How to Slow Down and Relax – From 5K to Couch Part 1

Learn how to slow down and relan 5k to couch Yellow Dot Women BlogI recently wrote a blog called Mindfulness and Me.  It sparked quite a lot of discussion about mindfulness, living consciously and the ability to relax.  Typically people told me that they don’t have time to relax or that mindfulness doesn’t work for them because their brain is too busy.  Most of all people said that they don’t really know how to relax.  In this blog I hope to begin to teach you how to slow down and relax.

Relaxation is a skill and like every other skill it needs to be learned and practised.  If you were learning to run you wouldn’t expect to run a marathon first time out.  You would build up to it.  You might even try a Couch to 5k programme where you walk a little run a little, walk a little.  Over time you walk a little less and run a little more until you find that you can comfortably run for the whole 5 kilometers.

I like to think of learning how to slow down and relax as a 5k to Couch programme.  You need to take your brain from running at full speed to resting state little by little.  Eventually you will be able to comfortably slow it down for a longer period of time.

Learning

Before we start on relaxing I want to say a few words about learning.  Learning is essentially a process of failing repeatedly until, with practice, you succeed.  Failure is not a bad thing.  Failure is the world’s way of giving you feedback on your efforts.  Failure is an integral and essential part of learning.  The Couch to 5k system was devised by analysing other people’s failed efforts to run.  It is designed to help you find the instant gratification of success.  But you will probably still find your own ways to fail, and therefore learn, along the way (running too fast, starting on a hill before you are ready etc).

Learning to relax in bite sized chunks is very similar.  Inspired by other people’s failures it aims to give you some early success.  You will probably still find small ways to fail/learn but you should be able to enjoy the benefits of some success too.

How to Slow Down and Relax

Step 1   The one minute breather

Stop what you are doing and step outside if you can.  If not, stand at a window. Lift up your chin, look to the horizon and breathe slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth.  Repeat for one minute.  Whilst breathing focus on what you can see, notice the shapes, the colours and the light.  Notice what you can hear.  Notice what you can smell.  Feel the sunshine, rain, breeze etc. on your skin.  Be present in the moment.

You will probably find that other thoughts intrude.  That’s ok.  Acknowledge those thoughts and then let them drift away.  They might come back.  That’s ok.  Acknowledge them again and let them drift away – return to the moment.  If you are feeling very anxious you may find you have a lot of intrusive thoughts.  Just let them keep on drifting by.  The harder you find this the more likely it is that you need some relaxation in your life.

Any failure to focus is just learning.  It will get better with practice.  Keep on practicing, three times a day to begin with.  Choose times that work for you.  When I first learned this technique I focussed on doing it every time I put the kettle on to boil.  The kettle became the reminder I needed.  You might prefer to schedule a reminder on your phone or to make this a regular first thing in the morning and last thing at night exercise.

Step 2   The five minute breather

When you can reliably stay in the moment for a full minute, try to gradually increase the time you spend simply breathing and noticing what you can see and hear and smell and feel.  Progress from one minute to one and a half, to two minutes etc. until you can manage five minutes with few intrusive thoughts.  This will take time and lots and lots of practice.

Step 3   What next?

Step three is up to you.

Now that you have learned how to slow down and relax a little, you might decide that this is enough.  Just keep up the practice and you will soon feel the benefits of a calmer, clearer mind.  Just like running, you can choose to run a regular 5k to maintain personal fitness.  You don’t have to run further or faster for this to have major benefits to your health.  If you don’t keep it up you will find it harder and harder to do and you might have to start again.  That’s ok too.  We are all just learning.

You might decide that you want to progress further (get race fit or run 10k instead of 5).  To do that you need to find out which other, more advanced forms of relaxation really work for you.  I will cover the next steps in next week’s blog – watch this space.

In the meantime, just keep on breathing.

