Posted in mental health, Mindfulness, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: 8 Mindful and Meditative Activities to calm your mind

Photo credit: Kari Shea, Unsplash

Today’s Monday Matters post is all about engaging in mindful and meditative activities to achieve a relaxed state of mind and body. It aims to show you the benefits of being in the present moment whilst exploring ways of meditating that are more than just sitting still and focusing on the breath.

We’ve all heard of mindfulness and are probably aware of some of its benefits but if you were asked to explain what it actually means, you might struggle, so here’s a simple definition I found online:

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 dictionaries

In other words, it’s about consciously being aware of all that is going on for you mentally, physically and emotional at this present moment.

Similarly, meditation is a practice where we use a technique such as mindfulness or focusing the mind on an object, thought or activity to train attention and awareness in order to achieve mental clarity and an emotionally calm and stable state.

Both mindfulness and meditation require regular practise and you may have tried techniques before, found them difficult and decided it’s just not for you or too much like hard work. Some argue that they simply do not have time, but it’s my belief that busy individuals are those who would benefit most from the calm state which mindful and meditative activities bring.

When you say the word meditation to most people, it conjures up an image of sitting cross legged on the floor, with eyes closed, trying to empty the mind of all thought and action, possibly whilst repeating ‘ommm’. However, although this is one interpretation of meditating, it’s not the only way to be in a meditative state. Below are eight ideas for mindful activity based meditation that anyone can try.

Colouring in

Colouring an image using coloured pencils, crayons, pastels or paints combines the benefits of meditation and art therapy to create a soothing and mindful activity. As well as stimulating the part of your brain responsible for creativity and logic, the concentration required helps to clear your mind in a way that has been shown to decrease your stress levels and lower your blood pressure.

Photo credit: cropped from an image by Crawford Jolly, Unsplash

Reading

When I’m feeling particularly anxious or stressed due to lots going on in my life, I find reading to be a great way to focus the mind away from sources of worry. I love to curl up on the sofa or relax on my bed and change the focus away from what’s going on in my world.

Photo credit: Lenin Estrada, Unsplash

Walking

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of walking in nature as a way to unwind and destress. A short walking meditation can be done anywhere, even in your own back garden or yard. The trick is to focus your mind on your body such as your posture before you begin, the placement of your feet as they touch the ground or surface you are walking on and the change in your balance as you move and really feel the connection. Begin by paying complete attention to each and every step you make noticing any physical changes in your body on the inside and, when you begin to feel a sense of calmness and relation, begin to turn your attention to your environment, noticing, for example, the temperature of the air on your skin or any sounds and sights which present themselves. In mindful, meditative walking, you’re have no place to get to so, your attention is purely on the sensations in your body and awareness of the environment around you. You accept the way things are without judgement or interpretation.

If you do find your mind wandering (maybe you begin to ruminate on something that has already happened this week or you find yourself starting to make plans for later in your day), then you can gently and kindly bring the focus back to the here and now and resume focusing on your breath and sensations experienced by your senses.

Photo credit: Dmitry Schemelev

Quiet Observation

This is one that can be done by looking out of your window at home or whilst wandering the garden. It requires you to choose a natural object from within your immediate environment, and focus all of your attention on it. So, for example, if you are looking out of the window you might watch a tree blowing in the breeze or the clouds in the sky. While outside, you might find a particularly interesting flower growing on a garden plant or you might see an insect hard at work. Spend a few minutes simply noticing your chosen object and focusing on every visual aspect of it, almost as though you are seeing it for the very first time. This quiet contemplation should create a sense of peacefulness and calm. Whilst you explore and allow yourself to be consumed by the presence of your focal piece of nature, you are connecting with its energies and its purpose within the world.

Photo credit: Marieke Tacken, Unsplash

Repetitive craft

Doing crafts such as knitting, crochet, cross stitch and other hobbies involving repetitive action can be great for helping you get into a meditative state. You can focus completely on the small movements you are making and bring your attention to the texture of your yarn, or fabric in your hands as you quietly observe your piece taking shape. You may find your breathing has slowed down without you even noticing as you concentrate on the task in hand.

Photo credit: Les Triconautes, Unsplash

Housework

In a previous blog post, I talked about using mindfulness techniques when you are ironing. The same can be applied to any type of housework that involves repetitive action. Moving the duster back and forth over surfaces or the mop over your kitchen floor can bring about a meditative state which can be calming and relaxing. Pay attention to all of the different sensations, using your five senses to focus in on all of the different elements of your task e.g. feel the cleaning cloth in your hand, think about the energy in your hand as you move over the surface, notice how the scent of the project you are using hits your nostrils, admire how shiny your furniture looks, etc. You might even find you’re enjoying the activity and it spurs you to do more!

