Posted in bird feeding, bird spotting, bird watching, conservation, gardening, nature, wildlife

Monday Matters: The simple joy of feeding and watching garden birds in wintertime

Winter is a difficult time for birds due to the shortage of food sources, long and cold nights and shorter days. By nightfall, they need to have eaten enough to give them energy to keep warm and survive until morning when the process of searching for food starts all over again. Providing food sources in your garden is a great way to help nature and feel as though you are making a difference.

Photo credit: Amee Fairbank Brown for Unsplash

I like to think that our garden is a wildlife friendly as possible and I’m always in search of new ideas to keep visitors happy and well fed. I know that many of my readers are nature and wildlife lovers too, so this week, I thought I’d explain how feeding and observing birds in your garden helps to boost your mental health and also share my top tips for looking after birds in wintertime.

Whether you sit outside all wrapped up with a warm drink or you observe through the window, watching the birds feeding and exploring your garden can have a huge impact on your mental health and wellbeing. Here’s some benefits that we can all enjoy:

Watching the birds is a mindful and meditative activity which makes you feel calm and relaxed. Whether indoors or outside, you are required to sit very still and quiet, away from distractions such as your mobile phone (and all of the must-read notifications which constantly pop up!). If you can, and the weather allows, I recommend wrapping up in your biggest coat with hat, gloves and chunky scarf (plus optional coffee, milky tea or hot chocolate), so you can sit in your garden. This way, you can be totally immersed in nature and use more of your senses, so, as well as observing what’s going on, you can also listen to the various sounds of the birds and other noises in your immediate environment or further away. During this time, you may also become aware of different sensations such as a gentle breeze on your face, the chill of your cold ears, the warmth of your mug seeping through your gloves or the supportiveness of your choice of seat. And, because you are involved in all of this sensory exploration, you’re not thinking about your never-ending to-do list and all of the other stresses of the modern world.

Getting outdoors in the wintertime ensures you get some much-needed fresh air and a dose of vitamin D from a natural source. Fresh air can improve your wellbeing in lots of ways including clearing your airways and lungs, strengthening your immune system, improving your digestion and giving you more energy (which also helps to sharpen your mind). Vitamin D is essential for boosting your brain and immune system and strengthening your bones. Obviously, the amount of sunlight changes from day-to-day, but personally, I think getting out in nature provides a mood boost even on the dullest of days.

Bird feeding and watching can give you a real sense of achievement. From learning to identify the birds you spot and beginning to recognise their various calls and songs, to attracting different species to your garden or yard as you increase your feeding options and even developing the skills to use binoculars or take photographs using a DSLR camera. There’s so many opportunities and I guarantee it’ll boost your self-esteem too.

Something else which will make you feel good about yourself is knowing that you’re doing your bit for wildlife conservation in your local area. Creating a haven for birds in your garden and generally making it a wildlife friendly zone is a great way to help on an individual basis.

Above all, bird watching can be absolutely fascinating and great fun. When you stop what you’re doing and really look at the birds, it’s so interesting to see their comings and goings and how they behave. You might first see a little dunnock flicking its tail as it shuffles along the ground, hoovering up crumbs fallen from the feeders. A short time later, you might spot a visiting blue tit carefully extract one single seed and then take it back to the safety of their chosen branch to enjoy in peace and comfort. Watching a solitary blackbird as it traverses your lawn will show you how it tilts it head to listen carefully for worms underground and then uses its sharp beak to extract its prize from the earth. You might also see how it defends its territory by chasing away other small birds from its garden of choice. Whichever birds your garden attracts, I can almost guarantee they’ll provide good entertainment and bring you feelings of joy!

And if you don’t have a garden, watching and feeding birds in your local park is also great too – just be careful about the kind of food you provide, for example pre-mixed bird seed is a good source of nutrients for garden/woodland birds, whereas white bread isn’t a particularly health option for them. If you combine your bird spotting with a nice brisk walk you can really maximise the health benefits of your time outdoors!

Top tips for bird feeding and watching

Get a basic field guide

Whether you’re new to bird watching or have a little experience, a basic field guide for garden birds is a great resource. This will provide pictures of common and slightly more obscure garden visitors as well as information about what makes each of them unique. This might include size, body shape, plumage colours and patterns, tail shape, length and patterning, and other defining characteristics. Many of them will also discuss geographic range, migratory patterns of specific birds, breeding patterns and behaviours to look out for.

Be patient – birds are careful and cautious customers

When you first start to create a haven for birds, you’ll need to be very patient. Birds have evolved to be incredibly careful as it maximises their chance of survival. A few years ago we replaced our bird bath as the current one which was coated metal got a hole in it (we thought that over enthusiastic birds were flicking most of the water out each day!). This time we’d chosen a weighty ceramic version in a shiny mid grey which we excitedly placed in the garden in the same spot as the previous one. However, despite the fact that my husband and I thought the new bath looked smart and attractive, it was several weeks before any of our feather friends showed even a slight interest in it and at least a month before they would actually linger and have a wash in it!

