Happy Holidays! Happy Christmas! Happy Happy Happy…

Happy Holidays! Happy Christmas! Happy Happy Happy…

At this time of year, we are bombarded with the word ‘happy’ from every direction. From the greetings on festive cards to the banners in shop windows, to the jolly e-mails landing in our inboxes, to the Christmas lights strung across every high street, to the smiling Santas and snowmen and scenes depicting the perfect ‘happy’ family gatherings to the happy messages telling us to have a happy Christmas, a happy holiday, a happy new year and while we’re at it…a happy life! That is an awful lot of ‘happy.’ Maybe too much. Because perhaps we can demand too much happiness of ourselves and others at this time of year. Could it be that narrowing our expectations to this one single emotion might actually not be so good for us? Could it be that other emotions might want to be part of our festive celebrations too?

 

So, this Christmas, at the end of this extraordinary year full of a range of experiences, difficulties and emotions…at 4D we would like to challenge the idea of it having to only be a ‘happy’ Christmas. Because while many of us might not be able to welcome actual guests into our house this holiday, we can welcome other kinds of guests…the many, many emotions that might just be knocking on our door wanting to come in and join the party.

 

 

But why would we want to let difficult emotions in? Who wants to feel sad or lonely or angry? Particularly over the holidays? Good questions. Many of us are often so conditioned to deny, avoid or push away challenging feelings, that we have lost any sense of what the benefit of allowing them in might be. But feelings and emotions aren’t simply energies to bring us pain and suffering. They are message bearers – bringing us information and insight that can guide us to a better place, a happier state, a flourishing work life, a nurturing relationship and deeper, more genuine friendships. These negative emotions are trying to help us! They need to be heard and to be understood to unlock the gems of wisdom within. As Glennon Doyle says in her wonderful book ‘Untamed’ it can be a mind-blowing revelation to realise that ‘feelings are for feeling’! Not for suppressing. Your feelings of sadness may be telling you how important something is to you that is currently missing in your life. Your feelings of grief may be reminding you how much love you had – and perhaps still have – for a loved one you have lost. Your anger will often be trying to tell you to say NO to something. That someone or something has crossed a line, that you have made too many compromises, that you are not living true to yourself, that you have abandoned yourself and what you truly want or believe in, in order to please someone else or society’s expectations.

 

In this very difficult year, many of us are already holding a lot of unconscious feelings around loss, change, lack of connection, financial stress and limitations to our freedom. The emotions and feelings that DO finally bubble to the surface are going to be key to let you know when your capacity bowl is just too full. And that something needs to change.

 

The Happy Gap

 

One of the big problems with not allowing ourselves to feel our negative feelings is that it can lead to a huge gap between how we feel inside and how we present ourselves to the world. Can you think of a time when you have been terrified or crying or dying inside and yet have forced yourself to show the world that you’re happy and on top of everything? In my days as an actor, I had a very memorable experience of this. I was in the West End in a colourful, happy, all-singing-all-dancing musical but, in reality, in my personal life, I was unhappy and lost. I remember one night, just before curtain-up, sobbing in the dressing room, so unhappy, so sad – and yet at the same time I forced myself to get my costume on, apply my lipstick, glue on my false eyelashes and get out on stage to open the show – to then smile, dance, sing, joke and entertain the audience. The show must go on, right? While I could of course make sure the show did go on it put a lot of pressure on my emotional well-being and my relationships at the time. Ultimately my feelings were trying to tell me something. That it was time to move on, time to make some changes, some new choices, to make some other dreams come true and create a new ‘show’ in my life that would make me genuinely happier. And thank goodness I eventually did.

In the 4D podcast episode 6 – Mind the Gap Katie and Penelope talked about this gap. How trying to show up as ‘happy’ when inside we are feeling low, sad or angry puts an enormous level of stress on our body-mind system. To the point where we can make ourselves sick. As clinical psychologist Victoria Tarratt says “Suppressing your emotions, whether it’s anger, sadness, grief or frustration, can lead to physical stress on your body.” A study from Harvard in 2013 showed that if we bottle up our feelings we have a 30% increased chance of dying earlier and a 70% increased chance of developing cancer. It’s not even that we benefit in the short term – Research at the University of Texas found that by not acknowledging our negative emotions “we’re actually making them stronger.”

By allowing those difficult feelings to be expressed we can start to close the gap and that is a step towards real happiness, not just a ‘put on’ performance of happiness.

 

Toxic positivity

 

‘Put on’ or fake happiness is becoming a very real problem both in our personal lives and in the workplace. It is being termed ‘Toxic Positivity’ and is an invisible force that pressures us to adopt pretend happiness. We can inflict toxic positivity on ourselves or we can find ourselves in groups or organisations that seem to demand it from us. On one level, of course, we all want to work in creative, positive and motivating environments but we also need to work in ‘real’ environments. In environments that express the people in it – real human beings who have all sorts of very real and very valid feelings. To be expected to meet a standard of a 100% happy culture is toxic in so many ways. It’s exhausting and puts far more psychological stress on individuals than if they were able to express a full range of feelings. It also makes us inauthentic and detaches us from reality.

 

Once you explain to people what toxic positivity is, the majority of individuals say they have experienced it recently and that they sometimes, often or very often ignore their real emotions in favour of appearing happy. But there are very real dangers to succumbing to this force of toxic positivity. By ignoring your negative feelings they can build up – until you explode- and find yourself raging at the wrong person about the wrong thing at the wrong time. You will ultimately increase your feelings of sadness. And what’s more, you risk being a ‘fair-weather friend’ – unable to support a colleague in need, as often if we cannot tolerate negative feelings in ourselves then we won’t be able to tolerate them in others. In the long-term, fake positivity will negatively impact your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. Which means if you are a leader or business owner insisting on fake positivity, you will be leading your people to greater unhappiness, poorer work relationships and potentially psychological burnout. If we aren’t allowed to feel our feelings – our feelings will find a way to be heard in a different and more harmful way.

 

The positivity in the negative!

 

There is, though, an antidote to toxic positivity – and it is encapsulated in the title of positive psychology expert Dr Tim Lomas’ book ‘The Positive Power of Negative Emotions’. Dr Lomas acknowledges that most people see negative emotions as…well…negative. But through his ground-breaking research, he has shown that negative emotions are not only normal to experience but can be very good for us. They “may in fact serve as pathways to the very happiness and flourishing that we seek.” His research shows that anger, for example, can signal that “you’ve been treated unfairly and push you towards change. Guilt suggests that you have let yourself down, and drives you to be better. Envy can motivate you to improve yourself and your life. Boredom can be a gateway to creativity and self-transcendence. Loneliness allows your authentic voice to be heard, and teaches self-sufficiency.” By embracing the power and positivity of negative emotions he believes we can radically change the way we think about our feelings and our emotional life. That through having the courage to start feeling our feelings we can become empowered to understand and use our negative emotions in positive ways.

 

As Susan David, PhD, author of Emotional Agility, says, “Our raw feelings can be the messengers we need to teach us things about ourselves and can prompt insights into important life directions.”

