Reduce Emotional Inflammation with Reconnection to Nature

Tami Simon recently interviewed psychiatrist Dr. Lise Van Susteren on Emotional Inflammation as part of the Insights at the Edge podcast series.  Lise drew on her newly published book co-authored with Stacey Colino, Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times.  While the book was written before the onset of the Coronavirus, it is made even more relevant in these times of the global dislocation caused by the pandemic.  Lise maintains that emotional inflammation existing before the outbreak of the Coronavirus has been aggravated by the virus and its flow-on effects such as anxiety and grief and the unnatural states of social isolation and social distancing.

Prior to the onset of the Coronavirus, people were experiencing emotional inflammation as a result of our global and local environments impacted by climate change, gun violence, racial and refugee discrimination, economic disparity and turbulent economic conditions.  Lise acknowledged that the pre-existent emotional inflammation has been exacerbated by the advent of the Coronavirus.

She described out current conditions as a “fraught inflamed time” and encouraged us to be kind to ourselves and others as we work our way through the many challenges confronting us on a daily basis.  Lise maintained that individuals will deal with the challenges in different ways, e.g. some will keep themselves busy and get engaged with community work such as The Care Army, while others will use the time to retreat, read and reflect and/or listen to encouraging and inspiring podcasts.

Loss of connection to nature

I have previously discussed the impact of  the “nature-deficit disorder” and the loss of connection to nature and its healing powers.  Lise, who is a renowned climate change activist, argues that much of our emotional inflammation is caused by a loss of harmony with nature and its natural energy flows.  We have not only devastated our ecosystems (and the “immune system of the environment”) but also lost our capacity to be attuned to nature and its tranquillity and timelessness.

We have become time-poor, impatient, intolerant and stressed by the pressures that surround us and, increasingly, by the technologically paced character of our lives.  We refer to “slow mail” and “running out of time” on a consistent basis as our communications have increased in speed, simultaneously with increased expectations about response times and constant exposure to information overload – we are drowning in information and unrealistic expectations.

Lise is a firm believer that our ecology impacts our biology and she bases her assertions on sound scientific evidence.  She is at pains to point out that climate change has a devastating effect on our physical and mental health, a perspective reinforced by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).  Our physical and mental health is intimately linked to our connectedness to others and to nature.  Connection is a deeply felt need and frustration of this connection leads to physical and mental illness, including depression, ill-health and anxiety.

Reflection

Emotional inflammation is strongly associated with disconnection from nature.  Reconnection with, and respect for, nature can bring many health benefits and reduce the enervating effects of this “fraught inflamed time”.   Mindfulness practices involving breathing can help us to become better attuned to nature and more at peace with ourselves and others.  Nature is a rich source of healing and time spent being mindful in nature can assist us to develop the equanimity and creativity we need to navigate the unprecedented challenges of our time.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on nature, mindfulness practices and reflection on our way of living, we can begin to realise the critical role that nature plays in our health and wellbeing.

Peter Doherty, Nobel Prize winner for his work on infectious diseases, suggests, like Lise, that there are opportunities to be taken, and real lessons to be learned, from the current challenges of the Coronavirus:

We need to take this opportunity to rethink how we live in the world, what’s of value to us and start to look at what is really important. (Interview quoted in the Australian Financial Review, 9-10 May 2020, p.37).

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Challenges for Couple Relationships During Quarantine and Working from Home

Rick Hanson, in one of his Being Well Podcasts, spoke of Coping with Quarantine.   His focus in this discussion was on the intrapersonal and interpersonal challenges of physical distancing and restrictions on movement.   In the podcast, he identified the challenges and highlighted the fact that the pandemic and associated quarantine conditions have contributed to an increased divorce rate in China since the pandemic outbreak.  Rick spoke of the interpersonal challenges brought on by the confinement conditions and the mental and emotional pressures experienced by couples working from home.

