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.

Don’t worry, be happy.

A new biography has just been released, charting the life of Prof Anthony Clare, best known perhaps for chairing the popular Radio 4 programme ‘In the Psychiatrist’s Chair’. However, he also offered his Seven Steps for Happiness, a guide to finding and maintaining that most elusive of emotions. I thought they were wonderful and, I’m going to read them regularly as we head towards shorter, darker days and, sometimes, spirits dip. Enjoy!

“Number one: cultivate a passion. It is important in my model of happiness to have something that you enjoy doing. The challenge for a school is to find every child some kind of passion — something that will see them through the troughs. That’s why I’m in favour of the broadest curriculum you can get.

“Number two, be a leaf on a tree. You have to be both an individual — to have a sense that you are unique and you matter — and you need to be connected to a bigger organism — a family, a community, a hospital, a company. You need to be part of something bigger than yourself. A leaf off a tree has the advantage that it floats about a bit, but it’s disconnected and it dies.

“The people who are best protected against certain physical diseases — cancer, heart disease, for example — in addition to doing all the other things they should do, seem to be much more likely to be part of a community, socially involved. If you ask them to enumerate the people that they feel close to and would connect and communicate with, those with the most seem the happiest and those with least, the unhappiest.

“Of course, there may be a circular argument here. If you are a rather complicated person, people may avoid you. If, on the other hand, you are a centre of good feeling, people will come to you. I see the tragedy here in this room where some people sit in that chair and say they don’t have many friends and they’re quite isolated and unhappy, and the truth is they are so introspective they’ve become difficult to make friends with. Put them in a social group and they tend to talk about themselves. It puts other people off.

“So that’s my third rule: avoid introspection.

“Number four, don’t resist change. Change is important. People who are fearful of change are rarely happy. I don’t mean catastrophic change, but enough to keep your life stimulated. People are wary of change, particularly when things are going reasonably well, because they don’t want to rock the boat, but a little rocking can be good for you. It’s the salt in the soup. Uniformity is a tremendous threat to happiness, as are too much predictability, control and order. You need variety, flexibility, the unexpected, because they’ll challenge you.

“Five, live for the moment. Look at the things that you want to do and you keep postponing. Postpone less of what you want to do, or what you think is worthwhile. Don’t be hide-bound by the day-to-day demands. Spend less time working on the family finances and more time working out what makes you happy. If going to the cinema is a pleasure, then do it. If going to the opera is a pain, then don’t do it.

“Six, audit your happiness. How much of each day are you spending doing something that doesn’t make you happy? Check it out and if more than half of what you’re doing makes you unhappy, then change it. Go on. Don’t come in here and complain. People do, you know. They come and sit in that chair and tell me nothing is right. They say they don’t like their family, they don’t like their work, they don’t like anything. I say, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’

And, finally, if you want to be happy, Be Happy. Act it, play the part, put on a happy face. Start thinking differently. If you are feeling negative, say, ‘I am going to be positive,’ and that, in itself, can trigger a change in how you feel.”

Feeling frazzled?

Is working from home during lockdown making you feel stressed, anxious and overwhelmed? You could be suffering from burnout. Why not try applying this scientifically approved formula to your daily routine to see if it could help ease the pressure?

The coronavirus pandemic and UK lockdown mean that many of us have adapted to working from home during the crisis, and as we enter what feels like the hundredth week of this ‘new normal’, it’s understandable that we’re feeling the pressure.

A woman working from home

Over half (56%) of UK workers are feeling more anxious and stressed during this time, according to new research from LinkedIn, conducted in association with The Mental Health Foundation. And while 47% of workers have ‘faked’ being busy because they’re scared they might lose their jobs, people are also working a massive 28 hours of overtime per month on average.

During this time, it’s important that we remember to look after our mental health, so what can you do if you feel overwhelmed by work stress? Read on to hear how the 42% rule could help ease symptoms of burnout and stress.
Exactly how much rest is an “adequate” amount?

Science is pretty clear on the amount: it’s 42%.

That’s the percentage of time your body and brain need you to spend resting. It’s about 10 hours out of every 24. It doesn’t have to be every day; it can average out over a week or a month or more. But yeah. That much.

“That’s ridiculous! I don’t have that kind of time!” you might protest — and I predicted you might feel that way (because I did too!)

But before you panic, I’m not saying you should take 42 percent of your time to rest; I’m saying if you don’t take the 42 percent, the 42 percent will take you. It will grab you by the face, shove you to the ground, put its foot on your chest, and declare itself the victor.

Have you ever come down with a terrible cold as soon as you finished a huge project? Have you found yourself sleeping 12 or 14 hours every day for the first three days of holiday?

Burnout can cause illness

It has been established by now that stress is a physiological phenomenon that impacts every system and function in our bodies, including immune functioning, digestive functioning, and hormones. To keep all of those systems in full working order, our biology requires that we spend 42 percent of our lives maintaining the organism of our physical existence.

