Why learning a new language replaced Netflix binges as my ultimate form of self-care

I spent the last year convincing myself that Netflix binges and deep social media rabbit holes were my stress relievers. All of the work-life balance trainings I attended at my then-job would say things like, “Watch your favorite show” or “Get your hair done” or “Treat yourself to a meal at a nice restaurant.” While those things may have been fun in the moment, they actually created a deficit for my energy because they didn’t address the root of my anxiety.

So when I made the decision to leave that job and move across the country to be a fuller-time mom, I could tell that I needed a shift in my stress management strategy. A few months before I left, two big things happened: I got my first professional massage (I learned that my stress accumulates in my neck and shoulders) and I lost my access to Netflix (long story short, the guy I was dating cheated on me and changed his Netflix password when I confronted him). I needed to bring meaning and relief back to my life without going on epic media binges or getting distracted by timeline algorithms. So I decided to go through some of my old articles to reconnect with my passions.

In my work, I often talk about being a proud Black, Muslim, and Choctaw woman, and I was inspired to learn Choctaw, the language of my Native ancestors. I was surprised to find that learning Choctaw helped me cope with stress. For some people, learning a language can present its own stressors; it can be a tedious, confusing, and difficult process. That stress can be heightened when learning a language that is not widely spoken, like Choctaw.

But for me, learning one of my Native languages has helped me to regain some control in my life when the stress of work, parenting, finances, life, and everything else seemed to exist for the sole purpose of overwhelming me.

I am eternally grateful to the School of Choctaw Language website—they offer free classes in addition to links for resources that help me and my son learn about our heritage. And this isn’t the colonized Native history that you learned in your seventh grade social studies class, either. These sites offer a rich, living testimony of our culture; incorporating their language lessons into my life has helped me develop a more sustainable, tailored model for self-care.

I needed structure—and short lessons provide that.

Every day (but not in the morning because, yuck, mornings), I get an email from the Choctaw Language School. I can be in the middle of three different work tasks, but when I get that email ding, I’m reminded to center myself. The structure created by this daily task is a mental metronome for me. It keeps me in step with the positive, calm vibes I want to project. Today’s word is ‘pim’ (pronounced pehm), which means “our.”

I feel less anxious knowing I’ve accomplished an attainable goal.

People with my personality type need short-term, measurable goals in order to feel successful. These small steps will eventually lead to me speaking Choctaw more fluently, but in the meantime, I can learn a new word each day. Realistically, I can only commit to actually remembering about three of them each week, but that sort of goal-setting strategy has spilled into other parts of my life: I just paid my first mortgage (yay for new home ownership!). Initially, I wanted to pay an extra $100 toward the principle each month so that I could pay off my 30-year mortgage in 20 years, and own another property, and buy stocks, and start a real estate business, and get my Ph.D., and travel, and…well, you get the idea. When I set goals that are too focused on the future, I exacerbate my anxiety and end up falling extremely short. When my anxiety is in check, my stress is manageable, which means I can enjoy more of the things I love.

Comparatively, when I would start a great show like Chewing Gum, I’d commit to binging not only the whole season in a few days—but also all the shows and movies I could find featuring stars Michaela Coel and Susie Wokoma, leaving me too exhausted and distracted to spend time doing other things.

A word a day can keep anxiety at bay.

Learning a new language means I am investing in my mental health in a major way. Anxiety can be debilitating, so if this helps me conquer that anxiety, learning a new word daily is a more revolutionary step than you’d think. It can have positive long-term effects. Much like brain teasers, challenging ourselves to activate less-often used parts of our brain can improve our ability to cope with anxiety over time. A study from the Cerebral Cortex Journal of Oxford identified potential coping strategies for alleviating anxiety through stimulating our executive functions in the brain. Similarly, studies show that learning a new language is a great way to ensure your executive functions are in great shape as you develop healthy self-care practices.

I used to stay up for hours on end watching movies and scrolling through Instagram in the name of my false idea of self-care.

For example, when the first series of Black Mirror came out on Netflix, I watched every episode in one day. It was, like, a Tuesday or Wednesday night. I definitely had things I needed to do the next morning. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and unable to focus, yet I would brag on social media about how much I prioritized myself and my needs—all the while undermining my ability to heal and be the best person I could be.

Look, self-care is not something that we can perfect or master. It is an ongoing mental health experiment. Developing sustainable strategies to preserve sanity can make or break us, and the same kind of routines do not work for everybody. None of this means that I will never binge-watch another show for fun (in fact, the South African crime drama Shadow features a Black woman in a wheelchair as a main character and I am living for her!). But it does mean that I have another tool in my belt to keep me from having a breakdown in the middle of a budget proposal meeting. As a wonderful side effect, I also get to teach my son more about our people’s history.

Anxiety is real and it can trigger some really awful things, but for me, learning a new Choctaw word each day has had a surprising impact on my mental health. Maybe learning a new language can do the same for you.

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