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, Mindfulness, wellbeing

Monday Matters: How to have more fun (as an adult)

Fun times! Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping It Creative

Last week, after watching one of our favourite crime dramas, namely Line Of Duty, I popped online and spent a few minutes checking out related tweets on Twitter. As always, when your phone cookies learn of your interest in a particular topic, related content starts to show up on all on Google. On this occasion, I was more than happy that this happened as I found a couple of YouTube videos that really had me and my husband laughing hysterically. One was a Sports Relief spoof featuring Lee Mack and the other was a selection of “Tedisms”. Belly laughs are great for stimulating the vagus nerve which has a huge positive impact on your well-being. I certainly felt really good for the rest of the evening! Anyway, I do try to find things to laugh about each day but adding ‘have some fun’ to your daily to do list is a good way to increase your chances of smiling and laughing on a regular basis. So, in today’s post I’m going to share some of my best ideas on how to inject more fun into your life.

But first, what are the health benefits of having fun?

Aside from laughing being great for stimulating your vagus nerve, having fun (defined in the Oxford dictionary as enjoyment, amusement or light-hearted pleasure) is great for your overall health. Here are some of the main benefits:

  • reduces stress
  • increases our serotonin levels AKA the happiness hormone
  • can provide a much needed energy boost
  • better memory and concentration
  • improved sleep
  • helps us to be more resilient in the face of daily pressures
  • leaves us feeling more positive
  • better social connections e.g. with partner, friends, family etc

So, how can we ensure we have much more fun in our lives as adults?

Here are some easy ways to make sure you have fun each and every day:

Set an intention to have more fun

When we think of goal or intention setting, most of the time, we focus on serious lifestyle changes such as losing weight, exercising more, drinking less, cutting down on sugar etc. But, having more fun in your life can be just as impactful as any of these, so why not create a habit or intention where you actively plan to add more fun stuff to your week. If you start your day or your week with ‘I intend to have fun today’ or the affirmation ‘I dedicate each of my Saturday afternoons to fun activities which will make me smile’, I’m sure you’ll soon be reaping the benefits. I think in this case, setting an intention of increasing the amount of fun in your life is better than having a goal of a fun life because then you’re focusing on the process rather than the destination.

Decide what fun looks like to you

Of course, to have more fun in your life, you need to have a clear idea of what fun means to you. To some people, it might be an aqua zorbing session with friends or family, whilst for others, who aren’t adrenaline junkies, an afternoon making and baking cute animal shaped biscuits might be preferable.

If you’re a bullet journaller, I recommend making a spread dedicated to all the things you haven’t done in ages but know you would enjoy again, plus things you always meant to try but have so far never got around to. Otherwise, you could create a list to pin to your kitchen noticeboard. If I was creating a paper list, I would be decorating it with stickers and washi tape to make it visually attractive too but that’s just my personal preference! You’ll notice some of my ideas are activities which involve some kind of expense e.g. going to see comedian, whilst others are free things that take up relatively little time, like doing some doodling.

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping It Creative

Schedule some ‘fun’ into your planner or add it to your calendar

Instead of thinking ‘I wish I had more fun in my life’, a good way of increasing the fun is by actively sectioning off some time in your daily or weekly schedule. You could say that for half an hour after you eat dinner, you’ll engage in something fun or you might decide that between 1 and 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, each week, you’ll engage in a particular activity (from the list you wrote in your BuJo or have attached to your notice board).

One of the things my husband and I love to do is play the game Angry Birds 2 on our tablets each evening. As soon as we finish eating, we ‘retire to the drawing room / library’ (AKA our living room) and dedicate at least 20 minutes to playing. It’s become a complete non-negotiable and part of our daily routine so it’s a habit which is as ingrained as brushing our teeth morning and night.

Have some reminders in the form of quotes and sayings

If you go on Google and type in ‘quotes and sayings about having fun’, there’s an abundance of them to choose from including some with pretty backgrounds and borders. The best ones will be those which resonant most with you but here’s a few that you might like:

Always make time for the people that remind you, life is meant to be fun.

‘Enjoyment of life generally includes being socially connected, having fun and feeling a sense of purpose.’ – Mallika Chopra

Time flies whether you’re having fun or not. The choice is yours.

When you start enjoying your life, you will see how amazing this world is.

‘Have fun, be yourself, enjoy life and stay positive.’ – Taliana Maslany

Every once in a while, you gotta stop worrying, stop thinking and just let go. Have some fun in your life. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.

“Fun is one of the most important – and underrated – ingredients in any successful venture. If you’re not having fun, then it’s probably time to call it quits and try something else.” – Richard Branson

Whichever quotes or sayings you choose, I recommend adding them to your BuJo, wall or noticeboard – any place which you regularly look so that they are most impactful. It’s also important to actually take the time to read them regularly as just seeing them stuck there on the page or wherever, isn’t going to help you absorb the important messages!

