Posted in Health and Nutrition, life hacks, lifestyle, meditation, mental health, self care, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Wheel Of Wellness – Physical – Part 2: Sleep

For the second part of the Physical element of The Wheel Of Wellness I will today be looking at the importance of quality sleep to maintain good physical and mental health. I’ve previously published a couple of blog posts on the topic of sleep namely 5 ways to get better sleep tonight and 5 things to do in the evening to ensure a restful night’s sleep and a productive next day which you may like to have a read of as well. Many people have issues with their sleep for one reason or another and if you’re one of them, you might want to prioritise this area of the wellness wheel and spend some time learning about the effect that sleep (or lack of) affects your body and your life and pick up some tips on how to manage this aspect of your physical health.

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep has a huge impact on our health and wellbeing throughout our lives. Anyone who has ever had difficulty sleeping will know that the quality and quantity of our slumber dramatically affects our mind, body, general quality of life and our safety. While you are sleeping, your body is actively working and preparing you for the next day.

The following is a list of the basic functions of sleep which illustrate the importance of a good night’s kip:

  • physical restoration
  • mood regulation
  • cleaning the brain of toxins
  • information processing and memorization (committing things to memory for later recall, the storing of visual, auditory or tactical information)
  • strengthening the immune system

In children and teens, sleep also supports growth and development.

In addition, further benefits of quality sleep include:

  • better heart health
  • stress reduction
  • generally makes you feel more alert throughout the day
  • can help you lose weight (you’re less likely to crave high sugar or junk foods)
  • reduced risk of anxiety and depression
  • improved appearance – healthy, glowing skin (versus dark circles under eyes, dehydrated complexion, breakouts and redness from lack of sleep, plus comments from friends and family along the lines of “you look like ****)
  • better concentration (hopefully leading to improved productivity)
  • better decision making
  • stronger immune system (so less likely to get ill / feel run down etc)
  • boosted creativity (better ideas and use of imagination)
  • better motoric response (including quicker reactions)
  • enhanced sporting performance
  • reduced risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke and obesity
  • better emotional regulation (meaning amongst other things that you’re more likely to get along with others and less likely to become overwhelmed by your feelings)

Sleep and wakefulness is controlled by two biological processes: Sleep Homeostasis, commonly known as ‘sleep pressure’ and The Circadian rhythm, otherwise known as ‘the body clock’.

What is sleep pressure?

Sleep pressure is basically, the brain’s desire and need for sleep. The more time you’ve been awake for, the greater the sleep pressure. When you wake up in the morning, you should have very little need for sleep (if you’ve had a good night) so sleep pressure is very low. As we get on with our day, the sleep pressure begins to grow so that by evening time sleep pressure is much higher, making us feel sleeping and in need of our beds! By morning, following a good night’s sleep, our sleep pressure will have reset and be back to little or no desire for further sleep.

In order to make sure that we have the right amount of sleep pressure present by bed time, we should really make sure that we get up and go to bed at the same time each day. However, I know that a lot of people will have a lie in on a weekend, which tends to make it difficult to switch off and sleep on a Sunday night (especially if Sunday night dread is at play). Taking naps should also be avoided as this can reduce sleep pressure too. If you absolutely must have a nap, tried to take it before 3pm and make sure it lasts for less than one hour.

What is meant by the term Circadian rhythm AKA our ‘body clock’?

Like all living things, humans have a circadian rhythm which is the brain’s way of aligning the body with the environment. Our sleep/wake cycle follows this 24 hour rhythm. During the day, exposure to light helps us to feel alert, awake and active. As night/darkness falls our internal body clock starts to produce melatonin, a hormone which promotes sleep.

You can help promote a healthy circadian rhythm by seeking natural light (sunshine) during the day, getting some daily exercise, avoiding caffeinated drinks after mid-day, limiting light before bed and having a set bed time / wake up routine which prepares the body for sleep at night and encourages wakefulness first thing in the morning. I’ll discuss some of these in more detail later.

Creating the right bedroom environment

It’s really important to create a comfortable and relaxing environment in your bedroom to help you fall asleep quickly and easily. We invested in a ‘posturepedic’ mattress which is pocket sprung with a latex top. We’ve had it for years and it’s still completely supportive and so comfortable. Every time we go on holiday, we always look forward to being back in our own bed! The best sheets and pillowcases we’ve found for softness and durability are bamboo ones. An added bonus for us is that they’re breathable and hypoallergenic too.

