It’s not all “in your head”

It’s been a tough 12 months.  Even the most resilient of us is starting to feel frayed round the edges.  How do we maintain mental stamina?  Here are some ideas that we hope will help.

Firstly, recognise the problem of creeping normalcy.  This is the phenomenon, sometimes referred to in the metaphor of the “boiled frog”, where something is accepted as normal because the changes have happened so slowly that we didn’t really notice.

Feeling constantly on edge is a perfect example.  That’s neither normal nor desirable but it can be accepted by us if we forget what it’s like to feel any other way.  Our bodies are not designed to be in a state of 24/7 hyper-arousal – continually being on emergency standby: it’s extremely waring, both mentally and physically, and in the longer term, it’s potentially damaging.  But it’s surprising how easy it can be to end up in this state when on autopilot.  Sometimes we don’t realise how far we have departed from our natural baseline until a friend or colleague asks us if we really are OK.

Secondly, it’s helpful to understand what relaxation really is, and what it’s so important.  Physiologically, there’s the idea of the fight and flight and rest and digest modes as being separate systems in the human body.  Most of us are pretty familiar with the adrenalin-fuelled fight or flight response.  It’s probably what got us through the first lockdown.  What we are less familiar with is how to truly rest and digest: we don’t appreciate that this is something that we need to actively work on.

So, here’s another metaphor: if we want to stop a car, we ease off the accelerator and press the brake pedal.  We do both and we do them in sequence.  Our bodies are no different: cutting back on obvious external stimulation will not be enough to calm us down.  Shut the laptop, flop in front of the TV and our minds continue to race.  Fall into bed, exhausted by a long day of Zoom meetings and sleep evades us.  You get the idea … it can be frustrating.

We need to find the equivalent of the mental brake pedal.  So, here’s the central rule that we have discovered after many years of working with high-performing people:

Calm your body before you try and calm your mind!

It’s impossible to feel stressed and relaxed at the same time, so what are some simple ways to get back to a feeling of some equilibrium; to maintain healthy high performance?

  • Learn to breathe more effectively – focus on your breath; slow it down and breathe into your stomach. Breathe out for slightly longer than you breathe in.  Breathe in for the count of seven and out for the count of eleven.  Repeat for five minutes.  This has a profound effect on your physiology – even slowing down your heart rate and decreasing your blood pressure. 
  • Stretch your muscles – you store tension in your muscles; so, if you gently stretch them, it’s a signal to your body to relax. You could even try progressive relaxation, where you deliberately hold tension in a part of your body and then just as deliberately relax it as you exhale.  Incidentally, yoga is great for this tip and the one above.
  • Do some exercise – get your heart beating and put some load on your muscles. You will sleep better, feel calmer and be less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression.  Move during the day, get your steps up.  Resist the back video calls!
  • Connect with nature. The Japanese call this “forest bathing”.  Find some green space that you can walk in or just look at.  This has even been shown to have a positive effect our the immune system.
  • Pay attention to what you are eating – sugar, caffeine and empty calories are not good foundations for wellbeing! Eat mindfully and explore what’s called the Mediterranean Diet.

    It’s all too easy to live in our heads: to get cut off from our bodies.  We try and deal with what’s bothering us just by thinking, but thinking isn’t everything.  We aren’t computers and anyway, we over-think and we over-complicate things in our minds.

Yes, it’s good to keep a journal.  Yes, it’s good to recognise that the way we think when we are stressed and anxious is full of distortions and that we have an “inner chimp” that is rarely rational, creative or helpful.  Yes, it’s great to learn mindfulness …

But it’s so much better if you do all of these in a body that is prepared; a body that is calm and relaxed. 

To find out more about stress management and resilience – get in touch.  We are already helping some of the world’s leading companies.

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