Mindfulness and mental health

It’s Mental Health Awareness week so a perfect time to start or deepen your Mindfulness practice.  Mindfulness is a way to connect to serenity and a feeling of peacefulness, which is much needed in our fast paced stressful society.  A Mindfulness practice is even more valuable for those suffering from mental health issues – big or small.

The Mindfulness practice of taking slow deep conscious breaths and keeping your focus on your breath coming in and going out, may seem very simplistic yet this trains you to release anxieties and step away from stressful thoughts. You are ‘rewiring your brain’ so as to notice your thoughts and then to refocus your attention on your breath instead of those thoughts.  By ‘rewiring your brain’ I mean that you are over riding your default pattern (e.g. of letting your thoughts rule your mood) to create new neuropathways in your brain and consequently new patterns.  

With regular practice of a Mindfulness meditation you create a habit of connecting to calmness instead of engaging in those thoughts that spiral into feelings of anxiety or depression.  

Slow deep breaths are also an effective way to physically release stress in the body and bring your nervous system back into balance. 

In addition a range of mood enhancing chemicals can be produced when you meditate such as serotonin (‘the happy neurotransmitter’) and endorphins (resulting in the ‘feel good effect’). So yes, you can feel a bit blissed out after a meditation!

As a regular meditator, over time you’ll start to notice changes in your everyday behavior – maybe feeling relaxed when you’re in a traffic jam instead of being angry that these things ‘always happen to you’!  Noticing these changes in yourself is very rewarding and uplifting. Allow time for these changes to start happening – Mindfulness is also about being kind and non-judgmental in our practice. The more you do a Mindfulness practice, the stronger that neurpathway becomes, and the more engrain the pattern becomes of connecting to peacefulness instead of get caught up in anxious thoughts.

So right now … take a slow deep breath in, filling your abdomen with air and slowly exhaling, emptying your abdomen of air. And then another, keeping your full conscious attention on your breath as you do so.  Continue this for a few minutes and enjoy your increased feeling of calm in body and mind.

Does a calm life seem boring?

I relish adventure and variety, and being Irish I do love a bit of craic!  There are also things I want to achieve in my work, so in all this can create very busy periods.  And that can be exciting.  Some people think it’s the only way to go – you are not living life to the max unless you are constantly pushing yourself and always striving. I’ve heard a number of people express that life would be boring if they weren’t so busy!

One problem with that is that being constantly active and pushing ourselves to do more, means we end up exhausted and possibly quite stressed.   Continuously grasping is never fully satisfying, as you always want more. 

The other faux pas is thinking that the alternative to that hectic lifestyle is being bored or being boring, that being calm is a monotonous in-between state. 

On the contrary enjoying the calmer ‘ying’ state really helps to recharge our batteries, to feel more peaceful and for other interesting tangents of life to open up. 

The rhythm of our lives naturally changes – within a month, a week, a day, even an hour. To be in balance is to flow with those rhythms and not be stuck in one extreme or other.We work best when we flow between calm and receptive (ying energy) to outgoing and engaging (yang energy). Our ying needs our yang and vica versa.

When in a calm place we are creating a space to connect inwards and to listen to the quiet whisperings of our soul.  Those whisperings may be as simple as a friend coming to mind who you want to connect with, inspirations about something new you would love to try or create, or a realization that something you have been doing lately just doesn’t feel right. 

Perhaps what people are most afraid of isn’t the boredom, but really facing what their inner knowing is trying to tell them. 

We are so used to chasing, yearning and grasping that once we take a reprieve from that it can feel like we are ‘doing nothing’. What really happens though is we are opening ourselves up to receive inspiration, creative ideas, healing, direction, to connect to what we really want and the things that will bring us a more lasting sense of happiness.

Don’t shy away from the quiet times. Embrace them, knowing that there are gifts in the calm and the peace you find there will fortify you for the challenges of the busy times. For me its both the inner journeys and the outer adventures that make life interesting.

How to prepare your busy mind for a great nights sleep

I’m an analytical type and by nature a night owl, hence my brain can be very active at night. I often get a second wind as the evening progresses – and had developed the habit of starting things after dinner that had my mind buzzing with ideas and enthusiasm. The result was difficulty ‘switching off’ when I went to bed leading to difficulty sleeping.  I resist believing that ‘this is just the way I am and have always been’, as I know it is possible to change neuropathways and create new habits.  With this in mind, I have been looking for ways to transit from zoom to zen in the late evening. Here are the two things I focus on and why:

1. The Switch

I live and work in a bustling city, the underground is rammed and my life is busy. When I get home in the evening I know it feels really good to change pace. Sometimes I reset by just sitting in golden silence for a few minutes, which can be enough for me to switch into quieter ‘home mode’. Most effectively though to help me unwind and to quiet my mind is to do slow deep conscious breathes or a simple meditation practice. A few minutes of deep breathing will calm your nervous system, help you produce melatonin, and it will focus you in the present moment – the later is important for the over thinker whose mind is racing around all over the shop. I suggest using a guided meditation, as this will keep you more focused. The more you practice it the easier it will be to slow your mind down. (You could try my free audio ‘Leave work worries behind’ on my site https://joyoftheflow.com which includes a short guided practice to relax your body & mind).