Keep an observational journal

Anyone who knows me or regularly reads my blog will know I love journalling and memory keeping. I like to make my own traveler’s notebook inserts and use them to record anything and everything. However, I’ve recently picked out a garden journal for my husband to get me for Christmas and I thought it would be a nice idea to record my garden bird spots in it, particularly any unusual observations. For example, one snowy January, I saw a group of redwings perching in the ivy on our bottom fence and a few weeks later, my husband spotted a nocturnal bird poking its long beak into the snow in search of food. It turned out it to be a woodcock – our first sighting, and so far, our last! Your journal could simply be a place to record the name of the bird and when you saw it, but you could also get creative adding photographs, sketches or even watercolour paintings.

Think about meal provision for all – cater for picky eaters and those who aren’t as fussed

Some birds, such ss goldcrests, are quite picky eaters, and feed mainly on small insects and spiders. Others, such as blackbirds will include a large range of foods in their diet such as worms, spiders, berries, dried fruits, sunflower hearts, oatmeal and suet pellets. I’ve even seen the ones who visit out garden grabbing the odd water louse from our wildlife pond! If you look at different bird mixes available, they usually suggest which individuals they’re designed to attract. Over time, you could add different feeders – we have seed feeders, fat balls, peanuts (inside a mesh feeder to prevent whole nuts from being extracted) and a wooden table for birds who prefer open feeding and a place for kitchen scraps and fruit.

Go heavy on fatty foods

Talking of different types of food, birds need plenty of high fat stuff during cold winter weather so that they are able to maintain their fat reserves to keep them warm during frosty nights. This can include pre-made fat balls, suet cakes and bars or you can make your own – check out these instructions on the RSPB website. Warning: fat from cooking is bad for birds because the consistency of it makes it prone to smearing on feathers which can destroy waterproofing and insulating qualities.

Supplement with kitchen scraps

Feeding garder birds doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby. Many kitchen scraps that get thrown away can provide a suitable meal. We tend to stick with seed mixes, peanuts and fat balls but this information from the RSPB has given my husband and I food for thought!

Adjust to the demand

When you first start feeding the birds, you may only have a small number of customers visiting your garden or you may find that limited species choose to come. Always adjust the quantity of food to the demand. Also, try to put the provisions out at the same time each day so that the visitors can learn your feeding routine.

Maintain good hygiene

It’s really important to regularly clean your bird feeders, drinking containers and bird tables to keep them disease free. If you don’t maintain good hygiene standards you may be doing the visiting birds more harm than good. Check out this online resource from the RSPB which has lots of tips on keeping your birds healthy.

Provide water as well as food

Water is vital to a bird’s survival so you should make sure you provide drinking and bathing facilities for your feathered friends. This could be via a purpose-built bird bath, a water tray, shallow pot or a hanging water dispenser. For bathing, birds only need a small depth of water as the purpose it to get their feathers wet rather than drenching themselves. During the depths of winter, when it gets super cold, you might need to check on the receptacles to see if they are frozen and then gently defrost them. Be sure not to use really hot water or you might crack the container.

Consider planting for birds

Although late Autumn and the depths of winter aren’t usual time for planting, if you want to attract birds to your garden across the seasons and for years to come, it’s worth thinking about the plants you choose. Native wildflowers, sunflowers, asters, black eyed susans, echinacea (or anything else which has tasty seeds inside) dense bushes and those which produce fruit (e.g. ceanothus, privet and blackberry) shrubs with berries (e.g. cotoneaster) and trees such as birch or cherry. We haven’t got room for any trees in our garden but there are a few hanging over our plot which get plenty of visitors – I’m sure some of them sit in them watching and waiting for us to add fresh supplies.

Once your plants become established, you should find that even if they get attacked by garden pests such as greenfly or blackfly, the birds should help to keep them at bay for you. For example, we have a rose bush and every year the underside of the leaves gets covered. However, we never use pesticide on it (or indeed any of our garden plants) because a) it’s bad for ecology and biodiversity and b) sparrows and blue tits are regularly seen picking the bugs off. Also, by eliminating green and black fly (AKA aphids), you’re depriving ladybirds of their favourite meal too!

Invest in a wildlife pond

We only have a small garden but, about four years ago we decided to get a mini pond for wildlife. We have at least one resident frog in there but it’s also popular with blackbirds too – they love bathing in there and drinking the water (there are lots of water hoglouse in there and we think they pick them out of the water and gobble them up too!). Our night-time visiting hedgehogs also love to wash down the biscuits we put out for them (that is if a visiting mouse hasn’t stolen them before they arrive!).

Final words…

When I used to volunteer for the RSPB and worked with schools exploring nature, the teacher’s used to often ask me when it was important to feed the birds. My advice was that food can become scarce at any time of year, depending on the weather conditions, so it’s best to put something out all year but then ramp up the provisions to include a wider variety of options during the wintertime.

I hope today’s post has encouraged you to give bird watching and feeding a go this wintertime. If it has, let me know how you get on. One final idea is to take a few photos of your feeding provision each year so you can see how your garden develops over time. My husband and I love looking at images taken over the years – even if they’re just quick snaps of different spaces. All too often, we’ve forgotten how tiny some of our plants were when we first set them and how big they’ve grown!

