By Natalie Read
Have you been surprised by how stressed or anxious you’ve felt since the end of lockdown? Maybe you’re not enjoying socialising as much as you thought? Possibly you’re feeling overwhelmed by a busier life? Maybe you’re experiencing increased anxiety but not entirely sure why? If so you’re not alone. Many people are reporting increased levels of stress, anxiety, difficulty sleeping as well as feelings of confusion and frustration at feeling this way, compared with the expected elation or excitement at returning closer to “normal”.
There is a common myth that we can choose our feelings but in reality this isn’t the case. One of the challenges we face in being human is learning to accept ourselves and the reality of life versus expectations. Self-acceptance includes your feelings. Ignoring or repressing emotion is a short-term strategy at best and can lead to physical ailments, tension, and stress, affect your relationships, your sleep and lead to unhealthy coping strategies. Conversely, acknowledging your feelings, listening to what they might be telling you and finding healthy outlets for them can increase your happiness, decision-making and well-being in the long run.
How happy are you? How do you feel about your work-life balance? How optimistic do you feel about the future? How healthy are your coping strategies? How often do you feel at peace? It’s easy to get into the habit of following the same routines. Living through the pandemic has brought an interruption to this, bringing important information to our attention. You may have been following a path that’s expected of you; feeling you’re on a “treadmill” rushing around, feeling frequently anxious or overwhelmed; following through on plans in the diary that nearer the time you’d rather not do, preferring not to let anyone down than listen to yourself. We all do this from time to time but if your life is dominated by overworking, over pleasing, over worrying, trying to be perfect or other similar strategies, you’re unlikely to feel happy or at peace with your life.
The easing of lockdown restrictions offers an opportunity to reset ourselves and find more balance between mind and body. Rather than returning to “normal” routines and habits, there’s a chance of reflection and adoption of new routines that bring greater peace, happiness and productivity alongside greater balance and well-being. An opportunity to consider the information from your feelings and inner wisdom and make choices in line with this, rather than deferring to others or bowing down to expectations and pressures from society or those closer to you. Here are some suggestions to help you work towards this:
Create more peace in your life – evaluate your environment and the activities in your week. Feel more at peace in your environment by surrounding yourself with objects and people who make you feel more relaxed. Spend more time in nature and with people you can be yourself with. Reduce clutter and interactions that regularly affect your well-being and mood detrimentally e.g. limit exposure to bad news, media sources that make you feel fearful, gossip etc.
Write down all of the activities and tasks you do in a week. Identify from your list, those which bring you peace and those which bring you stress. Ideally bring this more into balance and add additional things to help promote relaxation and well-being. Examples might include more time in nature, exercise, relaxation, meditation, have a relaxing bath, and consider when you have felt the most peace in your life and what can help you bring more of this into your life now. Try to be more aware of your senses to help you get out of your head. Visit beautiful places that make you feel calm. Practice self-compassion.
Go with the flow – like the seasons or weather, life is naturally full of ups and downs. In the same way that we cannot control nature, we cannot avoid this but we can influence how we respond to challenging times. Every time you judge yourself for experiencing difficulty imagining it’s your fault or that other people are coping better (despite appearances, no one is immune to difficulty), you add layers of self-criticism and the impact of this on top of what you’re already facing. Resisting emotion, ignoring physical sensations and neglecting self-care can add additional further layers. Each additional layer makes the “down” deeper and last longer.
If instead, you acknowledge that you’re human, life’s not perfect and nor is anyone else, you make navigating the ups and downs easier (though not easy!) You still face the natural ebb and flow of life but with less additional layers to contend with. You’re less likely to give yourself a hard time and move through the situation more quickly. You’re more likely to practice self-care, listen to and find an outlet for your feelings and learn to be more self-compassionate.
Find healthy outlets for your emotions – Self-reflect on what you’re feeling. Sometimes acknowledging the emotion is enough for the feeling to disperse. At other times, you might need to process what your feelings are highlighting or what action could be beneficial. Having an outlet helps to prevent the feelings from building up. Find what works for you and seek professional support if you need help to do so. Notice the impact of your judgement and be aware of inherent assumptions. Work on responding to rather than resisting what you’re facing.
