Posted in Health and Nutrition, life hacks, lifestyle, meditation, mental health, self care, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Wheel Of Wellness – Physical – Part 2: Sleep

For the second part of the Physical element of The Wheel Of Wellness I will today be looking at the importance of quality sleep to maintain good physical and mental health. I’ve previously published a couple of blog posts on the topic of sleep namely 5 ways to get better sleep tonight and 5 things to do in the evening to ensure a restful night’s sleep and a productive next day which you may like to have a read of as well. Many people have issues with their sleep for one reason or another and if you’re one of them, you might want to prioritise this area of the wellness wheel and spend some time learning about the effect that sleep (or lack of) affects your body and your life and pick up some tips on how to manage this aspect of your physical health.

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep has a huge impact on our health and wellbeing throughout our lives. Anyone who has ever had difficulty sleeping will know that the quality and quantity of our slumber dramatically affects our mind, body, general quality of life and our safety. While you are sleeping, your body is actively working and preparing you for the next day.

The following is a list of the basic functions of sleep which illustrate the importance of a good night’s kip:

  • physical restoration
  • mood regulation
  • cleaning the brain of toxins
  • information processing and memorization (committing things to memory for later recall, the storing of visual, auditory or tactical information)
  • strengthening the immune system

In children and teens, sleep also supports growth and development.

In addition, further benefits of quality sleep include:

  • better heart health
  • stress reduction
  • generally makes you feel more alert throughout the day
  • can help you lose weight (you’re less likely to crave high sugar or junk foods)
  • reduced risk of anxiety and depression
  • improved appearance – healthy, glowing skin (versus dark circles under eyes, dehydrated complexion, breakouts and redness from lack of sleep, plus comments from friends and family along the lines of “you look like ****)
  • better concentration (hopefully leading to improved productivity)
  • better decision making
  • stronger immune system (so less likely to get ill / feel run down etc)
  • boosted creativity (better ideas and use of imagination)
  • better motoric response (including quicker reactions)
  • enhanced sporting performance
  • reduced risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke and obesity
  • better emotional regulation (meaning amongst other things that you’re more likely to get along with others and less likely to become overwhelmed by your feelings)

Sleep and wakefulness is controlled by two biological processes: Sleep Homeostasis, commonly known as ‘sleep pressure’ and The Circadian rhythm, otherwise known as ‘the body clock’.

What is sleep pressure?

Sleep pressure is basically, the brain’s desire and need for sleep. The more time you’ve been awake for, the greater the sleep pressure. When you wake up in the morning, you should have very little need for sleep (if you’ve had a good night) so sleep pressure is very low. As we get on with our day, the sleep pressure begins to grow so that by evening time sleep pressure is much higher, making us feel sleeping and in need of our beds! By morning, following a good night’s sleep, our sleep pressure will have reset and be back to little or no desire for further sleep.

In order to make sure that we have the right amount of sleep pressure present by bed time, we should really make sure that we get up and go to bed at the same time each day. However, I know that a lot of people will have a lie in on a weekend, which tends to make it difficult to switch off and sleep on a Sunday night (especially if Sunday night dread is at play). Taking naps should also be avoided as this can reduce sleep pressure too. If you absolutely must have a nap, tried to take it before 3pm and make sure it lasts for less than one hour.

What is meant by the term Circadian rhythm AKA our ‘body clock’?

Like all living things, humans have a circadian rhythm which is the brain’s way of aligning the body with the environment. Our sleep/wake cycle follows this 24 hour rhythm. During the day, exposure to light helps us to feel alert, awake and active. As night/darkness falls our internal body clock starts to produce melatonin, a hormone which promotes sleep.

You can help promote a healthy circadian rhythm by seeking natural light (sunshine) during the day, getting some daily exercise, avoiding caffeinated drinks after mid-day, limiting light before bed and having a set bed time / wake up routine which prepares the body for sleep at night and encourages wakefulness first thing in the morning. I’ll discuss some of these in more detail later.

Creating the right bedroom environment

It’s really important to create a comfortable and relaxing environment in your bedroom to help you fall asleep quickly and easily. We invested in a ‘posturepedic’ mattress which is pocket sprung with a latex top. We’ve had it for years and it’s still completely supportive and so comfortable. Every time we go on holiday, we always look forward to being back in our own bed! The best sheets and pillowcases we’ve found for softness and durability are bamboo ones. An added bonus for us is that they’re breathable and hypoallergenic too.

