Posted in Bullet journaling, life hacks, lifestyle, Mindfulness, productivity

Monday Matters: 8 wonderful benefits of listening to music

Photo credit: Lee Campbell for Unsplash

Back in October of last year, I found my mental health deteriorating, and, once again, started to have difficulties with anxiety and depression. I’m now (thankfully) feeling much better and my improved wellbeing has enabled me to start blogging again. Whilst I was struggling, the main focus of life was on doing any little thing I could either to distract myself from how I was feeling or to improve my mood. I found music was a huge help and so, for today’s Monday Matters post, I want to focus on the benefits of listening to music. The following are applicable whatever your musical preferences and can be utilised whether you are finding things difficult at the moment or feeling happy, content and positive, like I am currently. Let’s get started..

1. Elevates your mood

Whatever our taste in music, I expect we can all name at least one song which, when it starts to play, is able to shift our mood in a matter of seconds, making us want to turn the radio up, jump to our feet and start dancing around the room or burst into song. It may be the tempo, the lyrics or the sparking of a happy memory which uplifts us. Whichever of these it is that gets us going, scientific research proves that these tunes promote the release of a neurotransmitter known as dopamine into our bodies and it is this which is responsible for making us feel so good. If you do find yourself singing or dancing along to the music too, you will be doing yourself the extra favour of encouraging happy hormones known as endorphins to flood your body as well!

Making a playlist for times when you are feeling a little low or even depressed can be really useful. This can either be on your phone, your IPod or even in your bullet journal so you can seek out those songs on Spotify, YouTube or whatever is your music player of choice. Having them written down is particularly helpful for those times when you are struggling as, at that time, you may not be able to recall songs which are able to make you feel more upbeat.

The following page was inspired by one created by @sunshine_journal_ on Instagram.

A page from by current bullet journal. Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping It Creative

2. Improves your workout

According to my Fitbit app, which has just this second provided me with an activity tip (it must have somehow known I was writing this blog post):

‘Listening to music can help exercise feel easier, and even boost your speed. Songs with 120-140 beats per minute appear to have the biggest motivating effect’

Source: Fitbit app info.

Clicking through to the information, which was written back in 2017, I learnt that music can increase your speed, make you feel more powerful, make exercising feel easier (wahoo!), boost your mood and help to keep you motivated. When I was battling with my mental illness, I didn’t have the energy to do my Zumba workouts but I did make sure that I went for at least one long walk per day and my playlist helped to put at least a little bit of a spring in my step. Now I’m back to good health, the music is really motivating and some of the track make me want to break into a run (luckily I haven’t acted upon the urge as I don’t wear my sports bra whilst pounding the streets or the paths of my local park and don’t want to be off to the doctors with detached boob syndrome which I’m sure would be the resulting affliction lol!).

Here’s a list of some of my motivational music, many of which I copied into iTunes from some old CD singles which I believe I purchased whilst at uni many moons ago:

  • Choose Life – PF Project feat. Ewan McGregor
  • Forever – Dee Dee
  • Another Chance – Roger Sanchez
  • Alone – Lasgo
  • Beautiful – Matt Darey Feat. Marcella Woods
  • Treat Infamy – Rest Assured
  • The Night Train – Kadoc
  • The Silence – Mike Koglin
  • Kickstarts – Example
  • In For The Kill – La Roux

They’ve been put into a playlist on my old Apple iPod, aptly called ‘On The Go’ as I couldn’t work out how to give them my own title.

3. Boosts your concentration levels when working or studying

When I’m struggling with anxiety and depression, it becomes very difficult for me to concentrate on the simplest of tasks and even harder to be motivated to do things in the first place. Studies have shown that particular types of music can be really useful in encouraging productivity and creativity. Some tunes can also be quite therapeutic, reducing stress levels so that you are able to concentrate better. Personally, I prefer instrumental music as many lyrics can be more of a distraction than a help. Whilst conducting online research for today’s blog post, I discovered that the best types of musical accompaniment were suggested to be the following (one of them may surprise you like it did me!) :

  • classical music
  • ambient music
  • nature sounds
  • between 50 and 80 BPM (Beats per minute)
  • video game music!

You can find many different collections of classical music for work or study on YouTube but I like to create my own playlists as there’s nothing worse than a tune coming on that you simple don’t like. My absolute favourite has to be Fur Elise by Beethoven, but, my musical choices are often dependent on the type of task I’m working on.

