Breathe

What a strange concept; reminding myself to breathe. It’s quite remarkable how often we forget to consciously take in deep breaths.

I want to use this post as a reminder to appreciate the little things in life that can make a tremendous difference, like your breath. It’s something to really be grateful for.

Mindfulness and dealing with emotions

Breathing is an act that truly grounds you. Not only is it a necessary component to survive (thank you oxygen), but it’s also something that maintains your equilibrium.

This time of the year can be particularly stressful, especially if you’re in your final year at university. The projects, the workload, trying to apply for jobs, figuring out what’s going to happen next year; it can get a lot. I’ve also had to attend a number of virtual interviews over the past few weeks and if I’m being honest, they can be nerve-wrecking.

I almost always feel anxious or nervous before the call, and I can feel the way my body starts to react. I start taking shorter and shallower breaths, I start overthinking, I start sweating and I feel a tingly sensation in my tummy.

Despite that, I somehow make sure I remain confident and feel prepared. So how do I make sure I’m level-headed and calm? By slowing down my breathing.

This works so well whenever I’m faced with a daunting task or feeling overwhelmed. Just breathe.

Now is all you have

It’s come down to a very simple philosophy, understanding that we only have the present moment.

You can’t breathe yesterday, later or tomorrow. You can only breathe now.

You’re reminding yourself that life is temporary. Things comes and go, just like the breath. It’s ultimately about appreciating each and every breath; you don’t know when it will be your last.

Grounding practice

What you’re also doing here is conditioning your brain to focus on one thing at a time. It’s easy to lose focus when we’re anxious or stressed, because our thoughts are occupied with the past or future.

Breathing helps us remind our brains that the stories we make up in our heads aren’t actually real. They’re mental constructions that we’ve created.

We just need to constantly remind ourselves that. When in doubt, be grateful and focus on your breath.

Oxygen to your brain

There are even more benefits to deep breathing! This is so obvious but very often missed. When you breathe more meaningfully and consciously, you allow more oxygen to enter the body.

This further improves the circulation of oxygen entering your bloodstream and into your brain, which helps you focus. Spending some time in nature (surrounded by trees) can also really help with your breathing. The air is fresh and full of life.

“Everything will be okay in the end, if it’s not the okay, it’s not the end.”

This short post is a gentle mindfulness reminder. Life will inevitably bring pain, the suffering is up to you. Look at things from a perspective of growth and learning. Keep track of the way your body reacts.

Remind yourself to breathe more often. You will get through this. You will survive. It sometimes seems out of reach, the finish line seems so far away, but I believe in you. I think you should too.

A Toolbox For Studying Online

How does working from home make you feel? Perhaps you thought it would be over by now. Maybe you were trying to form some kind of schedule but thought you wouldn’t be spending the entire year studying virtually.

For those of us at UCT, we’ve recently received the news that the second semester will be completed virtually. This is not really a surprise, given that we’re in the peak of the pandemic and that RSA has secured a top 5 spot for Covid cases. How can we move forward with this, given how overwhelming it truly is?

Today I’d like to share some of my life lessons and what has been working for me through this turbulent period. I’ll talk a little about scheduling and time management, how to make stress your friend, being supportive to others, understanding mental health, keeping your goals in check and remaining mindful.

Since I’ve spoken in depth about most of these topics before, I’ll provide links to the full posts under each heading.

Time Management

In order to successfully manage our time, we need to keep 3 things in check:

  • Structure
  • Consistency
  • Balance

This is forming a skeleton of your ideal day. Think of it as the foundation of your empire. How do we form structure? By setting out goals and objectives, each and every day.

When you’re consistent with the structure you’ve formed, it opens up time for you to do more. You gain confidence from consistency because you know what to expect from yourself.

Your structure should include time for you to rest, recover and reload. Make sure that you’re getting the right amount of sleep every night. Make sure that you’re putting in exercise at least 2-3 times a week. Make sure that you’re spending some time in nature too. Important here is to also monitor your social media usage and the amount of time you spend online.

