Ah Christmas, a magical time of year, where the house looks beautiful with colour coordinated decorations, all the lights are twinkling, the fridge is full of delicious food, and everyone looks so cuddly in their new matching family PJs, snuggled up together round the fire watching a Christmas film, rapt faces aglow as the whole family laugh together and nobody spills their hot chocolate all down the front of their new matching PJs.
We all know it’s a fantasy, but I’m sure it won’t be long before I start getting irritated by images like this plastered all over Instagram:
Real Christmas isn’t like that. And if you’re a parent, maybe for the first time this year, you may well be putting even more pressure on yourself to make it “perfect”. This time of year seems to be full of to-do lists, and to-buy lists, and in a time where everyone has pretty much everything they need already, it can be really hard to try and think of the perfect gifts for your loved ones. Even the quietest Christmas involves extra shopping, and different activities outside of the norm. I’m getting anxious just thinking about it all!
Thinking is something that gets us into trouble. We think ourselves into a right state, instead of being in the right state. It’s so easy to build up a small issue into a massive deal, just by thinking about it. I was worrying about something earlier this week – it was a genuine worry, and if this thing had happened it would have actually been a massive deal, but I made myself sick from overthinking it, over-googling, and working myself up into a panic. I was worrying about something that hadn’t even happened yet. I like the phrase that worrying is “praying really hard for something you don’t want to happen”. Worrying comes pretty naturally to most of us, and once we become mothers, our brain wiring changes to keep us on high alert to protect our baby. For some of us it’s not that noticeable, but for others it can become full on postnatal anxiety. (If that’s you, PLEASE go to the doctor about it.)
Why is it better not to worry?
Well obviously worrying feels horrible, and it’s not good for your body to be continually producing stress hormones.
If you have been to any of our antenatal classes you will recognise the importance of not thinking during labour – disengaging your conscious brain is really useful in reducing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. From studying the effects of meditation on the brain, it has been proven that people who spend more time in a meditative state (i.e. not “thinking”) are calmer, more resilient, and respond better to difficult times than those who don’t spend time switching off their thoughts. Having a mind that is frequently in a state of worry and over thinking is tiring!
I have a suspicion that this is one reason why many of us find parenting so exhausting. We’re knackered from a constant low-level worry. We are on alert day and night, and it’s relentless. When there’s an event like Christmas to plan for, it can become too much.
So how do I worry less?
If we are not worrying, not “praying for those things we don’t want to happen” or going over and over something that’s already been and gone, then we can be said to be “in the moment”. If you are in the moment you are not stressing, so this is what we want to aim for. But this is a tricky thing to just do. One way I have found to switch off the worries is to do some exercise. I believe it’s best if it can be fitted into normal life, so for me that might be a brisk walk into town – if you have a small person in tow, maybe you could do a brisk walk with the buggy or sling sometime during the day. Focus on your “form”: how are you breathing and how are your feet hitting the ground? What does the surface feel like that you are walking on? Take your attention away from your inner monologue and notice your body and the world around you. If you are able to put headphones on and listen to some great music or a podcast that’s all good too. (If you want a good podcast to listen to while you walk, listen to this one all about how fantastic walking is: https://drchatterjee.com/why-walking-is-the-superpower-you-didnt-know-you-had-with-professor-shane-omara/)
I go bouldering (that’s indoor rock climbing without ropes) which is amazing at reducing stress as you have to engage your mind and your body completely on the task at hand, otherwise you’ll fall off the wall. You have to work out what route you are going to take, where you are going to put each hand and foot, and how you are going to position your body to move between the holds. It’s bloody difficult and you can’t really be thinking about anything else while you’re doing it. Your adrenaline spikes in a healthy way because you are doing something scary, then when you clamber back down you feel yourself relax.
I think what a lot of it boils down to is finding a way to distract yourself from the worry. Exercise does this really well and the benefits can last beyond the time you are actually doing the exercise – ask Jo how she feels on the days she hasn’t gone for a run…
You might not have time to exercise at the moment, I totally get that. But one thing we can all find time to do is BREATHE:
Are you breathing?
Are you though? Where are you breathing from? Take a good big breath through your nose and fill your whole lungs to the sides, the back and the bottom. Pause. Then breathe out allllllll the way. Listen to the sound the air makes going in and out. Feel the temperature of the air in your nose. If you make the out-breath longer than the in-breath, it becomes properly calming.
When I was having my serious worrying session earlier this week, the thing that finally helped was to lie down in bed and focus on my breathing. I breathed in for four and out for five and tried to work on slowing it down, as it was all a bit rapid and shallow at first. I focused on where the in-breath was coming from and where the out-breath was going. You can send that out-breath wherever it needs to go. I imagined colours I wanted to see, to further occupy my brain and keep the bad thoughts at bay. I had to keep working on getting myself to return to focussing on the breath and not letting my thoughts run away back to the worries, but eventually it worked and I felt my heartbeat slow and my muscles relax. Funnily enough, the solution to the problem then came to me!
It doesn’t take any extra time to do a bit of focused breathing, as I reckon you’re probably breathing anyway. When you’re lying down to go to sleep and fretting about things, spend that time counting your breaths instead of thinking. You could do focused breathing when feeding your baby. Unless you are practised at it, you won’t be able to completely focus on the breathing immediately – it takes practice, like any other new skill. I’ve always got a few minutes in the day where if I actually put down the phone I could definitely do a couple of minutes of mindful breathing instead of mindless scrolling.
Focused breathing is probably one of the most fantastically easy and effective things you can do for yourself, at a busy time of year. You don’t need rules on how long you should do this for, how many times a day, in what exact way. If you read books or blogs on the subject you will find people prescribing all sorts of different things. In my experience, the effects are cumulative, so the more you do, the more zen-like and calm you will become.
Just imagine how much nicer life would it be if you didn’t worry. You’re doing a great job – keep going and keep breathing!