Also in the hour before bed, I start to slow down my activities. I turn off my screens, I’ll do the dishes, get ready for bed etc at a slower more conscious pace. It sounds odd but as a naturally fast paced person, when I do things slowly and consciously it seems to create more space and elongate time.

2. What I DON’T do at night

It’s simple but makes a difference – leading up to bedtime I don’t look at screens (phone, laptop, TV). That habit of looking things up on my iPhone in bed (yes ‘in’ bed) had really snuck in there! Recently I’ve made a personal commitment to myself to not look at screens for a minimum of 30 mins before bed (and obviously not in bed either). The ideal is not to look at LED screens for 1-2 hours before bed, but I wanted to make a commitment that felt achievable every day.

The reasons to make this change are two-fold.

Firstly, LED screens and the data we are receiving are very stimulating for the mind.  Even watching TV which we traditionally think of as ‘switching off’, or a relaxing activity is, in fact, a continued influx of visuals and information.

Secondly, when the sun goes down the pineal gland starts to produce melatonin, the hormone that helps us sleep. However looking at screens before bed fools that part of the brain into thinking it is still light and not melatonin making time, hence not sleep time.

I’d love you to reply and share what you are doing to switch off your busy mind at night.

If you find that you’re problems sleeping are due to ongoing anxiety or stress, then the program I am launching next month may be just what you need. This will reduce your anxiety and help you develop tools to connect to calm. If you’d like to discuss please get in touch (gina@joyoftheflow.com), else wait for more details coming soon.

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An alternative to life’s never ending to-do list

We live in a busy world and out busyness can seem like real drudgery sometimes. When life is dominated by ticking off as many mundane chores as you can from your checklist, then life has lost its spark. Enough is enough; it’s summertime and it’s time to have fun! I’m not going to tell you about some fancy pants task manager, instead here are my top three suggestions to shake up life’s incessant to do list.

1. Outsource what you do not enjoy. It’s common to think that we should complete as many of the tasks in our life ourselves as we can  – because they are things we are able to do. Actually though for productivity and enjoyment, your time is best spent on the things you are good at and enjoy doing.  Don’t let mundane chores steal all your precious time. What are the things in your week that hang over you, take up too much time, that you don’t relish?

There are endless possibilities for outsourcing, from personal clothes shoppers, cleaners, companies that deliver ingredients and recipes or home-cooked meals, accountants  (maybe you can do your tax return yourself but do you really want to!), VAs (virtual assistants), a personal trainers etc.  Employ others to do their thing, and give yourself more time for what matters to you. This is part of orchestrating a better work-life balance.

2. Prioritise playtime. Yes indeed I am suggesting to you – the busy professional that you are, that you play and have fun!  Don’t tell me that singing along to your favourite power ballad (or other guilty pleasure music) doesn’t make the washing up more fun.  Or that a bit of silliness with your 9-year-old, or your partner, or your best friend is not going to lighten your mood, no matter how much you have on your plate. According to Dr. Brene Brown, the researcher, and author, ‘doing things just because they’re fun and not because they’ll help achieve a goal, is vital to human development.’ We need play for our own health and happiness.

3. More mindful moments. We can get bogged down in seriousness, and overwhelmed by all that needs doing. Stop worrying, busying and planning, instead take a few moments in your day to be really present. Fully savour the food you are eating, notice the blossoms on the trees, feel the ease with which your body moves as you walk. Mix in some gratitude to power it up, and you will start connecting to the simplicity and joyousness of your life even more. Those little magic mindful moments are a great way to lighten up and get some perspective.

If you’ve enjoyed this blog and think someone else would too,  please share it.  Thanks!

To download FREE audio ‘Leave work worries behind’ click here

Is it time to reframe your opinions of mental health (including your own)?

Has stress ever felt suffocating, has the ‘black dog’ (as Churchill called depression) ever got hold of you or have you had some dark nights of the soul?

This week’s Mental Health Awareness week in the UK is a powerful movement to end the stigma regarding mental health and the notion that suffering from stress or depression are something to be ashamed of.

