Spring Clean your Life

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Build your emotional resilience and live a happy, fulfilled life…

Spring is a great time to spruce up your life and tend to your emotional and mental wellbeing. A vital tool in helping us survive emotional challenges is being emotionally resilient – having the ability to adapt and bounce back when something difficult happens. Here are some ways to help build your emotional resilience.

Value Yourself

Being an accommodating, caring person is great; worrying about people liking you and not stepping on any toes at the expense of your own desires is not so good. You can’t please everyone all of the time: accept that and make pleasing yourself a criterion for pleasing other people.

Changing ‘should’ to ‘could’

Become aware of when you’re using the word ‘should’ (‘I should be healthier; I should drink less; I should be a better friend/parent/colleague’). It’s like wagging a huge, judgmental finger at yourself, which can prevent you from doing what you really want. Instead, replace ‘I should’ with ‘I could’, ‘I would like’ or ‘I will’. This small change can help to remove judgement and guilt from your choices and allows you to give yourself permission to do what you really want to do.

Find a way to say ‘No’

When you say ‘yes’ to things you don’t really want to do, either you do them at the expense of your own happiness or you make excuses later and drop out at the expense of your relationships. Learn to say ‘no’ more, without feeling you have to explain. Being honest with yourself and others and really considering what you do/don’t want to do will make life easier for everyone in the long run.

Treat yourself as a good friend

Notice when you’re being critical of or hard on yourself and ask, ‘What would I say to my best friend in this situation?’ Chances are you’d be much kinder to them than you’re being to yourself. You deserve to be treated with compassion and respect as much as anyone else, so start by being kind to yourself.

Get enough sleep

Sleep deprivation isn’t used as a form of torture for no reason. Lack of sleep can magnify feelings of unhappiness, depression and anxiety, so ensure you get enough good quality sleep, perhaps by starting with a healthy bedtime routine – something we’re used to putting into practice with children but often neglect as adults. Hurling yourself into bed with a smart phone/tablet at the end of a busy day isn’t conducive to a restful night so take time to relax properly before bedtime.

Practice ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ and indulge yourself

Instead of filling your time only with things that are productive, useful or necessary do something you find fulfilling or relaxing or just plain fun, something that’s only purpose is to make you feel good. Separate out space for just YOU. Indulgence is a vital, good attribute, not a bad trait – you need rest, fulfilment, enjoyment and care to keep yourself healthy.

Jam tomorrow? Focus on living in the moment

In Lewis Carroll’s book ‘Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There’ the White Queen offers Alice ‘jam every other day’ as an inducement to work for her: ‘The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today.’ The phrase ‘jam tomorrow’ has come to be an expression for a never-fulfilled promise. Planning for the future is an important process – but if you’re preoccupied with a future that might never happen you may find yourself missing out on joyous moments you could be experiencing right now. Become aware of the present moment – and enjoy it.

Share what you’re going through

Brene Brown, American scholar, author, and public speaker, who conducts research on vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame finds that her bestselling books are often categorised as ‘self help’ but she hates that phrase, saying, ‘I don’t know what it means. I don’t think we’re meant to do it alone.’

If you keep your struggles to yourself because you don’t want to be a burden, or think you should be able to handle your problems on your own, develop a strong support system. It takes a lot of courage to open up and be vulnerable but knowing that you have someone you can turn to when things are tough can be an enormous relief and a great help.

Create change in your life

William Ernest Henley’s poem, ‘Invictus’, is famous for the line ‘I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.’ No-one is going to come along and make your life what you want it to be so take responsibility for your choices and decisions and find ways to create the change you need. We are each the master of our own destiny – design the life you truly want to live.

Christmas: The Art of Giving

What does Christmas mean to you? Whether it’s turkey and all the trimmings, family get-togethers or simply having some time off work it’s likely to involve at least some giving or receiving. Christmas presents can bring huge financial and emotional pressures but whether you have dozens of gifts to buy or just a few, whether your budget is limited or limitless, having a mindful approach to giving this Christmas might take some of the pressure off and could strengthen your relationships.

