The 10 biggest barriers to peace of mind in 2021

Call it what you will, peace of mind, inner peace, sanity, contentment, serenity – that feeling of freedom from when your brain just won’t shut up and in bad moments you feel only marginally less negative about the world and others than you do about yourself.

In a world full of fear about the pandemic, your job, financial stress, the planet, walking home late at night, whether your kids are safe, the next interest rate rise or maybe that secret we pray never sees the light of day, most of would rather spend time with a sustained, quiet satisfaction than on a speedboat with champagne and celebrities.

It’s a different feeling from ‘happiness’ – though most of want that too.

Happiness is great but in truth it is usually a passing state, although certainly one to be grateful for. Nobody is happy all the time and if they claim to be, well, good luck to them. Contentment or peace of mind is true freedom. So how do we break the chains that hold us back from freedom of the mind in 2021? Here are some ideas.

Worrying excessively about Covid

By this we don’t mean to say it’s not a real thing, actually, quite the opposite. When we accept the evidence of reliable and dour scientists and public health experts and just do what they suggest, the surprising effect is we have less to worry about. That’s because we are not fighting it anymore – and fighting is very often based in worry and fear. We suggest keeping yourself, your family and your workplaces as Covid-safe as reasonably possible, doing what is asked by authorities – and outside of that, concentrate on living your life. Make your time count for and with those that matter.

Too much screen time

If scrolling through Facebook a few times each day, or news websites, makes you feel connected, or if you have Netflix and just wanna chill, good for you, do it. But if you do it again, and again (and again), sorry to break it to you, but you are not living a healthy life. Period. And as for social media being sociable? Give me a break, Facebook is about as ‘social’ as a phone plan “cap” that somehow makes you spend more. When used for a specific task, with time limits, social media can be fun and creative but used unconsciously and habitually it is empty, pretend connection. Hit the X on that tab and go get some real face-time with friends, or write someone a letter. If they are across oceans, ring them up to talk and if you can, start saving to go see them.

Putting up with financial stress

No, we are not about to suggest some wealth maximisation (aka get-rich quick) scheme. We are suggesting that continuing to live with worries about money is going to make you sick and/or keep you that way. Financial stress is the biggest stressor for people in the United States and Australia, and as yet, employers aren’t doing much about that – although that is sure to change as corporate wellbeing programs catch up. In the meantime, do something about your low financial literacy, learn how to keep and stick to a budget, learn how to be mindful with money. Do something about your fears over money. Be grateful for what you already have rather than always wanting more. Try to stop spending money you don’t actually have yet with too-easy tools like Afterpay or ‘pay-on-demand’. If you really need more money, then take some action: study, look for a different job and if you have the time maybe do some more work in the evenings or at weekends.

Comparing yourself to others

When did this very human trait ever work out really well? Everybody has a bad day and sometimes everyone just looks fitter, richer, like they have more friends or are just more ‘together’. They might be, but they may have very serious problems you cannot see on the surface. You might see someone worse off and feel grateful, but deep down you may also feel a bit empty from witnessing someone else’s suffering. And why were you comparing in the first place? Perhaps from a lingering sense ‘is this all there is’? Stop distracting yourself from your own life and try practicing gratitude every day. It’s not hard it just takes commitment. Write a gratitude list. World famous monk David Steindl-Rast suggests we can only be happy when we are grateful and we can do this by reflecting on the valuable things in life that we have been given – not things we paid for or earned. Watch his wonderful TED Talk on gratitude here.

Caring too much about others

Kindness is a really nice quality at face value, we need more of it in the world. But if you secretly wish you didn’t have to do so much for others, or expect something in return for your good deeds you may be just be avoiding the difficult reality of your life and even co-dependent. Co-dependence is a word similar to the phrase ‘Global Warming’, in that it sounds much friendlier than what it actually is. Global warming is really dangerous climate instability, which is a bit more than feeling cosy in winter. Co-dependence is adjusting your behaviours to please others, no matter the cost to your wellbeing. People who think co-dependence is healthy are usually thinking of interdependence. “The healthiest way we can interact with those close to us,” according to Barton Goldsmith of Psychology Today, “is by being truly interdependent. This is where two people, both strong individuals, are involved with each other but without sacrificing themselves or compromising their values.”

