Why Did It Take A Pandemic To Make Me Slow Down?

“Slow down, you move too fast,” the lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel’s Feelin’ Groovy, have struck a note with me lately. As a person who suffers from anxiety, I am conscious of my tendency to rush through life without taking a breath, shortchanging myself of the full benefits of life’s simple pleasures.

I’m semi-retired, but most days I still feel like I’m chasing my tail and there aren’t enough hours for everything I want to achieve

Girl lying down on the grass relaxing.
Photo by Eunice Stahl on Unsplash

Admittedly, my inability to say no is a big part of the problem – because I do waste hours of my week on unnecessary activities, and then get cross with myself for compromising what time I have left to do what I enjoy.

But even when I’m walking the dog, my mind is often elsewhere, thinking about that email I need to write, the call I need to make, or the machine load that needs to be emptied.

But the world won’t stop turning if I don’t empty the washing machine immediately

And on the rare occasions I allow myself to breathe, to throw the ball to the dog on the beach, or take in the natural beauty of where we live, my head clears, and I kick myself for not doing it more often.

Because, relaxing is easy, and doesn’t cost very much, and aside from my new hobby of swimming in the ocean, I’ve rediscovered many long-lost passions recently, like reading, walking, and listening to podcasts, not to mention my love of watching mindless tv series on the sofa.

I’m not saying I walk happily to the trolley bay when it’s on the other side of the supermarket car park or I don’t grit my teeth when the traffic lights ahead turn red, but I am making a conscious effort to try to walk rather than run.

Sometimes, it’s enough just to be. To be me. To be happy in my skin

I’m sure spiritualists have some fancy term for the art of “enjoying the moment” – something like unconscious mindfulness, I imagine. But each time I’ve tried to be intentionally mindful in the past, I’ve struggled to close down the tabs in my brain – this, despite my belief in the importance of living each day as if it is your last – an awareness of the unpredictability of life that was foisted on me by the loss of my mother in my teens – although, I don’t recommend it.

But if you don’t believe me and need any more convincing about the right order of your priorities in life, check out the biggest regrets of the dying, because one of the top five regrets is how much time they wasted on work rather than spending it with family and friends, or doing things that made them happy.

Unfortunately, a clink in the armour of the human brain is that many of us only realise what we have when it’s gone

Fortunately, COVID has rammed the importance of the philosophy home for me, and the physical effects of ageing are helping with the slow down. While I moan about the limitations of my body – and this year has been a real test – I am beginning to understand its language. When it lets me know I’ve pushed it too hard, I’m learning to listen to it, because those minor pains and aches quickly evolve into costly issues when they aren’t addressed.

Admittedly, it is easier to switch off or recalibrate physically than it is mentally. But another benefit COVID has gifted many of us is extra time at home. And although I’m certain my lockdown existence looks very different to the parents of young kids or essential workers, I don’t believe slowing down must necessitate being alone.

For example, when our kids were small, I used to dread the approach of the school holidays. And yet, it always surprised me how quickly the three of us adapted to the change of pace. Within a week, each of us started to slow down, to get up later, to take our time over meals and stretch out activities that we normally raced through. We communicated more, and because I didn’t have to manage that precarious balance between work, school, and extra-curricular activities, I was less irritable. Rather than the cabin fever I anticipated, we had more time and energy to try out new things, and the best days were those when we did absolutely nothing without feeling guilty about them – a foreign concept in our increasingly driven society.

It’s important to allow yourself days off, when you do absolutely nothing

Recently, a friend of mine took her two weeks of annual leave at home due to the current restrictions. At the time, she was feeling burnt out at work, and I know she was disappointed she couldn’t escape somewhere exotic for “a change of scene”. Nevertheless, she approached her two weeks with a positive mindset and a list of her priorities for her time off – relaxation foremost, with some walks, swims, catch-ups with friends, and some overdue organisational tasks if she found the time.

