If wellbeing is important to you, as it is to me, you too will have been exposed to many (many) different suggestions and approaches to improve your own, your children’s and your family’s levels of wellbeing – and all this prior to even beginning to think about workplace wellbeing. We are, without doubt, in time and state where we – and those we love most – are being exposed to very high levels of stress, from multiple different sources. So what to do when even paying attention to our wellbeing seems a stretch too far – as a friend said recently, “It’s gotten to a point where the fact that I have not “journalled/ walked in nature/ done yoga/ etc etc etc” is now making me feel stressed out and guilty that I have not paid attention to my wellbeing, and that I can’t seem to stick to these habits I know I need, despite my repeated commitments to myself to do so.”
It’s one thing being intellectually aware of, conceptually adept at, and perhaps even excellent at speaking about wellbeing practices – it’s another thing entirely to practice them with such consistency that they become indispensable to us. Sometimes, when we are most in need of self-soothing, self-calming, we are least able to access these practices, because we are already in a physiologically hyper-alert mode – overtired, overanxious, overcommitted and frankly, overwhelmed.
So today, I offer something that I am finding useful, right now, right in the moment, and that is accessible without a lot of intellectual processing. This is a set of body-hacks – not mine, certainly not new, and not in any way complex. Rooted in polyvagal theory, these tiny actions help to physiologically reset our bodies to a calmer state. Switch-flippers that help us move from a predominantly “activated” state in which our sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze) is running rampant, towards a more balanced state in which our parasympathetic nervous system (rest, calm, clear) has a chance at a look-in. And when we are in a state where our parasympathetic nervous system is working decently, this helps to open up more space to do the other things we know we need, but somehow can’t access.
Try these as “tiny habits” – so tiny that you know you can do them every day, with no need to psyche yourself up. And if you can do just these three tiny habits – even if you need to do only ONE of them until you can do two, then three – every day, your body recognises them and learns how to flip more quickly from the hyper-activated state to the calm… They are best done first thing in the morning before the mind starts experiencing worry, but also whenever there is a sense of anxiety escalating.
Literally just 2-5 mins of vigorous exercise. It’s ideal to start your day straight out of bed with this, before your brain kicks in… Running on the spot, jumping jacks, arm swings, bend and stretches -anything super short and simple.
Move your body before you start thinking yourself into fight or flight mode (sympathetic nervous system). Getting your heart rate up activates your parasympathetic nervous system.
You can exercise for longer if you want to in the morning or another time of the day, but try not to skip that 2-5 minutes of getting your heart rate up before you do anything else. You should be slightly out of breath by the time you stop.
- STOP and NOTICE
Find an internal or external sensory focus and pay attention to this. It could be the sound of your breath, the feeling of your pulse as you settle from the exercise, or the sensation of fabric, sound of birdsong, noise of the traffic. It must be real and sensed. Should your mind wander, bring it back – the point is not to not wander – its to be intentional about bringing your attention back to that focus point. The choice of focus is not important, as long as it’s something that can be experienced rather than thought about. This habit teaches your brain how to pause between stimulus and reaction.
Have a shower at the usual temperature, then at the end, turn the water onto full cold, not gradually, immediately. Stay under it for 5 seconds, or longer if you can. Do this every day for a week, then try to progressively increase the time. It won’t be pleasant – but it’s not supposed to be. Cold water stimulates our vagal nerve, and “shocks” us into a calm state.
And for those of us with access to partners, families, friends, even friendly strangers, as well as for those of us who are grappling with how to support those we love who are confronting their own demons – there is another extraordinarily powerful physiological hack which has been shown to be very effective in resetting our neurological state – also through powerful vagal nerve stimulation, neurological mirroring, and triggering of oxytocin, a powerful hormonal relaxant. A long, intended, safe hug – at least 20 seconds or longer – literally contains us. Ask. And offer.
With thanks to @Janine Barnes, who reminded me of, and shared, these simple, oh so valuable body-hacks…. This doesn’t mean we don’t need to attend to the deeper stuff – but sometimes, a little help in getting into a state where we are able to go there really helps…