Your bedroom should also be nice and dark as the absence of light sends a signal to your body that it’s time to get some rest. A nice thick pair of curtains or light blocking blinds are essential for this (we have blinds and lined curtains which allow just enough morning light to help us wake up). Some people also like to wear a sleep mask to block out light and these are also good for shift workers who are in bed during the day.

Other essentials for a calm and relaxing space include as little clutter as possible and a quiet environment to minimise distractions. Just the right room temperature – not too hot and not too cold is also helpful for inducing sleep (experts recommend around 18.3 degrees Celsius / 65 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal). Some people also swear by lavender as a soothing and sedating scent but I find it sets my allergies off which is certainly not sleep inducing!

Sleep experts also suggest that your bedroom should be strictly for two purposes only – sleeping and sexual activity. This means it should not be used for:

  • eating, drinking or smoking
  • dealing with bills, reading letters or any form of paperwork
  • using technology or looking at screens e.g. TV, mobile phone, laptop, tablet etc.

I also like to read fiction books on my Kindle Paperwhite in bed but I do find that as long as the screen is pretty dim, I become really sleepy after a couple of chapters. If you feel that reading certain books stimulate your brain too much, bedtime reading may be best avoided.

Diet and sleep

Most people know that caffeine isn’t good for sleep due to the stimulants it contains so if you have trouble sleeping, it’s best not to drink coffee or other caffeinated drinks such as cola, sports and energy drinks for at least 4 hours before bed. Having a large meal before bed is also likely to keep you awake as your body will still be digesting the food. Also, you may find yourself suffering from indigestion or acid reflux if you eat or drink too late. If you do find yourself craving a late evening snack a small amount of nuts, a banana or a small bowl of oatmeal with berries should be safe to eat.

Alcohol is well known to cause a slowing of brain activity and make you feel relaxed and sleepy but beware that the consumption of alcoholic beverages, especially in excess has been shown to cause poor quality sleep and shorter duration so you may find yourself waking up repeatedly in the night or not feeling very refreshed in the morning. Night-time drinking may also result in acid reflux too!

A good daily routine to help you sleep

Throughout the day, it’s important to get as much natural light as you can. This could include working next to a window, taking regular outdoor breaks during the day e.g. sitting in the garden with your morning cuppa and having an al fresco lunch. Obviously this is more difficult during the Winter months but even short walks outside, maybe with a nice, hot drink can make all the difference.

Exercise (or being active) including aerobic workouts, resistance training and yoga during the day can also help with sleep. Just make sure you don’t do anything which elevates your pulse rate for at least 3 hours before bed.

In the evening time, it’s a good idea to do relaxing activities which can calm the body and the mind. This could include listening to some soothing music, reading a book, doing some meditation, writing in your journal to help put the day to rest (see my 5 ways to get better sleep tonight for an explanation of how), enjoy a warm bath or hot shower.

If you regularly struggle to sleep, something you should definitely try is avoiding using electronic devices for at least an hour before bed. This is helpful for two reasons – one, a lot of online content can be mentally or emotionally stimulating (including emails) and two, the light that these devices emit can affect your body clock by increasing alertness and delaying the release of melatonin. If you must use your phone, at least set the blue light filter or night time mode to come on after around 7pm.

What if I find myself wide awake in bed?

After approximately 20 minutes of lying awake (estimate this, do not use your clock), you should get up out of bed and leave the bedroom. Either do something boring or something really relaxing (not something stimulating (no looking at your phone!) until you start to feel tired, and then go back to bed. If you’re not asleep after another estimated 20 minutes, get up again and repeat the process. If this happens regularly, spend some time during the day assessing what you think might be causing the problem and try making some changes to your routine.

A word about sleep disorders

There are a number of sleep disorders which can seriously affect the quality of your sleep. Some of the common ones are:

  • Sleep walking / talking
  • Nightmares / night terrors
  • Sleep apnoea (obstructed airway)
  • Sleep paralysis (a temporary inability to move that occurs right after falling asleep or waking up)
  • Hypnogogia / Hypnopompia (hallucinations occurring as you wake up or fall asleep)

If you suspect that you may be struggling with any of the above, it’s really important to speak to your GP who can offer medical advice or make a referral to a sleep specialist.

Final thoughts…

If you are struggling with your sleep right now you have my completely sympathy as I’ve had real issues with insomnia in the past. However, it’s usually quite easy to identify the contributing factors which are preventing a good night’s sleep. Finding solutions to the problems is a little more difficult but I hope this blog post has given you some ideas. Remember that quality sleep is vital to your wellbeing and it’s worth investing time and energy into this aspect of your physical health.

