Let’s talk about stress

April marks National Stress Awareness Month so it only seemed right to add an extra blog post in to support this important initiative.

Stress Awareness Month has been recognised every April since 1992, which is news to me. In fact, before this year (2021) I didn’t realise it was acknowledged by its own month, but it’s really great news. Stress is something we throw about all the time by saying “we’re so stressed” or “it’s so stressful” but what do we actually mean?

Learning to cope with stress and finding healthy ways to deal with our own stress is important in being able to lead a balanced and positive life. It seems particularly poignant after the year we’ve had (and continue to live through) with the COVID pandemic and all the restrictions and changes to life as we know it.

StressSomeone Trying to Repair Every Situation Solo. – Dave Willis

WHAT IS STRESS?

Let’s talk about stress: it’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, stress is primarily a physical response by our body to stimulus (whether internal or external). Without the ability to feel stress, humankind would not have survived. The classic example is of the caveman who used the onset of stress to become aware of potential dangers and threats – and the same can be said today (only we are not running away from lions and tigers but work, business, relationships, invisible illnesses…), stress is our body’s reaction when under attack to switch to “fight or flight mode”. This switch is a complex mix of hormones and chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol, to prepare the body for action.

The result is that some parts of the body will work overtime (like blood flowing to our muscles) while others slow down (like digestion). For example, think about when you’re stressed, you often don’t feel hungry, or you never feel satiated. Or you get stomach cramps… your body isn’t directing its energy to your digestion at this time. Instead, our heart pounds, we have a boost of energy and we are “in the zone”.

All of which is great to deal with the stress in front of us, but less energy goes towards our brains and our focus is minimised. We can no longer think straight, get easily confused and don’t focus on other tasks. We’re in this “fight or flight” mode where we either have to “fight back” which is often displayed as aggression or anger toward others or we “take flight” and remove ourself from the situation. The second can only worsen the original stress which continues, even though we are burying our head in the sand (guilty as charged).

According to the Stress Org website, there is a third response to stress, that I didn’t know about. That is “freeze”. This is a state where our body becomes dysregulated: the energy that has been initiated from the threat is locked in our bodies and we freeze – for example we hold our breath or our breathing is shallow and irregular.

As much as I love the science behind stress – I highly recommend you researching some more (the Stress Management Society website is great for bite-sized information).

WHAT ARE STRESSORS?

Stressors are the perceived threat: the things that makes us feel stressed.

That state of stress is reached when the “demand exceeds the personal and social resources that individual is able to mobilise”.

The stressor that leads to this state of “collapse” and of “exceeded demands” can be any number of things. Like emotions, stress is very personal so what one person finds particularly stressful and challenging, another person doesn’t even consider as a stressor. Perhaps it is something at work, a colleague, a relationship, diet culture, the pressure from social media, a change of situation or livelihood… ultimately it is when we feel the demand on us is more than we can manage.

HOW CAN WE COPE WITH STRESS?

Even though the body’s response to stress is natural as we have seen above, long-term stress can have serious effects on our overall wellbeing and health. As with stressors, ways of coping with stress are similarly very personal so find out what works for you.

Before that though, have you identified what is making you feel stressed?

Take some time to really sit and think about what is going on in our life, what are you going through, what are your relationships like? Write them down, talk to a friend or family member about them. Acknowledge your stressors and don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed about what is putting too much demand on you. We all have our own personal limits.

  • Acknowledge your stressors and tell yourself “I acknowledge my stress and I am letting it go. I am relaxed and calm. I feel my tensions melting away.” Or choose your own affirmations.
  • Make your health a priority! This has so many facets to it but put yourself first.
  • Sleep. The power of a good night’s sleep is immense and a lot of us overlook it’s importance. If you don’t sleep well, research some good sleep hygiene habits to develop to help your body rest.
  • Water. Like the grass and the trees, we need water in order to flourish. Stay hydrated to make sure you’re feeling alert and can thrive.
  • Food. Look at what food you are eating and how it makes you feel? Maybe there are some things you can play around with to feel better? Add in some more fruits and vegetables, make sure you eat the rainbow and make sure food is there to be enjoyed!
  • Movement. I am not the world’s sportiest person, but, I make time to move my body every day; a short online HIT class; a walk in nature and, yoga (obviously!)  It’s time to switch off and forget about your stress, yes, it’s still there afterwards, but you can attack the situation with clarity.
  • Social media and emails. We often feel like slaves to technology, we spend way too long on social media and without realising, the apps we choose to spend a lot of time on can negatively impact our health and mental wellbeing. Have some time off can really help and break a negative cycle.
  • Mindfulness. Where to begin with this, but there are so many things you can do more mindfully that make a huge impact on our everyday lives. Acting mindfully or “with intention” brings us back to the present moment and means we can act with intent. Rather than running at a million miles an hour, it encourages us to slow down and see the situation for what it is.
  • Breathing. Have you ever stopped to take a few really deep big breaths? The feeling can be immense. Most yoga practises start with and focus on the breath, and for good reason. Making sure your body is well oxygenated enables the body to work as it should and in fact, it holds a treasure trove of benefits.

There are so many more ways we can help ourselves when we are feeling stressed (or even if we are not aware of feeling stressed) and it’s a good idea to practise a few (or all of the above) every day for our overall mental and physical health. The feeling of balance, in alignment and at peace with our life will make you feel on top of the world. Indeed, the ability to deal with whatever comes our way, or seeking help when the demands on us feel too great, are essential tools we can have in our back pockets that we will return to time and time again. Life is full of stressors, so why not equip ourselves with the best toolkit out there?