Photo credit: Dan Gold, Unsplash

Gardening

The benefits of gardening on your mental health and wellbeing are often discussed by one of my favourite gardeners, Monty Don on Gardeners’ World. As well as feeling a great sense of achievement when you see how beautiful your environment looks, you can also use mindfulness techniques to truly benefit from the processes involved in making your garden look that way.

Before tending to your garden, spend some minutes really appreciating the natural space you find yourself in. Be grateful for what you have and if you’ve already made improvements, think about all you have achieved so far. Then, take your mind off any worries you have by using your senses as you work on planting, weeding, digging or whatever your chosen activity is. For example, if planting, spend time carefully choosing an appropriate location, evaluating where will work best. Then, pay attention to the physical effects on your body as you prepare the ground – is the soil compacted or is it easy to get your fork in? If using your hands, really think about how the earth feels. If there are any insects in the location, you might spend time observing as they go about their work. When adding your plant to the prepared space, really look at it as though examining it for the first time. Look at the colour and shape of the leaves then feel their texture. Explore if there is a scent to the plant itself or any flowers that are present. When you water it in, listen the sound of the water as it is sprinkled over the space. Finally, stand back and admire your hard work and evaluate its effect on your garden as a whole.

Photo credit: NeONBRAND, Unsplash

Yoga

As I’ve explained in a previous post, I have recently taken up an Iyengar yoga. The class takes place in the Arts and Wellbeing location where I previously did my ceramics sessions and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. This particular style of yoga involves the use of equipment such as foam bricks and pads and a fabric strap to allow you to comfortably get into the poses and stay in them whilst allowing your body to lengthen. There are many elements of the practise which I find meditative, and of course, a great deal of concentration is required to ensure you are performing the actions correctly and are stretching and lifting in all of the right places. Having aligned your body, you then focus on your breath which automatically seems to be calm and steady. The session even finishes with a relaxation pose and some soothing music which feels absolutely blissful.

At the moment, due to the lockdown with COVID-19, I am practising daily at home using YouTube videos, which, although not quite the same as a class where the teacher will provide extra equipment or correct your poses, is still enabling me to get into a relaxed state and enjoy the benefits. I do, however, look forward to resuming my class in the near future when it is safe to do so.

Photo credit: Dane Wetton, Unsplash

I hope you find these ideas useful and that my post will prompt you to try at least one of these mindful and meditative activities. It might be tempting to say that you are too busy to practise meditation, but if you become more mindful, and therefore present in the moment, as you go about your usual tasks each day, you will find that you really can reach a state of calm and become more relaxed.

Posted in mental health, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Over 60 self care ideas and activities to keep you busy and mentally well when self isolating or social distancing

Photo credit: Samantha Gades, for Unsplash

The current UK government advice is to practise social distancing in order to minimise the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19). With this in mind, I present over 60 ideas and activities to help you make the most of your social distancing or isolation time if you are still feeling fit and well. Hopefully, these activities will keep you safe but productive at the same time and encourage you to support yourself in staying mentally as well as physically well. Of course, some of the suggestions will be more suited to your lifestyle than others and some may just be completely inapplicable but hopefully you can use at least half of them so that’s over 30!

