During a recent webinar, workplace wellness experts, Thea O’Connor, Linda Ray, and Cynthia Hickman offered some insights on how we can care for ourselves and each other during challenging times. You can watch the video or read a transcription of the conversation below.
Thea O’Connor – Body Intelligence
Taking care of our bodies has always been a good idea because our body is our foundation. It’s our home base and it’s our vehicle for living. But taking care of our bodies has also always been a little bit challenging. If you look at what percentage of the population actually ticks all the boxes, things like sleep, nutrition, physical activity it is actually really low. It’s only about 5% or under 5% and one reason for that I think is that in our culture at the moment, our body intelligence is very low and it may drop even further during the current pandemic. So what do I mean when I’m talking about body intelligence? Just in really simple terms, it involves three really important skills.
The first skill is the ability to notice what’s happening in your body rather than being so disconnected from your body that you don’t even notice. And scientists actually call this our interoceptive awareness. It’s literally your ability to notice what’s happening inside your body right now. Things like your breathing rate or your heart rate or digestive signals.
The second skill is the ability to actually listen to what’s happening in your body. That takes that little bit of extra effort to stop and really try and understand what your body is trying to tell you and what it needs, rather than just dismiss those signals you might’ve noticed.
And then the third skill is actually responding to your body. That is responding, rather than overriding, and responding in an intelligent way and responding in a way that’s actually going to support the functioning of your body. At the moment, we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic, so it’s never been more important to nurture the body and to support our immune system. However, the current really high levels of stress that individuals are feeling and that is being felt around the globe, is actually going to threaten our body intelligence quite significantly.
So why is that? Well, research shows that stress interferes with interoception because when we’re stressed, what we do is we take the attention outside of ourselves to monitor the environment for threat. And, meanwhile, we’re not even noticing what’s happening in our bodies. We’re not noticing perhaps a little niggle in our neck telling us we need to change posture before we get tech neck or some kind of RSI. Or we might notice that our energy is drooping and that we need to take a short energy break or go to bed. Stress can literally cause us to take leave of our senses.
And then there’s also a stack of research that shows when it comes to how we respond to stress when we go through really high stress times like divorce, job loss and we could probably add COVID-19 to that, what people tend to do on the whole is adopt what they call a maladaptive coping strategy. So we’re more likely to smoke more, eat more, drink more alcohol. And that’s probably because those things give us an instant hit, instant gratification, and they involve little effort.
So when it comes to noticing our body sensations and then responding in an intelligent way, stress can really interfere with that. But those tendencies, they’re not inevitable. If we can commit to paying extra attention to our bodies and now is a really great time to do that.
I just wanted to offer two really simple exercises that can help build your body intelligence, bring down your level of anxiety and help you come back to your senses so that you can actually listen to your body. The first one you’re probably familiar with is just doing a simple body scan, maybe do it slightly more often now than you would normally maybe morning, midday, evening. And that simply involves coming to stillness. You could sit or you could stand possibly closing your eyes to bring your attention inside. And then just tracking, using your awareness to track your body from top to toe and you’re just being curious about what are you noticing right now, any sensations at all. And then at the end you can make a little note to self about what you noticed and what I particularly suggest is see if you can pick up and pay attention to the small signals that you would normally override and practise responding sooner rather than later. So just choose one that you normally dismiss, maybe it’s thirst. Maybe it’s the need to go the loo or change posture and practise responding sooner rather than later, given our tendency to wait until things get really bad with our bodies before we pay attention.
The second practice is just do a breath test several times, many times a day. I would say that the breath is arguably the most important within in our body that supports life, but it does so much more than transport oxygen. It affects how we use that core muscles, it affects the biochemistry of the blood and it affects our nervous system. What you can do is just put one hand on your chest, one hand on your belly, and without changing your breath, you just notice which hand is moving the most. If you notice a fair amount of movement in your upper chest, just gradually, gently invite more air down into your lower belly. You’ll start to notice that when you breathe in, your lower hand rises and as you breathe out, your lower hand falls. The important thing is don’t force it. Many people are aware of the piece of advice. If you feel stressed, take a deep breath. But what they tend to do is go (inhale) so that actually breathing right into the upper chest, which is not going to help your nervous system go into a relaxation response. If you did that several times a day, that’s one way to connect with your body to help bring your nervous system back into the relaxation response. So the key features are in and out of the nose. Extend the out-breath a little bit and just invite a little bit more down into the lower lobes where your lower hand is moving. 10 minutes of that before bed can really help set you up for a good night’s sleep.