Posted in compassion, meditation, Mindfulness, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: 5 Easy ways to Practice Mindfulness every day

When practiced regularly, mindfulness can have a really positive impact on our mental health, reducing feelings of depression, anxiety and stress. In today’s post, I’m going to share five simple ways to incorporate mindful activities into your day so you can enjoy the many benefits mindfulness brings.

What exactly is mindfulness?

There are lots of explanations and definitions available online but I particularly like this one from the Oxford dictionary:

a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

Oxford online dictionary

Basically, mindfulness is about paying attention to the here and now, showing curiosity about what’s going on in a non-judgmental way. That’s not to say that as soon as you start practicing the various techniques that your mind won’t wander, it will, and that’s completely okay. But as you get used to paying attention in a range of simple ways, you’ll likely find it becomes easier.

So here are five ideas for practicing mindfulness every day that anyone can try.

Choose an activity you do each day and really pay attention

A great way to get started with mindfulness is to choose one activity that you do every day and bring moment to moment awareness each time you do it. Examples of suitable activities could be: drinking your cup of coffee or tea first thing in the morning, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, washing your face, getting dressed, driving to work. Whichever activity you choose, focus on knowing what you’re doing as you’re actually doing it, and what you are thinking and feeling from moment to moment too. At first, you’ll likely find that your mind wanders quite frequently, but if it does, gently bring yourself back to the present moment. With time, you’ll find it gets easier to remain mindful.

Connect with each of your five senses

Using your senses – touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing is a great way to focus on what’s happening right now. You can either spend time exploring each one in turn or pick a particular sense to focus on in a given moment. So, for example, you might sit quietly at home curled up in your chair with a coffee, smelling the aroma, being warmed by the heat of the mug. You might then close your eyes and tune in to sounds within the room such as the clock ticking, and far away sounds such as a dog barking. As you open your eyes, you might change your focus to the colour of your drink or the patterns on your mug, before taking a sip and savouring the flavour. At another time during your day, you might focus in on just one of your senses. So, during your daily shower, you might choose to focus on smell, inhaling the scent of your shampoo, shower gel or soap and your conditioner and really appreciating each one. By doing this you will be immersed in your current experiences rather than dwelling on past events or getting stressed about all of the things you have to get done before bedtime.

The following mindful activity is also a good one to do when you’re feeling anxious to help distract from negative thoughts, judgements and physical sensations associated with a tense body.

  • Close your eyes or lower your head and soften your gaze. Take some slow and deep breaths in and out.
  • Open your eyes and take your focus outside of your body. Find the following:

5 things you can see.

4 things you can hear.

3 things you can touch.

2 things you can smell.

1 thing you can taste.

Focus on your breathing

Breathing is a key part of mindfulness practice as it’s something we do naturally out of necessity. There are many online exercises which focus on the breath such as alternate nostril breathing, square or box breathing and equal breathing where you focus on making the inhalation the same length as the exhalation, but the technique which I find easiest and most comforting is soothing rhythm breathing, which I was taught as part of my compassion group sessions a few years ago.

  • Sit comfortably in your chair with both feet on the ground and your hands resting in your lap.
  • Close your eyes or direct your gaze downwards – whichever feels most comfortable.
  • Gently bring your focus to your breathing feeling the ribcage expanding as the air coming in to your lungs and leaving your body as you exhale.
  • Try breathing a little faster or slower until you find a breathing pattern that feelings soothing and comforting.
  • Focus on the breath as it comes in and leaves your body. You might like to notice the sensation of cool air entering your nose and warm air leaving.
  • Turn your attention to your body. Sensing the weight of your body resting in the chair feeling relaxed and supported. Feel your feet touching the floor beneath you.
  • If your mind wanders, notice what has happened and gently bring the focus back to your breath. Even if your mind is bobbing about all over the place, just accept what is happening without judgement and come back to the breath.
  • As you bring the exercise to a close, gently wiggle your fingers and toes and bring the focus back to the room around you.

To ensure you commit to this short meditative practice each day, you might find it helpful to make an appointment with yourself in your bullet journal or diary e.g. 5 minutes after you’ve eaten your breakfast or as an end of the day thing to encourage restful sleep. Again, this breathing exercise is also helpful to calm yourself down in moments of anxiety.

Engage in mindful walking

Whatever the weather, cold, warm, rainy, bright sunshine, cloudy, try to find 10 or 15 minutes each day to go for a mindful walk outside. Take time to pay attention to the different aspects of your experience. Start by exploring how your body feels when you’re walking – your feet as they make each step, your legs as they move you forwards, your arms as the swing by your sides. Next, tune in to what’s going on around you using all of your senses – perhaps you can hear traffic in the distance or a bird singing, maybe you can see the sun shining through the trees, perhaps you can smell the damp earth. Be open to whatever you notice, wherever you are and whatever happens. Try to fully immerse yourself in the here and now. As you end your walk, bring your attention back to how you feel as a result of your practice.

