A Day of Rest

I might be about to officially enter the ranks of ‘old person’. I’m going to write about something we used to do when I was young that doesn’t happen anymore. ‘In my day…..’

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m generally not sentimental about the past. I think our species has come a long way in the last fifty or so years. We are, on the whole, less violent, more tolerant and more interested in family and community than we are in power or the accumulation of personal possessions.

But I miss Sundays.

When I was a kid the shops were closed on Sunday. Saturday was the day you went shopping. If you were fortunate enough to live in a country town you also spent a lot of time saying hello to other people, stopping for a polite chat with those that weren’t close friends, but were part of your community. A lot of people also relegated time on Saturdays to cleaning the house or mowing the lawn.

Sundays were for resting.

For those that were members of a church or other religious congregation, Sundays were a day of gathering and worship. For everyone else there were the secular traditions; a Sunday roast with immediate or extended family, a walk or a nap after lunch, a quiet corner with a good book and an early night so we were all well rested for the week to come.

I wonder to what extent the chronic stress, anxiety and depression that now plagues us can be traced to the introduction of Sunday trading. You can now shop seven days a week. Thanks to online shopping, you can now shop 24 hours a day.

Marketing has always played with human psychology. It’s designed to make us want what we didn’t know we wanted. Its primary weapons are greed and anxiety. It seeks to convince us that more stuff will make us happier, more attractive, more successful. Even though we know in our hearts that this is untrue, we buy anyway.

This week three things bubbled to the surface of my world. The first was a piece about two studies into human behaviour that have been running for around 70 years. They’ve been tracking participants since they were kids at college in the USA. They can now tell us what it is that leads to people declaring their lives successful and happy. It’s connection to other people. Imagine! Not wealth or power or fame. It’s all about the quality of your relationships with others.

The next bubble was an article about resilience. Researchers are recommending that all the techniques for dealing with trauma and stress are of little benefit to us if we don’t take time to rest and recharge. It’s the quality of our time out that makes the difference.

How interesting that both pieces of research seem to be stating the glaringly obvious.

The final bubble in this week’s mix was a tiny purple flower that appeared on Facebook. It allowed us to express our gratitude. In addition to indicating that we liked or loved something, or were amused, amazed or angered by it, we could show our gratitude. A few days after it was introduced it was gone. There’s a petition to bring it back. I loved it. So did a lot of other people.

The research into expressing gratitude shows us that doing it regularly is good for us. It helps us to be happier with what we have. It pushes back against the marketing onslaught and allows us to look around our existing environment and appreciate that, for most of us, we already have enough. Gratitude also reminds us that the things that matter most to us are our relationships with other people, the opportunities we have to connect with nature and fun we have when we take time out from work.

I wonder if there’s a group of highly paid psychologists somewhere, recommending the Facebook owners avoid anything that encourages people to express gratitude. It can’t be good for business. If we are focusing on what we have and the importance of relationships and experiences over things, we are surely much less likely to want to spend money on things we didn’t need in the first place. We might even decide to spend less time on Facebook.

For my part, I’m signing the petition to bring back the grateful flower, I’m continuing to limit Facebook to no more than an hour in the morning and I’m spending time each Sunday recording seven things I’m grateful for.

I’m also reinstating a commitment to Sunday as a day of rest. That might mean lunch on the verandah with good friends or just going for a relaxing walk with my husband. There will definitely be more reading and the occasional trip to the movies. I also want to spend more time sitting in the garden and just enjoying it, rather than planting, weeding and mulching. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the gardening. It’s that I want to stop and appreciate the outcome.

I hope this week you’ll find some time to rest and recover. Maybe it’s time to reflect on your achievements or the quality of your close relationships. Maybe it’s escaping into a book or a movie. Whatever you decide to do, know that you’re doing your mind, your body and your spirit a favour. Rest is undervalued. I think it’s time we turned that around.

