Blue Monday: Is it compulsory?

 

So, the press tell us it’s ‘Blue Monday’. I have to confess, this annual ‘event’ is new to me, but apparently it’s been in existence for at least a handful of years. For those of you equally unaware, this is supposedly the most depressing day of the year. The reasons cited include debt due to Christmas spending, poor weather and failed New Year resolutions. It’s also been suggested that this is the day on which travel companies get a higher-than-average number of bookings – the disillusioned looking for a sunshine boost, perhaps? My inner cynic is attempting a bit of mischief-making here: is Blue Monday yet another opportunity to entice spending? That said, if you are having a tough day, whatever the reason, here are some strategies that could help.

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  1. Your mind is a powerful influencer. Take a good breath in, stretch out your arms (however best you can) and smile (if only to release tension around the jaw), and kickstart the brain into thinking that things are OK. You may need to repeat a couple of times, but eventually your body will get the idea.
  2. Be kind to yourself. Just for now, accept things as they are. Allowing yourself to do this, if only for a few moments, can be remarkably freeing.
  3. Try to stay aware of your breath. Use the breath as an anchor for the here and now. If you feel yourself slipping into negative thought patterns (very easy; we ALL do it), gently and kindly bring yourself back to the breath.

Small things can make a big difference. 🙂

text © wellbeing practitioner 2016

Feeling SAD? 

If you live in the northern hemisphere, then you may have noticed that it’s winter. Even though the days are now lengthening in the UK, the sun (perhaps like many of us during these dark mornings) isn’t inclined to rise as early as we may like. And that may cause us to suffer from SAD (seasonally affected disorder). The changes in light levels can have quite an adverse effect on our mood. We may generally feel lethargic, tense and lacking in concentration. In short, we may just want to hunker down and re-emerge when the sun is much higher in the sky. But why is this? Well, the reduced levels of sunlight may trigger a drop in serotonin levels – serotonin being a ‘feel-good’ hormone. There may also be some interference with our melatonin levels – a hormone that can determine sleep patterns. And, overall, the low light levels disrupt our circadian cycle – our naturally recurring body rhythms during a 24-hour period. So, what to do?

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  1. Read all about it. The UK mental health charity MIND gives much practical information on this PDF about simple changes that could make a significant difference.
  2. Grab any amount of sunlight by taking a walk, a cycle, or just sitting in the fresh air. Every little helps.
  3. Be kind to yourself. Take a massage to relieve stress and tension. And spend time with friends/family/partners who can support you when you are feeling fragile.

Finally, try to remember that the days ARE getting lighter, and spring WILL soon be here.

text © wellbeing practitioner 2013

image © jon

NY blues: are resolutions good for you?

Time to resurrect a New Year’s post from three years ago …

As 2013 rapidly approaches, thoughts may have turned to all sorts of resolutions for the new year: ‘I must lose weight’, ‘I will refrain from alcohol’, ‘I will do more exercise’ … Long (and many) lists of dos and don’ts are underway. Endless promises to change/improve – often within impossible timeframes. But do we expect too much of ourselves? Do partially achieved resolutions push us back into old patterns of, perhaps, a sense of failure and low self-esteem? Do we really want to change at all? Of course, I’m always in favour of positive life changes, but my feeling is that some of the permanent changes you wish to achieve should be eased into over a longer period of time. Here are some suggestions that may help.

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  1. To start with, free yourself from long lists.
  2. Now focus on achieving something small today that makes you feel good. Don’t worry about tomorrow, or the next day, or the next.
  3. Finally, keep your daily targets achievable, praise yourself at the end of each day for those achievements, and begin each new day with increasing confidence that you can continue to build on those small achievements.

Slowly, slowly, small changes become new ways of living – ways that make you feel better about yourself and ways that offer positive and health-giving changes. A peaceful and stress-free new year to all.

text © wellbeing practitioner 2012
photo © lynn therese brown 2012
 

Mindfulness: safe or savage?

