Posted in creativity, life hacks, lifestyle, Mindfulness, wellbeing

Monday matters: 7 mindful hobbies for stress reduction and relaxation

Hobbies are a great way to focus on the present, reduce stress and anxiety levels, leaving you feeling calm and relaxed and with a wonderful sense of achievement. What’s more, they’re an excellent form of mindfulness which is proven to benefit you in a number of ways both mentally and emotionally. Here’s some hobbies that I currently enjoy, have tried and loved in the past and one that I would love to try in the future.

Zentangles

I had a go at producing some Zentangles quite a few years ago when they were featured in a magazine (I think in Breathe). I found information from the article that I’d cut out in one of my journals a few days ago but I couldn’t actually find the patterns that I did. I do remember that I found them really relaxing to do and was pleased with the results so I decided to give them another go.

The Zentangle method was created in 2003 by an American couple called Maria Thomas and Rick Roberts. They describe it as an ‘easy-to-learn, relaxing, and fun way to create beautiful images by drawing structure patterns’ which they call tangles. The three and a half inch tangles are drawn on a small square of paper, and are made using a combination of dots, lines, simple curves and orbs. You have no idea what your finished piece will end up like as you focus on the process rather than worrying about the results. To find out more about the method and to see some beautiful examples visit the official website. For now, here’s some from a complete beginner (me!):

My first attempt at Zentangle in a long time. Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it creative.

Birdwatching

I love birdwatching in my own garden, whilst out for nature walks and from various hides in local reserves and parks. It’s such a relaxing activity yet one which requires plenty of concentration and patience. Although our back garden is relatively small, we have a range of feeders in a little wildlife area and have recently purchased a new covered table which the birds are just starting to take to. We also have a small pond, several bird baths, plenty of shrubs, plus a fence covered in ivy which is full of spiders and their webs. Our space has recently become really popular with a range of small and larger birds and we even had a sparrow hawk visiting last month!

I bought a pair of binoculars last year so I could see birds up close when I visit the hides in nature reserves across the North East but you really don’t need to have any equipment to enjoy birding – just your eyes and your ears, making it a cheap as well as mindful hobby.

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it Creative

Journalling

Mindful journalling is all about the act of expressing your thoughts and feelings on paper and is a wonderful tool for reflecting, evaluating and processing all that is going on in your life. Done regularly, journalling has many benefits including stress reduction, improved mood, emotional regulation, more self confidence, better immunity, a sharper memory, increased productivity and the ability to empathize with others.

I’ve been journaling for a long time now and it has become a part of my daily routine and something I would really miss if I stopped doing it. I mainly tend to put pen to paper in the evening as I like to reflect on my day, record what I grateful for and write about what I’m looking forward to the next day or what I’m anxious about (click here to see my previous post which describes the ‘putting the day to rest’ technique in detail).

I do sometimes do some journalling in the morning as a way of starting my day on a positive and creative note and find the book ‘Five Minutes in the Morning – A Focus Journal’ provides some great prompts to help me decide what to write about. I managed to pick it up really cheaply in my local bookshop but it’s also available on Amazon as an ebook which you could use if you bought a special notebook to write in.

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it Creative

The journal is split into different sections, each with a particular focus and considers topics such as the power of writing, creating clarity, considering what’s important in your life, developing an attitude of abundance, solving problems and challenges, productivity and goal setting. It’s up to you how you use the book, you could either work through each prompt in order or you could just pick and page at random and see what you find.

Another book that I really love for prompt ideas is ‘Mindful Journaling’ by Tara Ward. The focus of this book is on exploring mindfulness in a variety of ways and then recording and evaluating your experiences of doing the different tasks. Recently, I completed an activity where you put something in front of you that you would like to eat and reflect on how the food stuff reached your bowl or plate and all of the processes involved in sourcing the ingredients and creating the product. I chose some Crunchy Nut Cornflakes and had so much to write about and it made me eat them much more mindfully afterwards too.

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it Creative

Sketching

I used to hate drawing as I thought I was no good at it but recently I’ve started to really enjoy developing my skills. My favourite things to draw are plants and other aspects of nature such as leaves, berries and fruit. I always really take my time and focus in on the outline shape of the objects and then add detail carefully. Apparently this style of drawing is known as a ‘Zen method’ which is all about observing and following the contours of the object with your eyes whilst letting your hands draw. You can find out more in renowned Dutch artist Frederick Franck’s book ‘Zen seeing, Zen drawing’ which I have neither seen or read but it sounds like it is focused on mindful drawing as a meditative technique for observing and discovering the world around you.