 

Renowned psychologist Dr Paul Eckman did some wonderful research into the basic emotions we all feel at some point: anger, disgust, happiness, fear and surprise. He pointed out that sometimes there are other emotions underneath one of these 5 emotions and that we need to dig a little deeper to recognise and understand them. And we can only do this by allowing ourselves to sit with and really feel our feelings. For example, when we feel anger, anger may only be the primary emotion. There may be other feelings that lay underneath the anger that are perhaps even harder for us to face such as disappointment, sadness or feelings of not being good enough. Learning to understand anger as a protector of other difficult feelings can be incredibly powerful and very healing.

 

Even for the most self-aware human-being, anger flashes happen and can be directed to those you love most – including yourself! But before you go for a run, meditate or do yoga to get rid of it – stay with it, sit with it and explore WHY you feel so angry. Look for key phrases you have used to your loved one or that are floating around in your head. Words said in anger like “I hate you, you make me feel so small” or “I can’t breathe” – will tell you a lot about what is underneath your anger. Like that your self-esteem has been trampled and you feel small or you feel you don’t have the space or voice to truly express your feelings so you feel like you can’t breathe. This is not about blaming yourself or another, it is about exploring and excavating the message in the negative emotion. Once you understand the message in the difficult feeling you can go from “gridlock to dialogue” as psychological researcher and relationship expert John Gottman says. Now you know what your NEED is beneath this anger. So now you can make what Gottman calls a “repair bid” – which will be either compassion to yourself or a bid for understanding and connection to the other person. Communicated not with rage but with a more self-aware, conscious attitude – allowing your heart rate to come down so you can process, share and benefit from what just happened!

 

Finally – there is a very real and true gift awaiting you if you dare to welcome in and explore your negative emotions. Inside that negative emotion will be your dream. A dream that at that moment has been threatened or squashed. Hence your anger. If you imagine your fists clenched with anger or frustration, now uncurl those fists as you explore your feelings. Inside the palm of your hand is the dream that wants to live and breathe and be brought to life. When you can see past the anger and rediscover the dream and hope that felt threatened – then you can communicate that dream to your partner, colleague, boss or yourself. Now you are giving yourself the gift of moving from flight or fight to flourish. Now you have moved from crisis to creativity. Because you can tear down your world by avoiding negative feelings and letting them unconsciously control you…or you can listen to the message, the gift, inside your negative emotions and from there you can start to cherish your needs, build your dreams, create the life and enjoy the relationships you truly want and deserve. For me, this is one of the most liberating and joyous discoveries ever. Imagine seeing negative emotions not as taking away your happiness, but as the gift of future happiness. The gift that keeps on giving!

 

The gift of emotions

 

So here’s to a Happy, Sad, Joyous, Angry, Contented, Frustrating and Exciting Christmas. Here’s to a Christmas where all your feelings are welcome – each one a gift under your Christmas tree. And just like our actual Christmas presents, it is not enough to simply look at the wrapping paper to decide what it contains. We have to unwrap our gifts to see what surprise is inside. It is not the wrapping paper but the treasure inside that is the true gift. The greatest gift we can give ourselves this holiday is to welcome in all our feelings. And the biggest gift that you can give to someone you love is to be with and accept their difficult feelings. That for me is one of the greatest gifts one human being can give to another. To let them know that “I will accept and love all of you. All your emotions are welcome here.”

 

So all of us at 4D wish you the courage to let your feelings in, to break through the fear that your feelings will destroy you and rather, to wonder whether they might actually have a very special, very surprising and maybe even life-changing festive gift to offer you. And whatever feelings you are feeling we wish you as much sparkle and spangle, glitter and glimmer, tinsel and twinkle as you can handle. Because whatever our emotions, a little shine and shimmer can do wonders – not just for the Christmas spirit but for the human spirit in us all.

 

For more information on 4D Wellbeing programmes, Team and Leadership Coaching and Cultural Change programmes do get in touch – we’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, we leave you with the beautiful gift of Rumi’s poem The Guest House.

 

 

TOOLS

 

Here are some practical tools to try over the holidays to help turn your negative emotions into beautiful gifts that may well hold the real key to your happiness inside.

 

1. The Language of genuine feelings. If you find yourself “forcing positivity” try some of these substitutions instead:

2. Comfort your inner critic – Your inner critic may well have been working hard all year stirring up difficult emotions in you and sending you spinning into negativity. Rather than trying to push them away, you can even welcome them in too. Imagine letting that critical voice into your house, sit them down, appreciate how very hard they’ve been working and tell them just to relax for a bit. You’ll get them a mince pie and a glass of something sparkly and then tell them that they can take some time out – you and your inner cheerleader can take it from here.

3. Manage your emotional state – and set a conscious intention by putting a word in your head. But mind the gap. If you’re feeling sad, don’t aim for ‘excited’ or ‘enthusiastic’ – try something more gentle and closer to ‘sad’ like open or curious.

4. Yes AND – Allow your negative emotions at the same time as balancing your difficult state with something more positive by using the word AND. “I’m feeling sad and I’d love to come and meet you for a coffee.” “I’m anxious AND let’s channel that into something creative or active”. “I am angry AND I still love you.” 

 

Planting Intentional Seeds

Planting Intentional Seeds

Looking ahead and embracing the seasons…

Autumn is the time to plant bulbs in the knowledge that in the Spring those actions will be rewarded with wonderful colour and new life. And we also ‘take stock’, we create the conditions for how our gardens can thrive next year and we take time to rest.

This October, join 4D’s Matt as he looks forward to Autumn and opportunities for new growth…

On the 30th September 1859, Abraham Lincoln recounted this story:
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words:

 

 

 

 

“And this, too, shall pass away”

 

How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!

It has been a very tough year for all of us. An extraordinary year in many ways. And whilst you MAY have used this time to be creative, learn five languages and become a sourdough-baking-genius, the chances are that you may have had quite enough of home-schooling, one-way systems and mask-wearing and have been looking forward to the steady return of normality.

So, if you are living in a country that is experiencing ongoing, or the recent re-imposition, of restrictions to our lives this can be a disheartening experience. It is easy to slip into melancholy, perhaps even despair, that hope, happiness, frivolity, joy – some of the emotions that really make life worth living – will ever come again. The challenges may not be so much the specific constraints on our life (my time of going out with ‘the lads’ until 2am are long gone) but that when we thought we could see the light at the end of the tunnel it now seems much further away.


And this is also literally true as we enter Autumn across the Northern hemisphere – the days are getting shorter, the temperatures cooler and (certainly in the UK!) the promise of grey and rainy days to come. Autumn is a time that can be disheartening for all sorts of reasons, the darker evenings and mornings encouraging us to hunker down for the months of dark and gloom ahead of us.

 

 

 

At the centre of the 4D2C model is the Intentional Dimension. That dimension that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom – the ability we have to act with an awareness of the likely impact of our actions on our future selves and those with whom we interact. This is our blessing as well as our curse – being the only species on the planet with a heightened consciousness about ourselves, our actions and our future.

 


As Dean Buonomano tells us on the first page of his book, Your Brain Is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time.

“The human brain is a time machine that allows us to mentally travel backward and forward, to plan for the future and agonizingly regret that past like no other animal”

And when the future is highly unpredictable it can be extremely disorientating. Our life normally consists of a degree of predictability, of exciting plans and hopes for the future so when we are robbed of this it can affect us profoundly. Buonomano goes on:

“And it’s the ability to see the long-term future that I think is distinctly human. It’s impossible to overestimate how important that is, how much of your life is future-oriented….And one of the most transformative inventions humans have ever engaged in was agriculture. The notion of planting a seed and coming back a year later is something we take for granted now, but it’s hard to think of anything more important than that ability.”

