Posted in lifestyle, social media, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Wheel Of Wellness – Social Part 1

In today’s Monday Matters I’ll be considering the social dimension of the Wheel Of Wellness, focusing specifically on the advantages and disadvantages of social media for individuals and using a variety of media to find out what’s on in your local community. This is part 1 of 2 of the social segment which we’re exploring in my local recovery college course and I’ll cover the second part at a later date.

What do we mean by the term ‘social media’?

Social media is a range of websites and applications (apps) that enable users to create and share content (information, ideas and interests) or to participate in social networking via digital channels. Examples include Pinterest, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Blogs, TripAdvisor, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. Social media is used by millions of people and it has brought with it a lot of positives. However, it also has its negative side for individuals and society as a whole.

What are the main advantages of social media?

Connectivity The main advantage of social media has to be the way it connects people. Individuals from anywhere can connect with anyone regardless of their location or time zone. It enables us to easily keep in touch with friends, family, work colleagues, other students during our education and people who share our interests.

Education As well as providing opportunities for students and teachers to learn online, anyone can use social media to learn from experts and professionals. For example, I learnt brush lettering techniques for free using YouTube tutorials. I even found videos that looked at difficulties facing left handed letters and it was so nice to see lefties with beautiful handlettering. You can enhance your knowledge of absolutely anything and develop a range of skills in any field. Regardless of where you live and your educational background and level you can educate yourself, often completely for free.

Help, advice and support At one time, help used to be available from a small number of individuals such as relatives, neighbours, friends and colleagues or through reading books or magazines. Now, you can quickly share your issues in online communities and get so much help and advice you might feel overwhelmed and wonder which is most valuable! If you’re after money advice, you can join the Money Saving Expert forum, if you want local advice, you can join NextDoor and consult with your local community, if you need help with something related to your hobbies, there are countless groups on Facebook which you can sign up for.

Information and updates Another main advantage of social media is that it easily enables you to keep up-to-date with what is happening around the world. Rather than reading printed literature such as newspapers which tend to place a biased slant on things, you can seek information from more reputable sources such as the BBC or compare different articles on the same subject from multiple sources.

Awareness Social media is very good at increasing awareness of new and innovative ideas and products that can enhance the way we live and work. It also plays a huge role in helping people to be more aware of current affairs.

Builds communities There are a huge range of online communities and new ones are being started all of the time. On Instagram, you can follow hashtags which suit your interests and interact with others who share your passions. For example, I follow #hamstersofinstagram and #hamster and also post pictures of my pet for others to see. I also follow bullet journal related hashtags so I can inspiration for my own BuJo. Doing this means I can easily interact with other hamster lovers and people who love bullet journaling. On Facebook, I’m a member of various planner communities and groups who enjoy playing the game Angry Birds 2. One of my favourite groups is UKPA which has over 3.8K members. Not only do we discuss planning and share our planner spreads, but we also create lots of off topic threads related to everything and anything such as housework, friendships, productivity and lifestyle. This creates a feeling of ‘oneness’, bringing together people from different places, religions and backgrounds.

Sharing with others

Although some people seem to be in the habit of oversharing on social media, places like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram are great platforms for sharing your creativity. This might be in the form of songs, photography, poems, art work or crafts such as knitting and sewing. If others like your recordings or items, they might express an interest in buying them which could even lead to a small business venture!

What are the main disadvantages of social media?

Time wasting It is very easy to spend far too much time mindlessly scrolling through feeds on apps such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, watching countless funny videos on YouTube or popping online to quickly check something only to find you’ve forgotten what you were supposed to be doing and have been distracted / pulled in by the wealth of other information which pops up on the screen of your phone, tablet or computer. Before you know it, several hours have passed by and you’ve not done any of the household / personal tasks you had on your to do list for today (seriously bad news for your productivity) or spoken to anyone you know IRL (in real life), including the people you live with, or spent any quality time interacting with your pets.