My first attempt at still life fruit sketching! Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it Creative

Watercolour painting

As those of you who follow my blog will know, I got into watercolouring about 9 months ago and have enjoyed experimenting with different techniques including creating washes, wet on dry and wet on wet methods. Now I’ve learnt the basics, I’ve started to try out my skills on creating actual art pieces. This is my first try at wet on wet poppies and adding stems using wet on dry. In order to create my piece I spent some time looking at photographs of poppies and the work of other watercolour artists. I then really focused on the process of mixing colours, getting the right consistency of pigment to water and then allowing the colours to blend on the page. I wasn’t concerned about the finished look but I think it turned out well, for a beginner anyway!

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it Creative

Pottery

I’ve done two ceramics courses at a local wellbeing centre and found them to be amazingly beneficial. I met some wonderful, like-minded people who I got on really well with and involving myself in playing with the clay to explore different techniques and then designing and making my own pieces was so relaxing. The sessions were three hours long and in that time, I found that my mind was fully focused on the tasks at hand and the level of concentration required helped me to switch off from my anxious thoughts and feelings. Most weeks, we also got some of our freshly fired work back and it was so exciting to see our pieces at various stages of the making process and celebrate what we had achieved as we developed our skills.

Obviously, at the moment, there are no ceramics classes available which you can attend due to lockdown restrictions still being in place but it is certainly something I would recommend looking into in the future if you enjoy getting creative with your hands.

Flower arranging

This is a mindful activity that I would love to have a go at in the future as I imagine it’s really interesting to learn the various techniques involved and you can produce some stunning pieces to decorate your home and bring you joy. There are loads of free video tutorials and tips available online from florists and expert flower arrangers if you want to discover the basics or if you sign up to Skillshare you can do a full online course at home. I know my local college usually offer beginner’s floristry sessions but it may be a while before they are able to start them up again.

Photo credit: James Coleman, Unsplash

Do you do any of the activities I’ve listed already or do you have other favourites? Have you found you have more time to do hobbies because of the lockdown restrictions?

Posted in mental health, Mindfulness, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: 8 Mindful and Meditative Activities to create calm

Photo credit: Kari Shea, Unsplash

Today’s Monday Matters post is all about engaging in mindful and meditative activities to achieve a relaxed state of mind and body. It aims to show you the benefits of being in the present moment whilst exploring ways of meditating that are more than just sitting still and focusing on the breath.

We’ve all heard of mindfulness and are probably aware of some of its benefits but if you were asked to explain what it actually means, you might struggle, so here’s a simple definition I found online:

a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

Oxford dictionaries

In other words, it’s about consciously being aware of all that is going on for you mentally, physically and emotional at this present moment.

Similarly, meditation is a practice where we use a technique such as mindfulness or focusing the mind on an object, thought or activity to train attention and awareness in order to achieve mental clarity and an emotionally calm and stable state.

Both mindfulness and meditation require regular practise and you may have tried techniques before, found them difficult and decided it’s just not for you or too much like hard work. Some argue that they simply do not have time, but it’s my belief that busy individuals are those who would benefit most from the calm state which mindful and meditative activities bring.

When you say the word meditation to most people, it conjures up an image of sitting cross legged on the floor, with eyes closed, trying to empty the mind of all thought and action, possibly whilst repeating ‘ommm’. However, although this is one interpretation of meditating, it’s not the only way to be in a meditative state. Below are eight ideas for mindful activity based meditation that anyone can try.

Colouring in

Colouring an image using coloured pencils, crayons, pastels or paints combines the benefits of meditation and art therapy to create a soothing and mindful activity. As well as stimulating the part of your brain responsible for creativity and logic, the concentration required helps to clear your mind in a way that has been shown to decrease your stress levels and lower your blood pressure.

Photo credit: cropped from an image by Crawford Jolly, Unsplash

Reading

When I’m feeling particularly anxious or stressed due to lots going on in my life, I find reading to be a great way to focus the mind away from sources of worry. I love to curl up on the sofa or relax on my bed and change the focus away from what’s going on in my world.

Photo credit: Lenin Estrada, Unsplash

Walking

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of walking in nature as a way to unwind and destress. A short walking meditation can be done anywhere, even in your own back garden or yard. The trick is to focus your mind on your body such as your posture before you begin, the placement of your feet as they touch the ground or surface you are walking on and the change in your balance as you move and really feel the connection. Begin by paying complete attention to each and every step you make noticing any physical changes in your body on the inside and, when you begin to feel a sense of calmness and relation, begin to turn your attention to your environment, noticing, for example, the temperature of the air on your skin or any sounds and sights which present themselves. In mindful, meditative walking, you’re have no place to get to so, your attention is purely on the sensations in your body and awareness of the environment around you. You accept the way things are without judgement or interpretation.

If you do find your mind wandering (maybe you begin to ruminate on something that has already happened this week or you find yourself starting to make plans for later in your day), then you can gently and kindly bring the focus back to the here and now and resume focusing on your breath and sensations experienced by your senses.