Farming provides rich metaphors for many aspects of our life, from the building of healthy habits to the ability of leaders to patiently enable autonomy and time to grow.

Indeed, many of us have found joy connecting with simple things during this period – whether that’s baking, cooking or, if you’re lucky enough to have one, time in the garden.

Autumn is the time to plant bulbs in the knowledge that in the Spring those actions will be rewarded with wonderful colour and new life. And we also ‘take stock’, we create the conditions for how our gardens can thrive next year and we take time to rest.

As a keen gardener myself I follow the methods of British expert Charles Dowding. Dowding’s philosophy rejects the use of fertilisers and chemicals to feed plants. Instead he focuses on feeding the soil to create the conditions in which plants can flourish. In the autumn we spread a layer of compost on the beds and allow the worms to do their thing, drawing it into the soil and breaking it down. According to Dowding by not digging over the soil we preserve its structure enabling it to nurture our plants better. And it’s a lot less hard work!

One of the other things we also know about Autumn is that Spring will come again… That, despite the cold, the darkness and the drizzle, there will be daffodils once more, sunshine, lush grass, and new growth.

And it’s not just about looking to the future and ‘getting through’ the next few months. Some of the cultures that face the harshest winters have adapted their mindset to embrace the opportunity that winter brings. Health Psychologist Kari Liebowitz spent the Winter in Tromso, Norway in 2014/5 and found that she could predict the ongoing wellbeing of residents during the winter based on the way they responded to statements such as…

  •  There are many things to enjoy about the winter
  •  I love the cosiness of the winter months
  •  Winter brings many wonderful seasonal changes

Our mindset makes an enormous difference to how we see the world and respond to the challenges that new seasons, political decisions and tough environmental challenges present us with. By being more conscious of our mindset we can also be more conscious of the behaviours and actions that will bring us solace. That doesn’t mean we have to learn Russian or write a novel, but that we take greater control of our attitude and focus on the small actions that can bring us growth and comfort.

What can we nurture now in ourselves, and those we love, to carry us through these next few months? This year more than ever might be ideal for fully embracing the Danish quality of ‘hygge’ as we spend even more time than normal at home.

One of the challenges of this period is the lack of control we feel over our own life and the future. If, as Buonomo argues, we are ‘prediction machines’, then the inability to predict the future, let alone a future of happiness and joy can be very damaging to us.

Francesca Gino and Michael Norton in their 2013 research, Why Rituals Work, explored how human beings respond to rituals. According to Gino and Norton:

“Humans feel uncertain and anxious in a host of situations….Creating personal rituals can help people take control of otherwise out-of-control seeming situations.”

Whilst you may not quite want to go as far as creating full blown rituals, concentrating on small things that you can predict and control can increase our sense of agency and leave us feeling less buffeted by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that are affecting us all.

When other people and the environment are impacting on us like never before, how might we employ our physical, intellectual and emotional choices to maintain control over our lives?

Whilst the future remains so unpredictable it can be hugely valuable to concentrate on the now. To bring the torch beam in from a hundred metres away to what is right in front of our feet so we can navigate one step at a time.

What Intentional activities and behaviours can you commit to through this time? Consider all three dimensions. For example:

 

  • Physically – your diet, exercise, rest and time outdoors to stock up on Vitamin D
  • Emotional – who are you spending time with, how are you finding joy? Can a discipline like conscious breathing, meditation or mindfulness help to keep you on an even keel?
  •  Intellectual – how are you spending your precious attention? How is your work/life balance? Notice how what you consume impacts your mood – especially in the news and social media.

As well as helping to bring you through challenging times these ‘seeds’ that you plant now may help you to flourish more in the Spring.

As we at 4D have said throughout this pandemic it is also worth remembering not to be too hard on yourself or expect too much. This is an unprecedented period, the most extraordinary of our lifetimes, and, taking care of yourself and your relationships really is enough.

Spring will arrive, joy will return, Covid will no longer be front page news.

We’ll all have been changed by this period, for better and for worse… but this too shall pass.

 

Sign up to our monthly newsletter to make sure you never miss an article.

 

Have you ever wished you could hibernate through winter?

Have you ever wished you could hibernate through winter?

Have you ever woken up on cold November morning and wished for an extra 5 more minutes in bed? Ever had a nagging feeling that for some reason you would be better off saying no to that invitation and instead find some dedicated ‘me-time’? Well, what about 5 more days of sleep or me-time? Weeks? Or even months? Imagine the rejuvenating benefits of an extended period of downtime like this.

 

Unfortunately, unlike 200+ species in the animal kingdom, humans can’t hibernate through the winter’s months. However, there’s still a lot we can learn from hibernation, as applying the key principles to our lives can help us to thrive and revive during the shortest, darkest and coldest days of the year. In this article we’re breaking the benefits of hibernation into two parts: 1. Health and wellness and 2. Relationship with self. Join us as we journey into a deep, state of rest, recovery and reflection – prioritising the most important relationship in our lives: the one we’re having with our self.

 

1. Health and Wellness

 

Rather than fighting the feelings that are telling you to stay in, why not succumb to your inner hibernator? The part of you that is telling you to sleep more, eat carbs and spend more time alone. Whilst we’re not suggesting you scratch off all of your Christmas plans and parties, we are encouraging you to take some time to cocoon this winter. Your body is sending you signals that reflect the seasons. Listening to these will help you to align with the natural world, bring harmony to your internal clock and will have you energised, revitalised and bouncing into Spring. Take a leaf out of nature’s book…it’s time to get wrapped up and cosy!

 

Sleep more

 

Hibernation is defined as an ‘inactive’ or ‘dormant’ state, two words which I’m sure many of us- unconsciously or otherwise- associate with being lazy and unproductive. One of the major blocks that stops many of us from enjoying a period of hibernation is our guilt around needing to be busy and productive. To let go and fully indulge in a quiet evening in, we first need to make this hibernation time a priority by redefining what success means. A successful evening could mean going to a spinning class, before heading to a networking party and meeting some potential new clients. However, a successful evening could also mean having a long bath, followed by a warming home-cooked meal and getting to bed by 9 pm.

Make sleep an integral part of your success story, because it’s an incredibly important part of a healthy, happy life. Matt Walker, sleep study expert and author of ‘Why We Sleep,’ says that losing just an hour of sleep stresses the cardiovascular system, causing some people with heart issues to tip over the edge. Speaking at TED in June 2019 Walker said: “there is a global experiment performed on 1.6 billion people across 70 countries twice a year, and it’s called daylight saving time. Now, in the spring, when we lose one hour of sleep, we see a subsequent 24-per cent increase in heart attacks that following day. In the autumn, when we gain an hour of sleep, we see a 21-per cent reduction in heart attack.” Take advantage of the shorter days and the darker evenings this winter by catching up on sleep. In fact, your body’s circadian rhythm is probably telling you to sleep more. This is because when the brain receives less light due to longer nights and reduced sunlight, it sends signals to the body to produce melatonin, the ‘sleep hormone’, which gets your body tired and ready for bed.