Addiction Social media can be extremely addictive, sometimes to the point where it has a seriously detrimental effect on your work and personal life and your relationships with others (see above). A recent study carried out just last year, found links between FOMO (fear of missing out) and excessive use of social media. This could either mean that FOMO causes individuals to keep checking social media, or what they see on social media makes them feel as though they are missing out and exacerbates the FOMO which in turn increases feelings associated with anxiety, depression and neuroses. These emotional effects can then have negative effects on physical health too.

Cyberbullying According to information online, cyberbullying is becoming a a big issue for children and adolescents. When I was a young girl, bullying (defined as repetitious unwanted and aggressive behaviour towards an individual) generally took place during the school day. Now, with the advent of social media it can happen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – in other words relentlessly leaving the target with no respite. This information which I found on the Unicef website was incredibly informative on the subject and is well worth reading and talking about if you have your own children or spend time with young relatives. Of course, cyberbullying can also affect adults too and UK based Cybersmile Foundation has lots of useful help and advice available on their website.

Health issues Excessive use of social media can have a negative impact on both physical and mental health. Keeping yourself active is one of the keys to good health but constant use of social media promotes laziness and can lead to issues such as lethargy, weight gain, sleeplessness and a general inertia. Overuse of social media can also exacerbate mental health conditions. For example, seeing photos of friends having fun, being all smiley and making the most of life can sometimes cause feelings associated with inadequacy, unhappiness, dissatisfaction, loneliness, anxiety and depression.

Hacking Hacking is the process of gaining unauthorised access to data in a system or computer. This can be for a number of reasons including for financial gain, identity theft or to steal information or data. Hacking is one of the most dangerous aspects of social media usage so it’s really important to keep your information safe. See this Wikihow for simple ways to do this.

How can I make sure my experience of social media is a positive one?

I’ve written a blog post about this before so I’ll link it here rather than covering old ground. In terms of keeping safe, a few suggestions are:

  • Use strong passwords and make each one different (I write them down in a little book which only me and my husband know about)
  • Be careful about what you share. Don’t reveal personal information such as your home address, phone number or financial details
  • Familiarise yourself with the privacy policies on different social media sites. Customise your settings to control who sees what
  • Install anti-virus software
  • Delete, unfollow, unsubscribe to anything which makes you feel bad
  • Try to remember that if something seems to good to be true, it probably is!

Finding out what’s on in your local community

Although it’s nice to belong to a variety of online communities related to your hobbies and interests, its also important to have face to face interactions with others. A good way you can do this is by getting involved in things that are taking place in your local area. Events could take place in community centres, local areas, churches, leisure centres, country parks, theatres, historical buildings and if you live by the coast, your local beaches. There’s a range of ways to find out what’s happening:

  • Websites – for example, there’s a site for my local area called ‘See it Do it Sunderland’ but I’m pretty sure there will be something online for your locality too.
  • Facebook – If you type in where you live plus the word ‘events’ lots of local information should hopefully pop up
  • Nextdoor – joining this online community app enables you to interact with your neighbours, find out about community events, ask questions about your local area and get recommendations for various tradesmen
  • Leaflets and magazines – you might get a leaflet pushed through your letter box or receive a local magazine. There might also been an online magazine for your area – mine is called sunderlandmagazine.com
  • Word of mouth – work colleagues, friends, family members etc might be able to recommend something. I learnt about events from the course leader and participants at my Recovery College course.
  • Newspapers – the paper version or online edition can be a good source of information, although you obviously have to pay for this if you want regular access

Final words…

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading today’s Monday Matters post and it’s made you think about your use of social media and whether it mainly benefits you or affects you in a negative way. Maybe there are some positive changes you think you’d like to make but never seem to get around to – could you perhaps work on creating a new habit for yourself? Might you be spending too much time interacting with others online instead of making real life connections and involving yourself in social interactions with friends and family or people in your local community? Only you know what’s best for you but I know that I’m really enjoying and benefiting from the social side of going to fitness classes at my local gym group where I’ve got chatting to a number of different people with a range of life experiences.