Being busy, staying busy

If you need something done, as the saying goes, ask a busy person. While you’re at it, give them a gold star but whatever you do, just don’t ask them how their mental health is. If you are busy all the time, what is all that white noise doing inside your head? Do you feel calm, at peace? Never forget you are a human being not a human doing. Busy-ness can feed anxiety, that nagging chatter in your brain that undermines your self-esteem. You need to stop, at least once a day, take stock, and rest with your own thoughts. Try mindfulness meditation as a way of learning to still the mind and accept your thoughts without judgement. From that you may learn it’s ok to be still and that you are still valuable – perhaps even more valuable – if you don’t do quite so much. You’ll probably be easier to be around too.

Staying in a job where you don’t want to excel

Maybe it’s because you aren’t respected, the boss just cut staff numbers, or froze wages again but parks his new sports car in the basement. Maybe you are doing law or medicine or IT because you think it makes your parents happy. Whatever the reason, you feel resentful at work but you stay anyway, usually because you think financially you are trapped, or that a career change would disrupt your life too much. But getting stuck in a job you hate is a slow death of the soul, one that invariably impacts on your mood and can lead to acting out with (or internalising) anger or with impulse spending or even addiction. Plus you just may be holding yourself back from a bright new chapter in your life. How will you ever know if you don’t try? At least allow yourself to dream or brainstorm what might make you a happier person.

Treat your grudge like a tiny kitten

Who isn’t angry deep down about someone who harmed them in some way? Not everyone, sure, but a lot of people. If you get into a pattern of almost protecting that grudge every day, even nurturing it, guess what – it’s going to grow. After a while you’ve held it so close that you begin showing it off, like an 8 year old with new roller skates. A resentment is not a pet, it’s a poison. Ever heard the saying ‘holding a resentment is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to get sick?’ It kinda is. Take action to deal with your resentment, work out your part in it, talk to them with a will to build bridges. And remember honesty without compassion is cruelty, or at least an invitation to an argument.

Doing nothing if you know you have a problem

You know what I’m talking about. That anger you hold, your unprocessed grief, your money problems (whether spending too much, ‘under-earning’ or just ignoring finances), your pattern of bad relationships, your secret addiction or unhealthy behaviour. In recent years , Prince Harry has come out about the effect hiding his sadness about the effect of Princess Diana. “I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well,” London’s Telegraph reported Harry as saying. Nobody is perfect or strong enough to deal with life’s train wrecks on their own. Pretending to be fine is going to stop working at some point, perhaps disastrously. But then what? Don’t waste any more time, start right away. There are different price points for counselling and support groups for all kinds of life issues from eating disorders to post-traumatic stress. No matter what you think of yourself deep down, you deserve help. Imagine someone saying you didn’t deserve help – how would you react? So step outside your own head and go help that person – you.

Accepting reality

We touched on it above a few times: ignoring and resisting problems actually causes more grief and suffering than facing them. That’s easy to say when it’s not us having that excruciating conversation, such as asking your lender for a hardship variation on your mortgage, or laying out the facts to the boss who doesn’t like you why you really do deserve a raise, or admitting to your partner that you haven’t been entirely honest. Yes, uncomfortable conversations are difficult and painful. Especially when they are with ourselves. That might include actually following through to construct a budget and seeing the source of your financial problems. But after the conversation is over, you have the beginnings of new, much healthier behaviours and habits. Yes, you have to follow through and things might get harder before they get easier, but you no longer be need to be burdened the solvable problems. You just need to get moving and do something, beginning with the smallest of steps. The most important of those is to get real. Pretending that truly unsustainable situations – whether emotionally, financially, mentally or physically are fine and don’t need to change will just cause you unnecessary pain and drama. Being real can sometimes hurt a bit, but as a way of thinking and understanding the world it’s both a relief and an effective change to make.