 

Soak up Sunlight

 

Changes in the seasons can also trigger lower moods or seasonal affective disorder known as Sad. Sad is a type of depression that shows up during the shorter, darker days of winter and affects around 6% of the UK population. However, Sad is a spectrum and can affect many more of us than the actual diagnosis statistics suggest. Individuals may suffer similar symptoms of Sad- like tiredness, hunger and low mood- without having full-blown depression. This is sometimes called ‘sub-syndromal Sad’ or the ‘winter blues.’

One of the best treatments for Sad and sub-syndromal Sad symptoms is sunlight. A Sad lamp (otherwise known as a happy lamp) can be hugely beneficial, particularly if you are finding yourself going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark. Make sure you get a Sad-specific ultraviolet filtered light and enjoy the benefits of sunlight right from the comfort of your desk (or wherever you happen to be hibernating). Even better, take a short mid-day walk. Get outside and soak up the sun. You’ll be giving your brain a boost of the feel-good hormone serotonin. So, if the sun is shining, resist the urge to stay in bed ALL day, and take a short, happiness-boosting break from hibernation.

 

Get Cosy

 

Do you love curling up in a blanket with a warm mug of tea? Then you may already be practising the cosy, wellness trend hygge, that originated in Danish culture. At the heart of hygge is the essence of hibernation. One of our favourite definitions of hygge is: “a quality of cosiness and warmth that creates a feeling of contentment of wellbeing.” How can you bring more hygge to life? Simple- turn your home into a cosy, peaceful sanctuary. Think candles, blankets, baths, a log fire (if you have one) and a good book to curl up with. It’s a wonderful way of reframing the winter month and using them as an opportunity to slow down, relax and reconnect with what matters most to you. Of course, all the candles in the world can bring a sense of hygge into your life if you are still rushing around and not listening to the signals your body is giving you. To use the words of Meik Wiking, author of The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well“You cannot buy the right atmosphere or a sense of togetherness. You cannot hygge if you are in a hurry or stressed out, and the art of creating intimacy cannot be bought by anything but time, interest and engagement in the people around you.”

 

 

Not only does hygge encourage relaxation, it also focuses around taking pause: slowing down, turning inwards and taking track of where you are and where you want to go. Louisa Thomsen Brits, author of The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Living Well describes hygge as: “our awareness of the scale of our existence in contrast to the immensity of life. It is our sense of intimacy and encounter with each other and with the creaturely world around us. It is the presence of nature calling us back to the present moment, calling us home.” 

A hibernation period is a great opportunity to take track of how far you’ve come, reconnect to your intentions and perhaps set new goals for the year ahead. If your life is anything like mine, it is fast, busy and before I know it another year’s gone by. So deliberately take a pause by prioritizing a winter’s break. Hibernate and create space for the most important relationship in your life: the one you’re having with yourself.

 

 

2. Relationship with Self

 

Regardless of whether our schedule is overwhelmed at the moment with work overload and social events or whether we are living through a quieter phase of life, many people struggle with alone time.

One study in Science discovered that people would rather do mundane activities (or even administer electric shocks to themselves!) than be left alone with their thoughts. Schedule in some alone time and watch as you and the people around you reap the benefits this holiday season. To quote the wonderful words of Oscar Wilde: “I think it’s very healthy to spend time alone. You need to know how to be alone and not defined by another person.”

 

 

Build an Emotional ‘Mancave’

 

Studies suggest that alone time is critical for emotional wellbeing. Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter explains, “Constantly being ‘on’ doesn’t give your brain a chance to rest and replenish itself. Being by yourself with no distractions gives you the chance to clear your mind, focus, and think more clearly. It’s an opportunity to revitalize your mind and body at the same time.”

Building in regular pockets of alone time throughout your week can help you to disconnect with the noise, replenish your stores and then step back in the world with a clearer sense of what you want. Otherwise, if your day is constantly filled with other people’s voices, how on earth are you supposed to listen to your own internal voice! That’s why we’re suggesting you build yourself an emotional ‘mancave’ – or ‘womancave’! – because we can all benefit from spending more time alone. Maybe this looks like a 10-minute walk after dinner while your spouse clears up. Or perhaps it’s a more literal ‘cave’, a space in your house that enables you to quickly sink into your internal landscape and indulge in some well-deserved me-time.

Focus on your Self: it’s Selfless

 

Taking time out to focus on yourself can help you to have better relationships with others. In fact, as parents and leaders, we can only relate with others to the extent that we are able to relate to ourselves. So, any blind spots, self-limiting beliefs, or lack of self-awareness or lack of self-trust will also be reflected in how you relate to others. This is why it’s not selfish to prioritise alone time because those around you will benefit from a more present, connected and engaged ‘you’.

Writing for the Huffington Post Sheena Amin writes: “ remember the importance of being selfish is equivalent to the importance of being selfless in living a human life. The latter is not possible without the former. Much of our modern world is an existence that forces people to forget that they are human. We often live like parasites, taking all that is necessary from others for our own individual gain. It is when we begin to selfishly love ourselves and selflessly love others that we become in touch with our humanity.”

One 2017 study showed that we can actually build our capacity for empathy by spending time with oneself. Titled ‘Know thyself to understand others’ the study showed that when people develop a better inner awareness about their own mental states, they tend to have a better understanding of the mental state of others. Upon reviewing the findings one of the researchers concluded that: “There is a close link between getting better in understanding oneself and improvement in social intelligence.”

 

 

Practice Independence

 

Alain de Botton author of ‘The Course of Love’ (a book we’d highly recommend) says that: “One of the better guarantors of ending up in a good relationship: an advanced capacity to be alone.” Relationships- particularly long-term romantic relationships- can benefit from a healthy dose of alone time. It’s all too easy to get locked into certain roles in relationships and unconsciously become over-reliant on the other.

5 years ago, 4D team member Katie, encouraged her mum to volunteer abroad. Since then she’s volunteered solo in the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Costa Rica and next year’s adventure…Columbia! The trips not only have offered her a huge sense of purpose, they have also strengthened her relationships. Katie says: “I remember before the first trip, my mum and dad were really nervous. There was so much planning and worrying about how they’d cope. But of course, they weren’t just fine, they thrived in the difference. And since then they’ve both stepped into new roles. My mums got so much better with technology and now writes a travel blog when she’s away and my Dad has become passionate about fishing and cooks a delicious pan-fried trout. 5 years on, as she prepares for her next trip, it feels so normal. It’s amazing how quickly we can adapt and how much we can learn from being alone.” So not only does distance- or alone time- make the heart grow fonder, it also makes us stronger.

 

Feed your Creativity

 

Sometimes brainstorming on your own may be a more effective way of generating ideas. Writing for Harvard Business Review, Andrew O’Connell writes: “In dealing with highly complex problems, brainstorming can have a stifling effect, dangerously limiting the number of proposals that get serious consideration. You’ve probably experienced this yourself: Your glimmer of an idea quickly fades as other group members talk about their ideas.” This is particularly true for people with qualities associated with being ‘an introvert’ or internal processers. These types of people may find that their creativity thrives when they are given time to think of their own.

So, when you’re next brainstorming with your team, it could be helpful to offer the group some time to individually think about ideas, before coming together. During an idea-generating session, the process of ‘hibernation’ can create space for more ideas to form and gives current ideas the chance to breathe.