Your bedroom should also be nice and dark as the absence of light sends a signal to your body that it’s time to get some rest. A nice thick pair of curtains or light blocking blinds are essential for this (we have blinds and lined curtains which allow just enough morning light to help us wake up). Some people also like to wear a sleep mask to block out light and these are also good for shift workers who are in bed during the day.

Other essentials for a calm and relaxing space include as little clutter as possible and a quiet environment to minimise distractions. Just the right room temperature – not too hot and not too cold is also helpful for inducing sleep (experts recommend around 18.3 degrees Celsius / 65 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal). Some people also swear by lavender as a soothing and sedating scent but I find it sets my allergies off which is certainly not sleep inducing!

Sleep experts also suggest that your bedroom should be strictly for two purposes only – sleeping and sexual activity. This means it should not be used for:

  • eating, drinking or smoking
  • dealing with bills, reading letters or any form of paperwork
  • using technology or looking at screens e.g. TV, mobile phone, laptop, tablet etc.

I also like to read fiction books on my Kindle Paperwhite in bed but I do find that as long as the screen is pretty dim, I become really sleepy after a couple of chapters. If you feel that reading certain books stimulate your brain too much, bedtime reading may be best avoided.

Diet and sleep

Most people know that caffeine isn’t good for sleep due to the stimulants it contains so if you have trouble sleeping, it’s best not to drink coffee or other caffeinated drinks such as cola, sports and energy drinks for at least 4 hours before bed. Having a large meal before bed is also likely to keep you awake as your body will still be digesting the food. Also, you may find yourself suffering from indigestion or acid reflux if you eat or drink too late. If you do find yourself craving a late evening snack a small amount of nuts, a banana or a small bowl of oatmeal with berries should be safe to eat.

Alcohol is well known to cause a slowing of brain activity and make you feel relaxed and sleepy but beware that the consumption of alcoholic beverages, especially in excess has been shown to cause poor quality sleep and shorter duration so you may find yourself waking up repeatedly in the night or not feeling very refreshed in the morning. Night-time drinking may also result in acid reflux too!

A good daily routine to help you sleep

Throughout the day, it’s important to get as much natural light as you can. This could include working next to a window, taking regular outdoor breaks during the day e.g. sitting in the garden with your morning cuppa and having an al fresco lunch. Obviously this is more difficult during the Winter months but even short walks outside, maybe with a nice, hot drink can make all the difference.

Exercise (or being active) including aerobic workouts, resistance training and yoga during the day can also help with sleep. Just make sure you don’t do anything which elevates your pulse rate for at least 3 hours before bed.

In the evening time, it’s a good idea to do relaxing activities which can calm the body and the mind. This could include listening to some soothing music, reading a book, doing some meditation, writing in your journal to help put the day to rest (see my 5 ways to get better sleep tonight for an explanation of how), enjoy a warm bath or hot shower.

If you regularly struggle to sleep, something you should definitely try is avoiding using electronic devices for at least an hour before bed. This is helpful for two reasons – one, a lot of online content can be mentally or emotionally stimulating (including emails) and two, the light that these devices emit can affect your body clock by increasing alertness and delaying the release of melatonin. If you must use your phone, at least set the blue light filter or night time mode to come on after around 7pm.

What if I find myself wide awake in bed?

After approximately 20 minutes of lying awake (estimate this, do not use your clock), you should get up out of bed and leave the bedroom. Either do something boring or something really relaxing (not something stimulating (no looking at your phone!) until you start to feel tired, and then go back to bed. If you’re not asleep after another estimated 20 minutes, get up again and repeat the process. If this happens regularly, spend some time during the day assessing what you think might be causing the problem and try making some changes to your routine.

A word about sleep disorders

There are a number of sleep disorders which can seriously affect the quality of your sleep. Some of the common ones are:

  • Sleep walking / talking
  • Nightmares / night terrors
  • Sleep apnoea (obstructed airway)
  • Sleep paralysis (a temporary inability to move that occurs right after falling asleep or waking up)
  • Hypnogogia / Hypnopompia (hallucinations occurring as you wake up or fall asleep)

If you suspect that you may be struggling with any of the above, it’s really important to speak to your GP who can offer medical advice or make a referral to a sleep specialist.

Final thoughts…

If you are struggling with your sleep right now you have my completely sympathy as I’ve had real issues with insomnia in the past. However, it’s usually quite easy to identify the contributing factors which are preventing a good night’s sleep. Finding solutions to the problems is a little more difficult but I hope this blog post has given you some ideas. Remember that quality sleep is vital to your wellbeing and it’s worth investing time and energy into this aspect of your physical health.