If you want to read about mindful walking in more depth, I wrote a whole blog post on it last year which can be found here.

Be totally present during conversations

All too often during conversations, we’re either multi-tasking or our mind wanders so we’re not paying full attention. However, being fully present has so many benefits for the speaker and the listener. Not only will you both feel valued, you’ll have a better understanding of the other person’s needs and any information that you impart is likely to be comprehended more easily. You’ll also likely improve both your communication skills and your relationship with the other person whether you’re talking to a friend, colleague or family member.

If you want to be more mindful in conversations, the first step is to notice when your mind wanders and, without judgement (no berating yourself for being a terrible listener!), bring your attention back. Try to resist the temptation to make excuses for being distracted such as “I was bored by what they were saying”, “I’ve got so much to do I couldn’t wait for them to finish” or “they were just repeating themselves”. Just remember that mindfulness takes practice and you are just learning but it will get easier with time.

In today’s busy world, multitasking is very tempting and often encouraged, but studies have shown that humans aren’t really capable of focusing on more that one task at a time, and in actual fact, what happens is our brain constantly switches between the different demands on our attention. If you want to be full focused on a conversation, try to put distractions aside. Put your mobile phone away in your bag, close your emails, avoid looking at what others are up to or what’s happening elsewhere by facing and looking at the participants. Really listen with interest to what the other person or people are saying using gestures such as a nod of the head, a smile or an “I understand” as appropriate. Think about the words they are using, their tone of voice, body language and emotions to really comprehend what they’re saying. Let the other person finish before you contemplate what they have said and offer a response.

Being a mindful communicator takes practice and isn’t always easy, but it’s a great skill to have and can be really useful in social settings as well as work situations.

Final words…

Although in today’s post I’ve presented a number of simple ways in which you can start to be more mindful every day, mindfulness in itself is not always easy to master. It might be helpful to remember that it’s not all about being perfectly present at all times – it’s a way of slowing down and making a conscious decision to notice our thoughts, emotions and the world around us, intentionally accepting things as they are right now without judgement. Being mindful can help us to enjoy life, understand ourselves better and reduce stress. It’s something that everyone can try and, when practiced consistently, has been shown to have positive effects on our physical and mental health, happiness, work and relationships.

Feel free to let me know in the comments how you get on and if you have any questions, I’ll be more than happy to answer them if I can, or direct you to further resources which you may find useful.

Until next time,

Posted in lifestyle, meditation, mental health, Mindfulness, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: A mini guide to walking mindfully

Photo credit: Stanislav Vlasov for Unsplash

Walking has to be my favourite form of exercise and it’s something I do each day. Sometimes my walk is for a particular purpose, for example, heading to the post office with shop orders or running another errand, but mostly, my trips out are simply for the pleasure of getting outdoors and appreciating what’s there. Both are good exercise, but the later is best for body and mind.

For me, there are two types of mindful walking – one, which I was introduced to in my mindfulness classes, is a kind of meditation where the primary focus is on observing the bodily sensations of walking, the other is where you connect with your environment, paying attention to what is going on around you, using all of your senses to fully immerse yourself. Both forms of mindful walking have their benefits and I will consider each of them here as you might like to try them both.

A mindful walking meditation

Many people think that meditation is all about sitting still and trying to empty the mind. This is not the case. Rather, meditation is a set of techniques that involve focusing the attention on a particular object, thought or activity with a view to achieving heightened awareness and a sense of clarity, peace and stability. Examples include seated practices such as breathing exercises, visualisations, body scans and sound baths where instruments are used to focus the mind. Others involve movement, for example yoga, tai chi and mindful walking.

