I saw a funny Glasbergen cartoon from the 1990s the other day.
In it two scientists are talking. Clipboard in hand, one reports to the other “According to the latest research, the average human body is 20% water and 80% stress.” Then I got to thinking about what that 80% stress might be doing to people’s nervous systems during this lockdown.
Whether you call it frustration, overwhelm, exhaustion or worry: they are all familiar forms of stress that get your mind whirring. But stress gets your nervous system in high gear too. “Stress Activation” of the nervous system is sort of like standing on the accelerator of your car and revving the engine. With a lot of stress your tachometer even goes into the red. Ideally your nervous system revs up briefly so you can respond and resolve the problem then it comes back to a “set point” where it is 'idle-ing”.
The challenge with this pandemic is that for many people the stress has been high AND it has gone on and on.
When this happens, your tachometer goes into the red zone a lot and of this happens frequently the nervous system ‘set point’ creeps up from ‘idle’ to ‘revving’ and stays there - unless we teach it how to reset itself. A constantly – revving nervous system is not a nice experience. It makes it harder to go to sleep or stay asleep. It can result in physical sensations like chest tremors, buzzing feelings in the arms or legs, pain, nausea, diarrhoea, an overactive startle reflex, an inability to think logically and so on.
I know from first-hand experience that when this happens your nervous system usually needs a helping hand to slow down.
So here are my top 3 ‘nervous system reset’ techniques. If you do any of these every day for 6 weeks, there will be a noticeable “downregulation” of your nervous system, which will actually help you cope better with future stress.
Have you ever had a snow globe... one of those glass orbs that you shake and then watch the glittery snow falling on a cute winter scene? Remember how the ‘snow’ takes ages to completely settle? Well, believe it or not, snow globes are a great way to understand what is happening in our mind when we try to be mindful or meditate.
Let me explain!
Imagine that the globe represents our mind and the “snow” represents our thoughts. Our mind will never be really free of thoughts (because it’s the mind’s job to think, so it will keep generating thoughts no matter what we are doing) but our thoughts can slow and settle, just like the snow in the snow globe.
As we go about our various tasks each day, the more we do, the more we ‘shake’ and activate our mind. If you think about this for a minute you might recognise that when you have been busy, even when you stop your mind is still very much on the go. This is one of the reasons why it’s harder to practice mindfulness or feel completely relaxed while you are doing something else. Literally, the physical activity continues to activate the mind and thinking.
What you can do to “settle your snow” is to stop. Sit (or lie!) down. Just be physically still for a few minutes. It’s a really interesting experiment to notice how many minutes it takes for you to notice that your “snow” is settling – or in other words, to become aware that your mind is slowing down, and the pace and volume of your thoughts are reducing. It will happen most quickly if you stay perfectly still, close your eyes and breathe gently and quietly. But it still might take 5 or 10 minutes - or more.
People who have tried meditating often say they find it hard – and this is one of the reasons! Just like you often need to warm up at the beginning of an exercise session and find your body starts to settle more comfortably into the run or swim after 5 or 10 minutes, so it is with meditation. Before we can experience the calmness and peacefulness of mindfulness meditation, we just need to give our snow time to settle.
Liz Weatherly, Mindfulness and Mindset Teacher.
Uncertainty always exists to some extent. But right now, there seems to be a lot less certainty and a lot more uncertainty. And it’s about big things like “Am I going to keep my job?” “Am I going to be able to keep my house?” “Are my overseas family going to be ok?” Even things like “Is it worth planning a holiday?” “Is it safe to send the kids to school?”.
When we are experiencing uncertainty, we typically respond with one of the fear family of emotions (ie anxiety, worry, trepidation, terror and panic). These emotions switch on our alert mode which generates varying levels of uneasiness. This is completely natural and normal. We are biologically programmed to want life to be safe and predictable, and any situation that feels physically, financially or emotionally unsafe will likely have a number of effects on us: physical tension, racing thoughts, anticipating worst case scenarios... It’s like we are on red alert, and it’s not a comfortable experience.
Essentially fear’s job is to give us a message “There is a problem. You need to take action” but it's hard to know what exactly to do when we are missing key information like how long this situation will last and what the government’s or our employers or customer’s decisions will be.