 

Treat yourself to a ‘Me’ Retreat

 

Developmental Psychologist Donald Winnicott believed what motivates humans is the need and the desire “to find his or her own self […] Be able to exist and to feel real. Feeling is more than existing; it is finding a way to exist as oneself, and to relate to objects as oneself and to have a self into which to retreat for relaxation.”

Hibernation doesn’t necessarily have to be passive or inactive. It could involve a creative activity, like painting or playing the guitar. Nourishment comes in lots of forms and so your ‘me’ retreat could involve a return to some of those nourishing activities that help you to ‘find yourself.’ If you’re anything like me then you’ll have a pile of books you’ve never had the time to read. There is actually for this in Japanese: “Tsundoku’ which is acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up. I obviously bought these books with the intention of feeding my mind, but somehow never found the time to follow through. Hibernation gives us the opportunity to get to know ourselves better by returning to those creative pursuits we know will nourish us but haven’t been able to commit to. Yet.

 

Happy Hibernating (and ‘Tribe-enating!’)

 

As we near towards Christmas it can be all too easy to get lost in the diary of life, trying to see everyone and getting everything done in time. So before the real festive ‘busyness’ begins, why not schedule in a few nights of ‘hibernation’ time? Give yourself the gift of quality rest and time to reconnect with yourself. Solitude, silence and slowing down are at the heart of hibernation and are hugely beneficial to our health and happiness, and to our loves and learnings.

That said, hibernation doesn’t just have to be a solo activity. Not if you are choosing to spend time with those who nourish you most. So, as we ready ourselves for another holiday season, ask yourself which friends and family members make you feel great? Which people in your life help you to become the best version of yourself? Take time this Christmas to either Tribe-enate (spend time with those who nourish you the most) or hibernate (spend time alone). Let’s take advantage of the darker, shorter days, in order to rejuvenate as well as reconnect with ourselves.

From Burnt Out to Fired Up

From Burnt Out to Fired Up

Are you headed for burnout? New studies show that chronic workplace stress may be a major cause of burnout. 

Earlier this year I was speaking at a conference in the US. All went brilliantly. The talk was interactive, engaging and thought-provoking. The attendance was fantastic. The atmosphere fun, warm and friendly. The praise and thanks afterwards effusive. An all-out success. Two hours later, back in my hotel, I realised I was running on empty. I finally had to accept something was up. I was burnt out. Still functioning, still able to perform at a high level, still appearing to everyone else to be fine. But burnout sneaks up from below or from the side. And it often hits those of us who pride ourselves on having endless energy and stamina. Which makes it hard to accept that our eternal flame might just be flickering to burnout. So, I decided to take a step back, catch my breath, and hand the poll position in the company to my sister Penelope. A hard decision. And the best decision. I hadn’t stopped since the death of my partner Tom in 2016. And it was time to recharge. Why am I writing this? Because when I told my clients I would be taking some time out I think I expected them to be a bit thrown and a bit disappointed and frankly abandoned. But in fact, they were not only supportive but many of them said to me I was modelling something that perhaps they too should think about doing. And they were right. I have coached a number of execs over the years who have pushed themselves to their limits to perform to their maximum. We’re all at it! And perhaps my move to take time out could do more than simply look after myself. Perhaps it could help others do the same for themselves. 

Six months on I’m gearing back into work. Keynotes and conferences lined up in the diary, new programmes and pilots rolling out and all of it feeling exciting and welcome. And I’m feeling renewed, re-energised and bursting with creativity and new ideas. Oh and there’s nothing like a mini-sabbatical to give one time to toe-dip into dating again….but that’s another story! Back to burnout and what the hell it’s all about…

 

An “occupational phenomenon”

The World Health Organisation recently defined burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” So, this month we’re reigniting the conversation around burnout and attuning ourselves to its early warning signs. How can we become aware of the often-silent signs and signals of this invisible syndrome? And how can we better manage our workload, so that it doesn’t end up managing us? This isn’t just about getting back in the driver’s seat of your life. It’s about understanding the mechanics underneath so that we can live and work at our optimum. Because knowing when to hit the brakes- and when to take a break- is key to building a satisfying and successful career. 

 

What is burnout?

Burnout was first described in 1974 by German-born American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. Freudenberger described burnout syndrome as “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources in the workplace.” 

Almost 45 years on since Freudenberger coined the term and research suggests that 23% of us are feeling burnt out at work very often or always, while another 44% are feeling burnt out at work sometimes. Given that almost 50% of us will struggle with burnout at least once in our career, why are we not taking it more seriously? 

The early warning signs

According to Freudenberger’s original description, burnout is characterised by a mixture of physical symptoms and behavioural signs. Physical symptoms can show up as fatigue, shortness of breath, digestive issues and insomnia while behavioural signs may include frustration, anger, a suspicious attitude, cynicism and depression. Burnout’s long list of warning signs can explain why it is so difficult to spot because it can look very different from person-to-person. For example, for some people, it may come on more suddenly, in the form of a physical collapse or emotional breakdown. Whereas for others, it may build up over an extended period, showing up as long-term agitation, anxiety and an inability to cope. 

Freudenberger went beyond simply describing the symptoms of the syndrome; he also described the personality traits that predispose someone to burnout and. He believed it was primarily “the dedicated and the committed” who are most likely to burnout. Or as a recent FT article phrased these individuals “insecure over-achievers.”

Thanks to the dawn of the smartphone, the geographical boundaries between work and home no longer apply, giving us remote access to our workload 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And if you have a smartwatch then you may also be able to catch a glimpse of your work emails while you’re taking a class at the gym. On the one hand – literally in the case of the smartwatch! – this is amazing because these technological advancements- amongst other benefits- have enabled companies to offer employees more autonomy over their workload.

However, on the other hand, I wonder whether this non-stop, 24/7 culture makes the “dedicated and committed” workers described by Freudenberger more vulnerable than ever. Is this bigger, faster, stronger, harder mindset causing us to miss the early warning signs of burnout? 

Normalising Stress

It’s become very easy for us to normalise feelings of stress and overwhelm. In fact, for many of us, it’s become a part of the daily narrative we share with our colleagues and friends. Perhaps you are someone who typically tells the “I’m so busy and stressed” story? And perhaps you are very busy and stressed. But do you ever stop to ask yourself why ‘busy and stressed’ has become a normal and culturally accepted part of life? 

 Five monkeys, a ladder, and a banana

In the influential ‘five monkeys’ experiment, a group of scientists placed 5 monkeys in a cage and in the middle, a ladder with bananas on the top. Every time a monkey went up the ladder, the scientists soaked the rest of the monkeys with cold water. After a while, every time a monkey went up the ladder, the others beat up the one on the ladder to avoid getting soaked. The scientists then decided to substitute one of the monkeys. Upon entering the cage, the new monkey immediately went up the ladder. Immediately the other monkeys beat him up. After several beatings, the new member learned not to climb the ladder even though he never knew why. After a while, a second monkey was substituted, and the same thing occurred. And the first monkey participated on beating up the second monkey, even though he’d never been sprayed with water. The same occurred when a third, fourth and fifth monkey was replaced. What was left was a group of 5 monkeys who- even though they had never been sprayed with water- continued to beat up any monkey who attempted to climb the ladder. 