A mindful walking meditation is typically done in a small space and is taken at a slow, careful pace. You might choose to walk up and down your back garden (or in square shapes depending on the layout of your plot) or back and forth along your hallway. Anywhere where you can fit in around 10-15 paces and which is relatively peaceful so you won’t be easily disturbed. You can walk barefoot or wearing light shoes. Once you’ve decided upon your walking space, you bring your complete attention and awareness to the process of walking:

  • Start by bringing your attention to your feet. Notice any sensations there before you begin.
  • Take slow, small and intentional steps.
  • Have your hands clasped behind your back, by your sides or swinging gently – do whatever feels most comfortable for you.
  • Focus on each and every part of your step – the lifting of your foot, moving the foot forward, the placing of the heel on the ground followed my the rest of the sole and then placing your weight on it ready to move your other foot.
  • At the end of your path, pause briefly before intentionally making a 90˚ or 180˚ turn.
  • As you walk, you can focus your attention on one particular aspect of your walking e.g. your breath as it comes in and out of your body, the movement of your feet or legs, the contact of your feet on the ground, the balance of your body as it moves.
  • If your mind starts to wander, notice what has happened and then kindly and gently bring you focus back to your walking.
  • You can also incorporate a mental mantra to help you maintain focus. I like this one: Breathing in: ‘In the here’. Breathing out: ‘In the now’.
  • There isn’t a set length of time you should do your walking meditation for but around 10 minutes should be enough time to reap the benefits.

If practised consistently, walking meditations are excellent for your wellbeing. They can help to reduce anxiety and depression, improve sleep, increase blood circulation, aid digestion, improve balance and even boost creativity.

Walking mindfully

If you’re off out for a longer walk somewhere, maybe around your local park, through woodland or forest, or even just for a wander around your local neighbourhood, you can still practise mindfulness techniques but in a slightly more relaxed way than the above meditation.

Defined as ‘a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations…’ (Oxford Dictionaries), the practice of mindfulness has so many benefits including:

  • improved awareness of the world around us
  • an ability to find joy in the present moment
  • better appreciation of what we have
  • feeling calmer and happier
  • more compassionate towards ourselves
  • developing a more positive mindset
  • better able to deal with difficult and unhelpful thoughts
  • a higher level of self awareness

The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Here are some wonderful ways of combining mindfulness and walking:

Checking in with your body As you embark on your walk, try spending some time exploring what’s going on for your body right now. Is it feeling stiff? Do you have any tightness or tense areas in your muscles? Are you standing upright with an open chest or are you a little slouched? Are your feet ready for a little exercise or are they already aching from a previous walk? Try to approach this in a non-judgemental way, for example if your back feels a little sore, just accept that this is the case rather than labelling it as bad and berating yourself for slouching whilst you were working at your desk.

Observing the act of walking Just like in the walking meditation, you might spend a few minutes getting curious about how you’re moving and what happens with your feet as you take those first steps. This could include thinking about which part of your foot makes contact with the ground first, how you distribute your body weight as you walk, what you do with your arms as you walk e.g. are they stuffed in your pockets or swinging gently by your sides. Do any tense areas of your body seem to ease as you walk? etc. Again, try to avoid judging your walking technique or labelling any sensations in your body as bad.

Adopting the beginner’s mind A key element of mindfulness is having what is known as a beginner’s mind. With this approach, you let go of any previously held ideas or preconceptions about what you might experience and become open to whatever happens, seeing things with a fresh pair of eyes. So, for example, on my walk in the park this morning, I could have thought about it being the same old park, with the same old water and the same old trees and bushes. Instead, I really engaged with the experience, noticing a cute baby rabbit munching on the grass, a squirrel leaping onto a tree with fright as I approached, the freshly painted benches, pairs of mallards hanging out together near the pond and a tree covered in pretty white blossom. In this way, the same walk can be very different each time and bring new joys and experiences.

Acceptance Another aspect of mindfulness is acceptance and seeing things as they really are, rather than trying to change things. This too can be applied to our walks. If, for example, you are out for a walk and the weather changes and it starts to rain, the temptation might be to grumble, hunch your shoulders, speed up your pace and try to get to somewhere warm and dry. Alternatively, you could accept the weather for what it is, observing the change of the light, the colours of the sky, the sounds of the rain on the ground or on your umbrella or coat, and maybe even enjoy the experience of the cool water on your skin or the droplets as they form of the end of your nose.

Use your senses As you walk, really tune in to the experience using your sense of touch, sound, sight, smell and even taste. So, for example, during a walk along the beach you might explore how the sand feels beneath your bare feet or what happens when your shoe takes a step. You might really listen to the sound of the waves crashing or watch the sun glinting on the water. You could savour the flavour of a cool ice cream or recognise how you can also taste the salty seaweed strewn all around. The alarming cries of gulls might take you by surprise but then fade into the background as you hear a couple of children giggling as they create a giant sandcastle. You might roll up your trousers ready for a dip in the freezing cold sea and let out a little squeal as the tide washes over your feet. Wherever you go on your walk, there are so many different experiences to be had and if you take the time to appreciate them all, I can almost guarantee that there’s lots of fun to be had as you explore. A great way to ensure you make the most of your time is to tap into a child-like sense of curiosity and wonder – explore and appreciate all of the little things no matter now many times you’ve seen or experienced them before – pick up a shell or a feather and look at all of the intricate patterns on it, watch the babbling brook, focusing in on how it travels over the pebbles and rocks and trying to spot any birds visiting the water.