This is an ideal time to reflect on our core values

Value is a word that has been echoing in my mind in the past year, in many different conversations I have had, in many of the headlines I have read and in many of the stories I have heard.

We are all in this half-half transition period during the pandemic– where the ‘old’ way of doing things is no longer possible or in some respects wanted, yet the ‘new’ has not yet been formed. That is why it feels so hard. We don’t know where we are going. Even though it is uncomfortable not knowing, it is an opportunity to reset.

Our values are what we consider important in life, the standards we set, the worth we give things and the priority we give them.

On an individual level, our core values are foundational beliefs that feed into every single thing in our daily lives – how we live our lives: how we behave, how we treat ourselves, how we treat others and what we bring to the world. And each of our individual set of core values add up to the global core values we see reflected in the kind of world we are living in.

Values should not be trends that come and go according to what other people think or say. They are signposts that help us move in a direction in our lives that is authentic to us.

If you are feeling a bit lost in this “half-half” period of time, my advice is stop and consider the following questions.

WHAT ARE YOUR CORE VALUES? Your core values are yours to make. But you might feel adrift unless you devote the time and space to understand yourself and what they are. Think about words such as trust, honesty, kindness, authenticity, integrity, respect, fairness, courage, justice and perseverance. Writing a list of your core values and coming back to it over and over again will help you regain your bearings and make decisions for your present. Integrity is a value in itself, and one to apply to our whole set of values no matter what we see others doing.

WHAT DO YOU VALUE? This answer will be different for everyone. But life, nature and connection with our loved ones, I am sure, are all answers we have in common. With so many lives lost, Covid has made us all acutely aware of how precious life is; how each moment counts; how we don’t know what the future brings; how we need to try to appreciate all those we love, as well as respecting and looking after those we don’t know. Nature’s inherent value has also been something that we have been reminded of, without asking anything in return, except that we respect it.

HOW DO YOU VALUE YOURSELF? Have you been giving yourself time, space, self care, support and kindness? Do you value what you do for others and who you are? Our perception of our value is often historically associated incorrectly with our income, our job status, if we own a home, if we have a partner or a family. But our value is inherent – we don’t need to do anything to be of value. Value yourself more.

HOW DO YOU ALLOW OTHERS TO VALUE OR DEVALUE YOU? Have your boundaries around work and life been blurred? Are you asking for what you need from others? How we value ourselves often has ripples of effect in how others value us. The good news is, we can change this by taking small steps to reset how we treat ourselves and the kind of treatment we are prepared to accept from others.

HOW DO YOU VALUE OTHERS? Are we all still respecting others by showing them kindness through our actions?  Values are not fads that come and go – we must hold on to our values even when it seems others have forgotten. How can we be an ally for other people who are discriminated against, treated unjustly, or in countries far away and who may not have the access to the protections they need?

I do think the pandemic has provided us all with an opportunity to reflect, relearn, remember and reset our values as individuals, but also as a world. It is now time to act on what we have learned, not just talk about it.

No more well being – let’s focus on being well instead

One of the messages that I have always been confused about is what “wellbeing” means – and what it actually looks
like day to day.

I have lost count of the number of adverts I have seen with lines such as: “I lost xx pounds in just three weeks and if I can, then you can.” There are also countless programmes on television about “lifestyle” and “health” – yet their focus seems too often to be about losing weight, diets and physical appearance.

An invitation to rest

Often, new year’s resolutions and healthy habits tend to waver as we drift into February. After a month of discipline, it’s tempting to throw off the chains of dry January, early morning jogs, and an intricate morning routine in favour of slipping back into old ways, only to feel as though we’ve somehow let ourselves down, and resolving to make the same resolutions next year. The reason this happens to our resolutions and new routines, is usually because we just make them a little too hard to do. The morning run at 6am, the hour of yoga, the expensive juice cleanse or cutting out sugar. Yes, the harder we make our resolutions, the more likely they are to come un-stuck. Luckily, it only takes one method to make your new healthy habits a long-term lifestyle, and it all starts with creating your invitations.

This month’s mantra:

“I invite myself to feel my best. I say no to what does not serve me”

The way we arrange our homes is really an invitation for what we choose to do within them, and when we plan our days, we’re literally writing an invitation to ourselves (would you RSVP yes to three hours of emails and a Zoom conference?). Yes, our environment and our schedule send us invitations all the time; Do you own a big comfy sofa and lots of soft blankets? That’s an invitation to sit down and get cosy. Do you have your favourite teas and herbal blends within easy reach on the kitchen counter? That’s an invitation to drink them. And is your yoga mat, bolster and eye pillow laid out ready for you to jump into practice first thing in the morning? Yep, that is an invitation to practice. Making the invitations obvious is the first step. The second step is simply choosing to say yes to them. (And the third if you want to get detailed, is to take away or hide all the invitations you need to start saying no to more often!)

You’re Invited

How about this month, invite yourself to do more of what makes you feel good and helps you maintain healthy, beneficial habits, and get rid of as many invitations as you can for the things that bring you down. Of course, there’s no escaping the need to do laundry or write emails, but how we do them and what we do with the rest of our time can be helped by creating invitations. Read on for 10 tips on helping yourself feel better this month, by creating invitations, but also by RSVP-ing no to things by not surrounding yourself with them. Use these tips as inspiration in your own home!

