Posted in compassion, mental health, wellbeing

Monday Matters – Self soothing activities for emotional regulation

Photo credit: Johannes Plenio.

Today marks the beginning of my new ‘Monday Matters’ feature in which I will present different ideas on how to live a happy life and increase your general wellbeing. My first post is on managing your emotions using self soothing activities and features lots of ideas for self care and relaxation.

Recent research by Professor Paul Gilbert, a psychologist who developed Compassion Focused Therapy argues that we have three emotional regulation systems in our brain, namely:

  • The threat system – for detecting danger, based on emotions of anxiety, anger or disgust.
  • The drive system – enabling us to have the motivation to do, achieve and acquire, sparking excitement.
  • The soothing system – helping us to manage stress, creating feelings of contentment, safety, trust and connection to others.

All three of these systems are important, but issues can arise when one system dominates. If threat presides, we end up feeling constantly anxious and worried. If we spend too much time in drive mode, we can become obsessed with being better and having more and this can lead to stress, perfectionism, burn out and depression. However, If we were always in soothing mode, we would never get anything done!

Many of us find that we have very active threat and drive systems but rarely use our soothing system. By investing time on activities which sooth us, we can greatly improve our wellbeing. Of course, what is considered to be soothing, depends on the individual but here’s a list I’ve collated to give you some ideas.

  • Wrap yourself up in a cosy blanket to enjoy your favourite warm drink
  • Light some scented candles or burn some oils and turn down the dimmer switch
  • Go to the park for a gentle stroll and feed the ducks
  • In hot weather, enjoy an ice cream, in colder weather, make some warming soup
  • Look at photographs from a happy event e.g. a holiday, your wedding, a celebration day.
  • Spend some time in nature e.g. woodland or a forest and look for signs of the current season, or do some ‘forest bathing’ (to find out more about this stress busting pastime click here. Of course you don’t need to book a holiday to try this technique out but you do need somewhere dry to lie and soak up the atmosphere).
  • Flick through your favourite magazine (I love Breathe magazine which is all about making time for yourself).
  • Set aside some creative time to enjoy your favourite craft such as sewing, card making or collage
  • Watch something funny, such as a romantic comedy or your favourite sitcom.
  • Run a warm bath and add bubbles or a bath bomb (I love the ones from Lush as they change the colour of the water and smell delicious)
  • Play some upbeat music and have a sing song and a dance
  • Go out in the warm sun and feel the heat on your face
  • Play with a pet (I love having snuggles with my hamster Kikki, when she lets me!)
  • Read some inspirational quotes or some positive affirmations (I like to write these in my BuJo)
  • Engage in rhythmic activities such as doing a jigsaw, colouring on or painting
  • Take your phone or camera out on a nature walk and take lots of pretty pictures of your surroundings
  • Lie on the grass and watch the clouds float by
  • Get yourself a drink and savour the temperature and flavour
  • Go bird or squirrel spotting in your local park
  • Enjoy a massage

I hope my post has given you some ideas to try. If you could spend 10 minutes, half an hour, a morning or afternoon doing something just for yourself, what would you choose?

Posted in compassion, life hacks, mental health, Mindfulness, Planning and journaling, Setting goals and intentions, wellbeing, wellness

Practical ways to declutter your overloaded mind

Photo credit: Element5 Digital, Unsplash

There are a plethora of books and articles both online and in print about the benefits of decluttering your possessions in order to simplify your life and create more order. However, it’s not just our homes which can become cluttered and cause feelings of overwhelm and low mood. Our minds are equally susceptible and can easily become overloaded with worries, stresses and all of those emotions that come from spinning too many plates. Today’s blog post looks at practical ways of managing this mental clutter to improve our wellbeing.

1. Identify your current priorities in life

A good place to start decluttering your mind is to spend some time quietly reflecting on your life right now. Start to consider how you currently spend your time and use your energy and then begin to think about how satisfied you are with this situation. If you find yourself wanting to implement some changes, try focusing your attention on how you would like to live or what your ideal day would look like. This can help you establish what’s really important to you and enable you to prioritize. For example, you may decide that you are neglecting to look after yourself properly and need to give self care more of a focus or you might want to spend more quality time with your partner, your family or your friends.

2. Set some goals and instil some habits

When you know what your priorities are, you can work on setting some goals and creating some habits which help you to achieve these. For example, if having more ‘me time’ is at the top of your list, you may decide that you want to spend one hour per week learning a new skill or taking a class. If having more time together with your family is an area you’d like to work on, you might schedule a regular movie night, games evening or brainstorm or list of ways you would like to have fun together in your bullet journal or notebook. If you do use a bullet journal and like to have a habit tracker as part of your weekly or monthly spreads, your goals can inform the habits you choose to include. For example, if having a tidy space to study or work is one of your desires, you might choose to have a habit such as ‘ten minute desk tidy’ at the end of each day.

