Living in challenging times

Living in challenging times

by Berenice Boxler.

Everything is allowed. I say this more than once during a mindfulness activity. One could say that this is the mantra of mindful living. It means that everything – joy, insecurity, stress, fear, overwhelm, success – is allowed to be here and you don’t have to criticize yourself for feeling any of these emotional states. Every feeling of groundlessness, every destructive thought, every physical pain is part of life, even if we do not like it. Life is not about what happens to us, but about how we deal with what is happening.

The events of the past few weeks have started a ride on a rollercoaster of experiences that most of us have probably never felt before. And nobody knows how many more laps to go. There was disbelief, compassion, distraction, overwhelm, prudence, and a lot of uncertainty. At home it often felt like a holiday, the sun was shining, cakes were baked – the news, on the other hand, seemed to come from a bizarre film. Yes, everything was allowed to be there, but I also noticed how anxiously and quite successfully my brain fought against reality. It seemed like a parallel world, the family life here and the world out there very far away. Only in the evening, when my head got tired, the difficult emotions came up. It took a whole week until one of the most important qualities of mindfulness finally found enough space to unfold: acceptance. Yes, this is happening. And no, it is not a pause from the “real” life. This is life now; every moment is life itself.

It was only with acceptance that I was able to think clearly about what might now be helpful in my life. And maybe it is helpful for you, too:

Self-Care

When difficult times arise, the mind usually needs some time to adjust. Carefully established routines and well-being habits suddenly break away and the thinking is trapped in doing mode. Exercise, reading, eating without stress or regular breaks suddenly seem negotiable and secondary. Only after some time does it become clear that the human organism is not designed to function on high speed all the time. The pumping of our heartbeat shows this very well: life consists of tension and relaxation. For a while it is possible to live in tension – but in the long run it makes you sick, unhappy and hostile toward others.
Consequently:
Self-care is essential for survival. Only when our own energy and well-being tanks are filled can we master life and be the person we want to be. Reading, going for a walk, enjoying an ice cream with chocolate sprinkles, breathing in nature, chatting with friends, taking a bath, cooking healthy and delicious food, soaking up the sun, playing games, etc. Everything that gives pleasure and does not require a result. Having a date with yourself for at least a quarter of an hour every day, simply because it is important, right and appreciative. And don’t forget to give your body enough sleep. P.S. Self-care also includes leaving the (home) office in the evening and enjoying the free evening or the weekend. Even if mails come in, it is and remains enormously important to allow yourself these breaks from doing.

Pausing and breathing

In the doing mode, it is all about the following: getting somewhere, achieving the desired result, arriving at the destination. We go to the supermarket to buy food. We take the car to get to the doctor. We work on a project to have it finished. Every break is a hindrance, and so it can quickly happen that we rush through life to get somewhere. Especially in the groundless state of the present situation and the uncertain future, the “doing” grants a deceptive feeling of being in control. The problem is: our brain and body cannot run constantly. Just like a car, we need regular gas stations and maintenance, otherwise at some point we simply fall still or have an accident.
Consequently:
Allow yourself to regularly interrupt the doing and just be. Take a breath and be curious about what is here right now. Body: tension, tiredness, hunger? Thoughts: critical, driven, negative, inspired? Emotions: insecurity, gratitude, sadness?
Only if I know what my inner landscape looks like, I can do what is helpful or meaningful now. A 3-minute breathing space can be a wonderful tool to take a breath again and again in a very conscious way. Here is the link to listen to this guided exercise on our website.
Maybe the “ACE” by Dr. Russ Harris can also be helpful:
A = acknowledge your thoughts and feelings: “There are troubled thoughts.” or “There is fear coming up.”
C = come back into your body: feel the body, anchor yourself, e.g. by feeling the breath, pressing the fingertips together, stretching the body. To connect with the body helps to come back into the present moment and out of the thinking.
E = engage in what you are doing: Perceive the present activity clearly. It is helpful to first become aware of the sensations of the senses: What can I see? What can I hear? What can I feel? Then: What am I doing right now? Then pay attention to this activity, be it eating, writing mails, going for a walk, etc.