Next week, I’ll be focus on the intellectual segment of The wheel of wellness.

Posted in depression management, Health and Nutrition, mental health, self care, wellbeing

Monday Matters: Why Exercise is Good for your Mental Health

We all know exercise is important for maintaining physical health but working out is also extremely beneficial for your mental health. As someone who regularly struggles with depression, I have a really good understanding of how important exercise is to help me manage my symptoms. In today’s Monday Matters, I thought I would discuss some of the reasons why regular exercise is so great for your mental wellbeing.

Boosts your mood

An energetic workout such as a brisk walk, a dance class or cardio at the gym releases endorphins AKA the feel good hormones into the body. These chemicals help to boost your happiness levels and can be great for alleviating anxiety and depression and any physical aches and pains you might have. Exercise also gives us something positive to focus on and can be a useful distraction from negative and anxious thoughts during periods of difficulty.

Increases energy levels

You might think that exercise will wear you out and make you feel tired, but the reverse is actually true. According to my research, moderate exercise helps to increase the level of mitochondria cells, which are directly responsible for producing energy. Also, a good workout boosts the circulation of oxygen in your body which makes you feel energised. Although you may feel worn out at the end of your exercise session, a few hours later, your energy levels should have picked back up, leaving you refreshed and invigorated for the rest of the day.

Fatigue is a common symptom of depression so by getting some exercise each day, even if it’s just a short walk or ten minutes of housework, you can combat the constant feeling of tiredness.

Promotes better quality sleep

As well as increasing your energy levels, exercise also helps to improve the quality of your sleep. You should find that you fall asleep more quickly and get more minutes of deep sleep, leaving you feeling refresh in the morning. It should be noted, however that you should avoid exercising for at least a couple of hours before bed as the production of those endorphins I mentioned earlier will leave you feeling buzzing, unable to switch off and struggling to sleep.

Improves self esteem

Self esteem is all about our perception of ourselves and how much value we place on our personal characteristics and qualities. Low self esteem can have a negative impact on our emotional wellbeing causing feelings of worthlessness and lack of self love. Exercise has been shown to have a really positive impact on our self esteem. As well as helping to put us in a more positive frame of mind which can make us feel better about ourselves, regular exercise can also boost our self esteem by:

  • improving our body image
  • helping us to feel more physically competent as we become stronger and more flexible
  • giving us a huge sense of achievement as we create new habits and stick to them
  • encouraging you to build friendships with others who are on a similar fitness journey or enjoy the same kinds of exercise
  • helping us to feel more healthy as we observe the effects on our body and mind

Can combat social withdrawal and isolation

Mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia can make us feel very lonely and cause us to withdraw from social situations such as talking and meeting with friends, going shopping, family get togethers etc. Even if you are struggling a little at the moment and don’t particularly feel like socialising, pushing yourself to take a walk in your local park where others are exercising or going to the gym when it is relatively quiet can help you feel a part of the community. Joining a class with other likeminded individuals can help combat feelings of isolation. I’ve attended a few yoga classes recently and although I felt really nervous about going, I met some really lovely people and felt super proud of myself for making conversation both with class attendees and the instructors.

Improves cognitive function

Cardio workouts i.e. those which raise our heart rate and get us sweating help to improve the function of the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain which processes and retrieves different kinds of memories. Moderate-intensity exercise can also boost other aspects of cognitive processing including thinking, problem solving, attention, language and learning. This can help us feel better about ourselves and increase our self confidence. Studies have also shown that regular exercise can also help to combat the cognitive decline associated with ageing.

Stress busting

Regular aerobic exercise has been found to be really effective at reducing stress levels. The production of endorphins in the brain can decrease tension, elevate your mood and generally make you feel good. Also, exercise that involves deep breathing, such as yoga and Pilates, can help you to relax by producing calming energy.

