Busy mind needs help

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The new year always brings new plans, and I do like that aspect of the new year.  In January I started thinking about what challenges I could do – what marathons or swims or other physical challenges.  And then my little voice chipped in – you know the one that sits on your shoulder and whispers its wisdom in the early hours – ‘sort your mind out’

I’ve been writing this blog for 2 years and when I read back I see so much soul searching and guilt on the need to produce and be meaningful.  Two years on, my mind is still racing around, pit stopping at the guilt feelings and generally going at full pelt to get nowhere. Living in the moment and feeling contented are fleeting moments in my head and I would really really like them to stay around a little longer and take root.

Last month I realised the extent of my busy mental processes.  I’ve been doing some CPD for counselling and we were role playing to practise talking to clients about unhelpful thinking styles and patterns.  I was in the role of client and so shared a recent event that entailed my husband not responding in a rapid manner to a text message.  Within hours I had imagined that a) the dog had come to harm b) my husband had fallen down the stairs or c) both of the above.  Apparently, the Wi-Fi was off.  It dawned on me that my unhelpful thinking style is quite clearly on the catastrophizing spectrum.  Not a surprise to some who know me, but still one of those ‘ta da’ moments for me and a realisation of how unhelpful my thinking can be.

I need to do something, the challenge for 2017 is laid down –  I need to find some new methods of being in the moment and finding contentment and stopping the wild thoughts.  I have no idea how this might work.  Physically I can help by not chasing any PB’s and letting go of the need to prove anything to myself physically and give my mind a chance to catch up. Stop running away from my mind.

Meditation is another obvious tool – so I’m trying to challenge myself to giving this a good go.  I’ve tried twice and my mind is rebelling, but I didn’t think this would be easy and I’ll persevere.  Finding my steady mental pace is going to be a whole lot harder than finding my marathon one.

 

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Throw those curtains wide…

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One day like this a year will see me right…

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I loved this Elbow song when I first heard it but didn’t give it much thought, just liked the idea that someone would be happy to have one good day, which, to be honest, didn’t seem very ambitious.

Then, 3 weeks ago, I found myself having one of these days, I even started humming the song and thought – ‘I’m having a day that would see me right’ (I wasn’t sure for how long at that point.)  One whole day where I felt happy, contented and at peace.  This happened on a recent holiday to Cornwall – I chose to have a day alone with my dog, just walking along the cliffs and it was heaven. There was nothing I had to do, nowhere I had to be, no one I had to talk to – just there on the cliff tops in the beautiful Autumn sun with my dog.

The effects of that day lasted a good two weeks, feeling better, more peaceful with myself.  It sounds a bit ‘new agey’ when I read this back, but this day was it.  It felt like I had just hit my reset button and instead of going back to factory settings I upgraded to a slightly happier and contented me.

I struggle with feeling at peace and contentment, there is usually a small voice telling me I should be doing something productive, or even just something else.  Like everyone, I do of course have calming moments – usually when I’m walking the dog, or running or gardening.  But these moments don’t last long – maybe an hour or so, or sometimes a little longer, a day at most, and then real life kicks in again (or my mind starts being difficult).  Even holidays don’t quite have the same effect.

What was it that made this day so special that it enabled me to reset for a while?  I think I can tie it down to a few core features

  • 1.    I was outside – amongst stunning natural surroundings
  • 2.    I was outside for a few hours
  • 3.    I was with my dog
  • 4.    I was alone (apart from the dog)
  • 5.    I was away from home – far enough way that it felt distant
  • 6.    I knew I didn’t need to check in with anyone or anything (work/home/amazon delivery…)

So now I’m wondering realistically what are the chances of this becoming more than a one off or once a year thing.  Is one day a year enough? What about one day a month or a week (probably pushing it but just think how calm and contented I could become if I had a whole day of resetting every week – seriously worth some thought.)

It’s also got me thinking more about mindfulness and what this really means.  I don’t meditate or practice mindfulness in any way but I’m guessing that this is what I partly experienced during that day, and I definitely need more of that.

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Taking control in Limboland

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IMG00230-20120325-1122There’s been a lot of talk recently about ‘taking control’. Teresa May wants to give us ‘more control over our lives.’ Brexiters talk about wanting to ‘get back control’ of the Country.  I don’t really know what any of this actually means in practice.  At the moment I feel like many people – waiting to see how things turn out. I feel as if we’ve all moved into Limboland for a while.