Practise mindfulness

Mindfulness is the process of bringing one’s attention to the current moment and concentrating on the flow of our thoughts, emotions, what is going on around us and bodily sensations without judgement. It can help us to reduce the time we spend dwelling on past events (rumination) or becoming anxious about the future and help us to become more calm and compassionate towards ourselves. Becoming more mindful can help to declutter our minds of worries and anxieties by creating a more relaxed state of being.

Take time to breathe

A big part of mindfulness and self compassion is about taking time out. Our busy lives often create minds which are full of mental chatter which we find difficult to silence. We can all find time to settle our minds by taking the time to slow down and a great way to do this is by changing your focus to a more soothing activity such as rhythmic breathing or a mini meditation. If, like me, you have a bullet journal or planner, try scheduling time to have a break as part of your daily plans or add meditation to your habit tracker. By being more mindful and checking in with your body and how you are feeling, you can also more easily recognise when you might need to pause or slow down.

Getting it down on paper

Another really helpful way of clearing mental clutter is to write it all down. There are many different ideas for how to go about doing this but popular methods include doing a ‘brain dump’ or regularly engaging in reflective journaling. A brain dump is basically where you put everything that’s on your mind down on paper or into a digital document. How you spill the contents of your brain is up to you. Some people like to just scribble down their thoughts and feelings onto a page of their journal or onto any random piece of paper they have available whenever they have lots on their mind. Others prefer the regular practise of creating ‘morning pages‘ where they dedicate time each day to writing it all down as soon as they wake up. Personally, I like to add thoughts and ideas to my daily plans in my bullet journal and spend some time each evening, reflecting on how my day has gone and writing a few things down underneath my bulleted lists. If you want to find out more about the bullet journal method for organisation, I recommend visiting Ryder Carroll’s website here or reading his book which explains the method in detail.

For specific projects, you may find that creating some sort of visual way of organising helps to get your thoughts on paper in a logical way. A spider diagram, is a popular method and one which you may have used at school. Basically, you start by placing your main thought, idea or topic in the centre of the page and then you add branches from this when you think of subtopics. These subtopics can then be broken down further by more branches, creating a kind of spiders legs effect on the page. A quick ‘Google’ search online shows lots of examples of this technique which can be a helpful way of structuring all of the information in your mind.

Avoid information overload

This point is particularly relevant to our lives today in the digital age. With so much information at our finger tips online, especially through our use of various social media platforms, it can be very easy to become overwhelmed and feel like we are ready to explode. There are many ways to avoid overloading ourselves with information, including limiting the amount of time we spend online. Also, if you have already spent time assessing your current priorities, then you can use this to inform what you focus on. For example, at the beginning of the year, I decided that I wanted to improve my gardening know how, so I thought about the steps I would need to take to do this and then spent time and energy improving my knowledge through reading about the plants in our garden, finding seasonal gardening tips online and watching gardening programmes on the television. I then recorded my learning in a garden journal. Also, avoiding negative and unreliable media sources can help your online presence positive and informative. For example, I tend to stay away from sensationalised news articles and always try to turn off my notifications for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for a while when I’m super busy.

Out of your mind and into your body

In a previous blog post, I talked about ways to stimulate your vagus nerve and included plenty of suggestions about how to use the power of this cranial nerve to stimulate your body and relax your mind. By moving our attention to our bodies and reconnecting to the world around us, we create much needed space in our minds which helps us to gain better mental clarity. Going out into the garden to feel the fresh air, listen to the birds or get some sunlight on our skin, taking a quiet stroll in the local park, or even just putting on a favourite song and singing out loud whilst having a quick boogie can all help.

Take some time to unwind

Your brain needs regular breaks to rest and recharge itself and so creating white space in your calendar or planner is a must. Spend some time away from your phone or tablet and do something relaxing which makes you feel happy. For me, a walk in nature, reading a book or doing something creative, such as painting or drawing are some of my favourite ways to unwind. I like to create pages in my bullet journal for self care and ‘me time’ activities so that when I’m feeling frazzled, I can get some inspiration for self soothing behaviours.

Photo credit: Victoria Bilsborough, Unsplash

I hope you have found today’s post useful and it has helped to provide inspiration on how you might take steps to declutter your busy and active mind. I would love to hear any others ideas that you find work really well for you at times when you’re feeling a little overwhelmed.