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Negotiating the Anxiety Tunnel

Having recently experienced the anxiety that comes with discovering a lump, waiting for a doctor’s appointment with a long weekend in between and then waiting for tests and results I’m now reflecting on what I call ‘the anxiety tunnel’.

Anyone whose ever faced a cancer diagnosis will be familiar with the tunnel. We travel through it when we’re first diagnosed and don’t know what that diagnosis will mean. We head back into it when we’re waiting for the results of biopsies, or pathology after surgery. Sadly, some people find themselves feeling like the tunnel is their new permanent residence, as anxiety about recurrence becomes a regular shadow over their lives.

I had a message recently from a regular reader of this blog. She wanted to know how I deal with the anxiety. She tells me that her distress in similar situations is so overwhelming that she’s desperate for any advice that might help. So here are my top ten tips for negotiating the anxiety tunnel:

1. Treat It Like The Flu
You know how when you have the flu you just expect to not be your best? I find it helps to have the same attitude to anxiety. I think of it as ‘anxiety flu’. I accept that until I get my results or reach the end point of my uncertainty, I’m just not going to feel my best. This is normal. I am not ‘going crazy’. Adjust your expectations of yourself for the next few days. You’re not going to be firing on all cylinders. What can you delegate? What can you postpone? What can you ignore? Like any bout of illness it’s also worth paying attention to what you put in your body. It’s okay to eat less if you’re not hungry. Drink plenty of water so you don’t dehydrate and try to make sure that what you do eat is nourishing.

2. Breathe
One of the first physical changes that most of us experience with anxiety is a tendency to hold our breath or to breathe quickly and into the top of our lungs. Sit quietly. Put one hand on your heart and one on your belly. Breathe deeply and slowly into your belly and feel it expand. Try to make your exhale longer than your inhale. Hold yourself gently, the way you’d hold a baby or a cuddly animal. Close your eyes if that helps. Just sitting like this for a few minutes can calm your nervous system.

3. Ask For Help
Our friends and family really love feeling useful. Let people know what they can do to help. You might have practical tasks that need doing. You might feel too anxious to drive and need a lift somewhere. You might need help with some of the other things on this list. Ask.

4. Repeat After Me
In the Hindu tradition, a mantra is a phrase or group of sounds with spiritual significance. Practitioners believe that by reciting a mantra you can bring about physical and spiritual changes in the body and in the world around you. You don’t need to be Hindu, or even spiritual, to try this technique. Essentially you either recite a phrase out loud or to yourself, repeating it until you feel more peaceful. The simplest mantra is ‘Om’ or ‘Oum’ and I do find that singing this out loud is very calming. I also have some favourite phrases that I repeat to myself. You can use any of these or come up with some of your own:
* This too shall pass
* It is what it is
* Let it go
* Where there is life there is hope
* You’re not dead yet!
Some people find the last one a bit macabre but I’ve found it useful to jolt me out of my downward spiral into imagining my own funeral.

5. Play Some Music
We all know music can have a profound effect on our emotions. I’ve put together a collection of music that either helps me to relax or lifts my mood and I use it to ease my passage through the anxiety tunnel. I like ‘Sacred Earth’ with their kirtan inspired repertoire for relaxation, along with just about anything composed to accompany yoga. To lift my spirits I’ve got songs I like to listen to or sing, particularly “I will survive”.

6. Exercise
Anxiety means your body gets flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. It’s these hormones that give you the jitters and keep you awake at night. Exercise is a great way to help your body process these chemicals and return to normal. A caution here; ‘boot camp’ styles of exercise (including those where your internal talk sounds like a boot camp instructor) will make things worse because they generate more adrenaline and cortisol. You need exercise that is a combination of strenuous and relaxing. Try a brisk walk in a beautiful location, riding a bike, dancing to music, yoga or lifting weights that are well within your capacity. If you’re a gym member and your local gym has a power plate (a vibrating thing that you stand on) these are reputed to help your body reduce cortisol. Worth a try.