 

Emotional Triage

To illustrate blog on Emotional Triage Yellow Dot WomenMuch has been spoken and written about emotional first aid recently and, whilst it is a useful skill set, I want to take you back a step to emotional triage.  In a medical setting triage is used to determine the degree of severity of a wound or illness in order to plan the most appropriate and timely treatment.  The same is true with emotional triage.

Emotional wounds can stem from issues such as overload, loneliness, fear, rejection and failure.  At the moment, during this period of isolation, it is likely that you have experienced/are experiencing at least one of these issues.

Emotional triage requires awareness; awareness of the problem, of how you are feeling about it and what your current level of capability is for dealing with it.  You might find the following plan helpful – grab a notebook and jot your answers down.

  1. Ask yourself: What am I feeling?

It is important to be able to name an emotion, to recognise what you are feeling.  Sometimes it’s really difficult because you are feeling a complex mix of different emotions.  Try to tease them out – e.g. I am feeling a bit sad, very anxious, hurt and let down.  Sometimes, it is helpful to give a particular set of feelings a name so that you recognise it when it happens – Winston Churchill famously referred to his depressive state as “the black dog”, this was simply a short hand for the complex mix of emotions he felt at the time.

  1. Ask yourself: Why do I feel that way?

In psychological circles there is a great deal of debate about whether an emotion is a reflex which is followed by a thought or vice versa.  For example, if you came face to face with a tiger would you feel fear as a reflex or would you first go through a thought process about the tiger which then elicits fear as a response, not to the tiger, but to the fear.  This is important.

Are you feeling lonely because you are alone and on some level, in your mind, alone = lonely?  Or are you just feeling lonely but can’t really identify why?

Is your emotion a reasonable response to an event or occurrence?  Or perhaps you are looking around for a reason to explain the way you feel.

  1. Ask yourself: How long have I felt that way?

Is this a new feeling for you?  Or is it a familiar occurrence – an “old friend” like Churchill’s black dog?

Is this a fleeting feeling?  Has it lasted a few hours/days/weeks?  Can you ever remember feeling better than this?

  1. Ask yourself: How intense is this feeling?

Think of your emotion in terms of a pain score.  Rate your emotion from one to ten where one is “barely noticeable” and ten is “unbearable”.  These scores are somewhat arbitrary but will help you to monitor and understand your emotional state.

  1. Ask yourself: Can I make it better?

Have you handled this before?  What did you do then?  Can you do it again?

If this is new to you, is there information you can draw on which will help?

Do you feel utterly incapable of dealing with this alone?

The answers

diagram illustrating the idea of emotional triage

Depending on your answers you will need to do one of the following:

Rub it Better

If your emotional triage reveals a state which is the equivalent of banging your shin on the edge of a cupboard (i.e. it scores 1-4 on the “pain scale” but it was fleeting and I understand why I feel that way) then all you need to do is acknowledge it and rub it better.  Use whatever soothing activities work for you – a few minutes of deep breathing, a moment or two of space to gather your thoughts while you wait for the pain to ease.

Apply Emotional First Aid

When emotional triage reveals a state which won’t simply pass if you take a moment out, then you need to apply more significant first aid.  Apply your knowledge and experience, do some research, use your existing skills and stick on a plaster.

e.g. If you are feeling lonely, make contact with someone, if you are upset by someone’s words give them some calm feedback, if you are feeling overwhelmed, take a break and then prioritise.

Seek Help from a Friend

If your personal resources are low and you feel incapable of applying emotional first aid it’s time to acknowledge that problem.  It might be that emotional triage shows that the pain is too intense (5-8), that you have felt this way for too long and you are exhausted, maybe you have tried your usual strategies and they just aren’t working or perhaps you don’t understand your feelings and you don’t know what to do.

It is time to phone a friend.  Choose someone who is kind and patient, someone with a degree of empathy, someone who knows when to empathise and when to give you a metaphorical kick up backside!

