Mindfulness, Uncategorized

Back to school – What have we gained? What have we lost?

Standing at the school gate (behind the freshly painted yellow line) I watched yesterday as my children skipped off towards their classrooms without looking back.

Seeing their school bags bob out of sight, ushered by smiling teachers, marked the end of 6 months of lockdown. Parents were shuffled out through the new one-way system, blinking in bewilderment as we stepped out onto the pavement. Everything was so strange and yet so familiar; we seemed to slip back into the routine so easily that in some surreal sense it felt as though lockdown hadn’t happened.

Standing in the drizzle, I was, for the first time in half a year, free. Free from what had begun to feel like an inescapable, chaotic dance of multitasking, entertaining, cooking, tidying and refereeing, Now I had the chance to look back down the mountain we had climbed.

Our little nuclear family experienced no tragic personal losses from COVID-19, beyond those we witnessed in the news, which we followed helplessly, until the numbers and the politics became too confusing. Our three boys are young. They hadn’t missed out on any milestones or rights of passage. In many ways they adapted into lockdown with as much ease as they adapted back out of it. Just like that.

Lockdown had its upsides. Our children bonded and their bonds grew stronger. They played together for hours. In the absence of schoolwork they had to do, they began to lead their own learning; crafting, drawing, painting, reading, writing stories. They explored every inch of the garden. They spent more time than ever before with their dad, who was working from home. They built genuine friendships with their grandparents. As parents we realised the strength of our support network.

But there were losses of a different kind and with these came consequences for the whole family. We lost routine and a stabilising structure to our day. We began enthusiastically enough, the children and us, following a timetable, keeping up with a ‘school day’ of sorts, juggling working from home with homeschooling reasonably well. The grandparents joined in with zoom lessons and virtual story time. But as the weeks went on, the novelty wore off. Enthusiasm waned. Bedtimes got later, school days got shorter. Keeping homeschooling varied and interesting for three different ages was a challenge. Fighting was relentless and inevitable. The children learnt about Netflix and how to use the remote control. Their methods of mischief became extraordinarily creative.

As parents we lost time. Time to invest in our own projects so that we could feel personally fulfilled and able to give more of ourselves. Time to invest in our own self care so that we could do a better job of caring for others. Time to focus on one thing at a time, whether it was work, a phone call, or admin task so that we could give others our full, unwavering attention.

As parents we also lost space. Amidst the unbroken noise of three boys, we lost space to think. Space to get out and go. Space to calm down. Space to have an uninterrupted conversation. We literally lost space to sit, as the couch became a fortress.

We tried to solve these losses ourselves, but ended up simply moving the loss from one place to another, like a sliding puzzle.

We took on new projects to mark our personal space. In turn we lost time to invest in caring for each other and for ourselves, and we lost patience with our children as we piled yet more on to our multi-tasking list.

We stayed up late to gain back some child-free time with each other and time for ourselves. In turn we lost sleep, and we lost both time and space the following day as we limped groggily through the day with tired brains.

And now, looking back down the lockdown mountain we have climbed with its steep slopes and craggy crevices, we have time and space to process the last 6 months.

I have time and space to ask myself – How much did our lost space and time as parents impact our family through lockdown? Could I have done things differently? What could I have done better? Will my family be ok? These questions are likely to lead me to negatively introspect about the past and negatively forecast the future, creating worry and anxiety.

We have waited a long time for this time and space. Too long to fill it with self criticism and doubt. So I’m going to fill it with gratitude. Gratitude is an immensely powerful tool we can use to situate ourselves firmly in the present. Consciously considering what we are grateful for connects us with the people around us, and with the present moment itself. So,,.

I am grateful for family.

I am grateful for friends.

I am grateful for home.

I am grateful for passion.

I am grateful for hope.

What are you grateful for?

Solution Focused Therapy, Uncategorized

Back to school (or not): Dear parents of teens,

The road back to a normal school life stretches into the distance. 

The masks are out. The sanitiser is stocked. The yellow tape is down. The tables are spaced. A swarm of confusing new rules just got swallowed into the school day.

Our teenagers and young people have spent lockdown, locked down. And the locks on our future generations remain.

Locked out of schools they may never return to. Locked out of milestones they never got to celebrate. Locked into grades they had little control over. Locked out of gap years that have been cancelled. Locked out of careers that have been halted.