At the end of the two weeks, she was exuberant about her holiday at home, which had given her the opportunity to explore some previously undiscovered areas of our local landscape with friends and family, enjoy long breakfasts in the sun with her daughter, eat healthily, and replenish her sleep quota with daily naps. She returned to work re-energised, and when I caught up with her at the end of her first week back, she had rediscovered her old passion for her job.

Trips abroad, where we used to cram more into a day than we would at work, are not always what our body needs

I have fully embraced the return to simple living that COVID has necessitated, and I’m feeling quite nervous about my return to the hustle and bustle of normal life. I have to agree with Michaela Coel who mentioned in her acceptance speech at the Emmys the joys of embracing invisibility, rather than jumping straight back onto the demanding treadmill of our lives prior to COVID. I am loving this invisibility that has come with lockdown and middle-age. I have no desire to leap from our current restrictions straight back into my old life. Rather, I intend to set myself a realistic pace and be more mindful of how and when I really need to emerge from the shadows.

Why Try Mindfulness In Middle Age? Because That’s When You Realise Just How Fucked Up The World Really Is

I took an introductory course in mindfulness a few weeks ago. I thought that the company of calm, spiritual people would wield its inner peace on me. But when it turned out that only my friends had signed up for the course, I realised something I already knew – that we’re all dealing with our own shit.

Women practising meditation.
Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

Among other living hells, Menopause is known to exacerbate anxiety, and while I have found other calming techniques for my over-active brain – such as running, writing, and drinking more wine – I keep hearing the word “mindfulness” bandied about in association with ADHD and anxiety, which is why I decided to give it a shot.

I suppose that everyone is seeking the simplest solution to cope with the trials of life, but that need becomes more pertinent the older you get, when you realise just how fucked up the world really is.

I also knew that my experience would make great blog fodder, and as I’m prepared to give most things a go to enhance the experience of this, the last, physically-able chapter of my life – apart from pole-dancing, obvs, which is a subtle reminder to my sister who, one birthday, demonstrated that my psychotic sense of humour runs in the family – I decided to ignore the natural cynicism of my inner voice that tells me that this spiritual stuff is a load of bollocks.

Indeed, I felt for the first time in my life that I had the appropriate level of maturity to handle it.

Which was where I was wrong when I got worryingly close to breaking the magical spell of silence during the walking meditation with a fart or a show tune.

But like when you give up smoking or drinking, you have to commit to new ideas such as mindfulness for them to have any hope of working, and once I got my giggles of self-consciousness out of the way, I did just that. I mean, let’s be honest, while the power of running has gone some way to combatting my anxiety, it’s far more appealing to sit in my own space and do fuck all for the same benefits.

Our teacher was lovely. Non-judgmental, with one of those soothing voices that carried us along to our safe place without too much of a fight, he managed to hide his despair at the three crotchety, middle-aged cynics in front of him, whose bodies creaked each time he asked us to change position on the floor. He didn’t even seem to mind when he told us to think about our favourite place for our first visualisation and I admitted that mine was in bed. Everyone else picked a tropical island!

Admittedly, I found that focusing on my breath was about as stimulating as Scott Morrison’s election campaign, but I loved the soothing effect of the chanting bowl. I defy anyone who has worked a full day and managed to get back out of the house for a mid-week evening meeting, not to find some relaxation in the sound – so much so, I’ve decided to invest in one for the next finance meeting with the old man. And the walking meditation was an interesting exercise in self-control and fitness as the five us us walked slowly around the room together, first like zombies, and then like Neil Armstrong on the moon, while I fought a personal battle to keep a straight face.

But there were many ideas and exercises that I loved. One of the exercises was to connect our heart to someone we love. I’m not sure what I was thinking when I picked the old man as the recipient of my limited levels of love – that are rather like the permanent level of cyan ink on our colour printer – but I suspect it had something to do with guilt. I’d been a complete bitch to him that week. Funnily enough, he didn’t mention feeling any different when I arrived home, which confirmed my suspicion that he likes being “treated mean.”