Time management

I’ve been requested to talk a little about time management, so let’s give it a go. I’d like to first try and define time, or at least come to an understanding of what it is. Then we can dive into how to maneuver through the time we have. I aim to make you feel more … Continue reading Time management

Make Stress Your Friend #2

Flight or Fight!? How often do you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or relentlessly chasing deadlines as if your life depended on it? Let’s talk about why stress has low-key been the reason we’re achieving our goals and why we need to form a healthier relationship with it. I’ve talked about this before in the first … Continue reading Make Stress Your Friend #2

Make stress your friend

Far too often we get trapped in our own little cycle of thoughts. Some are true, some are exaggerated, some are just unnecessary and some are completely wrong.

“Stress is your body’s reaction to any change that requires a response.”

Keep in mind that stress is a beneficial part of your nature, it’s meant to help you adapt and react swiftly to changes in your environment. Manage stress by focusing on your breath and finding cues to the present moment.

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Support structures and mental health

This is especially important now that we’re unable to physically meet each other on a regular basis. It’s really helpful to try and form a support structure with your peers, even if it’s just on group chat. Knowing that there are others who are going through a similar experience will make you feel a lot better.

This adds to the issue of taking care of your mental health. Your mental health is something that you need to take care of regularly. You can’t wait for things to go south and feel overwhelmed before you put in any effort.

Regularly taking care of your mental health can be as simple as journalling, meditating, praying, going for a walk or speaking to a friend. When it gets a little more hectic, speaking to a therapist or seeking professional help may be a better option.

Many universities offer virtual therapy sessions to their students for free. Be sure to utilize those resources if you need to.

Mental health

How are you currently feeling about your mental health? We all struggle or have struggled with our mental health at some point. We probably also know someone who currently struggles with their mental health. The reason I’m writing about mental health is for awareness. We often don’t realize how delicate our states of mind are. … Continue reading Mental health

Mindful Monday #1

Have you stopped to admire the sky today? Did you take a moment to notice how the colours on the leaves are changing? Why do we always find a way to escape the present moment? I’m starting a little series called ‘Mindful Monday‘. I’ve been part of a similar course before, so I just thought … Continue reading Mindful Monday #1

Mindfulness

This has been a recurring topic in my blog since I started. I’ve done a presentation on mindfulness a few weeks ago on 20 Life Learners that I’d like to share here.

It’s essentially about finding cues to stay in the present moment. Using grounding techniques such as focusing on your breath, you can control your physiology to condition your mind. There’s quite a bit of neuroscience behind it, you can read more in my Mindful Monday posts.

Goals

I’m not sure about you, but this year has forced me to reevaluate many of my goals. This is not necessarily a bad thing at all, it means that we need to be realistic and adapt.

Goal-setting is a powerful tool to help you move forward in life and to reach peaks you never could’ve imagined climbing. Find a place to write down some of your objectives for the rest of the year and review them constantly. It will make a difference in how motivated you feel.

Don’t give up when things don’t go according to plan. Find ways to improvise and keep looking at the bigger picture. You’re worthy. You’re capable. You will achieve greatness.

Make Stress Your Friend #2

Flight or Fight!? How often do you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or relentlessly chasing deadlines as if your life depended on it? Let’s talk about why stress has low-key been the reason we’re achieving our goals and why we need to form a healthier relationship with it. I’ve talked about this before in the first post on make stress your friend.

Today, I’ll dive a little deeper and refresh our memory on this. I’ll speak about what stress is, how it’s released, why we need to manage it and how we can acquaint ourselves to it. Nature has a remarkable way of pushing evolution forward, it’s our responsibility to learn how these innate responses affect us.

What is the stress response?

