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Time to let go and fall into autumn

Moving out of the fire of Summer and towards the colder, windier and altogether more changeable Autumn is nature’s metaphorical signal to prepare for cold and cosy months ahead. At the end of September, the Northern hemisphere enters the autumn equinox and officially transitions into an entirely different part of the year. With the sun appearing to head south, plants pause their growth and begin to shed their leaves. The air is laced with a noticeably different scent to that of previous months, and the dark nights creep slowly longer and longer.

Whether you love the beginning of autumn or long for sunnier days, there’s no denying; This is part of the earth’s natural cycle. And as a part of nature itself, we’d all benefit from aligning ourselves with the shifting energy. As the name suggests, an equinox – derived from the Old French equinoxe meaning ‘equal night’ – occurs when day and night are of equal length, perfectly balanced, before tipping over into the next season. Pagan mythology knows this time of year as Mabon or ‘Second Harvest’. A time to give thanks to the Summer and pay tribute to the coming darkness. Apple picking and gathering together to feast on seasonal fare are some of the longest held Pagan traditions, with the apple representing wisdom and guidance, and providing a way to thank the earth for its bounty.

With the external equilibrium of light and darkness obvious to the naked eye, this is also an important time to perhaps recognise and pay tribute to our own light and darkness within. Just as the earth moves through cycles, each day and even each moment is a cycle within itself. We can move through a multitude of emotions at any given time, experience a flood of thoughts cascading through the mind, and feel cyclical patterns within our physical bodies too.

Time to slow down!

Physically, energetically, and mentally, late summer is a time when life should be easy and we should aim for the middle path. Not always simple to achieve when this season can actually get quite busy! Follow along below for a few easy ways to bring more late summer self-care into your life.

Physically, energetically, and mentally, late summer is a time when life should be easy and we should aim for the middle path. Not always simple to achieve when this season can actually get quite busy! Follow along below for a few easy ways to bring more late summer self-care into your life.

The Late Summer and The Earth Element

earth-element.jpg

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), there are five elements – Metal, Wood Water, Fire and Earth. Each of these elements are linked to a season of the year. If you are wondering how this could be, when there are only four seasons, this because in TCM, there is a fifth season: Late Summer. This is the season of the Earth element.

Beginning in late August and ending during September at the Autumn Equinox, this short season is of particular importance because it marks the transition from the yang into the yin time of the year. We can often feel this shift ourselves with noticeable changes in the light and air, and even in the kinds of foods our body might crave.

The late summer is connected to the earth element and is a short season marking the transition between yang (spring and summer) and yin (autumn and winter).

Late summer is a crucial time of transformation, harvest, and nourishment. The Chinese character for the earth element (pictured above) expresses two important aspects of the earth element. The top horizontal line portrays the top of the soil (nourishment), and the bottom line represents the undersoil or bedrock (stability). Our central task with the earth phase of the cycle is to build stability, create balance, and reap the abundance that’s on offer.

The organs of Late Summer are the Stomach and Spleen. The food we eat is one of the ways Qi comes into the body (known as grain Qi). The Stomach (yang organ) is known as ‘the Sea of Nourishment’ due to its crucial role in digestion and it works alongside the Spleen (yin organ) to achieve this.  In Chinese Medicine, the Stomach and Spleen also supply nourishment to our minds as well as emotional and physical stability.

Being the proverbial worry wort, I was interested to discover that the emotion associated with the Earth element is worry; the unending stream of thoughts about anything and everything that could go wrong. But, we can find stability and balance to support the Earth element through our yoga and our lifestyle.

This means taking into account a balance between giving and receiving. Nourishing practices like Yin and Restorative Yoga are very grounding. Practicing lovingkindness towards yourself as well as to others to enhance self-worth is equally supportive.

So, this Late Summer reflect on how you are nourishing yourself, physically, mentally and emotionally and consider incorporating some yin yoga into your life. This is not to say that yang, or more active practices are bad. We need both yang and yin to be in harmony in our bodies and minds. When we have this harmony, then contentment, better health and happiness can follow.

Happy New Year (yup, you read that correctly!)

In the world of wellbeing, September seems to be the new January these days – with good reason. It’s a far better time of year for a health reset than the freezing winter months. In September you can smell the back-to-work vibe in the air as children return to school and routine is somewhat restored. Plus, you don’t have to wrap up in multiple layers or face depressingly dark mornings when you leave the house.

This September, I feel, will be a big one. As mask wearing begins to lift and a slither of normality returns, we are left staggering through the aftermath of the past 18 months. Even aside from the actual virus, the pandemic has taken its toll on our general wellbeing. And as we emerge from survival mode, we start to look at ourselves again. You may have got into comfort drinking habits; perhaps you have fallen off the exercise wagon or lie in bed until 8.48am because your home working day starts at 9am. Whatever you want to change, here are some small steps to tackle Covid-induced bad habits.

