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Uncertainty and well-being: the Mary Poppins approach

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

Thriving happily with a song or a Swivel! in uncertain times

As the overall number of Covid-19 cases diminishes, and restrictions are being lowered in many countries, we would expect to feel happier and yet headlines keep appearing on my social media news feeds that dampen the spirit. It isn’t media spin; scientific and business research abounds with evidence that the impact of the pandemic on health – physically and mentally - is widespread and long-term.

On one side, few businesses have a return-to-office strategy and various surveys[1] show that significant numbers of employees are uncertain that the office is where they want to be. We had to relinquish aspects of control over our lives when Covid-19 arrived and now indecisiveness is continuing to feed our stress levels. For recovered or recovering patients, the news isn’t especially encouraging either when we read headlines such as “Scientists warn that Covid will accelerate ‘dementia pandemic’[2]”. What else can we expect from Covid-19 and when will we reach the light at the end of the tunnel?

Since the early days of the pandemic, millions of pages on guidance for well-being has flooded the internet. McKinsey published an article recently[3] with a nice graphic for self-care and well-being for leaders. It proposes sleep, doing some exercise, taking mindful breathing breaks, meditating, being kind, and more. These are all good recommendations although there is little that we haven’t heard before. We may even agree that more sleep or setting a switch-off time are sensible stress-reducers, but will we give them more than a passing thought?

Perhaps one of the difficulties we have in adapting or initiating new practices into our lives is that in this current climate of uncertainty, we have an aversion to embracing any more change. Adapting to, and navigating the unknown pandemic territory has been exhausting for many of us. Alongside a general reluctance to change, attempting to dedicate our energies to attend to our well-being as well is more than we think we can cope with. We grasp with a sense of relief at straws of anything recognisable and our comfort zones are glad when they find a semblance of something we are familiar with. Except that now, after we’ve been forced into tolerating new conditions, we may be harbouring behaviours and habits that are not helping us cope and worse still, may be magnified in the constrained environment.

Too many emails or demands for meetings in the past may not have changed; it might have grown worse. Now you can’t have a chat to resolve an issue quickly and simply because you aren’t in the next office. Add to that family interruptions, poor internet connection, or lack of a basic work environment, and the stress mounts further. There are hundreds of scenarios where the new situation clashes with comfort zones, causing a greater and greater desire to retreat.

How did you cope with stress in the past? A glass or two of a favourite tipple after work? If the drinks cabinet is just behind or next to you, why wait until the evening? Maybe you went for a run or to the gym. Now your exercises are confined to a patch of space wherever you can find one, or you just give up and watch another boxed series on Netflix instead and wait for the time when you can socialize freely again. How long will we be able to keep these fixes up before we notice we’re feeling miserable? If none of our fallback coping mechanisms (aka comfort zone tactics) help over the long term, when are we going to try some of the recommendations and remedies to boost our levels of happiness and well-being?

What does it take for us to actually heed sensible advice and act upon it? Can’t we just flick a switch or press the ‘Reset’ button?

Well yes, we can. Most of us[4] know the terms “drop it” or “move on”. With perhaps some effort, we are able to do this and yet too often, we function in automatic mode. Our brains are busy thinking how to handle a difficult colleague, what to cook for dinner, or fury at a careless driver, and we rarely notice anything else. But we are still breathing, walking, drinking, eating, and ‘listening’ to music in the background too, perhaps. As we indulge in the negative emotions and ignore all our other behaviours, our brains quickly recognise patterns and fix the neuron paths, and before we know it, we’re stuck. The logical consequence is a feeling of helplessness, which in turn builds more stress. And yet, the way out of this impasse is easier than you expect.

Mary Poppins is a fictional no-nonsense inimitable nanny in 19th century London. She is unpredictable, a veritable fountain of happy surprises. Her remedies are simple, along the lines of “just a spoonful of sugar” – but we don’t even need to take the sugar to feel better. Just singing the song actually helps – or any other one from the film/musical, like this one: “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. It is the act of doing something different that shifts the brain out of its old patterns.

The challenge is to recognise when you are stuck in an undesirable behaviour or emotion, and disrupt yourself. You only have to focus on something different for a few moments to achieve a ‘Reset’ effect. How you disrupt yourself is up to you. Nurture and develop your creativity; the choice is limitless. What would shift your brain into a different gear and awaken your senses? Breathing, counting (yes, the old ‘count to 10’ is highly effective), stirring your tea or coffee with the other hand, clapping, stretching, yawning (the mindful way), shaking your hands vigorously (literally shake out the unwanted behaviour), singing, or something different? One minute of complete focus on whatever activity you are doing is all you need to reset and refresh yourself. All you have to do is TRY. NOW.

If you’re not certain about going it alone and would like some help to disrupt any negative patterns - or “unwind without unravelling”, I have designed and developed a method which I call “Swivel!”. Swivel! is based on three techniques: breathe, stretch, and move, and all the activities can be done in 60 seconds or less. You can Swivel! almost anywhere, at any time. See the website: for sample exercises. Book a free 20-minute consultation there too. Or join the Facebook group:


[1] At date of writing, any search engine produces a long list of responses to the question: How many employees want to return to the office (search carried out on 21 September 2021) [2] FT World News, 1 September 2021, on Facebook [3] Jacqueline Brassey, Aaron De Smet, Ashish Kothari, Johanne Lavoie, Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi, and Sasha Zolley: “Future Proof: Solving the ‘adaptability paradox’ for the long-term. McKinsey and Company, 2 August 2021 [4] Naturally there are some exceptions, for example sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). See Doidge, N (2007): The Brain that Changes Itself. Penguin

Photo credit: Andreas Schwarzkopf Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

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