It seems to be human nature that, as soon as ‘the next best thing’ is ‘discovered’ and gaining popularity, a counter-movement begins to let us know about the perceived downsides and dangers. Of course, we need to take a rounded view of all things. But we also need to experiment with what works best for us, as individuals, rather than as an average or a statistic. I’m talking particularly here about the huge amount of column inches dedicated to mindfulness practice. Is it good? Is it bad? How do we know? There are a lot of courses, classes, workshops and teachers out there. So, what should we reasonably expect?

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  1. You could, perhaps, check out the course you intend to sign up for. Do a bit of background research on whether, in general, it seems right for you. Ask others who have been on it (if possible) how they found it.
  2. Talk to the teachers in advance about any concerns you may have (including how they can support you if you are finding some of your responses to the process a little different from those anticipated). And ask a few questions: What are their meditation/mindfulness qualifications? How long have they been teaching? Do they still have a regular practice of their own? Do they still have teachers? (In my opinion, a good teacher practices what they teach/preach and is still a student themselves, or has a mentor/supervisor for their teaching work.) A good teacher won’t mind answering these things (and, indeed, many will want to let you know in advance their own journey with the process.) You could also, if you are unsure or have a history of, e.g., depression/anxiety, talk to your doctor. Once signed up, don’t forget that you can simply stop if that’s the best option for you. And, if you DO have a history of depression/anxiety or any other issues that concern you (and perhaps are being medicated for them) then make your teacher aware. A good teacher will check these things in advance, but, just in case …
  3. Be aware that there are no quick fixes. Sure, a course may run for a certain number of weeks. But that isn’t the end; it’s really just the beginning for how you can, day by day, incorporate what you have learned. This is a lifelong work in progress (if you want it to be). Beyond a fixed-length course, you may want to consider joining a regular meditation/mindfulness group – which many, including myself, find helpful in keeping going with their own practice. Alternatively, the whole thing may just not be for you. And that’s fine too.

Sea here

free from stress

You know how sometimes you walk along the shore, and you just feel better? Revitalised in some way. ‘Must be all that sea air,’ you say to yourselves. Well, there’s more truth than myth in that phrase. For starters, seaweed, which inhabits quite a bit of our coastline, is rich in iodine, a mineral that helps us to maintain a normal metabolism. In fact, it’s so rich that the body absorbs the iodine just by breathing in the air around the seaweed (let alone eating the edible varieties). Seawater itself contains magnesium, also a mineral. Magnesium can be very effective at clearing headaches, balancing stress, and helping us to sleep better. And then, of course, the sounds of the sea can have a relaxing effect because the ocean waves ‘sync’ with our brain waves to calm us down. There’s a couple of other things to think about, too …

  1. Our…

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How do you measure happiness?

Today, 20 March 2015, it is the United Nations International Day of Happiness. But how do we measure happiness for ourselves? And how do we judge happiness in others? Here is a truly fascinating talk by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who has made a study of human decision-making, judgement and behavioural economics. Grab a drink, draw up a chair, and be prepared to see the concept of happiness in a different way:

http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kahneman_the_riddle_of_experience_vs_memory?language=en

Do you have seasonal stress?

free from stress

There’s an old Zen adage that goes something like: ‘You should meditate for 20 minutes every day, unless you’re too busy – in which case you should meditate for an hour.’ This piece of advice seems particularly relevant in the 21st century as we race through the hours and weeks at breakneck speed. So much to do. So little time to do it. Certainly, no spare capacity to sit and do nothing – particularly if you are trying to plan the perfect festive break on top of everything else! Yet time and again, scientific studies have proven the efficacy of simple relaxation techniques in allowing us to free ourselves from the stresses of modern-day living. Being still and relaxing the body can help us to release physical tensions that build up (most commonly around the neck, shoulders and jaw). Focusing on the present moment (or mindfulness, as it is often called) lets…

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Your muscles: notice any tension?