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Posted in compassion, lifestyle, meditation, mental health, Mindfulness, self care, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Wheel Of Wellness – Spiritual

This week, in my series on The Wheel Of Wellness, I’ll be looking at the Spiritual segment. This section, which is the last to be covered, is all about finding life’s meaning and purpose whilst developing understanding of your personal values, beliefs and morals and using these to guide your actions and inform your way of living. Spiritual wellness does not necessarily involve being a deeply religious person or believing in the supernatural, rather, it is related to the human spirit or soul, as opposed to material or physical things.

A focus on spirituality involves learning to be more self-aware and recognising our existence in time and space. It’s also about becoming more familiar with our personal beliefs and values and how they affect the way we live and what we see as our purpose in life.

We all have a spirit within us which is constantly guiding us, looking after us and showing us the way to go. When we start to tune in to and listen to our inner voice, we’re using our spirit, and this is what can help us to lead a life in keeping with our wants, desires and passions. Connecting with our spiritual side can also help us to feel happier and healthier which I’m sure is something we all want.

Ways in which you can connect to your spiritual self

There are a number of ways in which you can really tune in to your spirit and think about what you really want for yourself and your life.

Quieten the mind – meditation is a great practice to develop but other mindful practices include writing in a daily journal, doing relaxing breathing exercises, taking a walk in nature, doing a meditative activity such as drawing, painting or colouring in, stretching exercises such as yoga, Pilates or mindful movements and praying.

Practise gratitude – identify a number of positives in your life each day, expressing and reflecting on them

Take a Mindful approach – focusing your awareness on the present moment, whilst calmly acknowledging and accepting your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations is at the core of mindfulness as is a great way of becoming more in tune with your spiritual side.

Consider your personal values – values identify what is important to you in your life and how you wish to interact with the world. When your actions align with your core values you will immediately start to feel more content, fulfilled and satisfied. To help you do this, I’ve created a Pinterest board full of links to core values lists and related activities – try scanning the pages to see what resonates with you. You’ll see so many different ideas and the ones which you choose to add to your personal list will influence your decisions and life choices in many ways including:

  • your job or career path
  • your hobbies and pastimes
  • where you live
  • how you manage your money
  • your friendships, romantic partners and relationships
  • where you shop
  • compromises we are willing to make
  • how we parent our children
  • the ways in which we treat ourselves (both good and bad)

Whilst I was researching this blog post, I came across lots of worksheets, workbooks and exercises to try which focused on your values. One of these invited you to split your values into ‘Valuing myself’, ‘Valuing my relationships’ and ‘Valuing my work’. I had a quick go at this below but added ‘my life’ to the first category:

Valuing myself and my life

compassion, creativity, enthusiasm, open-mindedness, acceptance (self and others), creativity, happiness, health (emotional, physical and mental), learning, intelligence resilience, fun, wellbeing, respect for animals

Valuing my relationships

loyalty, thoughtfulness, love, playfulness, understanding, usefulness and humour

Valuing my work

contribution, commitment, professionalism, achievement, work/life balance

Spend time reflecting on your beliefs – these may have a religious focus or might be related to your core values. Examples of non-religious beliefs could be:

  • family comes first
  • we must take care of our planet
  • honesty is the best policy
  • everything happens for a reason
  • work/life balance is a priority
  • I should always try my best
  • community service is a central part of life
  • the different phases of the moon have particular influences on my life
  • breaking a mirror gives you seven years bad luck

Think about your dreams – not the ones you had in bed over the past few weeks, but your deepest desires and wishes. As part of this, you could do some journalling or have a go at creating a vision board. Afterwards, you might spend time reflecting on small but positive life changes that you could make right now to help you work towards these dreams.

Final thoughts…

Cultivating spirituality has many benefits for your physical and mental health and wellbeing. Getting to know your true self can help you begin to live in alignment with your core values and beliefs which is fundamental for a long and happy life. Psychologically, spiritual practices can develop your understanding of your inner self, leading to a greater sense of purpose. They can help you to think positively and clearly, lower your risk of stress, anxiety and depression and generally give you a better outlook on life. Physically, being more connected to your spiritual side can improve your immune system, help you to fight off illnesses, lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. It can also help you to make better choices in terms of diet and find other ways of looking after your body and your mind, for example by exercising regularly and finding time to relax. The peace and calmness we invite into our lives can also help us to get a restful night’s sleep.

I hope you have found today’s post useful and have enjoyed learning about The Wheel Of Wellness over the last few months. I would love to hear about your hopes, dreams and ambitions for the future and the ways in which you think you can bring these into fruition. In keeping with having an open mind, I’m currently learning about the magic of using the phases of the moon as a tool to develop self-awareness, self-care, nourishment and empowerment to live with purpose and to manifest my deepest wants and desires for life. You’ll see in my next blog post, in which I share my October bullet journal spreads, that this has inspired my theme for next month and provided me with lots of ideas.

Posted in lifestyle, mental health, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Wheel of Wellness – Emotional

This week, as part of my series on the Wheel of Wellness, I’ll be covering the emotional segment. This section of the wheel is all about your feelings and includes how well you are able to identify, manage and engage with your emotions and how successfully you can deal with any emotional challenges which arise from time to time.

In the Oxford Dictionary online, emotion is defined in two ways:

  1. a strong feeling derived from one’s circumstances, mood or relationships with others.
  2. instinctive or intuitive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge.

Assessing your emotional wellness

The following are some signs of good emotional wellbeing that you can use to assess your current health in the area.

