by Natalie Abou-Alwan 

We all know that inserting moments of physical exertion into our daily lives, particularly when sat at a desk for most of it, is a good thing. Those wanting to watch their weight will smugly tell you: “I took the stairs!”, while holding back gulps of breath, to demonstrate their health, vitality and sheer will power. Good for them, provided that in a pandemic ridden world, they are not breathing too heavily near you!

I, on the other hand, prefer to think about this concept from a mental wellbeing perspective. Of course shedding excess weight when needed is healthy for our physical body, but I think the idea of shedding excess weight to lighten our mental state is more vital. Each of you reading this will, like me, no doubt have faced knock-backs and disappointments, either in your personal lives or your professional careers. That is part of the rich weave of life’s tapestry as the saying goes. Sure, these experiences are never pleasant at the time and in some cases these unpleasant feelings can continue for varying degrees of days, weeks, months, basically as long as we will let them. However, what I want us to focus on here is how we can pull ourselves out of this dip, strengthen ourselves for the next step, or if you like, the next more colourful section of that tapestry.

Natalie Abou-Alwan

Let’s face it, knock-backs are tough. Full stop. Whether it’s the partner you could imagine blissfully living the rest of your life with who suddenly decides you’re not the one for them, or the promotion you had set your sights on, knowing that you were the best candidate for the role, but for whatever reason or bias (conscious or unconscious), things didn’t work out the way you had hoped. It’s downright painful to deal with. That’s ok and in fact completely normal. I always think that feeling hurt simply means you care and no matter how much you try, it is hard to pretend otherwise. So, accept those initial feelings of shock, rejection, disappointment, betrayal, anger and frustration, knowing that psychologically and chemically, they are temporary. As Eckhart Tolle explains in his inspiring book: The Power of Now, this is purely the “pain-body” being triggered. We all experience this because we are human.

However, what I find interesting is that this pain-body or form of energy that thrives on emotional pain, really is a temporary feeling. Neurologically, emotions last in our bodies for a mere ninety seconds. That’s it. What keeps us in a state of pain-body is our constant playback of the event in our minds. Simply put, if you keep playing the same scene, it will register more intensely in your mind and trick you into feeling those emotions over and over again. And for what use? Psychologists refer to this as “rumination”. I think of it as a form of self-sabotage. Put bluntly, a vicious cycle of addiction to unhappiness and even victimhood. Now, I am not suggesting for one minute that we somehow switch off our feelings after that initial ninety seconds, that is not humanly possible for most of us. What I am suggesting though is that we start to recognise these mental playbacks, observe them as an innocent bystander, watching without judging, recognising what is happening and allowing ourselves the choice (and it really is a choice) to free ourselves of these constraining acts. We know that going over the past doesn’t change it, but what we can change is how we react in the present. This is the focus I now would like to switch to.

Let’s go back to that smug co-worker who took the stairs. We can even give them a name: Victor (I know the hidden meaning won’t be lost on you!). Physically, he has put in the effort, literally step by step, to reach the floor he aimed for. Yes, he could have taken the lift, but what’s the fun in that when no effort is involved? Victor might even have decided that he would rather not be couped up in a restricted space with several others who may potentially have negative viewpoints that might impact his way of thinking and at worst, with whom he might get stuck, going nowhere and possibly resulting in him missing his meeting altogether. Ok, I accept that this way of thinking could be viewed as catastrophising, but for the sake of the analogy I am attempting to create here, please may I ask that you suspend your disbelief with me just for a little longer! In choosing to take the stairs, Victor really has demonstrated his willpower. Rather like an athlete who chooses not to take the easy route, but instead to challenge herself by rigorous training, day in and day out, conquering fears, injuries as well as her own and others’ disbelief in her strength and abilities. All of this to allow herself the possibility of winning.

So where am I going with all of this? Well, let’s flip back to the mental analogy. We can all accept that setbacks and disappointments are a hurdle. They are the bump in the road leading you from A to B. We each have the choice to either avoid that hurdle which is often out of our control, or to look at it infinitum and continue feeling angry or frustrated, stuck in the same position, powerless to move from misdirecting our energy and emotions. Or, like the athlete, we can choose another way, a more challenging way, but a more rewarding way. Training our thoughts every day by recognising negative patterns, watching them as the innocent bystander and choosing to give them no importance and instead to replace them with positive, compassionate and constructive beliefs.

I appreciate that initially at least, this is certainly not the easy route. As we know, the brain is also a muscle that needs training in order to be strengthened, so that this strength can allow it to perform efficiently and clearly. Just as taking the stairs requires effort, so too does consciously re-wiring our thought processes and forcing ourselves to do things differently, until it becomes second nature. With this endurance and willpower, each stair raises us higher and once we start to climb, our destination becomes closer and clearer so that finally, we can stand at the top of the stairs, look down and feel proud of how far we have come. That is achievement. That is winning. With all this in-built strength, it is harder to become lazy, to be tempted back into the lift, to press “ground” and to hit the bottom again but this time quicker and sometimes harder.

In an uncertain world, particularly the one in which we all currently live, one of the things that is certain is that setbacks will happen, but what you can also be certain of is that it is often these very setbacks that will lead you to your ultimate success, through conscious training…one step at a time.