Did you know there are about 650 muscles in the human body? These muscles comprise fibres that have elastic qualities. Occasionally we may suffer from muscle tension – often the result of being stressed. You’ll know that feeling, I’m sure: everything is tight, painful, possibly also causing splitting headaches or backache. You may also feel that you want to sink into a hot bath and soak away the tension. And that’s a reasonable solution – but not always practical. What if you’re at work and you need a quick fix? Well, there is a method that anyone can use called Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). It was ‘invented’ by Edmund Jacobson, who was born in the USA in 1888. His laboratory work allowed him to identify that physical tension results in muscle fibres shortening – i.e. your muscles contract. He therefore undertook to establish whether the opposite, ‘uncontracted’ muscles, could result in balance and relaxation. And guess what the answer was? Yes, that’s right: he was able to prove that systematically tensing and relaxing groups of muscles throughout the body allowed us to feel the difference between tension and relaxation, and thus become more attuned to noticing that we are tense and ultimately releasing that tension. (Not always as easy as it sounds if you don’t train yourself to notice.) PMR is a great relaxation therapy to use ‘on the go’ in an abbreviated form. But like all abbreviated forms, you’ll need to know the long version first!

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  1. Find a relaxation therapist or a mindfulness-based relaxation class of some kind that uses this system (shameless advert for myself here: I am a qualified practitioner of this technique). It’s very relaxing and is generally undertaken lying down while the practitioner guides you through each muscle group.
  2. Practise the full-length version on your own on a regular basis. Daily is best. Allow about half an hour. (Tip: an evening session can be particularly rewarding if you have problems sleeping.)
  3. After three or so weeks, or several full-length sessions, you will be able to apply your own shorthand to the system so that you can work on just one area of the body or reach a state of relaxation much more quickly. This is because you’ll be much more in tune with how you are feeling physically, and therefore able to head off any real tension problems at the pass.

Like mindfulness, like meditation, like breathing itself, PMR isn’t exactly new (although admittedly, at only 100 or so years old, it’s a lot newer than breathing!). But it is uncomplicated and can be very effective. I feel a PMR workshop about to be launched!

text © wellbeing practitioner 2014

photo ©  goroo  (with thanks)

Mindfulness: a newfangled mystery?

We hear a lot these days about mindfulness as though it’s only just been invented. But the truth is, it’s thousands of years old. It also happens to be a simple and effective ‘tool’ for helping us to create a place of calm in 21st-century living. For something so simple, mindfulness can be awfully difficult to put into words. So here goes. I now join thousands of column inches and web pages on the subject. My own attempt: Mindfulness means being present. It means bringing our attention to, and focusing on, now, this moment (and whatever it is we are doing in this moment). In being aware of the present moment in this way (how we feel, what we’re thinking and our awareness of sensation), we can help to quieten some of the endless ‘chatter’ that goes on in our heads; we can start to win the battle with a mind that is constantly hijacked by yesterday, tomorrow, the deeper past, the distant future, pain, what’s for tea, worry, anxiety, fear, anger, obsession, a to-do list, an inability to allow ourselves to relax … all distracting us from the task in hand. Whatever it is we’re engaged with – knitting, working, jogging, hanging out with friends, skydiving – we can apply mindfulness to it, simply by bringing ourselves back to our ‘now’. As soon as we notice the mind wandering from ‘now’, we gently guide it back. Half the trick is noticing, in the first place, that the mind has wandered. The other half is gently guiding it back, without judgement on how things are, with kindness and with an open mind. (Maybe I should crack a terrible joke here with reference to skydivers: their parachutes, like their minds, will definitely work best when open!) So, how to get started?

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  1. Spend a few minutes focusing your awareness on your breath. Notice the sensations as you breathe in and breathe out. Notice the passage of your breath throughout the body. And stay with those sensations. Every time you notice your mind wander off, gently bring it back to the breath.
  2. Be calm, be kind, be patient as you repeat this process. Everyone, everyone, everyone who practises mindfulness suffers from wandering mind!
  3. The fantastic thing is, the more we ‘do’ mindfulness, the more we retrain our brains. Many, many scientific studies in recent years show compelling evidence that a mindful approach really does help to focus your thoughts and help you to remain calm. Mindfulness might not change the issues in your life, but, with repeated practice, it will allow you to change your response to them.

text © wellbeing practitioner 2014