Life throws tough experiences at us all: bereavement, divorce, redundancy and serious illness are the kind of challenging events that create huge stress.
This manifests in our bodies and our minds. Stress makes us feel miserable and unwell: it stops us from sleeping soundly and affects concentration; our confidence gets knocked and we lose the motivation required to perform even simple daily tasks; and relationships with family and friends often become strained.
Think now about those symptoms of stress. I wonder, how many of them do you recognise in yourself right now?
At least one, I would imagine. And that’s not to say you’re currently going through one of the big life events I’ve just mentioned.
The pandemic has put us all under extraordinary pressure — and that’s even if you’ve been fortunate enough to be spared any direct trauma, such as a bereavement or losing your job, as the virus has spread.
Life throws tough experiences at us all: bereavement, divorce, redundancy and serious illness are the kind of challenging events that create huge stress
Stress feeds off fear, something we’ve lived with for almost a year now. I have woken many times in the middle of the night, fretting over the health and safety of those I love. I find myself feeling desperately upset by the suffering of others, and deeply concerned about the impact lockdown might have on the economy.
Family, friends and clients alike are telling me that they have had to learn to live life against a backdrop peppered with similar worries.
Living like this, with so much background stress to contend with, is bound to take its toll on our mental health. As my therapist friends will readily tell you, rarely is it one big traumatic event alone that precedes a mental breakdown.
It’s far more likely to be a series of smaller events, happening simultaneously or in close succession, that will wreak the most havoc. And that is something we’re collectively experiencing as one pandemic-related crisis seems to follow another.
Paul McKenna: The pandemic has put us all under extraordinary pressure — and that’s even if you’ve been fortunate enough to be spared any direct trauma, such as a bereavement or losing your job, as the virus has spread
I can’t magically take all of that away. But what I can do is share with you a method that will help you to turn off the fear and panic, allowing your body and mind to recover from it on a regular basis.
That is key when it comes to pro-actively protecting your mental health through long-lasting periods of stress. By making this a regular part of life now, when this crisis ends you will find it continues to be useful whenever stressful situations arise.
Now, and into the future, this is a relaxation technique you will be able to employ quickly, easily and as often as you need.
Natural cycles of activity and rest
One of the simplest ways to build quality recovery time from stress into your daily life is to take advantage of a naturally occurring phenomenon known as the ‘ultradian rest phase’. Research has shown that the mind and body have their own pattern of rest or alertness, with one predominant cycle that occurs approximately every 90 minutes. This is when the body stops externally oriented behaviour and takes about 15 minutes to relax and replenish its energy.
These are those moments in the day when you find your mind starting to wander and a sweet, soft feeling of relaxation begins to fill you. It is as though your body is ready to drift off into a wonderful, refreshing sleep.
Unfortunately, many people instantly override this message from their body by choking down a double espresso and trying even harder to concentrate on what they’re doing. After a while, they establish a pattern of overriding their body’s natural rhythm and the natural feeling of relaxation comes less and less often.
Now, I’m going to show you how to take advantage of it when it does occur. From now on, here’s what I want you to do:
At least twice a day, when you find yourself daydreaming and a feeling of comfort starting in your body, go with it and allow yourself to relax deeply for no less than five and no more than 20 minutes.
As you begin to drift into your daydream, use the time to follow the exercise on the right. It is very simple but, like anything else, the more you practise the better you get.
It simply involves thinking about a particular area of your body and then telling yourself to relax in a soothing tone of voice.
Take the time to go through each part of your body slowly, giving yourself time to really feel the tension releasing from that part of you as you go.
Please read through this exercise first before you do it. And do not attempt to do this while driving or operating machinery. Only do it when you can safely relax completely.
Use your most comfortable, tired, drowsy voice, as if telling a bedtime story. Simply say each of the following to yourself as you follow your own instructions:
To quickly relax, close your eyes and imagine you are on a beach.
The nervous system can’t differentiate between a real and an imagined event, so will switch off stress.
Now I relax my eyes
Now I relax my jaw
Now I relax my tongue
Now I relax my shoulders
Now I relax my arms
Now I relax my hands
Now I relax my chest
Now I relax my stomach
Now I relax my thighs
Now I relax my calves
Now I relax my feet
Now I relax my mind
Pause to notice your feelings and then, if you wish, repeat the exercise. Stay with this feeling as long as you wish.
You will be able to return to full waking consciousness, refreshed and alert, as soon as you are ready.
The more you practise this technique, the more effective it becomes. It may sound like a little thing, hardly worth doing, but taking a couple of five-minute breaks every day to allow your mind some recovery time could be the most valuable thing that you ever learn to do.
Why? Because I firmly believe that when it comes to life’s emotional woes — sleeplessness, crises of confidence, relationship troubles, anxiety and depression — all roads lead back to stress and the terrible toll it takes on our mental health.
Tomorrow, we will look again at confidence, and I will share with you another simple five-minute daily programme I firmly believe has the power to change your life for the better.
For information on Paul’s books, including Control Stress, I Can Make You Happy, Instant Confidence and I Can Make You Sleep, visit: paulmckennabooks.co.uk