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Welcoming Freedom With Care

This is a much shorter blog than usual for two reasons, both of which are connected.

I am currently writing up my results section for my thesis on how mindfulness can support women with chronic illness who have experienced late, mis or non-diagnosis. This is presently all-encompassing both in time and energy, not least because this is so personal to me and requires the constant processing of memories and reactions of my own in relation to the data and research on this cultural phenomenon.

So, the second reason I am keeping this short is because during my ethics application I recognised the need for self-care during this process and have made this a primary intention alongside the academic enquiry. I am using my practice to indicate where I am pushing myself too hard and holding unrealistic expectations around what is possible for me each day so I can recognise when I am heading towards burn-out or collapse (two states I know intimately).

Something which struck me when reflecting on this, is that whether we have chronic illness or not, we all have limits and we need to know where these are. Anyone in good health can find themselves being pushed to the edges of what they can manage, and we often only recognise this too late.

And this is especially important now as we move into the next phase of the pandemic. As we start to physically return to workplaces, gyms, and shops; as we are more able to meet up with loved ones and travel further to see each other, the temptation has perhaps never been greater to cram in as much activity as possible. Psychologists are warning about the impact this is having already on people’s mental health as we start to experience overwhelm: this transition from closed off to opening up needs careful handling. Some will experience this stress immediately; others may enjoy the initial freedoms and then suffer burn out later.

How can we handle this transition with care?

In the old calendar we are entering the time called Beltane, the summer months when our ancestors would be opening their communities in a similar way to our own today. After months of staying as local as possible due to impassable roads, trade and travel would resume, pledges would be made between families and power centres, pilgrimages would recommence and life would return to both nature and community.

But this is harder for us today for two main reasons:

First, we are not accustomed to giving way to the change of seasons. We are accustomed to being in control and expect to have the means to navigate whatever comes along with technology and science quickly. Being out of control has been a huge cultural shock and a massive adaptation. We are not accustomed to not seeing those we love for long periods of time or being able to go where we want when we want to.

Second: our brains have been on high alert for over a year now, seeing every person and object as potentially dangerous to ourselves and our loved ones. It has been hard to find ‘rest and digest’ opportunities, so our bodies have been flooded with stress hormones as our limbic systems are constantly triggered. Our culture, unlike our ancestors, does not recognise the need for rest, we are encouraged to push ourselves mercilessly and when we can longer cope we are labelled 'weak'. Thankfully, this is beginning to change in some areas, but not enough. We need to create this change within ourselves because society is unlikely to give us the invitation to do this.

How can we manage this today?

If you are experiencing overwhelm around moving out of isolation and back into the workplace or groups of people, try following these steps:

1) recognise these feelings as normal human emotions to an abnormal situation and treat them with care and compassion (try Tara Brach’s RAIN practice).

2) if you can find a body scan that you are comfortable with (remember that if you are very anxious the shorter ones are less triggering) try and follow it as closely as possible. Moving awareness through the body helps to downregulate the stress reactive areas within the brain and body.

3) Try a gratitude practice (see link below). Research shows that simply bringing awareness to the many little things we have or experience each day really helps ignite the positive response areas of the brain and strengthen the connections between them. Our ancestors wrote prayers, blessings and poems about the minutiae of daily life for a reason, and we have lost this vital awareness, only focusing on the negative. This can also have the benefit of reminding us of the connections we have with others, helping us to feel less isolated. You can also do an informal version where you simply note down at the end of each day a few things you are thankful for - the simpler the better (for example clean, running water).

I leave you with my wish for you today that you may move forward with ease, and that this movement is as joyous as it can be right now.

Bendithion, Natalie.

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