  • you feel good about yourself and who you are
  • you have feelings of contentment most of the time
  • you treat others well, showing them compassion and understanding (if you do this, you are most likely to treat yourself well, if you are critical of others, you will likely have a tendency to be harsh and critical towards yourself)
  • you feel you have a good support network e.g. you have friends / family or colleagues that you are able to open up to and a sense that there are people in your life who care about you
  • you are able to rest and relax (including being able to wind down for good sleep)
  • you are able to assert yourself, recognising that your opinions are valid and being able to say no when you need to without feeling guilty
  • you consider yourself to be someone who manage stress well
  • awareness of the main signs of poor emotional health – anger (which presents itself in various ways, including irritability, short temper, being argumentative), feeling hopeless (feeling low / depressed, helpless, worthless, seeing small things as ‘the end of the World’, not being able to see things are capable of change etc), losing interest in activities you used to enjoy, becoming socially distant, poor levels of productivity, blaming others for your mistakes and failings and repeatedly having trouble in relationships (friends, family and romantic partners)
  • flexibility – you are able to change and adapt well to different circumstances
  • you are able to name and embrace all of your emotions (such as sadness, anger, joy, fear, excitement etc) as a natural part of who you are (rather than suppressing or ignoring them
  • you lead a purposeful life (do you feel that you use your strengths to your advantage to make a difference?) (see my post on Occupational wellness for more on this)
  • you are grateful for many things in your life (particularly for people and situations in your life rather than just your possessions)
  • you value your experiences more than you value your possessions
  • you regularly engage in self-care activities such as doing activities which make you happy, using breathing techniques to help you stay calm or calm yourself when anxious, practising mindfulness, journalling about how you are feeling, showing yourself plenty of compassion, developing a regular meditation practice, scheduling ‘me time’ into your day, do something altruistic and explore how you feel as a result.

Some ideas for improving your emotional health

  1. Make sure you’ve got the basics right – eat healthily with occasional treats, get enough quality sleep, move your body on a daily basis and use vices in moderation (e.g. alcohol, social media, junk food etc). If you think you need to make changes in one or more of these areas, try setting yourself small, achievable targets and celebrate all of your achievements.
  2. Try CBT. If you think you need to learn more about your emotions and how they affect you, CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) is really beneficial for many people. There are plenty of books on the subject but it’s best if you work through your particular issues with a trained therapist.
  3. Make use of self help resources. A book that I’m currently reading which I’m finding super useful is ‘Why has Nobody Told Me This Before’ by Dr Julie Smith. I spend around half an hour reading each morning after breakfast and I always have a Mildliner highlighter pen at hand to mark up anything which especially resonates with me. The website https://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/ has lots of resources which might prove to be useful too.
  4. Develop a daily reflective journalling habit – spending 5 or 10 minutes each evening recording how you feel your day went is a great way to record events and interactions with others and explore how they affected you emotionally. When you’ve finished writing, spend a few minutes considering what you wrote thinking about the decisions you made, whether the experience was positive or negative, what you can learn from what happened and what you might do differently next time.
  5. Become familiar with ‘Unhelpful thinking styles’ and use them to identify and rationalise particular thoughts you have. Type the above phrase into Google or YouTube to learn about them and consider which particularly resonate with you. Once you know about them, you’ll start to recognise them cropping up in your day-to-day life. You can then begin to challenge them and create more helpful alternatives (a trusted friend or therapist can help with this too).
  6. Be realistic when you’re not feeling 100% – There will be certain times of the year when you’re not feeling quite yourself, maybe you’re feeling under the weather, perhaps you’re stressed out at work or you’re planning an event or holiday which is taking up lots of your time and making you feel super busy. Or, like me, you might have a mood disorder which causes you periods of difficulty. Whatever the cause, it’s important to look after yourself during these times (ramp up the self care and self compassion) and definitely lower the expectations you place on yourself. Also, don’t be afraid to say no if you feel like something will be too much for you right now.
  7. Start a self-care routine for your emotions – this could include meditation, mindful movements or stillness, yoga, Pilates, stretches or different breathing exercises to calm your body and your mind. If you keep a bullet journal like me, a great idea is to create a page of self-care ideas (with pictures/doodles if you want) as a reminder of all of the things you can try.
  8. Remember some things are outside of your control – there are many things in life that happen to you which you can’t change e.g. the loss of a loved one, a global pandemic, a health diagnosis etc, but we can choose how we respond to those circumstances, e.g. by being kind, self-compassionate, hopeful and accepting.
  9. Reach out – if you’re feeling lonely, down or isolated, seek out supportive family members, friends, colleagues, online or in person support groups to let people know that you are struggling. Also, try to find out what is going on in your local community so you can seek out social connections. If the thought of social interactions makes you feel anxious right now, try to choose one of the options that feels easiest such as inviting a friend over for coffee or chatting to someone via text message or on the phone.
  10. Set clear boundaries and learn to say no. If you say yes to things that you really don’t feel like doing or you don’t have time for, it can lead to feelings of anger, resentment or overwhelm. In her book which I mentioned above, she explains about ‘people pleasing’ “We say yes when actually what we want and need is to say no. We feel resentful of being taken advantage of but unable to change it by asking for anything different. On the other hand, having clear boundaries makes you feel in control and is a way of showing yourself respect. Being assertive can be difficult for some of us, especially during periods of mental illness, so it’s a good idea to develop your skills when your mood is stable. Only say yes to what matters to you the most such as a get together with close family and friends, learning opportunities or new challenges at work which will further develop your skills or increase your knowledge (but not too far from your comfort zone!). There’s a wealth of information online about assertiveness (some better than others) so if you need help in this area or want to know more about what it means to be assertive, try checking out NHS resources such as this one which includes a very useful download, worksheets and information on www.getselfhelp.co.uk and this article from lifehack.org. Again, qualified CBT therapists can help with assertiveness too.
  11. Read up on emotional resilience – emotional resilience is the ability to adapt to stressful situations and cope with life’s ups and downs. You can learn about it and develop the associated skills in books, online, with a therapist or through doing a course at a local recovery college like I did.
  12. Go outside – studies have shown that being in nature has powerful effects on our mind, body and soul. There’s lots of ways to fit in some time outdoors including taking a walk in your lunchbreak, enjoying your morning coffee in the garden or wandering through your local park or woodland at the end of a busy day.

