7 Wellness steps to cope best in tough times

Fourteen years ago my life changed radically in one single day. My husband was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and started intensive chemotherapy. My oldest son was 5 years old and my youngest 13 months.  During the 6 months of chemotherapy that followed, not a day passed without me thinking that I might have to raise two boys on my own. And the thought provoked anxiety, disbelief and horror. If you stare death in the face your life changes irrevocably.  

Why am I telling you this? 

In trying to make sense of COVID-19, lockdown and how we are going to cope, survive and ultimately thrive, I’ve revisited this time of my life and what I did to cope during the toughest times of my life. My husband and boys needed me desperately.  I just couldn’t fall apart even though I wanted to… and silently did. I went into survival mode and just took it one day at a time. 

This is what my 7 steps are all about. 

Is it perfect? No 

Is it comprehensive? No 

Is it ideal? No 

Is it the only way to cope? No

Is it easy? Yes

Is it for everyone? Yes

Will it help? Yes

Is it science-based? Yes

Many people (including the specialists who should…) offer many solutions. They are all valuable and necessary and I support them full-heartedly. Being resilient and adaptable will be your saving grace in the next few months. But let’s look at simple-, basic-, do-able survival tips for now – for today. We can worry about thriving when we have a better idea of what the future holds and what the next phase of our world might look like. 

So here are my 7 steps to cope best in tough times:

  1. Keep a routine. As much as we’ve heard this, it is really important, critical and necessary.  Get up at the same time every morning. Make your bed. Brush your teeth. Shave. Take off your pj’s and get dressed in your day-clothes. Put on make-up. Squirt some perfume. You are worth it! And if you look good, you feel good.
  2. Check-in with your mental mind. Choose one positive affirmation for the day. Write it down.  Or better: keep a book or journal to document your self-care every day. Positive affirmation ideas are: I am smart; I am kind; I am brave; I am unstoppable; I am a great parent; I have nice hair. Whatever works for you. Choose one per day. Two is too much. One, all of us should be able to do.
  3. Check-in with your environment and ensure you are surrounded by self-care, wellness and productivity boosters instead of -busters. Tidy your workspace. Pack away clothing. Wash the dishes. Open the blinds. Declutter. This relates to your primary and most used space for the day. Please don’t try to spring clean the house in one day. Just make sure that your surrounding space for working or learning or doing is as calm and peaceful as possible. And you don’t need to do 20 tasks. Consider what is bothering you in your space and adjust that one thing… or more if you have the energy. 
  4. Check-in with your physical body. We use the concept of a robot (traffic light) to explain the alert state of your body-brain. [In South Africa we call a traffic light a robot.] When on high alert, anxious or stressed you are in red.  When your body is starting to feel stressed you are in orange. Your robot-traffic-light should be in green in order for your body and mind to go. In other words, are you feeling calm, focused and present?  You need to start your day in the best way for you in order to cope, survive and get through it. So get your body in green to start your day. If you are in orange or red, use the tips in number 5 to get to green. 
  5. Self-regulate and Take 5 to get and keep your body in a self-regulated state. This means being in the green state of the robot-traffic-light. These are simple, easy, do-able sensory snacks (not to eat, but to do) to organize your brain anytime, anywhere, for anyone.