Structuring your day

The usual rhythm of the days is mixed up. The sounds outside remind me of weekend days, and with the children (and possibly partner) at home, every day at first seems like a weekend or even a holiday. One is tempted to sleep in, to extend the lunch break or to stay up longer in the evenings. Psychologists, however, strongly advise to stick to the usual structure and to divide the day into “work”, “leisure” and whatever else is on the agenda and to not fundamentally change your sleeping habits.
Consider the following:
It is helpful for the biological rhythm to always get up at about the same time. If you have a morning routine (e.g. bathroom, drinking water, stretching, meditation, then breakfast), then this should definitely be maintained. A visual daily or weekly schedule can help the whole family to give the day the structure that is normally imposed from outside with school timetables, bus schedules and core working hours. There will be days when you deviate from this, and that is fine – as long as it remains an exception. Even if the children do not like to hear it: today is a week day and they have school work to do including sports lessons. An external framework is especially important in times when the usual and familiar frameworks of society and everyday life are being turned upside down.

Focusing on what you can control

When almost everything that was known and supportive suddenly breaks away (open borders, celebrating a birthday with friends, going to the hairdresser when necessary, the weekly football training, full shelves in the supermarket, etc.), a feeling of groundlessness quickly arises. At the moment, we are hit by changes in the way we are used to living, along with the invisibility of threats on many levels: psychologically, emotionally, financially, socially – everything is being turned upside down, and this is triggering many feelings. The universal law of “The only stable thing in life is that everything is always changing.” has never been so tangible. Uncertainty, helplessness and fear are the result, with many thoughts about how, for how long, who, why, what for, what then? These are all things we cannot control.
Thus:
Focus on what you can control: what you do, here and now. Thoughts and emotions come up; we can’t control this. But we have control over what we do with them. On the inside, this means: pause and notice how this storm of worries or fears is raging. Our task then is to throw the anchor: breathing, feeling, hearing, pausing, perceiving, accepting. See above the “ACE”-technique. On the outside, this means: What am I doing right now? What is really helpful now? Be it showing patience and understanding towards the children, be it buying “normal” quantities of supermarket goods, or concrete services for other people – whether voluntarily or as a profession. What each individual is doing has an impact on all the people around him. We often have much more control over our own lives than we realize. And no action is too small, nothing is too insignificant. How we show up to life has an effect on nature, the environment and on other people.

Being the gatekeeper that is controlling the floodgates

Even before the pandemic, smartphones allowed people to be available and informed 24/7. You can already hear talk of the “text neck” which is certainly not helpful for the back or for general health. The endless news feeds keep us online, the mobile phone is constantly pinging, and in our spare time we (and even the children) sit in front of the TV, the PC or in virtual rooms. The sensory gates are wide open and often allow everything to enter without a filter. Too often, we don’t give ourselves time to process and order what we take in. The flood of information does just that – it is flooding us, whether with real news, fake news or distraction via social media. Technology is not bad per se, but everything depends on how you deal with it. It goes without saying that it is not helpful for our soul and mind to constantly take in what is happening in the world. We humans are not a bottomless barrel, but rather like a sponge. At some point it is saturated, and if we do not deal with the content and process it consciously, it will flood us without control.
Therefore:
It can be helpful to not be constantly fed by new information. Perhaps you can limit your news intake to fixed times, e.g. 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. – although once a day should also be sufficient (and preferably not right before you want to sleep at night). Are push messages on your phone really necessary? It’s about being aware of your inner state and whether you now feel strong and grounded enough to absorb new information. Self-care is deciding for yourself what and how much to let in. It’s about being a gatekeeper and defining for yourself what you want to and also can deal with right now. Just because it’s available (news, problematic conversations, judging or polarizing comments on social media), you don’t have to consume it directly and completely.
P.S. It is not helpful to open the gates to the world in the morning right after waking up. Try to arrive first in your own world and body before checking the news or your mailbox.

Living life as it is right now, living with self-responsibility and control over one’s own contribution, and meeting the world with wakefulness and compassion – this is what it means to be a human being.