Invitations To Say Yes To

  1. You’re Invited to practice: If maintaining a regular yoga practice is something you want to bring into your life, it’s time to make things simple. Very often, we tend to overestimate what we’re capable of in a short amount of time. It’s great to have goals and aspirations, but if you set out to practice a 90 minute structured and strong vinyasa flow sequence every morning, it’s likely the enthusiasm may fade a week or so into the new routine. Instead, try making things more simple and ‘easier’ than you think you need to. This could look like a 10 minute meditation, a few rounds of sun salutations, or following an online class that’ll keep you accountable and focused. Keep it simple, and you’re way more likely to practice more often!
  2. You’re invited to relax: Does your living room invite you to relax and unwind? Does your bedroom invite you to sleep soundly? One of the biggest challenges we face (despite the abundance of time at home right now) is the ability to let ourselves stop and relax. Take a look around your home – is there a small corner or chair you could dedicate to relaxation? Maybe it’s your bathroom or bedside table. Whatever it is, place some self-care tools, comfy cushions, and comforting lighting here so it takes literally a moment to access your relaxation space. Once it’s all set up, all you have to do is say ‘yes’ to some you-time.
  3. You’re invited to hydrate: Many people (myself included) don’t feel like they drink enough water, which is really what the human body needs most, alongside clean air and sunlight (we’re just giant plants, after all!). Cultures in dry and hot climates tend to ‘front-load’ their water intake, which means drinking the majority of their water in the morning. This allows the body to fully hydrate throughout the day, without leaving you waking up to use the bathroom multiple times throughout the night. As well as water, there are certain foods which contain water in a ‘gel’-like form, which deeply hydrates the body’s tissues. Try opting for chia seeds, cucumber, leafy greens, fruit, and organic dairy like milk or kefir – keep these at eye-level in the fridge to invite yourself to consume them more!
  4. You’re invited to eat well: If the first thing you see upon opening the cupboard is a packet of crisps or chocolate bars, that’s what you’re more likely to reach for. (Not that there’s anything wrong with treating yourself to crisps and chocolate, it’s just the frequency with which we do it that matters!) If however, you open the cupboards and fridge to healthy, good-for-you foods, that’s what you’ll start reaching for instead, and thus a healthy habit is created! Try thinking of three healthy foods you want to consume more of, and keep them in very obvious places so you grab them often.
  5. You’re invited to create: Do you make time for creativity? With technology allowing us to live at a faster and more ‘instant’ pace today, we tend to also live in a more reactionary state, answering emails, replying to texts, meeting deadlines or completing What happened to making, creating, and feeling inspired? If you realise you haven’t actually created or made anything recently, it’s time to reignite that spark again by unearthing your guitar, digging out those crafting kits, revisiting that novel you started, or even getting out in the garden to create a veg patch. Creativity is important for helping us feel happier, empowered, more connected to life, and is a big stress-reliever too

When to RSVP ‘No’

  1. RSVP no to comparison: How do you feel after an Instagram scrolling session? Multiple studies and reports show that comparison culture is damaging for our mental health, and is only made worse by social media. Part of the issue is that social media tends to emphasise the importance of attributes like ‘perfect’ bodies, wealth, achievement and material accumulation, which are some of the things we tend to feel like we never have enough of. If you often find you’re comparing yourself to others, feeling bad about your body or your worth just because of the picture someone else has posted online, it’s seriously time to un-follow a few hundred accounts to make more room for what you do want to see.
  2. RSVP no to the snooze button: Ancient health systems like Ayurveda tell us that each part of the day holds a different sort of energy. Whilst midday is all about the fire element, allowing us to complete tasks with enthusiasm and digest lunch well, the early morning holds qualities of lightness, perfect for helping you wake up in a more refreshed, calm and energised state. Try putting your phone or alarm clock just outside of your bedroom door, so that when the alarm rings in the morning, you’ll have to get out of bed to turn it off, decreasing the likelihood of snoozing. There are also alarm clock apps without a snooze button, to try those if you need more encouragement!
  3. RSVP no to over-working: With home and work boundaries blurred for many of us, the tendency and even temptation to work longer hours is ever present. If we don’t set firm boundaries between work and play (or work and ‘the huge part of your life that isn’t work’), we keep our nervous system in a state of low grade stress 24/7, reacting to family requests as though they’re emails from colleagues, or thinking about deadlines when you could be engaged in meaningful conversation. If you’re overwhelmed by too-tight deadlines too, it’s important to say no and set some boundaries to prevent yourself burning out.
  4. RSVP no to toxic people: If there’s one thing the pandemic has done, it’s made us realise who we really miss and who we really care about spending time with. Unless you live with them, this period of isolation and self-reflection may have provided an insight into whether the friends you previously spent time with were actually healthy to be around. If you notice the people you previously interacted with – whether at work or in social groups – were actually damaging for your own wellbeing, now is a good time to re-set your relationships and focus on the people who truly bring good energy into your life.
  5. RSVP no to doom scrolling: The phrase Doomscrolling was added to the dictionary in 2020, and refers to ‘the act of consuming a large quantity of negative news at once’. Experts have even concluded that it damages our mental health. Try setting reminders or time limits on your phone (again, there are apps for this) to prevent the scrolling from lasting for hours, delete news apps, and if you do find yourself doomscrolling, make a gratitude list afterwards, re-setting the balance, reducing stress and inviting you to focus on what you have to be thankful for in life.