 

This is a great example of the way culture is created and why it perpetuates, even when it no longer makes sense. The experiment speaks to the phrase “that’s just how things are done around here.” When we get stuck in this fixed mindset, we lose sight of reasoning, stop questioning why things are the way they are and stop trying to change it. 

In many work cultures the early warning signs of burnout- stress, fatigue, overwhelm and overwork- have become a part of the ‘that’s just what it’s like around here’ culture. We’ve normalised these important warning signs and as a result, we might be missing the early buildup of burnout. But we can’t spend our whole life living in the fast lane, always operating from a state of stress. Our bodies simply can’t handle being in ‘fight or flight’ mode for that long. And over time, if we don’t listen to the signals the body is sending us, the body burns out. This is its way of forcing us to finally listen to the signals we’ve been ignoring all along.

 

What we need to do about it? 

As Heinemann & Heinemann point out in their 2017 research article: ‘Burnout Research: Emergence and Scientific Investigation of a Contested Diagnosis’ 

Freudenberger not only coined the term burnout, he also suggested preventive measures. “Because he believed that burnout is particularly linked to specific working environments and organisational contexts, he proposed intervening at an organisational rather than just an individual level. His recommendations included shorter working hours, regular job rotation, and frequent supervision and staff training.”

Freudenberger was certainly ahead of the curve. He recognised that burnout syndrome was much bigger than the individual it affects but a symptom of the culture he or she is working within. Which is why his advice for beating burnout is still very appropriate for employers and employees in the 21st century. We need to look- not only for the signs and signals of burnout in both ourselves and our colleagues- but also for the culture within which it perpetuates. Question yourself and others if you notice someone normalising stress. Create a dialogue about workload overwhelm. And start a conversation where it is okay not to be okay.

Model this value shift for your colleagues and you will help others to own where they are, get help when they need it and find a balance in life. 

 

From Burnt Out to Fired Up

We urge you to go away and open up a dialogue around burnout in your workplace. If you think you’re too busy all the time, then maybe you are also too busy to be properly listening to the signs of burnout in your own life and noticing them in your colleagues and loved ones. To create space, start a conversation and step into a more self-compassionate way of relating to your workplace stress. 

Embracing the Darkness Within

Embracing the Darkness Within


Empowerment through shadow work

In this article we’re exploring the sides of ourselves that we’re often unaware of; the parts of self that get shunned to the edges of our consciousness by ourselves and often by society too. Otherwise known as the shadow self.

This article will explain what a shadow self is. It will offer ways to help you to connect to your shadow self to help you rapidly transcend to your greatest, most whole self.

Shining a light on your inner ‘darkness’ helps to heighten self-awareness, free you from fear and enable you to see yourself as a multi-faceted, 4-dimensional human being. And you may just discover that the darkness isn’t so dark after all, but rather the key to a much more balanced, full and connected way of living. Join us as we step into our shadow selves and unlock repressed feelings in order to connect to a much more complete and centred sense of self. 


What is a shadow self?

Our shadow selves are the parts of ourselves that we believe to be unacceptable (or what we believe society considers to be unacceptable). Due to our upbringing and conditioning we have learnt that certain parts of us are not ‘acceptable’ and as a result we start to deny or hide these parts. Emotions like rage, jealousy, bitterness and lust may be repressed because they are typically dismissed as ‘bad’ emotions. This binary approach to life- good/bad, hot/cold right/wrong – is the foundation upon which the shadow self-forms. All of the sides of ourselves that we- or society- consider to be abnormal, unacceptable or wrong end up hiding in the ‘shadows.’ 

We all have a ‘dark’ side to our personality. It is what makes us human. And instead of pretending they don’t exist, we need to embrace these parts of ourselves. Then we can learn from them, we can create more choice in our lives, we can access more creativity and we can be fully ourselves. Our shadow selves have huge gifts to offer us all. So today, we’re celebrating our shadow selves, to release ourselves from the taboos that keep us trapped, defensive and fearful. 

Deepak Chopra, co-author of ‘The Shadow Effect: Illuminating the hidden power of your true self’ says: “In order to have manifestation you need to have opposing energies. All experience is the result of contrast. To have a shadow is normal. If you had only truth, goodness, and harmony on the inside, and the complete absence of the other, there would be no creative impulse. Everyone has a shadow unless they are standing in the dark.”


Origins of Shadow theory

Carl Jung first coined the term ‘shadow’ when he was trying to answer the following question: “Why do seemingly good people do obviously bad things?” The Swiss psychoanalyst used the term to describe those aspects of the personality that we choose to reject and repress. Jung believed that we were all born as a blank canvas, but due to our social and cultural conditioning, we all have parts of ourselves that we push down into our unconscious psyche. This collection of repressed emotions and aspects of our identity is what Jung referred to as our ‘shadow.’ In ‘Psychology and Religion’ Jung writes: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.”

When we deny our shadow, we are denying a part of self. Embracing the shadow self can lead to a greater understanding of our whole self, as it helps us to understand, control and integrate it. Because when we shine a light on our shadow, we become conscious of the unconscious and gift ourselves with the power of conscious choice. 


Don’t think of a pink elephant!!
 

For the next 30-seconds think about anything you want. You can think about your work, what you’re having for dinner, your plans for the weekend. But whatever you do… DON’T think about a pink elephant.

So…did you manage it? My guess is that most of you didn’t even last 5-seconds without thinking about a pink elephant.

This exercise is often used by psychologists to show how trying not to think about something, actually makes you more likely to think about it. This is due to “ironic process theory,” whereby deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts make them more likely to arise. Social psychologist Daniel Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard University and the founding father of thought suppression research, discovered that telling someone to simply ‘stop thinking’ about an intrusive thought, encourages further obsession and worry about the thought in question. His research has suggested that ignoring and repressing disturbing thoughts only increases their potency and persistence. The way to move past these psychological blocks is to move through them, by replacing an attitude of resistance with one of acceptance. 

It is the same with parts of ourselves we deny or don’t like. If we try to fight them, resist them or deny them they will pop up from our unconscious and play out in relationships and situations. And even then, we will still find a way to deny their reality! Even when they’re right in front of us. We might blame someone else, defend ourselves or justify our actions as reasonable because of the someone else’s wrongness, badness or irresponsibility. But if we own those parts of ourselves we find tricky – suddenly we have nothing to defend against, nothing to fear and nothing to fight about. We can’t be hurt by those parts because we have taken ownership over them. 

So, unfortunately, we find ourselves in a paradox: to be free of our shadow, we have to step into it and normalise the repressed emotions and rejected identities that make up this darker side of self. This is why shadow work requires a huge amount of courage, self-compassion and conscious intentionality. However, hard work reaps great rewards…


Celebrate your shadow

“Man needs difficulties; they are necessary for health.” 

 

– Carl Jung

Stepping into your shadow can help you to tap into your creative and innovative potential and increase your physical and mental health. This is because working with your shadow involves balance: you accept all of your so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts and embrace your whole self.

Steve Wolf, co-author of ‘Romancing the Shadow’ writes that: “Beneath the social mask we wear every day, we have a hidden shadow side: an impulsive, wounded, sad, or isolated part that we generally try to ignore. The Shadow can be a source of emotional richness and vitality and acknowledging it can be a pathway to healing and an authentic life.” To change our auto-pilot programming we have to go beyond our surface-level beliefs and start working with our unconscious desires. What are these repressed feelings trying to tell you? What do they need? Want? Take, for example, the part of you that is angry. Maybe it needs to be heard. Or perhaps it needs you to set some boundaries for it so that it doesn’t feel put upon and undervalued by others. Every shadow part is trying to tell you something. Something that, if you listen, will make your life much fuller and happier.