They are just two of many ways to help stay connected to your body and listen to it and to protect your body intelligence. And you just might like to reflect on what helps you come back to your body and how could you factor that into your daily routines.
Linda Ray – Attentional Intelligence
What I’m sharing with you today is what’s going on in your brain. Some of you might not think much about your brain. In fact, I carried mine around in my body for around 40 years before I paid it any attention. And what’s really interesting about what’s happening right now is your brain’s key role is to keep you alive and safe. In this current pandemic, our brains are on overdrive. They’re hyper-vigilant to this idea of keeping us safe. What we know that happens in the brain is that we moment by moment we read those sensations.
As Thea said, sometimes we misread those sensations because we’re actually, feeling quite anxious and overwhelmed. We take in information from what’s happening in the world around us and we make sense of that based on past experience. Now the tricky bit about right now is this is unprecedented. We don’t have past experience to draw upon to allow us to predict how we should behave. And we know the brain is a prediction organ and the brain is trying to predict what’s going to happen next in order to keep you safe. So this might be why some of you are feeling particularly anxious and overwhelmed because your brain is in overdrive of trying to predict what’s going to happen.
The interesting thing is we probably spend around 42% of our day trying to predict what’s going to happen next. And we most often get that wrong. I’d suspect the prediction kind of percentage has gone up quite substantially in this pandemic era. The question that I would suggest that you ask yourself is how useful is using your limited attention on predicting something you can’t possibly predict. Maybe it’s okay to actually say to yourself, I can’t predict what’s going to happen next, but I can control what’s happening right now.
We talk about this as being the boss of your brain, trying to get back in the driver’s seat of your brain. You might find at the moment you’re in the passenger seat or even the boot and your brain is bossing you around. It’s about actually understanding that your brain is trying to keep you safe but might be misreading at a whole bunch of signals. We know even from a rational perspective that there’s enough food in Australia to feed everyone and we know that, really do we really need 50 cartons of toilet paper in the back room. But people have, through trying to keep safe, have dashed out to stock up. It’s kind of trying to think about what is the information that you’re also taking in, in this prediction kind of loop that you’re caught up in because we know that there’s a ton of misinformation floating around there. So be cautious about the information you take in. Think about, how much time you spent in predicting. That’s one thing I want you to think about.
The next thing that I want you to think about is where you are putting your focus of attention. I know that many people are now working from home and that’s been, an amazing effort to get everyone home. Not everyone but as many people as we can get home and working from home. And this poses a whole bunch of challenges to us because if you have a thing called Bright Shiny Object Syndrome like I do, you’re easily distracted. We know sometimes in a home environment there’s so many more distractions that are all vying for attention. It’s important to think about how are you going to minimise those distractions? How are you going to keep your focus on what you need to do? And I know that a lot of the people I’ve been speaking with have been talking about feeling this sense of overwhelm and when we’re trying to think about everything that we have to achieve in a day that can send us into overwhelm.
My suggestion and tip to you is chunk things down. Do one thing at a time. Try and think about the things that are most important. And we also know that, your brain is, at its freshest in the morning. So do the tough stuff in the morning when you know that you’ll get through it much more easily, we often have a tendency to go, “let’s do the easy stuff first and do the hard stuff later”. That’s not how your brain works.
So think about where your focus is and I love how Thea talked about body intelligence. I guess what I’m trying to suggest to you is think about your attentional intelligence and attentional intelligence includes that meta-sensing, noticing how you’re feeling and doing those wonderful suggestions that Thea spoke about. It also involves paying attention to the narrative that’s going on in your head. What’s the story that your brain is trying to tell you in that moment and is it useful and is it aligned with what you’re trying to achieve and your goals and think about where you want to put your focus.
