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We need to talk about Flow (Mental Health Awareness week 2018)

As you may know, this week is Mental Health Awareness Week. This year the focus is on stress and how to cope with it. We all get stressed from time to time and that's part and parcel of life. It becomes problematic when we don't do anything to manage it. Suddenly everything can start to pile up. Our inner container can begin to overflow and this is when we start to falter. Perhaps we become more snappy, or moody, too tired to engage, angry, tearful or pull away from others. Everyone has different coping mechanisms, and not all of these are healthy. So what can we do about it? Perhaps the best thing you can do is to start to notice what is going on for you when you feel stressed, and things are starting to become too much. What are your triggers? Perhaps you feel tenseness in some parts of your body. Perhaps you start behaving in certain ways. Perhaps your thoughts become more negative. Perhaps you feel certain emotions more strongly. The better we get at noticing the signs, the more likely it is we can break the cycle and start to do things differently.

The next stage is to think about what we can do to decrease our levels of stress. What things do you like to do that are just for you, or that help you feel more relaxed? Can you plan some time in to your day to do something that calms you, even just for a few minutes. For some people this might be exercise, for others reading, going for a walk, or talking to a friend. Perhaps mindfulness or meditation works for you. Being mindful can take attention away from the stresses, letting them come and go in your mind whilst bringing the focus to the sensations in the body, and an inner awareness. The NHS has some helpful information on what mindfulness is and how you might use it here:

There are also apps you can download that provide daily mindfulness practices that many people find work for them (such as headspace).

There's also something else that might be useful. This is flow. It's a little bit like mindfulness in that you are changing your awareness from whatever is stressing you to something else. The term was coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, and it relates to being 'in the zone'. It's a state of being, where the person is fully focused on the task they are doing in the moment, with a feeling of being energised and enjoying what they are doing. When you are in flow you can lose all sense of space and time. This can be useful - it can help us get stuff done at work, for instance (though it can also be unhelpful if we are so engrossed we forget to go home)! It can also be a really nice way to deal with stress by doing something enjoyable and refocusing attention. For me, one of the ways I achieve flow is by doing something physical and creative. With small children, studies and work to do I don't often get to do this. Recently I have had a lot of deadlines which has meant I have been working day and night. I have been tired and grumpy, and started finding dealing with toddler tantrums more unmanageable. For me this was a red flag. I realised I was getting stressed and I needed to do something about it. Whilst the deadlines were still looming, I knew that my positive state of mental health was also heading towards a deadline, so I needed to down tools and make time for me. So I spent a happy Sunday getting in the zone making some shelves for my kitchen. This might not be everyone's cup of tea, but a bit of sawing, sanding & drilling was just the thing I needed. Not only did I have a few hours where I forgot about all the other things around me:, the deadlines, the lists, the never ending washing pile, but I also reduced my stress levels. An added bonus was that I achieved something that I am pretty proud of, which also makes the kitchen a nicer place to be. Win, win. Plus my kids are happier because I have the energy to focus on them again. Triple win!

So if you are looking for a way to beat the stress, consider how you can achieve your sense of flow. What activities do you get lost in doing? Giving yourself time isn't selfish, and shouldn't be relegated to the bottom of the list of things to do. Looking after yourself helps you to look after others around you, and enables you to function much more efficiently and positively. Give it a go, you might just surprise yourself.


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