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

Monday Matters: Wheel Of Wellness – Intellectual

In today’s Monday Matters I’ll be considering the intellectual element of the Wheel Of Wellness. This segment is all about keeping your brain active, exploring creativity and finding different ways to expand your knowledge and skills in various areas. It also includes finding ways to challenge yourself and ensuring you do activities which stimulate each area of the brain e.g. speaking and listening, problem solving, fine motor tasks and using and developing your skills of observation etc.

What do we mean by intellectual?

Sometimes when we use the term intellectual, we’re referring to individuals who come across as ‘brainy’, clever or highly educated as demonstrated by their thought processes, reflections, use of vocabulary, problem solving and factual knowledge etc. However, the term can also refer to ways in which you can stimulate your mind.

Today’s blog post is not about trying to develop a superior intellect or the knowledge of a Mastermind contestant, but more about keeping the different areas of your brain active and becoming a lifelong learner. Good mental fitness is very beneficial for your general health and wellbeing, and, as you get older, it can help to prevent signs of dementia or, at the very least, slow down cognitive decline.

Great ways to keep your brain active and expand your mind

Puzzles The term puzzle might make you think of a box of pieces that you join together to make a picture but a jigsaw is just one type of puzzle. In fact, the term is used to defined any activity that requires mental effort and has a definite ending. This can include paper puzzles such as crosswords, wordsearches, spot the difference and sudoku, board games such as Cluedo and Scrabble, guessing games such as I spy and charades and online games such as Candy Crush, Word Cookies and my favourite Angry Birds 2! Puzzling takes lots of concentration and mental effort which is great for improving both your physical and mental health. Here’s 5 benefits for you:

  • improves your problem solving skills which can then be applied at home or work
  • a wonderful stress reliever
  • reduces your risk of mental diseases such as Alzheimer’s
  • slows mental aging
  • a good form of entertainment and can be great fun!

If you are currently struggling with anxiety or depression, puzzles are a great way to distract yourself from negative thoughts, rumination and general worry about your problems. During my last period of depression, I used to dedicate a lot of time to doing jigsaws, wordsearches, arrow words and online games as it provided respite from thoughts that I wasn’t going to get better and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

Learn to play a musical instrument There are so many benefits of learning to play a musical instrument that I could write a full blog post on it. According to my research, playing music uses both sides of the brain so you’re giving it a really good workout. Attentiveness, fine motor movements, memory and creativity are all required and as you get better at playing, you’ll become more confident, not just with regard to your instrument of choice, but also in general too. Setting and working towards goals and celebrating your achievements is bound to make you more positive and after a while, you will probably want to share you learning with others and impress them with your new skills – presenting a great opportunity to socialise with friends, family and even work colleagues.

In this month’s Happiful magazine, I also read that new research has found that learning a musical instrument (in the study they looked at the impact of piano practice) can protect against dementia in those over 60 as it strengthens white matter in the brain.

Read plenty of books, magazines and newspaper articles Being a regular reader is great exercise for the brain and both fiction and non-fiction have many benefits.

Fiction books can help improve your memory, vocabulary, empathy and emotional intelligence, analytical skills and tolerance of others. They can also be a huge source of pleasure and relaxation, alleviating stress and helping us to get a good night’s sleep.

Reading non-fiction books and articles (including blog posts) is a great way to improve your knowledge on a variety of topics which interest you. Whether you want to find out more about gardening, read about an interesting bird you spotted on a woodland walk, improve your understanding of a historical event or explore self help strategies for good mental health there are books and articles on every subject imaginable. And, if you join your local library, you can have access to a range of learning materials for free.

Many people also like to read a daily or weekly newspaper to keep themselves informed. Both the paper and online versions provide a source of global, national and local news, weather updates, the latest health and wellbeing advice, technological advances, entertainment and sports. You can even personalise the homepage on your computer so that news articles on particular topics appear first.