Turning down the volume

Hands up if you talk to yourself? Some of my best conversations are those I’ve had in my head but, the flip side is that my inner voice can also be my own worst enemy.

According to one study, we talk to ourselves at a rate equivalent to speaking 4,000 words per minute (by way of comparison, the American president’s State of the Union address, which usually runs to about 6,000 words, lasts more than an hour). No wonder, then, that listening to it can be exhausting, whether it takes the form of a rambling soliloquy, or a compulsive rehashing of events, a free-associative pinballing from one thought to another or a furious internal dialogue.

But if such noise can be paralysing, it can also be self-sabotaging. What we experience on the inside can blot out almost everything else if we let it. A study published in 2010, for instance, shows that inner experiences consistently dwarf outer ones – something that, as Kross notes, speaks to the fact that once a “ruminative” thought takes hold of us, it can ruin even the best party, the most longed-for new job.

Professor Ethan Kross, has devoted many years investigating our inner monologue and, this research has led to him writing Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It.

Much of Kross’s book is devoted to what he calls the “toolbox” of techniques that can be used to dial down chatter, and while some of these seem to contradict all that we think and feel – “venting”, for instance, can do a person more harm than good, because talking about negative experiences with friends can often work as a repellent, pushing away those you need most – others confirm that when we act on certain instincts, we’re right to do so.

To take one example, if you are the kind of person who slips into the second or third person when you are in a flap (“Helen, you should calm down; this is not the end of the world”), you really are doing yourself some good. What Kross calls “distanced self-talk” is, according to experiments he has run, one of the fastest and most straightforward ways of gaining emotional perspective: a “psychological hack” that is embedded in “the fabric of human language”. Talking to yourself like this – as if you were another person altogether – isn’t only calming. Kross’s work shows that it can help you make a better impression, or improve your performance in, say, a job interview. It may also enable you to reframe what seems like an impossibility as a challenge, one to which, with your own encouragement, you may be able to rise.

Some of his other techniques are already well known: the power of touch (put your arms around someone); the power of nature (put your arms around a tree). Activities that induce “awe” – a walk in nature, say, or time spent in front of a magnificent work of art – are also useful, helping with that sense of perspective. Writing a daily journal can prove efficacious for some (something that felt terrible one day physically becoming old news the next), while neat freaks like me will be thrilled to discover that what he calls “compensatory control” – the creation of exterior order, better known as tidying up – really does have an impact on interior order. Reorganise your sock drawer, and you may find that your voice quietens.

As for the pandemic, though, he is less pessimistic than some about the effects it is likely to have long-term on mental health. “We are already seeing signs that depression and anxiety are spiking,” he says. “Everyday feelings of sadness are elevated for many, and then there are more full-blown episodes. But there is also a lot of resilience, and we often underestimate that. A lot of people are doing quite well. They’re managing this hardship in an adaptive way. I am an optimist. We will return, I think, to a nicer place, though how quickly that will happen, I only wish I could say.”

Which technique should the pandemic-anxious deploy? “Well, one that I personally rely on is temporal distancing,” he says. This requires a person to look ahead: to see themselves determinedly in the future. Studies show that if you ask those going through a difficult experience how they will feel about it in 10 years’ time, rather than tomorrow, their troubles immediately seem more temporary. Does this really help him? “Yes, it does. I ask myself how I am going to feel a year from now, when I’m back in the office, and I’m seeing my colleagues, and travelling again, and taking my kids to soccer – and it gives me hope.”

Time to hop into my mental Tardis and time travel ahead to my little house in France. A beintot.

Surrender to the suck

January, cold, exam cancellations, mutant Covid, another significant birthday celebrated via zoom, yet another lockdown. I won’t bore you with the catastrophic series of disasters that have occurred since last time I posted. But, suffice to say, 2021 would have been greatly improved had I simply stayed in bed. How is anyone supposed to find their motivation when most of us are so completely spent?

“Fu..ing boring. Fu..ing Netflix,” says psychotherapist Julia Samuel, who must speak to most of us with her neat appraisal of the status quo. Best known for her wonderful work as a grief counsellor, she is also the author of the prophetically titled ‘This Too Shall Pass’. But it seems that even she is struggling to find a schedule sparky enough to see us through adversity again.

Nonetheless, the counsellor quickly rallies to offer some more professional advice. “One way of dealing with a new lockdown is to look at the dark, acknowledge it, allow the difficulty of it and then intentionally turn your attention to the light,” she says. “Be self-compassionate,” she continues. “What you say to yourself affects your mood and behaviour. One way of dealing with a new lockdown is to look at the dark, acknowledge it, and then intentionally turn your attention to the light “Be curious. Have the best day you can have today. Communicate with others — I’ve found the non-work-related Zoom lunch to be extremely helpful. And, at the end of the day, let yourself know the small wins can be a delicious cup of coffee.”

In other words, she says, preserve your sanity by keeping your expectations spectacularly low. Resist the compulsion to put deadlines on every aspect of your life. Fighting to put a timeline on things will only make you abject with misery when they fail to materialise. Hence this week’s words of upliftment are: surrender to the suck. “The paradoxical theory of change,” argues Samuel, “means that the more you accept the things you don’t want, the more you’ll be able to live with them.”

The surrender of which she speaks reminds me of my 80 year-old parents, who take a similar attitude. Despite having had their busy social life seriously curtailed, virtually no visitors bar me in nearly a year, precious little interaction with the outside world and a tsunami of toxic disinfectant accompanying their every move, they have remained  in extraordinarily buoyant form.