The third thing I want to speak about is this idea of boundaries. One of the things we know when you work from home is that the boundaries between work and home can blur. We can find ourselves still sitting at our, in front of our computer way past five o’clock in the afternoon. It’s really important that your brain actually needs a break and we know that we need time out from work and clear boundaries. So think about really simple things that you can do that will help you to distinguish between those different boundaries so that you are being your best and being your productive best at work.
Cynthia Hickman – Heart Intelligence
We’ve talked about our body intelligence and we’ve talked about a brain intelligence. Now I’m going to move on to what we could call our heart intelligence or even our soul intelligence. With the pandemic at present, it’s caused a huge amount of change in a really short time. That’s really unsettling for people and it’s taken probably everybody out of their comfort zones.
That can be distressing and it’s causing a lot of hardship for people, but at the same time and not to minimise what’s going on, at the same time, it does offer an opportunity to have a re-look at our life, have a re-look at our culture and our society. It does offer time for growth and for evolution. I’m finding, because I work as a counselling psychologist with people, I’m finding that people are actually doing that. They’re taking the opportunity to stop and ponder and re-look at life.
One of the things they’re really noticing, I think everyone that’s spoken to me has said they’re really appreciating how important connection is in their life. They’re really missing the day-to-day connection that they would normally have with people out on the street and out at work. One tip I would offer for managing what we’re going through at present is to make sure that you are maintaining those connections. It’s just you’re going to have to do them in different ways.
I know people, including myself, who started an email thread for our neighborhood street so that everybody can keep in touch with what’s going on. Anyone can ask for help and give help if they need it. Other people I know are doing things like online dinners. You set your camera up and you invite a couple of people on camera and you’re having your dinner and so are they, and it’s just like a dinner party and you’re not literally there, but you’re there sharing a meal together on camera, which is a great idea.
The other things that people are doing are like playing games together. So we set the camera up, the other person sets their camera up and you play a board game. And, again, you’re not there in person, but you can still be playing and having probably extra fun because of the, technology craziness that goes on with situations like that. So that’s bringing up laughter and fun and joy and connection because without that, human beings are really missing something that’s very central to what brings us wellbeing and brings us happiness. I’m sure there are plenty of other ideas for ways we can do that via video connection. I would encourage everyone to give that a try because that connection is really important around heart wellbeing.
Another thing that’s coming up, I notice with people is their feeling of wanting to contribute in some way, which is really beautiful because, while this pandemic has affected everybody, it’s affected people at different levels. Some people are actually pretty much carrying on as they always have, but there are others who are deeply affected financially, in terms of stress and trying to manage their families. People are stepping up in terms offering time, offering goods and services for free because they can, they’re able to. So they’re giving that to people who are in need of that support. And that’s one beautiful thing that’s coming out of the situation at present is it’s allowing people’s natural generosity to come forth and, be expressed with others. And that lights us up. It lights up the person that we’re bringing our generosity towards. And it just brings some of the loveliness of humanity to the fore and brings something positive to what is actually a pretty distressing scenario at present.
One of the things some people might be struggling with is that you might not have work at present. You might not be going to work. The thing is what brings a lot of purpose to us and we do need purpose again for our inner wellbeing, but we can find plenty of purpose in other things even if we’re not doing official work. I would encourage people to have a little ponder of, maybe their bucket list because I know people have said to me things like, I’ve always wanted to learn the language, or I wanted to learn how to cook this, or I’ve wanted to always read the novels of whoever it is.
Now’s the time we get the time to do those things you’ve always wanted to do and make the most of this. By the end of this pandemic, maybe you will come out being able to speak Italian or Spanish or whatever it is. That would be great and make the use of that because this is a special time. So yeah, make the most of that.
The last thing I would say is that in order to get the most of this challenging situation, we need to be able to bring ourselves down to a settled place inside. Because in a heart there is a a place if you like, that can handle difficult times like these. It’s a still place and a very settled place. If we can connect with that underneath all the stress and the disruption that’s going on, then we will find that whatever’s going on somewhere inside is a space that’s saying it’s OK. We will be able to get through this and we’re handling it and we are feeling OK.
That means, though, that we need to use the body intelligence that we’ve been talking about and the brain intelligence – use those things to take us to a settled place inside, some still place where we know and where we have the wisdom that says it is going to be OK in the end and that we’re in this together and we can get through this together. Best wishes to all of you as you go through this together.