Ambient music is a genre that is generally identifiable as being atmospheric and environmental in nature. According to online definitions, it is gentle and largely electronic with no persistent beat. One of my favourite pieces of ambient music is Porcelain by Moby and, although mostly tracks are instrumental, this one does have minimal lyrics. If your chosen music does have words, I think it is best to have the song on at a low volume so they don’t distract you.

I love listen to the sounds of nature in my local park or in the garden on a fine day. When you’re working or studying, apps such as ‘Calm’, ‘Sleep sounds’ or other relaxation and meditation focused packages, are great for providing nature sounds such as rain on leaves, Autumn woods, water flow, coral reef and wind in pines. I’m not sure how much of the Calm app is accessible for free ordinarily because I’m currently making use of an extended free trial but the sleep sounds app has lots free to use (my phone is Android but I expect there are iPhone Apps too).

According to my research, music at 50-80 BPM is good for stimulating the left side of the brain for information processing and problem solving. Again, collections of tracks can be found on YouTube but I would definitely recommend you create your own playlist of music you love. For sparking your creative juices, more upbeat, faster music is suggested (more BPM).

Who knew that music created to accompany video games could help boost your output? I certainly didn’t. The ones that I play tend to get on my nerves and I mute them but apparently they’re designed to enhance your gaming experience by stimulating your senses and blocking out other stimuli which may distract you. One game that both my husband and I always have the music on for though, is Angry Birds 2 but I’ve never thought of listening to it when working or studying – that is, until now (I may just have it playing in the background as I type away on this blog post!).

4. Calms the mind and relaxes the body

Some music can be really soothing when you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious or uptight. According to a number of studies, listening to calming tracks can help you relax by slowing your breathing and heart rate, lowering blood pressure and reducing levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (AKA adrenaline). Try searching for ‘peaceful music’, ‘soothing music’ or ‘music for relaxation’ on YouTube (I found some wonderful extended compositions by talented Norwegian musical artist Peder B. Helland whose videos also contain beautiful imagery), create your own playlist or check out some of the music on apps such as Calm.

5. Great for mindful listening

Music can be a great part of your daily mindfulness practice. Mindfully listening grounds us in the present moment and, by paying attention to what’s going on currently, you won’t be focusing on ruminating about the past or worrying about things in the future. Mindfulness is obviously a huge topic which I couldn’t possibly cover in this blog post but with regard to mindful listening to music, you can start with really paying attention to the piece, noticing its melody, rhythm, tone or lyrics and tuning in to how it makes you feel or what emotions it evokes. And of course, if your mind wanders off, as with all mindfulness practices, gently and kindly bring it back to the music without berating yourself for losing your attention or starting to think things such as ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘why do I have the concentration skills of a goldfish?’!

6. Combats isolation and feelings of loneliness

Many of us will be struggling with feelings of isolation and loneliness right now due to the effects of local lockdowns and social distancing as the result of Coronavirus. Studies have shown, however, that listening to music can combat these by triggering the release of a hormone called oxytocin which plays a key part in cultivating empathy, trust and compassion for others and creates a sense of belonging and connection.

7. Brings back happy memories

Sometimes, when you hear a song on the radio, it evokes happy memories and has the ability to transport you right back to the time when you first heard it or to a particular occasion (e.g. your wedding day, a night out with friends in your early 20s, or a family get together. Adding these to a playlist can evoke fond memories or help you recall and remember happier periods of your life when you’re feeling down. Research has shown that just replaying music helps us reconnect with the feelings we were experiencing at the time.

Talking of memory, there’s also scientific evidence that listening to music can help us retrieve memories and is also good at helping us to lay down new ones. For this reason, music can be wonderful resource for elderly relatives or those who have dementia.

8. Helps you to process difficult emotions and heal from heartache and grief

I’m sure most, if not all of us have experienced the heartache that goes with losing a loved one at some point in our lives. Although music doesn’t have the capacity to make the feelings of emotional anguish or grief go away, it can certainly help us process and make sense of things. Seeking out and listening to tracks where the lyrics seem to be describing our situation perfectly is something many of you will have found yourself doing automatically. In the past, following the breakdown of a romantic relationship, I would always find myself reaching for CDs of sad songs and having a good cry. I wasn’t sure that choosing such tunes was helpful, but according to my research, it definitely can be. In fact, listening to music which matches our mood (either in terms of tempo or lyrics), whether that be sadness, anger, excitement or joy, benefits us by activating our limbic system (the section of our brain which is directly related to emotional processing).