The flight or fight response is part of the sympathetic nervous system’s reaction to emergencies that you experience. This is what happens when you’re being chased by a lion, have an approaching assignment deadline or feeling sickly. The subconscious response is both physical and emotional, to optimize your reaction to the given situation.

This can work for you or against you, depending on how often you’re confronted with situations that trigger this response. The neural connections formed over the past several millennia don’t adapt quickly enough to our modern-day problems. We now experience the same stress response for much simpler issues; like not getting enough likes/followers on IG, being subtweeted or even worrying about your feed, which could start getting unhealthy.

Chronic stress is when you’re repeatedly exposed to situations that trigger the release of stress hormones in your body. This can be detrimental to your health for several reasons. Let’s discuss how the body releases those hormones and why we need to manage them adequately.

How is stress released?

Once you start thinking about all those deadlines (or when you’re faced with highly stressful encounters), how does the body react?

There’s quite a complicated process that goes on in your brain, specifically within the hypothalamus. Here’s a brief overview of what happens:

  • Epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol are released.
  • Heart rate increases.
  • Breathing intensifies.
  • Blood sugar is released, increasing energy.
  • You become much more alert and vigilant.

This process is programmed into our subconscious mind and has proven to be an invaluable evolutionary asset. But what happens when the response becomes chronic?

https://thumbs.dreamstime.com/b/stress-response-system-vector-illustration-diagram-nerve-impulses-scheme-educational-medical-information-expressive-cartoon-110617799.jpg

Why we need to manage our levels of stress

Understanding the physiological response is critical in being able to make better decisions for your own mental well-being. The constant surge of epinephrine can become very damaging after a prolonged period of time. It damages your blood vessels and arteries, which increases your blood pressure and chances of having a heart attack/stroke.

The constant release of cortisol also increases your appetite and decreases the activity in your digestive system, since your body is using up the energy reserves. This is probably the reason why people often ‘stress-eat’ and indulge in junk food when they’re feeling overly stressed.

Thankfully, there are ways for us to combat these issues and maintain a healthy outlook on the stress response.

How can we become allies with stress?

  • Acceptance
  • Perspective
  • Breathe
  • Journal
  • Exercise or go for a walk
  • Speak to someone

Acceptance is always the first key when tackling a problem. Acknowledge and be honest with yourself about it. If you’re someone who tends to get stressed more than is necessary, notice the changes that happen in your body and don’t judge yourself for it. It’s part of your evolution.

The perspective you should embrace is that of kindness. Look at stress through a positive lens and that will change your outlook on it. It’s there to help you adapt, to effectively deal with changes, to energize you, to boost your body and to get you to focus. It’s also what motivates you to get off the couch and get some work done.

Breathe. This is honestly one of the best ways to calm your body down. Whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed or anxious, focus on taking in deep conscious breaths to the bottom of your abdomen. Don’t underestimate how effective this simple technique is. It will help ground you.

Here I am speaking about journalling yet again, what a surprise… It serves as an incredible outlet for you to let out emotions and clear your mind. This will help you assess the problem much more realistically and will reduce the chances of you lashing it out on others.

Exercise or go for a walk – preferably in nature. Sometimes a healthy distraction is all you need to get a grip on your thought patterns. Releasing the energy through physical exertion will certainly help calm your mind and body. Going for a walk in nature is particularly useful to gain a more philosophical outlook on the problem(s) at hand.

The last recommendation is to simply speak to someone. If you have someone that you can confide in and discuss your issues with, raise it up with them. Be wary of the energy you bring to the table, you don’t want to make them feel overwhelmed either. A great approach is to ask:

“Are you in the right emotional state to listen to what’s been stressing me out?”

Don’t bottle things up, just be considerate to others. If you’re struggling with chronic stress and feel like it might burden those you care about, consider therapy. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. You’re just speaking to someone who can guide your thought patterns into something a little healthier.