Make way for frustration. Acknowledge fears. Accept worries. Expect tears. It is a frustrating, scary, worrying time.

And yet.

Make way for creativity. Acknowledge strength. Accept individuality. Expect hope.

Mindfulness

Is mindfulness selfish?

One of the criticisms often levelled at meditative practices, like self-hypnosis, is that they are selfish. Too introspective, too inward-looking. Drawing our attention away from all the bad things happening in the world that we should be out there trying to fix. Encouraging us to settle, to embrace inadequacies. To sit cross legged in a bubble of peace while everything around us collapses. 

In 2017, Psychiatrist Dr Alison Gray of the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggested that solitary meditative practices can cause us to become more self-centred (Petter, 2017). Instead, Dr Gray encouraged us to seek out a community with whom we can practice mindfulness.

However, as COVID-19 isolates much of the world in their own homes, away from their support networks and away from their communities, these solitary meditative practices can be a useful tool in lowering our anxiety, building our resilience, and connecting with our inner resources. Gifting ourselves some time each day to nurture our minds, release anxiety and embrace the present moment can be a powerful antidote to the feelings of frustration and helplessness brought about by the lockdown. We are locked down, but our minds don’t have to be.

Embracing mindfulness to protect our mental health can be far from selfish. As neuroscientist, philosopher and best-selling author Sam Harris writes in his book Waking Up, meditating alone doesn’t necessarily equate with self-centredness; in fact, it can amount to precisely the opposite: “One can […] spend long periods of time in contemplative solitude for the purpose of becoming a better person in the world – having better relationships, being more honest and compassionate and, therefore, more helpful to one’s fellow human beings.”

We don’t need to feel guilty for prioritising our inner peace sometimes, even while those around us are struggling, as we have more to offer them when we ourselves are calm and centred. As Sam Harris argues “The world is in desperate need of improvement – in global terms, freedom and prosperity remain the exception – and yet, this doesn’t mean we need to be miserable while we work for the common good.”

References

Petter, O. (2017, December 29). Mindfulness could be making you selfish, psychiatrist warns. The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/mindfulness-selfish-mediation-psychiatrist-dr-alison-gray-a8133106.html

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

Psychotherapy

Small things can lead to bigger things

In one of his Moments with Elliott Connie, psychotherapist, author, lecturer and founder of The Solution Focused University, Elliott Connie, recounts the inspiring story of US Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, who was caught under enemy fire while accomplishing a mission in 2005. During one battle, in which many of his comrades were killed, Luttrell was shot over a dozen times and fell off multiple cliffs, breaking his legs, his back and multiple other bones in his body, biting his tongue in two, and knocking himself unconscious. When Luttrell woke up, his body riddled with shrapnel, he was aware that the gunfire had ceased, but realised that he could no longer walk or move. Luttrell thought he was dying, and yet, in that moment, chose to do something amazing that ultimately saved his life. He reached out as far as he could and drew a line in the mud. And then he set himself the task of hauling his broken body over that line. Luttrell thought that if he could do that, and if he was still alive, he would do it again. And again. Luttrell did this for seven miles, until he found water and was rescued.

Luttrell’s incredible story has been the basis for both the book and movie Lone Survivor, and he has given multiple lectures on his experience and the lessons he has learned from it.

As Elliott points out, this story gives us an inspirational example of how challenges can be more achievable once we break them down in little tasks. This approach is something we can draw on in our everyday life, when we feel overwhelmed by an assignment we have to write, a tax return we have to file, a room we have to tidy, a commute we have to complete. Such challenges can loom large like mountains, but every mountain is made of rocks, and if we shift our focus to putting one foot in front of the other, we can conquer the mountain, rock by rock.

For many, COVID-19 has been that explosive attack, shattering our life as it was. Many have lost loved ones, jobs, relationships, security, meaning. And with the majority of the world still closed for business, there is little motivation to start picking ourselves up.

But if we break down the seemingly impossible challenge of getting back up into tiny tasks, we can motivate ourselves, with each small success, to carry on with the next task. And the next. And the next. Each success, however small, triggers our brain’s reward system to facilitate this process. Every positive action activates the production of hormones like serotonin and dopamine, which boost our self-esteem and our motivation to act positively again. And again. Helping us to move forward step by step, to find a new normal amid the rubble.

