Declutter your head and heart space

Over the last year, worry and catastrophic thinking have been looming large for most of us. It’s time for an emotional detox says Suzy Reading

We all have the best of intentions, wanting to do the right thing by our partner, kids, parents, siblings, extended family, colleagues, neighbours… but in all that conscientious striving it’s often our own thinking that gets in our way. Worrying, feeling bad, feeling guilty… even when things are smooth we can wind up looking for things to feel worried, bad and guilty about. Whether its overthinking, feeling caught in a trap of relentless productivity, impossible expectations of ourselves or just giving ourselves a hard time for how we feel, we unwittingly add to our burden. How can we close a few mental tabs, get a grip on our emotions and give ourselves grace?

Attempting to quieten particular thoughts, or trying to get rid of them altogether, just doesn’t work. In all the flux of the last 18 months, worry and catastrophic thinking have been looming large for most of us. The truth is, the mind is a thinking machine and trying to clear it is an impossible task, so let’s quit trying! The good news is, we don’t need to clear the mind. Our thoughts are not facts, and they are certainly not prophecies. They are just a collection of words that come and go and we don’t need to invest all of our identity in them. Granted, some thoughts are more constructive and enjoyable than others and we are wise to develop our ability to get our thinking on-side, but let’s drop the rope when it comes to a tug-of-war with our mind. It’s an endless battle.

What works better is giving our minds something useful to focus on, a concrete distraction from unhelpful thoughts. Make peace with the thoughts that come up, don’t add to your woes by giving yourself grief for thinking them (no one is immune here) and instead focus on something resonant to you – it might be a mantra, like I soften into this moment or you might choose to use your senses. Nature can provide some beautifully soothing distractions: tree-gazing to dial down stimulation, seeking a bird on the wing for a sense of freedom or watching a sunset to remind us that tomorrow is a new day.

If your mind keeps getting drawn to those worst-case scenarios, remember that this can provide you with valuable problem-solving time, empowering you with options if challenges arise. We know it doesn’t work telling ourselves we can’t think about it, so let yourself go there, but don’t linger. Spend equal time playing out the best-case scenario and also the most likely scenario. Once you’ve let all three percolate, it’s time to focus your mind on something else.

If it’s not catastrophic thinking that grips your mind, maybe it’s getting lost in the vortex of what if and why. While it is natural to have these thoughts, they are an endless spiral that lead us nowhere. Our choice is simple, go down the rabbit hole or step out of the vortex. The simplest way of getting back to something constructive here is to switch them up for what can I do something about. This is how we come back to firm ground. Reflect on what is important to you right now and bring your attention to what lies within your control. Now we’re back in the driver’s seat. And if you’re plagued with discomfort about not having the answers right now, remind yourself that you are both capable and resourceful. You have coped in the past and you will cope again. When the information you need comes to light, you will deal with it then. For now, it’s okay not to know.

Often it’s not what others expect of us, but our own expectations that derail us. We are not going to remember the birthdays of absolutely everyone, so let that slide from your Teflon-coated shoulders. And why should you automatically take on that emotional labour? Allow yourself permission to be just one human being. Take a look at your expectations of yourself – is it humanly possible? Do you expect the same of other people? Bring your invisible load to the light and ask yourself – is this important, is this urgent, is this solely my responsibility, and can I reapportion this elsewhere? It is okay to ask for help, and it is definitely okay not to do it all.

Another way we push ourselves around is in judging ourselves for how we feel. We are particularly skilled in giving ourselves a hard time for struggling, feeling like we should be more ‘resilient’ and perpetually grateful for our blessings. We’ve just been through a rollercoaster chapter and all that time spent on high alert is a recipe for exhaustion. There is a time and a place for all emotions and if you deny yourself the right to feel the heavier ones you also diminish your ability to feel the lighter, brighter ones. Be gentle with yourself and give yourself time and space for emotional digestion. Soothing practices like being in nature, fluid and relaxed movement, tender touch and breathing exercises can help us bear witness and let go. And remember, beneath guilt and grief lies a deep reservoir of love and care, spend some time bathing in that instead.

3 steps to simplifying your inner world

Use this three-step practice to come back to calm clarity. This is a muscle that you build with practice, so work on it daily and see your capacity grow with time. It’s okay to wobble along the way. Remember, we all find these things challenging, but power and peace will come from developing these skills.

1 Notice when you are giving yourself a hard time, such as berating yourself for how you think or feel. This is just a habit and it is one that doesn’t serve us or anyone we care about. We can learn to do things differently and the first step in that process is compassionate awareness.

2 Check in with yourself. Observe without judgement or criticism where you are at, mind and body. When was the last time you had something to eat or drink? Are you sleep deprived or feeling disconnected? When did you last move or stretch your body? Do you need to take a break from the screen? Have you had a dose of nature therapy today? Is your bra or waist band too tight? None of these things are trivial, they all have an impact on how we think and feel and this insight gives us the power to feel differently.

3 Take nourishing action. Move over time management, let’s try energy management. I’m all for list-making and mind-mapping but, if we let our energy bank get depleted, of course our thinking and mood is affected. If we want to think with clarity, if we want to feel resolved and at peace, if we want to take action in service of our values as human beings, we need to nourish ourselves. What do you need now? How can you meet those needs? Turn to that soothing toolkit of yours, even a couple of spacious breaths that takes less than one minute will do it, and feel how this brings you back to the moment. You choose next what you do with it.

Suzy is a mother of two, author, chartered psychologist and coach. She specialises in self-care, helping people manage their stress, emotions and energetic bank balance. @suzyreading

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