Feeling the benefits of being fully present

Certain types of exercise encourage you to be mindful by paying attention to the quality of your movements or holding poses. Yoga and Pilates may not get your pulse racing and endorphins flowing, but, as well as being great for improving strength, muscle tone and flexibility, the level of concentration required takes the focus away from your low mood, stresses or worries about your current circumstances and negative self talk associated with anxiety or depression. As one of my yoga teachers once said, you’re enjoying the benefits of a mini mind break or a mental holiday.

Ways to get active every day

There are so many great ways to increase the amount of physical activity you do each week. In order to stay motivated, it’s best if you choose things you enjoy and which easily fit into your daily life. Here’s some suggestions:

  • Be active around the house and in the garden by doing moderate exercise such as washing the car, cleaning the windows, doing some digging, mowing the lawn or vacuuming every room.
  • Arrange a fun weekly class to attend with a family member or friend. Popular choices include clubbercise, spinning (indoor cycling, often done to loud dance music), bums and tums and body pump.
  • Enjoy a weekend woodland walk, immersing yourself in the environment and forgetting about life’s stresses and strains.
  • Dust off your bike and head to a country park for a spot of cycling. Safer than riding on the roads or pavements and the paths often include some inclines to really work your legs!
  • If you’ve just got 10 or 20 minutes, try an online workout. There are plenty of short fitness videos on YouTube and you can choose which part of your body you want to work on such as legs, glutes, arms or tummy.
  • Try Nordic walking which involves using a pair of walking poles. Not only do your legs get a good workout, you will also be using your arms and engaging your core.
  • Join your local gym and ask a personal trainer to help you create a workout to suit your current fitness levels and target specific parts of your body you’d like to tone.
  • Put some fast tempo music on whilst you do a spot of dusting and dance your way around the furniture and various rooms.
  • Get off the train or bus a stop early and walk the rest of the way.
  • Search for local walks and hikes online and and pick one out each weekend to go on with your partner or a friend.
  • If you have kids or grandkids, encourage them to be active and spend time as a family doing something sporty such as having a kick about, taking some netball or basketball shots, riding a bike, playing frisbee or having a game of tennis in a nearby park. You could even pack a nutritious picnic for when you’re done!
  • Walk or cycle instead of taking the car.
  • Go for a swim – it’s a great full body workout, low impact and easy on your joints. Or, if you like being in the pool, but, like me, you’re not so good at swimming, try an aqua aerobics class.

N.B. Please bear in mind that the above are examples of ways in which you might get yourself moving and begin to enjoy the many benefits of exercise. I am in no way an expert on exercise and it’s best to consult with your doctor prior to beginning any exercise programme or upping your physical activity levels, especially if you have not exercised for some time or if you have a particular medical condition or concerns.

Final words…

Regular exercise can be quite costly if you join a gym and attend classes regularly. However, there are many inexpensive or free exercise options if you are on a tight budget. I’m currently signed up to a programme which gives me free access to my local gym and wellness centre for 12 weeks and I’m making the most of it by regularly working out at the gym and also trying out some of the classes which are available.

It might be a good idea to do some research online to see if there are any special deals or programmes on offer in your local community, Or, you could find out if there’s a recovery college nearby which might have some physical activity based courses to become involved in to help you manage mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety. Walking is also a free or inexpensive way of getting moving and if you are hoping to socialise with others, many towns and cities have local walking groups available to people of all levels of fitness.

Posted in Bipolar disorder, depression, depression management, lifestyle, mental health, Planning and journaling, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: A mini guide to using Behavioural Activation as a treatment for depression

In last week’s blog post, I mentioned that my support worker and I have been using a technique called Behavioural Activation (B.A.) as a practical treatment for my depression and anxiety. Today, I thought I’d share an introduction to how B.A. works, ways in which it can help ease depression and anxiety and some tips on how to get the most out of using the method.

What is Behavioural Activation?

Behavioural Activation is an effective and pro-active treatment for depression which can be used in addition to medication and CBT techniques. Research shows that when individuals are struggling with depression their activity levels reduce, leading to less enjoyment and achievement and feelings of lethargy and poor motivation so that even small tasks and activities become hard work. This then becomes a vicious cycle of inactivity – depression and anxiety – inactivity and so on leading to us feeling worse.