Final words…

Thank you for taking the time to read today’s blog post. I hope you have found it useful and are thinking about trying some of the ideas I mentioned. Let me know in the comments if you think your emotional health is quite strong or if you feel it’s an area you need to work on. As always, if you have any questions or anything to add, please do get in touch.

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

Monday Matters: Wheel Of Wellness – Occupational

For today’s blog post on The Wheel Of Wellness I’ll be focusing on the Occupational segment. This section is all about finding meaningful ways to occupy your time whether that be doing a job you enjoy and get personal satisfaction from, volunteering your time and services for a particular cause such as a charity, helping the community in some way (either in person or online), raising a family or simply being a good partner / friend / mum or dad / sibling / pet owner etc.

When we think of the term ‘occupation’, our thoughts tend to turn to our job or the way we earn a living. However, some of us, myself included, are currently classed as unemployed (for whatever reason), in education, or are retired, but we still occupy our time in a number of useful ways. So, throughout today’s article, I’ll be talking about occupation in the broadest sense i.e. as a way of spending time, particularly in a manner that is useful for ourselves, our family and friends or our wider community.

Occupational wellness

To maintain occupational wellness, it’s important to consider how what we do impacts on our general health – both physically and mentally. Does your work leave you feeling good about yourself and as though you’re really making a difference or do you dread each and every week, feel constantly exhausted, dissatisfied and undervalued? If you volunteer your time for a good cause, does your line manager thank you regularly and encourage you to recognise the impact you’re are having both on yourself and the organisation or do you feel unappreciated and as though it is a struggle to think of the benefits? If, like me, you’re a blogger, do you get a buzz when someone likes your post, follows you or leaves a nice comment or do you feel like you invest too much time on your writing and have lost your spark? For those of you who are retired, have you adjusted to your circumstances, and are you happy with how you structure your days, or do you feel like you would benefit from making changes which support both your physical and mental health? Whatever you current situation, do you feel well motivated, happy and purposeful or is there room for improvement in this area of your wellness?

My own experience of occupational wellbeing (and lack of)

(N.B. these paragraphs may be triggering for individuals who are currently struggling with their mood in some way or have a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder)

Before my diagnosis of Bipolar disorder, when I was teaching, there were periods of time in my work when I felt on top of the world, superior to most of my colleagues and as though I was making such a difference to the pupils and the school as a whole that I was a complete asset. At other times, I felt demotivated, dreaded each week, struggled to get out of bed and get things done and found my work-life completely unbalanced and unmanageable – drowning both at home and at work. For the rest of the time, I was satisfied with the way my career was going, felt I was becoming better and better at my job and was, along with most of my colleagues making a real difference. I also felt that I was able to manage my workload and had the ability to say ‘no’ when necessary. The swings in mood I was experiencing were exacerbated by occupational / work-related stress but were also heavily affected by a mental health condition that I was unaware I had.

At the time, during a period of severe depression, I was convinced the solution was to give up my job and career and that following handing in my notice, everything would be perfect. I was devastated that this was the answer as I’d wanted to be a primary school teacher from my early childhood but, I was making myself ill and it just couldn’t continue. However, I soon realised that although some aspects of my situation had improved (less stress, better work-life balance, more time for self care for example), my mood swings (although not as severe) continued and I had highs, extreme lows and periods of balance. When I was stable, I would set goals for myself and filled my time in productive ways. I would wake up feeling good and ready to get on with things. When I was depressed, I completely lost my confidence, had extreme anxiety and felt like I was a waste of space and no use to anyone. When I was high (shortly after a depressive episode), I slept very little, was brimming with ideas for what I wanted to do and achieve, flitted from project to project often leaving them half unfinished, spent money on all sorts of items as everything looked attractive and definitely on my want/need list and basically felt like I could take on the world. This eventually caused burn out and resulted in another bout of depression or physical unwellness.

Fast forward a good few years and, although I still have mental health difficulties, a correct diagnosis, medication for my illness, a range of therapies and help from my support worker have put me in a much better place and I’m currently able to manage my moods more easily and occupy my days in useful ways that leave me satisfied and feeling like I’m making a difference (however small). I’m also able to add in mindful and calming activities into my day and can recognise when I need to take breaks and when I might be doing too much.

