Iconic Paralympian Wendy Smith talks managing stress and anxiety
TedX Speaker, personal development mentor and former Paralympic basketball star, Wendy Smith, lives by the ideology: ‘There is no such word as ‘can’t’. Said to ‘spark a fire in others’ as a motivational speaker, Wendy uses her platform to promote positive thinking. Providing her audience with useful methods to help combat stress and anxiety, Wendy encourages change.
With 2020 being defined by its uncertainty, day-to-day stress and anxiety has become the norm for most – and even those who did not previously struggle are starting to feel the strain. In her capacity as an emotional performance specialist, Wendy has an expert understanding of human emotion and uses this to help others through therapy.
With 60% of adults and 68% of young people admitting that their mental health has plummeted since the emergence of Covid-19 (Mind, 2020), I asked Wendy:
What advice could you give to those struggling in these unprecedented times?
Stop and think:
According to Wendy, self-awareness is vital. Recognising when a thought-process is harmful and unproductive can help prevent negative thoughts spiralling out of control.
“Bring yourself back into the moment. Regain control of your system, because it is a validation system - It's only running to support you, it's not there to fight you. So, if you wake up and you're already having anxious thoughts about the possibility of everything that could go wrong, you just end up in this negative thought loop. But if you become aware of it, you can stop and think: ‘Actually, [this] thought process is really not helpful’.”
It’s important to start your day in the best mindset possible. Begin the day by focusing on what you do have, rather than what you don’t have. This sets a positive tone for the rest of the day.
“When I wake up in the morning, I check in with [my mind] first, and ask myself: ‘What do I not need to worry about?’. Well, I've got a roof over my head, I've got food in the fridge and I've got heating. I [start] very simple. Singing and dancing like everything's positive and happy really isn't going to help you. Just get to that nice, level space before you get out of bed where you've got control of [your mind] and then purposefully direct it all day.”
Simple techniques such as deep breathing can also help level emotions.
“When you feel yourself get that hit of anxiety and [you’re] thinking the negative thoughts, just breathe. There’s a reason we do deep breathing techniques and that’s because they release tension from the body. It gives you the opportunity to reset, get a grip again and then move on.”
In 2019/20 stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to work-related ill health (HSE, 2020). Proving the negative effects stress can have, it is essential workplace stress is managed. I asked Wendy:
How do you manage your own stress and anxiety, and what advice do you give to those who are going through the same?
Put yourself first:
Wendy understands the importance of putting her own emotional wellbeing first, and advices others to do the same. She always ensures she is in a positive headspace before beginning her working day.
“Every day I make sure I look after me first - I don't call it selfish, I call it self- first. With my work, I spend a lot of time with people who have emotional issues, so I have to make sure I'm in a good space.”
Exercise and spending time outdoors in nature are both essential activities that ensure Wendy’s wellbeing - they help her, help others.
“Every morning I meditate. I do what they call ‘heart, brain, coherence’. I get my body in a really good state [through] exercise. I spend time in nature, I take my dog out every day, even if I'm feeling down. It doesn't matter what the weather is like, I go to the woods because it's just such a replenishing, revitalising place to be.”
Take a breather:
When feeling overwhelmed, Wendy says it is important to take a step back from the situation causing the anxiety to gain a different perspective.
“If I recognise I'm getting stressed out, I will stop what I'm doing instead of [continuing with] something that's going to create more stress. I purposefully change my state. Now, that could be that I just sit and breathe and get rid of it. Or it might be that I put some music on and have a dance or a good old sing. It might be that I need to phone a friend or one of my mentors and just say, ‘I'm having a problem, I'm getting a bit stressed out, can you help me out please?’ And they'll talk me through the process."
Removing yourself from the source of the stress enables you to recognise the cause and then successfully refocus.
“It could be I'm trying to do eight different things at once. So, [recognising] the reason I'm getting stressed, I stop [and] write a list out of importance, starting with the top priority and work down.”
Recognise the early signs:
Wendy believes prevention is better than cure, particularly when dealing with stress. Recognising the early physical signs of stress and dealing with it straight away is essential.
“I think the most important thing with stress is recognising you’re getting it before you get to the point of meltdown.
“If your jaw or shoulders are tight, that's a good sign that you've got stress coming in at an unconscious level because the body will give you a signal first and if you ignore it, it will get worse.
“So, if I feel I'm clamping down on my jaw or my shoulders are tight, I think: ‘Right, I've recognised it. Something's not right in my environment and I need to sort it out now’. I'll shut the laptop, go out in the garden for five minutes, do a bit of breathing, reset and come back. This means you don’t get these layers of stress that build up throughout the day. All these little stresses can add up and then you'll end up having a meltdown over someone not washing a cup up!”
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