Taking Care of No. 1

Post date: 19-Nov-2010 19:29:32

Modern society, and perhaps Irish society in particular, takes a dim view of selfish behaviour. In Ireland we even have a colloquial name for it “Mé Féinism”. In the midst of the current (seemingly unending) crisis where we see tangible evidence of the harm done to many through the greed of a few, this abhorrence of self-motivated action is perhaps more justified than ever.

However, there is a certain form of self-interested behaviour which delivers value not only to the individual but also to their wider community and that is self-care. The simplest illustration of this truth is contained in the safety instructions of any commercial flight. It goes along these lines; “in the case of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will fall from the overhead compartments. Adults travelling with young children should attend to their own mask first.” This familiar and seemingly innocuous statement is both critical and profoundly true. In the case of sudden loss of pressure, you could have as little as 5 – 7 seconds of consciousness (depending on altitude) within which to take the appropriate action. This brings into stark perspective the absolute imperative of taking care of your own mask first, so that you remain conscious and functioning long enough to assist those around you.

I contend that in this respect, life is actually like that airline flight. Unless we take care of our own well-being, we are incapacitated from taking care of those around us. Therefore everyone has a responsibility to self first. This is even more acutely true if you are a parent, a manager, a coach or basically anyone on whom others rely for support, care or even simple friendship!

With that in mind, I have a few tips and techniques that I have found hugely helpful over the years and I strongly recommend that you try them out and keep the ones that work for you. Similarly if you have tried and tested techniques, please share – the more resources we have at our fingertips in this regard, the better.

One of the first manifestations of stress in our lives is physical tension in our bodies. While we all hold tension in different ways, for very many of us it is our neck that bears the brunt! We even talk about difficult situations giving us “a pain in the neck” and we talk about being “uptight”, which is a pretty accurate description of what happens as our neck muscles contract and our shoulders start to creep up towards our ears!

Of course a lovely head, neck and back massage can do the trick nicely to release some of this physical tension but let’s face it, in times when many of us are busier than ever (therefore time poor) and earning less than previously (therefore cash poor), professional massage is strictly off the list of necessities. Hence we need something quicker and cheaper that can be effectively self administered.

There are a plethora of good exercises for releasing neck tension and one I like for its simplicity is this:

  • Hold your hand flat with the thumb in line with the fingers

  • Place it across the back of your neck and grasp as much of the muscles on your neck as you can, using the heel of your palm on one side and the tips of your fingers on the other

  • Squeeze firmly

  • Keeping a firm hold with your hand, gently tilt the tip of your nose up and down a few times

  • Release and relax

  • Repeat with the other hand

This is an extremely quick, easy and effective way of releasing the neck. It’s great when you’re feeling tired – at your desk during the day or on the sofa when you’ve collapsed at the end of it. It can be done literally anywhere, requiring no special clothing or environment so it’s a really versatile tool to have in your self-care kit.

Another impact of neck tension is that impairs effective breathing. If you have any doubt about the truth of this statement, try this: As you’re sitting and reading this now, collapse your neck allowing the back of your head to collapse onto your shoulders and your chin to jut out. Now take a deep breath. Now elongate your neck by lifting the backs of your ears towards the ceiling and tucking your chin in slightly. Take another deep breath. The difference in capacity and ease is immediately apparent.

With that in mind, releasing your neck tension regularly to stop it accumulating into a chronic condition delivers a double whammy – less of a pain in the neck and more lung capacity for taking in life and energy-giving oxygen!

While on the topic of breathing, there is a simple breathing technique which I have mentioned in previous blogs and is worth reiterating. It is known in Yoga as the Breath of Tranquillity and it is taught to emergency responders as an antidote to the “fight or flight” response which is triggered by situations we perceive as threatening (such as constant fear of economic disaster).

It is as simple as this:

  • breathe in counting to four,

  • hold counting two,

  • breathe out counting four,

  • pause counting two,

  • repeat.

This is an excellent tool for calming the emotions, clearing the mind and counteracting the fight or flight response triggered by stress and challenging situations. Again, it is one that can be done anywhere without anyone being aware of it. It’s particularly good as you walk to or from work (even if the walk only takes you from your car to the building) as you can time the counting to synchronise with your steps. This simple practice (done regularly) gives us a sense of immediate control, enhances our breathing, releases our “relaxation response” (the evolutionary response to reverse the physiological impact of the better known “fight or flight” response) and also assists in calming our thinking. The latter impact being an expression of the simple truth that for the few moments we are internally counting, we cannot be continuing our internal monologue on how terrible life is!

My final tip for today involves how to cope with other people’s Negativity. Most of us know at least one person (and some of us know many) who is consistently negative – everything is a problem, they see the worst case scenario in every situation, and as someone recently put it to me – they literally suck the energy out of a room as soon as they enter it. The best advice when you encounter someone like this is to avoid them – for your own health and sanity. However this isn’t always possible (or desirable), they may be a colleague or a boss in which case changing jobs might seem an extreme reaction. Or they may be family, in which case avoiding them long-term has other more serious consequences for the sometimes fragile family dynamics.

The good news is that there is another technique for spending time with negative people without letting it get to you. What I recommend is carrying a large, bullet proof glass screen with you. Of course for practical purposes and for reasons of discretion, I recommend that this be an imaginary screen rather than the physical object itself ;-) It is nonetheless surprisingly effective. The next time you are in the presence of someone you usually find draining, visualise dropping a glass screen between you (much as the shutters on a shop come down at night). You can still see them, hear them, offer sympathy and empathy but all their crap stays on their side of the screen and you walk away as light as you were when you started the encounter.

So that’s my essential self-care tool kit. Release your neck, breathe with tranquillity and protect your own space (and head) from other people’s negativity. If you try even one of these, I’m confident you’ll enjoy some benefits and the combination is mega!

Stay strong, stay positive and enjoy.