Life is slowly returning to a ‘new normal’ after months at a standstill, and while the pandemic and its impact on our lives and mental wellbeing has been hard and, for many, devastating in ways, you might have found the enforced slowing down has been beneficial too.
“This is a great opportunity to stop and think whether the world we left behind when the pandemic had started is worth going back to, or whether we can create a better one,” says Natalia Stanulewicz, a psychology lecturer at De Montfort University.
So if your ‘old life’ was particularly hectic, leaving little time for yourself, perhaps there’s never been a better time to readdress the balance.
A hectic life comes with costs
Before the coronavirus crisis, the world seemed to run with a commonplace sense of urgency and for many people, that filtered into their everyday lives. It might have been completely ‘normal’ for you to be constantly rushing, while feeling frazzled, sleep deprived and stressed.
But are our minds and bodies really designed to keep that sort of pace up? “Operating at a fast pace is largely meant to be a short-term activity,” says Richard Reid, a psychologist and founder of Pinnacle Therapy (pinnacletherapy.co.uk). “Our brains are not fully equipped to deal with [it]. In terms of our evolution, the human brain was largely developed during a time when life was more simple.”
Stanulewicz says the costs of the urgency of modern life on our health and wellbeing are often overlooked, because “productivity and effectiveness in modern times – at work or home – are perceived as the ultimate goals to strive for”.
And there are long-term consequences. She says it can result in “decreased wellbeing and relations with others, reduce work productivity, or lead to higher levels of work absenteeism. Stress is a well-known predictor of coronary disease, various forms of cancer, obesity, anxiety and depression.”
Reid says: “If we operate at this pace too much of the time, then we become increasingly task-orientated, meaning that we no longer derive the same level of pleasure from relationships and smaller experiences. Overtime, this can adversely affect our resilience and our enjoyment of life.”
Mentally slowing down
You may have found that the last few months have given you more headspace to think and reflect on what’s really important. “When we slow down, we are more likely to gain value from the smaller things in our everyday existence, as well as to tune into our sensory experience of the world,” says Reid. “In particular, tapping into our ‘gut feeling’ about situations more, [which] allows us to more proactively manage our general wellbeing, as well as intuition about people and situations.”
He adds that there’s also lots of research showing that being more in the moment promotes greater creativity, focus and emotional intelligence about the needs of others and the impact that we may have upon them.
Physically slowing down
Lockdown has forced us to physically slow down too; for many there’s been more resting, sleeping and walking than usual. So does physically moving slower benefit our wellbeing too? Quite possibly.
Looking at the effects of Tai Chi – a traditional Chinese martial art, which uses slow and mindful motion as a form of exercise – can be helpful when considering this question, says Stanulewicz: “Many studies have documented that engaging in Tai Chi indeed increases wellbeing, which some contribute to the elements of relaxation and mindfulness involved in it.”
The power of nature
It’s likely you were forced to rediscover your local area during lockdown too, with most of us unable to travel further than walking distance from our front doors. Depending on whether or not you live near green space, that might have meant daily walks to local nature spots – a park or the immediate countryside around you. It’s possible that you spent more time stomping through grass and looking up at trees than you ever have before – and there’s real benefit in that.
“There’s a growing body of scientific research that tells us that being in and around nature promotes greater appreciation of the ‘here and now’, which interrupts the brain’s tendency to drift too much towards thoughts about the past or future – both of which can lead to psychological issues when done to excess,” explains Reid.
“There is also a belief that being around nature allows the brain to interact within an environment that harks back to the evolutionary period when the human brain was largely formed, allowing us to operate within our optimum parameters.”
So how can we use the lessons of the last few months to rebalance our lives? Could you spend a bit less time socialising, or share more of the household or childcare responsibilities to create more time for yourself? Could you negotiate longer-term homeworking so you don’t lose time to commuting?
Resetting boundaries around your time is key – try taking some control back and say ‘no’ to something if it doesn’t align with your new slower pace.
“Saying ‘no’ feels selfish, right?” says life and business strategist Michael Cloonan (michaelcloonan.co.uk).”But when it comes to saying ‘no’, I can’t help but think of the aeroplane safety videos which say, ‘If you have children, please make sure you put the oxygen mask on yourself first before them’. What use are we to anybody if we don’t take care of ourselves first? If you’re going to show up for something or someone, you want to be 100%, right?”
The best approach, he says, is to be truthful with your reasoning when saying no to something, and to try to offer an alternative, if you have to, that’s a better fit for you.
Granted, it isn’t necessarily easy to rebalance your life if you have a lot of responsibilities. If family and work are full-on, Cloonan suggests: “Wake up 30-60 minutes earlier, before everyone else gets up, and create some well-deserved time and space to work on your health – both mentally and physically.”
It could be meditation, a walk in a park, reading a book or simply having a slower morning. “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it makes you happy and it’s something that allows you to remain calm and stress-free,” he says.
And you might just find starting the day slowly and calmly sets the the pace of the rest of your day too.