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Taking Care of Ourselves & Each Other

Health & Well-Being

"Building Your Basecamp" decorative banner. Camp scene.

The Flourish, May 2022: How is Life Tree(ting) You?

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Building Your Basecamp — A metaphor for self and community care

We are hearing terms like wellness, well-being and self-care a lot lately. Having been an “evangelist” for health education and prevention for 30 years I, for one, believe it is about time AND I understand that it can be hard to track all facets of these broad terms…are we talking about avocado face masks and cucumber eye masks or deep spiritual healing (the answer to that inquiry is ‘yes’, btw)? 

The Flourish, May 2022 decorative accent line
Camping tent vector created by freepik

Why did I specify “mammalian” self-care?

So, I have a metaphor that can help you hold all that might go into the large bucket we can call mammalian self-care; the metaphor is that of a basecamp. Why did I specify “mammalian” self-care? Because one technical term for the subject of this article is the “mammalian caregiving system” or more simply the “soothing system.” According to evolutionary researchers and psychologists, like Paul Gilbert and Rick Hanson, we go into distress and longer term languishing due to our inability to engage our soothing system to help regulate the other, more easily activated, systems: our fear/avoid system (red system) and our reward/approach system (blue system). 

The Flourish, May 2022 decorative accent line


Life on campus (or maybe modern life in general) has us spending way too much time ruled by the red and blue systems and that is why we are exhausted. You don’t have to be a psychologist to understand why living a life based in constant fear is a problem: fight or flight (don’t forget about freeze, faint, and fawn) is meant to get us out of short-term danger. We are not meant to live with a “slow drip” of cortisol and adrenaline. This slow drip (aka chronic stress) is one of the primary drivers of chronic disease and languishing. 

If the red system is the “tyranny of the urgent” then the blue system is the “tyranny of the awesome.” That device in your pocket is basically a blue system dopamine delivery device, as is our pursuit of national championships, straight A’s and matches on Tinder or Grindr. Not only can a life dominated by the blue system lead to addictions of all sorts, the blue system is built to never really be satisfied. Yes, you heard me right. Have you ever wondered why many of us have access to many good things in our lives (education, a beautiful campus, supportive friends) and yet it is so very hard for Stanford students to live a life here that they would describe as joyful, or one that makes them happy? Well, I am here to give you the answer: Blue system and Red system are NOT built to bring us happiness

These systems have evolved to help us survive, hence why the most satisfying emotion we can access from the red system is the transient relief we feel when our fears are not realized. As for the blue system, mammals who evolved reward systems that were never satisfied (cue music from Hamilton) were more likely to survive way back when resources were so very scarce (before Trader Joe’s and dining halls). The problem is, of course, that living your life with a “never enough” ethos is a recipe for unhappiness (AND overconsumption but we’ll save that for another article) because contentment is a major ingredient in happiness. 

Having said all of that, a basecamp is the simplest metaphor for the soothing system. A basecamp includes all the things we might expect from the safe haven that we return to after a long day of mountain climbing. A place where we can receive mammalian care: things like warm food, a warm dry place to sleep, a warm bath…basically all the warm stuff. This includes the warmth of connection which is crucial for mammals. Part of being well is finding a way to create a portable basecamp that we carry around in our bodies, minds and spirits. In a world where we can fly across the world in a day, we must find a way to create an internal mammalian caregiving system that we can hold with us wherever we are.

Ok, I hear you asking: How does one develop this internal and portable soothing system? How does one set up an internal basecamp? Put the metaphor to work and ask yourself what basecamp functions (aka skills and practices) you already have and which ones might you need to develop with the help of a WellnessEd Course, Well-Being Coach or CAPS Therapist.

How members of your community are building their Basecamp

  • Honoring and responding to my body’s needs when it is thirsty, hungry or sleepy
    • Calm myself down when I am in an unhelpful state of arousal (or go for a run to bring my psychological and physical states into congruence)
    • Access healthy catalyzing energy to wake up and get out of bed 
    • Find a way to remember that I am good enough ALWAYS exactly as I am now, my worth has nothing to do with what I “do”
  • Building the ability to soothe myself when upset or in distress by seeking out connection with a friend and limiting addictive substances or media
  • Practicing self-compassion when I fail or when life does not go my way versus practicing harsh criticism to motivate myself via shame
  • Cultivating connection to something larger than myself
  • Connecting to a sense of purpose, usually by benefiting/serving others
  • Connecting to a community or building the skills to find and cultivate a community
  • Connecting with individuals and groups that make me feel accepted, give me courage, and believe in me (aka unconditional love)

Donnovan Somera Yisrael, ‘89, Well-Being at Stanford