Hannah Frahm is a dual-qualified Scottish-German solicitor working with Brodies LLP. She also teaches mindfulness and meditation at the Grassmarket Community Project in Edinburgh (currently online, given the circumstances).
In my last blog, I talked about how mindfulness can help us to take a step back from negative thoughts. The ability to notice when your brain is luring you into negative thinking and ask, ‘How do I want to react to these thoughts?’ or even ‘Do I want to react at all?’, is an invaluable skill when dealing with stress, worry or anxiety.
Each of us is affected differently by the pandemic, but I am sure we all could do with some tricks to improve our wellbeing during this difficult time.
‘New normal’ = ‘new stress’?
Now, more than ever, we need to take care of our mental health; the United Nations, World Health Organization and others have warned that COVID-19 could cause a global mental health crisis.
Even before the pandemic, poor mental health (including in the legal community) was a problem. COVID-19 has added an extra layer of stress: isolation, fear for our own and loved ones’ health, uncertainty, economic turmoil, job loss, and, sadly, for many the loss of a friend or family member.
We all know that, over longer periods of time, stress can have dangerous side effects. When we engage in stressful thinking, this creates stressful emotions; our body releases adrenaline and cortisol in response; our heart rate increases; we go into ‘fight or flight’ mode.
When we spend too much time in this stress zone, we risk compromising the quality of our health, relationships, productivity, overall wellbeing and quality of life. Importantly, the fight or flight mode, designed for short-term ‘emergency only’ situations, diverts energy from other essential systems, such as our immune system. A weakened immune system puts us at greater risk of getting ill (not what we want during a pandemic).
Problem: ‘I don’t have time’
With all our lives packed to the brim with WFH, home-schooling, care and homework, trying to exercise and maintain some form of social life, even taking 10 minutes to ourselves can seem like an impossible task.
But we cannot afford to neglect our self-care duties. Self-care is self-preservation and unnegotiable; we cannot expect to function properly or support others when we don’t recharge regularly (remember when flying was still a thing? ‘Put your own oxygen masks on first, before helping others’). It’s simple maths: always taking out more than you put in just doesn’t add up.
Solution: Bite-sized mindfulness exercises
A solution for this self-care dilemma can be made-to-measure, with bite-sized exercises that you can actually fit into your day (the saying ‘done is better than perfect’ comes to mind).
Here are three ideas:
1. Take short but regular 'mindful breaks’
Don’t wait for the perfect time to practice mindfulness, chances are the moment won’t come. Embrace the chaos around you and make it a habit to regularly check in with yourself (you can even set a regular, maybe even hourly, reminder on your phone, maybe with the question ‘How are you?’). What makes the ‘mindful break’ something you can actually commit to is that you can do it without interrupting your day, even without other people noticing.
- Step 1: Just notice where your attention is in this moment and how you are feeling (closing your eyes is optional, but helps with focus). Chances are that you are not in the present moment, but lost in thoughts (studies suggest that we spend up to 50% of our day thinking about something that is not (yet) or no longer happening).
- Step 2: Redirect your attention to the present moment: use your breath as an anchor, or the sounds around you or the sensations in your body - anything that is happening now.
- Step 3: Stay with this experience for a few breaths (if you have more time, great!). Your thoughts will wander off; don’t worry, your brain is simply doing its job of engaging in thinking. Your job, however, is to notice and redirect - and repeat.
2. Take in the good
Whenever you notice that something is pleasant (the sunshine on your face, a beautiful flower, a thank you from a colleague, a job well done etc.), savour the experience.
Our brain tends to prioritise negative experiences (the 'negativity bias'); by emphasizing positive experiences, we are forcing our brain to pay attention to those as well. Research has shown that savouring positive experiences for as little as 30 seconds develops neural structure, i.e. it changes the fabric of your brain. Dr Rick Hanson, a psychologist who has researched extensively in this field, calls this ‘taking in the good’.
3. Breaking bad (habits)
Identifying habits that are detrimental to our (mental) health and replacing them with habits that are beneficial is a game changer. Think about or (even better) write down an activity or thought that you know is not beneficial to you, followed by an activity or thought that is. Repeat this exercise as often as you like (again, you can set a reminder on your phone).
You will notice very quickly that your brain is picking up what is happening: when you are just about to engage in one of the activities that you have identified as detrimental to your wellbeing (e.g. reading up on COVID-19 developments), your brain will ask you whether going for a walk around the block would not be more beneficial.
You can even start a list of things that nourish your wellbeing on one side and things that make you feel depleted on the other side (put those holiday fridge magnets to a good use). Whenever you are feeling low, choose an item from the nourishing list and do it (and stay away from those depleting activities).
Summer is coming!
It looks like our new way of working and living (and stressing) is going to be normal for quite some time yet. No use fighting it; if we want success, we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We have to develop our very own personal self-care survival kit.
We will get through this and, hopefully, pick up some new good habits on the way, which we can take with us when the ‘new normal’ returns to be the ‘old (but improved) normal’.