Appreciating the different seasons It’s Spring at the moment in the UK and the perfect time to look out for signs of the season. From March, you might see snowdrops, catkins dangling from the trees, leaf buds forming, toads making their journey to the pond, pretty scented blossom and newborn lambs. You might hear pattering rain, the wind gusting through the trees, birds singing, sheep bleating, buzzing bees or the quiet tinkling of a stream. In Summer, you can look out for trees in full leaf creating a canopy over the woodland floor, the bright sunshine peeping through the gaps, meadow flowers such as buttercups, yarrow, cornflowers and poppies laced with pretty butterflies and ladybirds. Even on a walk around your local area, there’s so much to experience – the faint sound of a lawn mower or the smell of freshly cut grass, the cooing of wood pigeons, fledglings learning to fly a robin singing in a tree, the high pitched screech of swifts soaring in the sky or something rustling in a neighbourhood front garden. There are yet more experiences to be had in Autumn and Winter, and as long as you dress appropriately for the weather, any time is a good time for a nice, refreshing walk. At different times of year, consider the position of The Sun at different times of day, the effect the weather has on rivers and streams – sometimes almost flooding the banks, bursting and gushing with water, yet at other times almost dry and how the earth changes from being dried and cracked in the Summertime to soggy, leaf filled and musty smelling in the Autumn.

Reflection At the end of your walk, either pausing on a bench, in the car or when you get back home, try taking the time to reflect on the experience, bringing to mind everything that you noticed and all of the different experiences you had. You might also want to think about how you feel – perhaps more relaxed, energised or ready for a nice sit down to rest your weary feet.

Final words…

During the lockdown period, many of us have found ourselves going for walks more often, developing a love of the great outdoors and appreciating the benefits it brings to the mind, body and soul. We’re now seeing other leisure opportunities opening back up such as non-essential retail, cafes, bars and restaurants, and although it’s nice to have access to these, nothing beats some time out in the fresh air connecting with nature. Any brisk walk is good for your physical health but add mindfulness into the mix and your mental health can benefit in so many ways too.

Posted in lifestyle, meditation, Mindfulness, Planning and journaling, wellbeing

Monday Matters: 5 easy ways to focus on being grateful

Photo credit: Gabrielle Henderson for Unsplash

Research shows that practising gratitude is great for your mental and physical health. Being thankful helps you be more optimistic, accepting and happy. It can even reduce some of the physical symptoms of illness and reduce our stress levels. In today’s Monday Matters post I’m going to share some easy ways in which you can incorporate a daily focus on being grateful for what you have.

What is gratitude?

Gratitude is all about being aware of the good things you have in your life and taking the time to express your appreciation for them. It’s about finding the positives and developing a glass half full attitude. It’s choosing to focus on abundance and how much you have to be grateful for, rather than a feeling of lack or complaint. It’s also about acknowledging the role others play in helping us and being thankful for everything they do.

Gratitude helps us to see what is there instead of what isn’t

Make gratitude meditation part of your daily practise

There are lots of short guided meditations available on YouTube or apps like Calm and Headspace which are really helpful if you are just getting started with meditation – just look for those which focus specifically on gratitude. These are great for developing a relaxed state by focusing on your breathing before inviting you to consider what you are grateful for.

If you are more experienced with meditation, you might create a script that you can follow (this could be written in your bullet journal or typed out and placed next to your bed as a visual reminder). For example:

  • Get yourself into a comfortable position where you are relaxed but purposeful
  • Sit nice and tall like a mountain but keep your shoulders relaxed
  • Close your eyes and breathe
  • Take a moment to focus on your breathing
  • Now change the focus to your body and think about what you have to be grateful for
  • Widen the lens and bring to mind some of the things that you have which make your life easier or bring you great joy
  • Now focus on the people in your life and what they offer you. Silently thank them and feel the love spread through your body.
  • Think for a moment about how all of this gratitude makes you feel. Enjoy the sensations it creates in your body.
  • Finish your practise with some slow and steady breaths before making small movements and when you are ready, open your eyes.

It’s up to you when you want to practise but I find it nice to do first thing in the morning as it sets an intention of being grateful for the rest of the day.