Photo credit: Dmitry Schemelev

Quiet Observation

This is one that can be done by looking out of your window at home or whilst wandering the garden. It requires you to choose a natural object from within your immediate environment, and focus all of your attention on it. So, for example, if you are looking out of the window you might watch a tree blowing in the breeze or the clouds in the sky. While outside, you might find a particularly interesting flower growing on a garden plant or you might see an insect hard at work. Spend a few minutes simply noticing your chosen object and focusing on every visual aspect of it, almost as though you are seeing it for the very first time. This quiet contemplation should create a sense of peacefulness and calm. Whilst you explore and allow yourself to be consumed by the presence of your focal piece of nature, you are connecting with its energies and its purpose within the world.

Photo credit: Marieke Tacken, Unsplash

Repetitive craft

Doing crafts such as knitting, crochet, cross stitch and other hobbies involving repetitive action can be great for helping you get into a meditative state. You can focus completely on the small movements you are making and bring your attention to the texture of your yarn, or fabric in your hands as you quietly observe your piece taking shape. You may find your breathing has slowed down without you even noticing as you concentrate on the task in hand.

Photo credit: Les Triconautes, Unsplash

Housework

In a previous blog post, I talked about using mindfulness techniques when you are ironing. The same can be applied to any type of housework that involves repetitive action. Moving the duster back and forth over surfaces or the mop over your kitchen floor can bring about a meditative state which can be calming and relaxing. Pay attention to all of the different sensations, using your five senses to focus in on all of the different elements of your task e.g. feel the cleaning cloth in your hand, think about the energy in your hand as you move over the surface, notice how the scent of the project you are using hits your nostrils, admire how shiny your furniture looks, etc. You might even find you’re enjoying the activity and it spurs you to do more!

Photo credit: Dan Gold, Unsplash

Gardening

The benefits of gardening on your mental health and wellbeing are often discussed by one of my favourite gardeners, Monty Don on Gardeners’ World. As well as feeling a great sense of achievement when you see how beautiful your environment looks, you can also use mindfulness techniques to truly benefit from the processes involved in making your garden look that way.

Before tending to your garden, spend some minutes really appreciating the natural space you find yourself in. Be grateful for what you have and if you’ve already made improvements, think about all you have achieved so far. Then, take your mind off any worries you have by using your senses as you work on planting, weeding, digging or whatever your chosen activity is. For example, if planting, spend time carefully choosing an appropriate location, evaluating where will work best. Then, pay attention to the physical effects on your body as you prepare the ground – is the soil compacted or is it easy to get your fork in? If using your hands, really think about how the earth feels. If there are any insects in the location, you might spend time observing as they go about their work. When adding your plant to the prepared space, really look at it as though examining it for the first time. Look at the colour and shape of the leaves then feel their texture. Explore if there is a scent to the plant itself or any flowers that are present. When you water it in, listen the sound of the water as it is sprinkled over the space. Finally, stand back and admire your hard work and evaluate its effect on your garden as a whole.

Photo credit: NeONBRAND, Unsplash

Yoga

As I’ve explained in a previous post, I have recently taken up an Iyengar yoga. The class takes place in the Arts and Wellbeing location where I previously did my ceramics sessions and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. This particular style of yoga involves the use of equipment such as foam bricks and pads and a fabric strap to allow you to comfortably get into the poses and stay in them whilst allowing your body to lengthen. There are many elements of the practise which I find meditative, and of course, a great deal of concentration is required to ensure you are performing the actions correctly and are stretching and lifting in all of the right places. Having aligned your body, you then focus on your breath which automatically seems to be calm and steady. The session even finishes with a relaxation pose and some soothing music which feels absolutely blissful.

At the moment, due to the lockdown with COVID-19, I am practising daily at home using YouTube videos, which, although not quite the same as a class where the teacher will provide extra equipment or correct your poses, is still enabling me to get into a relaxed state and enjoy the benefits. I do, however, look forward to resuming my class in the near future when it is safe to do so.

Photo credit: Dane Wetton, Unsplash

I hope you find these ideas useful and that my post will prompt you to try at least one of these mindful and meditative activities. It might be tempting to say that you are too busy to practise meditation, but if you become more mindful, and therefore present in the moment, as you go about your usual tasks each day, you will find that you really can reach a state of calm and become more relaxed.

Posted in mental health, Mindfulness, wellbeing, wellness

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

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

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

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

breathe deeply and slowly

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

exercise

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

have a good laugh

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

try getting yourself all cold!

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

Sing or chant

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

Massage

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

Positive social contact

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

Reduce your consumption of junk food

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

Yoga and Tai Chi

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

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

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

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

Until next time, look after yourself.