1 Be kind to yourself

Don’t beat yourself up. ‘Remain compassionate with yourself,’ says Kathryn Dombrowicz, psychotherapist and addictions specialist at mental health clinic thesoke.uk. ‘We have been through tough times and lost structure in our lives. It’s natural that we have wanted to make ourselves feel better in a time of anxiety,’ she says.

 September is a good time of year for a wellbeing reset

2 Take baby steps

‘It can be overwhelming to tackle everything at once,’ says nutritional therapist Nicola Moore (nicola-moore.com). ‘Start with the one thing that’s bothering you most and focus on that. Consistency, not striving for perfection, is the healthiest way to make changes.’

3 B.L.A.S.T bad habits

A habit is something we do again and again to the point where we are not actually experiencing it any more but going through the motions. You can break the pattern by consciously interrupting that habit. Kathryn uses the B.L.A.S.T. technique. ‘Ask yourself if you are bored, lonely, angry, stressed or tired,’ she says. ‘Then think of healthier ways you can nurture yourself instead.’

4 Don’t ditch ‘drink o’clock’

It could be that your daily glass of wine (or two) is more to do with the ritual of drinking and what that signifies emotionally rather than the drink itself, explains Nicola. ‘You don’t have to ditch that time in the day when you enjoy a relaxing drink,’ she says. ‘But try replacing it with something non-alcoholic while keeping everything else the same. Keep the wine glass and connect to the act of drinking it, which can elicit the same good feelings as you’d get from a glass of wine.’

5 Don’t go OTT on exercise

Going from sofa surfer to gym bunny will set yourself up to fail. Instead, says Kathryn, walk for 20 minutes four times a week. The next week, add an exercise class or make the walk longer. Doing something is better than nothing and a daily short walk will have an instant impact on your wellbeing.

6 Replace bad habits with good

‘By repeating a bad habit you will have created a neural pathway,’ says Kathryn. ‘You can override it with a positive habit by keeping at it,’ she says. ‘Some studies say it takes 21 days to break a habit, others say 40. I think it’s somewhere in the middle.’

Keep it simple!

It goes without saying: life can be hard. But we also tend to make it harder than it needs to be. On top of those difficulties that we don’t have any control over (pandemics, job losses), we pile on extra difficulties (packed schedules, non-stop goal-chasing, endless doom-scrolling) until we’re crushed by the overwhelm.

So why would we want to make our lives harder? It’s not necessarily a conscious decision – it has just become our default setting. ‘The modern world complicates things for us,’ says Dr Tara Swart, neuroscientist and author of The Source. ‘Over time, the amount of overload we’ve had to deal with has increased, and we’ve defaulted to meet that demand.’

With the onslaught of social media and the glorification of being busy, it’s unsurprising. And even though life has been pared back during the pandemic, we’re so accustomed to that ‘more, more, more’ setting, that it can be hard to switch it off. ‘Whatever you have to do expands to fill the time available,’ says Swart. ‘Many of us gained hours in the day we would’ve spent commuting, but this ended up blurring into a longer work day. It’s partly our perception that life is busy and complicated, and we often feel overwhelmed whether we actually have more to do or not.’

‘Overwhelm and over-complication leave us feeling ill and tired,’ says Swart. ‘Your mental, emotional and physical health is all connected. Simplifying your life can result in more energy, less fatigue, increased resilience and improved immunity.’

So, as we emerge back into some semblance of ‘normality’, how can we streamline our days and live in a way that feels easy and effortless? It’s all about finding small ways to reduce unnecessary clogs in our brains.

8 WAYS TO SIMPLIFY YOUR LIFE

1. CHOP UP YOUR CHORES

We spend way too much time procrastinating over tasks that could be done pretty quickly. Enter the much raved-about Pomodoro Technique, which can be used for anything from work projects, to clearing out the garage. Here’s how it works:

– Choose a task, minimise distractions and place a blank piece of paper or a notebook nearby.

– Set a timer for 25 minutes. It’s just 25 minutes, right? Focus solely on your task until the timer runs out. No interruptions or distractions allowed. If you suddenly realise you have something else you need to do, write it down.

– Make a check on the paper, and take a break. Give yourself 5 minutes to stretch or check your phone. If the 25 minutes got you in your zone, you may be tempted to power through. Resist! Your brain needs to regroup.

– Repeat until you’ve made three or four checks, then take a longer break for 20 or 30 minutes. Repeat until you’ve finished the task.

TOP TIP: ‘Before you go to bed, write down the thing you’re dreading most about the next day, then do that as soon as you wake up,’ says Tara Swart. ‘Getting the thing that is draining you out of the way is really good tactic for reducing stress.’

2. INTEGRATE MINDFULNESS INTO YOUR DAY

Mindfulness doesn’t need to mean sitting in the lotus position for an hour – Swart says you can find little pieces of mindfulness throughout the day. ‘You can try mindful eating at mealtimes, which means pausing before each mouthful, and tuning in to the taste of food, without distractions like phones or TV. Or, when you’re talking to a relative, giving them your full attention and eye contact. You can focus on your breath at any time of the day, even if walking around, speaking, or working at your laptop.’ Why? ‘Mindfulness helps you regulate your emotions, and simplifies things for your brain, by narrowing your focus,’ says Swart.