I wouldn’t do it the discredit of describing it as Blitz spirit — their stoic pragmatism and sense of humour seemed to be drawn from a far deeper psychological reserve of self-preservation than anything so mannered — but contrary to the picture of lonely decrepitude we insist on using to describe the geriatric condition, they are the poster children for fortitude and pluck.

Samuel recalls her own mother, faced with an ongoing series of power cuts, retiring to bed with the radio and a packet of biscuits until the lights came back on. Biscuits, radio, putting on your earrings (as suggested by one colleague): these must be our small wins for now. Which isn’t to say we must abandon hope or, as Samuels describes it, “the alchemy that turns a life around”. Of course, we ache for proper holidays, huge intoxicating parties and the company of crowds. But, she says, hope must be a “feeling or behaviour”. Picture the future, dream it, but for god’s sake don’t go making plans. Which is good for the mind: but what about the body?

Seeking motivation to finesse the post-Christmas physique, I turn to another source of professional effervescence, fitness coach Peter Cobby. He too counsels the prevailing wisdom that in order to stay motivated you must create some sort of schedule. And then stick to it like glue. “Plan your day the night before,” he tells me. “Write down your three ‘must-do’s’, but make it interesting and challenging. No point setting a task you don’t want to get up for. This is the first step in having the motivation to get up and move.”

And there’s more. “Focus on habit creation,” he continues. “They say that your day is determined by the first hour from when you wake up.” And most importantly: “Don’t hit snooze.” He recommends the five-second rule preached by American TV host and motivational speaker Mel Robbins. “Once you hear that alarm, count backwards from five and, on zero, jump up and attack the day. Momentum is the key to a positive day.” As a snooze addict, I cannot pretend this will ever happen. But I admire his buccaneering spirit and have resolved at least to get up and throw myself around the yoga mat again. As for the “must do’s”, they’re a work in progress. “Buy biscuits” seems quite do-able. And of course there’s always “fu..ing Netflix”, too.

A feel better guide for the already tired.

It’s the first day of 2021 and I’m already … tired. Usually at this time of year, I have a list of resolutions and goals for the year that I’m bursting with energy to implement. New Year? Bring. It. On.

But this year, after collapsing over the finishing line of 2020 – there’s not a lot of juice in the tank for New Year’s resolutions.

Burnout – previously a millennial thing – affected just about everyone in 2020. Whether you were an essential worker who had to deal with the stress and uncertainty of being out there, working from home with a brain fried after hours a day on Zoom meetings, someone who had lost work during the pandemic, or a parent who suddenly found yourself homeschooling during the day and doom-scrolling at night – no one got out of 2020 unscathed.

Doing more exercise, dropping some kilos, saving money, spending less time on social media, establishing a meditation practice – many traditional New Year’s resolutions are not wholly pandemic-proof. Until there’s a widely available vaccine, 2021 could deliver more of the same shocks and disruptions: coming in and out of lockdown, facilities like gyms shutting, routines being disrupted as we shuttle between working from home and returning to the office.

So I’ve trawled the World Wide Web and garnered advice from a team of virtual experts to offer advice on creating more humble, but potentially more achievable and long-lasting new habits.

My brief? Make each piece of advice as pandemic-proof and achievable as possible, and assume that the people they are advising are really, really tired.

This week, I’m focusing on starting small, shifting my mindset and recognising that habits are linked.

The framework: habit stacking (and starting small)

Dr Breanna Wright, a behavioural change expert from Monash University, says if you are already starting 2021 feeling burnt-out, you should keep your resolutions manageable.

“One of the most important things is not trying to change too many things at once.”

Instead we should start “trying to achieve one change” that can then be turned into a habit. “That’s when the change is really powerful – because once something is a habit you are likely to do it every day.”

When picking a habit to implement “it’s better to focus on one thing at a time and make it specific”.

Action: She advises tying the new habit into an established routine that won’t change – such as meditating in the morning (new habit) before you brush your teeth (old habit).

“If you set up a habit based on something that may change – such as exercising in the middle of the day, then when you go back to the office, you may not be able to keep up that change. Best keep it small and tie the habit into something that won’t change, like getting up in the morning.”

The first step: sleep

Each article I read about the this topic agreed that new healthy habits were connected to each other. So cutting back on drinking alcohol leads to better sleep and better sleep leads to more energy and more energy leads to better food and exercise choices, and so on.

Dr Kate Gregorevic is a geriatrician and internal medicine physician, and author of the book Staying Alive. She says that our first building block should be focusing on good quality sleep as the foundation of good health and longevity.

“We all know how awful you feel after a bad night’s sleep. You are grumpy, you don’t have the same appetite regulation, you’re more likely to reach for ‘sometimes food’ and skip the workout. 2020 has been so stressful – we have all had this incredible tension we’ve lived with for months on end.”

But we can control “having a regular bedtime and wake-up time and establishing good sleep habits”, says Gregorevic.

Once we have my sleep habits under control, we’ll be in a better place to tackle other goals, such as a regular exercise routine and nutrition.

Gregorevic also advises we develop a wind-down routine to get ourselves ready for bed. This should include reading a book for 30 minutes before bedtime instead of scrolling through social media. And, crucially, also keeping phones out of the bedroom.