Talking to someone you trust can help you to gain perspective, to see your emotions for what they are.  It can help you to formulate a plan – your friend might remember what helps you even if you can’t.

Seek Help from a Professional

If talking to a friend doesn’t help, or if you don’t have anyone in your life who will listen and understand then it’s time to talk to a professional.

If your emotions are high on the pain scale (6-10), if your usual strategies aren’t working and if your feelings aren’t dissipating, then it may be time to talk to a professional.

Depending on your situation that might be a doctor, a helpline, a charity specialising in your particular problem, a coach or a therapist.  A coach can help you to find the best approach for you and to identify ways in which you can help yourself.  A counsellor/therapist can keep you safe whilst you explore long term emotional issues and can help you to heal.

Please do seek help.  Doctors, charities, coaches and therapists are all still working (albeit differently) throughout the lockdown and they would want to offer you support if you are struggling at the moment.

During this period of lockdown Fiona is offering her coaching/counselling sessions via Zoom on a “pay what you can” basis.

 

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Mindfulness and me – a lesson in living consciously

bluebell photo to illustrate blog on mindfulness and meMy husband is fond of reminding people that “lessons will be repeated until learned”.  I completely accept the veracity and usefulness of this phrase – until it is aimed at me!  But he is a brave and persistent man and this week I have had to take his helpfulness to heart.

The learning in question is about mindfulness and me and it has been a lesson in living consciously. The lesson has been repeated because it has become apparent that, sometimes, I don’t practice what I preach.

I know all about mindfulness.  I have researched it.  I have written articles about it.  I have coached other women in how to use mindfulness in their everyday lives.  In recent years I have lived a mostly mindful life.  However, another lesson I have learned is that “in times of stress people revert to old behaviours”.

We are currently living in strange and unusual times.  The Covid-19 pandemic has created challenges none of us could have prepared for.  Like many people, my go-to response has been task focussed.  I have been asking myself “what can I do to make this situation better?” I have tried to answer the question and I have been busy “doing” all the helpful things I can conceive of.  For me, responding to stress with panic and increased activity is an old and potentially unhelpful behaviour.

So what about mindfulness – and me?  I have a tendency to think that, because I understand mindfulness, because I know how to live mindfully, that I am automatically doing so.  I somehow believe that I am unconsciously mindful.  And yet, at the same time, I know that mindfulness is a necessarily conscious activity.  That is entirely the point of it.

This week I have re-learned a lesson in living consciously and, to my great joy, I have found my centre again.  I am still asking myself “what can I do?” but I am getting better answers.  I am doing less but doing better.  I am feeling calmer and happier and I am apparently easier to live with (I told you he was brave!)

In case you have been thinking more about mindfulness, this is what I have been doing:

  • I am starting each day with a personal check in.  I am asking myself:

What am I thinking?

What am I feeling?

What is happening in my body?

What is my spiritual state right now?

The answers inform my next actions:  If something is occupying my thoughts I deal with it, if my emotions are low I seek support, if my body needs something (food, water, coffee, stretching etc.) I give it what it needs.  If I am lacking a connection with spirit I find a way to feed that part of myself too.

This way, when I launch into work for the day I am starting from a point of readiness instead of working against myself.

  • I am walking with my dog each day.  When I walk I am making a conscious effort to be present, rather than simply thinking about work.  I am taking the time to notice every new sign of growth, everyday there are more bluebells, more buds on the trees, more flowers on the blackthorn.  Spring is still springing.
  • I am remembering to breathe.
  • I am reading beautiful books.
  • I am feeding my creativity each day.
  • I am taking regular breaks to stand and stretch and breathe.
  • I am consciously relaxing for at least 20 minutes each day.
  • I am setting aside my inner need to be perfect and to be strong.

I can almost hear some of you saying that you don’t have time for all this.  That you barely have time to clean your teeth what with working and home schooling and each shopping trip taking a day and a half…  And I get that.

This lesson was all about mindfulness and me.  You have your own lesson to learn.  Your lesson is about mindfulness and you.

