Stress feels like the constant, national epidemic that is somehow accepted as the new norm. It shouldn't be...Although short bouts of motivational stress, the sort which gets you through an important exam or presentation can do us good, long term stress generally makes us feel tired, miserable and more prone to infections. It has also been linked to many long term illnesses, which reflects the importance of learning how to manage it.
For many of us, just the thought of learning how to manage stress feels stressful! However, a few quick wins could really help you feel calmer and more grounded.
Where do you start? Think about how you start your day as this often provides an important foundation for how the rest of your day will unfold. Pay attention to the little things, like eating breakfast, having things organised in advance, even leaving the house ahead of traffic to give you a calmer start to the day.
A good friend once taught me to pay attention to the basics, when under pressure: sleep, rest, relaxation, food and company. This has proved invaluable advice over the years...If times get tough, I always come back to these basic principles. I might not achieve them all but having them as a framework to work towards really helps me.
The mindfulness three minute gap is a great way to use those little pieces of time we all get when waiting for a bus or the pasta to finish cooking! Three minutes can allow me to monitor how I am feeling, adjust my breathing and posture and potentially stop that sense of stress from escalating.
If you feel constantly stressed, as so many of us do, it might be worth exploring your triggers and how to reduce them. An awareness of unhelpful thinking styles and how to bring yourself back to more balanced thinking can all help reduce stress.
Exercise is also key to most of us, allowing us to walk or run off our stress. A recent course that I took introduced me to the wonderful idea of trauma releasing exercises. This is simply the idea of borrowing from animals the trick of shaking or shivering when everything gets too much. There are even trauma releasing classes available now, or of course, yoga which encourages you to shake your body out!
If this doesn't appeal, then sometimes the act of sharing, listening and having your stress validated can be powerful and healing. We live in an ever more increasingly stressful and isolated world, knowing that our sense of stress is part of the human condition, rather than just about you can be a powerful step towards feeling calmer.
Understanding and Managing Stress Course
Do you feel overwhelmed, tired and constantly worried? Would you like to feel calmer, worry less and be more in control of your mind? If you've answered yes to the above questions, Heeley Development Trust's course is for you!
Wednesdays 12.30-2.30 pm At Meersbrook Hall, Brook Road, S8 9FL. Contact Heeley Development Trust for more information: 0114 399 1070/ text 07786207792/ firstname.lastname@example.org
Self-Employment and Stress
Much has been written about the value of work and how it can provide people with so much more than “just” money. Equally, work can be a huge contributor to a person’s stress, particularly in sectors where resources and staffing have now been cut back to the bone.
My own shift into Private Practice and self-employment has led me to question how stressful self-employment can be. Employment provides a boundary between the personal and the professional. Keeping this boundary intact when working from home can be more of a challenge and more so in times of difficulty.
People sometimes remark about how work kept them going during a divorce or other personal set back. Does self-employment provide the same escape from personal difficulty or does it blur the boundaries so much that it impacts on an individual’s usual coping strategies? If self-employment and home-working do reduce an individual’s ability to escape into a work place, familiar routine and role, what is the impact on the overall mental health of a country which has seen a rapid increase in self-employment? These are all thoughts and considerations worthy of reflection during Stress Awareness Month.
Personally, I love holidays, travel and flying. I could live at an airport, well almost, such is my enjoyment of the frenetic buzz and collective holiday excitement that I can absorb at an airport. However, I have become increasingly aware of the fact that not everyone finds the pre-holiday preparations exciting or enjoys the exhilaration of an unknown holiday destination. For many, this can be the stuff of anxiety. For some, there's a real sense of trepidation about what the hotel room will be like or the stress of meeting everyone's needs on holiday.
For others, the time to finally connect with a partner, after weeks of work or childcare, can be a source of anxious high expectations that don't get realized. Then, there's the complexity of holidaying alone; will you meet people to chat to, hang out with or travel with? There's that annoyance that what should be a week of pre-holiday excitement is actually one of nervousness and maybe worry at how the solo holiday might pan out.
Of course, I'm aware this can all sound very glass half empty-ish! Holidaying alone can be a real opportunity to build self-esteem and indulge in experiences that others might hold you back from. Family holidays can bring fun, adventure and memory making. However, it is worth us all being aware that for a significant minority holidays can trigger anxiety. This might be specific, in terms of fear of flying or an unresolved phobia of snakes, insects or vaccinations. Alternatively, the anxiety might be linked to a fear of the unknown or deeply held beliefs about the world being an essentially unsafe place.
Reflections on Self-care.
