Health anxiety, the new normal and daily dark headlines can mean it is impossible to relax.
Picture the scene: it’s 6pm and you know you need to step away from your computer, make yourself dinner, maybe do a yoga class. So you shut your laptop, but by the time you’ve reached the kitchen, you’ve added three things to your to-do list.
By the time 8pm comes round, you’re attempting to switch off with Netflix but instead your head is whirling round and round with emails to send, friends to check in on and the horrible events on the news. Sound familiar? Despite how exhausted we are, switching off hard undoubtedly become harder than ever.
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An obvious reason for this is that we live in a time of information overload, according to consultant counselling psychologist Dr Ritika Suk Birah. We are constantly receiving information: Slack, emails, news websites, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, etc.
The pandemic only exacerbated that, introducing new ways of being connected that hasn’t stopped just because we are back in the office, she says: “Even though we were separated from one another, in some ways we were finding that we’re also more available because of these mediums.
“Our bodies are often telling us we’re tired; for example, we feel heavy and lethargic, have headaches and tension in our shoulder or neck. And yet we can’t switch off, our mind’s racing.”
If you’re reading this, you probably already know that having your mind in 20 places at once isn’t serving you. But for many people, the ‘always on’ culture has made working long hours and never resting normal to the point that they might not see an issue with it anymore.
“The thing is, we aren’t robots,” says Dr Birah. Yet we often believe that we are, and that we can just keep going and going and going, but that’s the reason burnout is so common.” So while you might think you’re thriving from stress right now, the likelihood is that you’re going to cause some long term damage to your physical or mental health.
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“It is very difficult for people to have boundaries and say: ‘No, I need some time for me right now’,” says Dr Birah. But there are ways to do it that make transitioning from work to rest feel (almost) seamless.
If you feel like you can’t relax until you get everything ticked off your to-do list, try to consider the intention behind all of these activities. For example, if you feel like you have to check in on your friends every evening, ask why? Are they extending the same care to you? Is it so that you feel better about yourself?
“We should be saying, ‘I’ll check in on that person because I have the capacity to care and I want to talk to them’ as well as understanding that it’s also okay to say, ‘actually, I’m going to check in on me because I’m feeling quite drained, and I need to make myself a priority right now’,” says Dr Birah.
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CHANGE THE SCENERY
The act of moving away from your computer, phone or whatever activity it is that’s taking up space in your mind can’t be underestimated. And it doesn’t have to be a big change of scenery. “Let’s take your lunch break, for example. Instead of eating at your desk, go and have lunch in another area, even if it’s just by a window. This allows your brain and body to have a different sensory experience. From a neuroscientific perspective, that’s going to make a change to how you process emotions and will hopefully have benefits such as relaxation,” says Dr Birah.
USE A BRAIN TRIGGER
Unfortunately, we can’t just stop looking at something as all-encompassing as our inbox and expect our brain to forget about it. One way that we can signal to our brain it’s time to move on is to have a small activity in place that signals that work, reading the news, or whatever it is that you need to switch off from, is over.
“It might be something as simple as shutting the laptop, putting the phone away and literally doing five jumping jacks. It’s just something to change your energy and send a signal to your brain that it’s going to be doing something different now. Something that lets you shut down and work away from that inbox,” says Dr Birah.
It’s all well and good saying that we just need to be in the moment, but how do you do that? “Try naming 10 things that you see in your immediate environment. Often when our minds are still in our work or phones, we’re not actually in the present moment, we’re thinking about the past or jumping forward to the future. So just by noticing things that you’ve seen in your environment, it brings you back to the here and now,” Dr Birah explains.
“There’s a very big difference between working hard and working smart,” says Dr Birah. “People that tend to work really hard put in long hours and run on adrenaline until they can’t do it anymore.”
Rather than believing that the hours you work are what makes you successful, consider whether you can streamline your work to make you more efficient. “Success can come from taking breaks, getting inspired by being outside in nature, looking after yourself by getting enough sleep, eating well and hydrating.”
FIND YOUR HOBBY
Sure, meditation and other soothing activities are what we are supposed to do to turn off. But it’s really about finding something that makes you feel relaxed, according to Dr Birah.
“On one evening, that might be watching Netflix, but on the other evening you might find that you can’t really sit still, you keep reaching for your phone or just don’t really feel present when watching TV. Maybe that’s because your body is needing something else in that moment,” says Dr Birah.
In that instance, it’s important to change the activity to something that works for you, be it having a bath, doing a puzzle, reading a book or doing some meditation, for example. “When you’re doing whatever it is that you are doing, ask yourself: is this having the benefit that I intend for myself?”
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