Final thoughts…

I hope you have found this music focused post helpful in some way and that is has encouraged you to think about using songs and instrumental pieces to benefit your mental health and wellness. Let me know in the comments if any of what I’ve said resonates with you.

Happy listening!

Posted in creativity, life hacks, lifestyle, Mindfulness, wellbeing

Monday matters: 7 mindful hobbies for stress reduction and relaxation

Hobbies are a great way to focus on the present, reduce stress and anxiety levels, leaving you feeling calm and relaxed and with a wonderful sense of achievement. What’s more, they’re an excellent form of mindfulness which is proven to benefit you in a number of ways both mentally and emotionally. Here’s some hobbies that I currently enjoy, have tried and loved in the past and one that I would love to try in the future.

Zentangles

I had a go at producing some Zentangles quite a few years ago when they were featured in a magazine (I think in Breathe). I found information from the article that I’d cut out in one of my journals a few days ago but I couldn’t actually find the patterns that I did. I do remember that I found them really relaxing to do and was pleased with the results so I decided to give them another go.

The Zentangle method was created in 2003 by an American couple called Maria Thomas and Rick Roberts. They describe it as an ‘easy-to-learn, relaxing, and fun way to create beautiful images by drawing structure patterns’ which they call tangles. The three and a half inch tangles are drawn on a small square of paper, and are made using a combination of dots, lines, simple curves and orbs. You have no idea what your finished piece will end up like as you focus on the process rather than worrying about the results. To find out more about the method and to see some beautiful examples visit the official website. For now, here’s some from a complete beginner (me!):

My first attempt at Zentangle in a long time. Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it creative.

Birdwatching

I love birdwatching in my own garden, whilst out for nature walks and from various hides in local reserves and parks. It’s such a relaxing activity yet one which requires plenty of concentration and patience. Although our back garden is relatively small, we have a range of feeders in a little wildlife area and have recently purchased a new covered table which the birds are just starting to take to. We also have a small pond, several bird baths, plenty of shrubs, plus a fence covered in ivy which is full of spiders and their webs. Our space has recently become really popular with a range of small and larger birds and we even had a sparrow hawk visiting last month!

I bought a pair of binoculars last year so I could see birds up close when I visit the hides in nature reserves across the North East but you really don’t need to have any equipment to enjoy birding – just your eyes and your ears, making it a cheap as well as mindful hobby.

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it Creative

Journalling

Mindful journalling is all about the act of expressing your thoughts and feelings on paper and is a wonderful tool for reflecting, evaluating and processing all that is going on in your life. Done regularly, journalling has many benefits including stress reduction, improved mood, emotional regulation, more self confidence, better immunity, a sharper memory, increased productivity and the ability to empathize with others.

I’ve been journaling for a long time now and it has become a part of my daily routine and something I would really miss if I stopped doing it. I mainly tend to put pen to paper in the evening as I like to reflect on my day, record what I grateful for and write about what I’m looking forward to the next day or what I’m anxious about (click here to see my previous post which describes the ‘putting the day to rest’ technique in detail).

I do sometimes do some journalling in the morning as a way of starting my day on a positive and creative note and find the book ‘Five Minutes in the Morning – A Focus Journal’ provides some great prompts to help me decide what to write about. I managed to pick it up really cheaply in my local bookshop but it’s also available on Amazon as an ebook which you could use if you bought a special notebook to write in.

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it Creative

The journal is split into different sections, each with a particular focus and considers topics such as the power of writing, creating clarity, considering what’s important in your life, developing an attitude of abundance, solving problems and challenges, productivity and goal setting. It’s up to you how you use the book, you could either work through each prompt in order or you could just pick and page at random and see what you find.

Another book that I really love for prompt ideas is ‘Mindful Journaling’ by Tara Ward. The focus of this book is on exploring mindfulness in a variety of ways and then recording and evaluating your experiences of doing the different tasks. Recently, I completed an activity where you put something in front of you that you would like to eat and reflect on how the food stuff reached your bowl or plate and all of the processes involved in sourcing the ingredients and creating the product. I chose some Crunchy Nut Cornflakes and had so much to write about and it made me eat them much more mindfully afterwards too.