If you are experiencing distress in your life and live in Australia call: Lifeline 131114, Mensline 1300789978 or Beyond Blue 1300224636; regarding debt problems, the National Debt Helpline may be of use on 180 0007 007 , or go here for a list of hotline numbers relating to different crises.

Six great New Year’s Resolutions to improve your finances in 2021

These days we know there is a correlation between our financial wellbeing and our general wellbeing. We know that toxic levels of financial stress impacts us in many different ways, it affects our relationships, our self-esteem, our social life, our productivity at work, even our physical health.

That’s why it’s appropriate to set New Year’s Resolutions for our finances — and also our related behaviours.

There’s every chance 2021 will be another tough year with COVID still a major problem, with businesses under pressure, unemployment a big worry and a wide range of ongoing social impacts. Uncertainty and fear only add to the unavoidable problems presented by the pandemic: we still need to have positive goals and intentions for 2021, then deal with what happens as it happens.

Here are some suggestions to help you kick off 2021 in a positive way.

BECOME SELF-AWARE OF YOUR FINANCIAL POSITION

A great way to break through the murkiness of money problems is to answer some simple no-nonsense questions. Even if it’s a little scary, you should be clearer afterwards and probably more motivated too.

  1. Are your savings going up or down? What direction are your finances are headed in?
  2. Have you had trouble paying basic bills and/or making normal repayments?
  3. What are your financial goals?
  4. Do you fully understand your finances?
  5. Are you ok with being in the same position financially a year from now? Five years from now?
  6. Do you ever feel distracted because of your finances, including during work hours?
  7. How often do you spend money on things you don’t need and/or aren’t healthy for you? When did I last do this? How many times in the past month has this happened?
  8. Are you financially healthy but feel stressed and/or down about it anyway? Why is that?
  9. Do you ever experience conflict or feel anger because of your finances?
  10. What steps are you taking to address your financial issues? If none, what is holding you back?

Spend at least 30 minutes on this and try to share the answers with someone you trust, and also put your answers into a journal so you can refer to them later.

TRACK YOUR SPENDING

“Spend less, save more” is on just about everyone’s list of New Year’s Resolutions, ever year. It’s a great goal, but a more specific objective that will help you work towards that goal is to carefully track all your spending – on a daily basis. Use an app, or write it down on paper – whichever suits you best.

Do it for a week, then a month. Clear patterns will emerge which will help you to keep a realistic budget. Keep doing it – this is one of the best habits anyone who feels financial stress can build.

REDUCE THE NOISE

There are just too many distractions in the world today. To have any hope of living more mindfully, and sustaining financial resilience and overall wellbeing, we need to reduce the white noise in life. Here are some suggestions:

  • Reduce your social media use. Cut back and make the time you spend on social media more meaningful. For example, congratulate friends on life events and achievements instead of getting dragged into debates. Post pictures and stories of something you are proud of. If you really struggle with social media, turn off notifications and set digital wellbeing timers.
  • Be wary of online news. There’s an old saying that still holds true in the news business: if it bleeds, it leads. News organisations have a vested interest in bad news and scandals and that cannot be good for anyone’s state of mind. Be aware of that before you click: news sites count on a natural human curiosity to witness dramatic events.
  • Plan your distractions. It’s ok to switch off and escape mentally for a while, in fact it’s essential with the pressures in life. Plan ahead for how to ‘escape’ and make an agreement with yourself to eliminate or minimise unhealthy behaviours and stick to your limits. For example, watching a movie or two episodes of your favourite Netflix show is very different from bingeing until 2am. Try one glass of wine on a Friday instead of two each night. Listen to a podcast on a walk instead of snacking.
  • Monitor and reduce screen use. Are you seeing far more human faces on screens than in person? Does your screen use feel compulsive? Do you wish you could turn something off but can’t seem to? Do you have blurred vision, neck pain, headaches, irritability and trouble sleeping? These are all signs of excessive screen time.
  • Don’t reply to everyone. It was true of email 10 years ago and it’s true of all forms of digital communication today. We are not saying ignore people in need, but answer what you have to. You can’t always please everyone.
  • Aim for 5 minutes of complete silence each day. No screens, no music, no audio at all, no talking. Yes, it’s an old-fashioned idea but just try: it’s powerful. In that 5 minutes notice how your body feels.

UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU CANNOT CHANGE

Resisting or trying to control things that are not in our direct control is the cause of a lot of human misery. What does this have to do with financial resilience? A lot of people spend money to change the way they – or someone else – feels.

Understanding what you can’t change takes practice. Give this a try: can you actually change the fact that COVID is still in play and affecting your suburb and your company? Of course not.

Here are some other things you also cannot directly change:

  • Other people’s opinions and decisions;
  • Other people’s behaviours, including their flaws, habits and problems;
  • Final decisions and rulings made by companies, and governments;
  • The job market;
  • The housing or rental market;
  • The cost of buying anything;
  • Money that has already been spent; and
  • Debts that have been fairly accrued.

What do you think you have been trying to change that is actually beyond your direct control?

Here’s a list of things that we can change (even if it is difficult to do so):

  • Our own decisions and opinions;
  • Our own behaviours and how we react (including good and bad habits);
  • How we spend our time;
  • Our loneliness, including any tendency to repeat our mistakes (we can ask for help);
  • What we spend our money on;
  • Our level of savings and the direction of our finances;
  • Our financial literacy;
  • Debts that have been unfairly/illegally accrued

TAKE HAVING FUN MORE SERIOUSLY

True, it seems counter-intuitive to be “serious” about fun. What we really mean is to make having fun a priority. There is some science that shows how important fun is:

  • It improves relationships;
  • It relaxes and makes us more confident;
  • It is good for our health – reducing potentially harmful hormones like cortisol and noradrenalin and improving our immune system response;
  • Fun invariably leads to laughter, which also has a host of positive physiological affects including raising mood;
  • It improves satisfaction levels at home and in the workplace.

So how do we have more fun? Try thinking of fun as “play”.

Play isn’t just important for children, though it’s often best with children. Play with your kids, get down on the ground with them – inside or outside. In their fort, in the dirt. It’s good for everyone involved.

If you don’t have kids, play with your dog. If you don’t have a dog, sing bad 80s music at the top of your lungs, jump in the ocean regularly, rediscover things you loved doing as a teenager. Push yourself out of your comfort zone a little, perhaps with dancing, or taking up a craft or hobby that sounds enjoyable to you.

Gentle exercise, especially when shared with others, is often good fun. It doesn’t have to be competitive – that’s a personal decision: some people find competition fun, some don’t. Go with your gut.

Whatever you do for fun, make it regular – at least once a week.

MAKE SELF-CARE A DAILY HABIT

Self-care is being written about here, there and everywhere for a reason: it’s not just a cliché or a passing fad. It’s a very broad term to cover the actions that keep your mind and body healthy. Here are 12 suggestions for valuable self-care that anyone can do:

  1. Face up to basic responsibilities, like booking doctors and dentist appointments;
  2. Keep your receipts for tax time. Your self-esteem will grow, and you will feel more in control;
  3. Exercise at least 3 times a week, even if you can’t face high-intensity activity. Just go for long walks;
  4. Don’t eat mindlessly, think about your food. Avoid huge servings, especially late at night. Eat more vegetables than processed foods. Sugary snacks and drinks are not your friends! They are bad for your teeth and lead to weight gain;
  5. Go to bed on time and at the same time each night. 7-8 hours’ sleep is about right, less or more might affect your health;
  6. Do a quick mindfulness exercise each day. Guided meditations are easiest and often free on YouTube or apps;
  7. Get out of your own head by helping others.
  8. Always have something to look forward to a holiday, a dinner, a movie, a concert, especially something that ‘makes the heart sing’;
  9. Find a community you identify with – separate from work and family – and connect with them at least once a week.
  10. Reach out to trusted friends when you feel lonely. It’s never a burden to hear from a friend expressing their vulnerability, it actually builds trust.
  11. Set aside an hour each week for honest self-reflection: look at your progress with your finances and on your goals, assess your self-care and bad habits, estimate your screen time. Are you having enough fun? Or too much? Are you wrestling with things you can’t change? Record these facts, thoughts and feelings in the same place each week.
  12. Don’t forget to be positive, grateful and kind to yourself!

