How to help ourselves as we head into winter, in the midst of a pandemic.
Small steps, big impact
It feels like the last couple of weeks has hit people hard. I’m feeling it myself, if I am honest.
It feels like we’ve got a tough winter ahead of us. Even if the sun is shining today, in Belfast anyway, many, if not most, of us are looking ahead and worrying about what the winter may bring.
So many of us are experiencing this constant state of low grade anxiety that is really hard to shift. Some people are having difficulty motivating themselves, or concentrating on anything for too long. Some people may have good days as well, and some are even experiencing benefits from the new approach they are having to take to their work, or using this time to think about how they can reset their life.
But most people I have spoken to are tired, are anxious to at least some degree, feel just a bit flat and are fed up.
In my role I have spoken to quite a range of people recently. A senior University leader who talked about never emerging from her home office, a course director trying to support over 300 new students and to move pretty much everything online, University administrative staff trying to cope with changing work systems and at the same time facing a restructuring and worrying about their job security.
And, as someone who started my own business just 18 months ago, I’ve chatted to people in small businesses: one person who lost 3/4 of their work overnight, have fallen through the cracks of government support and are working out how to survive over the next year; people who are having to pivot (that word of the moment) and completely change their business model; businesses moving everything online with no knowledge and experience; and people who’ve had to take on part-time employment just to keep going.
Working with clients in the voluntary and community sector, I have spoken to people who are still in furlough, or just back from furlough and now having to have compete with their colleagues in a reorganisation for a smaller number of jobs; people who have been made redundant; and with people who are just absolutely exhausted because of the hours they have been working to support other people.
I could go on. I’m sure you are feeling some of this too and supporting friends and family going through these situations.
And it’s going to go on.
So, what can we do? How can we help ourselves, especially when our energy and motivation is likely to be low?
As a coach I very much believe in taking small steps. If you know me, you will definitely have heard me asking about the ‘baby steps’ or the first step that you could take. These steps may be small, but that means they are achievable and sustainable. And the impact of those changes will lead to further small changes. Those all add up, sometimes to huge personal and transformational change. Ariana Huffington, from Thrive Global, calls these microsteps, and BJ Fogg, in his book Tiny Habits, goes as far as to say, ‘By starting small, you set off a chain reaction that creates an explosion of change’.
These are my suggestions of small baby steps that we can take to help us. Not only to get through the next few months, but to build our resilience and actually lay down the foundations of a better life for ourselves. They are all small practical sustainable actions, and are taken from well-established and researched models of resilience and wellbeing, positive psychology and neuroscience.
Take care of the foundations
Prioritise your sleep, look after your diet and take some sort of exercise, every day if you can. It seems an obvious place to start but it is so easy to forget how important these are, and easy to neglect them, when you are busy, overwhelmed or stressed.
Sleep is so important. According to the NHS a long term lack of sleep can put you at risk of serious medical conditions. After a few sleepless nights, we’ll start to experience brain fog, it will affect our mood and it will be harder to concentrate. Try to keep to a regular schedule of when you go to bed and when you get up and build in some relaxation time for bed. Maybe consider turning off the news and screens in general an hour or so before bed. Sometimes we can’t get to sleep because we are anxious or we wake up in the middle of the night, when everything always feels worse. Try completing a relaxation exercise and see if that helps. Or have a notebook by your bed and use it to get what you are worried about out of your head and on paper. It’s amazing the difference that this can make.
When we are stressed, we are more likely to look for something quick and easy, we tend to turn to our comfort foods and maybe drink a little more than we would normally. I know, like many people, my consumption of wine and junk food went up at the start of lockdown! I’m not a nutritionist so I’m not going to give a lot of advice about this. But maybe, reaching for that packet of crisps or that chocolate bar isn’t a sign that we are hungry, but a sign that we are stressed, and we would be better addressing that instead. I don’t think this is the time to be focused on counting calories or depriving yourself, but at the same time it’s important to focus on eating for our health and making sure that we are taking the time to eat well.
When we feel stressed or a bit overwhelmed, exercise can go. I’ve certainly been guilty of working through my lunch break and then feeling too tired once I eventually finish work to make time for any exercise. But that’s not helpful. Find what you enjoy and prioritise it in your day. People who exercise regularly tend to do so because it makes them feel better, helping them to have more energy, improved sleep and feel more relaxed. And you don’t need to take up running, or go to the gym, to get those results. You will start to feel an impact by getting outside and fitting a walk into your day.
People are social animals and we all need to feel connected with others. I think this is one of the big things that many of us are missing as a result of the pandemic.
As a happy introvert, I don’t agree with a lot that I have heard about introverts enjoying working from home and not needing any social activity. That’s just not how it works, being an introvert doesn’t mean that you don’t like social interaction, it’s more about the type and length of that activity. We all need to feel connected to others.
But now, we’ve had to start to think about different ways of doing this. One of the positives of Covid for me, is that, although I am see my wider family less, because of restrictions, I am actually talking to them much more. I have a 23 year old son and I think I have spoken more to him on the phone over the last 6 months than in the previous 2 years! And for me, old friendships have become even more important, strengthened as we checked in with each other to make sure we were okay.