    1. Breathe – deep breathing is the quickest way to self-calm as it activates the parasympathetic system which is literally the “brake” on stress.  I am just throwing in the big words so that you know that I know what I’m talking about. 
    2. Blow – the mouth is a powerful regulator and supports breathing. I love using balloons as it is a fun and easy way to mimic breathing if you are struggling with it.  So get some balloons and blow away. You can even sing or whistle. Not when you are in an online meeting though. Blowing smoke from a cigarette doesn’t count… it is bad for you! 
    3. Sip – if you drink water from a water bottle with a spout or a straw you will be utilizing the muscles in the jaw and further support the oral-motor structures that help us to self-regulate. Drinking water in this way will also help to hydrate your body and support the next sensory snack. Other healthy alternatives are eating crunchy apples, raw carrots, celery, cucumber, nuts, etc. in moderation. Crunchy or chewy food types can help with focus and de-stressing. The emphasis however, is on healthy, crunchy food snacks in moderation! 
    4. Move – with a full bladder (thanks to your best friend: the water bottle), you inevitably have to take more bathroom breaks which is a bonus. Stretch, move, stand whenever possible. If you have a swivel chair, that can also help you move from side-to-side while working. Just don’t swivel when you are in an online meeting as it will be a visual distraction for others. Or sit on a ball instead of a chair. Movement is critical for brain breaks and will increase your focus and lower your stress levels.
    5. Touch – the skin is filled with tiny receptors that process your world in every minuscule way. Deep touch (as opposed to a light tickle) is calming and when combined with movement, a strong regulator. Squeeze a stress ball: the deep touch and resistance will organize the brain. Doodle on a piece of paper. Rub your hands together. Put hand cream on both hands while pressing down firmly on your palms – you can even combine this with your favourite scent.  Put both your hands on top of your head and press down firmly.
  6. Check-out with your physical body.  Make sure that you clearly end your activity, learning or work-day. Being able to transition from one task or space to a next will help to prepare your mind and being mindful to do this is important. Close your computer. Close your door. Whatever physical action you need to do in order to indicate that you are done with this and ready for the next step will help. The body prepares the mind and brain to follow. Take a 10-minute quiet debrief time for yourself. You can choose any passive activity of choice. Meditate, think, power nap, pray, practise mindfulness, sit quietly with closed eyes.
  7. Check-out with your mental mind. Go back to your book or journal of self-care and document one thing that you are grateful for. Make it simple and easy. Ideas are: I am grateful for my health; I am grateful for my child’s smile; I am grateful for the nice message from my friend; I am grateful for the crispy apple I ate. It must obviously be applicable to your life, but simple and easy always does the trick.

These are seriously simple, but I firmly believe that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication in the best or in the worst of times.  Remember: it is hard for all of us, for some much more than others. Each of us has different situations, different needs and different hurdles. So we are not in the same boat. We are all in a different boat trying to steer in the same storm. You are not alone. It is OK to not be OK.

My husband fully recovered from his cancer journey. We are still happily married. My sons are healthy and now 15 and 19. I am grateful for life, health and the simple things in life.

 

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7 Tips to reduce digital fatigue

Our world has shrunk. Daily living before COVID-19 and lockdown meant moving around, driving, using public transport, being in traffic… whatever your mode of commute is. At the office or workplace, there was constant navigation between different spaces. You moved from your desk to a meeting room, cafeteria, bathroom, someone else’s desk, another meeting room, kitchen, printer, etc. The reality is that there was constant visual- (seeing) and auditory (hearing) variety while your body was physically (moving) between these spaces, regardless of your type of work or your working environment.  The current reality looks quite different: your working world is now about the size of your computer screen and its immediate surrounding space… and it is pretty small. Your eyes are in another kind of lockdown on your screen, particularly when you are in digital meetings. And your ears are trying to contest with the distractions of your screaming toddler, a hungry teenager (in my case), a barking dog, an irritable spouse, etc. This is happening while you are seated for much longer times than usual and your body is just not moving as much as it used to. 

The obvious result is a higher level of fatigue, headaches, joint strains and other physical body complaints.  Not to even mention the stress, irritation, mental pressure and anxiety coupled with it. Our bodies are taking physical strain and our minds are taking mental strain. That is an unfortunate fact. 

As sensory beings, we interact through our 7 senses in a dynamic way with our world. This constant navigation helps us to obtain a modulated response in how we focus, behave and emotionally respond. We need the ebb and flow of daily living through varied sensory stimulation to be our best.  With this in mind, we are using our specialist knowledge of neuroscience and sensory processing to add some practical insights into how you can make your digital world less stressful… and continue being your best: 