References

Connie, E. (2016). Small Things Can Lead to Big Things. Moments with Elliott Connie. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rd3QIelHxhk

Luttrell, M & Robinson, P. (2014). Lone Survivor: The Incredible True Story of Navy SEALs Under Siege. Sphere.

The Hero Summit. (2013, October 13). Lone Survivor: A Conversation. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5m9CMT_1bU

Mindfulness

Connect to your inner self

As varying versions of the COVID-19 lockdown continue across the world, fear remains around how we can safely reconnect with those we love. Many are isolating alone, and for lots of us, isolation is far from over. In such times, the solution focused approach of connecting to our inner strength can be a balm, helping us to build our resilience, so that loneliness doesn’t become overwhelming. You can take the words below as a moment for you to stop, switch off the news, focus on the present, and feel a sense of connection.

Take long deep breath, and release. You’ve got this.

Stay safe.

Connection

From the moment we are born,
We have a primitive need to be held. Soothed.
To feel the warmth of touch.
To feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.
So, in a time when connection is tainted with fear,
And touch, with frightening consequences,
We can feel lost.
Helpless to meet our deep desire to connect.

But something magical happens,
When we start to connect with our inner self.
To nurse our fear with our own inner strength.

So take a moment to close your eyes,
And feel your breath.
See light in the centre of your chest,
Beating with your heartbeat.
Let that light fill your chest cavity.
Let it drop down your torso,
Down through the water table, the rock and magma.
Connecting you right down to the centre of the earth.

Allow yourself to bathe in the warmth,
Of that grounding cord of light.
Feel its strength,
Beaming out to every living thing.
You are a part of that beautiful firework.
Connected to everything.

Mindfulness

Running for my lockdown life

In the UK, during the COVID-19 lockdown, 1 hour of exercise per person is the daily allowance, stipulated by the government and enforced by the police, with increasingly hefty fines per offence. The focus of many a critic has been on how little time we have to escape our four walls every 24 hours, and go out into the ghostly world beyond.

And yet, spoilt as I am with a yard and two frequently empty communal gardens, I hadn’t quite realised the importance of this restriction. Until today. When I saw it as a prescription (with the help of my husband who described it as such and all but pushed me out of the house).

Just as your GP will prescribe antibiotics to help you shake that lingering chest infection or paracetamol to ease a tiresome headache, the government has prescribed us an hour of daily exercise to fight that creeping darkness that threatens to swallow us while and spit out a mumbling, distracted, irritable gremlin in our place, who puts their phone in the fridge, shouts at everyone about pretty much everything and weeps over broken biscuits and lost socks.

I thought I was going outside enough. I went out in the garden to play with the kids, put the recycling out, brought parcels inside. OK, perhaps part of me was aware that I needed to break out and go further afield for an hour, pound the pavements and be alone, but I kept finding reasons not to. A thesis to write, a child to soothe, a dinner to make, a wash to put on. The list was endless and grew longer and more confused as my mind became jumbled, squeezed and suffocated by the four walls of our home.

Until today, when my husband braved the gigantic atmosphere I had taken to carrying around the house with me for the last few days, like a rock-filled rucksack that I couldn’t remember how to take off. ‘I prescribe a walk out around the river’ he said, and realisation dawned. That was exactly what I needed. I had spent the morning incredibly frustrated by the feeling that I couldn’t find something but couldn’t figure out what that something was, and that was it. I needed to get out. I felt like crying with relief, that someone had realised.

The walk was beautiful. I looked at clouds and the boats and smiled at others who were out exercising. I even ran a bit and felt the wind and my lungs burn. And I banked a whole heap of what we call in Solution Focused Hypnotherapy the three P’s: positive actions, positive interactions and positive thoughts. These three elements work together to produce patterns in the brain that give us a steady flow of happy hormones such as serotonin, which we need to feel good in both mind and body.

So listen to the government guidance through the lens of what it is telling you to do, rather than what it is telling you not to do. It’s telling you, if you can, for one hour a day, to get out. Go. Experience. Drink in the confidence that comes with being proactive, drink in the hope that comes from positive interactions with the nods from passing strangers, drink in the positivity that fills your mind when you treat your body to sunlight, movement and connection.