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  • Writer's pictureLeia DeSousa

Playing Jenga With Maslow

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

I wrote the first draft of this piece back in February. Since that time COVID-19 went from a foreign concern to a full-blown pandemic, our lives turned upside down. I firmly believe that taking care of ourselves and our most basic biological needs is crucial. Now, more than ever, our immune systems and psyches need this support. The silver (ok, maybe dirty gray) lining is that so many of us are forced to slow down and adjust our priorities. Now is as good an opportunity as any to sleep in, read a paper book, start that meditation habit, eat your food slowly without the TV, and cuddle with family or pets if you have them. For those of you forced to work insane hours in stressful situations, remember the most important lesson from airplane safety: put your own oxygen mask on first. Even just 2 minutes of closing your eyes and taking deep breaths is valuable.

I first saw Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in my high school Psychology class. Considered one of the founders of humanistic psychology, he strove to bring into focus humans’ potential and creativity. His theory addresses human motivation and needs for growth, with each layer creating a foundation for the next. Physical needs, such as food and water, make up the base of the pyramid, followed by safety and shelter. Once that foundation was solid, humans were free to focus on their psychological needs, such as love and belonging; upon that base we could develop self-esteem and, eventually, aspire to self-actualization. And while it may not be the case that every need must be met in order of importance (Maslow himself later debunked this*); I do think this paradigm offers valuable insight.

For many of us in first world countries, the most basic needs are readily, almost automatically met. While this is a boon for art and intellectual pursuits, this societal shift has caused most of us to seriously neglect our foundations. We’ve built our pyramids the way we play Jenga: grabbing bricks from the bottom layer to stack precariously higher and higher at the top.

The result? We have become a society of high achievers that are burnt out and struggle to maintain peak health. Our priorities have shifted, but our biology has not! We spend most of our waking hours on work, squeezing in meals while multitasking- maybe taking a break for a high intensity workout. Culture and a good chunk of our socialization are via the internet and TV. We’re left with little time to devote to our most basic needs and our pyramid becomes unstable. Sleep, rest, savoring (and digesting) our food, gentle movement throughout the day, and in-person bonding are the very habits that allow us the psychological freedom and acuity to grow and develop happily.

Now, I understand that our culture and environment play a large role in how we must live our lives. There is a lot that is out of our control; our work schedule, external stress factors, crowded subways, you name it. But, if you’re frustrated by your lack of results in the gym, poor digestion or overall health, maybe there’s an overlooked piece (or pieces) at a more fundamental level. Maybe it’s time to look at where you can take a block from the top, so to speak, and move it to refortify your base.

Here are some ways to shift and fortify your attention to basics. Don’t do them all at once! Start small:

Water and More Water

I love my coffee as much as anyone, as well as my occasional matcha and turmeric lattes. But let’s not forget water! Use a filter (on the faucet, in the fridge). Avoid plastic bottles. And drink plenty throughout the day. Especially now.

Quality Food Choices

Remember that what you eat literally becomes you. We break down food to fuel, repair, and rebuild our cells. There’s no need to be perfect but do include high quality foods as much as you can. Each day get some colorful vegetables for fiber and nutrients, some healthy fats (think whole & plant sources, as unadulterated as possible), and protein.

Slow Down & Savor

You’re only able to properly digest food when you give your central nervous system a chance to relax. Whatever you’re eating, take some time to focus on your meal. Pause, take some deep breaths, chew your food, savor (or critique) what you’re eating. By all means, enjoy the company of others sharing your meal, but put down work and devices (yes, even if you’re just scrolling social media; distraction isn’t relaxing the way we think it is).


Cultivate your sleep habits with the obsessive care you do your IG feed. Sleep is not only a crucial fundamental (for psychological health, strength & physical fitness, mental sharpness, & immunity), it is, until recently, the most overlooked component in my work with clients. Sleep is a tricky one, where you don’t have direct control over the outcome. You do have control over creating the best possible environment for sleep. Good sleep hygiene involves taking steps to get your body ready for sleep. Some easy tweaks: keep your bedroom slightly cool, invest in blackout curtains and remove electronic sources of light from your bedroom at night. Next level practices include: turning down lights or shifting to red toned lights an hour or two before bed, wearing blue-light blocking glasses in the evening (No, this doesn’t give you permission to be on your phone up until bedtime, and keep a notebook by your bed to jot down anything that your brain might want to start obsessing over when you close your eyes. Most effective habits include: shutting down tech an hour or two before bedtime, limit caffeine consumption and have it before noon, hydrate adequately throughout the day. Each person’s sensitivity to these various components will differ, so be curious and patient as you experiment.

Sexual Intimacy (alone or with another)

Of course, no need to actually reproduce as Maslow says (it was 1943 and birth control had yet to be invented), but find some time to get intimate. Masturbation has a plethora of benefits, so don’t rule this out, even if you do have a partner. Google, “benefits of orgasms” and you’ll get quite an impressive list including: reduce stress, foster sleep, improve your relationships, strengthen your heart and pelvic floor, get glowing skin…and by extrapolation, live a longer, healthier more satisfying life.

Recharge Meditation, deep breathing, journaling, and practicing gratitude are all incredibly valuable (alone, or in support of the other basics). Yes, it does take time to slow down and focus any of these actions, but the benefits you reap will make you that much more productive and effective, as well as keep you healthy and sane.

* Saul McLeod. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.”, 2020. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

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