Between the worst bushfire season ever, a pandemic sweeping the world, massive political unrest and a long-overdue widespread focus on systemic racism worldwide, 2020 turned into an entirely different year than any of us were expecting. Our hopes, our lives and expectations got upended, shaken like a James-Bond martini, and then poured out all over the ground. (And then someone lit a match!)
But I'm holding to the hope that 2020 wasn't meant to be the year of perfect vision. It's the year that helped the scales fall from our eyes so we could start seeing more clearly.
Over and over I've heard that 2020 helped people see and focus in on what was most important to them. And it wasn't money, or fame, or influence. It was just people. And family. And family not necessarily by blood, but by choice. When finances have been stretched to the utter limit, they were stretched because we wanted to care for people (including ourselves). When lockdowns hit (and keep hitting) they hit hardest because we can't see the people who matter most to us. Stress and tragedy are awful to endure - and our grief and distress speaks directly to us about who matters in the midst of them.
And then the grief and distress can consume us. And it feels terrible.
So I want to point you back to some tools to help.
The MOST IMPORTANT THING? It's so simple you're not going to believe me. But I mean it.
It's your breathing. Slow your breathing down. Practice for a couple of minutes every couple of hours every day. Expand your ribcage (think the WonderWoman pose but put your fists on your ribs instead of your hips).
And this is why it's the most important thing. Chronic stress and trauma affect the subconscious structures of our brains, making us more sensitive to threat and negative thoughts and experiences. (I'm particularly thinking here of the amygdala, the "smoke detector" of the brain. In stress and trauma it's ready to go off at the slightest whiff.) The problem is, these areas are subconscious - meaning they exist and work beyond our conscious control. Therefore it doesn't matter how much you think about it or how much positivity you try to thrust into your brain - it doesn't change the fact that you can't control it!
Unless you also are making full use of the brain-body connection, and pushing the body relaxation connection upward, back into the brain, and you start doing that first. When your body relaxes, it sends signals back up into your amygdala, telling it to chill. Then, over time, it can combine with the thought-based encouragements you want to give yourself, and make your brain's threat detectors less twitchy and help you feel more relaxed and in control of yourself.
Of course, this is only a tiny part of the dealing-with-stress-and-trauma story - but it's the first place to start.
If you can breathe, you can do the next best thing.
Focus your mind on one question. Who really matters here?
Whatever situation you're in. Whatever it is you're thinking about. Whoever you're working with. The question that has to be top of mind is "Who is important?" "What really matters?" It's the best sifting, culling, focusing, enabling, empowering question in times of stress. Who are you there for? Why are you there? Because once you're clear about that, then it's easier to figure out your next step.
Kids arguing for the millionth time today? Focus on just one thing that really matters. Is it the toy? Is it the tone? Is it your peace and sanity? Then try something that help you move that agenda along.
1000 emails in your inbox? (Me too!) Focus on three you have to send today. And delete three you don't need to respond to.
Struggling to get along with someone in your household or workplace? Focus on what brought you together. What's your common purpose here? Do something that helps that along. It doesn't have to be a big gesture - it can be the tiniest of tiny steps. The important thing is that you notice yourself doing a little thing that matters because of a what or who that also matters.
Because once you've done one little thing to move towards the things and people that matter, you're training your brain to focus on that. You're rewarding your brain by focusing on that. And that little zing of connection really really helps to balance us when we're trying to cope with all the challenges coming our way.
Need help with this? Get in touch. My 2021 special rates are $120AUD per hour, face to face or online.
Want other resources? Generally, there's a whole lot of stuff on my FB page - Grace, Grit and Resilience with Krystyna Kidson. (I know, I renamed it again! You can still tag me with @ThePsychologistCoach.) I'd suggest you start with the series I did for Mental Health Month in 2019 and check out the FB live series I did when the pandemic started picking up pace last year.
And for those of you in ministry, you might like these videos from the Baptist Association of NSW and ACT Churches, who interviewed me for some explicitly Christian mental health pandemic tips. They're generally between 2-5min long, so feel free to dip in and use and rewatch as needed.
For general tips around understanding and managing stress, grief and anxiety at the moment:
For leaders who are tired and depleted from the ongoing push:
For those who are managing chronic illness and social isolation:
For mothers who may still be needing to manage remote schooling (and maybe with remote work as well):
And thoughts for the church as we look to reopen and reenter life and ministry in a post-covid world.
Check them out and get in touch if you've got any questions.