Hopefully after establishing good sleep habits, in weeks two and beyond we’ll feel fresh enough to put in more building blocks to set up for a healthy 2021 – including developing an exercise routine.

The mindset: self-compassion

Kate James, a life coach and author of Change Your Thinking to Change Your Life, suggests we need to start noticing ‘self’ talk.

James advises clients on mindfulness and self-compassion, which are especially important if you are experiencing 2020 burnout. She suggests we “try to come to an internal conversation with yourself that is not being hard on yourself. So much of the internal problems we have start from beating yourself up. For example if you’ve had too much to drink, you’ll wake up at 3am and berate yourself.”

She instead advises detachment when you start thinking negatively about yourself. Make note of what you are saying, then ask yourself: “Am I treating myself with compassion and care?” Often the answer is no.

Action: Pay attention to how we speak to ourselves. James says once you start paying attention to your inner monologue you are more likely to be kinder to yourself and encourage good habits rather than putting yourself down over bad ones.

So, if I lie awake past my new bedtime, at least I can avoid beating myself up over it!

Happy New Year – let’s make it the year of Yin!

Not everyone makes a resolution each January, but chances are you have at least once in your life made a New Year’s Resolution. Think back over past resolutions and shine a light on them. What were they all about? If you are like most people, your resolutions were to change something about yourself: either there was something that you were doing that you wanted to no longer do, or there was something that you were not doing that you vowed to start doing.

“I resolve to give up smoking, eat less, exercise more, spend more time with family, read more, finish that project, (fill in the blank).”

These are “yang” resolution relating to activities: resolving to do something or refraining from doing something, or in other words to change yourself or your life in some way. These can be wonderful intentions and there are times, not necessarily only on January 1st, when we do need to tap into our yang energies and change the course of our lives, but to be balanced, we also need to look at the yin aspects of such intentions.

When we examine our resolutions we often find that they are based on the unspoken assumption that the way we are right now is not good enough. There is a “should” lurking in our self-evaluation: we should be better, or different than we are right now. Where is that assumption coming from? Why are you not content with the way you are right now, with the way your life is right now? Whose voice is whispering in your ear that you should be different?

Balance requires consciously honouring both the yin and yang energies of life. Yang is about change, movement, passion, climbing great heights, and accomplishing great deeds. Yin is about acceptance, allowing, stillness, enjoying the present moment and doing small everyday tasks as if they were great deeds.

We are constantly urged in our society and in our culture to change, to improve, to seek what we don’t have and fix the problems we do have. Step back for a moment and really look at every ad you see, notice the way media portrays the “ideal” life, hear what advice your friends and family offer to you. It is easy to fall into the belief that however we are right now is inadequate in so many ways. And, since we are so flawed, why not vow to improve? All we need to do is buy certain products, dress in a different ways, change jobs, relationships, locale, etc.

Over the past many years, we may have done all of this and more and yet, somehow, we still feel inadequate is so many ways. This yang approach to fixing life is not yielding the promised results. It is easy to blame ourselves for this failure, and that blame just feeds into the next cycle of change: we need to try harder or do more. It is not a surprise that so many New Year’s resolutions lie broken in the gutter before the Xmas tree is taken away. We have tried in the past and still our culture deems us not yet good enough.

Let’s look at the yinside of all of this. What is there about yourself that you can simply accept and not try to change? After all these years of trying to change, select something that you will simply allow to just be.

A New Year's Postcard from Chatauqua Press in 1909

This is not easy! It is counter-cultural and counterintuitive. Some examples could be:

“I resolve to accept my body just as it is right now!”
“I resolve to let … (fill in the blank) … just be”

Perhaps in years past you resolved to give up something, to lose weight, or stop eating desserts or you gave up chocolate (gasp!) The shadow side of that yang decision may have been losing joy and comfort as you deliberately restricted the amount of pleasure you allowed yourself. As a consequence you were unhappy and this unhappiness spread to the loved ones in your life.

This is not to say that these yang resolutions were unwise, but rather to point out that every decision and action has a consequence to it. The key question to ask yourself is, “Am I better having made these resolutions in the past?” It is up to you to define “better” – healthier, happier, more content, more balanced If you do not believe you are better off, then it is time to revisit the intention behind your resolutions.

This year, why not resolve to accept something about yourself that you will no longer try to change or improve! You may even decide that this is the year that you accept something about someone else and vow to no longer try to change him or her! Sure, go ahead and consciously make a yang resolution to do or not do something, but why not add a yin resolution this New Year’s? What are you going to accept, allow and no longer try to change this year?

Let 2021 be your year of yin.

 

In defence of pottering

For Anna McGovern there is a satisfying, sensory pleasure to be had in rinsing milk bottles: “The very best thing about getting your milk delivered is ‘rinsing and returning’. Don’t cheat by putting your bottles in the dishwasher. Wash them, by hand. Put a small amount of water in the bottle, slosh the water around, put your hand over the top, shake it up and down, upturn the bottle, glugging the water out, then head for your doorstep and put out the bottle with a ‘plink’”.

This is one of many meandering, seemingly mundane tasks that McGovern delights in describing in her new book. Another is pegging out the washing (“Pull it out of the basket in a long, sweet-smelling, damp lump.”) In fact, when we speak about pottering, McGovern tells me she has done just that to “help order her thoughts”.