Posted in CBT, compassion, mental health, Mindfulness, psychology, wellbeing, wellness

Are you putting too much pressure on yourself? The unhelpfulness of ‘I should’ and ‘I must’ expectations

As part of my compassion group learning over the last few weeks, we’ve been looking unhelpful and more helpful thinking styles. I’ve previously talked about the psychology of using the term ‘I can’t’ (click here to read this post) when we really mean we find something difficult. In today’s wellbeing post, I’m going to focus on the pressure we put on ourselves using terms such as ‘I should’ and ‘I must’.

At the beginning of the year, I went through a really difficult patch with my mental health. I was suffering from debilitating anxiety and everything was a constant struggle. I was having panic attacks and my mood was very low. I spent a lot of time worrying that I wasn’t going to get better and found it extremely difficult to motivate myself to do anything but cry. I’m pleased to report that I’m now feeling much better and life is good. However, my improved mood and elevated motivation levels did start to cause a few issues with my self talk and my thinking and it is this which today’s post focuses on.

As soon as I started to feel better, I totally went into what is known as ‘drive mode’ and felt like I needed to make up for lost time by doing it all and not stopping. I had finally found the joy in achieving things in my day and my head was full of ideas and thoughts. I was writing huge to do lists and spent my time flitting from activity to activity in a frenzied way from when I got up at 6.00am to when I went to bed at 10pm. My head was filled with talk such as ‘I need to…’, ‘I have to…’ ‘I should…’ and all of the other terms associated with the intense desire to be productive and get a buzz from it.

The therapists in our compassion group helped us to see, however, that constantly being in drive mode and making these unrealistic assumptions of how to live can be really unhelpful. Terms such as I need to, I must, I have to and I should, put undue pressure on ourselves to perform and create expectations of ourselves that are very difficult to keep up with.

The effects of using these rigid terms have been studied by a number of psychologists and was a key part of the work of Albert Ellis. He coined the term ‘musterbation’ which has certainly stuck in my mind since reading about it online! The following quote I found online sums up the effects nicely:

“Musterbation” is a term coined by famed psychologist Albert Ellis to describe the phenomenon whereby people live by a set of absolute and unrealistic demands that they place on themselves, others and the world. For most of us, these rules come out in a series of should statements that we repeat to ourselves over and over again. These “should” and “shouldn’t” statements leave us feeling bad about ourselves because they set up standards that we cannot realistically meet. They also leave us feeling frustrated and hurt by others when they inevitably fail to fulfill our expectations. Recognizing this habit to set rules for yourself, others and the world gives you the opportunity to relieve some of the stress these messages cause. When dealing with “should” statements, it is important to keep in mind that while it may be nice to reach your goals and be treated the way you want all the time, we are human and live in an imperfect world. Therefore, the pressure to be anything all the time is more likely to cause harm than good.

Rowan Center BLOG, 2015.

If you would like to read more of their interesting article click here.

I’m now much more aware of when I’m using these terms (I haven’t stopped using them and I’m very much conditioned to their use, I’m just more mindful of when I do) and I try to reframe my thinking to be more helpful. This is taking time, but I do think it’s a really important step in increasing my good mental health. I’ve also noticed that my husband is fond of saying ‘I’ve got to…’ ‘I need to…’ and the like and so we laugh about it and then help each other to create more compassionate thoughts and beliefs too. Here are some examples and how I’ve re-articulated things:

  • I need to get rid of all of the weeds in the garden this week >>>> it would be great if I found some time this week to do a little bit of weeding as it would make the garden look a little nicer
  • I must take new and improved photographs of my products today >>>> If the lighting is okay today, I might take a few new photos of a couple of my products and upload them to Etsy
  • I really should get all of that washing done whilst the weather is okay >>>> it would be good if I did some washing this week as the basket is getting pretty full. I might do a load tomorrow and hang it out in the sunshine

You’ll notice that I’ve been more gentle and kind with my expectations too as another way of putting less pressure on myself. This is a big part of being more self compassionate which is what our wonderful therapy group is all about.

I hope you’ve found this blog post interesting and helpful. Maybe it’s made you think about the expectations you set and how you might re-frame your thoughts. Perhaps over the next week, you might notice yourself using ‘I must…’, ‘I need to…’ and ‘I should…’ a lot and you might try to be more mindful of what you say or think. It would be great if you let me know in the comments, but remember, you don’t ‘need to’ or ‘have to’, you just might like to or want to!

Much love and kindness.