Challenges of social isolation for couples working from home

The unusual conditions for a couple working from home in the context of other social constrictions creates increase emotional pressure for individuals in a relationship as well as for the relationship itself.  Rick describes some of these challenges as follows:

  • Heightened emotional activation: both individuals in a relationship who are working from home will be experiencing heightened emotions in the form of anxiety, fear and frustration as a result of the Coronavirus and associated restrictions on location and movement.   Couples typically experience daily aggravations with some of the comments and actions of their partner.  These aggravations can be intensified in the situation of limited physical space in the home environment and restrictions on movement.  The home environment can become a place of continuous annoyance, conflict and anger rather than a haven of peace and contentment.  Married couples in this situation can experience suffocation and/or staleness and need to draw on considerable internal resources to increase their tolerance and maintain their relationship.
  • Loss of social support: physical distancing can separate us from people we usually associate with and from whom we draw support and reinforcement.  Normally, we gain validation and confirmation of our competence and self-worth through these external relationships.  The change to a working from home environment means that we have lost the daily “water cooler chat” and with it the exchange of information, including sharing of our thoughts and feelings.  The loss of various forms of social reinforcement can cause us to challenge our self-concept and self-worth – difficult feelings compounded by feeling inadequate working from a home environment where we lack the personal capability for remote communications or the working space and technology to take advantage of the positive aspects of remote working.
  • Loss of structure: it is surprising how many people report in the current situation that they “don’t know what day it is”.  This is due, in part, to a loss of structure in their day.  The loss of regular, repetitive activities results in a loss of anchors to our days that serve to remind us what day it is.  We no longer get dressed for work, take the train or car at set times, play our social tennis on Monday nights, watch the footy together on Friday nights, visit our extended bayside family or the local market on weekends or undertake any other activity that serves to structure our day or week.  Rick suggests that these structures normally “prop us up” and their absence can leave a sense of “groundlessness”. 
  • Loss of familiar role:  in the work environment, we can feel competent and in control.  When forced to work from home in a more complex and difficult environment, we can feel overwhelmed by all the challenges and be ill at ease for much of the time.  For some people, this can be temporary as they develop the skills to master their circumstances; for others, being able to adapt becomes a real issue and aggravates the feelings of frustration and reduced self-esteem.  The intense sense of ill-ease and associated stress can debilitate people and hinder them from seeing a way forward and acquiring the necessary skills to capitalise on the current situation and personal conditions.
  • Loss of freedoms: with the restrictions on movement and need for social isolation, people can experience a loss of the fundamental right to “freedom of association”.  Along with this, may be the experience of a lack of privacy where both partners are working from home, especially where for many years one partner went to work every day for an extended period.   Introverts may experience a loss of access to their “cave” where they would normally retreat to recover from extroverted activity, including interactions with their partner.   One or both partners in a relationship may feel that their other partner is constantly “under their feet” – a complaint frequently voiced by people where one partner usually works from home and the other partner has recently retired from their job in the city or away from the home.

Reflection

Quarantine as a result of the Coronavirus and enforced working from home conditions can place increased stress on couples and their relationship.  The current environment also offers an opportunity to develop our inner resources through meditations (including mantra meditations), mindfulness practices and reflection on our resultant emotions and responses.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop a deeper understanding of what we are experiencing, keep issues and aggravations in perspective, develop tolerance, build our skills and draw on our innate resourcefulness and resilience.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Working from Home and Staying Mentally Healthy

Many people have been thrust into the situation of working from home because of the Coronavirus and related Government restrictions on movement and contact.  As a result, numerous people are ill-prepared for the challenges and opportunities involved.  However, there is plenty of advice available through blog posts, videos and podcasts to help us acquire the necessary information to work effectively from home.  There are also specific suggestions for particular groups of people, e.g. teachers working from home and working from home with kids. Many of these sources of information stress the need to stay mentally healthy as well as look after your physical welfare.  Here are some strategies to achieve both effectiveness and sound mental health.

Strategies for working from home healthily for mind and body

The pattern you create needs to meet your personal preferences (e.g. a morning person vs. night person), your lifestyle, family situation and location.  Here are some suggestions that may help you to make choices that are relevant to your needs and those around you:

  • Negotiate arrangements – this entails reaching at least a tentative agreement at the outset with other affected parties such as your boss, you partner and your colleagues – having some clear understandings and groundrules at the outset can pave the way for a relatively smooth transition to working from home and avoiding unnecessary conflict at a time when everyone is feeling stressed.  If you have a partner living at home with you, it pays to negotiate arrangements about working space, quiet time, coffee buying or making and eating arrangements (e.g. getting your own breakfast and lunch but sharing dinner preparation and eating).  It is often the little things that can bring daily angst if they are not sorted out early.  If you have had an extended marriage or living together arrangement, groundrules get established unconsciously and it pays to explore how these might change with one or both of you working from home.
  • Establish a routine: this gives you a sense of agency, the feeling that some aspects of your life are under control when everything else is changing constantly and creating uncertainty and anxiety.  It is strongly suggested by many authors that you maintain your daily routine of getting ready for work (e.g. showering, getting dressed well, and beginning work at a set time).  I think some flexibility here can be healthy without jeopardising your ability to work effectively and not waste time.  You might, for example, wear more comfortable clothes, introduce a morning exercise routine (to take advantage of the time saved in not having to travel to work), occasionally sleep in when you feel tired from the extra stress created by the Coronavirus) and take time for conscious reflection (e.g. writing a journal about what you are experiencing and how you are responding). Sleep is particularly important at this time to enable your body and mind to recuperate from the stresses that you will be experiencing.
  • Develop an exercise program: physical exercise reduces stress and builds positive mental health.  It is wonderful to see so many people making the most of their additional time at home to walk, run or ride in the open (particularly along the bayside where I live).   Yoga and Tai Chi, offer physical, mental and emotional benefits in these times of stress and anxiety. Getting some fresh air is important – there can be a tendency with social isolation and safe distancing to become stuck in your home and not take in the benefits of time spent mindfully in nature.  Activity is a great antidote to anxiety and depression.
  • Don’t sweat the news: in times of uncertainty, there is a strong tendency to become obsessive about news reports (via newspapers, emails, social media or podcasts).  This not only dissipates your focus but also exacerbates difficult feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness.  Obviously, some information is important to know (e.g. available relief packages for individuals or businesses and Government advice/directives/legislation relevant to the Coronavirus).  Experts in the area of mental health suggest that establishing a set time or times during the day for catching up on the news can be a useful way to proceed (do you really have to be the first to know?).   It also pays to take note of the positive news, e.g. the many random acts of kindness that are occurring everywhere in the world as people struggle to cope with the present crisis.
  • Stay connected: with your work colleagues and boss – establish a routine for checking-in (preferably daily) as well as strategies to effectively employ electronic communication for planning, sharing and product/service development.  There is a need here to maintain the balance between work and task – not oversharing social information but not being overly focused on work alone.  Some work-from-home groups institute a set time each week to share recipes, a virtual lunch experience or happy hour, a sing-along or coping strategies. 
  • Undertake special projects: there are often work-related, home-based projects that have been put off because of lack of time or prioritising.  These projects can improve your work-from-home situation and enhance your productivity.  They could involve, for instance, clearing up the clutter in your “office”, strengthening the security of your computer system, improving recycling in the home (including disposal of sensitive work information) or establishing a home-based coffee-making machine or a filtered water system such as the Zanzen Alkaline Water System.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, recently participated in a Ted Connects© interview and provided deep insight and very sound advice about dealing with the overwhelm of the current Coronavirus crisis.  She advices strongly against substituting the busyness of the workplace environment with a new form of busyness in the working from home environment.  Elizabeth argues that we spend so much time running away from ourselves, not fronting up to ourselves including our fear and anxiety.  She argues that the present situation of enforced or voluntary working from home creates a wonderful opportunity for developing self-awareness and self-regulation through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection.  Often our greatest, unconscious fear is being-alone-with-our-self.  We seek distractions and fill up our time with multiple tasks only to find that we have no time to truly find ourselves. 

Reflection

The current working from home situation that many of us face has inherent challenges and opportunities compounded by the requirements around social distancing, safe distancing and avoidance of unnecessary travel (local and international).  Clarifying working arrangements, establishing a routine, developing an exercise program, avoiding obsessing over the news, staying connected and undertaking special projects that enhance a sense of control over your environment, are all important for a healthy mind and body. 

However, the real challenge and opportunity lies in developing self-awareness and self-management through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection.  As we grow in mindfulness, we enhance our focus (at a time of intensified distraction), our resilience (at a time of extreme mental and emotional stress), our creativity (when we appear lost for personal and community solutions) and our compassion (when so many people worldwide are suffering and grieving).  In all of this turmoil and uncertainty, there lies the opportunity to truly find ourselves.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Building Resilience

Resilience in a work context does not mean being able to endure a toxic work environment or unfair situation – it is not the equivalent of endurance.  Resilience is about our capacity to rebound or “bounce back” from a negative or personally challenging experience.

