulling weeds could help me recover my energy, but knowing how good I felt made me a believer. I was elated that something I love was also so good for my mood, outlook and ability to reclaim my vitality.
“Today I feel like a brand-new person. I can fold laundry and cook dinner without fighting to stay awake. And since stay-at-home orders have been lifted for now, I’m able to see and care for my granddaughter without worry, and with the energy to push her on the swings, read her stories and jog beside her when she rides her bicycle.
I also feel emotionally healed.
Instead of lying awake worrying about day-to-day decisions, I fall asleep plotting what I want to do tomorrow in my yard. And now my decision-making comes easily. I have the energy to handle anything that comes my way!”
-As told to Gina Roberts-Grey
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.