Thursday, 7 January 2016
The decorations are down, the lights have been boxed up, the tree has been consigned to the recycling centre and the last of the Ferrero Rocher have been eaten. All that remains of Christmas and New Year 2015/16 are dents in the carpet where I rearranged the furniture to accommodate the tree, and a few extra inches on my waistline!
So, life’s getting back to normal again. I love the festivities but I also adore that first evening after reclaiming the lounge. No longer are we in danger of standing on rogue Lego pieces from Santa’s latest offering or risking seizures brought on by excessive twinkly lights in our midst.
It also means the kids going back to school and the return of normal working hours. PJs will no longer be acceptable attire until midday and meals must contain more vegetables than chocolate. It’s back to the real world people. Move along, nothing to see here.
Whilst I look forward to the comfort of my daily routine, it does mean bursting the festive bubble. No more putting things off until after Christmas or waiting for 2016. That time is now. It’s time to deal with “stuff” again.
That brings with it the stark reminder of my Single Plus Baggage status. And for the first time since advent began, this week I was visited by my arch nemesis – The 3am Fear!
Forget monsters under the bed or in the wardrobe. The 3am Fear can’t be eradicated by shining a torch into a dark corner to expose an innocent teddy bear or pile of lost socks. It grips our very souls, takes away our common sense and leaves us gibbering wrecks in the middle of the night.
And what is it we’re so terrified of at this ridiculous hour? The answer is, the future. All of it. Stretching out ahead of us with no certainty to cling onto. Kids, home, income, car, pension, health, job, family, friends, pets… I could go on but I don’t want to add something you haven’t already thought of!
Everyone has worries and the potential to wake up in the night but since becoming Single Plus Baggage, this little issue seems to have exploded out of all proportion.
Not only has the departure of our partners been the cause of this additional uncertainty, now we don’t even have that particular someone to talk it through with or at the very least “accidentally” wake up in the middle of the night as we thrash around stressing. There seems to be something of an injustice here!
So, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to blame our absent soul mate for all that is scary in our world? I hear some of you clapping and cheering at this point but let me stop you there. The answer I was actually looking for was “Oh no we won’t SPB!”
As tempting as it is to blame those no longer in our lives, it doesn’t really solve anything. In fact, the relentless anger it can cause just leads to further sleepless nights and, in extreme circumstances, restraining orders should those black thoughts be followed up with actions. Instead, let’s look at what we’re actually doing to ourselves and deal with it.
What we tend to do in the middle of the night is catastrophize. I promise you, that’s a real word. One of my new favourites actually. That means we overthink our situation and do three things – overestimate the chances of something bad happening, overestimate the magnitude of that event and underestimate our ability to cope with it. Basically, we assume the worst case scenario will definitely happen, that we have absolutely no control over it and we won’t cope with it when it becomes reality.
So, you decide in your head that your ex will meet a younger woman, get married, go on honeymoon, get trampled to death by an elephant and the new bride will disappear with all the money leaving you with no income. Or, if your husband has already passed away, the life assurance company takes back your pay out due to the fact that your loved one inadvertently put the wrong date on the application form.
Either way, you have no money, are forced to sell your home and car then live in a tent near the kids’ school as you can’t afford the bus. You fail to cope with the new turn of events and turn to drink. You arrive late for pick up daily, cheer on the wrong team at matches and attempt to snog the games teacher when he asks if you’re ok.
I’m being a bit flippant here but you get the idea. We imagine a minor issue, extrapolate it to the absolute worst possible and least likely conclusion, and then assume we can’t do anything to stop it or manage it. Panic sets in and we’re awake for hours.
In the cold light of day, we can generally recognize this as faulty thinking. Being aware that we are catastrophizing enables us to look more realistically at the scenario we’ve generated and reduce the chance of a recurrence the following night.
But does that help us when we’re actually in the grip of The 3am Fear? Not really, no. Our catastrophizing mind batters our logical brain into submission and takes over. This is when we need to use the following 5 steps:
1. Get Out Of Bed
We need to associate bed with positive memories. I’m referring to sleep, amongst other things. We most definitely do not want to associate it with fear, angst and tears else the sight of our bed may well trigger further anxiety next time we try to get a good night’s sleep. So, first and foremost, get up out of bed.
2. Keep Lighting Dimmed
Whether you sit in a chair in your room, get a warm decaffeinated drink from the kitchen or go into the lounge, keep the lights dimmed. Here’s the science bit… exposure to light at night, particularly backlights on iPhones and similar devices, can suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate our sleeping/waking cycle. This effectively means we trick our brains into thinking it’s morning and we wake up ready to greet the day. So keep the lights low and avoid screens. This is not the time to be checking Facebook, for so many reasons!
3. Write It Down
By putting pen to paper your thoughts can be safely stored for you to review, ridicule and rationalize later at your leisure, thus freeing up your brain for sleepy thoughts.
Choosing a non-stimulating distraction can be helpful. Reading a favourite old book, picking up some simple knitting or going through a movie in your head can all be useful. Watching a thriller or reconciling your bank statement less so! I sometimes think back to a spa I once went to and imagine myself wandering around different parts of it. Bliss! And definitely cheaper than the real thing!
When you’re feeling calmer, climb back into bed and run through some breathing exercises or meditations. Having said iPhones are out, there are a number of useful mediation apps, some with relaxing music that goes off after a pre-set time. I quite like silently talking to each of my muscles in turn telling them to relax. I start with my toes and work up slowly all the way to my jaw, face and forehead, letting my body get heavier and heavier. If my mind wanders, I simply start again. It usually does the trick and I drift off to sleep.
After a decent snooze, the things you were terrified about won’t seem anywhere near as bad. That said, don’t think for a moment I’m belittling your fears. They are genuine concerns about your future, the blueprint for which has been replaced with tearstained divorce or probate papers. Fear is an essential part of human survival, keeping us on our toes and safe from predators.
But just because things have changed and life is no longer what you planned, don’t assume that everything that comes your way will be negative. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring. There’ll be difficulties just as in anyone’s life, but there are also likely to be opportunities you didn’t anticipate either. Chance meetings with new people could light the way for unexpected friendships, hobbies, travel, career paths, anything!
Keep an open mind. You might just be pleasantly surprised by where life takes you!