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it Creative

Sketching

I used to hate drawing as I thought I was no good at it but recently I’ve started to really enjoy developing my skills. My favourite things to draw are plants and other aspects of nature such as leaves, berries and fruit. I always really take my time and focus in on the outline shape of the objects and then add detail carefully. Apparently this style of drawing is known as a ‘Zen method’ which is all about observing and following the contours of the object with your eyes whilst letting your hands draw. You can find out more in renowned Dutch artist Frederick Franck’s book ‘Zen seeing, Zen drawing’ which I have neither seen or read but it sounds like it is focused on mindful drawing as a meditative technique for observing and discovering the world around you.

My first attempt at still life fruit sketching! Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it Creative

Watercolour painting

As those of you who follow my blog will know, I got into watercolouring about 9 months ago and have enjoyed experimenting with different techniques including creating washes, wet on dry and wet on wet methods. Now I’ve learnt the basics, I’ve started to try out my skills on creating actual art pieces. This is my first try at wet on wet poppies and adding stems using wet on dry. In order to create my piece I spent some time looking at photographs of poppies and the work of other watercolour artists. I then really focused on the process of mixing colours, getting the right consistency of pigment to water and then allowing the colours to blend on the page. I wasn’t concerned about the finished look but I think it turned out well, for a beginner anyway!

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it Creative

Pottery

I’ve done two ceramics courses at a local wellbeing centre and found them to be amazingly beneficial. I met some wonderful, like-minded people who I got on really well with and involving myself in playing with the clay to explore different techniques and then designing and making my own pieces was so relaxing. The sessions were three hours long and in that time, I found that my mind was fully focused on the tasks at hand and the level of concentration required helped me to switch off from my anxious thoughts and feelings. Most weeks, we also got some of our freshly fired work back and it was so exciting to see our pieces at various stages of the making process and celebrate what we had achieved as we developed our skills.

Obviously, at the moment, there are no ceramics classes available which you can attend due to lockdown restrictions still being in place but it is certainly something I would recommend looking into in the future if you enjoy getting creative with your hands.

Flower arranging

This is a mindful activity that I would love to have a go at in the future as I imagine it’s really interesting to learn the various techniques involved and you can produce some stunning pieces to decorate your home and bring you joy. There are loads of free video tutorials and tips available online from florists and expert flower arrangers if you want to discover the basics or if you sign up to Skillshare you can do a full online course at home. I know my local college usually offer beginner’s floristry sessions but it may be a while before they are able to start them up again.

Photo credit: James Coleman, Unsplash

Do you do any of the activities I’ve listed already or do you have other favourites? Have you found you have more time to do hobbies because of the lockdown restrictions?

Posted in fitness, life hacks, lifestyle, mental health, Mindfulness

Monday Matters: Why am I not losing weight despite working my ass off?

Those of you who regularly read my blog will know that my Monday Matters series is generally concerned with mental health and wellness. So, you might be thinking, how come this post has veered off that topic completely and is about weight loss, or more importantly lack of? Well, if you are trying to lose weight yourself through a combination of dietary changes and increasing your activity levels, you will know that when you step on the scales each week (or maybe even daily) to check your progress, it feels pretty rubbish if they read exactly the same as the previous time (or even worse, the number has crept up!). And the likelihood is, that this has a really negative affect on your mental health in terms of mood, confidence levels and motivation to keep going. So really, this post is totally on topic.

For the benefit of myself and any other readers who are working hard on their fitness and hoping to lose a few pounds on the way, here’s a collection of reasons why those scales might appear to be stuck and what you can do about it…

You’re not resting enough

I talked about the importance of rest days in my previous post here where I gave suggestions on how to create a workout for beginners but I didn’t know at the time that exercising too much could actually cause weight gain. Apparently, if you over exercise, your body can get stressed out and increase the production of cortisol (the stress hormone) which can contribute to you putting on weight. The solution for this one, is to make sure you incorporate rest days into your workout schedule where you don’t do any intense working out such as aerobic exercise or HIIT programmes (High Intensity Interval Training. Fitness experts recommend you train five days a week and have two rest days.

You’re not getting good quality sleep each night

Also related to rest is our sleep habits. If you’re not getting enough Zzzzzs then you’re not giving your body the chance to repair muscles and tissues. In fact, lack of sleep can also lower your metabolism which doesn’t help on the weight loss front either. Different people need different amounts of sleep to function well but you’ll know what feels right for you. I personally like to get between 7 and a half to 8 hours each night. If you’re struggling with getting good quality sleep, you can check out last Monday’s post in which I presented some ideas on how to get better kip.