When you feel anxious or overwhelmed, try to identify anything that might be helpful to listen to e.g. creating a plan to manage a busy to-do list, seeking advice for a situation that feels difficult etc. Conversely challenge any spiralling thoughts by identifying assumptions, exploring evidence and focusing on what you would like to have rather than ruminating on what you don’t. Learn to be more in the present moment with more self-compassion rather than spending too much time replaying the past or ruminating about the future. Manage the physical symptoms of anxiety or overwhelm through exercise or relaxation.
Practice regular breathing to help slow you down, reconnect to yourself and step off the “treadmill”. You can use this simple exercise to help you stay connected to yourself throughout the day (plan in your diary proactively) or when you notice signs of stress or overwhelm. It only takes a few minutes and you can do this anywhere but if you feel self-conscious, find somewhere private to do so.
- Take a really deep breath through your nose into your stomach so that your abdomen and diaphragm expands. You should feel this in your stomach.
- Hold your breath for a second or two as long as it feels comfortable.
- On the out breath through your nose, breathe as slowly out as you can to release your tension and stress.
The out breath is important as this helps to release the stress hormones and tension so the longer and slower the better. Do this for several minutes to feel the benefit. If you are not noticing any movement in your stomach, you may be shallow breathing. It does take practice and you will notice the difference the more you do so. It’s not uncommon to feel tired or other emotion after doing this, as it is often masked by stress hormones. If you are shallow breathing, feeling overwhelmed, stressed or panicked, it will be difficult to breathe deeply straightaway. So imagine yourself in a lift and gradually move down a floor one at a time, until you reach your stomach. Do this slowly and gently to feel comfortable.
A meditation practice can help you to calm the mind, relax the body, reduce stress and anxiety, increase self-awareness and intuition, increase happiness and confidence, improve productivity and decision-making and enhance health and well-being. Try the following simple exercise to help you assess your levels of energy, stress and happiness:
- Start by finding somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed
- Ground yourself by imagining roots that lead your feet into the ground. Connect yourself to the sun by imagining branches stretching up from your head. Place yourself in a golden bubble of protection to feel safe.
- Pay attention to your breathing just as it is. Notice the journey of the breath through your nose into your lungs and diaphragm. Then notice the journey of exhalation in reverse.
- If you could get an image for your energy levels, what would that be and where are you on the scale? You might imagine a temperature barometer or your own image.
- Now do the same for your stress levels. You might like to imagine the visual of a car’s rev counter. Normal level is around 2, it can go up higher but then goes into the red which starts to have a negative impact on the health of your car’s engine. Where are you on your stress rev counter? If you need to bring this down, what activities might help you do so?
- Now repeat for your happiness levels. Think of an image that makes you happy and the clues that your body might give you that indicate you are happy. Breathing lighter, muscles relaxed, warm feeling in your chest, smile etc. Where are you on this scale? What might help you increase this?
- Gently bring yourself back by stretching and noticing your present environment. Reflect on any information you have discovered and act on this as feels appropriate.
The more you practice this, the easier it is to understand and act on your own wisdom. NB: stop if you feel in any way uncomfortable.
Take the life-balance audit to improve balance and self-care (adapted from exercise 36: Being Human – the path to self-acceptance, resilience and happiness By Natalie Read)
|Area (adapt headings to suit your unique circumstances)||Time you would like to spend on this (1 = not at all, 10 = maximum time)||Current Time allocated to this (1 = not at all, 10 = maximum time)|
|Hobbies and interests|
|Career: current job|
|Career: future aspirations/CV|
|Self-care (nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress management etc)|
|Working on yourself (healthy coping strategies, outlet for emotions instead of repression/distraction, challenging limiting beliefs etc)|
|Happiness and meaning (community, charity, what you are passionate about, activities that bring you joy etc)|
|Well-being (relaxation, meditation, nature, reflection time, prayer, peace, nature etc)|
Hopefully you will get a sense from this exercise the biggest gaps between what is important to you and the current time you are allocating for this. Maybe there are some surprises here in what might have changed in importance as a result of going through the pandemic? Try to identify 3 key action points which could help you bring this into balance and increase your happiness?
Natalie Read is a counsellor, working with university students and in private practice, with a background in the corporate world (25 years’ experience in total), and the author of Being Human – the path of self-acceptance, resilience and happiness, now available online as paperback and e-book. www.natalieread.co.uk