Pottering – a peculiarly British pastime that evokes the shuffling sound of someone (quite possibly in slippers) going contentedly from one thing to the next – is something McGovern is good at. “I think you can lose yourself entirely while you’re pottering,” she says. “It’s a mental break, it’s completely unpressured and it frees you momentarily from all responsibility. It may seem inconsequential, but it has a uniquely restful effect, which I only discovered by chance.”

Three years ago, McGovern had a full-time job, three young children and an ageing father she was caring for. She recognised she had “done a bit too much for a bit too long” and decided to use her holiday to take the same day off each week for several months. “After a period of intensity in my life, I felt I needed some time off and it was incredibly beneficial – more than I ever thought, because I’d given myself permission to have a rest.”

That rest involved downing her digital devices, staying local and filling her Tuesdays with easy-to-achieve tasks. A couple of months into her new routine, McGovern realised that what she was doing could only be described as pottering. For her the restorative powers of regular pottering were such that she decided to interrogate the activity further. Written pre-pandemic, her book is an eerily prescient guide to the mercurial activity of – well, what, exactly?

“Pottering is personal,” she explains. “One person’s pottering may be another person’s domestic drudgery.” While the book is peppered with examples of what might be considered pottering – picking bobbles off a jumper, arranging the bottles in your bathroom cabinet in height order, going for a day trip with only a vague idea of your destination – it is more concerned with distilling the characteristics of pottering and the effect it can have on our state of mind.

McGovern suggests that one of the defining characteristics of pottering is honesty, or lack of affectation. “Pottering is not glamorous,” she states. “You don’t have to put too much effort in, go very far or even do it with others. Pottering is not a lifestyle concept and it doesn’t require practice.” Unlike mindfulness, say, there is no technique to be mastered. It is, first and foremost, “a chance to have a moment free of responsibility and free of the tyranny of pressure”.

There are, according to McGovern, five fundamentals of pottering. First, pottering is about “making the best of your circumstances and the resources you have to hand”. Improvisation and compromise are key here. In fact, there is an element of make do and mend.

Making do with what you’ve got inevitably anchors pottering to the home. That said, pottering is not the same as carrying out household chores. “The distinguishing feature of pottering as opposed to ‘jobs around the house’ is the slow pace at which you do it,” claims McGovern. There is also a lot to be said for the satisfaction you gain from pottering. (Compare hoovering the carpet, say, to hoovering the crumbs out of a cutlery drawer and you’ll begin to see the distinction.)

Another fundamental is not trying too hard. “There is no such thing as ‘doing it well’,” McGovern writes, reassuringly. “There are no benchmarks for success… no one is judging your performance when you find a matching lid and plastic pot in the odd assortment of containers you use for freezing leftover food. It’s just not something you can ‘excel’ at.”

Pottering is not doing nothing, however. “Sitting around on your phone or watching a box set isn’t pottering,” says McGovern. Pottering is relaxing precisely because you are occupied in the gentlest of ways. “It’s as though you’ve lent a sheen of legitimacy to your unstructured downtime by doing something ever so slightly useful,” she says. Leaving something to soak, executing a minor repair on clothing, rearranging objects on a shelf are all prime examples of this.

Pottering also implies movement (“admittedly not a lot”). Movement causes a “cascade effect” as unplanned, improvised micro-jobs beget more micro-jobs. McGovern argues that this sequence can send you into a “meditative state” and that, once you are in this state of “flow” an interruption can “cause a sensation of intrusion” – proof that what you are doing has created a sense of contentment. But remember, says McGovern, there’s no pressure with pottering, you can always pick it up where you left off tomorrow.

Localism is another defining characteristic of pottering. During her own weekly potterings, McGovern became more connected to her local community. She didn’t have to travel to the city each day; instead, she was able to pass the time of day with neighbours and local shopkeepers. By staying local, she writes, you may discover a newfound appreciation for your immediate surroundings and those who live near you. “Staying local bonds you to the people who surround you in a way that’s really reassuring, calming and pleasant,” she says. “There’s no going back from that.”

For McGovern, the final fundamental of pottering is that it is, on the whole, digital-free. “Ignoring digital devices means you are not bombarded with messages, information, unrealistic images of perfection…” she says. “Without witnessing all that, you can have some time that is your own.”

There is much comfort to be had in reading about the positive effect of pottering. “Think back to the first lockdown when we were all making banana bread and sorting through the contents of our drawers,” says McGovern. “None of those things were strictly necessary, but doing them helped us sort through our thoughts and gave us a sense of control over the situation.”

While pottering results in a constructive, physical outcome (you may have given a bag of clothes to charity or there may be a cake on the table), it’s the “mental rumination” that occurs during pottering that McGovern believes is beneficial to wellbeing. The effect for her was a change in mindset that enabled her to move on from the impasse she had reached in her career.

What about those of us who are longing to reorder our clothes hangers so that the hooks all face the same direction/reorganise the medical cabinet in a state of meditative flow, but are struggling to get through even the most immediate of professional and/or domestic tasks? “Just do what you can manage,” she says. “If you don’t have time that is your own, there are still benefits to be had from micro-pottering.” Micro-pottering is defined as “those moments in the day when you do something that is not strictly necessary but gives you a short break… to readjust your thoughts.”

So sharpening pencils when you should be making a difficult work call is OK. Pottering, however, is not to be confused with procrastination. (Home-workers, I think McGovern may be talking to us.) “Pottering is guilt-free,” she asserts. “If you have been occupied for a while to avoid doing something necessary and you are beginning to feel guilty, you are procrastinating, not pottering.”