7. If You’re Feeling Crabby, Get to Water
Warm baths, warm showers, a swim in the ocean on a hot day, a hot tub or spa bath, all of these have the potential to help you relax when you’re feeling crabby. If the weather is warm enough, one of my favourites is to float on my back in a pool and look at the sky. I remember that my mind is like the sky and my thoughts are like the clouds. They will pass.

8. Meditation and Mindfulness
It’s possibly the most common prescription for anxiety and the one least taken. It think that’s because even sitting still is difficult when we’re in the tunnel. Our minds are so noisy and busy that even the suggestion of meditation seems laughable. Of course, the times we most need meditation are the times when it seems the hardest to achieve! I’ve found some recordings that I really like and when I’m feeling anxious I know these will help. I’ll admit that I’m sometimes on day three or four of my anxiety before I reluctantly admit to myself that it’s about time I stuck the headphones in my ears. Even if you don’t feel like meditation you might like to try mindfulness. This is simply the act of being present, or paying attention to what’s right in front of you and living in the moment rather than worrying about the future or the past. There’s a lot of great mindfulness and meditation resources on the net. Just google to find something that suits you.

9. Decide How Busy You Want To Be
Some people negotiate the tunnel best when they are alone, or just in the company of a few chosen companions. Others are best distracted by company or activities. Which are you? It’s good to have a clear idea of how busy you want to be before you enter the tunnel. If you know you’re better off alone then clear the decks, batten down the hatches and give yourself permission to nest. If you need to be occupied then think about what kind of activities will help. Most recently I happened to find lumps just before a long weekend with two big gatherings scheduled. Both were a welcome distraction. Some people follow the ‘laughter is the best medicine’ recommendation and break out comedy DVDs or even children’s movies. If you’ve never seen ‘The Leggo Movie’ I highly recommend it. The big message here is that it’s okay to put yourself first in this situation, regardless of your prior obligations or anyone’s expectations. People will understand.

10. Contact
It’s usually when my husband opens his arms and says “come here” that I remember the profound effect that physical contact can have on anxiety. Just having someone hold you for a while can make a world of difference. When I’m anxious I appreciate all the contact I can get. I’ll sometimes pay for a massage or ask a friend for a hug. Even having someone hold my hands helps. Physical connection helps us feel safe and cherished. I think of all my strategies for dealing with anxiety, this one is the most effective.

A Warning About Flow
I’ve seen a lot of articles that recommend using whatever it is that puts you into ‘flow’ for dealing with anxiety. For those unfamiliar with the concept, flow is that experience of enjoying something so much that time just seems to fly by; you are so engrossed in the activity that it captures your full attention. Essentially this is another version of mindfulness. My concern is that if you attempt a favourite activity while you’re anxious there’s the potential for stress to suck the joy out of it. I love gardening. Sometimes when I’m anxious, being in the garden is a great way to anchor myself in the present and occupy my mind. Other times it’s a half-hearted distraction that adds to my anxiety as I find myself making obvious mistakes or becoming submerged in my own thoughts. If you find that a favourite ‘flow’ activity helps you to achieve mindfulness then that’s a great strategy, but be prepared to abandon it and try something else if it’s just making you more anxious.

So that’s my top ten.

Please consider it a menu rather than a prescription.

These are the things I find useful but they might not appeal to you. I’d encourage you to try some of them, even if they feel a bit awkward or odd. Reading about dealing with anxiety is a bit like reading about riding a bike. You’re not going to achieve anything until you actually have a go.

You might feel a bit challenged and out of balance at first but with patience and practice you’ll probably find that things get easier. I’d also encourage anyone that’s feeling overwhelmed by anxiety to seek the support of a professional psychologist or counsellor, particularly one with training in Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT).

You do not need to spend the rest of your life living in the anxiety tunnel. It is possible to return to having a happy and rewarding life.

If you can’t afford to pay for a therapist then contact cancer support organisations in your area or google phone and online support services. One of the positives of dealing with cancer is that there’s a lot of great support out there.

There is light at the end of the tunnel.