Give yourself a break

The world feels so chaotic and uncertain right now that we all have a responsibility to listen, to take notice and to do what we can. However, we also all have a responsibility to take a break from all the news headlines and to look after ourselves too.

Now, more than ever, it is time to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed. We cannot act constructively to change anything if we are exhausted from information overload. It is a balance that can be tough to strike. Our brains are incredible tools, but they are not immune to the effects of having too much to process and digest. And we have all been in that situation over the past 15 months or so.

Being aware of our need to turn down the noise to a level where we can cope and doing this often is what can keep us mentally and emotionally well, and able to keep moving forward through what will likely be more uncertainty. And it is not just turning down the volume on external information, but also our ability to find ways to get some space from our mind.

Our minds are brilliant at ruminating over and over problems – great if they find solutions and then drop them, but not so great if solutions are not possible, our minds are tired and can’t process a lot or we are projecting into the future or reaching back into the past.

It is not about ignoring or pushing away our thoughts, but rather pausing, being aware and putting into action strategies that can help us find solutions to problems, or ways that can help us let the thoughts go and pass gently. This takes practice and energy, and it is a lifelong journey, but it can be done. So, how can we protect ourselves from information overload?

News consumption

We need to be informed and we need to understand the world we live in so we can affect change and be part of society. However, too much news consumption can cause us to feel overwhelmed and sad if we have nowhere to take these feelings or no action we feel is possible for us to take. Be aware of your own news consumption – how much time, when in your day, on which platform, and in what manner and emotional state you are consuming your news. Don’t feel guilty or “bad” for turning it off or needing space away.

Reduce the ways you are contactable

With working patterns changing, feeling overwhelmed by messaging has become even more common. Sit down and review how you are allowing people to get hold of you. Reduce the platforms, mute your notifications, look at your phone or check your emails a limited number of times a day. If you are like me, you have probably experienced someone trying to contact you on multiple platforms, multiple times per day and at unsociable hours. Re-establish your boundaries and stick to them.

Find a balance

Balance your activities in your day. Have space for connection, for physical exercise, for creativity and for joy. Many people have not had a break from work for the past year, and even if they have had one planned, it may have been cancelled or at home in the same environment. It has been harder than ever to have a break from the noise of life. Make sure you are focusing on one task at a time. Our brains have specific ways of using our attention and focus, and if we do one thing at a time, we will be more efficient and feel better for it.

Say no

Give yourself space from people who overload you or add to your worries or do a “problem dump” on you without any respite.

Space from your thoughts

Make sure you regularly get involved in activities which are not information-oriented but more space-oriented. Mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises, physical exercise and sleep can all help you get some space from your mind. Creative hobbies such as art, music, reading, crafting, gardening and nature also can give you that space you need from your worries and thoughts. That volume button is in your hands right now. Make sure you know when you need to turn it down – and give yourself permission to do so.

Don’t forget to stretch.

Stretching is hardly the sexiest part of anyone’s routine. Whether or not you’re a fitness buff, it’s the kind of thing we know we should be doing, but often find hard to fit into our busy lives.

However, we’re here to remind you that you really shouldn’t skip it. “Stretching is an integral part of our fitness and health,” explains Michelle Njagi, senior physiotherapist at Bupa Health Clinics. “Stretching is really important because it keeps muscles flexible, it keeps them healthy and strong, and it’s really important for the range of movement in the joints as well – if you don’t have flexibility in the muscles, you’re not going to be able to move as much in the joints and you’ll be limited in what you can and can’t do.

“Without it, muscles become shorter and tighter. For example, if you do have quite tight hamstrings – the muscle at the back of your legs – it can make everyday things like walking harder, and can cause things like lower back pain.”

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you don’t need to stretch if you’re not a fitness fanatic either. “If anything it’s more important,” says Njagi. “It’s the age old saying: If you don’t use it, you lose it. It’s really important, especially if you do have quite a static lifestyle where you work at a desk, that you do try and move as much as you can.”

If you regularly exercise, not properly warming up and cooling down can lead to getting “injured more easily through strains and pulling muscles,” says Njagi.

It’s still crucial even if you don’t do HIIT five times a week. Njagi explains: “If you’re not exercising much, you might feel like you can go about your day normally, but there will be days when you’re doing everyday things like shopping or bending to reach something – if you’re not flexible enough, that’s when you can get things like pulled back muscles.

“You might not think you’ve been exercising, but it is a form of exercise – just in your everyday life. If you’re not able to move into those positions, you’re more likely to get general injuries.”

Feel the feel

Do you remember the Pixar film, Inside Out? Released to much acclaim in 2015, much of the film takes place in the head of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, with five emotions—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust—embodied by characters who help Riley navigate her world. I watched it again recently and realised that the film has some deep things to say about the nature of our emotions.

I like to personify emotions and think of them as characters. Some are our “friends” on Facebook, some are top of our instagram feed. And others are blocked, “unfriended” and muted because we just don’t want to see them.

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.