Another issue with lack of sleep is that it can drastically affect your mood. If you’re sleep deprived, you can feel irritable, confused, depressed and lethargic the next day and this can reduce your general activity levels or make you reach for quick energy boost food and drinks which are often not healthy choices. As well as tracking your meals, you could also track your sleep and your mood to see how they affect each other and your food choices.

Your calorie intake is too high

According to dieticians, a woman needs to eat approximately 2000 calories to maintain her weight. For weight loss, you should be eating less than this each day. Obviously, this depends on age, weight and height as well as a range of other factors but the simple fact is that in order to drop some pounds, more calories need to be expended than are entering the body. I have a Fitbit which tells me how many calories I’ve burnt each day (usually around 2400 on an active day) but I really have no idea how many calories I have coming in because I don’t measure them. Some people swear by counting calories religiously but I think a better solution is to keep a food and drink diary so you can see exactly what you are consuming each day and how often you’re eating highly calorific items. This will help you examine your diet and can help you see if you’re making bad food choices or overeating.

Your calorie intake is too low

Conversely, it’s also possible to eat too little due to a highly restrictive diet and this causes you to go into starvation mode. The effective of this is that your body tries desperately to conserve energy which can prevent you from losing weight. A common symptom of starvation mode is that you feel extremely tired all the time which is certainly not good for your health. Again, I would recommend keeping a food diary so you can track how much fuel you are giving yourself each day. You should also check that you are getting a balanced diet and not avoiding any food groups. There’s lots of advice online about making sure you eat properly and as I’m no expert on the subject, I’ll just share this link from the NHS.

You’re eating and drinking ’empty’ calories

The source of the calories that you do take in is really important if you want to lose weight. If you are eating a drinking things that have little or no nutritional value then you may find that this is preventing weight loss or even causing you to gain. Food and drinks that contain a high level of solid fats or processed sugars are generally to blame. These are found in fast foods, pre-packaged desserts, fried foods, carbonated soft drinks, salted snacks, energy drinks and alcohol.

If you don’t want to deny yourself of these types of food and drinks altogether, you should at least make sure that they are the occasional treat and don’t feature too heavily in your diet. You should also try to balance them out with healthier choices and ensure you increase your activity levels accordingly. Keeping a food and drink diary can also help you to spot how often you are eating these types of items.

You’re focusing wholly on weight loss and ignoring other indicators of success

When you step on your bathroom scales you are simply learning how much you currently weigh. What you’re not finding out is how much of that weight is muscle, how much is fat, how much is water and how much is your bones and your bodily organs. So really, checking the scales is quite a limited way of discovering your progress and success levels. Therefore, if weighing yourself isn’t providing you with the motivation you need to stick with your current eating and exercise plan, you might be better off with a different approach. I’ve already shared my exercise tracker that I have as part of my bullet journal set up for May and I’ve really enjoyed filling it in and celebrating my achievements. Here’s the partially completely version (I moved BuJo part of the way through May so I photocopied them and stuck them in).

As well as monitoring your workouts, you could also find other ways to check in with yourself, for example, you could be more mindful of how your clothes feel and fit or you could do a pictorial record of what you look like each week in your exercise gear using your camera phone. You might also try setting yourself some performance related goals and congratulate yourself when you achieve them e.g. with a nice, bright workout top or some new leggings. My husband and I have both noticed positive changes with my body in terms of better posture from my yoga, toned muscles from my aerobics, weight training and targeted stretching and slimmer waistline and face.

If the scales are leaving you feeling discouraged, I also recommend writing some fitness related affirmations. They might not directly cause you to gain muscle and lose fat but they can be a great way to provide or increase motivation. Here’s some that I’ve recently added to my BuJo:

My overall health and mood are improving as a result of my increased exercise levels.

I enjoy working out and the energy it gives me.

My body is getting stronger, fitter and healthier every day.

I am proud of myself for exercising regularly.

You’re suffering from water retention

Water retention is when your body is failing to eliminate excess water. This can happen for a number of reasons and is particularly common in women at different times in their hormonal cycle (e.g. the week before your period). If you are being really careful about your diet and are exercising regularly but it’s having absolutely no effect, you may be carrying excess water weight. Physical signs of water retention include swelling e.g. of your ankles, breasts, fingers or stomach, puffy face, hips and abdomen and stiff joints.

Fluid retention can sometimes be caused by medication so if you think this might be the case, have a chat with your doctor about it. Other causes can be too much sitting about in one position so to combat this, try to get moving for a few minutes each hour (Fitbit watches are great for reminding you to move!).

