The reality was, I was stressed, burnt out and chronically fatigued…Read More
Following on from last month’s post when you were invited to practice the 3 step breathing space as a way of ‘checking in’ to your sense of self, we are going to continue by looking at further areas where self awareness can make a big difference to our sense of space.
Posture. When life gets on top of you, physical tension builds up in the body. Most commonly, the shoulders protract in an effort to protect your heart; your emotional centre.
Over time, the more protracted you get, the more the body has to compensate in order to be able to look straight ahead. You are likely to develop tension in your neck that may cause headaches. I often see a permanent crease in the neck after years of compensation. Alternatively, the head is pushed forwards and the curves of the spine become exaggerated. These physical changes result in a decrease in lung capacity as you are literally restricting their ability to expand. The breath becomes shallow, often in the chest, which sends a message to the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that you are stressed. The pattern of lacking mental, emotional and now physical space perpetuates. Shoulder protraction may begin with poor posture which still sends a message of stress and even depression to the brain and body, culminating in actually feeling that way even if you were not before.
So what can you do about it? When sitting, raise your hips slightly higher than your knees. This allows the hip flexor muscles (at the top of your thighs) to switch off and enables your pelvis to sit in ‘neutral’ so that the natural curves of your spine are supported by gravity. It helps to support the lumbar curve so that this part of your back can rest and you can maintain length throughout your spine without creating tension. Any deviation to this and you have to compensate as you can see in the first two images above.
Whatever table or desk you are sitting at, it is important to make sure that your chair is at the correct height so that you don’t have to hunch your shoulders to use your keyboard or write or even eat. Make sure your computer monitor is at eye level. It might be a good idea to purchase a separate keyboard if you use a lap top for hours every day. The worst thing of all for posture, is to sit side on to your desk. Do what you can to be able to face your monitor squarely. If you regularly have to turn, turn your whole body not just your neck or spine, otherwise you risk developing a scoliosis by only ever rotating in one direction. Sitting with the legs crossed will in time create an imbalance in your pelvis which will carry on up the spine, so uncross your legs and sit with your heels under your knees instead.
Try this exercise daily to maintain mobility in the shoulders and relieve tightness across the chest.
Emotions You are probably aware that negative thoughts such as worry and doubt cause the sensation of anxiety in the body; butterflies in the tummy or the literal feeling of adrenaline surging through you. Negative thinking therefore, causes stress. The brain and nervous system only understand stress as threat and will essentially do what is natural to support you in escaping the threat. You will be forced to take shallow breaths into the chest in preparation to run or fight. So in order to relax the nervous system we need to move the breathing into the belly so informing the brain that you are in fact in a state of rest. Thoughts are not facts. So write positive affirmations and post them around you! ‘I am confident’. ‘Overcoming challenges builds strength’. Or as I saw on the final of The Great British Bake Off; ‘I have won’ (the great British bake off). Making affirmations in the present tense, as if they have already happened, helps us to think more positively.
Breath Lying on your back with your knees bent, or sitting upright with your lumbar spine supported, breathe into your belly as if you were inflating a balloon both upwards and width-ways. This may feel alien to begin with, especially if you are used to chest breathing. You may have to imagine your rib cage expanding first and then bring the breath down to the belly.
With practice this action will inform your ANS that you are relaxed. If you are familiar with Ujjayi breathing, this pranayama will slow your breath down and help you to relax more. You should aim to breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in. Initially however, you may need to keep the ratio equal and gradually lengthen the out breath. This is particularly important if you are depressed and/or suffer from lethargy, as lengthening the out breath makes us more relaxed and as a result, for some at least, a little sleepy.
I like to start my day with this breathing practice while still lying in bed. It is also a helpful practice to lull you to sleep and to give you mental space at the end of your working day.
Do you ever get home with the feeling that the last thing you are ready for is your family pouncing on you and demanding your attention? One of the biggest gifts you can give your family is time to yourself first. After all, I’m sure they would rather enjoy your company when you are relaxed and jovial, than when grouchy and snappy! Let it be known that before you spend time with them, you need 5 minutes to lie down somewhere quiet and focus on your breathing.
In addition to the breathing practice, you can use the out breaths to visualise your back, neck and shoulder muscles relaxing; melting like butter into the ground beneath you. Stay for as long as you need to so that you relieve some of the tension of the day.
If this sounds like your life, you might find the Stress Busting Yoga on the first Sunday of each month a helpful lesson to take. During the two hours from 10.00 - 12.00, we practice some strong asana to rid the body of stress hormones and include some restorative poses, deep breathing and relaxation or meditation to help you feel restored.
Ever since completing my training in Yoga Therapy for the Mind with The Minded Institute, I have considered myself to be cured of mental illness. But lately I have had to accept that I will never be fully cured of my particular mental illness. It is triggered by stress and even though I advocate that yoga and mindfulness practices are life-long when managing mental illness, stress has a way of blocking them out for me and like every human, I get overwhelmed by the stress and put those practices at the back of the list of jobs to be done. Because in my head, if I tick off all the other jobs that I believe to be causing the stress, I will cope better. But this is rarely the case.
Taking a week off afforded me the time to rest, recuperate and regroup; to prioritise my practices again and therefore my well-being. Consequently I found the space I required to set up strategies that should keep me on the straight and narrow.
I found wisdom from the young that week. The coordinator of the Sussex Oakleaf Youth Mental Health group that I volunteer for 'BeOk', constructed a list of 5 ways to well-being. These are:
Connecting. Learning. Being Active. Noticing. Giving.
Connecting with family, friends, colleagues and community satisfies a human need of feeling valued and close to others. Connection can also be felt for some through religion, spirituality and nature. In the group we drew mind-maps of things that cultivated connection for us. Other than those mentioned above, examples were communication, reliance, sharing, trust, honesty, love, safety, grounding etc...
This was only the first step on our journey to exploring the 5 ways of well-being together. I find the intelligence, honesty and wisdom of these young men and women incredibly humbling.
Next on the list is Learning. During the BeOk sessions, we have discussed in the past how exams put too much pressure on those of us whose memories have been affected by mental health. But there is always something to learn that can be done just for the fun or fascination of it such as a new skill. Continued learning enhances self esteem and encourages social interaction. Setting goals can be a great way to achieve a sense of well-being.
Being Active is vital for health in general. Regular activity is associated with lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression and is essential for slowing age-related cognitive decline.
Noticing the things around you comes under the umbrella of mindfulness; simply being more present and attentive to whatever you are doing or whoever you are speaking to. Savoring the moment; eating lunch without looking at your phone for example, hearing the words another is saying are ways to help you appreciate the important things in life and in turn, to make positive choices based on your own values.
Giving time to others is incredibly rewarding and helps to create connections. Acts of kindness to a friend, neighbor, community group or charity are more likely to make you feel happy!
I have found that the best strategy for me to cultivate well-being is to be organised. I used to be more organic in the way my days evolved but I found it was too easy to be lazy. So I set myself daily goals, ticking off at least two of five ways to well-being. And it feels good!