Use affirmations

Writing some personalised gratitude affirmations that you repeat each day is another great way of focusing on all of the positive in your life. These can be quite general and things which we often take for granted e.g. I’m grateful for the clean air I have to breathe. I’m grateful that I have a cosy place to call home. I’m grateful for clean running water to drink and bathe in. I’m grateful for all of the delicious food in my fridge. I’m grateful for all of the opportunities that the modern world presents me with. This would make a lovely spread in your bullet journal and you could change your list each season. In the Summer you can add things like ‘I am grateful for sunny days’, ‘I am grateful for cold drinks when I’m feeling hot’ etc. In Winter time, ‘I’m grateful for my cosy pyjamas to keep me warm’, I’m grateful that we have central heating in our house’ etc.

Start a gratitude jar

I haven’t tried this one myself but the idea really appeals. You can choose any jar and you could even decorate it to show its purpose. It should be placed in a prominent place somewhere in your house (this might be a communal area if you want others to contribute to it as well) with paper and pens beside it. Each day (or most days), try to find something you are grateful for, write it on a slip of paper and place it inside. On days when you need a little pick me up, take some of the notes out and read them to remind yourself of what you have. You could also set a date in your diary or bullet journal to empty the jar out to see all of the loveliness inside.

Create a gratitude spread in your bullet journal

A few years ago, I created this wonderful sunshine gratitude spread and added to it during the weeks of December. I found it in one of my old bullet journals and have really enjoyed sitting and reading each of the things I had brought to mind. Many of them still stand today. I recall drawing the semi-circle by hand and adding the rays with a ruler to create the 19 sections. The centre of the sun is shading with coloured pencil and for the rest I used watercolour pencils as I didn’t have my paint sets then. There are so many different things you could focus on such as everyday things like your morning cup of coffee or your car to take you to different places. You can also think about people in your life who help you, for example your doctor who listens carefully and offers you appropriate treatment or your friend who provides a listening ear. You can even consider your own qualities and how they help you in your day-to-day life e.g. lots of patience with your children or your ability to be assertive when speaking to your boss at work.

Use gratitude prompts to evaluate your week

At the end of a busy week, it’s lovely to sit down and do some quiet reflection on all that you have to be grateful for. You can find a huge array of gratitude prompts on Pinterest -I’ve collected lots on this board so feel free to follow it if you need some ideas. You can either use them for journaling or to just focus your mind and thoughts. Here’s a few to get you started:

  • What challenge have you overcome and what helped you to face or overcome it?
  • What has been your favourite meal or snack over the course of the week?
  • Who have you felt inspired by?
  • What or who made you smile?
  • Think of a gadget in your home that has helped make something quicker or easier this week.
  • What is your main highlight?

You can also focus on your past experiences too:

  • Name a trip out that you’ve thoroughly enjoyed this year.
  • Think about one of your best memories from childhood.
  • Reminisce about one of your favourite holidays (vacations).
  • Recall something that you have made that you were really pleased with.
  • Think about something you have achieved in your life and consider your personal attributes which made you successful.
  • Recall one of the best gifts you have ever received and think about why.

That’s all of my tips for today. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them and that they are helpful in instilling gratitude in your life. Remember that even if you are having a tough time right now, there’s always something to be grateful for. You might have to dig deep to bring something to mind, but, by taking the time to reflect, you will be able to pick out some positives and this will help to improve your mood.

Posted in lifestyle, meditation, Mindfulness, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: 10 practical tips for starting an effective daily meditation practice

This month, I decided to implement a daily meditation routine and have spent some time researching how to get the most out my mindful minutes and encourage consistency. Today’s Monday Matters post shares some tips on creating an effective daily practise and how the different types of meditation can have a positive impact on your life.

Photo credit: Ben White for Unsplash

Why meditate?

Research has shown that there are a huge number of benefits of regular meditation for mind and body. Some of the main positives are:

  • Improves your self esteem and confidence and increases your levels of optimism
  • Helps you sleep better
  • Can make you more productive
  • Improves your brain function
  • Helps you appreciate your life more
  • Increases your attention span
  • Provides a sense of calm, peace and balance
  • Reduces pain and improves the immune system
  • Makes you feel more energetic, creative and spontaneous
  • Helps to control your thoughts
  • Decreases depression and anxiety
  • Reduces cravings such as for junk food, alcohol and cigarettes
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Increases compassion towards yourself and others

but there are many more and once you start to fit meditation in your life, you will soon reap the rewards.

How can I fit meditation into my busy life?