You can also make dietary changes to reduce excess water, for example, increasing your intake of magnesium (found in whole grains and leafy green veg), vitamin B6 (found in bananas, potatoes and walnuts) and potassium (found in bananas, avocados and tomatoes).

You’re not staying hydrated

Talking of water, you need to make sure you’re getting plenty throughout the day so that you stay properly hydrated. Your body actually tends to store water when you’re dehydrated which can cause bloating and weight gain. You should try to drink at least two litres of water a day and more if you are doing intense exercise that causes you to sweat. You can also add hydrating foods to your diet – some of my favourites at this time of year include watermelon, strawberries, peaches and nectarines. Staying properly hydrated helps to flush out extra fluids and sodium from your body. It also helps you to avoid constipation which as well as being unpleasant can also cause extra pounds on the scales.

You’re eating mindlessly

Mindless eating is when you’re not giving your full attention to what you’re eating. This could be because you’re busy doing something at the same time e.g. watching a movie and snacking on crisps or chocolate or because you’ve let your attention wander to something else e.g. chores you need to do or what you want to do later in the day. Mindless eating can lead to overeating and the feeling of being ‘stuffed’ as you tend not to stop when you start to feel full.

The complete opposite of this is mindful eating which is where your attention is wholly focused on what you are consuming. If you are eating mindfully, your conscious of every bite or every sensation in your mouth until the point you swallow. This makes you eat more slowly as you savour each mouthful of your food. It also helps you to know when you are full and satisfied with what you’ve had which makes you more likely to stop before you become overly stuffed.

There are many ways that you can eat more mindfully. Always try to sit down for your meals, preferably at a table and away from any electronic devices. Spend some time appreciating what’s on your plate visually before you start to tuck in. Think about where different elements of your meal have come from and who has helped to make them available to you. Do you feel grateful for what you have to eat? When you start eating, go slow and take small bites, really savouring the taste and texture. Focus on enjoying each and every mouthful until you feel full.

Your medication is causing increased appetite

When I went through a bad spell with my mental health, I started to take two forms of anti-depressant medication alongside each other. One of these was Mirtazapine, and although my mood greatly improved, I found that I was constantly hungry even after eating a large meal, whereas before I had no appetite and lost weight. I’ve now stopped taking this particular drug as I watched my weight creeping up and didn’t want it to continue. When I talked to my doctor about it, he said that all antidepressants can cause these issues. According to my online research, when you start to feel better, things begin to become more pleasurable and this can include food. Now, I’m not going to stop taking my Citalopram and wouldn’t suggest you stop any medication which helps you but it is worth bearing in mind and monitoring your food intake closely.

A final recap

In summary, the key thing to focus on when trying to get fit and healthy is fat loss and developing a well defined and toned body. So, make sure you measure your progress in a range of different ways instead of just obsessing over your weight. Also try to ascertain if your calorie intake is less than your expenditure by doing some basic monitoring of your diet and finding out roughly how many calories you burn doing the different exercises in your weekly workouts.

Wishing you lots of success on your health and fitness journey, keep up the hard work!

Posted in life hacks, lifestyle, Planning and journaling, wellbeing

Monday Matters: 5 ways to get better sleep tonight

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels

The current pandemic has surrounded us with worry and uncertainty and many of us with mental health issues will be finding ourselves battling with increased anxiety and heightened stress levels. This, coupled with changes to our daily routines, can have a huge impact on our sleep such as struggling to fall asleep and waking in the night. This then impacts on us the next day as we feel lethargic, unhappy and irritable and sometimes barely able to function due to being so tired. Although I’ve had huge issues with insomnia in the past (and chronic restless leg syndrome), I’m actually sleeping really well right now due to a few different things that I’ve put in place. So, although I’m no sleep doctor or expert, I thought I would share my 5 best tips on how to get a good night’s sleep that have worked for me.

Journal writing as a way of putting the day to rest

This is a technique that I’ve been using off and on since I learnt about it in my CBT sessions. It’s particularly useful when you feel like your mind is overloaded and if anxious thoughts usually start for you as soon as you get into bed.

Choose a time when you feel it’s best for you to reflect on your day. This should be late enough that you have done any household chores and finished any sort of homework or studying but early enough that you can spend some time relaxing afterwards before heading up to bed.

Using a notebook or paper and pen rather than a laptop, begin by reflecting on your day and how you feel about how it went. Jot down a few of your thoughts, focusing on the main points, including what went well and what, if anything, is troubling you.

