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Mindfulness

The battle against lockdown burn-out

Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, leaving work at work was a simple process for many of us. Arriving at and leaving the office represented (most of the time) a definite start and end to our working day. Train journeys, bus rides, walks, and bike rides to work gave us a chance to plan and rehearse the day ahead. The journey home from the office allowed us an opportunity to process our day, dial down from work stresses and re-enter a mental space where we were able to relax and give time to the rest of our lives and our selves. With the advent of smartphones, even this routine has lost its power to protect our home life from the intrusion of work, but the structure was there nonetheless, and many of us clung to it like a lifeline, our legs dangling above the abyss of burnout.

Lockdown took from many of us this work life balance safety net. It blurred even more the lines between work and home. Groggily we stumble out of bed, sleep walk over to our computers and fire them up peering at emails through blurry, bloodshot eyes before we have said our first word. We dive headfirst into our workday before we have had a positive interaction with anyone in our lives, before we have done anything positive for ourselves, often before we have thought about anything else at all.

Work starts our day, and often ends it, as we squeeze in one more email late at night because it’ll only take a minute and the computer is right there and then we won’t have to do it tomorrow and we might as well as wish we had and so on and so on.

Our intellectual brains are incredibly adept at offering up rationale for decisions driven by our emotional brains, which is where, thanks to months of a less than fantastic work life balance, many of us have found ourselves. Buried deep in our emotional primitive minds, swimming in stress.

This continual state of high stress impacts us physically, mentally, and emotionally. We respond to comments from friends and colleagues with paranoia and self doubt. WhatsApp messages from friends build up like an overwhelming mountain of admin. We fire back work emails too quickly. We are rushed and defensive. We are distracted in our interactions with family members. We can’t remember what we had for lunch and whether we had any at all. Making dinner looms like a mammothian challenge and we end up reaching for the cornflakes. Our sleep starts to feel unsatisfying and inadequate. Our skin breaks out and we experience aches and pains we have never experienced before. Everything feels slightly out of control.

In the absence of a ready made structure that can support some form of work-life balance, how can we protect our lives beyond work? Different strategies will work for different personalities, but a good place to start is by asking ourselves what will I do to care for myself today? Perhaps this question alone might open the door to how we might better care for ourselves tomorrow.

Mindfulness

Dancing leaves

The tree that reaches it’s gentle sweeping branches over my courtyard is a giant. Exposed to the elements; wind, sun and rain. I often sit back and wonder at the leaves, dancing their chaotic dance. Twirling, tumbling into and around each other; clinging on to the branches for dear life as they twist around it in search of refuge from the wind. The dance is exhausting to watch, it appears miraculous that the leaves manage to hold on.

These dancing leaves remind me of my thoughts. Bustling alongside each other, coiling, curling around each other, vying with each other for a millisecond of space. And yet, when I shift my focus from the busy canopy down to the thick trunk, I leave behind the chaos; all is still, steady, strong and firm.

Refocusing our attention to our core, to what matters, can feel like a challenge. It can be difficult to remember that the trunk is even there, hidden beneath the wild waving, the spinning circus of leaves above. When we accept our thoughts for what they are, leaves dancing in the wind, we accept their busy, chaotic dance, we accept their exhausting acrobatics as an inevitable part of our nature, part of our humanity as we journey through life, exposed to the elements. When we accept our thoughts for what they are, we allow ourselves to release our focus on the twists and turns of every leaf. We allow ourselves to step back and see through the swaying branches to the steady trunk beneath.

This core strength is something we can return to whenever we need, when the chaos above becomes too overwhelming. It is always there, restorative and resilient; a sturdy cradle from which we can branch out, extend, adventure and explore; dancing with the wind and reaching for the sun.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Mindfulness

Hearing bodies, listening minds

 “It was gut instinct. I just knew.”

Given how readily we accept the connection between our body and mind through our everyday choice of words, it is surprising how little credit we give our bodies as messengers of our emotions. 

We ignore our heavy eyelids and pour another coffee to override fatigue. We hide stress underneath the make-up we use to conceal our skin breakouts. We dull our anxiety with the pain killers we take for our tension headaches. Our bodies can be bombarding us with signals that our mind is suffering, and still we don’t listen. There’s always a quick fix; a way of pushing the signal away and papering over the cracks.

Until there isn’t a quick fix. There’s no paper left. And we break.

What happens if we start to listen to our bodies before they scream for our attention? What happens if we recognise the power of these connections between our body and mind, and use them to go deeper, to understand how we can support our bodies and minds to work in our favour? What happens if we take a moment to hear what our body is telling us? What happens if we take the messages seriously, and look beyond the surface for a solution?

What is your body telling you? 