SET GOALS FOR 2021

Just setting a few modest goals can have positive impacts on our mental wellbeing, as well as the more obvious benefits that come from even partially achieving them.

It’s important to not overwhelm your list with a ‘to-do’ list aimed at transforming every area of your life. That is a recipe for beating yourself up. But you should put some thought and some detail into the few that you do come up with.

The SMART acronym – Specific, Measurable, Achievable (or Action-oriented), Realistic (or Relevant) and Timely – is a popular, effective and useful tool for goal setting.

Here are some steps for goal setting:

  1. Reflect on what you have learnt from 2020;
  2. Reflect on what worked well for you in 2020;
  3. Try to remember what your goals were this time last year – are they still relevant?;
  4. Think about what story you’d love to tell about your life at the end of 2021;
  5. Brainstorm 6-10 ideas for goals, some hard, some easy;
  6. Trim that list back to 3-4 that feel right and/or really important (don’t pick the 3-4 most difficult!);
  7. Apply the SMART acronym to each; and
  8. For long-term goals, make sure you break them down into smaller goals, e.g. “To save $20,000 and invest” can’t be achieved quickly for someone on an average income. For most people it would only be possible with a series of smaller goals, such as:
    1. Calculate how much you need to save each week to reach your savings goal;
    2. Make a realistic budget of all your expenses;
    3. Work out how much income you need each week to reach the savings goal;
    4. Adjust the savings target if necessary;
    5. Evaluate your progress after 1 week, 3 and 6 weeks. Make necessary adjustments; and
    6. Seek help and advice on investment options.

Some general tips on goal-setting:

  • Goals work best when they are clear and specific;
  • Having several highly ambitious goals is probably not realistic;
  • Having at least one challenging goal has positives and negatives, but produce better overall results than having only modest goals;
  • Goals need to be reviewed regularly and adjusted accordingly; and
  • When you evaluate your progress and find you are on track, give yourself a modest reward, but not one that undermines your efforts so far.

Happy holidays: stress less with mindfulness this Christmas

Christmas and the holidays are mostly feelgood times. At least the ideas behind them are positive, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t stressful. Clinical Neuropsychologist Dr Michael Takagi, says there’s plenty of evidence to show stress comes from happy occasions too: “Planning a wedding is a joyful, positive occasion, but very stressful. For many people it is overwhelming.

“Christmas is on a smaller scale, but it can be a bit like that. So, can holidays.”

A big issue with positive life events is they usually come with expectations, that’s just human nature, right? It’s normal to expect Christmas to feel familiar, even similar to previous years. It’s also pretty normal to expect gifts from people we are close to. So, what if they forget, or buy something we don’t want? It’s usual too, to expect our holiday will feel relaxing in a way that we want. But what if the holiday cabins you usually book aren’t available, and the alternate choice doesn’t measure up? The family probably complains, that’s what.

It’s important to note that Christmas isn’t positive for everyone. Research done by the Salvation Army in 2018 found that 7.6 million think Christmas is the most stressful time of the year. One in four Aussies experience anxiety at this time, while the same proportion spend more than they can afford.

Could mindfulness help? It’s never been a magic cure for the kinds of issues noted above, but there’s plenty of evidence that shows mindfulness has a positive impact on our mindset and behaviour.

So as long as our expectations are modest, a few basic mindfulness techniques can take the edge off Christmas and holiday stress.

It’s a good idea to do a little unpacking to make your mindfulness techniques effective this Christmas and holiday season, Dr Takagi says anticipating potentially stressful events can improve our chances of reducing stress. So, let’s dig a little deeper. Christmas and the holidays have the capacity to stress us out in several ways:

  1. Financially
  2. At work
  3. The celebration/s
  4. Relationships
  5. Post-holiday blues

Below we’ll look briefly at how mindfulness works and then unpack each of those trigger points.to see how mindfulness can help.