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it creative

Next, write a to do list of things that you maybe planned on doing but didn’t get done or tasks that you might like to complete tomorrow or later on in the week. Getting it down on paper will mean it’s there for you tomorrow if you need to revisit it.

Now think about tomorrow – what are you looking forward to and what may cause you anxiety. Write down your schedule for the next day (looking back and your list from the above task). Also, make a note of anything in your planner that you need to enquire about or check out.

Now put your journal or paper to one side and focus on doing relaxing and unwinding activities of your choosing for the rest of the evening e.g. reading for pleasure, a craft activity, some yoga or meditation.

If any worries pop into your head when you get into bed, remind yourself that you’ve already dealt with them or have scheduled a time to focus on them tomorrow.

Avoid any type of stimulant later in the evening

We all know that coffee and regular teas contain caffeine and that you are best off avoiding them in the hours before bed, but have you ever thought about other drinks and foods that have a stimulating effect? Any drinks that contain a high level of sugar, for example hot chocolate, fizzy soft drinks such as coca cola or lemonade, and (unfortunately) many of my favourite liquors such as Archer’s, Baileys, Kahlua and Amaretto, will increase your energy levels – and that’s the last thing you need if you want a good night’s sleep. Also, alcohol of any kind will make you feel drowsy straight after drinking (making you think it’s perfect for making you tired) but also often causes night time waking e.g. with an urge to visit the bathroom, and changes to your sleep pattern such as to vivid dreams as a result of abrupt transitions between sleep stages.

High sugar desserts such as cookies, cakes and ice cream should also be avoided if you are eating quite late – in fact, eating late in the evening should really be avoided as, if you do, your body will still be processing your food when you lie down in bed and this can cause indigestion, reflux and other digestion problems which are certainly not going to help your sleep situation.

Another stimulant which commonly affects people is the use of electronic devices last thing before bed. The bright blue light being emitted from tablets, televisions and mobile phones is known to stop the production of melatonin which is the hormone responsible for your circadian rhythm AKA your body’s internal clock. Some phones and tablets have an option to put on a blue light filter and you can even create a schedule so that it is turned on between set hours. I still try to avoid using devices for at least an hour before bed and instead do some relaxing activities such as meditation, reading a paperback or doing some restorative yoga.

Use of social media shortly before retiring for the evening can also be a source of heightened stress levels. I’m sure we’ve all read something online which has incensed us or wound us up and made it very difficult for us to relax as a result. I try to avoid going on platforms like Facebook and Twitter after a certain time for this very reason.

Create an evening relaxation routine

Last week, I made a spread in my bullet journal that detailed an evening routine of relaxation techniques that I feel will help promote a feeling of restfulness in preparation for going to bed. I started by thinking about what my evenings have looked like in the past which have lead to a terrible night’s sleep and jotted down my ideas e.g. eat late and drink wine or cider after 9pm, get into a debate on a social media platform e.g. Facebook or Twitter, or read something controversial online, tackle chores just before bed, work on projects late into the evening etc. Then I thought about the complete opposite of this e.g. eating at a reasonable time, limiting alcohol intake and not drinking after 8pm (2 hours before bedtime), finishing chores by 8.30pm, journaling and putting the day to rest, doing a gentle yoga routine, completing a breathing meditation, silencing my phone, doing meditative activities such as colouring on, cross stitching or a jigsaw puzzle etc.

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it creative

Obviously it takes weeks to establish a new routine but by writing it down, I think it reinforces your intention and makes you more likely to stick to it. You can also reflect on it as part of your evening journalling, for example, writing down that you woke up with a headache and detailing reasons why this might have happened, recording that you woke up feeling refreshed because you had a wonderful night’s sleep and why this might be the case.

Get some exercise but avoid anything aerobic for at least 2 hours before bed

I’ve found that I’m able to sleep so much better since developing a daily exercise routine. You don’t have to do something intense each day but a nice, brisk walk for around 30 minutes should help you feel less stressed and more relaxed by the time evening comes. Make sure, however, that you don’t do any exercises that get your heart rate up for a couple of hours before bed as this will leave you feeling energised and stimulated and actually delay your transition into sleep.

Get your bedroom environment just right

If there’s one piece of bedroom furniture worth investing some money on, it’s a decent mattress. We’ve tried various types over the years and at one point had a memory foam topped one but we found it made us too hot and this wasn’t conducive to sleep. We now have a ‘Posturepedic’ which provides amazing support, helps maintain good spinal alignment and is super comfortable. You should also think carefully about your pillows too as the kind you choose depends on your regular sleeping position i.e. if you are a back sleeper or side sleeper.

