As some of you will already know, September is a special month for me, for several reasons. One of those reasons is the glorious Annual Northeast Skinny Dip I take part in at Druridge Bay in Northumberland. I join over 1000 other wonderful humans to strip naked and run into the North Sea at sunrise to raise money for a mental health charity but also to challenge stigma and our own personal judgements.
This will happen just before I take a break from work for two weeks to rest and reset, so I thought I would use both of these experiences to create a blog for September!
I’m hoping on the morning of the skinny dip the sea will be calm and the waves gentle. It will be too much to ask for it to be warm, but I’m prepared for the cold. The sea, even though it is so vast can be both beautifully calm, gentle and soothing and powerfully destructive. As humans we hold similar capacities when it comes to attending to and meeting our own needs.
The powerfully destructive element arises within us due to ‘stormy weather’ – difficult and uncomfortable emotions and thoughts – but how do we return to calm, gentle and soothing? For many of that this is a state we long for but find elusive and unfamiliar.
If we think about being by the sea when it is rough and the waves are crashing, it is intimidating, harsh and dangerous. We watch from afar to stay safe. Yet when the sea is warm, gentle and welcoming, we want to be close, we want to enjoy the gentle lapping of the water around our feet. We ourselves begin to feel calmer, less stressed and less fearful. This way of being embodies compassion, kindness and love – the qualities we all thrive within when we become familiar with such an environment.
Of course, if we only ever know the sea as rough and dangerous, we may struggle to trust even when it is calm, so we need to hold ourselves gently as we approach a calm sea and slowly learn to trust it. It would be unfair and unreasonable to assume we all learn in our lives that calm is the norm. Sadly it is not for some, but I believe with time, love and patience it can become so.
So how can we learn to care for ourselves, to find calm and peace? How can we learn to step into a place of softness and compassion? I believe that in order to feel comfortable in the calm, it is also important to find a way of being in with the storm.
One of the most important places to start is to practice being present in the moment – to learn to bring yourself back to the moment you are in, using one of your senses. So often our minds are time-travelling – worrying about the future, ruminating on the past, but the only place we are actually able to live, and to take action is the moment we are in. Check around you – what can you hear? What do you see? What can you touch and feel? Of course, your mind will wander as you try this, but gently, and without judgement, when you notice it happening, bring your focus back to whatever sense you are using.
When we learn to focus on the moment, without judgement, we learn to allow our emotional experience to be as it is – we can learn to ride the waves of emotion, to anchor in the storm until it passes without needing to try to banish the storm.
We can learn to focus our efforts, not on eliminating the storm, but on holding ourselves kindly and compassionately until it passes. When we connect to what is deeply important to us – the anchor of our values, we can start to pay less attention to the storms and trust that we will return to calm waters when the storm passes without having to battle.
And when we create our own boundaries which will serve to keep us connected yet safe, we learn how close to the water to go without getting hurt. We learn that the boundaries are ours to decide and to implement – not for others but for ourselves, and in doing so, we are recognising our needs. We decide to wade into the water in the calm, and stand back in the storm, because we are worthy of safety and security.
When all of these things fall into place, it’s important to check in regularly – with the emotional weather, with our own needs and our ability to compassionately meet those needs; to know that there will always be calm and storms and to be prepared with compassion as they change and shift.
As I approach the skinny dip and my holiday, I’m aware of some choppy waves that come with tiredness and the need to step back from the water a little and take a rest on dry land. And through the restfulness of a holiday and the joy of the skinny dip, I can trust myself to ride the emotions and to wait for them to settle again.
With September love
FAQs about navigating self-care
- How can I learn to recognise and acknowledge emotional storms and tricky thoughts?
This begins with practising being present. Start by noticing your thoughts and emotions without judgment. When you start to see that these internal experiences are a natural part of being human, instead of resisting or avoiding them, you can begin to allow them to be there. This is the first step toward creating a healthier relationship with your inner world.
- Are there some practical ways to bring myself back to the present moment and cultivate mindfulness in my daily life?
Mindfulness can be practiced by focusing on one of your senses. Take a deep dive into the experience of the moment, for example, savour the taste, smell, and texture of something you are eating. If you’re walking, gently notice the sensations of each step and the feeling of the muscles moving your limbs or your clothes touching your skin as you move. Focusing on the in and out breaths as you breath and noticing your chest move, or your tummy gently rise and fall as you breathe deeply can also help ground you in the present.
- How do I learn to ride the waves of difficult emotions without trying to banish them?
In ACT, we are aiming to develop psychological flexibility. Instead of trying to banish difficult emotions, the key is to acknowledge their presence with the understanding that emotions are temporary and part of the human experience. When you allow yourself to be human and to feel your emotions without resistance, they often lose their intensity more quickly.
- Can you help me with how to anchor in my values?
Anchoring in your values means connecting with what truly matters to you – those things that bring richness and depth to your life and relationships. During challenging times, remind yourself of your core values. For example, if friendships and connection is a core value, do some things which align with this value, such as phoning a close friend to chat or arranging to meet, even if this feels difficult because perhaps you feel withdrawn or low in mood. Your values are your compass, the best guide for your actions and decisions.
- How do I establish personal boundaries that prioritize my safety and well-being?
Setting boundaries in ACT is about recognising your limits and communicating them assertively. Practice with people you trust initially stating clearly what you’re comfortable with and what you’re not. Remember that boundaries are for your well-being, and it’s so important to uphold them even when others may not understand or agree.
- How do I navigate self-care during busy or challenging periods?
It is important to practice during times of quiet and calm initially so that self-care becomes familiar and regular for you. This will mean that during the busy times you are more likely to recognise the need for caring for yourself. During busy times, it is so important to find small pockets of time for self-care, such as a few minutes of mindfulness, or a short walk, or a call to a friend.
- How can I build trust in myself to compassionately manage both calm and stormy emotional weather?
Trust in yourself develops through consistent commitment to practising self-compassion and acceptance. Learning that it’s okay to have challenging moments and developing skills to navigate them will build trust in yourself over time. Practice speaking to yourself with the kindness and compassion you offer to your friends in their times of need. Over time, this trust in yourself will enhance and deepen your emotional resilience.