We may not have caused our problems, but we do have a responsibility to change things for the better. Looking after ourselves to improve or restore our physical and mental health, treating or preventing disease, is our responsibility, and no one else can do it for us.
Getting to know your strengths and limitations, and understanding your own emotions and the impact of these on your quality of life, is a good place to start.
We all experience many emotions, from anger and sadness to happiness and joy. Unfortunately, many of us have been conditioned to believe that certain emotions are negative and others are positive. It's what we do with the emotions that is either negative or positive. The emotions themselves are what they are. Your emotions are signals you need to pay attention to. Just like you are supposed to slow down when the traffic light is yellow and stop when the light is red, your emotions serve the same purpose.
When you don't pay attention to and process your emotions, they build up until they reach a 'tipping point', at which they overwhelm our ability to carry on.
If you ignore and store your 'negative' emotions, they will manifest themselves in disease, health issues, or other destructive outlets. So, your first step is to stop ignoring your emotions. Use them to tell you what's next. What do you need to do differently?
The flight plan
Before takeoff, pilots have to file a flight plan with Air Traffic Control, explaining what they are going to. For example, takeoff will be at 13:00. I will climb to 13,000 feet on a bearing of 42 degrees at a speed of 300 mph. I will maintain that heading for seven minutes, then climb to 15,000 feet on a bearing of 50 degrees at a speed of 400 mph, and so on. That way, other planes know to stay out of that bit of sky.
The thing is, 90% of the time, the plane isn’t on the flight plan. It might be off by 50 feet, or off course by a degree or two, but - most of the time - it still gets to its destination. Why is that? Well, the pilot makes course corrections along the way.
Just like a pilot, regularly checking our instruments (internal experiences) allows us to make the course corrections necessary to get where we want to be. Knowing that we're drifting off course is one thing - being able to come back on course is another. Like the pilot, the sooner we are aware that we need to make course corrections, the easier they will be.
It’s a good idea to check in with how you are feeling at least three times a day, getting in touch with your feelings, reactions, and 'inner voice' when you get up in the morning, halfway through the day, and at the end of the day about half an hour before going to bed.
If everything starts to feel overwhelming, STOPP.
- Stop - don't act immediately. Wait.
- Take a breath (actually, more like ten, extending the out-breath).
- What are you thinking about?
- What are you focusing on?
- What are you reacting to?
- What is going on in your body?
- Pull back, zoom out, and see the bigger picture. Is there another way of looking at this? What would someone else say about it? How does this affect others? What advice would you give a friend about this?
- Practice what works. Consider the consequences. What is the best thing that can happen? What is the best thing you can do to achieve this?
Event + response = outcome.
Fold your arms. That wasn’t too hard, was it? Now, fold them the other way. That took a bit more thought, didn’t it? When people cross their arms, they do so naturally, without even thinking about it. When they are asked to fold them the other way they, for the most part, stop, refold their arms again and then try to figure out which arm was on top, which arm moves first, and so on.
If something as simple as folding your arms differently gave you a reason to pause, just think what making the course corrections to start moving towards the life you want to live might entail.
Coming back on course requires hard work, perseverance, and the practice of self-awareness (initially, at least).
How do we keep going?
When we start doing something new, our brain has to work a bit harder to process what it is we have to do and how well we’re doing it. To help this happen, the body releases adrenaline and serotonin, increasing our arousal state. If we are already running 'hot', this can take us over our tipping point and our automatic pilot cuts in with the usual avoidance and indulgence.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single footstep...
Start with something small. The idea here is to start building new habits, not change your life in a day. Taking action, however small, can improve your life at work or prevent stress from developing in the first place. You may be free to do some things without reference to anyone else, but some things you will need to negotiate, formally or informally, with family members, friends, colleagues, or managers.
Connect with others
Stay in touch with family and friends; make regular contact with them. Arrange to meet a friend for lunch every day - just taking 30 minutes away from the office. Having a chat and sharing a laugh works wonders. Share your worries and get a 'sense' check from friends.
Pause for thought
Introduce small moments of relaxation into your day. Take a moment to stop and look around, or close your eyes and listen to the sounds you can hear. Mindfulness techniques like this can help you to feel calmer and more 'in-the-moment'.
Try active relaxation
Gentle exercise like yoga, tai-chi, or pilates, or a stroll in the fresh air, can give you time to unwind your body and mind. Exercise also releases 'feel-good' hormones which can help reduce depression and anxiety.
Gently breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, keeping the pace slow and regular. Slowly tense then relax all the muscles in your body, starting at your toes and working up to your head. Afterwards, just take some time to be still and focus on how your body feels.
Mindfulness is the art of 'staying in the moment', based on Buddhist philosophy (though not religious). Using a focus, such as the breath, it has been described as the "art of observation", and it can help us respond to life’s pressures more calmly by recognising and 'stepping away' from habitual reactions to (stressful) events.
A - awareness
B - 'just being'
C - seeing things and responding wisely
The acronym SELF can remind us what we can do regularly to keep ourselves healthy and stable. If we take care of ourselves, we can protect ourselves against vulnerability. This means we are more likely to be able to cope with the mental pain that is so often associated with emotionally distressing situations.
- Eating and exercise
- Look at - alcohol, drugs, smoking, treating illness
- Find something every day that gives you a sense of achievement, ability, and enjoyment
Be kind to yourself: Be kind to yourself and treat any physical illness. Encourage rather than criticise yourself. Treat yourself the way you would a friend in a similar situation.
Exercise regularly: Being active helps lift our mood, reduce stress and anxiety, improves physical health, and gives us more energy. Get outside, preferably in a green space or near water. Find an activity you enjoy and just do it.
Eat healthily: Eat regularly, eat breakfast, eat healthily, eat fruit and vegetables, and drink water.
Take up a hobby/Learn a new skill: Increase your confidence and interests, meet others, or prepare for finding work.
Help others: As well as benefiting others, you will be doing something worthwhile which will help you feel better about yourself.
Relax: Make time for yourself; allow yourself time to chill and relax. Different things work for different people.
Have some fun and/or be creative: Having fun/being creative helps us feel better and increases our confidence.
Balance sleep: Get into a healthy sleep routine - including going to bed and getting up at the same time every day.
Beware of drink and drugs: Avoid using alcohol (or non-prescribed drugs) to help you cope. This will only add to your problems.
Don't wait until you're in trouble: If you’re riding a bike, when is the best time to put on a helmet - after you crash, or at the start of your journey?
Don’t wait until you’re in trouble to start your self-care; do it today so that when life knocks you sideways, you can regain your equilibrium more easily.