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Gaps and Fire Breaks - simple tips for when life is too busy

Jane at garden gate

It is now a long time since I was diagnosed with chronic auto immune diseases. A long time since I began to really study what things sap my energy and leave me slumped and sad, what things build me up joyfully.

It is a long time since my annihilated adrenal glands gave me the super-power of being able to detect these things incredibly accurately.

Over the past decade I've realised that it isn't just people with chronic illnesses that are effected by energy depletion, but everyone.

What I am going to share in this letter is the tiny thing that I found the most debilitating and the ridiculously simple things that I found helped. I warn you that they are so ridiculously simple that they sound as though they couldn't possibly work. You are just going to have to trust me that they do.

I have an auto-immune disease called Addison's disease where neither my pituitary nor adrenal glands work at all. I take replacement steroids each morning and that keeps me alive and functioning. In a healthy body however the adrenal glands provide steroids on a minute by minute basis, depending on what you are doing, how much activity, how much stress.

I, on the other hand, get a certain amount of steroids each morning - kept on the lower side of normal to avoid nasty side effects - and, when that runs out, well so do I and that is the end of my day.

I quickly found that mental stress gobbled up my steroid allowance even more quickly than physical stress. My brain can't tell the difference between worrying about something and actually facing it - I suspect that yours can't either.

What I found to be the very worst gobbler of my energy was the panicky feeling of being 'too busy'. It wasn't the actual busyness - and I was busy, I had two small children and a cut flower growing/floristry business - it was the feeling of mental overwhelm.

The Gap

When you lay a wooden floor you leave what is called an expansion gap. This is a clear space at the edges - not a big gap, it tends to be hidden by the skirting - but a sliver of nothingness at the edges.

Wood is a material that expands and contracts with temperature and humidity - leaving the gap stops it buckling and snapping.

What I am suggesting is that you add in extension gaps to your life - tiny slivers of nothing at the beginning and end of the day.

The important thing is that they are nothing - they are not a sneaky 'productivity in disguise' meditation or journaling session or cup of coffee in the garden (great as these are). They are simply standing and breathing and doing nothing.

I have simplified this down to 5 breaths - count of four in, count of four out - standing by a window or outside.

It starts the day with a gap of blank space so that I don't leap straight into the frenzy of 'things that need doing'. It ends the day with a gap of blank space which seems to help prevent all the 'things still undone' making it into my sleep.

The Fire Break.

The single most energy sapping thing I found was those times when I would be going from one busy, noisy thing straight into another. It could be work things - back to back meetings - but it was just as likely to be the post school rush. The worst of all was rushing against the clock to finish harvesting flowers, dropping bouquets somewhere on the way to the school pick up and then immediately into town for my eldest daughter's ballet lesson, throwing snacks into the back of the car to prevent post school hangriness.

I think we probably all recognise this kind of afternoon - where everything has to be done at a certain time and any slip up throws the whole thing out.

I slipped up all the time. We were always running late, I frequently forgot the snacks, my car was mouldy and sloshing with water where flower buckets weren't properly tethered and fell over, we often arrived in Glasgow with only one ballet shoe and no hair bobbles.

Then I realised that creating a break - a handful of slow breaths with eyes closed - in between the activities stopped the rush transferring from one to another. It acted as a fire break. A ten second gap of nothingness between harvesting and packing up the car and my brain worked more efficiently, it stopped the blind low level panic that caused so many of the forgotten things. It restored a feeling that everything was perfectly doable.

Most importantly it didn't send me into the exhausted slump which often had me worrying about having the energy to actually drive home again.

Now I try to remember to take that time when I change between activities - a tiny sliver of time, it is surprising how little you actually need as long as you don't try to combine it with anything else.

Time to simply close my eyes and breathe four or five times - in to the count of three, out to the count of six.

If you have times when you feel overwhelmed or over busy I'd suggest giving it a go - very simple, but very effective.

I know both sound really too simple to work - but do give them a go if you feel over busy, and let me know how you get on in the comments.

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Comments: 3

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Rosamund Rodriguez

I’ve just finished reading Breath by James Nestor and this chimes so well with that. The restorative power of breathing consciously and mindfully is quite something.


In reply to Rosamund Rodriguez
That's really interesting Rosie - I shall look the book up. I know that when I am tense I find that my breath is always high up in my body and usually shallow and that it is possible to alter the way I feel by changing that.
Rosamund Rodriguez

In reply to SnapdragonJane
It’s a great read, I’ve already leant mine to someone else or I would have offered to pass it on.