As some of you who read my blog posts regularly will know, I’m continually working on my physical and mental health in a number of effective ways and I even have paid work lined up with my local university for next month which will make full use of my skillset whilst offering me the opportunity to take a break during any future periods of mental ill health. I also have the chance to work and socialise with other individuals who have physical and/or mental health difficulties so I will feel less alone. For the first time since I resigned from teaching, I feel like my occupational wellness is getting to where it should be.

Asking yourself questions to consider your occupational wellness

I think it’s really important to reflect on the different aspects of your life regularly and consider how things are going. Asking questions can be hugely beneficial. Of course, the assessment questions you ask yourself will differ depending on your current life situation but below I’ve shared some examples which you can pick and choose from depending which are most relevant. You might want to spend some time thinking and considering your answers but another good idea is to make notes or do some journalling so you can deep dive into how things are for you, and evaluate if your needs are being met. This kind of activity is great for self care and building self awareness.

Again, I’ve tried my best to include everyone here but I apologise in advance if you feel like most or all of the questions aren’t relevant to you. If this is the case, you are more than welcome to drop a comment explaining why and I’ll rack my brains and see if I can create a few tailor made question ideas.

  • How would you rate your current happiness and life satisfaction? Why?
  • What is it about your current role or the way you occupy your time that makes you want to get up in the morning?
  • What does an average week / work week look like to you? Does this support your physical and mental health? Why? Why not?
  • Do you feel like your current employment / routine offers opportunities to expand your skills and use your strengths? Why? Why not?
  • If you are a student, do your chosen subjects interest you and are you learning well? Does your degree choice suit you and are you getting the help and support you need to learn? Are you able to study independently? Have you found the right balance between studying and enjoying life?
  • What are your career / life aspirations?
  • What do you feel is important in your life right now? Does your occupation / lifestyle reflect this? If there are areas for improvement, what changes do you think you could make?
  • Do you feel that you’re currently achieving balance between your work and leisure time? Are there any ways you could tweak things?
  • What opportunities do you currently have to use your individual gifts, skills and talents (try making a list of them first if you’re unsure what they are) in order to gain purpose, happiness and enrichment in your life?
  • Does how you currently occupy your time support your physical health? Why? Why not?
  • Does how you currently occupy your time support your mental health? Why? Why not?
  • Can you identify one change you could make to your life right now that would have a positive impact on your physical or mental health? (this could be asking for help rather than taking on all of the responsibility yourself, or simple putting your foot down and saying no!)
  • Social connection is considered important for wellbeing (even during periods of low mood). Can you name the ways you connect with others on a regular basis? Do these connections help or hinder your mental health? Are there any changes you’d like to make in this area to improve your wellbeing? Do you shy away from social situations during periods of depression / anxiety or low mood? Can you think of ways to remain socially connected that seem management during difficult times?
  • How do you manage your work related / family stress and responsibilities? If you struggle in this area, can you think of ways to improve?
  • What’s your current attitude towards life / work? Does this support your health or not? Why?

What about if I’m struggling with depression right now and feel pretty useless?

As someone with bipolar disorder, I have plenty of experience of depressive episodes and recognise the daily struggles. However, what I’ve learnt is that, if you feel like you’ve achieved nothing with your day, it tends to make you feel much worse. For this reason, creating a structure or plan for your time can really help. This might include going to your local recovery college to learn something new, identifying small and achievable tasks to do on each day of the week or planning activities which you know (either now or in the past) have given you a little mood boost such as going for a walk in nature, meeting a friend for coffee or doing something mindful such as colouring in, working on a jigsaw or doing some word puzzles. Then, by bedtime, you can celebrate all of your achievements no matter how tiny they are. And don’t forget, even something like getting out of bed and getting dressed shouldn’t be dismissed! Check out my post on Behavioural Activation if you want more help with making a daily plan.

Final words…

I hope you’ve found today’s blog post interesting or helpful in some way and it has made you think about your occupational wellbeing. I’ve tried to include something for everyone no matter what your current situation as I know my readers are all individual and at different stages of their lives. Let me know in the comments if a question or idea has particularly resonated with you as I love to hear the opinions and thoughts of others.

Until next time, take care.

Posted in depression management, mental health, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: The Wheel Of Wellness – Environmental

Today as part of my Wheel Of Wellness series, I’ll be looking at the environmental segment. Environmental wellness encompasses your immediate physical environments, such as your home, your workspace and social spaces, and the wider environment including nature and how well we look after The World around us.

Dictionary definitions

The online Oxford dictionary defines ‘environment’ in several ways:

  1. the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates.
  2. the natural world, as a whole or in a particular geographical area, especially as affected by human activity.

Today, I’ll be focusing on both of these including creating an atmosphere conducive to a particular activity, such as working, studying, playing or winding down, or a particular mood e.g. productive, restful, cosy, energising, calming etc and enjoying and looking after our natural world.

Built environments

Built environments are spaces created by humans where we live, work and socialise. This can include our home, our office or workspace, cafes, shops, restaurants, workout places such as the gym, fitness rooms and swimming baths, medical settings such as the doctors, hospital or therapy room, and spaces where we get pampered such as the hairdressers and beauty salons.