HOW MINDFULNESS WORKS

In a nutshell, by reducing the stress hormones that course through our minds and deactivating the parasympathetic nervous system that sparks the flight, fight or freeze responses. Our muscles relax and loosen, our breathing slows down and becomes deeper. We feel less agitation and can think clearer and make better decisions.

But those effects are the end result not the instructions for getting there.

It’s a misconception that mindfulness is clearing the mind and calming down, though we might get those benefits when we approach mindfulness with a good understanding of what it is.

“A big part of mindfulness is learning to be present in the moment, Dr Takagi says. That is easier said than done, it is normal for your thoughts to wander and go off on a tangent or focus on stressful things in your life. With practice, you learn to bring your thoughts back and stay in the moment.

“What we are trying to do is be aware of how we are feeling, the emotions, the sensations, how the moment is impacting you and acknowledging your reactions are normal.

“Accept your thoughts and feelings without judgement, so for example, if you’re anxious, acknowledge it and reassure yourself that feeling anxious is neither good nor bad. We try not to expect that we should be feeling this way or another way.”

Just accepting your feelings and thoughts and concentrating on your breathing, or relaxing the muscles in your body one at a time, or a very simple visualisation, and letting thoughts go, this can reduce stress. “Feelings and thoughts tend to pass and move on if you let them,” Takagi says.

Why do we need to reduce stress at all? Because continually operating with feelings of stress can interfere with good decision-making. It’s a theme we’ll come back to several times.

FINANCIAL STRESS AND SHOPPING

Situations like rushing to buy presents at the last minute on Christmas Eve, or in a 30-minute lunch break, or having to weave through big crowds to find items in short supply, or trying to tick off a long list of gifts on a budget. These trigger a stress response, even though in evolutionary terms this was obviously not what our stress response was designed to handle.

We are similarly ill-equipped to cope with financial stress, which happens when we experience chronic worry about money.

There’s no doubt stress is a useful immediate reaction for humans in some situations, like, being faced with a life-threatening situation: we can decide under pressure to run, jump, hide, or even fight.  But operating for prolonged periods in a stressed state can lead humans to make bad decisions.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident with spending money as an attempt to quell stress. Research done by Financial Mindfulness in 2017 found financial stress had damaging effects on relationships and our mental health. Things only got worse during COVID-19, with big increases in level of aggression, isolation and distress due to financial stress.

How often do we make spending decisions we regret later? Most people would probably identify with this when they reflect on purchases made without planning – especially with Christmas gifts and Christmas shopping. Overall, we spend far more at Christmas than any other time of the year and it’s growing every year. Roy Morgan Research predicts Christmas period spending in Australia for the six weeks leading up to Christmas Eve will be $54.3 billion, up 2.8 per cent from last Christmas.

‘Mindless’ shopping – where we are not fully aware of our financial position or what it is what really want to buy – can become a vicious cycle whether we are doing it online or at a real ‘bricks and mortar’ store. Spending too much quickly results in financial stress, which creates uncomfortable feelings that we paradoxically deal with by buying more for the quick feelgood hit of dopamine.

“Trying to relieve short term emotional discomfort around money by compulsively purchasing things will compound a difficult financial situation and produce even more stress. Doing a few minutes of mindfulness can stop that cycle and having a mindfulness practice can turn that behaviour around.” Dr Takagi says spending is a behaviour positively impacted by mindfulness and mindful practices.

WORKPLACE STRESS

Everyone knows it: that special kind of pre-Christmas madness in the office. We feel pressured to finish up all projects before going on leave.

If you consider the alternative – leaving projects and tasks half done – the Christmas work rush actually makes a lot of sense. Who really wants work hanging over them while they’re on holiday? It’s as reasonable expectation from our partners and families that we will not be doing work, or obsessed with work, while we are with them on Christmas Day and on holiday.