I know stress is not easy to manage and it can become very overwhelming when you have several responsibilities. Keep in mind that this is all part of your journey and that it’s all contributing to your growth. Focus on having a growth mindset, find tactics to keep you grounded and always remember to breathe. Stay present, you got this.

Make stress your friend!

Far too often we get trapped in our own little cycle of thoughts. Some are true, some are exaggerated, some are just unnecessary and some are completely wrong.

By now, I’ve explained how critical perspectives are. I’d like to help change your mindset towards a very common foe; stress. I shouldn’t be using the term foe at all, in fact it’s our ally more than anything.

Let’s unravel how building a relationship with stress, can boost our performance in pretty much every aspect of our life. And how our relationships can also help us better deal with it.

I’ll start start with a few negative aspects regarding stress.

The statistics are quite staggering. Stress is absolutely detrimental to your health. Here are a few of the risks associated with chronic stress:

  • Mental health issues
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Intense headaches
  • Weakened immunity

This isn’t meant to scare you (or maybe it is idk). I’m just trying to shed some light on a very common subject. The negative effects are associated only when you believe that being stressed is bad for you. So the aim is to try and optimize that belief.

But can a simple change in perspective really minimize the negative effects? -Absolutely.

Here’s a TED talk I highly recommend if you have the time:

You should also know by now that I’ve started to fall in love with questions. So what is stress?

“Stress is your body’s reaction to any change that requires a response.”

I quite like how brief that description is. We pretty much feel stressed all the time. It comes in various forms & at multiple stages, but it’s always somewhere there. It’s what forces us out of bed every morning. It’s what pushes us to study for our exams and get done with our tasks.

The key to problem solving, lies in having great awareness of the issue. This would also include having a good understanding of what you’re capable of doing. Largely, what we know about stress is that feeling when we have a substantial amount of work to do, and not a lot of time to do it. We get a little panicky, impatient, slightly (or highly) irritable.

So the first step would be to become aware of those feelings. Accept them as part of your body’s natural response. Don’t think about it as being bad for you.

The next question is: How much of stress do we need?

The mind works in marvelous ways. I’ve always been fascinated by how quickly we adapt to uncomfortable situations. There’s a very narrow gap between having just enough stress to be motivated, and that overflowing into stress that damages our health.

Each person works effectively under different circumstances. Therefore, there can’t really be a definitive answer to how much stress we need.

Identify it for yourself, through building some form of self-awareness. Determine how much stress pushes you to work, and how much stress pushes you overboard.

Think of stress as your back-up response. Your personal SOS. Your subconscious dial for 911. It’s your ally! It’s there to help you, as long as you keep it in check.

I love talking to people about perspective changing, because it’s honestly what has helped me change so much in my own life. Now, I’m going to ask another very important question: How do we learn to deal with stress?

The minute you start ignoring the signals your body sends you, that’s when stress starts getting out of control. A few key important steps:

  • Notice how your breathing changes (breathe in more deeply)
  • Be aware of your thought patterns (stay present)
  • Focus on the task at hand (back yourself)
  • Imagine the feeling of relaxation once it’s over (you will survive!)
  • Socialize 🙂

Apart from the aforementioned points, immerse yourself in the present moment by practicing something you really enjoy. Clear your mind with exercise, watching a sunset, reading an interesting book, watching your favourite movie or just going for a stroll in nature.

The key philosophy I’m trying to get to is this:

Better awareness leads to better choices, which ultimately leads to better results.

Do you know what else works really well to relieve stress?

Oxytocin!

For those of you who don’t know what oxytocin is; it’s not a drug. Well sort of. It’s a hormone released in your body that’s associated with socializing. Also known as the cuddle hormone. Oxytocin is released as part of the stress response, to help you get along with other people.

Lucerne, Switzerland [Contiki 2018]

Why would that help? Because we’ve evolved that way. The most effective way to deal with daily stressors is through seeking assistance. When you confide in others and find a helpful social structure, you mentally deal with the stress a lot better.