Both stress and depression have impacted my life in different ways, and I suspect in some form they have touched all of our lives.  My Mum suffered from depression, and as a family, we didn’t know how to talk about that or deal with that in a very positive way. I never discussed Mums depression with my friends, preferring to keep it private. My teenage memory is of feeling helpless and sad for Mums obvious turmoil, and a slight judgmental anger, wishing she would just ‘deal with it’. In adulthood, my judgment was dissolved by my compassion – and this was a pivotal change that enabled me to be more supportive and kind. I wonder what conversations could have been had when I was growing up to make that shift earlier.  A quote that helped me make the shift was

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

This quote softens me into more loving-kindness for others, and for myself. Try it out. Does that quote change how you perceive some people? Or even help you to be less harsh on yourself?

While I don’t suffer from depression, life has had its challenges and I have had innumerable angst-ridden ‘dark nights of the soul’.  One such time was when I was dealing with immense pressure at work. This had been going on for many months. I meditated, eat well, had occasional acupuncture, talked to mentors and took many other actions to try to keep myself ‘in balance’, to get me through it.  But the pressure and demands on me kept increasing. All the signs were telling me that this situation was not good for body, mind or soul. Yet what kept me trapped in that situation for so long was the thought that ‘I should be able to deal with this’ and that I was ‘weak’ if I didn’t stick with it. Does that sound familiar? Have you ever spoken to yourself like that?

It’s kind of crazy to think of stepping away from something detrimental to one’s wellbeing as a sign of ‘weakness’.

This I feel is a societal stigma and thankfully a reframe is slowly happening.  It took a huge amount of courage and self-love to finally say ‘this is too much pressure and I won’t keep doing this’. My situation improved immeasurable from there, although I did feel residues of shame for a while. I kept reminding myself that to endure oppressively high levels of stress is not a badge of honour or statement of my worthiness.

The distressing feelings that kept resurfacing over those months were, in fact, a neon flashing red light that the situation needed to change. If such signs are ignored and if someone continues to push themselves to a place of imbalance for a prolonged period there is a risk of serious health impacts further down the road. Besides, it’s an unhappy place to keep yourself in.  Mental health matters.

I believe we can all do our part to end stigmas about stress and depression, by firstly being honest with ourselves about any judgments we have of ourselves or another who is suffering. Then have a new healthier more loving conversations on these topics.  A kind thought and a kind word can go a long way to providing the support and understanding that we all need.

How to finally stop work from zapping your energy

Listen to or download the audio blog; Finally stop work from zapping your energy

If work is draining your energy there are a number of things that you can build awareness around, that once changed will start energising you.

It’s important to recognise if you recharge your batteries by engaging with people or by quiet time alone?

I am neither definitively an extrovert nor an introvert.  So, when my energy is low I ask myself if the company of others, or being quietly focused and reflective, sounds most appealing. Following my instincts, basically listening to what I want and following that with a corresponding action always helps to raise my energy levels.  I recommend you test the waters for yourself.  Ask yourself what would feel good then either make an effort to talk to someone or create some time where you won’t be disturbed.

Ok so we don’t always have the choice at work– sometimes the situation dictates what is required such as needing to be outgoing to give a presentation.  However, if you are pushing yourself to be continuously outgoing or being continuously insular, and it is against your true nature then you are heading for burnout or demotivation.

Who are you spending your time with?

Pay particular attention to how different people are affecting you.  Limit time with ‘Debbie Downers’ and ‘Moaning Mikes’ – also known as energy vampires. If you engage in negative gossip it will bring your mood down, putting you in a negative headspace and thus diminish your energy.  Seek out people at work whose company you find uplifting. Make a habit of regular interactions with them, even if it’s just a 20-second exchange at the water machine.

Are you trying to do everything at once?

How much multitasking are you doing? Studies show that it takes more energy (and is less productive) to keep switching from task to task. So it’s best to focus on single tasks for longer periods of time.  Create the habit of completing one thing before moving onto another, including checking your emails.

What’s your body saying?

Look at your posture – are you sitting upright with a straight back or are your shoulders hunched, and your body slouched over your desk? An upright and aligned body posture enables energy and chi flow more easily in your body, plus it is easier for you to feel more centered and grounded.

Have you developed a sugar overload or caffeine habit, especially on the busy days? Don’t fool yourself; you know that leads to a crash at some stage. There are a huge variety of tasty healthy bars out there now  – I tend to stock up on a brand of bars called ‘nakd’ and variety of nuts so I’ve got tasty go-to snacks that won’t lead to an ‘afternoon slump’.