Source: NHS Greater Manchester Mental Health

Additionally, a person may engage in unhelpful behaviours such as turning to drugs or alcohol, staying in bed late into the day, withdrawing from social situations or sitting ruminating about things.

Behavioural Activation (B.A.) aims to break the above cycle by increasing pleasurable and positive activity each week with a view to improving mood and decreasing feelings of anxiety, including any negative thoughts you might be having such as “I’m a useless wife/husband/partner”, “I can’t do this anymore”, “I’m never going to get better” etc.

Although Behavioural Activation is a relatively simple idea and can be used as a self- help strategy, I think it is best done with a therapist or support worker so that they can guide you through the process and provide encouragement along the way. They can also look at the particular difficulties you’re having and help you to put things in place to make positive steps towards tackling them.

Establishing a baseline – the first step of Behavioural Activation

Once you understand the principles behind B.A. therapy the first step in the process is to monitor your current activities throughout the week and how they affect your mood. This can either be done using an activity monitoring sheet, examples of which can be found online, or by simply making a list of what you do each hour of the day and scoring your mood out of 10 each time, 0 representing feeling very depressed and 10 representing feeling really good. This should help you to clearly see the relationship between your activity levels and your mood. You could also try listing which of your activities made you feel good and which made you feel bad, for example going for a walk in the park made me feel good, sitting and worrying that I’ll never get better made me feel bad.

Using a ‘Weekly Schedule’ sheet to make plans – the next step in the process

Once you’ve established what you are currently doing, it’s time to make some small improvements. Each week, you work on creating a schedule which should include routine plans such as having breakfast, going food shopping, pleasurable activities such as playing cards, watching TV, doing something creative etc and necessary things that need doing e.g. paying your car tax.

You should also try to include activities which you already do that make you feel better such as getting dressed, brushing your hair, going for a daily walk etc. So, for example, even though I didn’t feel like doing my yoga each day, I did it anyway as it helps to calm me and I feel good after doing it.

My modified B.A. weekly schedule sheet created in MS Word

What you write in the boxes depends on your current difficulties. For example, if you are struggling to get out of bed you might write in the first box ‘Up by 9.00am’, ‘Have breakfast’ and ‘Get ready’ (dressed, teeth brushed and face washed). If you’re currently not doing any household chores, you might add laundry related activities to your list. This can be broken down into small steps e.g. ‘Load the washing machine’, ‘hang out clothes’ and ‘Bring in washing’.

You should also try to think of activities which are important to you, for example spending time in nature, being creative, quality time with family or friends, eating a balanced diet etc. These are related to your core values and you might want to talk to a support worker or therapist to establish what you want from life so you can set some goals for the future. Although your depression is likely to lead you to believe that things will never get better and you will never again feel a sense of pleasure or achievement, try to think of your situation as temporary and know that things will improve in time (I know this is much easier said than done though).

Using your weekly schedule to good effect

Your weekly schedule is your plan for the week and is a guide for what you hope to achieve. It should be referred to throughout the day and will help you see what you have planned. It’s also a place to record your achievement and enjoyment levels (out of 10) so you can evaluate the effect B.A. is having on your mood. You might also like to spend time each evening reflecting on your day – you could even do a little journalling too. If you find your enthusiasm waning at any time, remind yourself why you’re using Behavioural Activation and think about the positives so far.

Tips on using Behavioural Activation to treat depression

Start small When I first started planning out my week according to the principles of B.A., I would identify one activity for in the morning, one for in the afternoon and another for in the evening. This would mainly include relatively simple and mindful activities which helped to distract my anxious and negative thoughts and improve my mood a little. So, for example, in the first week I would have breakfast, get dressed and straighten my hair in the morning, go for a walk in the park in the afternoon and then play cards, do some of my jigsaw or watch TV in the evening. By week 5, I was doing several activities in the morning, afternoon and evening and setting more difficult goals for myself. However, we always made sure I had some time for pleasurable and relaxing activities each week such as reading my book in bed two mornings a week (after having a good breakfast and brushing my teeth and washing my face).