Get together some fun related resources

Just like kids have a toy box, you can have your own ‘box of fun’. Similar to the wellness toolbox which I talked about in part 1 of my WRAP series, your box could contain fun resources such as jigsaw puzzles, lego, Jenga, tubs of slime or playdoh and anything else that you might want to use. You could also create a set of pictorial cue card reminders e.g. containing pictures of fun things such as a photo of all of your art materials, a picture of your pet to remind you of the joy he or she brings, the menu from your favourite café or restaurant, some pictures of the views in your favourite park or some pancakes with maple syrup drizzled on them. Basically, anything that you love which brings a smile to your face.

Spend time with fun people

Spending time with my niece (who is featured in the top photo) is always fun as a) like most kids, she’s an expert at playing and having fun and b) she has a wicked sense of humour. I’m either laughing at her antics or giggle along when she makes a joke.

I’m sure most of us can name some friends or family members who we love to be around due to them being fun. Now that lockdown is finally easing up, we can make the most of the relaxation of rules to get together with people we just love to spend time with.

On the other hand, I’m sure we can all bring to mind friends and acquaintances who can be a little draining and leave us feeling a bit ‘ugh!’ if we spend too much time with them. Obviously, I’m not suggesting avoiding these individuals, as, let’s face it, we’ve all been through times when we’re probably not the best of company, but we should also try to have a balance of relationships to suit all of our different needs.

Find joy in the little things

If I asked you to think of some fun things ‘off the top of your head’ that you could do tomorrow, you’d probably think of big things like going to see a favourite band, spending a day at a theme park or jetting off on holiday to somewhere exotic. But having fun doesn’t have to be about big adventures or expensive days out. We can also invite joy into our lives by appreciating the little things and making everyday experiences fun just by being relaxed and light-hearted. For example, the other day, I went to my local park for a walk and saw two squirrels chasing each other around and up a tree. It was just a little thing but it brought a smile to my face and it was fascinating watching them racing around at top speed. It also made me think about their reason for chasing each other, and, as it was likely to be part of the mating ritual, the thought of glimpsing baby squirrels in the near future is a pretty exciting one too.

There are plenty of ways of finding simple pleasures when observing nature or experiencing aspects of our natural world. Stargazing, cloud watching, bird song, looking at the amazing structure of the inside of a flower, watching a bee collecting nectar and so on are all pretty awe inspiring if you take the time to appreciate the experience. This is a key element of mindfulness as it involves really living in the moment and as well as bringing joy, it can also bring a complete sense of calm which can allow us to find fun in everyday moments.

Get yourself ready for some fun

I’m sure we can all recall engaging in something that should be fun and feeling deflated afterwards as we didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as we should. If we start to analyse why, it usually has something to do with us not being ‘in the mood’ which basically means we have loads of serious stuff going on in our head and are feeling wound up. For this reason, before you embark on any activity that’s on your ‘fun things to do’ list, it’s important to take time to de-stress. Doing a little meditation, yoga or going for a short walk in the fresh air helps to clear your head ready for living in the moment and being present. Then you can really focus on what you are doing and hopefully, experience the fun you are desperately craving.

Final words…

I mentioned this post to my nurse when I went for a blood test this morning as she was really interested to her about my blog and the topics I cover. Her response was “ooooh let me know the link and I’ll follow your advice to the letter because I could do with some more of that in my life’. Hopefully, if you feel the same, as I expect many of us who have busy lives may do, you will have found my suggestions useful. Although I’m by no means an expert on having fun, I am in a positive frame of mind right now and believe having fun helps to maintain that positivity. If you like what you’ve read or you have further ideas about how to have more fun feel free to give this post a like or a comment.

Thanks for reading, and have fun!

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 CBT, compassion, lifestyle, mental health, Mindfulness

Monday Matters: The beginner’s guide to self-compassion

Photo credit: kaboompics.com for Unsplash

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post which explored different ways to practise self love and gave some ideas for bullet journal spreads you might like to try. Today’s writing is an extension of this them and focuses on self-compassion. I hope you find it both interesting and useful.

What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion is all about showing yourself warmth, love, kindness and understanding, especially during difficult times. It’s about accepting ourselves as we are, learning to be less self-critical and avoiding judgement. It’s about being mindful of our different emotional states and the situations we find ourselves, recognising that we all make mistakes, that no-one is perfect and that we all struggle at times so we’re not alone in our suffering.

Why should I practice self-compassion?