Our workspace

If like me, you work from home, you can set your workspace up in a way that makes you as efficient and productive as possible, so that everything you need is at hand and you know exactly where to find it. Some essentials for the perfect home working environment include:

  • somewhere quiet where you can focus
  • a sturdy desk and a comfortable and supportive chair – the desk should feel solid and unmoving and your chair should encourage good posture
  • plenty of storage which is appropriate for your needs – e.g. filing cabinet, magazine files, drawers, labelled boxes, small storage containers etc
  • plenty of natural light and task lighting for dull days

I also like to have some art on the walls and a number of my cross stitch pieces framed in my craft room too. This makes the space visually appealing and celebrates my artistic achievements as well. Motivational bits and pieces adorn my personal vision board along with messages such as ‘make everyday count’, ‘you are someone’s reason to smile’ etc. I also have a business vision board on the wall above my Ikea unit which is full of pictures and text related to what matters to me and my goals.

Creating a tidy, well organised space is also something I’m working really hard on but I’m finding this quite difficult due to the volume of craft supplies and the fact that my craft room is very multipurpose (any tips in the comments will be gratefully received on this one!!!).

If you don’t work at home, your workspace is generally dictated by your employer but most places allow you to customise things, e.g. by adding photos of family or friends. You can also ask for resources which make your desk set up as comfortable as possible including an ergonomic keyboard, gel wrist supports, a foot rest or a more supportive chair if you have issues with back pain etc.

With regard to social spaces, you will know yourself which cafes you feel comfortable in and which are suitable for your needs whether you are studying, working, relaxing or catching up with friends or family. The same goes for other public spaces, you evaluate them and make decisions based on the environment and how suitable it is for you personally.

A welcoming and restful home environment

Most, if not all of us, want our home to be a haven where we feel safe, comfortable and able to relax and unwind. Beyond that, the place we live should ideally suit our individual needs and those of our family. Here’s some ideas for making your home personal to you:

  • minimise clutter to create a restful environment (more on this later)
  • choose your favourite colours and patterns you like for decor
  • think about your lighting needs – soft lighting for evenings, task lighting for day time use
  • add plants to cleanse the air and provide other health benefits
  • choose supportive cushions to make your sofa more comfortable (again you can select those which spark the most joy)
  • invest in a mattress for your bed which provides comfort and support and choose pillows which suit how you sleep
  • add cosy throws and/or blankets in your living room and bedroom for chillier times of year
  • depending on summer weather and temperatures, think about fans or air conditioning to make your space more comfortable
  • use curtains and blinds to control the light and the temperature and allow privacy
  • choose pictures and art work which makes you smile or fills you with joy
  • think about how you want your home to smell – add scented candles, incense sticks, diffusers etc in your favourite scents (be careful that these don’t set off any allergies you may have though – I found wax melts to be too potent and they were irritating my throat and my nose!)

Sources of stress in your home environment

It’s important to take steps to minimise the effects of the following stress inducing factors even if you can’t completely control them.

Messy home, messy mind A disorganised and cluttered home is a huge source of stress and can have a really bad impact on your mental health (see below)

Noise pollution e.g. traffic, noisy neighbours, dogs barking, noisy commercial premises etc. can have a dramatic effect on your health and wellbeing. Tips to deal with unavoidable noise pollution include placing a bookcase along a wall which is adjacent to a neighbour to reduce sound from next door, soundproofing windows to block out traffic noise, cover up unwelcome noises by putting on the radio or playing some peaceful sounds e.g. ocean waves, crackling fire, gentle rain etc. During the Summer hanging windchimes next to your window use ear plugs in bed. You should also make sure you are considerate towards your neighbours so they offer the same in return e.g. apologising in advance for disturbance caused by DIY, keeping the volume of the TV, radio and music as low as possible, if you’re having a party or some other form of get together, let your neighbours know in advance and keep the noise to a minimum, if you are a dog owner, talk to your neighbour to fins out how he/she behaves when you are out. Finally, check out your local council website if you want to make a complaint about nuisance noise.

Work stress If you work from home, it’s important to have a dedicated space for work which is not the same place you use for relaxation. This creates not only a physical separation, but also and mental separation too. You should also make sure you start and finish work at a reasonable time and schedule in breaks.

The negative impact of a cluttered home

The word clutter refers to items or collections of things which are strewn about the home in an untidy state. Clutter is generally made up of stuff we haven’t sorted out which has got in a mess, things which don’t have a home so are left lying about and anything you’re keeping which doesn’t bring value to your life. As well as not being great to look at, clutter can have a negative effect on your mental and physical health, and your relationships with others. Here’s some of the key problems:

  1. Clutter promotes confusion – in other words, you feel like you can’t think clearly, focus or make decisions
  2. Clutter causes stress – it diverts your attention away from what you want to be focusing on, it clouds your thought processes, makes you feel anxious and full of guilt about the situation/mess you find yourself in
  3. Clutter can cause accidents – if you have items all over your house there are lots of trip hazards, surfaces covered in stuff can also mean that things get knocked off and broken, you could also end up standing on things and breaking them too!
  4. Clutter makes you eat more – a study found that people who live in a cluttered environment tend to overeat or binge eat more than those who have a well organised home
  5. Clutter affects your mood – a house in chaos can make you feel drained and unhappy, it can even make you feel like a failure. A well ordered home, however, makes you feel full of pride and creates feelings of ease and happiness.
  6. Clutter steals your time – if your house in full of stuff which is left lying about you’ll spend time thinking about things every time you look at them. you’re also likely to lose things and spend time each day searching through the mess e.g. for lost car keys, important papers that need your attention and anything that wasn’t put away when you’d finished with it.
  7. Clutter affects your relationships – Clutter can make communication with family members more difficult as it constantly distracts you, leading to poor concentration and an inability to interpret facial expressions and emotions of those around you. It can also make you feel more isolated as feeling ashamed of the state of your home can stop you from invited friends and family round.

