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As part of our exclusive well-being series, Dr Rosie introduces us to mindfulness when working from home. Feelings of isolation, anxiety & emotional labour can take it’s toll but there are practical exercises to support you through.

In the first blogs of this series we looked at what anxiety is, why it might be high for you at the moment, and how mindfulness can help. Over the next couple of weeks, I want to take a deeper look at some situations where anxiety might make life difficult for us and suggest some practical exercises for you to try. Today I am focusing on working from home, but these examples will also be relevant to you if you have been trying to run a household, business or apply for jobs from home.

Working from home WITH kids

If you had a job or a business during this pandemic and you have children there is a good chance you have experienced the horror of trying to combine your work life with your duties as chief entertainer, chef, home-school teacher and parent. For many of us this brings a level of stress that you can feel taking over your body from the moment you wake up.

If you have been doing this, I am very impressed by you. Even if your mind tells you that you haven’t done “enough.” You are a hero.

Multitasking and clashing values

The reason it is hard to feel like a hero when we are forced to multitask in this way is because you end up with clashing values.

For example, you might ordinarily pride yourself on being a hard worker, and also pride yourself on being an attentive parent (think back to Sukie).

When working from home with kids running around it is impossible to do both well at the same moment.

On top of that, even more fundamental things can start to clash.

For example, you might work because you want a certain standard of living for your kids, but you might also believe education is critically important. If you have a business and you spend all your time home schooling, you won’t make enough money to maintain your standard of living. If you spend all your time working you will feel like education isn’t enough of a priority. So you can see how (even more than usual) the realities of working from home with children make it very hard to meet all of your priorities.

Your brain is likely to detect this as a threat. It will notice that there is an obstacle in the way of you doing what you want to do and so will activate the threat system to give you energy to clear the obstacle (it is expecting a boulder to shift or a tiger to wrestle with).

Comparing yourself to others

When your values clash your mind is likely to become concerned that you might lose your place in the pack if you let your roles “slip”. Our minds are wired up to constantly compare us with other people in order to check that we aren’t at risk of being seen as “useless.” When you are working from home you can’t see all the other parents tearing their hair out so your mind assumes they are getting on fine and that you are the only one“underperforming” at the parenting and working thing. It activates the threat system in case you need to defend your position in the pack.

Scanning for danger

Finally, if your kids are young, there will always be an element of your threat system that is active so that you can respond quickly when they are hovering over the plug socket with a knife and an open cup of water (just mine?) When you are in “parent mode” your threat system is constantly scanning for danger. This works really well for parenting but less well for completing complex work tasks that require focus.

Working from home WITHOUT kids

If you have been working from home without kids you might have noticed some envy from your friends with children. Maybe some people have even implied that “you must be enjoying it”. While some people might appreciate working from home, as a military spouse, in a global pandemic, it is highly likely that it has been challenging. There are some very good reasons for this.

Isolation

We are not meant to be on our own. If you partner is deployed at the moment, or even if they are just going into the
office every day it is likely that you have been facing HUGE stretches of time with no physical interaction with other people. The mind is simply not designed to work this way. Physical proximity to others is one way that the mind activates its soothing system and without other people for protection our threat systems activate. This can show itself as low mood, lack of motivation and tiredness as the mind tries to keep us safe by making us want to stay small and inactive, or it can show up as anxiety, agitation and panic, if the mind thinks the best strategy is to get ready to fight or flight.

Hierarchy

You are suddenly plunged into a world where it is much harder to read the body language of the people you work with. Zoom takes away a large part of our ability to communicate without words. The few people you see day to day (maybe in shops etc) are also likely to be wearing face masks which make it very difficult to interpret how they feel towards us. The mind is obsessed with checking our place in the pack isn’t suffering and as a result it is primed to constantly look for clues in peoples’ body language and facial expressions about how much they like and value us. If it cannot get the reassurance it is craving it is highly likely to activate the threat system to keep you on your guard so you can protect yourself if you are “challenged”.

