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 Health and Nutrition, lifestyle, self care, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Wheel of Wellness – Physical – Part 3: Diet

For the final part of the ‘physical’ segment of The Wheel Of Wellness, I’ll be focusing on diet and the impact it can have on our physical and mental wellbeing. As part of this, I’ll be considering how the way we feel can impact our dietary choices and how what we eat and drink can directly affect both our mood and our energy levels.

What do we mean by the term ‘diet’?

Many people believe that the term diet refers to a specific eating plan where an individual eats less food because they want to lose weight / be thinner or only eats specific kinds of food e.g. those which are considered good for you, and cuts out bad or unhealthy foods. However, the simplest definition of diet is the food or drink which is typically eaten or drunk by a person or group of people. A diet can be incredibly healthy, extremely unhealthy or somewhere in-between the two. Personally, I prefer a happy medium where my diet is generally nutritious and balanced but still includes some treats and a moderate amount of alcohol. In fact, ‘moderation’ is very much a key word when it comes to a balanced diet.

Eating a healthy and balanced diet

There’s no shortage of information and guidance online about eating healthily to maintain good physical health but the most reliable place to look in the UK has to be the NHS website, specifically these pages and those found through the hyperlinks. Today, however, I’d like to focus on how what we eat and drink can have an impact on how we feel and also consider how making small changes to our diet can help us manage our mental health better by improving our mood, giving us more energy and helping us to think more clearly.

Mental health conditions, mood and our diet

How we feel can greatly influence what we choose to eat and drink. For example, if we’re struggling with anxiety, stress, depression or feeling down, our appetite can be affected and our daily routine might change, which could impact on our eating patterns. During periods of difficulty, some people won’t feel like preparing or eating food at all, whereas others will find comfort in doing so and may overeat or binge eat.

What we choose to eat or drink at different times has been shown to affect our mental functioning and can potentially worsen symptoms of conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression and bipolar disorder. Eating too much of some foods and not enough of others can contribute to ongoing or worsening of our emotional state. Certain drinks, particularly if consumed to excess can also cause problems too.

Keeping a food and drink diary

I’ve previously written a post about keeping a food journal to help with diet and weight loss but recording what you eat and drink, how much you consume and when can also help you to notice the effect on your emotions particularly if you record how you feel afterwards. Over time you might work out which foods and drinks make you feel good or better and which make you feel worse. You might also learn which keep you awake, help you sleep or give you gut problems. If you do make improvements to your diet, you can also measure your progress over time.

Some tips for making positive changes to your diet to improve your mood

As well as using a food and drink diary to find out what helps or worsens your mood, the following tips can be really useful if you want to improve your diet with a view to being more healthy and regulating your emotional state.

Eating regularly

Even if you don’t feel like it or you’re really busy, it’s important to try to make sure you eat regularly. If your blood sugar drops it can make you feel tired, irritable and depressed. Eating regularly throughout the day and choosing foods that release energy slowly will help to keep your sugar levels steady.

Try to avoid food and drinks which cause your blood sugar to rise and fall rapidly such as sweets, biscuits, sugary drinks and alcohol and instead, go for complex carbohydrates and protein rich foods. Also, make sure you don’t miss meals. Eating breakfast gets the day off to a good start, particularly if you choose wholegrain cereal, protein rich eggs or low fat yogurt and fruit such as berries, apple or fresh mango. If you’re struggling with lack of appetite, try eating smaller portions of food spaced out more regularly throughout the day.

Stay hydrated

The most vital substance for a healthy body and mind is water. If you don’t drink enough during the day, you will likely find it difficult to concentrate or think clearly. You might also suffer from headaches, fatigue or constipation which are not great for your mood either.

It’s recommended that you drink at least eight glasses of fluid a day and this can include tea, juices and squash and smoothies. Coffee can also count towards your daily intake, but you should also be wary of the effects of too much caffeine.

Managing caffeine consumption

Caffeine is a natural stimulant which gives you a quick burst of energy and can make you feel more mentally alert and attentive. On the other hand, it can also cause you to feel anxious, depressed, nervous, restless or irritable. It can also give some people an upset stomach if they have too much or prevent much needed sleep, especially if you consume it before bed.

Caffeine is found in a range of beverages including coffee, tea, cola, some chocolate drinks and a range of manufactured energy drinks. Also, despite its name, decaffeinated coffee still contains a small amount of caffeine. If you regularly drink a lot of the above each day, there’s a very good chance you will become dependent on them and display withdrawal symptoms if you cut down a lot or stop consuming caffeine altogether.

Although many people enjoy caffeinated drinks, there are quite a few benefits of reducing your intake. These include:

  • better gut health
  • fewer headaches
  • easing of anxiety and panic
  • better quality sleep
  • improved skin tone, less signs of aging
  • lower blood pressure
  • healthier and whiter teeth
  • better able to naturally regulate your energy levels

Remember though, that suddenly stopping caffeine isn’t a good idea as this can result in short term symptoms of withdrawal. It’s best to cut down slowly if you want to experience the above benefits.

Managing alcohol consumption

Regularly drinking more than 14 units of alcohol each week is known to cause problems relating to your physical health making you at greater risk of a variety of cancers, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, gastric issues, liver damage and memory loss. Consumption of alcohol can also negatively impact on your mental health, but, despite this, many people turn to excessive drinking during periods of difficulty and/or mental illness.

Alcohol is known to have a depressant effect which can lead to fluctuations in mood and signs of deteriorating mental health. It is also associated with disrupted sleep which can result in poor energy levels, and worsening fatigue or exhaustion.

Avoiding alcohol altogether at times of difficulty would be the most beneficial, but even cutting down can significantly help with mood.

Planning ahead

Finding time to eat well can often be quite difficult, particularly if you’re struggling with one or more aspects of your mental health. Planning ahead when you’re feeling well and enjoying preparing and eating food can help. This can include batch cooking and storing healthy and nutritious meals in the freezer for times when you can’t face cooking. Creating a list of quick and easy meals to refer to can also be useful when you are struggling for ideas.

Final thoughts…

If you think you would benefit from making some changes to your diet to improve your physical and mental health it’s best to start slowly and take small steps towards where you want to be. Changing your whole diet suddenly is likely to leave you feeling overwhelmed and can cause you to go back to the bad habits that you are used to. Making one change at a time can also help you measure the effect on your mood and your general wellbeing.

We can often put a lot of pressure on ourself to eat a healthy diet but it’s important to enjoy the food and drinks you consume and not be too hard on yourself. Try to recognise any achievements large or small, and give yourself credit and praise for any improvements made. Also, remember that other factors can help your mental health and emotional state as well including getting plenty of fresh air and sunshine, doing some physical activity each day and getting a good quality sleep.

I hope you’ve found today’s blog post helpful and it’s given you some ideas on how to make small improvements to your diet. If you think that you need to make some dramatic changes to your food and drink consumption, it’s best to seek help from a professional. The first step would be to see your GP who can make some suggestions or refer you to a dietician. A specialist can then help you identify specific issues with your diet or identify or manage any eating disorders or food intolerances you may have.

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.