Another consideration is the temperature in your room. It’s suggested that the ideal is around 16-18 degrees Celsius (between 60 and 67 degrees farenheit) and that if your bedroom is too hot or too cold it may affect the drop in your body’s internal temperature and cause you to have disrupted sleep. During the warmer months, we get the sun coming in through the window on an afternoon so I often close the blinds and make sure the door is wide open to avoid it getting too hot in there. We also have different togs of duvet and a cotton sheet for different times of the year to ensure we’re cosy in the winter and not too hot in the summer.

Having your room nice and dark also helps you to sleep better and many people like to use blackout curtains or blinds for this reason. However, we prefer just to use dark and thick, well-lined curtains as we find that some natural light first thing (during the spring and summer months) helps you to wake up gradually – think about how difficult it is to drag yourself out of bed when it’s still pitch black in the winter months!

I hope this tips help you to get a restful night’s sleep. I know at the moment, with the lockdown restrictions, it might be hard to maintain a good bedtime routine but your body will thank you for it if you do.

Sweet dreams,

Posted in life hacks, mental health, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Creating a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (W.R.A.P.) to support good mental health. Part 1.

A few months ago, I did a six week course at my local recovery college that focused on creating a Wellness Recovery Action Plan (W.R.A.P.). The concept of a W.R.A.P. was originally developed in 1997 by Mary Ellen Copeland and a group of like-minded mental health recovery advocates as a way of monitoring wellness and periods of difficulty, keeping yourself well and recording how you would like to be supported and by whom in the event of future issues.

At the time of attending the course, I was in a really bad place and found the sessions quite overwhelming and would end up in tears on a regular basis. However, I could still see the benefits of making a W.R.A.P. and completed all of the tasks and homework each week. I was really proud of myself for continuing to attend the group and now I’m well again, I would like to share my learning with you and discuss how you can go about making your own plan.

The first session of the course involved an introduction to the W.R.A.P. and discussion about how we were going to be supported in the creation of the document. We were given a handout so we could record our ideas each week and tailor our plan to suit our individual needs. If you would like to find out more about the plan from its original creator, you can click here to be taken to her website.

WRAP is a tool that can aid an individual’s recovery and its underpinning principles support the recovery approach. WRAP is a way of monitoring wellness, times of being less well and times when experiences are uncomfortable and distressing. It also includes details of how an individual would like others to support them at these different times.”

There are 5 main principles to the W.R.A.P. and these are:

Hope – that you will get well, stay well and go on to meet your dreams and goals

Personal responsibility – it’s up to you to decide what will most likely help to keep you well and who you would like to support you in order to give you the very best chance at staying well

Education – learning everything you can to enable you to make good decisions about your mental health and how you would like it to be managed

Self advocacy – making sure you have everything you need, want and deserve to support your wellness and recovery

Support – although it is primarily your job to ensure you stay well, the plan encourages you to accept that at times, you may need help and support with managing your mental health and that you can give selected others the chance to work with you to improve your quality of life

After learning about what W.R.A.P. is all about, we were set of the task of brainstorming ideas for a wellness toolbox. This was basically a list of things you enjoy doing which make you feel good. Mine included colouring in, painting, drawing, meditating, meeting a friend for coffee, reading, walking in nature, gardening and volunteering for a good cause. The benefit of working with a group of people who also struggle to maintain good mental health was that you could listen to suggestions from them and maybe try out some of their ideas if they appealed too.

For homework each week, we were invited to collect an item to bring in which could be put in a physical wellness tool box either as reminders of activities or to actually use to support your recovery or to keep yourself well. Ideas from myself and others included colouring in books, jigsaws, a scented candle, a chocolate bar, some bubble bath, photographs of loved ones (including pets!), memorabilia from special times and favourite books. The possibilities are endless!

I wrote a long list of ideas into a MS Word document and printed it off to put in a folder but you could also create a visual board using pictures collected from magazines or the internet or even do a Pinterest board. I think it’s a good idea to have a hard copy of your ideas so you can share it with people who support you in the maintenance of good mental health such as family members, friends or even your mental health professional or doctor.

I hope this has made you think about what you would include in your wellness toolbox. Let me know in the comments below what you find really beneficial for helping you personally to maintain good mental health – you never know, it might just provide me or someone else with an idea to try in the future.

Much love,