But if all else fails:  Remember to breathe.

The Importance of Kindness in a Crisis

sign reading kindness with rainbow to illustrate blog on the importance of kindnessI want to talk about the importance of kindness, that quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.

Psychological research has shown that empathy and altruism are innate (Warnecken & Tomasello, 2009), and emerge spontaneously in early childhood.  And yet, somehow, some of us unlearn that behaviour.  Kindness is sometimes seen as softness or weakness.  Empathy may be set aside in a target driven, fear fuelled world.

However, in the current covid-19 situation, it is evident that real acts of kindness often take courage and strength.  Just think about all the key-workers putting their own health at risk in order to provide care, education, goods and services for the rest of us.  This example alone shows us the importance of kindness in a crisis.  But we aren’t all key workers and, although staying at home is the very kindest thing we can do for ourselves and other people, in-action doesn’t always feel as good as action.

However, there are many ways to demonstrate kindness whilst maintaining a safe physical distance.

Be kind to yourself

Everything you do begins with you.  Being kind to yourself will enable you to have the inner resources you need to be kind to others.  If you have ever flown on a plane you will know that, in an emergency, you must put on your own oxygen mask before you help anyone else to put on theirs.

Being kind to yourself will vary massively from person to person but should always be positive in intent (rather than the more negatively connoted selfishness).  Your actions should not cause unnecessary upset to anyone else.  Taking a long bath and enjoying some peace and quiet is being kind to yourself.  Using all the hot water and preventing the rest of your family from using the only toilet might be construed as selfishness.  It helps to evaluate behaviour in terms of context and ecology.

Be kind to the rest of your household

If you live with other people think about the ways in which you can be kinder to them.

The first thing that you can do is to focus on an absence of unkindness.  Being inside with your family all day everyday can be challenging and can magnify stress and fear.  Watching videos of other families singing songs from musicals or running a perfect home-schooling schedule, whilst entertaining, can lead to a sense of inadequacy too.  If all you are managing is binge watch box sets that’s fine, just try to do that with kindness and love.  Maintain boundaries but reduce the grumpiness.

Next you can add in positive acts of kindness.  Small things; a timely hug, a cup of tea, sharing IT equipment and skills, being fair about time-out can all make a huge difference to this strange and unusual experience.  Empathy matters.  Take the time to notice when someone else in your household needs something.

The benefits of such small acts of kindness extend beyond the immediate.   Ty Tashiro points out in his book The Science of Happily Ever After, that kindness is the single greatest predictor of stable and happy marriages.  Studies have also shown that kindness reduces anxiety and being kind sets up a chain reaction of kindness so being kind to others is also an indirect way of being kind to yourself.

Be kind to the wider world.

Being kind to the wider world might seem like too much to ask when you are struggling to get through each day.  Maybe you are already balancing the need to work from home, loss of income, child care, school work and sourcing essential supplies whilst maintaining a safe physical distance from others.  Maybe you are alone and lonely and wondering how to get help yourself.  Life itself can seem exhausting even without the fear of illness.

Kindness still matters.

As in the section above you can start with an absence of unkindness.

For many people, contact with the world outside is happening via social media.  Be mindful of what you post.  Ask yourself is it true?  Is it kind?  Check your sources.  Fear is as contagious as Covid-19, try not to spread fear with unsubstantiated information and speculation.  If you don’t know for sure, don’t comment or share.  Don’t feed the fear.

Having eliminated unkindness, think about what you can do to make someone else’s life better.    Focussing on someone other than yourself has been shown to increase hope, positivity and personal well-being.  Your actions can be as simple as picking up litter on your daily walk or as complex as setting up an on-line forum to co-ordinate help in your community.  For most people it will be somewhere in the middle.  Just do what works for you.  It has been found that happy people become happier through kindness.

Throughout this crisis I have seen many of the negative aspects of fear.  But I have also seen the importance of kindness revealed in community, support and hope.