Of course we can’t ever really have control over our Country or even every aspect of our lives – we always live in a certain state of limbo. Sometimes things happen that we as individuals can’t do anything about other than accept or question – be it the economy, our health, our travel plans, our jobs etc…. Sometimes we do have to wait things out and live for a while in Limbo. 

I think limbo is a really interesting concept and a very real state of being. Recently I wrote about the importance of resilience, and living in limbo certainly requires resilience.  I find that arriving in Limboland gets harder to accept with age – I don’t have time to loll around in Limboland doing nothing!  Time is passing, I need to get out of limbo and do things (which things I still haven’t quite figured out).  

But the very essence of Limboland is that it will release you when it’s good and ready, how long you spend there is not something you can always control. You just have to be vigilant about keeping an open mind for the exit door.  So my advice about coping with the limbo situation –

Figure out first if you really are in limbo and all exits are locked or if you are sticking your head in the sand and failing to see the door that’s been opened a crack.

 A) If it’s lock down – then go with it, see it as a natural break in the madness of life, explore it, regroup, let time work it’s magic and save your energies for the next opportunity to move on, up and out. Sometimes we may be here for a short stay and sometimes a long one – just keep one eye on the door.

B) Sticking you head in the sand? Why, what’s scaring you? Do you need a change? Some help or guidance? A map or plan to help you negotiate your way out of the land of limbo?

Understanding which category you fall into each time can be a lifelong challenge, the land changes all the time, but hopefully recognising Limbo as a real place can help.  It’s ok to land here, you may need help to get off, and a revisit is highly likely.

Keeping plan B in the back pocket

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Plan B

So after the Referendum we appear to be in a state of turmoil – living with a public decision that was unexpected. We didn’t expect the reactions, regrets, backlash – It feels like there was no plan B in place and we’re just reeling with the punches trying to accept that the unexpected is real.

It’s now all about the Plan B.

Why is it that we are so often unhinged by the unexpected?  I know I’ve been guilty in the past of thinking that ‘things’ happen to other people.  It’s taken my middle years to realise that in fact ‘things’ happen to you and people you know – good things, bad things, unexpected things. Things don’t always go as planned, life, jobs, politics, diets, exams, relationships, death, life.

I also know that clouds don’t always have silver linings and that we don’t always learn from our mistakes and every set back is not a journey to self discovery. Sometimes life is just difficult, untenable at times and plan sailing at others. We do sometimes regret the things we didn’t do, but we also sometimes regret the things we did.  It’s life Jim – but not as we know it – or often want it to be.

I don’t think that’s being pessimistic and it’s not dreading what’s around the corner, it’s being realistic. I came across this emotional compass circle during a short course on existential theory in counselling by the rather wonderful Emmy Van Deurzen.

 Emotional compass

The idea that each emotion has an opposite and throughout the course of our lives we go around and around this circle of emotions. We all hope to remain in happiness at the top forever, but that’s not real and we are constantly working our way around at different times and different speeds, going between emotions in the space of minutes, days or sometimes being stuck in one part for years. This is completely natural, we can’t have one feeling without the other.

We can prepare for our plan B (and C, D …)  by recognising the importance of coping, of resilience and understanding . I’m a big fan of resilience. Some people have it in truck loads, some of us need to hone our resilience and some of us need to learn it from scratch.  It’s not a natural characteristic – we are so often hidden from bad news or taught to expect the best and not be negative – ‘think positive and all will be well!’  But thinking positive isn’t always helpful, if life is shit then we have to cope, survive and be in the moment, not try and dismiss our feelings or turn them into something else.  

Living with adversity and building resilience should be on the core curriculum. It’s not just about our own individual coping mechanisms but also about recognising when we need to ask for the support of friends, family or professionals – resilience is a family and community essential too  – often better together.

 Emmy van deurzen

Distraction – the good, the bad and the necessary

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Distraction

I’ve been thinking about the power of distraction a lot lately – not the everyday type of distraction (the ‘ I need to distract myself in case I eat that cake’ type of distraction) – I mean the type of distraction that takes you off course for a long while.   At the moment I’m feeling distracted because work has been slow and I’ve been trying to fill my time – I’ve fallen into the trap of pure distraction, flitting from one thing to another (usually email and social media) in a bid to be and feel busy.  I’ve started to see that this type of distraction could easily just be another term for procrastination, it’s pretty much the same only instead of doing nothing I’m doing lots of something that leads to nothing.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that distraction is really really tiring, It’s like being on edge all the time. The constant flitting from one thing to another means that I find it hard to concentrate for any length of time on anything, I’m tired, my brain is tired, it’s a flitting brain that needs to stop.