Break down activities into steps When you’re feeling depressed, it’s common to lack the motivation to do even basic things. For this reason, it’s helpful to break down activities into small steps which feel more achievable. So, for example, ages ago I bought a cheap set of gouache paints and really wanted to have a go at using them. Rather than creating a full page art piece, I set myself the simpler task of painting some stems and leaves. For the first step, I experimented with creating different shades of green by mixing varying amounts of blue and yellow. Then I introduced small amounts of other colours of paint to explore what happened. I also added white to some of the mixture to make lighter shades. After that, I tried painting samples onto a small strip of watercolour paper to see if I had the consistency of the paint correct as I knew that gouache is quite a bit thicker than watercolour which I’ve used many times before. This was all I did on the first day. I returned to my paint samples a few days later and decided to have a go at some stems and leaves. I spent time looking online at different stem and leaf shape and patterns and then had a go at creating them using a small selection of brushes. By breaking down my art project, I avoided feeling overwhelmed. I also did the same for housework tasks e.g. rather than cleaning the whole kitchen, I started by just cleaning and polishing the sink area.

Routine, Pleasurable and Necessary Try to create a balance of activities on your plan so that you engage in a range of pleasurable and achievement related activities each week. So, for example, you might do some watercolouring on Monday morning because you know that you have enjoyed painting in the past. This would be a pleasurable activity (even if you believe that you won’t enjoy doing it). On Tuesday morning, you might put one load of washing in the machine and then hang it out in the sunshine when it’s finished. This would be a routine task (something that needs doing regularly) and is likely give you a sense of achievement. On Wednesday afternoon, you might plan to get a few necessary tasks out of the way such as renewing your car insurance, replacing a lightbulb or replying to an email or text message from someone.

Evaluate how your week has gone During my weekly support sessions, Nichola would ask me how my week had been and part of this involved talking through how I’d got on with my B.A. plans. This gave me the chance to share my achievements but was also an opportunity to identify any problems I’d had, if I’d found solutions myself or if I needed help to find a way forward. For example, one week, I’d got really upset because my dressing table in the bedroom was thick with dust and I felt ashamed at how bad it was. I only cleaned this one piece of furniture instead of the whole of our bedroom as I became really overwhelmed. We discussed that sometimes a task may need modifying or simplifying to make it easier and that I may need to try to be kinder to myself / show more self compassion etc.

Reward yourself regularly As well as going easy on yourself, it’s also a good idea to spend time recognising your achievements and reward yourself for progress made. As well as doing this with Nichola once a week, my husband talks with me about how my day had been and what I’ve achieved. Also, every Friday afternoon, we go to my favourite cafĂ© for a coffee and cake as a well deserved treat. This has become a part of our weekly routine which will have carried on even though I’m now feeling much better and it’s not so hard to get things done.

Enlist the support of others If you find it difficult to motivate yourself to do the activities on your weekly schedule, it can be helpful to ask others for support. This could be a family member or friend who regularly checks in with you to see how you’re getting on and provides gentle encouragement. They might also help you with a particular task e.g. preparing a meal, filling in a form or tidying a space in your home.

Final words…

Although Behavioural Activation on its own isn’t a cure for depression, it can be a really useful coping mechanism and a helpful treatment for lifting your mood. Hopefully, in time, you will find that you start to enjoy some of the activities on your plan or feel a sense of achievement when you’ve completed tasks that you’ve probably been avoiding. As you continue to schedule in activities and complete them successfully, you’ll likely be motivated to do more. Remember, though, that there may be days along the way where you don’t feel so good and some of your tasks might not get done. This is okay and perfectly normal – just go easy on yourself and celebrate what you did achieve. Even a small number of activities done each day can have a big impact on your mood.

