Step back to move forwards (Podcast)

Listen to the podcast here

Retreat (verb)

To withdraw from enemy forces as a result of their superior power or after a defeat.

Retreat (noun)

The act of moving back or withdrawing

Life holds challenges for all of us. Sometimes we feel able to cope and other times the challenges overwhelm and overpower us. In my experience, the better I feel, the easier it is to weather life’s tough stuff. When I’m broken, any little thing can take me down. 

I used to love retreats as a way of stepping away from everyday stresses to reflect, heal and rejuvenate myself. I always felt stronger on my return and, for a few days at least, nothing seemed to phase me. 

 The only down side was that it took just a few days for me to be back into my old patterns. Over lockdown, I felt the need to rejuvenate but travel wasn’t an option so I created my own little mini-retreats at home and what I found was habit changing strength I didn’t know I possessed.

What is a 60 minute retreat?

It is time set aside, away from everyday stresses, strains and expectations, during which your only goal is to allow yourself to feel better – whatever better means to you.

In my case, it was all about kindness, compassion and calm – during lockdown I needed an abundance of these and my usual thinking patterns didn’t naturally produce them. Prior to doing 60 minute retreats, I was much more likely to chide and berate myself for not being patient enough with my kids or being too judgemental with my husband but these thoughts did nothing to change my behaviour – if anything, the more agitated I got, the worse I got.

When I started the retreats, my only goal was to create a space in which it was easy to feel calm and be kind to myself. That meant I chose activities, read books, listened to podcasts and watched videos that either led me to feel the feelings I wanted to cultivate or gave me ideas for how to cultivate them. I wrote in my journal, took courses, and made delicious fresh juices to enjoy while I did all these things. After all, what sort of retreat would it be without a freshly pressed juice?!

Now the 60-minute retreat is my normal morning routine. Although it is very similar to other morning routines, the “feel good” requirement means I only ever choose activities that will cultivate my desired feeling in that moment. Gone are the harsh workouts and ‘Push! Push! Push!’ mentality that used to occupy my morning routine. In their place are self-awareness and attention to what is going on in my mind and body so I can more easily choose how to use the time.

Regardless of the breakdown of activities, I generally find I’ll include at least one activity under each of these headings:

  1. Helpful information
  2. Stillness
  3. Movement

My next blog and the accompanying podcast go into detail about these three areas and explain how to use them as part of your own 60-minute retreat.

Why do they work?

The short answer?

They work because, over time, they change habitual thought patterns.

HEBB’S LAW

There’s a law in neuroscience that is most easily explained with the phrase, “Neurons that fire together wire together”. Our brains are always looking for shortcuts in processing and the law states that when a brain becomes aware of patterns in thoughts and behaviour, it hardwires the necessary connections to make the whole chain reaction happen more smoothly and with less (or no) conscious effort. This is how habits form.

Doing things ‘little and often’ is better than ‘big and infrequently’ because it repeatedly reinforces these new connections.

A chance to practice

Neuroscientists currently believe is that around 90% of our thoughts are habitual, meaning we think the same thoughts the same way day after day. So unless we make regular efforts to change the mix, the tide of yesterday’s thoughts will always overpower our efforts to make changes.

If we’re adding better feeling thoughts into the mix every single day then sooner or later, yesterdays thoughts are ones we’d be happy to replicate. Keep that going and the good feeling thoughts build up until quite a lot of the 90% is worth repeating.

How do they work?

Change your brain, change your life

Here, we’re back to practice and Hebb’s Law. By practicing new habits, we literally change our brains. We wire new connections and our brains begin to function differently as a result.

For me, this has manifested in greater patience, greater empathy and a stronger ability to explain what I’m thinking or feeling instead of stomping around passive-aggressively, waiting for someone else to do something about it. I’m pretty sure my husband would tell you I still have a LONG way to go – and I’d agree with him – but I have never felt stronger or safer in my own head and I’ll keep working on the rest.

STRENGTHENING mind-body connection

Thoughts and feelings have mental AND physiological components. During the 60-minute retreat, you end up paying attention to both elements so you learn to listen to your body and learn what it’s telling you.

Last year I recorded a podcast episode titled “What is Team You“. It was about getting your mind and body to behave as a team – basically meaning they communicate better and work together rather than against each other. I believe the 60 minute retreat works by strengthening “Team You”.

By practicing the art of cultivating specific feelings, you learn how they feel in your body. That awareness helps you notice the feelings when they arise in other contexts. Learning about the sensations that accompany good and bad feelings also helps alert you to earlier signs of stress so you’re better able to make adjustments in everyday life.

LAw of attraction and Noticing the Good Stuff

Most of us pay much closer attention to the negative elements in our lives, leaving the good moments to fade away unnoticed.

The Law of Attraction states that we attract what we think about most of the time so, theoretically, if we focus on the bad stuff most of the time, we’ll likely experience more of it.

By paying more attention to the good stuff, you notice it more and when you notice it more, you feel better and it becomes easier to feel better…

I thought the Law of Attraction was hocus pocus but the more I play with it, the more it seems to hold up as true, particularly when it comes to feelings. I found that making space for the good ones was much more productive than trying to push out the bad ones.

In Summary

If you want to feel better, create a space in which that is possible – even if just for a little while.

Photo by Yoann Boyer on Unsplash


DISCLAIMER: I am not a psychologist. What I share here is based on my experience. If you are experiencing mental ill-health, please speak to a qualified practitioner to ensure you receive help from someone who is appropriately trained to guide you.

Next Up

More on the types of activities to include in your retreat as well as some resources to get you started.

Links to other relevant podcast episodes:

How Habits form

The Power of Keystone Habits

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