We live in a distracted world....
And living in a distracted, unconscious state does not create a sense of wellbeing or happiness. Instead, it produces a feeling of disempowerment and helplessness – a feeling that life happens to you rather than for you.
When we are living in a constant state of distraction and autopilot mode, we are likely to have thoughts along the lines of “I don’t have a choice; I’m stuck” or “I have to”. And these thoughts suggest we do not have a sense of agency over our life - that in the future we will be/do/have, but until then we are stuck. And while we are waiting for the future to happen, we end up sleepwalking through life, in autopilot mode with the incorrect assumption that we have an infinite amount of time to live.
To further compound the issue, many of us are living in the past and the future, but rarely, if ever, in the here and now. The voice our head (the ego) provides a constant running commentary of judgements, observations, and dramas based on the past and future projections which continues to ensure we live unconsciously.
To combat the issue we need to calm the mind.
For much of my career I was living in a state of autopilot mode - I was a robot and hurriedly moved from one task, call and meeting to the next without really thinking about what I was doing. I was not present in my own life – I was living unconsciously. The panic attacks I suffered from raised my awareness of just how unconsciously I had been living my life and served as an unexpected wakeup call. Yet, I didn’t know how to become conscious or mindful. All I knew was that my mind was full.
And so, to begin to clear my mind, I decided to give meditation a try – albeit with no training or guidance on how exactly I should meditate. I presumed I already knew how meditation worked – I assumed that all one had to do was sit on a cushion and think of nothing.
I am sure you can imagine how that worked out for a Type A personality jacked up on adrenaline. A typical 10-minute meditation practice saw me say a version of the following to myself:
Okay cool, I am meditating….
Do not think of anything…
You are thinking. You should not be thinking
Deep breath, okay, cool, I am meditating
Do we have bread? I think we need bread.
I think we might need milk too.
Okay, keep meditating — deep breath.
I wonder what else we need? I think we might need eggs too.
I wonder how long this meditation has been?
I think we need tea too.
When is this stupid timer going to go off so that I can go to the grocery store?
When does the grocery store close?
Maybe I should stop this meditation, so I can get to the store before it closes.
And then I would end the meditation session feeling frustrated and down on myself because I hadn’t done it right – believing that something was wrong with me because I couldn’t empty my mind of thoughts.
Ultimately through research, reading various books on meditation and attending classes, I became aware that the purpose of meditation is not to empty the mind and think of nothing. In fact it's the opposite. The purpose of meditation and mindfulness is to become aware and take stock of thoughts and feelings that arise in our bodies. It is to bring us back to the present moment.
Now I appreciate that mindfulness can sound mystical and may conjure up images of hippy dens, hot yoga studios and people walking around in catatonic, blissed-out states, and if this is what you imagine mindfulness to be, I imagine that for some it can sound off-putting. To get away from any negative images you may be feeling towards the word mindfulness, let’s start by defining it:
Mindfulness is the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
Mindfulness is a way to break out of autopilot mode and become consciously aware again.
Think of meditation as training for the mind.
To bring awareness into your life, I recommend that you implement a form of meditation into your daily life. This does not need to be time-consuming – even 5 minutes a day can help bring awareness back to you.
If you would like to try meditating on your own, then keep in mind and try the following:
With daily practice, meditation will increase self-awareness, emotional intelligence, reduce stress and anxiety; however, I want to reiterate that it takes time and patience. Like when we train our physical bodies, it takes time for the results to appear.
Key questions to ask yourself:
For many years throughout my career, I averaged 3-4 hours of sleep a night, which ultimately led me to develop insomnia.
I didn’t schedule a set time to go to sleep but instead made it a habit to flop into bed around midnight but not before first checking my Blackberry and answering a few emails. I would then fall into a deep sleep which lasted exactly 2 hours every night without fail. My mind then decided that 2 am was the perfect time to solve the world’s problems, plan my day and think about all the things I needed to. I became acutely accustomed to staring at the bedroom ceiling, making mental to-do-lists while my husband slept blissfully next to me. And then, tiring myself from all my problem solving I would then usually fall into a deep, blissful sleep at around 5 am only to have the alarm clock go off at 7 am to start getting ready for work.
And this cycle of poor sleep lasted years which meant that I was perpetually tired and wired.
Tired because I was so exhausted from lack of sleep. Wired because I was constantly working in overdrive mode and pounding my system with technology right up until the last minute before going to bed. In effect, I never gave myself a chance to slow down and clear my mind.
Sleep is essential to our wellbeing, yet many of us are sleep-deprived and acquire a sleep deficit each night.
Work and family obligations take up our time and before we know it lack sleep becomes a habit, meaning we do not obtain the optimum 8 hours sleep a night that is needed for our physical and mental health. Furthermore, research shows that the light from our computers, phones, TV’s and other forms of technology suppress melatonin (which helps control our sleep and wake cycles) which leads to disruptive and poor sleep. Poor sleep contributes to overall fatigue, irritability, forgetfulness, poor decision making, short temperament and depression as well as raises the risk of serious medical issues. We need to make sleep a priority not only for our health and wellbeing, but also so that we can have a clear and focussed mindset to live a conscious and meaningful life.
To address my insomnia, I implemented lifestyle changes which included:
To get a good night sleep, consider implementing the following:
Enjoying a warm bath
Writing in a journal
By making these small changes, you will notice an improvement in your sleep as well as your day to day mindset and wellbeing, which not only benefits you but also those around you.