Lack of routine

Humans need a bit of stability in life in order to thrive. Of course some people love a rigid routine while others go with the flow a bit more but most people have some sort of pattern to their life that they find reassuring. If you have children, even in a pandemic, you are forced to maintain some of this pattern. They will still need feeding and putting to bed at similar times each day even if the rest of your routine has gone away. If you do not have children however it is perfectly possible to slip into a routine-less void when all of your normal structures, working hours, coffee shop stops etc are taken away.

I know that when my husband was deployed and I didn’t have kids it would not be uncommon for me to eat crisp sandwiches for tea because I’d forgotten to cook and it was 10pm already… This can make it difficult for your drive system in two ways. You may find that your drive system just never switches off because your desire to “do better” gets even stronger when you don’t have a great quality of life (which most of us don’t at the moment). Without the normal cues of driving home from work, cooking dinner etc that normally tell your drive system to switch off for the night you might find yourself working longer hours than normal and thinking about work constantly.

Alternatively, you may find that without the normal signals that the work day is starting and without positive feedback from your peers or bosses your drive system just never gets going at all. This could leave you feeling unmotivated and like you don’t have the energy to do your job.

How homeworking can upset your balance

All of this threat can make your drive system react strangely. Some people find that the threat and drive system start working together. This is where you feel you CANNOT stop DOING activities (could be work, parenting related or something else) because you feel agitated and uncomfortable in yourself. Sometimes you may even feel that something bad will happen if you do. Other people find that the mind switches off drive completely as a safety mechanism. The mind works out there is a lot of threat going on so thinks it is safest to keep you small and inactive so a predator won’t notice you.

Whatever your drive system is doing it is likely that your soothing system isn’t as active as it needs to be and that the threat system has become too strong.

Exercises to try to restore your balance

If you are feeling low and unmotivated – activate your routine and drive system

  1. Pick four points in the day where you usually have the freedom to decide what you do (can be with or without kids)
  2. Choose one activity that gives you a sense of achievement (this could be creating something like a piece of art, baking a cake with the kids (huge achievement for me) or practicing a new skill.
  3. Choose one activity that you can do mindfully (see last weeks blog for tips)
  4. Choose one activity that is pure pleasure for you (could be a TV box set, time with a novel, watching a movie, anything you really enjoy)
  5. Choose one activity that encourages connection (could be a zoom call with a friend or family member, dinner with your partner (if they are here) high quality social media time in a group that you value or a real life coffee if you can)
  6. Schedule these in to the four time slots you identified. Be realistic, if you are only going to have 15 minutes then make your time slot 15 minutes. These will become the anchor points of your day. Consider them non-negotiable and set alarms/timers to make sure they happen.
  7. Each time you do an activity record it in your phone notes and give it a score out of ten for how enjoyable it was and how proud of yourself you felt.

If you can’t switch off the drive and threat systems – activate the soothing system with movement

One of the best ways to “reset” an overactive drive and/or threat system is to activate the soothing system. A great way to achieve it is to connect with our bodies. If you are on your own doing some mindful exercise such as yoga or mindful running is a very good idea. I very much struggle with an overactive drive system myself so will make time when my children are asleep to do some mindful yoga or other exercise and, even if I’m not keen before I get started, the benefits are always very noticeable. If you are particularly struggling with sleep it is great to do something more intense in the morning (like mindful running) and something less intense in the evening (like ten minutes of yoga) as this will provide a cues for your mind about when you are and are not working as well as working with the rhythms of your body to promote good sleep.

Exercising mindfully

  1. Pick an anchor (for running I usually use the foot strike, my breathing or something in the environment like the air on my face or sun on my back, for yoga it might be the earth beneath your feet and/or the breath going in to the belly)
  2. Move your body – notice the impact on your anchor
  3. Gently return your focus to your anchor every time the mind wanders (which it will)
  4. Repeat!

It is important when exercising mindfully not to allow yourself to set a goal that is threat based. For example, if we run with the intention of losing weight we are really running because we don’t like our current self. This will activate threat (and possibly drive) but not soothing. However, if we run because we love our body and want it to be healthy that can be a mindful and helpful activity.

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Emily Foster

RFS was...a platform for spouses who understood my struggles and my challenges. It felt like I came to them in pieces, deflated and very defeated and they (RFS) pieced me back together.

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