If you have any questions about Behavioural Activation, feel free to drop them in the comments and hopefully I’ll be able to answer them or direct you to an online resource which might help. Also, if you would like a copy of my Weekly Schedule, I would be more than happy to share it – just get in touch using the email address in the ‘Contact me’ section of my blog.

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 art, Bullet journaling, compassion, mental health, Planning and journaling, watercolour painting, wellbeing

Monday Matters: Creating a ‘Words Of Encouragement’ spread to help you get through tough times

This month, I moved into a new bullet journal – a gorgeous handcrafted linen notebook from Notebook Therapy. The journal is completely blank so I set up the usual index, future log and grid spacing cheat sheet. Then I decided that I wanted to create a spread which was full of messages of support and encouragement to help me whilst I’m struggling with my mental health. The idea is that I read all of the positive content each morning a bit like you would a list of affirmations. It took me quite a while to make but I’m really pleased with how it turned out so I thought I’d share the results on here and talk a little about the process.

Creating the background

A watercolour wash

I wanted something bright and cheerful for the background so I decided to create a wet on wet variegated wash using just two of my Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolour tubes – cadmium red and gamboge yellow hue. I used an A5 piece of Aquafine smooth paper and taped the edges down so I got nice clean lines. After coating the paper with water, I swished the first colour back and forth from the top to the bottom, leaving gaps between the paint strokes. I then did the same with the second, filling in the gaps but also sweeping over the first colour slightly so that they nicely blended together. I was really pleased with the effect I achieved. When the paint was dry, I removed the tape and then scanned the piece in using my printer/scanner. I then printed it off twice, trimmed the papers so that they would fit perfectly in my bullet journal and stuck them in using double sided tape.

Finding the supportive messages

When I’d created my backgrounds and stuck them in, it was time to find some messages to stick on the pages. I spent a while thinking about what I’m struggling with at the moment and some words of positivity that I could focus on. So, for example, I’m being really hard on myself and self critical so I chose a ‘be kind to yourself’ message and a quote about being enough. Most of the images were found online by typing them into an image search (a lot of them are actually phone wallpapers cropped to size). I also got a few from a Tim Holtz Small Talk idea-ology sticker book but you could just as easily type onto plain paper and cut and stick them. I created a MS Publisher document to add the images to and cropped them and altered the size until they would all fit into the double page spread. I then printed them onto an A4 sticker sheet to make it easier to stick them in but you could easily use an A4 sheet of paper and cut them out using a paper trimmer.

What you choose to put in your spread or board would depend on the particular difficulties you’re facing. For example, you might need some confidence boosters, help with dealing with anxiety, messages to encourage you to manage your depression or some little reminders about positive body image and loving the skin you’re in. Here’s some ideas to get you started:

Confidence boosting – You’ve got this. You’re more powerful than you think. Inhale confidence. Exhale doubt. Believe in yourself. Self confidence is a super power. Once you start believing in yourself magic starts happening. I can and I will.

For dealing with anxiety – Everything is going to be alright. I can’t control everything and that’s okay. I am stronger than my struggles. Just breathe. My anxiety does not control me.

Managing depression – I am strong. I can get through this. Life is tough but so are you. Keep going. I’m enough. Stay positive. Choose to be grateful. Think positive and positive things will happen. Everything’s going to be okay.

Body positivity – Happy, beautiful and strong. Your body loves you. Love it back. My body. My goals. My happiness. Be kind to your body. All bodies are good bodies.

Final words

I made a spread in my bullet journal because it’s somewhere I look every day. However, if you’re not into bullet journaling, you could just as easily create a board out of a piece of coloured card to go up on your wall or some other place to look each morning. As an alternative to searching online, you might choose to use post it notes to write messages to yourself or cut small pieces of paper and use brightly coloured pens for your reminders. The most important thing is to make sure you look at what you’ve made frequently so you can try to take on board the supportive statements.

I hope you have found today’s post interesting and it’s inspired you to have a go at creating a similar ‘Words of encouragement’ spread. Let me know in the comments what you think you would benefit from telling yourself each day.