How can you keep your mind as healthy as possible during a separation?
If you are reading this article, you are more than likely a parent who is trying to recover from a break-up. To keep with the theme of this month which is health, I’d love to talk to you about some of the ways you keep can keep your mind as healthy as possible through this challenging situation.
As a parent, every day is filled with a long to-do list just to keep your kids happy and healthy, your house running smoothly and whatever you need to do to earn an income. And unfortunately that long list doesn’t just disappear when you are going through a break-up. In fact that list probably gets longer.
What happens for many people is that because they need to continue to tick off the tasks on this long list, some other things go out the window. Other things such as looking after your emotional and psychological health. Out of necessity, many parents will switch on to autopilot and disconnect from what they are thinking and feeling in an effort to get things done. This is so common and so understandable. Most people feel as though they don’t have enough time to finish their cup of tea that they poured two hours ago, let alone take time to look after their mental health. In addition to not having the time, who would want to experience those horrible thoughts and those painful emotions anyway! It is so natural to want to push them away, ignore them or just put them hold.
Many parents think if they take the time to be alone with their thoughts, then they will not cope, and then who will do the things on that list? They might think that allowing themselves to feel the painful emotions might cause them to lose control. And when you are going through a break-up, feeling as though you still have some control - at least over some things in your life - is crucial.
The trouble is that when you are not being distracted by that long list of things to get done, you will be alone with your thoughts and you will feel those painful things.
Distraction is by far the most common coping mechanism that people use when they are going through a challenging situation, and for good reason. It does give you short-term relief. Unfortunately, in the long-term distraction doesn’t help you to live a full, rich and meaningful life. The more you try to struggle with or ignore difficult thoughts and feelings, the stronger they will become and the harder it will be to cope with them. To illustrate this point, think of what it’s like if you fell in to quicksand. The more you flail your arms and legs about and struggle with it, the deeper you will sink into the sand. However, when you stretch your arms and legs out wide and float on your back you will survive.
So what coping mechanisms can we use instead of distraction?
That is a very good question and the answers are lengthy enough to fill a book, but here are four simple yet powerful strategies to start with.
Start practicing self-compassion
This is the first and one of the most important things to do. You are trying to recover from a break-up which is widely known to be one of the most stressful periods of a person’s life, so give yourself a break. The plethora of thoughts and emotions that you are experiencing are both normal and expected, but everybody copes with a break-up differently. If your friend was going through a similar experience, what would you say to them? How would you say it? Now use the same words and tone while you speak to yourself. You wouldn’t tell your friend to stop crying and just get over it, would you? So notice how you speak to yourself and how you treat your mind and body.
‘Unhook’ from your painful thoughts and feelings
This reduces their impact and influence over you. It doesn’t mean getting rid of them, rather getting some distance from them. To get started on defusing your thoughts, become more aware of them and then acknowledge them. You could start by writing down a few of your painful thoughts that keep bothering you and then tick them each time you think of them. For example, if you are busy doing some work at your desk that is important to you, start the work and then casually put a tick beside the difficult thought as you go and then continue to do your work.
Another way is to think about your thoughts as a radio broadcast in the background. The thoughts are still there playing in the background but you can continue to do things that are important to you as it plays. If something helpful starts playing then you can tune in and listen carefully.
Practice contacting the present moment
A lot of our suffering is caused by our minds being dragged into the past or the future instead of staying in the present moment. We might ruminate on past events and dwell on thoughts that arise from the past, or our minds spend time looking into the future and worrying about what might or might not happen. Here is a simple exercise you can do to contact the present moment the next time you feel overwhelmed, stressed or anxious - push your feet flat on the floor, press your hands together, and use all of your senses to bring you back into the present. Ask yourself what you can see around you, what you can hear around you, what you can smell around you, and so on, which will bring you back to ‘now’.
Identify your values
Define what really matters to you, and then take committed action to live your life guided by those values. Imagine it is twenty or thirty years from now and you are sitting down next to your teenage child, or perhaps someone else who is asking for your advice on relationships and life. Imagine what you would like to tell them about how you handled this break-up. What did you stand for during this challenging time? What are you most proud of regarding how you got through this situation?
Knowing what really matters to you will be your compass to guide your journey forward. Identifying your values will help you to set goals that are meaningful for you, which makes you more motivated and more likely to achieve them.
So next time you notice yourself using distraction as a way to cope with the painful thoughts and feelings then remember to try the four strategies above. You might be surprised at the different they can make.
Miranda Hall is a Break-up Recovery Coach and helps women to discover life beyond their break-up. She has qualifications in Counselling, Coaching and many years experience working in counselling and community mental health, Miranda uses a therapeutic model called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy which is an evidence based approach that is designed to help people to live a full, rich and meaningful life.