A case for simple solutions.
Some of the most simple solutions are some of the best. They are often however discounted.
Over the past few decades there has been an increasing tendency to medicalise natural human responses to difficult situations and states of mind. Once a problem or distress is medicalised, the logical next step is to seek a medical solution. Lots of simple potential solutions may be overlooked.
Just to be clear, I am not arguing against medical treatment. Medical treatment absolutely has an important place; I’ve witnessed first hand incredible life-saving medical treatment in my work within the NHS and also in my own family. What I’m arguing for is a proportionate, thoughtful response and self-care.
In relation to mental health, there are times when medical treatment is totally the right approach; when distress is severe and acute, and day to day functioning is not possible for example. In contrast, many so called ‘common mental health problems’ can respond well to simple solutions, if there is commitment to them and they are integrated into daily life. Stress is one of the areas where simple solutions can make a huge difference.
It is generally accepted that it takes 8 weeks to create a new habit or pattern of behaviour so it is important to try simple solutions consistently for at least 8 weeks before deciding that they don’t work. And consistently means doing something daily, ideally for around 30 minutes, not once a week! New neural pathways will be developed in the brain during this time, which will help to embed new behaviours, activities and perspectives.
Connect neck down.
Do you rehearse all the things you don’t want to do or which are causing you stress and anxiety before they happen? Start thinking about Monday morning on Sunday and then experience it twice?
In the West we live much of our lives in our heads – neck up. Connecting with the body can take the focus away from the endless chatter and self-talk, much of it negative, in our heads. Try breathing into the belly (more about breathing below) or try yoga, walking barefoot on grass or take a shower and focus on the sensation of water on your skin.
Re-learn how to breathe.
Abdominal breathing, breathing into the belly, creates physical distance from the chatter in our heads, slows the heart rate and activates the parasympathetic nervous system – it moves us from ‘fight and flight’ to ‘rest and digest’. It is one of the simplest, most accessible and powerful tools we have to calm body and mind.
To try abdominal breathing, sit or lie down. Breathing through your nose if possible, notice where your breath is in the body without making any changes. After a few breaths, place your hands on your belly. Inhale low down into the belly noticing the hands rising. Exhale noticing the hands dropping back towards the spine. Focus on a slow inhalation and an even longer, slower exhalation. Continue for a few minutes keeping your attention on your breath. If you become distracted – it is normal to be distracted as the brain is not used to being still – just keep bringing your focus back to your breath. Try the practice for a few minutes at the same time every day.
Activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Stress is usually seen as negative however it has a really important purpose; to protect us from danger. Danger and stress activate the sympathetic nervous system and the ‘fight and flight’ response. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system promotes the ‘rest and digest’ response; the opposite of fight and flight. When we ‘live on adrenaline’ in ‘fight and flight’ for a long time, the body adjusts to this state; it becomes more and more difficult for it to switch back quickly to ‘rest and digest’. It is important to establish a regular new routine and to continue with it for 8 weeks to ‘re-set’ the system. Try calming soothing activities for 30 minutes every day; taking a long bath, having a massage, attending a calming yoga class, trying mindfulness or relaxation.
Spend time with nature.
Try switching off technology and getting out in nature. Go for a 30 walk in the countryside or in a park. Pay attention to the colours, sounds and weather; really notice them. Every time you notice that your mind is wondering to the things you have to do or the things that are causing you stress or anxiety, bring the attention back to the things you can hear, see and sense.
While it may feel that you don’t have time to take 30 minutes out of your busy day, being with nature will soothe your mind, help to improve your focus and concentration and help you to be more productive for the rest of the day.
De-clutter and simplify your life.
Decluttering and simplifying your life may seem impossible particularly if you think there is too much at stake to stop doing what you are doing. Start by decluttering your mind; incorporating some of the suggestions above for 8 weeks is a good place to start. You may find that simply taking some time for yourself everyday makes it easier to see what is important more clearly. When your mind is clearer, calmer and you have more perspective, you may just find that you know what you need to do.