This is where mindfulness can help. No, it doesn’t give us a crystal ball, but it does help us to get into a state where we can more easily take stock of the facts that ARE available to us. In particular it helps us to recognise the fear that may be impeding our strategic thinking, identify our best course of action and be efficient and positive.
When you notice fear (eg racing heart or thoughts, tension or irritability) take 10 slow breaths. This breathing actually communicates to the body that you are safe right now and that it doesn’t need to keep flooding your system with stress hormones (which prevent your mind from thinking logically and rationally). Aim to interrupt the spiral of fear - try taking a walk, talking to a good listener or playing with a pet.
Then notice what your mind is doing with all this uncertainty. Ask yourself:
If you begin getting caught up in worst case scenarios as you do this, take another deep breath and deliberately direct your mind back to the present and just focus on what is happening NOW (it may be both good and bad but it is at least known).
Once you are calmer, it’s empowering (and often calming) to identify exactly what you’re thinking, and then to deliberately utilise your reasoning capacity to show yourself the whole picture (not just the scary bits).
Mindfulness is not a magic wand that will remove all difficulties. What it will do is help you to find calmness and clarity and support you to act in a self-supporting way - even when life is hairy.
If you want to talk to someone about Mindfulness, please contact Liz on 021 988 468 or firstname.lastname@example.org
New Zealand may have been spared the extended periods of Covid restrictions that some countries are having, but it is very apparent that the pandemic has taken a toll on Kiwis too. Even though we’ve had few cases in our own community, what the pandemic has done everywhere is bring a LOT of uncertainty about some pretty fundamental things like our own health, our livelihood, our financial future and the sort of world we’ll be living in from now on. And of course, we have had a lot of uncertainty about day-to-day things like “Shall I book a holiday?” and “Are the kids getting enough schooling?”.
Now that we are 12 months down the pandemic track, if you are feeling tired, frustrated, sad or anxious and generally “over it”, it is not just you. “Pandemic Fatigue” is a new term that is starting to be used to describe the very real feelings of stress and exhaustion stemming from the day-to-day effects of living through this event. People are reporting changed sleeping or eating patterns, feeling on edge, having a shorter fuse and being stressed by tasks (and emotions) that they used to manage well.
So how can the Mindfulness skill of self – observation help identify and manage Pandemic Fatigue?
Observe your thoughts
We are not our thoughts, but our thoughts can massively influence us if we allow them to. Frenzied thoughts and worrying are a sign of stress and generally result in knee – jerk reactions rather than helpful responses. Look at your thoughts without judgement and if they are anxious, ask yourself: Is this true? How likely is this to happen? Is this worry because I feel powerless to change anything? What can I do right now that will help me feel better? What plan can I make to deal with this if it happens? Aim to be an accurate thinker instead of an anxious thinker.
Observe your body
Our body is a mirror of our mind (and our mind is a mirror of our body!). Whenever you sit down or stand up or walk, notice how your body feels. If it is tense, take a deep breath and relax. The more tension there is in your body, the more tension there will be in your mind. A relaxed body thinks more clearly, responds more healthily and bounces back more easily from stressful situations.
Observe your feelings
Notice your emotions and allow yourself to feel what you feel, instead of trying to reject it. Unpleasant feelings are a part of you as much as the pleasant ones are, and they’re all meant to be felt – even anger and despair – because that’s how you receive the vital information they bring. Aim to accept all your feelings - even if they don’t seem logical - and be curious about why you are feeling them.
Observe your social patterns
Notice if you have been reaching out to friends or family or if you have started isolating yourself. There’s a difference between deliberate healthy quiet time where you just sit in silence without distractions for 10 minutes and hiding away because you don’t want other people to see that you are feeling crappy. One proven approach that will help you feel better is to connect regularly in a meaningful way with other people eg through a community project or group activity (even if it’s online).