  1. Lower your expectations and don’t try to be the best at everything. We are all trying to juggle homeworking, managing our kids in a whole new way, homeschooling (and we are parents, not teachers), living in restricted and limited environments while trying to keep ourselves and our families together in one piece. 
  2. We are experiencing an influx of information and technology overload. Listen to your body and be mindful of the signals it is sending you. Are you feeling dizzy, lethargic, or tired? Do you have a headache? Are you feeling anxious? Your body will provide you with signals to show you if something is wrong.  Make a note, write down how you are feeling, the time of day and what you were busy doing before it happened. It helps to be more in tune with what is going on, reading your own signals and making the necessary adjustments before it turns bad. 
  3. How to maximize your auditory processing and reduce auditory overload:
    -For meetings, use a headset or earphones, particularly when you don’t have a quiet, designated workspace. It will reduce distractions for you as well as your online colleagues or audience. Sounds get amplified in online meetings and you might be conveying a different message than what you intended.
    -Test your microphone and sound prior to meetings. Set a volume that is comfortable for you.  Navigate between sound muted or unmuted where necessary. Mute your microphone particularly when there is an increase in background noise and if you are sneezing, coughing or drinking water. And obviously don’t eat anything when on a call. Not even gum… it looks and sounds dreadful.
    -Disable any sound notifications to reduce noise levels. It is extremely irritating to hear another person’s constant ping. And although intended to be background noise, the sound will be amplified for the others on the call. It will help everyone to be more focused and less distracted.  Have designated times when you check your email and messages to avoid constant interference while on calls or working on a task.
    -You can also revert to using the chat box instead of speaking when your microphone isn’t working when there are too many distractions or if you just don’t trust your voice at any given time. It does interfere with the level of human interaction but will reduce auditory overload.
  4. How to maximize your visual processing and reduce visual overload:
    -Check your positioning in the room for maximum use of light. Be mindful that the light should not be from behind as it will be difficult for others to see you clearly.  It is ideal to have incoming light from your front, i.e. sit in front of an open window. An alternative is to have a side lamp on your desk shining on your face.  Light will help you work better but also make you more visible and easier to see for your colleagues and thus improve human interaction.
    -Make sure your desktop and screen(s) are cleaned up and tidy. Clean your screen, reduce your icons and/or group them. Work with as little on-screen clutter as possible. Limit the number of tabs you have open. Set bookmarks for quick and easy access to your most-used apps or websites.
    -Set your screen brightness and type of background to your liking.  An image that provides joy and calmness is ideal. Some people prefer to have a single colour as a desktop background.
    -Having meetings without video is very impersonal and reduces human interaction. If WiFi connectivity is an issue then videos are disabled but it is always a pity and preferable to have it enabled. We have to work much harder to be “human” through our digital channels to make it as real as possible help. That includes showing off your face and your voice.  So make sure you are dressed and groomed properly. No pyjamas, no bed head, no beach clothing…
  5. How to maximize movement and self-regulate your body:
    -Movement breaks will be your number one priority to save your energy and lower your fatigue. The brain is designed to tap into movement brain breaks in order to function and focus optimally.  A water bottle next to you helps to hydrate you and then increases the need for bathroom breaks. The best and most effective self-regulation tool!
    -Having movement breaks between meetings is non-negotiable. If you go from meeting to meeting you are going to start talking rubbish as your brain will dip into fatigue. Even a quick leg stretch (2-5 minutes) can help. You can always negotiate with your meeting members to all have a quick stretch in longer meetings and return at a designated time.
    -Don’t have a movement break while you are on a call and move around excessively.  You will make the other people seasick, particularly if they are visually sensitive and in sensory overload. You can shift your body or move your position but don’t walk around with your phone or laptop while talking. If you do need to display anything to your group, make sure to keep your phone or laptop as steady as possible.
  6. Scheduling and time management for online working will depend on the amount of control you have over your schedule. Where possible keep 1-1 online meetings to a maximum of 30 minutes, group meetings to a maximum of 60 minutes and webinars or training to a maximum of 90 minutes. When the group is bigger, there will be less focus on one particular individual which makes it easier to go for longer periods of time. If you can negotiate schedules with your work colleagues, family and children that is ideal.  Sticking to a routine for homeschooling your children will not only make their lives but also yours much easier. Kids need and love routine. Therefore try and create a clear routine at home during the lockdown. And write it down or draw simple pictures so it makes it easier for them to follow.
  7. Sensory styles are a great way to help us understand our environments and navigate best. We are all unique and different. We process the world differently. What works for some won’t work for others. Sensory sensitivity and avoiding behaviours occur for 25% of the population: this group will most likely get overloaded faster by their digital environment. They will take more care and effort to reduce overload. Sensory-seeking behaviours occur for 36% of the population: they take longer to get overloaded. However, they usually realize it too late and they are more likely to crash “unexpectedly”. For 39% of the population, the environment has a neutral impact: they can navigate fairly easily and are flexible within their work- and online environments.  This is the beauty of human genes and makeup. Completing your Sensory Matrix™ will help you to be more in tune with your needs and make your accommodations personalized. 

 

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” – Alan Watts