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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rowan Center BLOG, 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

Much love and kindness.

Posted in mental health, Mindfulness, wellbeing, wellness

Practical ways to improve your wellbeing by unlocking the power of the vagus nerve

Last week, in my compassion group therapy session, we looked at the vagus nerve and its effect on our health and wellbeing. The vagus nerve is the longest of our cranial nerves (the ones which emerge straight from our brain) and controls our inner nerve centre. It oversees a range of crucial functions, communicating motor and sensory impulses to each organ of our body (our heart, lungs, upper digestive tract, and other organs of the chest and abdomen).

The vagus nerve is critical to our overall health and it has been scientifically proven that stimulating this important bundle of motor and sensory fibres is a key in reducing our stress, anxiety and anger levels.

So, enough of the science lesson, what are the practical ways that we can get this thing working to our advantage? Here are a range of different ways:

breathe deeply and slowly

Slow and deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve in a way that can help reduce our heart rate and enable us to become more relaxed. That’s why focusing on your breath during mini meditations can be so soothing for us and is a key part of compassion based therapy.

exercise

Regular exercise such as a gentle walk stimulates gut flow which is regulated by your vagus nerve. Why not combine this with getting in touch with nature so you can enjoy some peace and quiet at the same time?

have a good laugh

There’s a reason behind the popular saying ‘laughter is the best medicine’. Proper belly laughs are thought to be great for stimulating the vagus nerve. Why not try going to a comedy show or watching an episode of your favourite funny TV series tonight? There’s even a thing called ‘laughter therapy’ according to a counsellor I used to see, although I’ve never tried it myself!

try getting yourself all cold!

Apparently any type of exposure to cold will increase vagus nerve activation. That’s why some people swear by having a cold shower first thing in the morning to get going! Personally I prefer a little cold water on my face or a nice cold glass of water to wake myself up but it’s entirely up to you how you expose yourself to a little bit of coldness!

Sing or chant

As a member of a choir, I love singing and find it really helps my wellbeing. Now I know why! Why not trying putting on your favourite music and singing along (and maybe do a little boogie as well for the exercise) to activate your vagus nerve? Chanting also works too so no wonder football fans feel so good when they shout for their team at matches.

Massage

A nice neck massage is a lovely way to stimulate the vagus nerve or why not try a foot massage to help lower your heart rate and blood pressure. I love it when my husband does a firm massage of my feet after a long day when we’re sat together watching TV. If you haven’t got an obliging partner, a session with a qualified masseuse makes a fantastic pampering treat if you can afford it.

Positive social contact

Being socially connected, be it with compassionate friends, family or even our beloved pets has been shown to help with emotional regulation though vagal stimulation. Make sure that you choose to spend time with kind hearted and thoughtful people to ensure a positive experience.

Reduce your consumption of junk food

I’m sure you already know that eating too much fatty stuff is bad for you but excess consumption of ‘junk food’ has been shown to reduce the sensitivity of your vagus nerve. The occasional treat is okay but try not to indulge too often.

Yoga and Tai Chi

The benefits of practises such as yoga and Tai Chi are well documented. They have both been shown to increase vagus nerve activity and your parasympathetic (also known as rest and digest) system in general. You can find many simple yoga sequences online and beginner classes of exercises are widely available if you want to make it a social event too.

And finally, try to make time to relax each and every day

It’s up to you what form that relaxation takes, a nice warm bath, a few uninterrupted chapters of your favourite novel, craft or art activities or settling down to watch a film. Find something relaxing to do each day will have a positive effect on your wellbeing by working your vagus nerve.

I hope you’ve found this blog post interesting and have learnt something new. Let me know if you try any of the ideas and if they have a positive effect on your wellbeing as a result. I’ve learnt so much from my compassion group therapy so far and I’ve have been working hard to put things into practise to improve my wellbeing. Hopefully I get the chance to share some more with you soon.

Until next time, look after yourself.