Opening up an internal dialogue with these rejected parts of self will enable you to better understand them. To quote 20th-century philosopher Charles Francis Haanel: “The real secret of power is consciousness of power.” How might you work with your shadow to step into new ways of being?


Getting to know your shadow

There are three key ways that we try to hide our shadow. Three behaviours that most of us do every day. These behaviours are rationalisation, rejection and projection. 

  • Rationalisation: With rationalisation, we justify actions in order to make the parts of our self that we don’t like, appear completely reasonable.
  • Rejection: With rejection, we completely deny these parts of our self. We limit opportunities because we have decided that we are not that person. With rejection, we reject, judge and dismiss these qualities in other people. 
  • Projection: With projection, we project onto other people the behaviours and qualities we cannot tolerate in ourselves. Even if that person has not even demonstrated these qualities. 


Making the Unconscious Conscious…

We can start to integrate and own our own shadow by heightening our awareness to these 3-shadow hiding behaviours. 

1. Rationalisation: Catch yourself justifying certain behaviours. For example, “I only slept with him because I was drunk.” This justification reveals a lot about a part of yourself that you are repressing. To quote Carl Jung: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

2. Rejection: Notice the traits you reject in other people. This is usually a sign you are rejecting this trait in yourself. If you catch yourself thinking about your boss “she is so controlling”, then this may suggest that “controlling” is something you reject in yourself. Or something that you do but deny you do. What do you reject in others that you might be rejecting in yourself? To quote the German poet Herman Hesse: “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.” 

3. Projection: It’s not easy or comfortable seeing the darker sides in our selves. To quote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” It’s much easier to project these qualities onto other people as opposed to recognising them in ourselves. In fact, the entire celebrity gossip industry is built on this fundamental human tendency. It loves to build people up with incredible qualities and talents that we mere mortals could not possibly ever own. And then it loves to tear them down with all the terrible qualities that we would never demonstrate ourselves.

Because when it comes to shadow, we don’t just project the ‘bad’ stuff we also project out the wonderful qualities that we don’t have the courage to own in ourselves. And by projecting out amazing qualities we set ourselves constricting yet ‘safe’ limitations. “I could never be as amazing as that because I’m just ordinary. I could never do what they do, I don’t have those qualities.” But you do. You’ve just projected them onto someone else. So, losing the insights, gifts, and expansion they could bring you. We lose out in every way when we project qualities out onto others. 


Own your shadow

So – own your shadow. Create a list of the worst adjectives to describe a human being. Now pick five that you would hate somebody to attribute to you. Let’s say your five are: greedy, selfish, thoughtless, angry and stupid. Now own own of these adjectives by saying it out loud: “I am greedy. I am greedy. I am greedy.” Keep saying it till it doesn’t hurt. Once it no longer stings you can balance it with: “I am greedy, yes and I’m also very generous. I am both.” Then continue to work with the other adjectives you have chosen. Because both parts of you are true. And that generous part of you needs some balance. A little bit of greed- perhaps in the form of self-care- does not take away from your generosity. Embrace the paradox of being both.

The second exercise involves owning the amazing parts of you that you typically disown. So, this time write a list of amazing, wonderful, incredible adjectives that you think are the best ways to describe a human being. Now pick five that in your heart you feel “I’m not that.” For example: special, successful, funny, radiant, beautiful. Now keep repeating to yourself over and over: “I am special, I am special, I am special.” I know it seems a bit silly but stick with it! This really does work.

You can even involve a partner or friend to help you with this. Every time you say for example: “I am special” they say to you: “yes, you are special.” And you keep on and on and on until it no longer embarrasses you and you no longer reject the words. Until they simply feel a part of you. Because they are. 

With both of these exercises, you are creating new neural pathways and shifting both your mental and physiological responses to these parts of yourself. In the first exercise, you keep going until you no longer feel triggered and shamed by the words. And in the second exercise, you keep going until you no longer feel embarrassed, modest and rejecting. Until you can own the words, shrug your shoulders and say: yes they are a part of me. The next time somebody calls you one of these words or you imagine that somebody might think you are one of these words… You will simply shrug your shoulders and be fine with it. Other people’s judgement and criticism will no longer have any power over you. Because you have owned your shadow. You have owned your power.


Shine a light on your shadow

Working with your shadow will help you to stop living reactively and unconsciously and will help you to consciously respond to whatever life throws your way. Shadow work isn’t about ridding yourself of the shadow. Nor is about becoming perfect. It’s about integrating the shadow self into your conscious experience so that you can step into a more integrated and whole way of being in the world. Normalising intrusive thoughts and repressed feelings will enable you to sit back in the driver’s seat of your life. So that you- the whole, integrated you- can make conscious choices that will drive your life in the direction you want it to go.

Summer Slow Down: The Upside of Downtime

Summer Slow Down: The Upside of Downtime

If your default response to the “how are you?” question tends to be “I’ve been busy/stressed/tired” (or all 3) then this is the article for you.

 

We’re taking advantage of the holiday season to offer you ways to help de-stress your life and embrace the power of rest…because the benefits of downtime are many and if we want to be healthy, happy and successful, we’re going to need to spend a lot more time watching sunsets!

This article is all about helping you to recognise and prioritise the power of rest; feel less stressed whilst still being productive; create more space for the things you love; and stay present and connected with your co-workers, family and friends – even during a busy day – so you can fall in love with the softer, slower side of life.

Many of us were brought up to believe that, in order to be happy, we need to work hard at school, take all the exams, get decent grades, work harder at university, get better grades, get a job, get married, have children and then we will all live happily ever after.  Ermm… that isn’t exactly how it’s worked out, is it?  We are in the midst of a mental health crisis and a stress epidemic that has most of us spending our days tearing between expectations and aspirations. We overload our brains with information, overwhelm our calendars with appointments and convince ourselves that we can keep on pushing ourselves without consequence. We can’t. We human beings are experiencing unprecedented levels of depression, anxiety, insomnia, cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and burn out – and the research all points to these being linked to stress, overwork and lifestyle. So, join us as we take a step off the treadmill. It might seem like a step you ‘just don’t have time for,’ particularly if busy-ness has been your default for a long time, but if we want to look forward to a life of long-term health and happiness, it may be time for us to pause to allow our bodies and also our minds and spirits, to ‘rest and digest’.

 

The busy story

 “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

 

– Einstein

If we’re really honest, how much are we ourselves responsible for creating our busy narrative? Who is it but us that’s filling our diaries and saying yes to every request and demand that comes our way? A survey showed that 2018, American workers failed to use 768 million days of PTO—a 9% increase from 2017. That’s an average of 6.5 days when we could have been lying on the beach, doing something we love or just getting some good old-fashioned, much-needed sleep. We chastise ourselves for being lazy instead of giving sleep the credit it deserves when we all know that the more rested we feel, the stronger we are in mind, body and creative spirit.  Sleep and rest impact every part of our lives from our performance at work to our relationships to our physical and mental health, and yet most of us aren’t getting nearly enough of it.  Amongst its many benefits, sleep improves our digestion, builds our immunity, repairs cells, improves memory, boosts creativity and supports our mental health…and that’s just the beginning! Yet we seem to insist on overworking and over-committing and then feel angry and frustrated when we suffer from ill health, exhaustion or mental health issues – as if we somehow expect a different result. 