2019 has felt like the year that officially put self-care on the map, suddenly, it was getting a mention on social media. Self-care is an essential part of any counsellor's training, it is the foundation from which to work effectively with clients. During my training, I saw self-care as an ever evolving work in progress that required me to balance work, training, exercise, rest, food and good company! Since qualifying, self-care has really come into sharp focus.
It only took a few weeks of Private Practice, for me to start recognizing the importance of a nurturing inner voice. I'd never been someone whose inner voice was harsh or critical but suddenly I realized how hard I could be on myself when at work, particularly at the end of the day when I had felt like I hadn't got enough done. It was subtle but the self criticism was definitely there. I did my usual: asked myself if I would talk to my best friend like this- of course, I wouldn't!
I then started to exercise a little self-compassion at the end of each day, writing down three tasks that I had accomplished on a piece of scrap paper and giving myself credit for it.
It was during this early period of Private Practice that I started to realize that self-care isn't just about exercise, rest, doing fun stuff and eating five pieces of fruit and veg a day although of course this is important! It is also about our relationships with ourselves, our inner voices and also what we choose to accept from others.
My ten self-care tips:
1) Prioritize sleep! It is the foundation of good mental health; a good night's sleep improves mood and it is free!
2) Watch your self-talk. Are you your own harshest critic? If you have this tendency, aim to pull yourself back by asking yourself if you would talk to your best-friend like this.
3) Get out into nature, even in the winter. Aim to keep your vitamin D levels topped up.
4) Start your day with a meditation, if this isn't possible, focus on your breathing; allowing your out breath to be longer than your in breath. This will promote a relaxation response.
5) Have a good book on the go. The latest survey that I saw stated that those that read regularly have better levels of mental well being.
6) Be kind to yourself and others!
7) Keep a Gratitude Book: list ten things each morning that you are thankful for. This has been demonstrated to help a person become more positive.
8) If you feel down on a regular basis, see if you can work out what is causing it. If it is a natural response to the uncertain world in which we live, consider meeting, talking or joining with others who feel the same.
9) If you enjoy poetry, see if you can get hold of "The Poetry Pharmacy". This beautiful book is packed with soothing, inspiring poetry which can often "hit the spot" in a way that nothing else can.
10) Allow time to day dream, preferably with a cup of tea, lovely company and a four-legged friend!
A fault with reality.
For the last few months, I have been unsure as to what to blog about. I am now starting to wonder if my confusion around what topic to pick reflects the wider confusion in which we are now living. To begin with, self-care was the obvious choice. However, as lockdown progressed it became so much more evident that although we were all in the same storm, we really weren’t all in the same boat. I have watched in horror at the lack of PPE and the government’s failure to deliver it on time for so many frontline workers. I know how concerned I have felt at the possibility of returning to face to face work too soon. I can only begin to imagine the ongoing anxiety of frontline workers, working at the peak of infection, without proper equipment. If it were me, I would also feel fury. Fury that I was potentially expected to give my all, including potentially my life and not be given the protective clothing for this. I think that this sentiment was echoed brilliantly just over a week ago by the doctors protesting outside Downing Street.
And what about the often forgotten frontline workers, like social workers and mechanics, quietly putting themselves at risk, day in day out? Personally, I would ’ve been lost without the brilliant organisation at Aldi over the past few months!
More recently, I have felt a growing sense of what could be termed societal gaslighting. The rate of infection is dangerously close to one, there are many places in England where the virus has not peaked and not enough is known about the role of children in spreading the virus. Track and trace works best when there are only a small number of cases to actually track and trace… yet, many schools will be open this month. I am wondering what has changed? It would be understandable to feel confused and like you are going a little “crazy”, surrounded by a mass of information, indicating that a second wave is likely, whilst being told that shops will be reopening in mid-June and that it is now OK to meet in groups of six outside- has anyone done the maths on the size of a garden, with six people socially distancing? Has anyone read the science on the group of six?
In the midst of feeling like I am now living in an age of societal gaslighting, I was reminded of a wonderful slogan: Don’t adjust your mind, there is a fault with reality. For me, there is a fault with the reality of the fifth richest country in the world having one of the highest death tolls in the world and the highest in Europe. There is a fault in reality at ignoring the recommendations of Cygnus, locking down too late and not drawing a protective ring around care homes. If you don’t want to adjust your mind but feel confused and distressed by the fault in the reality you are currently seeing, what can you actually do?