  1. Paint your nails or give yourself a manicure or pedicure
  2. Give positive feedback to someone (e.g. thank someone at the supermarket for doing a good job or write an email to someone who has shared a great article online)
  3. Wash your car (or get your husband to do it – that’ll be me then lol)
  4. Send a loved one a card through the mail telling them how much you care about them
  5. Organise your wardrobe
  6. Put some food out for the birds and watch them feed through the window
  7. Have a video call with a family member or friend
  8. Light a scented candle and meditate whilst watching the flame
  9. Research a topic of interest online – maybe make notes in your BuJo or other notebook
  10. Enjoy a long soak in the bath
  11. Do a jigsaw puzzle
  12. Start a craft project that you’ve been meaning to do for a while
  13. Peruse Amazon and download a new book for your Kindle
  14. Practise calligraphy
  15. Wash your hair and spend ages styling it to perfection
  16. Create an upbeat playlist of songs you love
  17. Take a free online class
  18. Watch a YouTube video that teaches you a new skill
  19. Walk barefoot on your lawn
  20. Listen to an audiobook
  21. Get out your photo albums and revisit happy times (or flick through old digital images on your mobile phone
  22. Snuggle up under a soft blanket and watch a movie
  23. Have a home pampering session e.g. put on a face mask
  24. Do some colouring in
  25. Shine your shoes
  26. Practise Yoga or Pilates (there are lots of videos on YouTube that show you how)
  27. Re-arrange the furniture in your house
  28. Do an observational drawing of something in your house
  29. Enjoy a cup of coffee or tea whilst reading this list and make plans for your day
  30. Write a nice comment on a website or blog
  31. Find a new recipe and try it out
  32. Write in your journal about how your day has been
  33. Play cards or a board game with a family member (or plan an online game whilst being in isolation from others)
  34. Join an online community on Facebook and start a discussion about one of your interests
  35. Buy yourself something nice online for home delivery
  36. Try out some new hairstyles
  37. Find some online journal prompts and do some writing
  38. Make up a poem about how your day has changed for the better since practising social distancing
  39. Learn about your family tree
  40. Savour a bar of chocolate
  41. Do a wordsearch, crossword or other word puzzle
  42. Make a gift for a family member or friend which you can leave on their doorstep
  43. Do some origami
  44. Visit Etsy and support a handmade business by choosing and buying a little treat for yourself or a loved one
  45. Make homemade pizza
  46. Sing in the shower
  47. Massage hand cream into your hands (particularly good if your hands are dry from all the handwashing)
  48. Play games on your tablet or phone (my current favourites are Angry Birds 2 and Candy Crush Saga)
  49. Share a photograph online of something new you’ve tried whilst self isolating
  50. Buy some new stationery from an online shop
  51. Spend an hour reading your favourite magazine with a hot or cold drink
  52. Make homemade bread
  53. Sit in your back garden tonight and do some stargazing
  54. Learn to juggle
  55. Give your muscles a good stretch
  56. Send a text message to a friend checking that they are safe and well
  57. Write a list of all the things that you are grateful for right now
  58. Make a list of reasons why you love your friend / partner and share it with them
  59. Spend time engaging in one of your long forgotten hobbies
  60. Watch a favourite movie and munch on some popcorn
  61. Do some embroidery or cross stitching
  62. Cuddle your pet and show them some love
  63. Enter an online competition
  64. Repair something in your house that you’ve been meaning to get around to fixing for months
  65. Have an indoor picnic in your house (put out a picnic mat or blanket and sit on the floor in your living room)
  66. Make some (virgin) cocktails (don’t forget to drink responsibly)
  67. Do a Sudoku
  68. Close your eyes and do 5 minutes of soothing breathing

I hope you’ve found at least some of these ideas useful. Let me know if you have other suggestions which I could add to the list.

Stay safe everyone and remember, just because you’re practising social distancing, doesn’t mean you need to isolate yourself from the world completely. As best as you can, and in a way that is safe, keep in touch with loved ones and most importantly, look after you!

Posted in compassion, mental health, wellbeing

Monday Matters – Self soothing activities for emotional regulation

Photo credit: Johannes Plenio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practical ways to declutter your overloaded mind

Photo credit: Element5 Digital, Unsplash

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

1. Identify your current priorities in life

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

2. Set some goals and instil some habits

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

3. Practise mindfulness

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

4. Take time to breathe

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

5. Getting it down on paper

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

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

6. Avoid information overload

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

7. Out of your mind and into your body

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

8. Take some time to unwind

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

Photo credit: Victoria Bilsborough, Unsplash

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

Posted in art, creativity, mental health, Mindfulness, watercolour painting, wellbeing, wellness

Watercolour design pad: a simple red robin

A few weeks ago, I picked up a design pad containing line drawn images for watercolour painting. As I find drawing really difficult, I though this was an ideal way to practise my watercolouring skills without needing to draw my own pictures.

The pad contains 24 A4 size pages with 12 designs so you get two copies of each image. When I purchased it, I wondered why there was several of each image but as I messed up the first robin, I was glad of a second chance!

The pad contains animals and birds and one floral image.

I chose to start with the robin design as I love birds and we have had a robin visiting our garden each day for the past few weeks nibbling on the fat balls and seed mix I put out.

The paper in the pad doesn’t appear to be proper watercolour paper but I did find it easy to paint on and I was able to get the paper quite wet without it going soggy or wrinkling as it is quite dense.

I thoroughly enjoyed having a few quiet hours mixing and applying the paint and was pleased with the results on my second attempt which you can see below. I might add some highlights to the robin’s feet using my Posca paint pen or a white gel pen but I’m waiting a while and may do a test on a piece of paper as I don’t want to spoil my work.

My finished robin and my very messy paint palette!

I’m trying to find more time for doing creative activities as a way of boosting my mental health and after I’d finished painting I felt so relaxed and happy with what I had achieved. If you love getting creative, I can well recommend doing a little watercolouring as a way to wind down after a busy day as a change from sitting watching TV or mindlessly perusing the internet on your phone.

If you live in the UK and are interested in buying the watercolour pad, I picked mine up in Aldi but have also seen it at a slightly higher price in The Range shop. If you want to find out more about my watercolour set, click here for my previous post.