Observe the expectations you have of yourself
Don’t force yourself to be happy or stay on top of everything all the time (and notice if you unwittingly expect yourself to be ‘super – person’). If you have been Covid-stressed for some time, continuing to push yourself to do more will only make the fatigue worse. Allow yourself to be less than perfect and make mistakes. Allow yourself to not have all the answers and not be at maximum output There is great value in being considerate and compassionate towards yourself because it helps the body and mind to return to a better state, from where you can then make a healthy re assessment of priorities.
Observe where you spend your day
The stress-relieving effects of being outside and sleeping enough have been proven over and over. Notice if you are spending all your time inside – including inside a car - and make it a priority to have contact with nature every day and eight hours in bed every night.
And remember these truths: Nothing lasts forever; this thing that is so hard right now will pass. And however you are feeling, don’t judge yourself for craving relief.
The summer break is coming to an end. Kids are going back to school. But some of our recent pandemic – related restrictions – like Work from Home days - are continuing. It seems people either flourish in their home office, or find WFH is invasive of their home space and time and they struggle to be as productive and disciplined as they (or the boss) would like them to be.
So how can WFH be approached mindfully?
Be deliberate about what you do BEFORE your work day starts. US Army General William McRaven is famous for saying “If you want to change your life, start each day with a task completed. So try making your bed! And notice if you feel good doing it.
Avoid looking at your phone for the first 30 minutes of each day. Dedicate that time to getting ready for your day in ways that will feel good when you look back at the end of the day ie making your bed!
Don’t go with how you feel when it comes to deciding whether to do things (like exercising, eating well, tackling the top priority first or taking adequate breaks during the day). It’s a terribly unreliable way to make decisions. Instead, work to goals that you set the evening before when you were still alert and energetic and able to focus on what would make the next day feel like a good day.
Be aware of what drains or distracts you from important tasks and really limit it. Lots of us read the news (or our newsfeed) several times a day at the moment – one story leads to another and another, and before we know it half an hour or more has passed and maybe what we’ve been reading has made us anxious, lowered our mood or made us feel reactive and less able to work well.
Be deliberate about communicating your work boundaries to family or housemates: Wearing headphones can say “I’m working”. A closed door with a note saying when you will be available to talk is an excellent strategy too.
Recognise that everyone manages WFH differently: so maybe put a note in your automatic email reply that says “I’m working flexibly and check emails at all hours. But I understand if you only check this in normal business hours.”
Be kind to your body: if you are on a phone call that doesn’t require note-taking, could you lie on the floor to give your back some love? Could you talk while you walk around the block?
Notice if your need for “people - contact” is being adequately filled. If not, arrange Skype or Zoom calls with friends (Texting doesn’t give the quality of interaction that seeing someone's face does, so doesn’t have the same positive effects)
Lastly... notice your state of mind (and your colleague’s or client’s too): look at what’s going on for you and them and consider whether some empathy might be in order? These are strange and challenging times and the very real stresses we’re exposed to may well mean that we are not being our best (or kindest) selves. Expressing understanding of what’s behind a failure to cope or perform could be the one thing that helps someone to keep going.
I want to talk about stress. And THIS year. And Christmas. And something called “The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale: The Top 41 Most Stressful Life Events”.
This year, people have experienced not one, not two but many events on the Stress Scale: dismissal from work; business readjustment; spouse stopping work; changes in financial state, work responsibilities, working hours or working conditions, living conditions, social activities, eating habits, or in frequency of arguments. And then on top of it all, here comes Christmas! (which is also on Holmes and Rahe’s list).
Stress takes our body into a mode where everything is working harder (but not necessarily better) and over time takes its toll on our health. You might have noticed that you’re a bit more creaky, or achy, or have had digestive flare ups, or higher blood pressure. Maybe your hair or skin is less healthy. In psychology and medicine Holme’s and Rahe’s list is used as an indicator of the likelihood of stress-induced health breakdown.
Of course, stress is part of life. Some stress is helpful, but persistent and severe stress isn’t and toughening up is not a sustainable solution. Mindfulness acts as an antidote to the harmful effects of stress and also, over time, makes us less prone to stress – inducing thinking.