Identity and the busy story

 

Over recent years, ‘busy’ has somehow become synonymous with ‘successful.’  The busy story is pernicious. It can become part of our identity when we’re not looking. How often do we find ourselves complaining (slash bragging) that we have ‘110 emails in our inbox’ or that we ‘have so many people to get back to’ with the implication being that we are incredibly successful and in demand, in fact basically indispensable? The idea that to be successful we need to work till we drop is dangerous because it’s a bottomless pit; it leaves us feeling drained, depressed and drowning in an overwhelming sense of ‘not enough’: not quick enough, not clever enough, not good enough, not (fill in the blank) enough. Just. Not. Enough.

 

Thrive or Dive?

 

The Autonomic Nervous System is made up of two major systems: the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”), and the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”). The “fight or flight” response is triggered when the body senses threat of danger.  This was indispensable when we were living under trees and needed to look out for passing predators, but our modern-day bodies and brains haven’t evolved as quickly as our environment and can’t tell the difference between, say, an overly-busy schedule and being chased by a bear.  The body’s response is that the heart rate speeds up, the muscles contract and any systems that are not required for our immediate (as opposed to long-term) survival shut down, including digestion and immunity. Another issue for our systems to contend with is the fact that the brain cannot distinguish between a real threat and a potential or imagined one, which is why we can find ourselves getting tense just thinking about our packed schedule.

We need the sympathetic nervous system like we need fire doors: it’s an emergency escape for occasional use. However, the problem is that this ‘safety switch’ is being tripped far too regularly and, in some cases, constantly. In 2018, it was reported that 74% of the UK felt too overwhelmed or stressed to cope with daily life. Together with all the advantages and convenience of The Digital Age, comes the fact that we are constantly ‘on’: phones never stop ringing and pinging, inboxes are rarely empty and many of us are spending a large part of our lives in fight or flight. And it’s having a major impact on our wellbeing.

 

What rest isn’t…

 

Abby Seixas, author of Finding the Deep River Within: A Woman’s Guide to Recovering Balance and Meaning in Everyday Life, uses the animal world to illustrate why, when we miss out on rest, we are missing out on one of our fundamental needs: “If you watch animals, [you’ll see] they spend a lot of time not sleeping but resting […] The animal part of us needs this too. Every living organism needs rest. When we don’t take the time to rest, eventually it takes a toll on the body.”

When we talk about rest we’re not just talking about sleep. Rest is essentially a waking sleep. According to Rubin Naiman, co-author of The Yoga of Sleep, rest is “the essential bridge to sleep” and is something we need to start prioritising in our lives.  Rest helps us to put the body back in the driving seat by influencing the autonomic nervous system.  So how do we do it?

 

 

The Upside of Downtime

 

Like me, you may remember teachers at school regularly telling you off for dreaming and staring out of the window. I remember school reports often containing remarks such as: “Claire is very good when she’s with us, unfortunately she spends a great deal of her time in Wonderland!” Now that may have been true but I’m going to fight my corner here and say that I felt dream time was valuable. It was when I had my best ideas! You can imagine how delighted I was to discover that there is actually a scientific reason for it. When we do what we think is ‘switching off’, a system in the brain called the Default Mode Network kicks into action which, as it turns out, is a powerful source of idea generation. It’s why we often get our best ideas when we’re in the bath or out taking a walk. Staring and zoning out can actually be incredibly productive. Research from the University of Southern California shows us that when we ‘switch off’ the mind is anything but idle. The study showed that these times of ‘rest’ are incredibly important for creativity, memory consolidation and learning; Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and her co-authors argued for more “educational practices that promote effective balance between external attention and internal reflection […] ranging from free-form daydreaming and off-line consolidation to intensive, effortful abstract thinking.” Because downtime helps us to access the most creative parts of our selves.

 

Dream on!

 

You don’t have to go on a 2-week holiday in order to get into a state of rest. Evidence suggests that the brain takes advantage of every momentary lapse in attention in order to rest, even in just a blink of an eye. Researchers recording electrical impulses in people’s brains as they watched clips of British comedian Mr. Bean found that eye-blinks are actively involved in the release of attention and that the Default Mode Network woke up briefly with every blink.

Downtime is essential to mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of human behaviour (including our own) and instills an internal code of ethics. In other words we have time to consider who we are, what we care about and why. So, next time you’re tempted to check your phone because you have a few spare moments (on the train, in the supermarket queue, when your friend goes to the loo in a restaurant) try sitting and staring so you can give rest and digest a chance. In short, dream on, it turns out to be good for you!

 

Starting the day

 

What you do at the start of the day sets up how you are going to ‘be’ that day.  Making time and space for yourself first thing in the morning is difficult for many of us – and yet it’s so important. It can shift us from being in a reactive mindset to being in a proactive one so, if you can, try getting up an hour earlier in order to wake up and engage your mind, body and spirit. You could take 20-minutes to meditate, 20-minutes to move your body (Yoga, Tai Chi, skipping or just dancing in the living room to your favourite music).  If you can, add another 20 minutes to read something inspiring, journal or to set and intention. Decide on priorities for the day before the world starts crashing in with its needs and demands.

 

 

Take a breath

 

If you’re anything like me, you may find there are moments in the day when you are either breathing in a really shallow way or even holding your breath. Deep, slow breathing is an incredibly effectively way of tricking your body back into the ‘rest and digest’ state. A few weeks of deep, mindful breathing can have a positive impact on a person’s overall health. Try this one: it’s called the 4-7-8 breath. The technique is simple: breath in through the nose for 4, hold for 7 and exhale forcefully through the mouth for 8.  If the events of the day are starting to stress you out, stop and do 3 or 4 rounds of 4-7-8 breathing, and then get on with your day.

 

Schedule in downtime

 

Schedule in downtime like you schedule in appointments, and make sure it’s a priority as opposed to a luxury. If you don’t schedule it in, it won’t happen. There’s no need to feel guilty, the power of rest will help you to become more productive and purposeful in the other parts of your life – and may even help you live longer!

 

 

 

Find your flow

“Time slows down. Self-vanishes. Action and awareness merge.”

 

– Steven Kotler, cofounder of the Flow Genome Project.

You know that state when you lose all track of time and wonder where the last few hours went?  Some people call it ‘Flow’. The state of Flow, originally coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is the state when we are “completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Times flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”

So where do you find your Flow? Painting, gardening, writing, running, cooking, nuclear physics? Whatever does it for you, schedule it in. The hit of pleasure we get from doing what we love filters out and gives us strength to deal with everything else life throws at us.

Celebrate Slow

 

Life is short, yes. So instead of chasing the clock, let’s consider the quality of our lives. Because we wouldn’t want to live to a hundred if we were miserable and stressed all the time. We want to enjoy the lives- and the time- we’ve got.

Let’s slow down, show ourselves some compassion and give ourselves and each other, the space and time to be here.

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,

And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can

Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

 

Leisure by WH Davies

From Songs Of Joy and Others (1911)