Learn a new skill Learning a new skill is a great way to fire up your brain. There are endless opportunities available for free online or you could try taking a class at your local college or doing a distance learning course. Here’s some examples which you might like to try:

  • flower arranging
  • photography
  • a foreign language
  • drawing
  • ceramics
  • watercolour painting
  • basic car repairs
  • Tai Chi
  • embroidery
  • good sleep hygiene
  • knitting
  • basic first aid
  • mindfulness
  • cooking on a budget
  • swimming
  • yoga
  • aromatherapy
  • Microsoft Office for beginners

As part of our course homework for last week, we were asked to have a go at learning something new. I chose something which I’ve been meaning to give a go for a long time which is developing the skills involved in creating wavy hair using a curling wand (which I purchased nearly a year ago and have barely tried out). My hairdresser showed me some of the basic techniques but it’s not so easy when you’re trying to do it on your own hair as you can’t see the back and you need to swap hands for each side meaning that for half of the styling process, you’re using your non-dominant hand for the wrapping. I found a few super helpful YouTube videos which used the same or a similar wand and have watched them a few times to get some tips. For next week’s session, I’m going to go to college with wavy hair to show off my new skill!

Try new things Trying something new is a great way to grow as a person. You might go to a restaurant you’ve never visited before, find a new recipe to have a go at, take a different fitness class, put on a different radio station, try listening to a different genre of music or go on a day trip to a place which a friend has recommended to you. You never know, you might discover a new favourite or create an amazing memory.

I took the opportunity to try out a new kind of exercise whilst I had access to all of the fitness classes for free. I’ve now discovered that I really enjoy doing pilates and although it’s a relatively gentle form of exercise, it’s great for toning your core muscles.

Ask questions This is something my husband and I do regularly as part of our thirst for new knowledge and greater understanding. For example, there are some swifts that come back every year and nest in one of the roofs we can see from our back bedroom. They’re fascinating birds and, being nature lovers, we always want to find out more about them. Some of the questions we’ve searched on Google this year include: When do swifts arrive in the UK? How many eggs do swifts have in a clutch? What do swift eggs look like? Do swifts pair for life?

You can also learn a lot from asking questions of friends, family, work colleagues and various acquaintances. You might want to get a different opinion or perspective or you might want to find out about something they seem to be somewhat of an expert in or at least know more about than you.

Try out a new hobby New hobbies are great for enhancing your skill set. Also, they present new challenges which can be wonderful for boosting your confidence and self esteem. Here’s a few hobbies that might appeal:

  • birdwatching
  • geocaching
  • upcycling
  • origami
  • gardening
  • calligraphy
  • scrapbooking
  • martial arts
  • astronomy
  • archery
  • camping

Keep a ‘things I want to learn’ list in your bullet journal or notebook Every time you think of something you’d like to know more about, write it down so you don’t forget. It might not be top of your to do list right now, but making a note can be a good reference for the future. When you’re ready, you can then pick something out to focus on and set some learning goals.

Watch documentaries If you’re a visual or auditory learner, documentaries are a great source of education. You can find out about anything you’re interested in, including wildlife, nature, different cultures, living with particular health conditions, environmental issues, technology, crime, history, arts and media, science, religion and current affairs. In the UK, Panorama and Dispatches are popular documentary programmes which tackle the latest issues, whilst Horizon focuses on a variety of subjects related to science and philosophy. I also find anything that Sir David Attenborough narrates to be both fascinating to listen to and incredibly informative.

Get creative Every one of us has the potential to be creative as long as regularly find the time to develop our skills. You might think that creativity is all about making a piece of art work or writing a story or poem, but you can be creative in many different ways. Here’s some examples:

  • developing a new storage system for all of your cleaning supplies and tools at home
  • finding an alternative solution to a problem at work
  • create a capsule wardrobe for your holiday abroad
  • choose a colour scheme for your living room and have fun choosing complementary soft furnishings
  • learn how to make bread dough and then have fun turning pieces into different animals
  • try styling your hair in a different way
  • create a costume for a fancy dress party
  • take a landscape photo and then recreate the scene as a watercolour painting
  • choose a new theme for your bullet journal spreads and have a go at designing different pages for the month

Final words…

Although as adults there are things that we feel we must learn to get by in life and to progress in our jobs or career, we should also make time to learn about things that particularly interest us. I love trying out different art techniques and a few years ago (before COVID struck), I joined a beginner’s ceramics course. I had so much fun and met some lovely people there and, even though we were given specific assignments, e.g. to make a pinch pot, our creations were all completely different and unique to us. Quite a few of us signed up for the intermediate class too to develop our skills further and try out different techniques. It was so exciting to see our finished projects when they’d been glazed and fired and we all felt a huge sense of achievement by the end of the course.

I would be really interested to know if you consider yourself a lifelong learner and, if you do, what you’d like to find out about next, which kind of hobby appeals the most, or which skills you particularly want to develop in the future.

Posted in lifestyle, social media, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Wheel Of Wellness – Social

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 with a view to improving and extending your social connections.

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 focusing 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.