One of the core premises of Mindfulness is that if we can notice as much as we can of EVERYTHING that is happening in any moment (rather than focusing solely on a problem), we can start to see that the not-okay AND the okay always exist alongside each other. This observation can help give us moments where stress and overwhelm recede a bit. It gives our body and mind a much-needed brief reprieve. Cumulatively, these short respites can add up to tangible benefits. This isn’t about ignoring what’s happening. It’s about seeing the reality that “I am really struggling here AND I am taking a deep, calming breath” “I am anxious AND my child is smiling” “I don’t know what to do AND I can feel my feet on the ground”.
You could try a ten-second “And” meditation right now. You don’t need to sit down or close your eyes or any of that stuff. Just acknowledge that difficult things are happening, both in the world and in your own experience. AND that you can enjoy a breath. Or the sounds of nature. Notice the way the body and mind relaxes a little when you do this.
If you’ve experienced lots of Holmes and Rahe’s stressors this year, your whole system has had a hard year as well. Christmas may well add more stress. So, instead of berating yourself for not being relaxed and full of Christmas spirit, acknowledge that “This has been a hard year AND... “
Take care, breathe, and maybe resolve to learn about Mindfulness Meditation!
Mindfulness apps abound. As do Meditation apps. As well as any number of apps related to getting yourself out of sticky, stressed, yukky mental spaces. But how do you choose one? And are they as good as a class?
Two two apps that I highly recommend are Insight Timer and The Tapping Solution. Both of these have free and supbscription versions. But in my opinion, the free versions are so well – featured that they are very adequate.
Insight Timer App is a library of recorded meditations. provided by teachers from around the world, including leaders in the field.
The Tapping Solution App offers 10-minute guided meditations combining mindful self-compassion and positivity with ‘tapping’ on easy- to- reach acupressure points. Tapping is well-researched and proven to lower Cortisol and help with difficulties including depression, stress, anxiety and physical pain.
You can use them on the bus or during kid’s sports or your lunchbreak. Some of them are invaluable resources.
What you can’t get out of an App is individualised input, personal support or the opportunity to get a sense of how normal your own experiences are. And that’s what classes are for.
So have fun exploring the Playstore
There is a lot of understandable fear and confusion surrounding the coronavirus. Not knowing what is going to happen next puts us in a place of uncertainty, and for us humans anxiety is a natural reaction to the unknown.
As well as worry, it’s likely we’ll experience all sorts of emotions, so what can we do to get through the storm, take care of ourselves and cope with this period of uncertainty?
Self compassion is being kind and understanding towards ourselves. It’s like putting a supportive arm around our own shoulders, with a view to comforting and encouraging ourself. Try saying to yourself “It’s OK. Everyone is feeling this uncertainty. It’s expected that there’ll be good days and tough days. We are all just doing our best.” “I wish this wasn’t happening, but it is. I don’t know when, but this WILL pass.”
Self compassion helps us to feel better and be resilient - particularly if isolated because of possible exposure or because we normally live by ourselves. It helps us realise our emotions are normal, and it calms the part of our brain that is uneasy and putting our bodies in flight or fight mode.
Getting carried away with torturous thoughts about the future is not uncommon, but also adds to your stress. If this is you, try to deliberately pay attention to what is actually going on right now. Look outside. Listen to sounds. Sniff the food or drink you are about to consume. Ask yourself “How am I feeling right now?” and do your best to accept yourself whatever the answer is.
Mindfulness meditation can be a fast way to “Calm your Farm” (as my kids would say!) The Insight Timer App has lots of free mindfulness meditations.
Try 4-7-8 Breathing for anxiety or strong emotions
Here’s how you do it:
Reach Out to Others
Even when we can’t meet in person, keep connecting by phone, video call or messaging! It’s one of the best ways to reduce anxiety, depression, loneliness, and boredom during social distancing and isolation. Try to be open about your feelings and invite them to do the same. We’ll all have moments of calm or fear, so take turns leaning on one another for support. Having fun and laughing is very valuable in tough times, so joke around and be light hearted too.
Engage Your Mind
Are you constantly thinking about the virus? Finding activities that stimulate our mind and distract us is important: work from home, play games, read, write, do puzzles, watch interesting movies or TV shows, then have conversations about what you’ve been watching and learning.
While staying informed is really important, also take breaks from the news. Regularly doing something pleasurable and distracting is very important for your wellbeing.