Anyway, I found this article on the web, which provides a really good beginner’s guide to mindfulness. So keep your mind open. It’s not easy, but focusing on what you are grateful has to be a far healthier way of getting through this crazy old thing called life. Since the course, I have inadvertently incorporated the deep breathing exercise when I feel anxious, and it has worked wonders for eliminating the shame I feel about pouring that extra glass of wine.

Can I Suggest Eating Mindfully This Christmas Rather Than Dieting?

Let’s make a pact and enforce a community embargo against dieting this Christmas.

I won’t be dieting. In fact, I will be eating all of the pigs-in-blanket, swigging the whole jug of brandy custard, and scoffing every one of the purple Quality Street!

In Joanna Nell’s book, The Single Ladies Of Jacaranda Village, her doctor advises 80-something Peggy not to diet, but rather to ‘start eating mindfully.’ He elaborates: ‘I want you to think about every single thing you put into your mouth. I want you to taste it as you chew and listen to your body so you can work out when you’ve had enough.’

Easier said than done, I know – particularly at Christmas and when you’ve been raised by a war baby. And yet, the words of Peggy’s doctor really do make sense. He wants her to think more carefully about her relationship with food along with other adjustments to her lifestyle that will help her maintain her weight, rather than increase it.

No one should be miserable or deny themselves at Christmas, but it’s important to recognize when you’re full, make smart choices about what you eat, and exercise.

I’ve been trying to find that balance for a while. In calorie-speak, I have learned that when if I want a wine or two at night, I need to sacrifice bad carbs (such as potatoes or rice) with my dinner; I know that drinking water during the day fills me up and that chewing my food more slowly helps me feel more satisfied. I am also aware that the first mouthful of food is like the first sip of wine – it’s always the best!

I suppose that what I have been doing unconsciously for a while is eating more mindfully. The “eating healthily” part is easy for me – I love healthy food – although portion control, not so much. But I have also pushed myself to incorporate exercise into my routine each day. I don’t go on the scales anymore – why, when there are still women being murdered and Trump to depress me? – so instead, I gauge my weight by how my clothes fit.

Sadly, gauging your weight by how your clothes fit is becoming an increasingly difficult exercise due to the way that women’s sizing works.

The other day I tried on a bikini top in Bonds. I do not have a large bust, but because I have always carried some extra weight had a wide back (and didn’t want to spoil my day quite so early on), I attempted to be realistic and opted first for a size Large… moved swiftly onto the Extra-Large… and then, instead of beating myself up about it (and cutting up the Extra-Large into tiny pieces and shoving them down the front of the lovely sales assistant’s dress), I walked out of that shop with my head held high.

Generally, I wear a size 12-14 in tops, and yet I couldn’t squeeze my puppies into an Extra-Large. How can that make sense when the average size of women in Australia is a size 16?

So what do we do? How do we cater for the range of different shapes and sizes that women come in, without encouraging obesity? The only solution that I can see is education. 

I’m no scientist, but I’m always surprised by how little most people understand about the risks associated with processed food, portion control, sugar and the way our metabolism slows down with age. And that’s without taking into account the emotional eaters and drinkers among us or those of us in menopause.

I stopped self-flagellating over bad eating days a while ago. Like everyone, I have shit to deal with. Some days I feel on top of the world and others I want to never leave the house, and even though food is not my natural go-to substitute for happiness or self-medication – I’m wino! – I am guilty of major blow-outs like everyone else.

However, I’ve changed the way I handle them, which has nothing to do with the fact that I feel invisible anyway, or because these days I give zero fucks about pretty much most things, or even the emergence (finally) of some middle-aged wisdom. The alternative to getting depressed about something that is pretty irrelevant in my life right now – even if the magazines try to convince us otherwise – is to try to think calmly and positively for a solution to reverse the damage – such as half wine-half water, a few more salads, or some brisker walks. 

I’m already looking forward to those brisk walks this Christmas.

Have you got any other tips to share about eating mindfully?