In a work situation, the negative experience could be the loss of a job, failure to gain a promotion, a conflict with a colleague or supervisor or an adverse experience with a customer or client.

Our life experiences, both positive and negative, shape who we are as does our responses to these experiences.  We can see negative experiences as learning opportunities or wallow in resentment that things did not turn out as we expected them to.

Building resilience

Through reflection and developing acceptance and self-compassion, we can change our perceptions and beliefs about ourselves and undesirable events. I have often found that not achieving the promotion I really wanted at the time, created the opportunity to move onto much more engaging and challenging work elsewhere – new work that took me out of my comfort zone but provided rich rewards.

We can learn to accept the things we cannot change but grow in insight about the things that we can change – including our own learned behaviour and fixed beliefs.  Matthew Johnstone in his short, illustrated book, The Big Little Book of Resilience, argues that we are capable of improving, evolving and developing after the “scar of life-altering events”.

Matthew also reinforces the fact that positive life experiences that we undertake voluntarily (e.g. studying a degree or engaging in a long “fun run” for charity) often involve challenges and setbacks and can serve to build resilience as we overcome the difficulties along the way.

Two mindfulness researchers in India maintain from their research that “mindfulness breeds resilience“:

Mindful people … can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down (emotionally).

As we grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation (such as forgiveness meditation and gratitude meditation), we can  build resilience because mindfulness increases our “response ability” – our ability to extend the gap between stimulus and response and to develop a response that is constructive rather than destructive.  It also helps us to gain insight into our own biases, false assumptions and distorted perceptions that could otherwise lead to lingering discontent.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness at Work

David Allan maintains that the best place to meditate is at work.  In part, this is because it is often in a work situation that you need to be calm and have a clear mind.  The cost of being frazzled at work is not only lost time through inability to focus but also lost creativity through inability to access the “spaciousness” of your mind.  You need to calm the busyness of your mind to access this creativity.

It is also very true that we spend so much of our time at work that a large part of our day (more than a third) is consumed with thinking and doing, not just being present.  This means, too, that we are not taking the opportunity to access the full benefits of our mindfulness practice developed elsewhere on a daily basis.

David Allan found that he was able to book a relatively underutilised room for 15 minutes a day to enable him to undertake some form of meditation at work on a daily basis.  He found that this short period of conscious mindfulness practice created real productivity benefits throughout his day and served to break the work stress cycle.

Ways to be mindful at work

In a comprehensive article, Shamash Alidina suggests ten ways to be more mindful at work.  I have identified four of these suggestions below that are readily implementable:

  1. Intent to be consciously present – this entails beginning your work day with the clear intent to be present as often as you can.  This intent extends to controlling your thoughts when on-task, maintaining focus even on mundane tasks, working a little slower when the opportunity presents (e.g. after a rush to meet a deadline) and reminding yourself of the very clear benefits for work and life offered by mindfulness.
  2. Use brief mindfulness exercises – there are many opportunities throughout the working day to engage in brief mindfulness exercises.  These could entail open awareness, awareness of our senses, mindful walking or a short compassion meditation.  Sometimes in the workplace we need to engage in a brief self-compassion meditation, instead of beating up on ourselves for a mistake or for unconsciously hurting someone else with our words  or actions.
  3. Overcome the temptation of multitasking – this means consciously avoiding distactions (such as checking social media or the news every few minutes), staying focused on a single task at a time and organising your day where possible so that you can do like tasks together.
  4. Use reminders of the need for mindfulness – Shamash has some detailed strategies here that are very helpful.  Some of these entail linking a work activity to a mindfulness practice, e.g. when the phone rings, taking a deep breath and reminding yourself to be fully present to the caller.   Gradually, with regular practice, these reminders can immediately elicit mindfulness.  Some people may find a mindfulness app an appropriate reminder or an aid to mindfulness at work.
Further ways to be mindful at work

Eckhart Tolle in his talk to Google staff suggested ways that they could be mindful at work, including mindful breathing at their workstation.  Another mindfulness practice that can be employed at your desk is to occasionally focus on physically grounding yourself by ensuring that your feet are flat on the floor and your legs and back are straight.   This can be combined with mindful breathing.  If you are facilitating a workshop you could practise mindfulness through a brief loving kindness meditation directed towards one individual who may be struggling or towards the whole participant group.