There has been a lot of recent research into the benefits of being self-compassionate and how it can work wonders on our wellbeing. Individuals who practise self-compassion have been shown to be much happier, more optimistic, grateful for what they have, and enjoy better relationships with their loved ones. They’ve also been shown to have lower stress levels as they avoid being judgemental towards themselves, others and situations, recognise and accept that we all find things hard at times and, through mindfulness, become more in tune with their thoughts and emotions. Self-compassionate people are also likely to have a higher level of resilience as they are easily able to bounce back from difficulties and can accept and learn from their mistakes.

Self-compassion is also a great antidote for perfectionist tendencies, which I, for one, have always struggled with, right from childhood and I’m sure many of my readers will have too.

How can I bring self-compassion to my life?

Today, I’m going to share with you some simple ways to bring self-compassion into your life so that you can start being easier on yourself and show yourself the love and kindness you would demonstrate to someone else you care about.

Notice and reframe your critical self-talk

I’ve spoken before about the negative ways in which we tend to talk to ourselves before in my blog post about self love. We can be so good at saying unkind and unhelpful things such as “I’m such an idiot”, “Other people are so much better than me”, “No-one likes me” and “I’m just no good at…” etc. And, as you can imagine, this critical inner voice can destroy our self confidence and lead to feelings of worthlessness and depression.

So how can we put the lid on this damaging talk? The very first step is to start noticing when you are being self-critical. Take the time to examine the situations in which you use negative self talk, the exact words you use and the tone of voice that you adopt. You could even try keeping a little notebook of examples to reflect on. Now consider how you could reframe things in a more positive way. Focus on being self-compassionate, non-judgemental, supportive and mindful of the situation. If you find this difficult, think about what a really compassionate friend would say to you. Changing how we talk to ourselves might be hard at first but it will get easier with time and practise so keep working on your skills and congratulate yourself on your efforts.

Write yourself a letter

This is a great exercise to do if you are going through a difficult time or are struggling to accept something which has caused you mental pain. Start your letter by outlining the situation that you find yourself in and how it has or is affecting you. Next, go on to identify your thoughts and feelings and what you were hoping for or needing to make things easier. Now offer a message of common humanity which will remind you that you are not alone and encourage you to feel connected to others e.g. ‘we all make mistakes’ or ‘everyone has times when they feel…’ etc. Finally, offer yourself some guidance and positive encouragement like you would to a friend who needs your support. Sign your letter with a loving message and add some stickers, washi tapes or little drawings of something nice if you would like to. When you have finished your letter, you can either read it out loud to yourself straight away or put it away somewhere special for when you need to show yourself some compassion.

Start a self-compassion journal

Keeping a journal is a great way to reflect on how you are feeling and what is happening for you right now. I like to spend about ten minutes each evening writing down my thoughts. What I chose to write about differs each day but might include:

  • what I have achieved today
  • what I learnt today
  • ways in which I am proud of myself
  • things I’m grateful for
  • anything I found challenging today and why
  • what I’m looking forward to tomorrow
  • anything I’m feeling apprehensive about

You can finish your writing by adding some kind, understanding and sympathetic words to yourself. For example, ‘most people would get annoyed in that situation and it’s okay that you lost your temper’ or ‘things were difficult today, but hopefully you’ll have a better day tomorrow’ etc.

Use affirmations

Another great way of showing yourself loving kindness it to write your own personal affirmations and practise saying them to yourself each day. I like to create a decorative spread of them in my bullet journal every few months – it is a great way of practising my brush lettering too. Here are some examples:

  • I am enough
  • I talk to myself with love and kindness
  • I’m proud of myself and my achievements
  • I accept my flaws because no one is perfect
  • I’m doing my best and that is enough

Engage in self-soothing activities

If you know you’ve had a difficult day, your week isn’t going quite as planned or you’re finding yourself in a negative mood, you can help to make yourself feel much better by engaging in some self soothing activities.

Here’s some examples of things I like to do:

  • take a walk in nature and use my senses to explore the immediate environment
  • get under the duvet and read a good book
  • do some drawing or colouring in
  • listen to a guided meditation
  • make a collage in my bullet journal of things I love
  • do some watercolour painting
  • mindfully eat a bar of my favourite chocolate
  • watch a funny film
  • paint my nails

If you would like to read more about using self soothing for emotional regulation, you can check out this blog post I wrote last year.

I hope today’s blog post has helped to develop your understanding of self-compassion and how important it is. Let me know which of the activities I suggested appeal to you the most and if you try some of them, be sure to share how you got on.