When I attended a mindfulness class through wellbeing services a few years back, everyone talked about how wonderfully calm and relaxed they felt after each meditation. Yet, when asked if they’d used the CD full of mindful practises at home over the rest of the week, most of the participants said that they didn’t have time! However, with the benefits listed above, surely taking ten minutes each day to meditate is worth fitting in to your schedule? I bet if I’d asked the attendees if they’d had time to mindlessly scroll through social media for half hour they would offer a different response. Hopefully the following tips will help to commit more easily.

10 tips for starting a daily meditation practise

  1. Start small Like with any new habit, it’s best to start small and create a mini goal to work towards such as to meditate for a few minutes each day. There are plenty of 5 minute meditations on YouTube to choose from and a variety of different apps which offer free trials.
  2. Make it a routine There are some things you do automatically every day without thinking e.g. brushing your teeth, taking your mediation, applying your make up etc. These tasks have become a routine and you can easily add meditation to this list too. I recommend choosing a set time and sticking to it. I like to do mine first thing in the morning before I start work and then I can be sure it doesn’t get bumped off my to-do list. You could choose last thing before bed if you want to get all relaxed ready for sleep. Find out more about the science and practice of creating habits here.
  3. Choose a comfortable place Where you meditate is up to you but try to pick a place where you will not be distracted and feel at ease (not too relaxed that you begin to feel sleepy though!). You can sit in a comfortable chair, curled up on your sofa, on a cushion cross-legged on the floor or even lie on your bed. You can also use props such as a cushion, bolster or blanket to help you get nice and snug.
  4. Try out different meditations to help you with different aspects of your life There are so many kinds of meditations available – breathing, gratitude, compassion, confidence, focus etc. Think about what you’d most like to instil in your life right now and work from there.
  5. Use guided meditations at first When I first tried meditation a fair few years ago, I used to think it was all about just sitting their cross legged and completely emptying your mind. I used to get really frustrated and eventually decided it was impossible and wasn’t for me. Now I use the audio tracks from the class I attended as well as the Calm app and short guided sessions on FitBit premium. I have a free trial for both apps and I particularly love using my FitBit app as it logs all of my sessions for me so I can check my progress and how consistent I’m being.
  6. Journal about your experiences Take time to reflect on your practice, what went well, what you struggled with, how you felt during and after, if you came up with excuses to miss your session and why this might have happened etc. If you felt really relaxed, it helped you have a more productive day or you enjoyed a wonderful night’s sleep, celebrate your achievements and use them to motivate you to continue. If you found it really difficult to switch off and ended up feeling really frustrated, think about what you could do differently next time or accept that it is all part of the learning process and it will become easier with time. Or, if you forgot to do your daily meditation this time, how could you make sure you stick with it? Could you set an alarm or get a reminder from the app you are trying out? Might you attach the practise to another of your daily routines e.g. do your session straight after your morning cup of coffee?
  7. Remember repetitive activities can be meditative too If you find you’re struggling with just sitting and meditating, remember meditation is all about attention and awareness and you might find that doing a mindful activity such as colouring in is much easier for you. I wrote a post full of ideas earlier this year which you can find here. Movement meditations are also an option such as tai chi, yoga or mindful walking.
  8. Be kind to yourself Remember to treat yourself with compassion as you develop your practice. Accept that it might not be easy at first and that your mind will keep wandering. Know that it’s okay to find it difficult and you’re not doing it wrong (try not to judge yourself). Just bring your mind gently and kindly back to your breathe and start again.
  9. Apply your mindful practice to other activities Meditation is all about focus and so is a kind of mindfulness that can be applied throughout your day. For example, when you shower, really concentrate on what you’re doing and how it feels, use your senses to immerse your thoughts in your experience – inhale the scent of your shower gel, observe the water running down your tiles or the screen, listen to the sounds the water makes as it hits the bath or the shower tray. You can even get into a meditative state as you do your daily chores as I explained in this blog post.
  10. Use a habit tracker (but keep it simple) If you’re a bullet keen bullet journalist like me, you probably know all about habit trackers and have seen many examples on Instagram and Pinterest. Habit trackers are great for monitoring your progress and consistency and keeping you motivated. However, if you add too many habits, the filling in process can become an onerous task and you are likely to get sick of colouring in boxes, adding dots, ticks or crosses. I recommend tracking a very small number of habits and only choosing one or two new ones to focus on and selecting other things that you want to become more consistent with.

So that’s it, lots of reasons to add meditation to your daily routine and my top 10 practical tips for beginners that will hopefully help you develop a successful meditation habit that you can stick with. Let me know in the comments if starting a daily practice is something you’re interested in and today’s blog post has either given you the motivation to get started. If it has, I hope you are soon on your way to enjoying the benefits for body and mind.

Until next time,