In today’s world we have been conditioned to feel that the busier we are the more successful we must be. We often see an ability to function on limited sleep as a sign of strength and pride ourselves on pushing everything to the max, burning the candle at both ends and never taking time just to breathe and reset. When someone asks how are you? Really busy is often the answer. Many of us would describe our current state as stressed a lot of the time. Unfortunately, stress can have a big impact on our bodies and minds if we let it, so the question is how can we manage it and still get on with our lives? The answer lies within us; it can’t be sitting waiting for a holiday or a time when life becomes less complex as we just never know what is around the corner. Stopping the ‘when I achieve x’ or ‘when I finish y’ mentality feels like step one, and step two is finding tools to carve out a little headspace on a regular basis.
That’s why I love meditation. It can be as little as five or ten minutes, even just a few breaths, but it helps to create that sense of balance and calm in the mind. One philosophy that I heard recently is that we are all looking for happiness and a sense of calm and balance in places that we won’t find them. We try to find external sources of happiness when true happiness lies within us. Finding a way to transform the way that we react to our thoughts is the answer.
Every day we have between 60,000 and 80,000 thoughts and we all know that many of these can be negative or stress enhancing. Spiritual leaders believe that if we can get a better handle on these thoughts then we can consistently choose happiness rather than falling into habits of worry, stress and anxiety. We think we can only be happy when our goals are completed, but that means that life is always about the future rather than the present. It is for this reason that I don’t really like to use goal setting. Thoughts and emotions create turmoil inside us. Moment to moment, we might find ourselves in an argument with reality, wishing things were different. Happiness involves looking at these thoughts and emotions and embracing things just as they are, it means we relax and stop trying to manipulate our circumstances. If we can learn how to stay in the present moment, even when facing difficulties and we train our minds not to judge, we can discover within ourselves a source of happiness and satisfaction.
Sitting for a few moments in the quiet, with your eyes closed and focusing on your breath can help you achieve this. Focusing on how you feel with your feet touching the ground and your back against the chair or the floor can really focus the mind. Each time the mind wanders, just bring it back to the breath, it is a simple thing to do, but effective. Whenever I feel overwhelmed this is what I come back to, slow steady breaths. Sometimes I just inhale for the count of four, hold for four, exhale for four (square breathing). Try it a couple of times, it takes just a minute or two and you can do it at your desk, on a train or lying-in bed. I find it helps to re-balance my mind, counteracting some of the inevitable stress in my life. You can even do it on the toilet or in the shower if things are really that busy.
Our brains record things as we perceive them, through the filter of our own experiences, not necessarily as they happen. So, if you launch a massive stress reaction every time someone nudges you on the train, or you read an annoying news headline, or discover you have run out of milk, your brain will record your day as having been stressful, when it was quite ordinary. Over time, an overactive emotional brain has trouble bouncing back. Of course I appreciate that it isn’t always this simple, mental health is an incredibly complex topic and the external events that cause chronic stress are almost always beyond our control, but for those of us who simply feel burnt out, overwhelmed or anxious about the busyness and hectic nature of our lives, working on controlling our minds and thought patterns can make such a difference to our stress levels, which in turn impacts on our overall wellbeing. The more we flex this brain muscle and make controlling our thoughts a part of our day to day, the better we become at controlling the way we feel, a little like going to the gym for the brain.
Even though we often dismiss and sweep stress under the rug, controlling it really matters for our mental as well as a physical health. And it seems that we are increasingly understanding the extent to which it impacts on us. Dr Rangan Chatterjee notes that 70 to 90% of all GP consultations today are related to stress in some way. Stress is linked to a vast array of conditions from fatigue to anxiety, from gut problems and IBS to type 2 diabetes. Sleep is also of huge benefit and can help us when we are overwhelmed because it stops us losing perspective or overreacting to things. But again, in our culture of celebrating being busy and our need to fit it all in, we can be quick to dismiss it so that we don’t feel we are missing out or inadequate for not doing as much as the next person.
Neuroscientist Matthew Walker, the author of why we sleep argues that sleep is not the indulgent luxury that we sometimes view it as, but an absolute necessity for maintaining our health. He says there are links between sleep deprivation and cancer, diabetes, strokes and Alzheimer’s, as well as how it impairs the immune system, disrupts blood sugar levels and harms the brain. The amount we sleep has decreased by 15 to 20% over the last 100 years, and we are now getting an average of less than seven hours sleep per night in the UK. Of course, as with everything I appreciate that life gets in the way, we don’t always have the luxury of choosing to get a good night’s sleep, whether that’s because of work, children or something else, but it is interesting to take on board some of the ideas behind the importance of getting good sleep and explore whether prioritising sleep over another episode of Netflix, writing another couple of emails or doing a little Instagram stalking could help you get closer to your eight hours sleep a night and subsequently give you a little more energy each day.
I think that happiness boils down to the idea that it is the little things that together make a big difference to our health and happiness. Being healthy isn’t about only eating fancy super foods or expensive spa days, it is finding a few minutes to sit and breathe quietly to manage stress levels, getting outside in the fresh air for a walk or for a run, connecting to those around us and just being a little more aware of how we feel and of what we put back into the world. It is realising that we don’t have to do it all. We can’t spin every plate all the time and it’s OK to say no, to slow down, to be more internal and give up on the concept of perfectionism. It is finding a way to be happy where we are today. There is no right way to do it, there is no quick fix. What works for me might not work for you, but helping you explore a few of these concepts and learning a little more about them will I hope be helpful in some way.