Why do we give gifts?

The social value of giving has been recognised throughout human history. The giving of gifts is a complex and important part of human interaction, helping us to define relationships and strengthen bonds with family and friends. Gift exchanges can reveal how people think about others, what they value and enjoy, and how they build and maintain relationships. It’s also an important part of developing a healthy sense of one’s own self-worth and a right to relish life’s pleasures.

“For it is in giving that we receive.” (Francis of Assisi)

Many of us grew up being told that it’s more noble to give than to receive and it is true that acknowledging others’ needs, respecting their feelings and being responsive to those less fortunate safeguards us from unbridled narcissism. However, research studies have found that it is often the giver, rather than the recipient, who reaps the biggest psychological gains from a gift because giving to others reinforces our feelings for them and makes us feel effective and caring.

In order to be able to give gifts freely, however, we need to be able to receive them freely. As one of my favourite authors, Brené Brown, says “until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”

Giving and receiving creates an ‘intimacy economy’, where a moment of connection is shared. In that moment there is no distinction between the giver and the receiver. Both people are giving and receiving in their own unique ways – a shared experience that can be profoundly intimate. If we fear intimacy, however, we may not allow ourselves to receive or give a gift or compliment, thereby avoiding that uncomfortable feeling, but in doing so we’re inadvertently depriving ourselves of a precious moment of connection. Avoiding these exchanges altogether or prioritising giving over receiving may be a convenient way to keep people distant and our hearts defended.

 “Bah,” said Scrooge, “Humbug.” (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

Frustrated by crowds, traffic and commercialism, people can be tempted at this time of year to opt out of gift giving altogether but research tells us that people who stop giving gifts lose out on important social cues and on connections with family and friends. Who is on your gift list is telling you who is important in your life.

Likewise, if you don’t let someone give you a gift, then you’re not encouraging them to think about you and think about things you like. You’re preventing them from experiencing the joy of engaging in all those activities and doing them a disservice by not giving them the gift of giving.

Suspicious minds

We may be uncomfortable receiving if gifts or compliments came with strings attached when we were growing up. We may have them only when we accomplished something, like winning at sports or achieving academically. If we sensed that we weren’t being accepted for who we are but rather for our achievements and accomplishments, it may not feel safe to receive. If parents used us to meet their own needs, such as to showcase us to their friends or cling to an image of being good parents, we may equate compliments to being used because we were recognised for what we do rather than for who we really are.

To counter these feelings, practice giving and receiving freely and notice what it’s like to do so. What’s happening in your body? Is your breathing relaxed and your belly soft or are you tightening up? Can you let in the caring and connection? By giving and receiving with a tender self-compassion, you’re allowing yourself to be touched by life’s gifts. Letting yourself receive deeply and graciously is also a gift to the giver. It conveys that their giving has made a difference — that you’ve been affected.

“I know what I have given you… I do not know what you have received.” (Antonio Porchia)

In The Light in the Heart, Roy T. Bennett says, “Help others without any reason and give without the expectation of receiving anything in return.” When we give, we may feel in control but receiving can feel uncomfortable as it invites us to welcome a vulnerable part of ourselves. Living more in this tender place allows us to be more available to receive the subtle gifts we’re offered every day, such as a sincere “thank you”, a compliment, or a warm smile. Next time you’re offered such a gift, stop yourself from discounting the moment (“Oh, this old dress?”) and instead simply smile, say thank you and really notice what it feels like to be connected to the other person in that moment and to receive their kindness.

Whether you’re giving a Christmas bonus to the window cleaner, doing Secret Santa at work or exchanging carefully chosen gifts with loved ones, practice giving and receiving with humility and appreciation. Being more comfortable with being connected to other people in these moments allows intimacy and nourishes relationships.