Posted in lifestyle, Mindfulness

Monday Matters: How to be a Great Listener

Photo credit: Wynand van Poortvliet for Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I met one of my friends for coffee and cake and then we had a stroll along the beach. It was a really windy day and I found it difficult to hear my friend talking because the huge gusts were blowing her voice away. We were also pretty distracted by plumes of sand which were in danger of going in our eyes. I had to make sure I was listening super carefully and paying close attention as she was talking about a rather delicate family situation that she had been dealing with and wanted to offload. It got me thinking about listening skills and how we teach children to be good listeners by facing the speaker, sitting still, not interrupting and being attentive. But it’s not just kids who need to work on their listening skills, some adults would benefit from a few pointers too. Today’s Monday Matters post is all about being a really effective listener something that I hope most, if not all of us, aspire to be, especially as it is often named as one of the most important qualities we look for in a friend or partner.

If you’ve ever sat in a café talking to a friend and have watched them check their phone repeatedly, start to gaze out of the window or pay more attention to the seemingly far more interesting conversation going on at the table to the left, you will know how frustrating or upsetting it is when you feel like you are not being listened to. Especially if you’ve sat nodding along and offering emotional support for the last ten minutes and now it’s your turn to share. Maybe you’ve read the above and are now thinking about a time when you’ve been the poor listener and have done some or all of the things listed above. Or, perhaps you can recall a time when you offered advice or an alternative point of view when, thinking back, really the speaker was simply needed to vent. Developing good listening skills isn’t easy and requires lots of practise but here are some ideas to help you:

Limit distractions

If you are face-to-face with the person, try to find a quiet space away from visual distractions. Put your phone away, or turn it on to silent so that you’re not tempted to look at it or respond to messages. Maintain eye contact for the majority of the time so that you’re not seeing the myriad of other things going on in the immediate environment which might otherwise attract your attention.

If you’re at home and on the phone, turn music or the TV off and make others aware that you are busy and not to be disturbed. If you have children, try to make sure they’re fully occupied with something and teach them about when it is vital that they do interrupt you (if they’ve had an accident and need your urgent assistance or the house is on fire) and when they should wait patiently until you’ve finished your call. A gentle reminder prior to picking up the phone is a good idea and be sure to praise your child for managing to entertain themselves or resist temptation to interrupt and explain why it was so helpful.

If you are at work and are in the middle of something, politely ask the person to wait until you are done or stop what you are doing and give them your full attention. This lets them know that you are interested in and value what they say.

Figure out their why and their what

Whilst you are listening, think about why they are talking to you and what the message is. Are they looking for a solution or some advice? Might they just be wanting to air their thoughts and feelings? Is the purpose just to let off steam or vent? Don’t offer a solution or your opinion unless you are asked.

If you are unsure what the person is getting at, then be sure to ask for clarification or pose questions which help you develop your understanding. For example, you might start with ‘So, what you’re saying is…’, ‘Can I just check…’ ‘Did you mean…’ etc.

Use non-verbal cues to help you

Look out for non-verbal cues which give you ideas about how the person is feeling and what they might be thinking. Check out their body language, facial expression and gestures. Are they smiling and relaxed or do they look tense and uptight? Think about how you can non-verbally show how attentive you are too. A smile, a nod, a look of concern – whatever feels appropriate based on what is being said (a good reason why it’s important to figure out the person’s why and what).

Reflect back on what you hear

Part of your job as an active listener is to make sure you fully grasp what the speaker is saying. A good way to do this is by paraphrasing what has been said. This is where you restate the information that has been presented to you but in different words, basically reflecting back a summary of the same content e.g. “In other words…”, “I gather that…” etc. In combination with this, you can also check that you understand the feelings and emotions involved, for example, “It sounds like you’re feeling pretty angry about…” or ‘”So, you were frustrated when…” This lets the speaker know that you understand the main messages in what they are saying and also shows that you are empathetic towards them.

Allow for silences

Silence can feel unnerving and the temptation is to quickly fill any gaps between talking. But the person may just be pausing to reflect on what they’ve said or thinking about how they can add to what they are saying so try not to interrupt. If they have finished, a moment’s silence allows you to consider what has been said and compose any questions you may have in a way that indicates how closely you were paying attention and that you are interested in what they are sharing with you.

Follow up on the conversation afterwards

There’s no better way to show how well you were listening and how much you care than bringing up the topic of conversation again at a later date. How you initiate thinks obviously depends on what was said but you might enquire if there are any updates, if they are feeling any better, how an event went or how a situation ended up resolving itself. The person will generally be touched that you remembered and made the effort to follow up on things.

Final thoughts

I hope my ideas have given you food for thought and that you might use one or two of my suggestions to help you become a better listener. We all have room for improvement and I include myself in this. No one can claim to be the perfect listener but we all have a desire to be heard so I think it’s really important to take the time to evaluate our skills and try to make some small changes. Let me know what you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses in terms of listening or, if you would prefer, use the comments space as your chance to air what you find particularly annoying when you’re the one doing the talking. Maybe your little rant will strike a cord with another reader and give them something to think about!