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Mentally reset for 2022
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Seven ways to mentally reset and gear up for ongoing uncertainty in 2022

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As we head into 2022, where further uncertainty lies just around the corner, mindfulness trainer Karen Liebenguth shares seven ways to improve your relationship with anxiety and change.

16th Dec 2021
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It’s the end of the year but not the end of Covid-19 and the layers of complexity, uncertainty and anxiety it brings into our lives. 

But if it isn’t Covid, it’s an economic crisis, a merger, an organisational restructure and redundancies, bankruptcy and even existential crises like climate change that threaten our sense of safety and security leading to anxiety and stress.

So is now the time for us to learn in earnest how to be with uncertainty and anxiety – both of which are an intrinsic part of life.

When we bring kind, open and curious awareness to our experience, when we can feel it without pushing or pulling, it changes and becomes more manageable. 

How can we relate to our experience in a more helpful way?

We don’t have to feel anxious about our anxiety, to feel that we shouldn’t experience it, despite what many voices in society lead us to believe.

Perhaps the first step must be to pause and acknowledge to ourselves and to the people we work with that it’s been another challenging and difficult year. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. It doesn’t have to be sentimental. Just saying how it is. And perhaps we also need to acknowledge that life is tough and unpredictable rather than hold on to the view that it should be easy when it isn’t. 

The poet John Keats coined the term ‘negative capability’ – the capability to bear being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, with any irritable premature reaching after fact and reason. From this place something new, previously unknown, can emerge. 

The question is, would it be possible for us to bear, to experience the disturbing aspects of life – Covid and others – without turning them into a problem that we must try hard to solve? Our very efforts not to have an experience ties us to it and makes it worse. It’s a paradox. 

The uncertainty of Covid, the changes and complexity that it brings with it are difficult experiences indeed. However, they are just unpleasant experiences. They are just what we don’t want, what we prefer not to happen.

Disturbing experiences can still be there. When we bring kind, open and curious awareness to our experience, when we can feel it without pushing or pulling, it changes and becomes more manageable. 

What would it be like to give up the fantasy that there always needs to be a resolution? 

This goes against our need to know and control in order to feel safe. Andrew Olendzki, Professor at Lesley University in Cambridge and the Director of its Mindfulness Studies programme states that where the mind “is capable of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking, it is just thinking that gives rise to stress, with thoughts of the past or the future. Whereas our senses can only function in the present moment.” 

When difficult things happen we intuitively want to push them away, to get rid of them (and conversely we want to hold on to pleasant experiences which can be equally painful). Furthermore, we add unnecessary layers of thoughts, judgements and emotions and in no time we find ourselves in a sea of despair, in a mind-made future scenario that has not happened yet and may never happen.

This type of future thinking known as catastrophising causes most of our anxiety and stress because the mind can’t distinguish whether something is actually happening or just a narrative scripted by the mind. The impact on our emotional life is the same. 

When we can go with the flow instead of resisting it, life becomes easier in the midst of difficulty. 

Here are seven ways of changing our relationship with anxiety and uncertainty:

1. We can remember that we are emotional beings that think and not thinking beings who have emotions.

Lisa Feldman-Barrett demonstrated this in her groundbreaking neuroscientific research and book ‘How Emotions Are Made’. It also turns the engrained centuries old western view cogito ergo sum (‘I think, therefore I am’, coined by René Descartes) on its head. 

2. We can reframe anxiety and uncertainty.

Instead of it being a problem that has to be solved, we can see clearly that sometimes we experience disturbing and difficult experiences and sensations. And so perhaps we can give up feeling anxious about experiencing anxiety and uncertainty. It’s okay to feel anxious, it’s human.

3. We can recognise that thoughts about the future are just thoughts

Remember, we are not our thoughts and that not everything we think is necessarily true.

4. We can notice when we are caught up in a narrative

The narrative could be about anything – what might happen to us, our job, colleagues, organisation, the world – but we can always come back to our senses: what we see, hear, feel, taste, touch, smell. When that happens we are in the present moment and we can have powerful agency of the choices we make, i.e. how we respond to what’s happening (versus merely reacting). 

5. We can choose the attitude we bring to anxiety and uncertainty.

We can choose to beat ourselves up for feeling anxious, calling ourselves a wimp or weak only to feel more anxious and overwhelmed. Or we can choose to bring kindness, openness, sensitivity and compassion to ourselves and the situation we are in. 

A word of caution here: kindness and compassion are non-sentimental attitudes. Quite the opposite is true: these vital attitudes require a sturdy and courageous heart (courage = from the French meaning to take heart), one that can bear to be with a difficult experience without pushing it away or getting overwhelmed by it.

6. We can relax into the changing nature of all things.

We can choose an activity and explore our experience of it, whether it’s a 1:1 or team meeting, checking your emails, a presentation or talk, having lunch, or an informal chat with a colleague. Notice how everything changes moment by moment. 

When we can go with the flow instead of resisting it, life becomes easier in the midst of difficulty. 

7. In the midst of difficulty we can always choose to notice enjoyable moments

They are always there, we just need to pay attention to those kind words,  helping hands and generous acts…

At a mindfulness training event in November 2021, Vidyamala Burch, co-founder of Breathworks UK, author and international speaker, said “Working with our heart-mind is one of the most remarkable things we can do with our life.” As we head into 2022, where further uncertainty lies just around the corner, consider how you can improve your relationship with anxiety and change to better protect your wellbeing. 

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