Ultimately, says McGovern, “pottering is one of a number of coping strategies that you can do when you feel a bit frazzled. While it is by no means a substitute for professional help, it is just one thing in the armoury of self-care that happens to fit in with the way that we’re living now.”

Be kind, always.

November 13th is World Kindness Day, a day for us all to come together to consider the ways in which we can all help to make the world a kinder place. I’ve been celebrating it since I first became aware of it in 2011 when my own exploration into the remarkable power of acts of kindness began. This year it feels even more important than ever for us to be kind to ourselves and others as we each manage the challenging and uncertain landscape ahead.

So many of us feel overwhelmed, right now. In the face of the huge challenges many of us are experiencing, it’s easy to feel powerless and despairing. Whenever I start feeling like this, I come back to this quote from Brad Meltzer, “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind, always”. It reminds me to always have compassion for others and that kindness is always the answer. I promise you, whatever is going on for you, being kind will change things for the better.

In his recent book, Human Kind, Dutch Historian Rutger Bregman argues that humans evolved to be what he calls ‘pro-social’. In order to survive, we have had to cooperate and trust each other, to be kind, to love and care for each other. Yet we so often hear and share a bleaker version of the story of us: and it makes us fearful, causes division and anxiety. If we can learn to believe in human kindness and altruism and learn to trust each other we can achieve true and meaningful changes in our relationships and in society as a whole.

Practising kindness on a daily basis introduces you to a different version of the world. Really focusing on being kinder can fundamentally change the stories we tell and share about ourselves and others which in turn helps us to feel more hopeful that as challenging as things are, a better world is possible, and that we can all contribute to it. World Kindness Day offers us an opportunity for once to fill our social media feeds with joyful, inspiring stories of love, kindness and compassion, instead of conflict, discord and anger. This isn’t a fairy-tale version of human beings, we are as complex as life is, but that complexity includes kindness, empathy, love and compassion. We just don’t hear those stories as often and because of this, we’re in danger of losing hope and faith in each other.

It’s interesting to ponder: do the stories you tell yourself serve you and make you happy, or do they make you fearful and anxious? Hearing stories of kindness, or even better, being part of these stories ourselves, boosts serotonin and dopamine, the neurotransmitters in the brain that give you the warm glow of well-being, lighting up the pleasure and reward centres in your brain. Acts of kindness can also release endorphins, a natural pain killer. Allowing yourself to connect with kindness can literally help lift yours out of a low mood. Even when things are tough, there is always something you can do to make things better. It needn’t need much time or money to do something nice for someone or indeed for yourself. It just needs you to find the courage to try it, and the rewards are immediate and transformative.

So, to help get the ball rolling, for World Kindness Day, I’ve got some ideas of fun and COVID proof things you can try. It’s worth emphasising the fun part – giving yourself permission to find pleasure in being kind is really important, kindness should bring you joy too, it shouldn’t be seen as a chore but as an act of love. Right now, when things seem so dark, you can discover the real magic and power of kindness: it can make a bad day good, put a smile on a sad face, bring comfort to a lonely heart or bring hope to a despairing soul. If you don’t believe me, try it…

COVID Kindness

A lot of the things I used to practise as daily acts of kindness aren’t appropriate now: but it made me think about the opportunities for the kindness that the pandemic has revealed. Here are some ideas: you will no doubt have some of your own brilliant ones – so think of these as a starter kit.

  • Create a Hope Box. I made myself a box of reminders of all the things that cheer me up and make life worth living as a way of being kind to myself. My box includes objects, words, images, photos, old tickets all sorts of bits and pieces that I can reach for them whenever I need to take care of myself and to remind myself of all the things, I’m grateful for.
  • Window dressing. Fill your windows with funny, kind, inspiring quotes or drawings for passers-by on World Kindness Day – explore your creative side.
  • Revive the art of letter writing. Imagine how lovely it is to receive a handwritten letter instead of a pizza delivery leaflet or a bill? Think of someone who’d really appreciate you taking the time to sit down and writing to them rather just texting ‘Wassup?’.
  • Send a hug through the post. For this, you need a roll of paper and a marker pen. Lay outstretched on the paper and get someone to draw around your outstretched hug. Post it to a loved one. Not as good as the real thing, but pretty good. This is a great one to do with kids as well. Imagine how lovely it would be for a grandparent to receive a hug from their grandchild in the post.
  • Create a playlist. Nothing moves people more than music, so why not send someone a link to the songs and music that you find uplifting and pass on the joy.
  • Send a care package. A friend recently sent me one of these: it had sweets, a face mask and a book of poetry. So simple and beautiful to receive.
  • Help clean up your local area. Do something kind for the environment. Channel your inner Womble, put some gloves on and pick up some litter in your local park or green space. You’ll be amazed at how many people thank you and how many people you inspire to do the same.
  • Feed the birds. If you can do this regularly, you’ll find your feathered friends will wait for you. Feed them things like black sunflower seeds, fatballs and oatmeal – visit rsbp.org.uk for details.
  • Pet plan. Offer to walk someone’s dog who can’t get out and get some daily exercise. Or join borrowmydoggy.com and volunteer your dog walking skills
  • Hello gorgeous. Leave an uplifting chalk message or an inspiring quote on the pavement to make someone smile.

Lastly, don’t forget to wave! We can’t see each other smile or say hello with masks on! Look after yourself and each other and share your stories of kindness with us on the day – I hope you have lots of fun joining in. Kindness can change the world, and you can be part of that change.