Mindfulness

Owning our lockdown lows

For many of us, lockdown has brought bubbling to the surface emotions that we have pushed to the depths of our minds for as long as we can remember and kept there with busy routines, interactions, and to-do-lists. Endless stimulation has provided our moments of melancholy with a fast track down to this subconscious space.

Some of us do this so well that when these emotions rise up, they do so with the power of like a geyser firing hot steam hundreds of feet into the air. Our turmoil is compounded by utter shock that such strength of emotion exists inside us. 

So what happens if we see this uprising of all those long-supressed and smothered emotions as an opportunity to accept them, to acknowledge them, to allow them airtime?

Brené Brown encapsulates beautifully the importance of acknowledging how we are feeling in her book Rising Strong:

“The opposite of recognising that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away. Instead they own us, they define us.”

Pushing difficult thoughts and feelings to the depths of our mind is exhausting as we use all our strength to keep them there. We take our energy and attention away from the rest of our lives and plough it into pushing down those feelings. The very act of holding back these emotions becomes our purpose.

As Brené Brown writes “Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending – to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think “Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.””

Perhaps there are stories we need to take ownership of, emotions we need to acknowledge and accept, to relieve our weary minds from the energy it takes to push them down below our consciousness. Perhaps by stopping the world in its tracks, lockdown has allowed us the quiet, the time and the space to recognize what we are feeling. A little nudge to write our own endings.

Brown, B. (2015). Rising strong (First edition.). New York: Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House.

Mindfulness

“What is your occupation?”

This question never used to bother me before I left the workforce to have a baby. Then I had another baby, and then another one, and before I knew it, I was 6 years into parenthood and hadn’t technically returned to the workforce. I had done lots of other things (as well as bringing three little people into the world). I had nearly completed a Masters Degree, a diploma, and multiple postgraduate courses. My husband and I had renovated a one bedroom flat into a three bedroom home. I had trained with and volunteered for a national family support charity. I had set up a business, ran a busy evening practice as a solution focused hypnotherapist, and was neck-deep in co-founding another venture. But I hadn’t technically returned to the workforce. I’m not even sure what that means anymore. I seem to be working harder than I have ever worked, wearing more hats, getting less sleep.

That simple question, “what is your occupation?” arguably a relic from a bygone era of lifelong careers, never fails to reduce me to a spluttering puddle of self-doubt. What am i? Well here goes, although my answer unlikely to fit in the two inches the typical form allows..

I am a mother.

I am a homebuilder and homemaker.

I am a wife.

I am a homeschooler (thanks to COVID-19).

I am a journalist.

I am a writer.

I am a blogger.

I am a solution focused hypnotherapist.

I am a business owner.

I am a co-founder.

This list isn’t extensive. The occupation ‘mother’ in itself can be subdivided almost infinitely – into taxi-driver, cook, cleaner, playmate, procurer, coordinator, party planner, crafter, music teacher, and so on.

These roles occupy my every waking minute (and a good deal of my sleeping minutes too). They are my occupations. Yet not one of them alone seems to adequately answer the question ‘what is your occupation?’

When I am asked to answer this question in order to buy a house, get a mortgage, register a business, and pass through customs, I tend to scrabble through my collection of occupations like a lucky dip and bring out whatever comes to hand first. It’s a completely irrational decision-making process. And one that I come out the end of feeling a bit worse than before I went in.

Why are we still asked this question? Who wants to know? Is there a wrong answer? On a recent trip to Beirut for a wedding, after a quick toss-up between journalist and writer, my irrational decision-making process just so happened to spit out ‘writer’ – something I was hugely relieved about when my Lebanese friend explained what happened if you said you were a journalist. Presumably there are other answers that would raise eyebrows and lead to further questions, depending on who was asking: pickpocket, tax evader, fly-tipper, wine-drinker. Who knows? Although it’s tempting, I’ve never explored enough to find out, for fear of being hit by yet more life-admin.

So I wanted to reach out, to all those who are between occupations, starting new occupations, juggling multiple occupations, making do with one occupation until the next occupation comes along. You are not alone. Many of us grimace as we condense our whole selves into a 20 character box. Embrace the fact that your multiple roles and areas of value spill out and over the edges. Being occupied by many different things is entirely natural. After all, as the poet Walt Whitman reminds us, “you contain multitudes.”

Mindfulness, Solution Focused Therapy

Gut instinct

Connecting our minds with our bodies is a key element to finding our inner calm. In solution focused therapy, as we support our clients to explore how a positive emotion feels for them, we might ask where they feel it? Where in their body do they experience that sense of confidence? What part of their body do they look to for that sense of strength? Do they experience calm in their head? Do they notice freedom in their shoulders? Do they feel joy in their chest?