Recognise your power. It is too easy to believe that there’s nothing you can do and that things won’t change. Who was it that said to never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world because it is the only thing that ever has? What do you want to do about the things that are going on around you that are distressing you? Do you want to join with others to share how you feel and find out what you can do? Do you want change at an individual, local, national or world level? Or maybe you feel too overwhelmed by your own circumstances to be able to think about the world. If that’s you, or even if it isn’t ( self-care is good for us all) I’ve put together this list of self-care tips, which might help:
Recognise and accept that most of us are carrying the weight of anxiety and uncertainty about this virus. It is tiring! Accept that you might not be able to do everything at the speed that you used to. Be kind to yourself.
If you are finding yourself in an endless cycle of worry, use the worry half hour. A treasured colleague taught me this one and it’s brilliant! Schedule a worry half hour with your mind. If your mind keeps worrying, remind it that its allotted time to worry is say at 4.30 pm or 8.30 pm. When you reach this time, you might need the worry half hour or you might not need it. If you need it, allocate a specific chair or area of a room to get the worry out. Ideally, don’t do the worry half hour in a bedroom.
Keep a journal. Write for ten minutes a day or if that feels too much, ten minutes a week. Studies have shown that those who write how they feel often have better levels of wellbeing.
Breathe! Concentrate on “making” your out breath longer than your in breath. This sends a relaxation signal to your brain to relax.
Aim to take care of as many of “the basics” as you can: sleep, rest, exercise, nutrition, nurturing company, fun and assertive communication; that includes how you talk to yourself too! It can be a challenge keeping all these things in balance, particularly now, so aim to keep this framework in mind and return to it if you feel your mood starting to slip.
If you know that you are particularly bad at putting your own needs first, it might help to produce a self-care menu as a reminder of what works in the midst of a stressful or anxious time.
Reframe. If you find yourself being self-critical, ask yourself what would you say to a friend, if he or she were in the same position. Would you talk to yourself in the same way that you would talk to a friend?
Recognise the power of distraction. I’m not talking about going into denial over something but we all need to switch off and an engrossing book or box set can give our minds a much needed break from a swirl of unwanted thoughts.
If your self-care is rooted in activity, solidarity and joining with like-minded people think about where you can put your energy. The internet has opened up a multitude of online meetings and campaigns, which might even make involvement easier.
Alternatively, your self-care might be found in reaching out to local support and community groups.
Finally, keep alert to the faults in reality that are causing you distress. That distress is telling you something, it is up to you how you choose to channel it…
Back To School:
Starting secondary school is a significant milestone for any young person. However, it is often the parent who struggles with anxiety, panic, worry and a spiral of negative thoughts about their child's transition to "big school".
Many parents' experience of school has been negative, particularly in the days when bullying wasn't taken seriously. Parents often worry that their son or daughter's unique qualities, which were nurtured at primary school, will go unnoticed due to the vast number of students at secondary school. For other parents, they may not be able to articulate why they feel so anxious, worried or sad about their child starting a new school.
Secondary school can feel like the start of the teenage years, which can lead many parents to feel sad about witnessing the end of a childhood and having to redefine their own identity as a parent of a teenager, rather than of a younger child. While other parents may fear the start of the teenage years due to the recognition that peers become more influential in a teen's life than family. Worry may spiral at the hugeness of supporting a teenage child in an increasingly fast paced, technological world, where the roles are reversed and teens teach parents how to stay safe online.
However, whatever your anxieties about your child starting school in September, it is worth seeing them for what they are. If you do feel anxious or worried about your child starting school in September, it is worth pinpointing what you are actually anxious about and working out if your feelings are due to a past event which is triggering your anxiety or about something more immediate. Talk to others that you can trust, who are in a similar position or who have experienced supporting their children through this transition. How did they deal with their fears, without passing them on to their children? It might help to view worry differently. I recently read an interesting article which suggested viewing worry as an invitation to find a solution to a problem. Put like that, it suddenly feels a little easier to deal with the spiral of dread!
Finally, what about if you feel calm about the new school year but your child is full of anxious anticipation? Go back to basics, teach your child to breathe out more slowly than they breathe in, to activate the body's relaxation response. It might sound odd but focus on body language. Michelle Elliott, an expert on anti-bullying strategies, discovered that changing body language to a relaxed and confident posture can stop bullying (and also keep it at bay) in a huge percentage of cases. If your child is receptive, teach them about all of the unhelpful thinking styles that most of us are prone to falling into, from time to time. Once you learn how to spot these unhelpful thinking styles, it is much easier to pull yourself out of them! Fortunately many secondary schools now recognize how scary this transition can feel and put support in place to ease the transition. In essence, it is worth acknowledging that most of us find change difficult; it can bring difficult feelings to the surface but with support, recognition and kindness, this will pass.