Staying physically healthy is important, so find ways to exercise like going for walks up our lovely Millwater hills when you’re able, dancing with the kids or doing yoga (I recommend Yoga with Adriene on YouTube – perfect for newbies!). Moving your body increases feel-good chemicals, decreases chemicals that make us feel down and increases body temperature which also helps us feel calmer.
Connect with Nature
If it’s safe to do so, take a walk in a green or open space. If at home, look out the window or watch the sunset. Notice how you feel when you do this. Nature can have remarkable calming and healing effects on how we feel and can be a powerful tool in coping with anxiety.
Practice Optimism and Gratitude
Last but not least, maintain a sense of hope and positivity. We may be living through a new experience but we are doing what we can to get through it safely, healthily, and compassionately. Chances are, we will start to miss a great many things, but talking about or writing down things you are grateful for can be a great way to zoom in what is going well under the circumstances.
Whatever each of us is going through, try to remember that none of us are the only one going through it. Take care of yourself and of one another. Things will be OK.
Two things may have happened for you during lockdown: you developed some unwanted habits or you discovered you have existing habits you want to change.
A break from ‘normal’ (eg lockdown, a holiday or illness) disrupts the systems that support your regular helpful routines and before you know it unwanted habits show up! Or the break gives us space to notice more clearly the unwanted patterns that you’d like to change.
So how can mindfulness help with changing a habit? Well, mindfulness is all about developing the skill of being able to choose where to put your attention (and therefore your energy). It’s the opposite of mindlessness, which is where you do things on autopilot. Mindfulness can…
Only when you have done these other things, start introducing a healthy replacement behaviour when you feel the urge. For example instead of emotional shopping spend time with friends or instead of snacking all evening go for a walk.
Notice that the old habit takes less energy (willpower) than the new habit. Initiating the new habit can feel like getting a heavy ball rolling: but once it’s rolling it will be easier to keep moving. By paying mindful attention to what happens when you engage in the habit you will feel more accepting of the amount of energy the new habit takes.
And try mindfulness meditation: even a few minutes a day of quiet focus on your breath can help you feel calmer and to think more clearly. You’ll be less likely to spend all your time in autopilot and will notice your triggers more easily. Best of all you’ll be more motivated and habits will be easier to change.
As contradictory as these two things seem to be, it’s possible to bring mindfulness to our many daily activities, so that we can carry them out without the usual physical and mental tension that tend to occur when we have a lot to do.
If you are a parent of young children, it’s likely that every day you have a significant list of tasks to undertake: get kids up, eat breakfast, prepare lunches, prepare self for work, travel to school then to work, carry out work... and so on. As we move between roles and tasks - specially if there isn’t much time in between (or we are engaging in the dreaded multi-tasking!) - we tend to keep thinking ahead to the next thing and the next, often imagining what is going to be involved, and this contributes to our tension. Tension also results from our mind and body trying to manage all our racing thoughts and constant physical movement. In conjunction with this, we’ll maybe experience an inner commentary that says things like “Oh no, not another red light” or “I wish the kids would be quiet for a bit” or “Damn, I forgot the toilet paper”. Result? We are not the calm, rational and centered person we would like to be.
At its simplest, mindfulness involves doing something with awareness or bringing your awareness to what you are doing. It’s the opposite of autopilot and reactivity. Therefore, the breakfast rush could include being aware (or noticing) that you are not tasting your coffee. The moment you become aware that you aren’t tasting it – you will begin to taste it! As you trot into kindy or school with your little one (with most of your attention on getting there on time) you might realise that you haven’t been appreciating the wonderful feel of their soft little hand in yours. While you are waiting at the traffic lights, notice how your shoulders feel. If they are tense, let them drop – another moment of mindfulness.
Even in the midst of busyness, moments of mindfulness are gold because our body relaxes a little and our mind softens too. Both of these help us to think more clearly and to keep current priorities where they need to be instead of mentally racing ahead of ourselves and becoming overwhelmed with what is still to do. One deliberate deep breath. One instant of appreciating something. One return to “Let me be present with this” is all it takes to begin to experience life – even a busy life - with a little more ease.
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