Here’s what your 42 percent might look like:

burnout• Eight hours of sleep opportunity, give or take an hour.

• 20 to 30 minutes of “stress-reducing conversation” with your partner or other trusted loved one.

• 30 minutes of physical activity. Do this with the explicit mindset of gear-switching, feels-purging, rest-getting freedom. Physical activity counts as “rest” partly because it improves the quality of your sleep and partly because it completes the stress response cycle, transitioning your body out of a stressed state and into a resting state.

• 30 minutes of paying attention to food. “30 minutes?” you say. Don’t fret. That includes all meals, shopping, cooking, and eating, and it doesn’t have to be all at once. It can be with people or alone, but it can’t be while working or driving or watching TV or even listening to a podcast. Pay attention to your food for half an hour a day. This counts as rest partly because it provides necessary nourishment and partly because it’s active rest, a change of pace, apart from the other domains of your life. Think of it as meditation.

• And a 30-minute wild card, depending on your needs. For some people, this will be extra physical activity, because they need that much to feel good. For others, it will be preparation for their sleep opportunity, because they know their brains need time to transition from the buzzing state of wakefulness into the quiet that allows the brain to sleep. For still others, it will be social play time, because their appetite for social engagement is strong. And for some, it’s simply a buffer for travel and changing clothes and other rest-preparation time (because: reality) during which you engage your default mode network — that is, you let your mind wander.

These are just averages, and as you can see, you’ll sometimes do more than one thing at a time. Some people need more sleep than others — sleep need is estimated to be about 40 percent genetically heritable, so even identical twins can vary a lot.

Natural exercisers may want to spend more time on physical activity. Foodies may want to spend more time on food. Extroverts may want to spend as much of this time as possible with other people. Your mileage may vary; fine-tune it to fit your individual needs.

If you’re thinking, I can get by with less, you’re right. You can “get by,” dragging your increasingly rest-deprived brain and body through your life. And there are periods in your life when adequate rest will not be an option. Newborn baby? No sleep for you. Elderly dog? You’ll be up every four hours. Working three jobs while finishing your degree? Get by on five hours of sleep.

exhausted person sitting at home working in front of a laptop with their head in their hand

But no one who cares about your wellbeing will expect you to sustain that way of life for an extended period of time. No one in your Bubble of Love wants you to “get by”; they want you to thrive and grow stronger. They want you to thrive and grow stronger. What makes you stronger is rest.

Suppose you send your 10-year-old child away to camp and you learn they aren’t feeding her adequately because they’re sure she can “get by” on less?

Suppose you leave your dog with a dog-sitter and learn they’re having your dog sleep outside in the cold because he can “get by” in that weather?

Suppose your best friend starts wearing a tight-laced corset everywhere, so that she physically can’t take a full breath and is constantly slightly oxygen-deprived, gasping as she climbs a single flight of stairs, but she can “get by” with that much oxygen?

Your child, your dog, and your friend can all “get by” with less than the optimal levels of every basic bodily need. So can you. But the way you react to your hungry child, your shivering dog, and your gasping friend is how you feel about you “getting by” with too little rest. Now, off to work out my calculations for tomorrow!

Bouncing Back

Let’s face it, sometimes life is just hard. Plain and simple. There is frustration, anger, sadness, loss, tragedy, grief. At times like this, when all we can see is darkness, putting one foot in front of the other is as much as you can do.

Helen Keller said, “The marvellous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome. The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.” But it can be difficult to feel and imagine the light when we are in those dark valleys.

Resilience is our ability to bounce back, to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and go again. Think about a boat in a river. The rocks on the riverbed are always there but when the water level is low the boat is more likely to crash into them and sink, whereas when the water is high the boat bobs up and down, unaffected by those same rocks. When our resilience is low our ability to deal with the problems in our lives is lower.

Building up our resilience allows us to cope better with the problems that life throws at us. The greater our resilience, the greater our ability to move away fromautonomic, reflexive reaction; the reptilian brain fight-flight-freeze response. We can instead deal with things rationally, calmly, to respond rather than react to issues, to think creatively and problem solve. We can move from SURVIVE mode to THRIVE mode.

I’m not suggesting that if you lose your job, get seriously ill, suffer a bereavement or survive a pandemic that you should simply think yourself happy, but your ability to take a breath, deal with difficulty and come out the other side stronger, better, more, will be enhanced if you have developed these practises during the ‘good times’.