Keeping your home clean and tidy during periods of low mood or depression

During periods of low mood or depression, you may lack the energy or motivation to keep up with day-to-day chores. However, having a messy and unclean home will only make you feel worse. At these times, pushing yourself to do a few small tasks each day can really help to boost your mood and give you a sense of achievement. You might find my post on behavioural activation useful to help you set some very small goals each day. Here’s a few tips:

  • keep up with small tasks so they don’t become big ones e.g. wash the breakfast dishes and wipe out the sink rather than letting things pile up and feel unmanageable, wipe the bathroom sink and shower out after each use, vacuum a room each day rather than trying to do the whole house at once and not being able to face it
  • use the Behavioural Activation method to set small goals each day – you might want to do this with a family member or friend so they can offer you support and encouragement
  • when planning your behavioural activation tasks, think about the best time of day to do each one, evaluate how you feel after completing each chore and use this to set future goals e.g. if you became overwhelmed with dusting the furniture in your bedroom, just focus on cleaning one item
  • remember you are unwell right now so you should lower your standards a lot and celebrate every tiny achievement, if something doesn’t get done, it will keep for another day
  • ask for help – if you’re really struggling, don’t be ashamed if you need to ask for help from a family member or friends – two sets of hands are usually better than one

Time in nature

Time spent in green spaces interacting with natural elements such as air, water and sunlight as well as getting up close to plants and wildlife helps nurture our minds and bodies. Here’s some ideas for enjoying nature:

  • Use Google maps to locate nearby nature reserves or parks – enjoy a stroll and maybe do some bird spotting too
  • have a brisk woodland walk and watch the sun as it peeps through the trees
  • feel the sand between your toes at the beach and listen to the sound of the waves
  • spend some time in the sunshine to elevate your energy levels and boost your mood (wear sunscreen as appropriate)
  • go for a wildflower walk (we like using the Seek app to identify our finds)
  • feel the cool breeze on your face in the back garden as you relax and read your favourite magazine
  • spend an hour or two gardening – try creating a multisensory space using grasses, herbs and other scented plants
  • try foraging – check out The Woodland Trust’s guide

Not only does being out in nature allow for a slower pace, it also helps you to feel connected to something larger than yourself.

Caring for the environment (being green or eco friendly)

Green symbolises our natural environment and planet Earth and the terms ‘being green’ or ‘eco friendly’ mean living your life in a sustainable way, ensuring our activities recognise that nature needs to be looked after and that it is important to conserve our resources. Here’s some ideas:

  • reduce waste – e.g. avoid plastic single use bags, use a reuseable bottle or cup for beverages on the go, check out love food hate waste for some great tips
  • recycle – make good use of your recycling bin for glass, plastic, paper and cardboard and also, try to choose products which come in less packaging, avoiding none recyclable plastic if possible
  • conserve water – if possible shower rather than a bath and limit the time you spend in there, wait until your laundry bin is full before doing a wash, turn off the tap whilst brushing your teeth, water your plants early morning or late in the evening to give your garden a good drink and prevent evaporation, install a water butt to collect rainwater, run the dishwasher when full or wash small amounts of dishes by hand, only boil what you need for your hot drinks, saucepan or stock jug, try steaming your veggies (it retains more of the nutrients as well as saving water) check your plumbing regularly for leaks
  • save energy – turn off lights when not needed, draught proof windows and doors, wash at 30 degrees, take a 4 minute shower (not so easy if like me you have long hair and need to shave your legs but at least try to cut down), avoid using your tumble dryer, swap your bath for a shower, seek out advice about insulating your home and make some changes
  • repurpose things you no longer want or need – search ‘creative recycling’ on Pinterest (a few years ago my husband turned an old wooden CD storage crate into a really great bug hotel by filling the different sections with pine cones, dried leaves, chopped up bits of bamboo, collections of twigs from the garden and pieces of wood offcuts with holes drilled in)
  • upcycle – this is where you reuse objects or material in a way that adds value or makes something higher quality. Check out these tips for beginners
  • shop in charity shops – find one off pieces or nearly new things at a fraction of the price, give money to a good cause and help the environment all at the same time

Final thoughts…

I hope you have enjoyed reading today’s post and it’s helped you consider your environmental wellness. Personally, I would like to focus on dealing with clutter in my home as I know it is having a detrimental effect on my mental health. I’m also aware that I need to start small so that I don’t become overwhelmed and make myself feel worse. Let me know in the comments if anything has struck a cord with you and it has given you some ideas going forward.