Sometimes it seems impossible that your head is able to hold all the things you think and feel and react to on a daily basis. It’s like a jar full of stones – some jagged, some porous and rough, and others shimmering with vibrant colours. If you’re lucky there are some stones hiding veins of gold or diamonds in the rough. But the stones are heavy. They rub up against each other and sometimes the jagged ones shatter those that are lighter and brighter. These jagged stones can sometimes seem like they take up the whole space in the jar. Other times it’s the mud that clings to some of the stones that seems to wash over everything – dulling the jagged corners true, but also dimming the vibrant shine of the others.
This can lead to a feeling of being stuck. The mud that clouds our judgement can cloud our sense of proportion too. Sticking to everything it makes it hard to distinguish what is the largest stone in our jar, what the numbers of them are.
When we get this feeling of mental stuckness it makes it harder to be motivated. Harder to be engaged socially. Harder to do the jobs that simply need to be done.
My father and I were talking about the increase in anxiety and depression globally (he’s a psychiatrist). He likened the rise in low level mood disorders as functioning with a sprained muscle. It isn’t like having a broken leg or a shrapnel wound, but a pulled muscle is debilitating in its constant pain and discomfort. You are always aware of it and it prevents you from doing things you once wouldn’t have thought twice about. Our world is one filled with increasing stresses, from heightened international political tensions and growing social inequality, to the high demands of a work and school place that seems to invade all waking hours. We are always on call. Emails from students and bosses and workmates in our non-working hours are (even if implicitly) expected to be replied to instantly because everyone knows we get notifications on our mobiles. Social media adds to this feeling of being constantly on call as it limits our down time. Hours can go by as we scroll through Twitter and Instagram, whether we are following celebrities, our friends, or new sites. We are all stressed. We are all functioning with a strained emotional muscle.
That’s when we need to create some mental space for ourselves. As with most things, this is easier said than done. Because we spend a lot of time focused on the future, or on external demands, we don’t often sit and reflect on where we are right now, and what we are really wanting.
So how do we go about creating that important Mental Space?
I have posted before about catching your happiness, and the importance of mindfulness. Many of the techniques I use for mindfulness for the purpose of happiness catching, I find help me to create mental space also.
Taking time to notice what’s actually happening in front of you in this minute, not just the work or chores or messy floor, but the world, can have major benefits. My son passed on this wisdom from a boy in a discussion group at his school.
When you are feeling anxious, and overwhelmed, it’s a good idea to take stock of where you are. Identify five things you can see. Five things you can hear. Five things that you can smell. This will centre you and help you calm down.
Note that you aren’t noticing in this how you are feeling. You’re just letting the world in. Creating space.
Allow Down Time
I was visiting a friend over the school holidays and she lives out of my mobile service range. What I noticed is that when I thought I would be completely out of touch I felt panicked, but when I discovered that I could connect to wifi I felt like I had the security blanket back. However, because we haven’t seen each other for so long, and she herself is no social media addict, I was more disconnected from the outside world there than I had been for some time.
It was wonderful.
We talked. We went for walks down to the stream. We watched our kids play.
It reminded me of how important down time is. I used to spend much of my holiday times preparing for school or marking. I don’t now. I find I’m so burned out after the term that I am better for a complete (or nearly complete) break. Pottering around time is important. I understand we don’t all have the luxury of walking to a stream with a friend, but down time can be little bits caught. It can be standing in line and not going on your phone but watching the people and the world around you. It can be using your commute not to catch up on the endless demands of the world but to reflect in your head, or simply tune out the world and let your brain be for a while. It can be taking a moment to dance – down the street or in your room.
Part of down time is also making sure that you set limits on when you are contactable. I used to answer emails from students whenever I got them, including at 11.15pm. I don’t anymore. I tell them I will answer emails up to 7pm otherwise I will get to it the following day. It’s never that big an emergency. When I was younger and there were no mobile phones, we didn’t call people past 9pm – that was considered rude. Now people will happily text and message you whenever. You don’t have to check it just because they sent it.
Turn your notifications off. Train yourself to not check.
Exert Control Over your Surroundings
My mother has always advocated having a clean bench as having a positive impact on your mental well being and there’s more truth in that than might first seem. I am sure there are super clean beings out there for whom this does not resonate, but for me? You can totally tell the state of my mental clarity and strength by the condition of my kitchen bench. It’s about asserting control over your environment as much as it is making your environment nicer. A friend pointed out to me when I was saying how overwhelmed I was, that I had not been using my planner. She remembered that I was much more positive about work and life when I was religiously using my planner every day. The number of demands on my time don’t change, but by exerting control over them by using a planner (or keeping a clean kitchen bench) I am able to restore some much needed mental space.
Making decisions and the very process of writing a list or cleaning your bench, increases a sense of achievement and self-efficacy. It helps clear away the mud by itemising what there is to deal with and making strategies to do so.
I also find that if I mind-map the heck out of a problem or a situation or simply my current emotional state, I take control back. I start pushing aside the mud to see that the jagged bits of stone are quite small really, and that there are a lot of sparkly bits that just need a nudge or two to take up more space.
Our brains are full of beautiful bright firing neurons that we want to avoid covering up with sludge. Working to create time and mental space will improve our mood and our confidence.
Let those sparkly stones shine.