This article is written by Claire Holmes who is Head of Counselling at Tanglin Trust School and a Certified Mindfulness teacher.
PDF can be downloaded here.
As we emerge from lockdown and adapt to our ‘new normal’ for most of us, it is going to be a mixed bag of emotions. This blog explores finding steadiness during the transition by being aware of thoughts, finding a pause button and gaining steadiness amidst change.
Thoughts can be tricky
Thoughts are important and worth paying attention to. They are our running commentary and perception of the world. Each of us has a constant stream of thoughts coming and going. At times of transition their flow may get faster and louder.
Increased ‘thought traffic’ is our natural response in changeable times. Not knowing how things are going to turn out is unsettling. Our minds tend to project into the future to fill the space of uncertainty with “What-if” thoughts. Before we know it, one of these “What-ifs” spirals into a story of how things are going to go wrong. It is all too easy to get swept along with our own narrative. We are pre-programmed to keep ourselves safe from threat in this way.
These mental simulations activate our fear response and we believe them to be real. We start to see these thoughts as truth. Our brains actively look for evidence in our environment to support these beliefs. This becomes our filter of how we see the world and these thoughts become our reality. Before long, the thought that began it all, which may or may not be true has begun to pull us all over the place mentally.
However, we are not our thoughts. They flow through us; they arise linger and dissolve again. It’s our weaving of stories around the thought that sucks us into believing them. Seeing thoughts as mental events that are not real, acknowledging that they are not facts helps us to reduce our reactivity.
Engaging a pause button
Our body lets us know when we get wrapped up in unhelpful thinking. Experience of this varies from person to person, it might be a racing heart, shorter breaths, butterflies in the tummy or sweating. We may be able to articulate that we feel a certain way, scared, anxious or sad for example. Noticing any of these gives you the opportunity to slow things down and ask; “What am I telling myself?” Our tendency is to push difficult or uncomfortable thoughts away, but this may only be helpful in the moment. They will most likely re-surface. Engaging curiosity to explore thinking can help us to gain clarity.
What is the evidence?
Here are a few questions that we could pause and ask ourselves; Do I know that this thought is one hundred percent true? Is there any evidence that this might not be the case? Is this projected scenario certainly going to happen? What’s the evidence for and against this happening and is this really a balanced view? Could this all play out in a different way, is it possible to imagine this scenario turning out better?
What sort of thinking?
We might become curious about what kind of thinking is happening. It might be worrying, imagining, catastrophising and the like. Is it a pattern of thinking that doesn’t serve you well or an unhelpful repetitive thought? We tend to generalise and become black and white in our thinking at a time like this.
It may help to notice the “What if’s” and turn your attention to “What is”? For example, if the “What if” is “What if the cases increase and we get ill?” the “What is” may be “We are safe right now and we are doing all we can to stay well.”
Finding a different place to stand
You might like to imagine yourself lying in a field and watching your thoughts as clouds appear in the sky. Perhaps you can visualise them moving across the sky and dissolving. The next thought may do the same. Not reacting, simply noticing, being curious. Another practice is to see your thoughts as leaves, you may write your thoughts on leaves and then watch them float off down a river, or stones on a beach and throwing them out to sea. You might find it helpful to set a timer for a minute or two to do this and practice it every day to get used to this skill.
One strategy that some people find helpful is to allow themselves a designated ‘thinking time.’ You might like to find a time in the day, in a certain place that becomes your unhelpful thinking moment – do put a time limit on this. Each time you find yourself noticing unhelpful thoughts, resist the urge to get caught up in the story. Tell yourself to save it for later, at your chosen time and place. When it’s time you may find it helpful to write your thoughts down in a journal, recall them in your mind or say them out loud.
Breathing into clarity
When we get swept away with unhelpful thinking, we shut down the part of the nervous system that enables us to be steady and calm. One simple yet effective way we can find a pause button is to take a breath, notice where you feel your breath and allow your attention to settle there. Having a gentle mantra that you repeat to yourself mat be soothing, something like “Let’s take this one day at a time” or “Steady and calm with each breath.”
There is so much that we can’t control or predict. Bringing yourself back to the now can help you to resist getting sucked into those thoughts that are causing worries and anxieties. Take a moment to reset and find a pause when unhelpful thoughts come along by listing the things that you can control in this moment. A simple grounding technique is 54321. Take a breath, look around and notice 5 things that you can see, 4 things that you can touch, 3 things that you can hear, 2 things that you can smell or smells you like and two things that you can taste. Take another deep breath.
To expand on the power of the senses you might like to try this an eight-minute Safe Space Visualisation. You can come back to this recording or parts of it in your minds-eye whenever you need to find a sense of calm.
An attitude of gratitude
Connecting with gratefulness is another pause button that may be available to you. Make a list in the moment. Finding a way to record these each time create a physical list that is available for you to revisit.
The more we practice recognising our unhelpful thinking, pausing, and drawing on our steadying strategies the better we get at it. Notice when you manage to do this, even just a little bit and congratulate yourself. Trust in your capacity to approach this ‘new normal’ with acceptance and steadiness and know that this has a ripple effect. It not only calms us, but those around us too.
You may also like to read Being Purposefully Present in Uncertain Times which compliments this resource.