Across a plethora of studies on the topic, regardless of the type of trauma suffered, cultural background, ethnicity, age, gender there are broadly seven core things that have been identified as key to building resilience:

  1. Having a strong connection to others – The support of close friends and family is the most important component of resilience
  2. Having connections to animals – cuddling and playing with pets is known to be therapeutic (care dogs, equine therapy)
  3. Having a connection to nature – walking in nature, lying on the grass looking up at the clouds, listening to the ocean, swimming in a cold lake feeling the icy water invigorate your body, bringing you into your body, connecting you back to your body
  4. Having a connection to beauty/art – getting out of yourself and your own head, appreciating great works of art, your child’s painting, a sunset, connecting to our heritage and our history through galleries, blogs, radio, singing, dancing
  5. Having a connection to a higher being / purpose – a god, synchronicity, destiny, the stars
  6. Having a strong sense of self-worth – being kind and gentle to yourself, belief in your abilities, self-care, and self-love
  7. Finding greater meaning in things – seeking to understand a deeper meaning

To build our resilience we should recognise, acknowledge and practise our own STRENGTHS, such as; courage in the face of adversity, sense of humour, patience, kindness, good judgement, optimism, gratitude, long term focus, generosity etc.

We need to develop useful INSIGHTS to draw on, ideas and perspectives and sayings that we find useful such as; developing a growth mindset, learning from the past, practising gratitude, seeing this as temporary, understanding the personal growth we will gain from the experience, practising radical acceptance, practicing kindness and showing empathy and understanding to ourselves and others around us, thinking of the bigger picture, ‘and this too shall pass’.

Consider and use all the RESOURCES we have for guidance, support, nourishment, and inspiration, such as beautiful parks, walkways, river, seaside views, galleries, museums, family, friends, pets, places we feel safe, people we trust, helpful websites, books, blogs, podcasts etc.

And we must implement STRATEGIES, things we can do, actions we can take such as taking care of our own wellbeing with exercise, food and self-talk, going for walks, runs, practising yoga, meditation, taking up a new or re-visiting an old hobby, caring for others, writing in a journal, practising mindfulness, taking up a new sport.

As we head into the winter, feeling like we never really had a summer, like we lost a year. Perhaps we should focus more on what we HAVE rather than what we have NOT, a shift of focus.

Ask yourself these questions:

What have I found stressful in the past and how has that affected me, my mood, my behaviour with others? What helped me then? Who helped me then? How did I grow from that experience? How am I different today than I was last year? How have I grown as a person?

What have I learnt about myself from past difficult times? What do I do to support myself? What do I need to do more of? Less of? Start doing? Stop doing? How can I help myself? How can I help others?

What would make me feel more hopeful for the future? What I am going to do today to make that happen?

Who do I choose to be today, now, in this moment?

“At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.” Frida Kahlo

Needs must

In her book, Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin writes: “Any beginning is a time of special power for habit creation, and at certain times we experience a clean slate, in which circumstances change in a way that makes a fresh start possible…” For me, September has this special power.

According to the calendar, September is just another month in the year. But according to our emotions, this time of year often feels particularly weighty.

With summer at an end, many people experience a pang of nostalgia for the good weather as the days grow shorter and there’s a distinct nip in early morning air. For parents and students, the back to school period is often a potent cocktail of relief, excitement, and anxiety.

The idea of setting intentions or a ‘resolution’ may only seem necessary when you’re counting down the seconds at a New Year’s Eve party, or overcoming a transformational life event. Resolutions might seem like the sort of thing we reserve for special occasions, when we really want to make a change. The thing is, every day is ripe for resolution-making, whether it’s a rainy Thursday afternoon or a bright and optimistic Monday morning. Every moment offers the opportunity to set an intention, a sankalpa and a resolution.

The word resolution itself has two meanings; the original word comes from the Latin solvere, meaning ‘to loosen or release’, and also breaking into parts’, while the relatively modern version is derived from the word ‘resolute’, referring to a sense of being determined and firm. Usually, when we set a resolution, our attitude is determined and firm, an attempt to control our mind or body. Your resolution might be to give up sugar, start jogging, to practice yoga every day, or to be more organised. When we set resolutions like this however, we can sometimes miss the entire point of making the resolution itself, which deep down is probably along the lines of being happy and enjoying life more. If the reason behind setting resolutions is about being happy or enjoying life a little more, I invite you to think of a resolution that is more about cultivating solvere – loosening, releasing and breaking into parts – than it is about controlling. What do you feel you try to control and grip a little too much? What would you benefit from loosening or releasing a little more? So much of our lives is already about improving, developing and hiding any imperfections, that loosening and releasing from time to time could be the very medicine we need and the missing link to feeling better.

Dr. Claudia Welch, who specialises in Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine, and who authored the book Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life, champions the notion of giving ourselves more rest, and letting go of the need to achieve and ‘do’ all the time. “If we’ve done some work on ourselves, we respect the natural urge of hunger, we respect thirst, but we tend not to respect tired”. Indeed, in a bid to be our ‘best’ selves, very often resolutions are about ‘doing’, ‘improving’, and exhausting ourselves, more than they’re about honouring and nourishing ourselves. So perhaps pause for a moment and listen – really listen; if you were to loosen and release, and if you were to allow parts of your identity and current habits to ‘break into parts’, what might that look like? What one thing in your life would you benefit from loosening the grip on or letting go of? Chances are it’s the first thing that comes into your mind… To practice setting a resolution this month, set some time aside some time in silence whether sitting or walking, and simply listen when you ask the question; “What do I need?