Dr Takagi says the rush to clear the decks is a big cause of tension and stress at Christmas but it can be difficult to avoid. “Sometimes wrapping everything up before Christmas isn’t reasonable but other times that’s just how it is. It depends on the company, the project and the commitments made.”

Dr Takagi admits being one of the many trying to find extra time to finish work before Christmas. “I’m trying to find an extra half a day each week to finish five different jobs. Yesterday I was writing an email which reminded me to make a phone call and that resulted in sending a different email, I was a bit all over the place and overwhelmed. Then if I’m not mindful a five-minute break turns into half hour and I’m really behind. It’s a really common behaviour to have a ‘quick-fix’ behaviour to deal with uncomfortable feelings that seems to work at the time but has negative consequences later.

“I take short breaks and concentrate on my breathing for a few minutes and that helps me to focus and stick to my priorities. Mindfulness is very good at helping me to make better decisions.”

Here are some questions to ask yourself that might help you get that Christmas rush into perspective:

  • Who wants the project wrapped up, you or your boss?
  • Will the project fail if it isn’t finished before the break?
  • Is this part of a bigger piece of work that will continue well into 2021?
  • Is completion prior to Christmas realistic?
  • Will you be likely to obsess over work, or even dip into it, on holiday if you don’t finish it?
  • Will you be more productive if you go for a week or two without doing any work? Why?

CHRISTMAS CELEBRATIONS

The traditional nature of Christmas plans – whether we gather to celebrate on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Boxing Day – are enough to stress out most hosts.

All indications are that Aussies are that planning to splurge on Christmas gifts and food too this year, to make up for the social distancing and belt-tightening that happened earlier this year due to COVID.

Roy Morgan Research has forecast a massive 10 per cent increase in spending on food, which means crowds, long waits and products selling out across Australia from fish markets and department stores down to local shopping centres.

Heavy spending and a desire to provide guests with ‘the perfect Christmas” without doubt creates pressure which can lead to minor or major conflicts and tension.

Mindfulness can help us in several ways around the actual Christmas celebrations:

  • Planning accurately so we don’t buy too much food and serve so much that we end up throwing food away;
  • Catering to the tastes of all invited guests, not just expecting everyone to eat the same as us;
  • Having clear, simple boundaries around how much we consume so we avoid over-eating and drinking too much;
  • Being clear about the food and drinks we want and need to avoid, i.e. allergens, emotional eating, alcohol if we need to drive home;
  • Taking mindful time-outs if family gatherings are triggering instead of numbing emotions with alcohol and/or drugs; and
  • Sticking to pre-considered time limits at a gathering if we are likely to be triggered by the people present.

RELATIONSHIPS DURING THE HOLIDAYS

Isn’t it sad that one of the best things about Christmas and the holidays – spending time with loved ones – can actually be the first casualty of festive stress?

We all value family harmony highly for good reason. But under high stress we can become difficult to be around, either because we feel angry or because of another behaviour we use to cope – such as drinking alcohol, gambling or taking drugs.

Even without damaging coping strategies, innocuous and unexpected pressures and expectations can arise that can cause tension. “It happens with my sister and I. I love her dearly, but we really know how to push each other’s buttons too, better than anyone else. It’s always great to see each other but we can also drive each other crazy!”

Once upon a time, in decades past, we would have poured an extra drink or taken multiple cigarette breaks to get away from family for a few minutes. But today we have more awareness and better options. Again, Dr Takagi, suggests taking a breather in sustained close proximity to family, perhaps to do a 5-minute progressive muscle relaxation exercise.

It may seem obvious, but given the stresses of any year – especially one with a global pandemic – and the fast-paced closure of the calendar year, we do actually need to relax and recharge before going back to work.

“Stress and relaxation are mutually exclusive,” Dr Takagi says. “You can’t really relax while you are stressed.”

POST-HOLIDAY BLUES

What goes up must come down and we all know that is true of the relaxed sense of wellbeing and calm we get from a great holiday. But we have to come back to earth and face the prospect of returning to work, school and our normal lives.