I really just want you all to realize that there are certain aspects of our biology that we can and cannot control. The most efficient way to live therefore, is to use what we can control, to help us deal with what we cannot control.

Stress is your friend. And your friends help you with stress. Life is a vicious cycle of paradoxes that don’t always make sense. That’s okay. We just have to follow our nature. Try our best. And ultimately realize that we’re going to die some day. None of this will really matter then.

“Live for the present like you’ll die tomorrow, plan for the future like you’ll live forever.”

One of the most profound quotes I’ve come across. I hope this message was beneficial. Please share it with those who could make use of it. The aim is to help as many people as possible live out their full potential.

The Journey IV

Growth Mindset 

Today’s topic shall be about mindset, particularly what it means to have a growth mindset and how to think about stress. I’ve been asked about how I deal with stress & anxiety, considering how strenuous the degree I’m undertaking is. (I’m studying chemical engineering at the University of Cape Town). So I’ll also discuss certain techniques that could be useful when feeling overwhelmed by life’s adventures. 

Let’s first differentiate between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset assumes that our intelligence, abilities & characteristics are static givens. Meaning they’re biologically fixed and that our innate skills can’t be changed. Contrary to that, a growth mindset emphasizes the ways in which we can constantly change and adapt when faced with challenges, and has a completely different outlook on success and failure. The diagram below clearly illustrates the 2 different mindsets.

A mental technique that I’ve learned this year is  “Not yet”. Whenever you encounter a new challenge or something that you’re currently unable to do, tell yourself not yet. It’s the best way to keep optimistic whilst embracing the challenge. When you can convince yourself that no matter what it is you’re trying to achieve, you’re just not there yet, the hope stays alive and the dream lives on. I’ve tried this several times and it’s been extremely powerful, especially when pushing for things that seem impossible. Basically don’t ever tell yourself that you can’t. Just not yet :). 

Adding on to the topic of growth mindset, complimenting people for their effort and dedication instead of the results or outcomes.  Part of having a growth mindset includes realizing that it’s about the journey not the destination. That is especially true when it comes to academics. Parents & teachers need to realize that the effort and dedication students put in, matters just as much or even more than the results produced. The skill of pushing yourself and working hard is something to be admired and can help you in every aspect of your life. 

Stress and anxiety often occur as a result of uncontrolled thought patterns. Essentially overthinking. From my own experience of dealing with intense project weeks and exams, I’ve learnt a few tricks that helped me get through them. The most important in my opinion, is staying present. When you have a deeper understanding of the Now, you’ll learn to accept that overthinking is just thinking about things that don’t really exist. When you have a certain amount of time to get something done, give it your best within the present moment. There’s no use worrying about how little time you have left or how much work there is to do. All you have is right now, so use that to your advantage. Cultivate a belief system and program your mind to make the most of the time you currently have. When you can filter your energy and time into that, instead of overthinking, you’ll be able to achieve all that you need. There’s also no use in stressing over things out of your control, so whenever you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, always start with recognition. Once you learn to acknowledge the feeling, accept it, write it down and let it go. Clear your thoughts and get back on the grind. Watch a motivational video or do something that’ll help distract you in a positive way, such as exercising or reading. 

Another trick I learnt, was changing my mindset towards stress. I like to think of stress as my body’s way of getting me ready to take action, gearing up. Whenever you realize you’re stressed, think of it as a reminder to get things done. When you form a healthier relationship with stress, it definitely helps you deal with it better. 

I’ve discussed the difference between a growth and fixed mindset, where the former allows you to constantly seek challenges to grow & the latter makes you feel threatened by obstacles and difficulties. How we should change the way we compliment people and focus more on the effort, rather than the results. How stress can be your friend and just a simple change in perspective can go a long way in dealing with the infamous feeling. I’ll end off with another brilliant quote that I love:

“We suffer not from the events that occur to us, but rather our perception of them.”