Key questions to ask yourself:
Consider keeping a sleep diary to gain an awareness of your sleep habits. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy – just write down the following:
Throughout my corporate career, I was a sugar addict and cookie monster.
A chocolate chip cookie monster to be specific.
Not only did I have a sweet tooth, but I also had an unhealthy habit of consuming sugar every time I felt stressed, which was pretty much all the time. Such and such client just yelled at me for x… solution = going to the grocery store and buying chocolate chip cookies, chocolate, marshmallows and anything sugary that caught my eye.
The outcome being that I would feel great for all of about 5 minutes while I munched my sweets, only to then feel guilty shortly after that for consuming such items, to suddenly having a sugar “crash” an hour later. I would then repeated the cycle of eating more sugary treats. Sugar was my feel-good, comfort food of choice, and since I was on a continuous quest for comfort during my career, it was my primary source of nourishment.
I knew that to regain control of my mental health and to optimise on my physical health; I had to quit my sugar addiction and implement a balanced nutritious diet. I read that sugar makes anxiety worse because when blood sugar levels spike from high to low, and back again the body releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol to deal with the sugar. Since my anxiety made me feel jacked up and jittery from the excess adrenaline and cortisol that was coursing through my system, I recognised that adding more adrenaline and cortisol from sugar only exasperated my symptoms.
And so, because I was desperate to cease having panic attacks, I quit all refined sugar cold turkey.
And, I felt awful for it. I had migraine headaches, significant mood swings, a real lack of focus and the shakes. It took me almost a full month for the effects of the sugar detox to wear off, and once they did, I then went to work on giving up coffee.
My decision to do so was because I had read that like sugar, caffeine makes anxiety worse. Coffee and I didn’t get along at the best of times and caused me to feel jittery like I was jacked up on drugs. Yet, over the years, I had developed an unhealthy habit of consuming loads of coffee to cope with the perpetual tiredness I felt because of my long working days.
And so, I gave up coffee and again had withdrawal symptoms – this time in the form of headaches, fatigue, and feeling depressed. These symptoms lasted roughly a week or so.
I am not suggesting giving up all refined sugar and caffeine as a path for everyone. Nor do I advocate a particular nutritional diet as I believe everyone’s bodies and needs are different. However, I do recommend gaining awareness of your dietary habits as this will help you to understand if there any consumption habits that are not serving your mental health.
Key questions to ask yourself:
Consider keeping a food diary to gain a complete understanding of your consumption habits. Record what and when you eat, and also write down commentary on any needs that the food is meeting. I.e. comfort eating rather than hunger eating.
Once completing this exercise for a week or two consider what changes you need to make with your diet.
Modern day work culture has seen an increase in epidemic stress levels causing employees to suffer from:
Insomnia. Being in autopilot mode. Sleepwalking through life. Always being “on”. Technology and screen addiction. Anxiety. Depression. Burnout.
The effect of stress on our mental and physical health can have significant impacts, yet often we don’t recognize the signs of how stress is impacting us because as a society we normalize stress. We mistakenly assume that what we are feeling is normal because those around us appear to be just as stressed as we are.
Based on the burnout survey that I created (in case you missed it, you can take the confidential 2 minute survey here: www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/5PNM83L) the primary questions I received from respondents were:
In response to these questions for the next few months I will be providing answers, tips and tricks.
This week lets's review how to recognize the signs….
Below is a list of symptoms for stress, anxiety and burnout complied by the United Kingdom’s National Health Service:
Symptoms of Stress
Symptoms of Anxiety
Symptoms of Burnout
For ease of use, attached is a checklist of the above symptoms. Complete the attached checklist to identify the symptoms which you may be normalizing and consider sharing the completed list(s) with a healthcare professional should you deem this to be necessary.
Check back in next week whereby I will start to discuss the techniques and tools to prevent burnout.
Last week I discussed how to set and achieve goals; in case you missed it, you can view and download the exercise here:
This week I want to talk about the importance of monitoring progress & celebrating success.
Milestones are important steppingstones towards realising your dreams and it is critical to recognize and celebrate these successes. Without recognising and acknowledging the achievements we make towards our goals and by only focusing on the end result, our goals can feel and seem too overwhelming, which can lead us to giving up on the pursuit of our dreams.
Setting a goal map or plan is essential to achieving our goals – without setting out a plan it is near impossible to reach our goals because without a plan there is no strategy or accountability.
I personally log my goals and initiatives in an excel spreadsheet, however you can choose to do this in a simpler way, for example in a notebook. The important thing to remember is to record your progress against your goal initiatives on a daily basis so that you can refer back and measure your progress against your goals at the end of each quarter.
Refer to the below goal plan example:
The green fill indicates that the goal initiatives were achieved, whereas the red indicates that the goal initiative was not achieved.
Create your own goal plan in either an excel spreadsheet or notebook.
Once you have been working on your goals for 4 months, complete the attached Annual Quarterly Review Assessment.
Document the achievements that you have made towards your goals and also detail the challenges/obstacles you faced.
Conducting this exercise will ensure that you recognise and celebrate your successes as well as acknowledge the roadblocks/obstacles that you may need to adapt to in order to reach your goals the following quarter.