Time seems to have become much more of an abstract concept. It seems like we have been in this forever and yet a week can rush by. It’s really important then to carve out time in your day to connect with others, whether that’s a phone call, a chat over virtual coffee, a walk.
And if you are feeling a bit down, tired or anxious, then this is even more important. A good chat with a friend or family member can make all the difference. Reach out to people.
If you are working from home and missing the buzz of the office and the social connection there, I read a recent HBR article that suggested using zoom or MS teams to recreate that feeling of being with others as you work. So, a group of people or a team would log onto a call, say hello and then have it open as background while they work. That way you can have make that spontaneous comment or have a quick chat, just as you would in the office. It’s probably not for every day, but maybe something to try out.
With mindfulness, you don’t need to meditate cross legged for 30 minutes, though if that’s your thing, go for it and you will definitely feel the benefits. But, actually, research has shown that just ten minutes a day of meditation can really make an impact on how we handle stress and anxiety, as well as improve our cognitive capabilities. If you are interested, there are lots of great free apps to get you started.
Jon Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as ‘the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally’. Too many of us live in the past or the future. Especially now, pining for the past and what we took for granted, and worrying about the future. If we are not doing that, we are often getting sucked into our thoughts, letting them take over and judging our actions and experiences.
It’s so worth starting small and trying to build in those small mindful moments, perhaps finding 5 minutes just to drink a cup of tea in the garden and watch the birds, or even more simply taking a pause and focusing on your breath, one breath in and one breath out. These small moments help us to come out of our thoughts, away from our self talk or our to do list and actually take in the moment. The next time you find yourself scrolling your newsfeed for the 10th time that day, maybe that’s the time to stop and just pause instead, look out the window and take a breath.
There’s a lot we can’t control at the minute and that’s really hard. It’s part of what’s leading many people to worry, fret and make things even worse for themselves. It’s hard too, I know, to change that. But what we focus on, expands. If we keep focusing on the worries they grow and it’s easy to start to catastrophise.
I am a great believer in focusing on what we can control or influence, rather than what we can’t. One tip that I have seen work for many people, is to set a timer for the worry. Take, let’s say 15 minutes, think about what you are worried about and what you can do and then consciously try to let it be. And each time your thoughts come back to it, start to train yourself to move away, to let it be until the next set time.
Do something that makes you happy
We can’t do a lot of the things that we once took for granted, we can’t plan too far ahead, and lots of things are just not possible at the minute. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do something that makes you happy.
Try to find something that you enjoy and can get lost in. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes this as flow, a state of complete immersion in an activity. It’s usually an activity that you need to concentrate on, where there’s a challenge or an outcome, and that takes some level of skill. Maybe it’s baking, gardening, painting, going for a run. Don’t see this as a luxury, or being selfish, prioritise this and make sure you do it.
Our weekends are probably a bit different than the way they were this time last year. But humans are creatures of habit, we like to have something to look forward to, and it’s good to break up the week and differentiate the weekend from your work week. I am really missing live events, not getting to see a live band or going to the theatre. But rather than focus on what I am missing, I am scheduling in other things for the weekend. A boxset that I haven’t seen before, a streamed gig or play, a walk somewhere new, coffee in the park with a friend. Last weekend, we drove up the coast and stopped at a small town that we had driven through a hundred times before. Not something we would have thought of before but we really enjoyed a walk round somewhere new.
Try it out this weekend. Try to not dwell on what you maybe would have been doing, but find something that you can do and enjoy that instead. You will feel much better for it come Monday morning.
Even in the hardest times, we all have things to feel grateful for, but sometimes they are forgotten. It might sound a bit out there, but practising gratitude works. You can do this in many ways, maybe having a gratitude journal, or writing letters to people to thank them for their influence in your life. I always recommend reading Martin Seligman, a Professor of Psychology and commonly known as the founder of the positive psychology field, who will show you the research and science behind this practice.
Personally, my way of implementing this is very simple, every night I focus on what I am grateful for before going to sleep. It’s such a small thing, but I absolutely believe this has had a huge impact on my attitude to life and my mental health. And the research supports this.
Don’t try to do too much at once. Pick one thing that’s not too challenging, we have enough that’s challenging going on right now.
You will know the one small baby step for you.
And if it doesn’t always happen, that’s okay too. There’s no need to beat yourself up or give up.
We’ve a dog and I’ve been missing my early morning walks with him, in the pre-Covid days before I had to rush off somewhere for a work appointment. I’ve been walking him at lunch time but, for me the morning walk was a bit of thinking time and part of my way of getting ready for the day. So, with much more flexibility now that the majority of my work is taking place at home, I decided just last week to instigate the walks again, a bit shorter and a little bit later, but enough to hopefully enjoy the autumn crisp sunshine. It went great for 3 days and then on the fourth, I got caught up in work and felt there was just too much to do, so let my walk go. I could have given up then, I could have judged myself a failure. Instead I just started again the next day.
Take one small step. I guarantee that you will feel better for it, and eventually ready to take more small steps. And that, as a result, you will be much better prepared to not only face this winter, but to actually find those moments of joy and happiness in your life.