A deeply peaceful Christmas
Gavin Thomas Murphy runs a website called Gratitude In All Things where he looks to Ignatian Spirituality for strength and inspiration.
A mental health professional recently told me that while most people have their ups and downs in life, they don’t normally have to worry about being unbalanced. It got me thinking… if people don’t really worry about being unbalanced, do they care enough to be deeply balanced?
I had good reason to explore deep peace and balance in my own life as I participated in an 8-week wellness course organised by Aware, the Irish mental health organisation. Here are eight tips I learned from the course. I believe they may help us all live well this holiday season:
- Look at our whole life: When trying to understand our mental health difficulties it’s good to think beyond just the medical to include the physical, psychological, relational and so on. Just like we live in an interconnected world, our body, mind, heart and spirit are also deeply connected to each other. If our body feels tired and our mind perplexed, we can take the time to understand their needs while also trying to understand how our heart and spirit can be nourished.
- Live within ‘normal’ parameters of mood: Maintaining balanced mood can seem boring at times with the memory of exciting highs and sometimes seductive lows. But there is great richness in being on an even keel when we pay attention to our inner life. Here are some words to describe a balanced state: engaged, energetic, present, inspirational, open, mindful, bright, connected, centred, peaceful, content, heartful and lots more! The more we inhabit balanced mood, the more exciting it becomes.
- Love is the most important remedy: We can manage our mental health difficulties by doing all the right things, e.g., medication, therapy, self-help resources, healthy lifestyles, socialising. But if we are so focused on wellness to the extent that it becomes a ‘project’, then we will miss out on real meaning and intimacy. We all have a need to be deeply listened to, cared for and cherished. Even if we are going through great stress and suffering, the presence of a loved one can help mellow and calm us.
- Keep a regular sleep/wake cycle: Many of us have heard that it is good to get up and go to bed at the same time each day, including at the weekends. But do we take the advice? I’ve tried to keep a regular schedule during the week and have slightly adjusted it during the weekends, and what a difference it has made! I find myself having more energy, more warmth for those around me, and a brighter mind. I am becoming less controlled by artificial light and more in tune with my natural body rhythm. Why not experiment for yourself?
- The ABC Coping Sentence: Clinical psychologist Dr Claire Hayes has created a helpful way to manage our self-talk that can enable us to cope better in the moment. A is for ‘acknowledge’, B is for ‘because’ and C is for ‘choose’. For example, I feel sad (A) because I think it is not fair that I have a mental health difficulty (B) but I choose to remember that I am so much more than having a mental health difficulty (C). This simple shift in the way we relate to ourselves can help prevent us from being enslaved by our thoughts and feelings and can empower us.
- Challenge our inner critic: A cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) process can help to further explore an anxious or worrying thought. It involves five steps: i) What evidence supports the thought? ii) What is the evidence against? iii) What is the worst-case scenario (plus how likely is it to happen)? iv) How would you cope with the scenario? v) What is a more helpful way to respond to the anxious or worrying thought? Putting a positive interpretation on other people’s behaviour may also help, e.g., considering a negative comment came from habitual reactivity rather than a sense of nastiness.
- Catch early warning signs: It is good for us to monitor our level of tension when around family and friends at Christmas time. If we’re not aware, we can quickly escalate from a level of calm to levels of anger and aggression. Paying attention to our bodies can be very helpful, e.g., noticing a clenched jaw, folded arms, or knots in the stomach can make us aware of our frustration. We can then centre ourselves by placing our feet firmly on the ground and concentrating on deep breathing. Furthermore, having a trusted person to spot our early warning signs can be very supportive.
- Create a Wellness Plan: We may benefit from a plan of action to live more fully during the holiday period. Here are some considerations on top of the previous tips: keep a mood diary with related helpful and unhelpful activities, keep up routine (e.g., exercise and meditation), be curious of family dynamics (e.g., people who are chatty, quiet, unassertive, dominant), question instead of argue, know when to leave a social scene (e.g., during a heated argument), accept the good, bad and neutral with equanimity, try ‘shock therapy’ (e.g., a crisp dip in the ocean!).