How to beat the post-Summer blues

The British weather hasn’t been much to write home about this summer so you may have escaped the wind and drizzle by jetting off to sunnier climes or having some time off and relaxing with friends and family. Now, though, as Summer draws to a close you realise the novel you were going to write when you were off didn’t quite happen and that optimistic fitness/diet regime hasn’t resulted in a ‘new you’. To top it off you’ve blown all your cash on your holiday so it’s going to be a tight couple of months and, although you caught a glimpse of freedom on your travels, you’re now back in the same old routine and nothing has changed. It’s time to go back to work/university/school and the post-Summer blues are kicking in.

Some people bounce back and adjust to the new season but for others it’s not so easy. It’s normal to feel more cheerful and energetic when the sun is shining and the days are longer or to eat more or sleep longer in winter, however, if you experience Seasonal Affective Disorder the change in seasons will have a much greater effect on your mood and energy levels and could lead to symptoms of depression that have a significant impact on your day-to-day life. According to the Mental Health Foundation, “seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that the NHS estimates to affect approximately one in 15 people in the UK between September and April.”

Mental health organisation, Mind, says that for some people, symptoms of SAD are fairly mild and last for a shorter period, mainly during December, January and February, and are known as the ‘winter blues’, or sub-syndromal SAD but some people have very severe symptoms and find it hard to carry out day-to-day tasks in winter without continuous treatment. SAD can be caused by changes in daylight (some people need a lot more light than others for their body to regulate sleep, appetite, sex drive, temperature, mood and activity), low serotonin levels and/or high melatonin levels, a disrupted body clock or an unwelcome or traumatic life event, such a major loss or bereavement or a serious illness. It may also be triggered by physical illness, a change to diet or medication, or the use of drugs or alcohol.

So, whether you’re suffering from post-holiday blues or a deeper and longer-lasting period of low mood, what can you do to lift your spirits?

Make the most of natural light

It won’t cure SAD but increasing your exposure to daylight by going outdoors, particularly around midday or on bright days, can help to reduce symptoms. We tend to stay inside a lot over the winter, which can contribute to the blues but even looking out a window or just being in daylight can improve your mood so wrap up and go for a walk or do some outdoor activities.

Avoid stress

People are more likely to suffer from stress in winter so if you find this time of year difficult try planning ahead to reduce the amount of stressful or difficult activities you have during this time. Another tip is to make more spare time to rest, relax or do pleasant activities in the winter – perhaps pamper yourself physically with a massage or learn a relaxation technique to help you unwind.

Get healthy

You may not feel like it at the time but physical activity is an effective way of lifting your mood and increasing your energy levels. It doesn’t have to be anything particularly strenuous – doing housework, gardening or going for a gentle walk can all help – and doing something physical outside in a green space, such as the park or the countryside, has been shown to be especially helpful. A healthy diet is also important, so try to balance the common SAD craving for carbohydrates with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Improve your support network

As the dark nights draw in and the weather gets chillier, avoid cutting yourself off socially by staying indoors too much. We humans are sociable creatures who need some amount of contact with others in order to stay mentally healthy so ensure you reach out and get whatever contact you need to stay happy and well.

Be aware of your feelings

If you find it hard to adjust to the new season, use your emotions to help you: difficult feelings could be an indication that something needs to change in your life but the good news is that recognising and regulating your emotions will help you in addressing any issues you may have. Look for common signs of low mood such as a lack of appetite, trouble sleeping, moodiness, an inability to control impulses, apathy or skipping activities that are normally of interest.

If the post-Summer blues show no signs of shifting, it might be a sign of a more prolonged problem. Depression can rear its head at any time in life and often prevents us from taking pleasure from the things that used to make us happy. If you find you can’t manage your symptoms yourself, or that they’re starting to have a significant impact on your day-to-day life, you might find it helpful to talk to your GP or a mental health professional. Talking treatments such as counselling can be extremely useful in helping people to cope with SAD symptoms and can help you to recognise and deal with other factors that may be contributing to your low mood.

This article was written for and featured in the September/October 2016 edition of the Tyne Valley Express