The deep connections we hold between our body and our mind are splashed across our language in infinite metaphor. The idea that emotions, thoughts, and states have an anatomical home has been immortalised in songs time and time again. Love is felt in our fingers and in our toes; we can’t get it out of our head; we see it in your eyes; we hold it in our hands, our arms; we fight tooth and nail for it.

So how did instinct find its home in our gut?

When our subconscious mind perceives danger and triggers our fight or flight response, the physical impact is tangible, and many of the physical sensations we experience are in our gut. Our stomach churns, flips, sinks, rolls, and we are often hit by a wave of nausea.

This subconscious response that connects our thoughts to our gut is an evolutionary hand-me-down from our prehistoric ancestors. As a caveman running away from a wild animal, a full stomach would have impacted our speed and agility, with stark consequences to our survival. Our primitive mind would have stepped in to help, by ejecting anything from our body that may have hindered our chances of escape.

Modern society presents us with a very different experiences that we might subconsciously perceive as threats to our sense of safety and comfort. Although we may not need to run from wild animals quite so frequently, our subconscious mind still responds to a perceived threat in the same way it did 100,000 years ago, stepping in to protect us, and bringing our body on board to help. Our protective primitive instincts remain, including our gut instinct.

Recognising this connection between our body and mind as a potential strength is the first step towards supporting our mind through our body, and supporting our body through our mind. 

Gut instinct is a gift and it’s there for us, should we choose to listen.

Solution Focused Therapy

Will it always be this bad?

In the thick of a crisis, this question often presents itself. Perhaps we ask it of ourselves, our close friends, our family members, our therapist.

How we answer this question depends on where we are, in that moment, within the vast complex landscape that lies between pessimism and optimism.

The view from the depths of the murky Valley of Pessimism, fills its beholder with hopelessness.

From this perspective the events in our lives appear permanent: “It will always be this bad,” we assume.

From this perspective, the events in our lives appear pervasive: “This is going to ruin everything,” we fear. 

From this perspective, the events in our lives appear personal: “ This is all my fault,” we blame.

In stark contrast, the view from the peak of the glowing, wholesome, Mountain of Optimism fills its beholder with hope.

From this vantage point, the events in our lives appear temporary: “This moment too will pass,” we believe.

From this vantage point the events in our lives appear specific: “There is more in my life,” we acknowledge.

From this vantage point, the events in our lives appear external: “This does not define me,” we determine.

When we ask “Will it always be this bad?” we are asking which way to look. We have a choice to look towards the vibrant colours and long open vistas of optimism, or towards the dark, murky gloom of pessimism. 

And the direction we look will determine the direction we walk.

In Solution Focused Therapy we believe in the potential of every question to open up an avenue of hope. Each question carries, within its many answers, the possibility for change. The potential for a different perspective.

We can embrace this potential for hope in the questions we ask ourselves and those around us everyday. 

When we ask ‘will it always be this bad?’, we can recognise that there is a part of us that believes it won’t. Recognising this, we can then give this hopeful part ourselves space to lead the way towards positive change.

Mindfulness

Connecting to the present moment

In the shade of society’s towering expectations, it seems there is little to be gained by committing our whole selves to the present moment. Success in education and study requires that we motivate ourselves towards an end goal. Reaching mastery at a sport, a musical instrument, a craft, a language, a project; requires that we strive to continually improve ourselves. Maintaining healthy relationships requires hope and curiosity in our own capacity to improve. As Sam Harris points out in his book Waking Up our “simply accepting our many faults does not lead to happiness.”

So what do we gain by connecting, completely, with right now, with this very moment? 

Mounting research has found that people are consistently less happy when their minds are wandering. We create anxiety by negatively introspecting about the past and the future. About what happened, what didn’t happen, what might happen, what might not happen. Every waking moment, this endless stream of thought runs into a reservoir of anxiety that, as it fills, starts to impact our functioning. We lose patience, concentration, energy, and productivity. We slip into unconscious behaviours like compulsive eating, drinking, gaming, working. Our bodies chime in with tension headaches, nausea, stomach cramps, and other aches and pains.

Embracing the present moment can give us temporary relief from the relentless gathering of thought. We stop the flow of introspection. We step out of the chaos and allow our minds space to breathe. In the quiet, we have a chance to reconnect with our authentic selves. We gain perspective. We gain clarity. 

The poet Mary Oliver captures with spine shivering intensity, the hope that waits for us in the present moment, in her poem The Summer Day.

Mindfulness

The multitasking epidemic

Modern society applauds the multitasker. The more plates we can spin simultaneously, the bigger the pat on the back. Did you manage to do the online shop while helping your child with their homework, answering a couple of work emails, emptying the dishwasher and feeding the cat? Our frantic, relentlessly competitive, modern culture holds you in high esteem. Well done you.

