By High Performance Coach and Sport Psychologist Anne Marie Kennedy
Anne Marie has created a self-care tool consisting of ten different strategies. While it may not be possible to implement all of the strategies into your daily life, implementing one or two that suit you may have a substantial impact for you.
The Ten strategies being discussed are:
- Stay Connected
- Label Emotions
- Prioritise Physical Activity and Exercise
- Stay Present
- Practice Mindfulness
- Reframe from disruption to opportunity
1. Stay Connected
‘’As humans, we are social beings, we need that sense of connection. Think about seeking out others, sharing your thoughts and feelings with family, friends, colleagues or gym buddies, teammates, coaches, mentors. It is important that you are as honest and open as possible about how you are feeling so that you can be supported. There is no need for bravado. Vulnerability is a sign of courage. It takes the courageous among us to put their hand up and say we need help. Don’t be afraid to do that, that is not a sign of weakness. There is no perfection here. Nobody has it all figured out. We are all going to make mistakes figuring out how this works for us. Don’t be afraid to make those mistakes. Physical distancing doesn’t mean social isolation. Stay as active and connected as possible. Even if you don’t think you need it. When you do it, you realise how you did need it.’’
You might not be one to share your thoughts and feelings openly – you should consider journaling. Journaling is a self-reflective and also an awareness practice. The theory behind it is; if you don’t know yourself, how can you change. How can you get better?
Journaling is a really good way of figuring out how your mind works, how you are feeling and how you are interpreting and perceiving the world around you. Get a notebook and write down your thoughts and feelings during the day. Random thoughts– whether you had a good or bad day, how you got on in general, what your confidence was like, what your mood and energy levels were like, what you were thinking.
I have an exercise I have been doing lately with my athletes, I call it the Future Self Journal. The question I posed was; give me a paragraph about what you might write in the future. A year from now when you are reflecting on this time, what would you write about in terms of how you coped or how you behaved during this pandemic. If you know what you would like to look back on start implementing some of those changes now. I’ve gone a step further and I’ve asked myself, what will my kids remember about this time because they are at home and taking everything in. What are they observing? What am I teaching them while I am at home? Am I teaching them that it is all busy and stressful? Absolutely not, this is a perfect time to teach your kids how to cope in a crisis. Showing them that it is okay to relax and take a step back and slow down.’’
3. Label Emotions
We are emotional beings as well as social beings. To understand our feelings we have to be able to name them. It can be difficult to name how we are feeling. It takes practice and it takes time and some reflection and self-awareness work.
‘’What I use is called a ‘feel wheel’, it will help you to articulate how you are feeling. I suggest you check in with it a couple of times a day because the feelings are going to be changing depending on the situation. Thoughts are driven by feelings, feelings can be driven by thoughts. If you are an emotional type of person, you want to be able to name the emotion and then you want to be able to understand what thoughts are feeding that. If you are a deep thinker, what are my thoughts and then drilling down into how is that making me feel.
How does the Feel Wheel work?
The core emotions are in the centre of the wheel, choose one or two of the emotions in the inner ring that you closely identify with. Then go to the next ring and identify one or two emotions that you are feeling there. In the outer ring, we are delving into it a bit deeper, there is a list of other emotions to identify with. Once you have identified the feelings, you want to see what is making you feel that way. What thoughts are driving these feelings?
We all hold our emotions in different areas of our body. Some people will hold it in their chest, they may feel tightness and their shoulders will round. Some will hold it in their neck, some will hold it in the jaw or facial muscles. Try to feel where you hold yours. How am I feeling as a result of this? What are my behaviours? If I am feeling fearful, anxious and overwhelmed, how am I behaving because of that? That is a good exercise to do for beginning to process emotions and again you can do that a couple of times a day until you become aware and it will become instinctive the more you do it.’’
4. Prioritise Physical Activity and Exercise
‘’Try to get out for a run or a walk as well as your gym/home workout. Out into the fresh air and green space if you are lucky enough to have one close by. The more physical exercise you do, the better it is for your mental health and wellbeing. Exercise reduces cortisol (the stress hormone) levels in the body. Understand the levels of physical activity that you are doing might differ right now and that’s okay. If you are used to getting into the gym to work out every day and you are feeling frustrated now because of constraints, it is not an all or nothing right now. There are no absolutes. Bring it back to compassion and being kind to yourself. If you can only get in two to three sessions a week that is fine. If you don’t feel up to it any particular night, listen to your body. You will feel better once you are acknowledging yourself rather than resisting and avoiding. It is going to be different. But it is important to keep it up, it is so good for us.’’
