The beginning of 2021 has been unlike any other in recent memory. For many of us in Ontario, the year began with increased pandemic-related restrictions and risks, personal and professional uncertainties, high stress levels and unexpected responsibilities. No one is immune to the effects of stress, pressure and anxiety, and I have certainly been feeling the strain. So how do we deal with these feelings when so much is outside of our control? Where do we find the energy or time for"self-care" when there are no seconds to spare and nothing left in the tank?
Self-care is often used categorically, describing a "family" of activities from which to choose. When we are feeling okay, it makes sense to build a list of things that bring us joy. The longer the list, the more options we have at our disposal when we need them, and the more likely it is that we will have an option to match each need and situation. When we are feeling down, cold, exhausted, disappointed, etc., we benefit from past positive experiences and simplify the decision making process by having a menu of validated options.
However, when things have been chronically rough and circumstances have changed dramatically, some of these prior strategies may no longer be applicable, accessible or enjoyable. So what to do when the world has been turned upside down and everything is different? What I have turned to recently (and encourage clients to do) is to refocus on the resources we carry with us. We are born equipped with powerful tools for regulating our emotional and physical state. We have breath, conscious thought and choice of focus. We can elongate our exhale to slow our heart rate. We can trust that this will happen, even when we are overwhelmed by what life is throwing at us. We can trust that everything is impermanent, both pain and gain, and that something else will inevitably replace our present experience. We can allow ourselves to be where we are, even if this includes imperfection and distress, and recognize these experiences as part of our journey. "Breathe, trust, allow" offers a way of being, rather than doing. It is a way of refocusing attention and perception. It does not require that we like our circumstances, simply that we allow them, trust that this too shall pass, and engage what we can control by regulating our physical state.
If you want to give this a try, I recommend a simple introductory breath practice. Find a comfortable position. Sit up, lie down, whatever feels good. Focus on your breath for a few cycles and just observe. Is it fast, shallow, deep, slow? There is no right or wrong, just observe and be curious. After several cycles, begin to make your exhale slightly longer than your inhale. For you this may mean counting to four while breathing in, and counting to six while breathing out. The numbers don't matter and everyone is different. Just make exhales longer than inhales, trying to make them as relaxed, slow and deep as feels comfortable. As you count through the cycles of breath, it is okay to have other thoughts, to notice other sensations or to get distracted by things around you. Just gently return to counting once you notice that you drifted. Allow these distractions (it's normal!), trust that you can return to the breath (with ease!) and do so when you notice the drift. This practice can be done intentionally at set times of day or spontaneously. It can last seconds, or it can last hours. You can do it in line, on the bus, during a webinar, while juggling your children's online school... this is yours to access anytime, anyplace. I hope you find it valuable!