2021 was tough for everyone and we all deserved the break over the festive season to refresh and revive. The downturn to stopping to take a break is that inevitably we have to return to the routine of work and potentially feeling stuck in the back to work blues. Here we look at ways to flip our mindset so that we start to make space for uncomfortable emotions, act compassionately towards ourselves, focus on our values to direct our focus, and use mindfulness techniques to stay in the present moment, rather than getting pulled into the past or worrying about the future.

Finding your inner empathic voice

Many of us may have fallen into the “at least” trap during this back to work period. Sympathy is when somebody tells us “at least you have a job” when we complain about being back at work. This usually makes people feel worse for complaining, and then guilty for being ungrateful. It certainly stops the conversation. Empathy, on the other hand, is when we stop and sit with another person’s distressing emotions. We might say “yeah, it sucks that the holidays are over and you’re back at work. And I don’t know how to make that feel any different, but I am here for you to talk to about this”. Dr Brene Brown explains this difference between sympathy and empathy in this beautiful short animation

It is important to find a way to show empathy towards ourselves during this time. When we jump to thoughts of “well at least I have a job to go back to” when we are feeling disheartened about returning to work, we can switch on our self-compassion pathway. We can give ourselves permission to feel the uncomfortable feelings – the frustration, guilt, shame, sadness, stress or anxiety – and say to ourselves that these feelings are understandable and part of being human. We can then choose to act in a kind way towards ourselves and be compassionate to that part that is struggling right now.

We are hardwired to focus on the negative (this is part of how the human mind has evolved to protect us and keep us safe) and automatically think critical thoughts about ourselves. We do not automatically act kindly towards ourselves. As a result, we need to deliberately practice using words of compassion when our minds are going into self-critical or self-punishing mode.

Remind yourself that this is a transition period. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel down during this time. And ask yourself, “what do I need right now?” Maybe you need to take a few minutes away from your computer to go for a walk or make a coffee. Maybe you need to tell your mind something compassionate like “this too will pass. I can get through this”.

Dr Kristin Neff is a pioneer in the area self-compassion and her website is filled with information and practical resources if you want to learn more about this idea of finding your inner empathic voice (https://self-compassion.org/).

Finding your values compass

We also know that focusing on what is important to us can help us balance negative thoughts and feelings that arise during periods of transition. Psychologists often talk about focusing on our values to engage in a meaningful and rich life. Values are our heart’s deepest desires for how we want to behave as human beings. Values tell us about what we stand for and can help guide us in what we are doing with our lives. There are many ways to identify the values that are important to us. Here are a few questions to get you started:

      • What sort of person do I want to be?
      • What is important to me?
      • What does a rich, meaningful life look like to me?

When unhelpful thoughts (e.g., “I hate having to come to work, I wish I was still on holidays”) arise, think about a value that you are fulfilling in this moment. For example, you might value helping others, community involvement, or personal growth. Find a way to speak kindly to yourself by saying something like “I may not be enjoying this task and that’s okay because I can see that I am making a contribution that aligns with my value of …”

Just like this picture, we can hold the metaphorical helium balloons with unhelpful thoughts and uncomfortable feelings lightly as we move in the direction of our values. Or we can get tangled up in the string and have these thoughts and feelings result in us feeling stuck, unfulfilled and directionless.

This idea of living a values-focused life is part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). To find out more about values, have a look at this short animation by Dr. Russ Harris, a leader in research and training in ACT:

Here are some other ideas to get you through those difficult moments during the back to work period by being mindfully present. These techniques bring us into the present moment, away from the overthinking about the past or worrying about the future:

      • Breathing to regulate: We know that slowing down our breathing helps to regulate our bodies when we are feeling stressed, worried, anxious or distressed. Focusing on your breathing for a few minutes in a deliberate way also helps to move your mind away from the negative critical thoughts. Try this breathing technique now – it’s called the 16 second breathing exercise: Breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, gently breathe out for a count of four, and stay at the end of that breathe for a count of four. Even doing this once can calm down the physical aspects of stress, which in turn can help with the emotional distress and the unhelpful thinking.
      • Grounding: Grounding exercises help us become aware of our physical body, which in turn takes our focus away from negative thoughts and/or upsetting emotions. An example of a grounding technique is “dropping anchor”. Try it now – whether you are sitting or standing, put both feet on the floor and push them down in to the ground. Notice the muscle tension in your legs and feet. Feel connected with your body, and feel strong in your posture.
      • Noticing our senses: Bringing awareness to our senses can also help ground us in the present moment and move away from distressing feelings and unhelpful thoughts. Try this now – look around and list five things you can see. Now tune in your ears and list five things you can hear. Finally notice your body and list five things you can feel are in contact with your body (e.g., your legs on the chair, your feet on the floor, and your hand on your phone / mouse).

As we move through January remember to be kind to yourself, steady unhelpful thinking by focusing on your values, and remember to breathe and practice mindful moments throughout your day.

Eimear Quigley

Learning and Development Manager – Behaviour Support and Psychological Services

BSc(psych)Hons, MclinicPsych

For the last 20 years, Eimear has worked in mental health, child protection and disability, with an unwavering passion for embedding person-centred humanistic approaches in psychological practice. Working as a clinical psychologist and senior leader in the government, non-government and university sectors in Perth and regional WA has given her a strong grounding and focus on compassionately healing others. Most recently, Eimear was the director of the psychology training clinic at Edith Cowan University (ECU), where she led 5 clinical supervisors and 15 provisional psychologist in providing high-quality, ethical psychological services to the community. In her Senior Lecturing role at ECU she provided training for clinical psychology students in foundational therapeutic and professional skills.

Eimear is passionate about disseminating psychological information to multiple audiences. She enjoys writing about psychology and has published two journal articles in peer-reviewed journals and one piece for The Conversation. Whilst at ECU, she created and facilitated staff wellbeing and Alumni psycho-educational sessions on self-compassion, behavioural change and Life Values. She has completed Pod Cast interviews for YouTube in collaboration with a suicide prevention charity organisation and has assisted journalists in print media articles and radio interviews.

Eimear is also focused on giving back to the community and volunteers with the Lion Heart Camp for Kids and is an Executive Director (Secretary) on the Board of Management for ConnectGroups WA.

She is driven to create systemic change in our society and does this by supporting best practice in the development, training and supervision of early career psychologists at ORS.