When this is all over, and life returns to some semblance of normality, it will be good to know that you were part of the solution and that all you passed on was a little kindness.

What to do when the fear is real

More love less fear poster in light of CoronavirusMuch of my time as a counsellor and coach is spent working with people whose feelings of fear and anxiety are out of sync with the reality of their situation.  I support and help them to see their situation more clearly, to breathe and take stock of their reality.  They learn techniques to calm themselves, to take control of their irrational fears.  But what happens when the fear they feel is real?  When the anxiety is entirely proportionate to the situation?  Do the usual strategies stop working?  I thought, in these strange and troubling times, it might be helpful to reignite the Yellow Dot Women blog and write a piece about what to do when the fear is real.

What is fear?

Fear is a survival mechanism; a biochemical response to danger which triggers the fight or flight response.  Physiological changes, such as a higher heart rate and boosted adrenalin levels, increase our alertness and prepare us to fight the trigger or to run away from it.

Alongside the physical reaction we experience an emotional response to fear.  This response is highly individualised and will depend, to a large extent, on our previous experiences and our personal attitude to risk.

The causes of fear

The causes of fear are many and complex.  Fear might be:

  • Instinctive – caused by real and immediate danger (e.g. a car heading towards you at speed).
  • Learned (conditioned) – such as the fear of spiders or other, relatively harmless, creatures.
  • Imagined (anticipatory), caused by our own catastrophising thought processes and the ever spiralling “what-ifs”.

What about now?

Covid-19/Coronavirus is now prevalent across the whole world.  We are no longer waiting for it to arrive – it is here and most of us now know someone who is experiencing (or has already experienced) symptoms.  The virus is having an impact on all our lives.  To this extent it is a real and present danger not only to our physical health but to our intellectual, financial and social well-being.  It is entirely appropriate to be afraid.  What matters is what we do when the fear is real.

Control

When faced with a frightening, stress inducing situation the stress hormones we produce are designed to trigger the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). This in turn “fires us up”, ready for action (fight).  The normal advice in the face of fear is to control the situation and thus reduce the overstimulation of the SNS.  But that is not so easy when the situation, as with the Coronavirus, is entirely out of your control.

Escape

When control is not an option, the normal advice would be to escape the fear inducing situation (flight).  However, this pandemic is so far reaching that there is nowhere to escape to.

So are we helpless?

No.  We are absolutely not helpless.  As well as the Sympathetic Nervous System the body can utilise the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), sometimes called the “rest and digest” system which acts as an antidote to the fire-up mechanism of the SNS.  This allows us to employ calm and rational thought once the urgency of the situation is diminished.

You don’t need to understand the science – these systems are automatic.

What to do when the fear is real?

The first thing to do is to accept that the fear is real and that it is ok to be afraid.

After that, when the calming PNS sets in, it’s a good idea to identify what you can and can’t control.  Following government guidelines, washing your hands and social distancing are all forms of control.  Secondary activities such as talking to your bank/building society, employer or accountant etc. are also forms of control which can reduce the fear you are feeling.

When you have taken action it is then ok to indulge in a little positive escapism:  Read a book; watch a film; play with your kids; take part in on-line activities with friends or learn a new skill.  Be creative.  The use of alcohol and/or drugs to escape is significantly less helpful as it stops the body from doing the job it needs to do.

If you find that the calming effect of the PNS is not kicking in you should ask yourself if you are feeding the fear.  Spending too long on social media, engaging with “fake news”, obsessively following the death statistics, having the same conversations ad infinitum, all serve to trigger the fight or flight response over and over again.  The PNS simply can’t keep up with the imagined or anticipatory fear if you keep feeding it.

If you are repeatedly feeding the fear it may be useful to seek some help, to connect more positively with other people and to think about what you can do rather than how helpless you are.

As always, please get in touch if you are struggling to cope emotionally or psychologically.

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