Grow in mindfulness at work

If we want to grow in mindfulness through our behaviour at work, we need the strong intent to make the most of the opportunities for mindfulness that work presents.  Regular practice of mindfulness elsewhere will help to build this intent as well as consciousness of the opportunities for mindfulness at work.  Starting small with a single mindfulness practice maintained over three weeks will mean that the practice, such as mindful walking, will become embedded in your daily routine.  You can progressively expand these focused practices so that you become unconsciously competent at utilising opportunities for mindfulness at work.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Savor The Space Of Being Alone

People who experience loneliness as a constant state are prone to all kinds of issues such as disinterest, disengagement and depression as well as physical illness.  The feeling of loneliness is a serious issue today, not only for older people but also the young, including school children.

People can feel lonely even in a crowd or large group if they feel they do not belong, especially if no one reaches out to them with compassion to draw them into the wider circle.  The UK Government is so concerned about the impact of loneliness on people’s health and welfare that they have appointed a Minister of Loneliness.

Gretchen Rubin points out, however, that being alone is not the same as loneliness which feels draining, distracting, and upsetting.  In her view, being alone or experiencing solitude can be peaceful, creative and restorative – it all depends on how you use the time when alone.  Gretchen is the author of The Happiness Project.

Introverts may crave time alone after suffering extended periods of exposure to others; extroverts, on the other hand, may crave the company of friends because they derive their energy from social interaction.

Whether we are introverts or extroverts, we can have the tendency to use alone-time to occupy ourselves rather than confront ourselves.  We may experience boredom and look for ways to allay this feeling rather than savor the opportunity and freedom it presents.

Being alone creates the space and opportunity to attend to our own internal and external environment.  We can get in touch with our own feelings, rather than ignore them; we can question who we are and what we stand for, rather than hiding from ourselves.  This exploration of our internal landscape may turn up some unpleasant findings, but we are then in a position to deal with the issues involved.

We can also really take notice of our external environment – getting in touch with all our senses in a peaceful and calming way.  Haruki Murakami, author of Norwegian Wood, gives a wonderful illustration of focus on the sense of sight when one of his characters describes what he sees:

Every now and then, red birds with tufts on their heads would flit across our path, brilliant against the blue sky.  The fields around us were filled with white and blue and yellow flowers, and bees buzzed everywhere.  Moving ahead, one step at a time, I thought of nothing but the scene passing before my eyes. (p.180)

You can sense the contentment expressed here – something that we can experience in our time alone.

The 5 minute gratitude practice advanced by Elaine Smookler enables us to use our outer landscape to explore our inner world of feelings, especially of appreciation.  This is an excellent way to use the space in our lives provided by being alone.

Being alone frees us from the need to talk, to engage with others, or to follow the conversation.  It provides the opportunity to explore within and without.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation we will be better able to savour being alone and the opportunity it provides to explore our inner and outer landscape.  This can be a source of self-awareness and other-awareness, of contentment and of appreciation and gratitude.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of pixel2013 on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Do You Ever Stop to Watch the Sunset?

In a previous post, I discussed the benefits of being still – stopping the rush of our busy lives.

Sometimes, there is beauty before us and we fail to stop and look – we often do not see the sun setting on our day.

Each sunset produces an astonishing palette across the sky – a unique combination of colours and shapes that are often awe-inspiring.  Every day we are offered a different vision as the sun sets.  How often do you stop to see what is offered to you so freely?

We are so caught up with things to do that even if we want to stop to look at the sunset, we feel the pressure to keep moving and doing – we experience time pressure that shapes so much of how we live our lives.

Paulo Coelho, in his inimitable style, catches this tension perfectly when he describes how the central character in one of his books, Brida, experiences this challenge:

Whenever she sat still, just looking at something, she got the feeling that she was wasting precious time when she should be doing things or meeting people.  She could be spending her time so much better, because there was still so much to learn.  And yet, as the sun sunk lower on the horizon, and the clouds filled up with rays of gold and pink, Brida had the feeling that what she was struggling for in life was exactly this, to be able to sit one day and contemplate just such a sunset. (Brida, 2008, p.112)

Therein lies the challenge for us each day.  We can stop and look at the sunset as a form of mindful practice or carry on with our busy lives.  Each sunset offers us the opportunity to grow in open awareness and mindfulness.

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