5. Stay Present
Staying present means being in the moment, being here and now. All we have control of is right now – every present moment is the only thing that you control. Try and check into that present moment as often as possible. The easiest way to be present is to connect with your breathing. It is the most effective tool to relax the mind. If you find that your mind is overactive or that you are worrying a lot or find that you are feeling anxious and stressed, the most effective way to calm yourself is to consciously breath.
‘’I have two breathing exercises that I use all of the time with my athletes. The first one is to box breath. I use it and I suggest my athletes use the box breath just before a performance. I use it to concentrate and get focused.
Close your eyes, take a big deep breath in and out to clear the lungs. We are breathing through our nose keeping our mouth closed. Inhale for 4, Hold for the count of 4, exhale for 4 and hold for 4. Start the process again, imagining the box and continue the process.
The counting is what keeps the attention in the brain. When your brain is connected to counting the breath, despite how complex the brain is it cannot do anything else but connect to the breath.
The second exercise is the belly breath, I use the belly breath on a daily basis in order to reset my nervous system. We naturally or instinctively belly breath. We are born belly breathing.
- On the inhale, inhale through your nose and push out your belly, (it feels quite unnatural, to begin with, over time you will get used to it), exhale and draw the belly into the spine. ’’I have an alarm on my phone so every hour my alarm goes off and that triggers me to belly breath. I do five belly breaths and that keeps my nervous system in check. That means that I am telling my brain that I’m safe, there is no threat here, everything is calm and composed. The more your body is in that state, the more it will instinctively want to be in that state.’’
6. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is different from breathing although you can have breathing meditations. Mindfulness meditation is different from breathing because it is more concerned with that concentration and attention. It is a great brain training tool. We are talking about concentration and attention, increasing your capacity to learn but more importantly we are looking at that emotional regulation and control.. If you are not practising mindfulness or some sort of wellness technique you cannot increase your mental fitness. ‘’All that is required right now is five minutes per day. Five minutes sounds very simple but it’s not easy, it is very difficult work, but well worth it. A few apps that you can check out are Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer, Stop Breath and Think, there are a lot of different apps and there are different types of meditation so don’t give up if you have done one and you don’t like it – keep trying to find something that works for you.’’
Play is really important. Not just for children, we need to find ways to have fun and laughter in our lives now more than ever. ‘’Play is a priority for me and not just because I have children. It is a priority anyway. Life is tough and it is difficult and challenging and there are a lot of demands on us.’’
We must find a release. You must be able to power down and have a bit of fun.
The brain resets during sleep – it is our mental recovery. Sleep boosts our immune system and it is needed for physiological growth and repair. We know from research that in general, we are not getting enough sleep. If you can start incorporating some extra sleep into your routine right now, you will be the better for it. You will know yourself that if you haven’t gotten the sleep that you need, your mood is down. The number one indicator of performance is mood.
Good sleep hygiene needs to be actively planned into our schedules
8. Try to go to sleep and wake up at roughly the same time
2. You need the room to be nice and cool
3. You don’t want to over-activate the brain at night time. Try not to have your phone in your bedroom at night or at least put your phone away between 30minutes to an hour before going to sleep.
9. Reframe from Disruption to Opportunity
The ability to retrain and reframe our minds to see things differently is a good mental skill. We see the world, not as it is but as we are, we perceive the world as a reflection of ourselves. You may see the world one way but that doesn’t mean that that is the only way. There are different perspectives and perceptions out there and we need to be able to accept that.
Every situation is an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and to make this a period of growth. The psychology research refers to the difference between a challenge and a threat mindset. That is also a fixed and growth mindset. We see the world as we feel. If you perceive threat in the world, you are going to live your life through threat. If you perceive fear, you are going to live your life through fear. It is very important that we look at changing our perceptions. Keeping an open mind and being able to reframe from negative to positive, from disruption to opportunity. The key is to find meaning during this time is finding new outlets.
The brain defaults at negative, it does that because the brain is not designed to keep us happy or winning golf majors or all Irelands or anything like that. The brain is simply designed to keep us alive. We are prudent, we will look for all of the risks, we will look at the negatives – in a sense trying to protect ourselves. When we express gratitude, it is the opposite of that. Gratitude is a skill we can develop by acknowledging all the good things in our lives and being thankful for what we have and for each other.
Start a gratitude journal. Create a habit of writing at least one good thing you are thankful for every day. At the end of the week acknowledge three good things that happened and find a way to recreate it. You will be surprised how much that will motivate you then to do it the next time.