However there is another side of this longer term distraction – where it works to keep us safe. I’ve had a couple of counselling clients recently who have been very distracted – both facing a bereavement and yet both finding so many other things to do and talk about – rather than thinking or talking about the deeper stuff.  At first I found this frustrating, like we weren’t getting anywhere, but of course this is a core part of their coping, of surviving and physically being able to function. This has become a valuable and necessary use of distraction.

There is a time where distraction stops working, where the bigger picture takes over and we need to face up to what is and isn’t working anymore – the rock bottom of distraction.  I don’t know how or when this happens – whether it’s self realisation or life just gets better again.  The only thing I do know is that recognising the signs of long term distraction and asking why this is happening – is a very good question and a very difficult one to answer.

How to be ordinary and interesting

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dreamstime_s_30878063I will admit to feeling rather laid back this month, I think in a good way. I’ve curbed my reflective – ‘what is the meaning of life’ thoughts and just got on with stuff. Nothing ground breaking but just getting on with stuff has been good. Of course it’s not quite enough just to get on with stuff because I’m starting to think about the stuff I’ve been getting on with and if it’s been worthy or useful or interesting.  And that’s where I’m currently at – what makes the stuff we do interesting – to us or to anyone else? 

One of the questions I find very hard to answer is when someone asks me what I’ve been up to?  I go blank and my inner voice starts to panic – what have I done that is interesting enough to share?  I have this fear of being the boring old woman who goes on and on about her stuff and that the stuff isn’t interesting enough to go on about.   

This dilemma is a strange one in a way because I do generally find people’s day to day lives rather interesting. As a researcher I am always asking other people to talk about their thoughts and ideas and I usually find them all very interesting.  The same in my counselling – I hear about all sorts of lives and each one is intriguing and interesting.  And to be fair most aren’t much different from mine or anyone else’s – just ordinary lives.

So this month I’m trying to accept the ordinary, embrace the ordinary and try and figure out the interest in my own ordinary life. I think perhaps my reflective period has dampened my ability to be in the here and now and embrace the ordinary because I’m too busy thinking about all the big and momentous things I should be doing (and googling famous successful people).

Some people keep gratitude diaries to remind themselves of what they have to be grateful for each day.  It’s a lovely sentiment but it just feels a bit too reflective rather than proactive for me.  So I’m thinking that an ‘I am interesting diary’ might be more practical and helpful.  Writing down 3 things each day that I’ve either done, seen, read or heard that are interesting. I don’t know if it will make me realise that I do actually do stuff that is interesting, make me take more interest in things or help me in my own conversational skills about my life. So if you see me and ask me what I’ve been up to I aim to be more prepared to answer and wow you with my ordinary life. 

……PS. I am slightly panicking about needing to find 3 things – maybe I’ll start with just one…

January ladder climbing

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Pier sunset jan 2016So January and the media is full of new year, new you, how to be fitter, more successful, reach your goals, be happier, drink less (or not at all) etc. etc.  It’s quite exhausting and after my strivings of 2015 I’m ignoring all of it – apart from the happy bit – that’s always good to aim for.  So how do I start climbing those ladders.  Well according to a 75 year old Harvard study it’s all about being socially connected and having good relationships.  If that is all you do, you’ll be happier and healthier than most.  Check out the TED talk by Robert Waldinger. It’s an amazing study that followed 700 men from their 20’s through to their 90’s. Of the original 700, 60 are still actively engaged in the study.

This is backed up by Dr McCulloch, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation who credits being social and interconnected as top tips for health and happiness.  Other things to strive for include being connected with nature, having things to look forward to and doing nice things for others.

I reckon all of that is very possible and more than enough. 

 Last January I tried taking a picture outside each day, looking back at these I realise how beneficial that was to my mood.  The difference this January I think is in the mindset, that sometimes just having these moments each day is enough. One of these photos came up on Facebook today – ‘Sharing a memory of one year ago’ –  It was a lovely photo of the beach at sunset with my dog Arnie who died in May 2015.  I’ve taken another one today – same beach, sunset and with my puppy Monty.  New year, new motivations, less striving, just being, happy photo.  It’s a rung up a ladder.