This article has been written by Claire Holmes, Head of School Counselling, Tanglin Trust School
The news of school closure will land differently with each family. The scenario of who is at home and in what capacity will vary. This will undoubtedly bring some lifestyle changes. There may well be some bumpy moments but also opportunities for family unity. This article shares strategies for maintaining wellbeing and making the best of this interim period.
The importance of modelling
Children take their lead from how we deal with situations; they need us to be their steady anchor. Being calm yourself and talking positively about the school closure is important, even if you are not sure how it’s going to turn out. Think about how you can reduce your stress levels to be most helpful. If you are still going to work, let your children know how you are taking care of yourself and staying safe.
Talk to your children about the reasons for school closure
Speak with your children at a time when you feel calm. Let them know that by closing schools we are practicing our community responsibility to stop the virus spreading. Being present focused can be reassuring, saying something like “Everyone at school is helping each other at the moment, staying at home will help us to stay healthy.” Let them know that even though we are not physically together, our community is united in staying safe. Focus on the positives that this new situation may bring, more family time, a slower pace and discuss how time at home can benefit them. Promote peacefulness and cooperation, letting them know that by helping each other and staying calm we can get though things more easefully. Talk about home as a safe place; remind them of all the things that you are doing to maintain safety. You might like to make a family plan together to begin on the same page, discussing what you can all do to make the most this time.
Checking in with each other
The switch to staying at home may bring anxiety for your children. How we respond to worries is key in maintaining wellbeing. Let them know that it is okay to be worried and that they can chat to you about their concerns anytime. Keep the door open for those conversations. Making yourself available to chat when they need will help to reduce their anxiety. Avoid the temptation to tell them not to worry. This minimises their experience and may deter them from sharing with you and increase their anxiety. Instead, normalise, validate and empathise with whatever emotions they are feeling. It may be helpful to have a family ‘check in’ to hear what’s working and what’s challenging. You might like to weave in positive things that you have noticed about each other and sharing things that each family member feels thankful for.
Unwanted or unanticipated change may lead to feeling out of control even for the most flexible and adaptable of children. One way that you can help with this is to offer choices. This helps the child to feel in control in times of change. Try empowering the children with small decisions that impact them day to day e.g. creating their ‘work-station,’ meal planning, movie choices and the like.
Establishing routines will help everyone feel steady. Encourage children to include movement breaks throughout their day and things that help them to relax. Exercising in some way is important as the endorphins released break down the stress hormone cortisol. You might like to try designating zones in the house, a game area, a zen den etc…. and, of course, a dedicated study area which has good light and is comfortable to help with focus.
Choose exposure to news carefully. Select and stick to one or two reliable sources. You might like to view the feeds at the same time each day. Do avoid having news on in the background.
Moderate technology outside of the home learning requirements but be gentle on yourself if the children are having a bit more screen time than usual.
Weave family bonding activities to your routines too. These might be things like planning menus and cooking together, collectively reading a book, family mindfulness, yoga and board games. Find ways to laugh. Sing songs, create ‘learning from home’ playlists on Spotify. Head out to your garden to connect with nature for a wellbeing boost or if that’s not an option try looking after plants, watering, pruning or planting seeds in the house. You might like to create a ‘bucket list’ of things that you’d like to do together and tick things off as you go. Extending this purposefulness further you might like to try things like rearranging furniture, reorganising wardrobes and bookshelves and the like.
Child and parent one-on-one time helps our children thrive and co-operate. Schedule some special time with each of your children and experiment with siblings supporting each other with different tasks as well.
Acknowledge the importance of time alone. Help your children to identify what they can do in their ‘down time’ that helps them to relax. Remember the importance of everyone doing things that make them feel good. You might like to experiment with some new habits that you’ve meaning to try for a while. For your children, this will vary from child to child, some might like meditation, mindful colouring, journaling and reading. For others, art and crafts, spending time with their pets, playing games online may support wellbeing.
Connection is a human need, explore with your children how they plan to stay connected virtually with their friends and extended family members. Think about this for yourself too, stay connected with friends who help you to feel calm and grounded. Do seek support of an online counsellor if you need some professional support.
Making the best of it
It’s important to acknowledge that your work life might not be the same as it was before. Hold this as lightly as you can. Over this period, you may appreciate increased spaciousness and might not feel so guilty about not being busy. It may be that you and the family may even tolerate change more easefully from here on in.
Notice what’s working for you and your children and do more of it, spot times when you notice them co-operating, supporting each other and compliment them. When ‘bumps in the road’ present themselves, know that these are moments of learning about how to co-exist peacefully in this new set up. Be compassionate with yourself and know that it doesn’t all have to be perfect. There will be plenty of teachable moments when you can ask yourself “What can we learn from this?” Reflecting in this way helps you to navigate these ‘bumps.’
This situation may afford you the opportunity to look at what’s important for your family, to find some grace, emotional generosity and kindness with each other that will strengthen the family unit moving forward. This is a good time to remind ourselves of our shared humanity, to appreciate our communities’ resilience and strength in the face of adversity. There is something reassuring about getting though this together as a team.
Dr. Suzanne M. Anderson is a mental health counsellor and crisis responder and trainer in Singapore.