Except that multi-tasking isn’t the magic mode that cultural expectations and our incessant inner critic would have us believe, according to research conducted at Standford University by Clifford Ivar Nass.

Nass describes our generation as suffering from an epidemic of multitasking. The biggest multitaskers among us will typically switch between at least four different tasks at any one time.

The adrenalin, cortisol and dopamine that course through our body when we keep another ball in the air, tricks our mind into thinking that we have increased our productivity. However, as Nass and his research team demonstrated, multitasking decreases productivity by 60%

While the juggle may seem to work for us at first, it is ultimately unsustainable. Multiple tasks battle for our attention, each one distracting us from another. Not only does this chaos of distraction decrease our productivity, it also decreases our IQ. We find it harder to remember things, and we are more likely to make mistakes.

Inevitably the dance of multitasking leads us away from meaningful connection. We are too irritable, too busy, too distracted. Creativity, and people, are kept at a distance, lest they disturb the plates are spinning with such desperation it can start to feel like the plates are spinning us.

So what can we do to protect ourselves from this epidemic of multitasking?

In their book Ikigai. The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, Héctor García and Francesc Miralles propose various strategies for fostering a state of flow – the antithesis to multitasking. Many of their suggestions are useful, even when we have no specific task on which we need to focus, as they serve to bring us back to the present, something a wealth of research has shown to improve our mental health.

  • Don’t look at a screen for the first hour you’re awake and the last hour before you go to sleep.
  • Turn off your phone when you wish to focus on a specific task.
  • Designate one day a week to turn off all devices.
  • Read and respond to email only once or twice a day.
  • Practice mindfulness or other meditative techniques, or simply get out for a walk as this help you return to the present when you find yourself getting distracted.

Turning down the distractions and quietening the noise of our busy lives and gifting each thing that we do with our undivided attention can help us find our natural flow, our Ikigai. Once we shift our focus away from the past and future, and situate our whole selves in the present moment there is no place for anxiety and so more space for a steady flow of progress towards where we would like to be.

A happy man is too satisfied with the present to dwell too much on the future.

Albert Einstein

References

García, H., & Miralles, F. (2017). Ikigai. The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. London: Penguin Random House.

dreams

What happens when we dream?

Dreaming is something almost all of us do, some of us remember, and most of us take for granted. But why do we dream?

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, or dream sleep, is our mind’s natural way of processing the emotions around whatever we have thought about or experienced during the day. Perhaps we have been brooding following an argument with a friend. Perhaps we have fretted over a presentation we have to give at work the following day. Perhaps we have been flattened by an stampede of bad news, and wept for those around the world who are suffering.

These thoughts have scurried around our brains like commuters at a busy airport, each with a different purpose, each with a different set of worries, raised voices rising towards a constant noise, that is so inescapable we forget it’s even there. In his book Waking Up Sam Harris refers to this noise as the “trance of discursive thought”. For the majority of us, unless we have refined meditative techniques to hand, it is not until we leave behind consciousness and enter into sleep that the airport empties and we escape the din of competing thoughts.

Unless we are suffering with severe anxiety or depression, REM sleep, which makes up only 20% of our sleep patterns, is designed to carry out crowd control on this thought chaos, processing each thought by converting it from an emotional memory into a narrative memory. These narrative memories are then moved from our primitive brain into our intellectual brain, where we have more control over them.

At the onset of REM sleep the brain behaves in much the same way as if someone were to bang saucepans together behind our heads as we sat quietly reading a book. Founders of the Human Givens approach Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell suggest that the reason the eyes move around rapidly as we dream (hence the name rapid eye movement), is that we are responding to the signal that something very important is happening, right now, and we are searching for what it might be. This search is in vain however, as the source of emotional arousal is internal rather than external, as we metaphorically act out, within our dreams, the unresolved musings from the day, discharging their emotional baggage.

Our dreams are creative, unbound by the rationale and logic that governs our conscious minds, which equips them to clear emotional hurdles that our awake selves simply stare at helplessly. Dreams help us to peel away the layers of frustration, anxiety and fear from our thoughts, until we are left with smooth pearls of wisdom. We file these pearls away in the library of our intellectual mind, in cabinet drawers labeled ‘perspective’, ‘understanding’, and ‘knowledge’. 

There is much research yet to be done to help us understand exactly how dreams process anxiety, however plenty of existing research shows that they do, and do so incredibly effectively. Quietening the noise, calming our minds, making space. Ready for tomorrow’s thought onslaught.

Griffin, Joe; Tyrrell, Ivan (2013). Human givens : a new approach to emotional health and clear thinking (New Ed.). Chalvington, East Sussex: HG Publishing.

Harris, S. (2014). Waking up. Simon & Schuster