A good holiday often brings introspection too: we can reflect on how to the good, the bad and the unhelpful behaviours and habits that might have stressed us throughout 2020. For many of us those included:

  • Unhealthy eating, drinking or substance use
  • Compulsive spending, overspending, gambling or shopping
  • Avoidance of our true financial position
  • Overworking or avoidance of work
  • Unresolved relationship issues
  • Thankfully, January always brings the opportunity to start the New Year in a positive way, which means a clear-headed assessment of what might have been holding us back in 2020.

Beginning a mindfulness practice can help us to see and accept reality, perhaps helping us to make form some new plans and take a few small steps towards the kind of 2021 we really want to live.

After all, we could probably all do with a better year after 2020!

The 10 biggest barriers to peace of mind in 2017

Call it what you will, peace of mind, inner peace, sanity, contentment – that feeling of freedom from when your brain just won’t shut up and in bad moments you feel only marginally less negative about the world and others than you do about yourself.

In a world full of fear about war, your job, paying the rent, the planet, relationships, walking home late at night, whether your kids are safe, the next interest rate rise or that secret we pray never sees the light of day, most of would rather spend time with a sustained, quiet satisfaction than on a speedboat with champagne and celebrities. It’s a different feeling from ‘happiness’ – though most of want that too.
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The Power of apps for improving mental health

The idea that an app could replace face-to-face doctor’s appointments or be recommended over prescribed treatments for mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety is abhorrent to most of us.

But there is evidence that digital solutions are having such positive effects they could soon be a key part of treatment plans for anyone needing ongoing help for mental health issues.

“A third of doctors in the US prescribe digital services, ranging from behavioural to medication management,” wrote Ian Pocock, director of digital consultancy and design agency Transform, in an opinion piece for digitalhealth.net.

Pocock cited research by American healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente which found patients with chronic illnesses spent 0.1 per cent of their time with a medical professional. Pocock believes that there is huge potential to introduce healthy self-managed habits into the remaining 99.9 per cent of patients’ lives via technology, especially smart phones.

“For those using an app”, Pocock claimed, “there is a 10% improvement in people sticking to their drug regime and a 30% improvement in adherence to wellbeing tasks.”

He also pointed out that missed doctor’s appointments had declined by 40 per cent in the United Kingdom as a result of SMS reminders.
Of course how people use digital technology – and the apps they consistently use – is both the problem and the solution. It’s all very well downloading an app that looks nice and is highly-rated only to find it boring or not helpful for the major problems and stresses in your life.

Download a bunch of apps without enough thought and chances are you won’t use any of them properly. There are an overwhelming number of apps built to help people manage their physical and especially mental health today, far too many to attempt to trial, or for us to recommend for that matter.

One of the most crowded marketplaces is apps to help with mental health solutions. There are literally thousands, from yoga apps to those providing relaxing music or ocean sounds, memory and brain training, sleep hygiene, purpose-built stress and anxiety relievers, meditation and mindfulness which is one of the boom categories. Search ‘mindfulness’ in the Google Play store and you will find over 250 apps.

There is little doubt that a daily mindfulness meditation practice can have benefits to our mental health, by definition lessening the burden of problems like anxiety and depression on individuals and companies. On its website, world-renowned Mayo Clinic says: “meditation may help people manage symptoms of conditions such as: Anxiety disorders, Asthma, Cancer, Depression, Heart disease, High blood pressure, Pain, Sleep problems.” We should point out made no mention of apps for meditation, though this has become a delivery method accepted by mental health experts.

“Apps hold amazing potential as mental health and wellbeing tools,” wrote David Bakker and Nikki Rickard, both senior psychology specialists at Australia’s Monash University in an article at theconversation.com.

“You can carry them everywhere, engage with them in real time as you’re experiencing distress, and interact with them in a completely different way to other self-help tools.”

The online article included a checklist for what to look for in a mental health app. It included looking for “evidence-based techniques”; the capacity to record your thoughts, feelings and behaviours; suggestions for non-technology based activities, especially those that encourage connection with others; the ability to be used when you are triggered; and evidence to prove it works.