Wishing a (slightly belated) happy new year to all of you!
I think we all breathed a collective sigh of relief when the clock ticked over to 2021. The buzzword for 2020 was “unprecedented”. Whilst this word certainly became somewhat over-used, there is no doubting 2020 was like nothing we had ever seen in our lifetimes, with many difficulties and challenges. So far, world events in 2021 are not looking too different, especially on the health front – but maybe we should give it some grace that, like many of us, 2021 is just getting off to a slow start. Let’s hope this year brings better things for everyone.
When we look forward with hope for a better future, there is often some reasoning behind it. Perhaps there’s an element of thinking “it can’t get any worse”. But I think for many of us, 2020 taught us some important lessons about what is important in our lives.
Looking back on my own life a mere 12 months ago, I was caught up in the busyness of things. Between my private and public roles, work was a constant buzz of busyness, and I had many weekends of work-related courses and conferences (some as a presenter, and some I was attending) booked into my diary months in advance. Home life was always busy too – rushing kids to sport, musical rehearsals, social events, and then trying to squeeze in my own social life and exercise. While I certainly TRIED to make time to for myself, it was often the last priority, which meant it often didn’t happen. So, like for many busy people, there was always an underlying level of stress.
Then along came a global pandemic...
COVID-19 certainly didn’t reduce the stress. In fact, all the figures indicate there was an increase in mental health problems over the pandemic. I saw many, many people – patients, friends, and family – who became incredibly anxious, depressed or experienced an increase in general stress over this time. This was related to a myriad of issues including job losses, social isolation, and the underlying uncertainty and anxiety that seemed to constantly fill our news and social media feeds. On a personal level, I certainly experienced my fair share of stress too.
Unsurprisingly, along with a decline in mental health well-being, many experienced a decline in physical health as well. Many of my patients with chronic pain disorders found these flared up over this time. There was a similar increase in bladder urgency symptoms. Both of these conditions have a strong link with anxiety and depression, and I have written about these in the past in blog posts about how stress can make you sick, and bladder urgency.
So, where do life lessons and hope come into this bleak picture?
Somewhere in the chaos of 2020, many of us also had time to stop and reflect. I am not referring to one inspirational lightbulb moment – well at least it wasn’t like that for me. I mean more a slow dawn of understanding what is really important in our lives. Yes, the obvious things – family, friends and good health. But along with that, the need to SLOW DOWN so we can truly appreciate those things.
Whether it was through an enforced lockdown or because so many of our usual events were cancelled due to COVID, 2020 gave many people the chance to slow down. More than one usually hectic parent told me they were secretly enjoying the fact so many things were cancelled – it made them slow down. And many people saw there were benefits in doing so.
Once considered in the realm of the kooky or alternative, many practises which focus on slowing down are now being recommended in mainstream health care. There are now innumerable studies which show the health benefits of techniques such as mindfulness, breathing exercises and yoga for example. Their benefits include helping to manage anxiety, depression and stress, boosting immune function, and improving outcomes for many different chronic conditions ranging from high blood pressure to cancer.
These techniques have a few common aspects. They all include a focus of attention - whether to the breath, the body, or elements outside the body that we often ignore, such as sounds or smells. They also include elements of self-care or self-compassion. Studies show these techniques stimulate our parasympathetic nerve response - our “rest and digest” part of the nervous system, which also initiates tissue healing. The parasympathetic nervous system also helps balance the sympathetic “fight, flight or freeze” part of our nervous system, which ramps up when we are under stress. In fact, it is thought that part of the problem with many chronic diseases and persistent pain disorders relates to an imbalance between these two sides, with the sympathetic nervous system becoming too dominant over the parasympathetic, putting us in constant “threat” mode.
My point here is that while COVID made many of us slow down and gave us the chance to evaluate what really mattered, to be able to benefit from this in the longer term, we ideally need to find some way to slow-down regularly. The techniques I have mentioned above are some of many ways to do this. Through various apps and Youtube clips, many of them are also freely available to everyone.
However, it’s important not to forget one important aspect – self-compassion. While it is absolutely beneficial to engage in some sort of slow down activity, if it is just one more thing you are trying to squeeze into your busy life, then it risks becoming a threat rather than a benefit. Self-compassion is about recognising your limits, and not taking on too much. This may mean you need to be picky about what you choose. It also means respecting your personal preferences, rather than doing something you don’t actually enjoy just because you’ve been told you should. After all, you are more likely to stick with something you like, rather than something which feels like a chore.
To use exercise as an example, if you cannot fit any exercise into your busy life, maybe it’s time to evaluate how many of those other things are absolutely necessary, as we know exercise is really beneficial for many reasons. On the other hand, if you are throwing yourself into high intensity exercise 6-7 days a week because you “have to” get fit or lose weight, but your nervous system is already in threat mode, you risk ramping up the sympathetic system even more – in which case re-evaluating your exercise choices and intensity may be worthwhile. Also, while we know yoga has many benefits in calming the nervous system, it is not the only form of exercise to do so. If you’d really prefer to go for a walk, and it helps you to feel relaxed and happy, then this may be a better choice for you. It is all about finding the balance in your life that works for you.
So, while we happily say good riddance to 2020, let’s not forget to take whatever good we can from that difficult year. To quote American philosopher John Dewey, “We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.” I think it’s worth not only reflecting on the hardships, but also the lessons learnt from slowing down, to help us move forward with new hope and a new outlook for the future.
Wishing you all a safe and healthy year ahead.