Taking a gentle approach to post-pandemic life

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It’s been a difficult and exhausting year. Not for everyone, and not all of the time, but for many, much of the time. And now here we are with the days getting longer, the sun strengthening, and the invitation at long last to return outside and venture further afield with a bit more ease.

Perhaps this feels like everything you’ve been waiting for and you’re raring to go without further ado – I hope this is you. But perhaps you find yourself privately thinking why don’t I feel as excited by this as I thought I would. Perhaps you’re putting on your active wear wanting to be ready to go but actually feeling too tired to do the things you thought would be easy or noticing that you don’t have the confidence you had not so long ago. Maybe you feel heavy in your bones, fluttery in your chest, pressure in your head. If this is you, then you’re not alone.

In an informal online poll that I offered in mid-April completed by over 900 participants, 66% of respondents said they were feeling in some way anxious, worried or stressed about getting back outside. 87% were worried about the impact of the end of lockdown on their physical health and 65% were worried about the impact of the end of restrictions on natural places.

As a therapist these results were not unexpected to me, but instead confirm an emerging pattern of anxiety about making the transition back to ‘normal life’: an anxiety that is causing its own pressure when you consider that 70% of respondents have exercise and fitness goals that they are keen to meet this year, and over half of respondents felt the pressure to have goals. Indeed, 56% of respondents said they felt the pressure to emerge from lockdown at a fast pace, and 80% felt they would benefit from some guidance on how to navigate this ‘re-emergence’ period.

Go Gentle

Many people will have spent a good deal of time this year in a state of moderate to high stress, perhaps without even noticing it, or having grown used to it.  From a body-based perspective, this means your body has been in a persistent state of elevated activity in the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system, resulting in a wide range of symptoms such as fidgetiness, anxiety, anger, irritability, nervousness, panic, crying, seeking reassurance to name just a few affects.

Our bodies have been in a regular state of perceived danger for nearly a year, and whether you are cognisant of that or not, your body will have felt the strain and be ready for a break. Whilst our brains might be ready to go and trust the worst is over, our bodies have been working hard to deal with persistent stress signals, ultimately trying to keep us safe, and will need a bit of time to unwind and recognise new signals of safety. It’s tiring work being on constant alert for a year.

The invitation then is to take a gentle approach to the end of lockdown and post-pandemic life, and to hold a compassionate position with yourself (and others) for what you’ve been through. Your body is a unique body, and your mind a unique mind: every body will have a pace that suits them by which to resume an active lifestyle once again, and it’s important for our overall long-term wellbeing to go about the transition back into the world in a way that honours your whole health. If you push it too soon or too hard, you might feel worse in the long run.

Spring is With You 

The opportunity of this period of transition is to look to the rest of nature for guidance. Our own re-emergence is coincident with the season of Spring – a time of rebirth, reawakening, renewal.  On May 1st the Gaelic festival of Beltane honours the time when historically livestock were driven back into the pastures, and so it is with us this year: we are invited back to the land and have the opportunity to stoke a new ember of optimism for the fertile seasons ahead.

You will already have noticed the buds on the trees, the leaves uncurling, the landscape greening. It might feel like everything happens at once in Spring, but in reality everything takes its own time and Spring teaches us the naturalness of pacing. The flowers come in succession, not all at once. There are early starters in the form of snowdrops, which give way to the Celandines, and then Daffodils, which are joined by Wood Anemone’s, primroses, marsh marigold’s and then, the later blooming Bluebells. For many, the Bluebells are the crowning glory of Spring, but they are by no means the first to arrive.

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Movement of Emergence

For many this won’t be a time for hard and fast rules, or for the energetic exuberance of summer. Instead, this is a period we can view as waking up after sleep, recovering after winter, and we can express this in our approach to movement in the weeks ahead.

Walking – the gentle rhythm of walking regularly and steadily has proven abilities to stimulate the parts of our brains associated with rumination. Walking can be meditative, calming, absorbing and is a low-demand way of reconnecting with regular cardiovascular movement.

Stretching – Instead of focusing on the end goal, take time to honour the preparation stage of movement. Make warming up, stretching, bringing life back into tired muscles, the whole point.  Notice your breathing, and let your breath lengthen gently if it feels short or held.

Folding and Unfolding – to embody the energy of spring, focus your yoga or free-movement practice on gentle bends that connect you with the motion of opening and closing. Notice which one you find easier and allow yourself to move naturally between the two positions. You can fold at the waist, over your legs from seated position, or experiment with opening and closing your arms around your chest space, opening the chest and lungs and then wrapping them up protectively. Notice the feeling of safety in a warm embrace, and the safety of opening.

Balance postures – Take some time to practice your balance either with yoga moves such as the tree asana, or by balancing on an actual tree trunk or rock. The returning light of spring is a rebalancing of the dark, and after a long year we are all seeking more balance in our lives. Embodying balance is one way that we can welcome more of it.

Shake it off – Experiment with giving your body a good all-over shake at times when you feel worried or anxious, or weighed down by the winter just gone. All animals shake out their stress and this can be an effective way of waking yourself when you feel like you’re falling into a slump.

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Ruth Allen, is a psychotherapist, trail-based coach and author based on the edge of the Peak District, UK. She has an extensive editorial portfolio of writing, and in spring 2021 released her first book ‘Grounded: How Connection with Nature can Improve Our Mental and Physical Wellbeing’ worldwide. She specialises in outdoor nature-based therapy and combines traditional talking therapy with a body and movement orientated approach. In her writing she explores the intersections between reciprocal nature relationship, mind-body health and wellbeing, and adventure. She is interested in the ways we make meaning of our lives, the stories we tell, and the way we build capacity and knowing through our bodies. In 2018, she ran 350km across the Bosnian Mountains solo and unsupported, and day-to-day enjoys creative movement, biking and everyday adventures up hills, in water, and under the stars.