Finally, gentleness and self care are very subtle yet powerful ways to both stop you getting too exhausted and to slowly bring your energy up. This can include being kinder in how you talk to yourself, taking some more mini breaks – even taking a minute to look out the window at an expansive sky or a 5-minute walk outside, taking some slow deep conscious breaths and nourishing yourself with some good food.  Explore such simple things that feel good and nourish body and soul. Discover how energising that is.

If you have enjoyed this blog and think someone else would too, please share it. Thank you!

To download FREE audio ‘Leave work worries behind’ click here

3 essential elements to connect to your Zen despite the office mayhem

Listen to or download audio blog3 essential elements to connect you to your Zen

A busy office is a frenetic environment. There is often a deluge of requests and tasks of varying complexity, coupled with a sense of urgency. There aren’t enough people to do the job and everything is needed 5 minutes ago. Sound familiar? Such conditions are hardly conducive to calm clear focus. Instead, our parasympathetic nervous system is frequently stimulated putting us into the ‘stress response’. Our blood pressure rises, our breath is shallow, our body is tense, we react quickly but we are also on edge. In this reactive state, we are not in our power center. A holistic solution to becoming your calm and productive ‘Zen’ self in the office should incorporate addressing your mental, physical and creative self.  Let’s look at how you deal with situations when in a stressed state and what a Zen alternative could look like.

Consider your ‘firefighting’ self. It reacts to whatever comes your way, often yo-yoing you from task to task. You start work on a document, then respond to an incoming email, then switch focus again as you realize you need to prep for that meeting in 5 minutes. Then another email comes in, and you can’t stop yourself from having a quick peek to ensure it’s nothing urgent.

Now let’s look at how your Zen-self deals with all the demands coming your way. Your Zen-self knows your top priorities for the day, knows ahead of time what meetings you need to prep for and keeps focused on single tasks for much longer periods of time. Yes, that does mean not checking every email as it comes it when you are working on something else.

 

Your anxiety-driven-self see’s problems and obstacles. Your amazing analytical skills are focused on seeing all that is wrong. You fret about finding a solution or time to get things done, which actually uses up a lot of mental energy and time.

Your Zen-self is aware of the issues but the primary focus is on the solution. You know there is a positive way forward.

 

Your stressed-self is so identified with your mental activity that you have no awareness of how you are physically, or when your breathing is shallow, when your body is tense or when you are energetically off balance.

Your Zen-self regularly takes slow conscious deep breaths. Your Zen-self knows what a powerful tool your breath is to keep you grounded, calm, clear and focused. Your Zen-self knows that you need to get up from the desk regularly to move your body, to not be stuck in your head. Your Zen-self relishes those mindful moments of connecting to your senses – of tasting your food, of hearing laughter, of feeling the warmth of the sun on your face.

 

Your serious-self does not see the purpose or relevance of personal creativity or play in the workplace and does not have the time anyway.

Your Zen-self goes on lunchtime photo walks, seeing what is around with fresh eyes and playing with your own artistic abilities. Your Zen-self is inspired by how joyful the Dalai Lama is. Your Zen-self is playful with colleagues.

Your Zen-self loves to see the beautiful expansive sky.

Your Zen-self knows that inspiration and solutions flow more easily when you take time to step away from it all, even for a few minutes, and nourish your soul.

Your Zen-self is inside you now, waiting for you to connect.

 

If you have enjoyed this blog and think someone else would too, please share it. Thank you!

To download FREE audio ‘Leave work worries behind’ click here

5 secrets to banishing work anxiety on Sunday evenings

Listen to or download audio blog 5 secrets to banish work anxiety on Sunday evenings 

Do work thoughts start to invade your mind on Sunday evening, leaving you a little anxious for the remainder of your weekend?

Do you start switching into work mode after your Sunday dinner, perhaps checking and responding to work emails? Has Sunday evening become an extension of your working week?

The weekend is your free time. It’s time to have fun, to replenish and to explore life! Here are my top secrets to banishing work anxiety on Sunday evenings, so the whole weekend is yours to enjoy:

1. Start on Friday. Before you leave work on Friday map out your to-do list for Monday. Be clear on your top 3 high-priority tasks for the day. This need only take a few minutes but it makes the difference between starting Monday on the back foot or front foot. Once you know you have organized your work on Friday, you know you will start Monday with a clear focus instead of stepping into Monday morning mayhem.

2. Don’t look at work emails on Sunday (or over the weekend at all for that matter). Give yourself permission to have a full weekend of personal time. If it’s a ‘must’ to check your emails on Sunday then dedicate a defined slot to review what has come in and whether it impacts your priority to-do list for Monday. Resist looking at work emails after that. Can you turn off your work email on your phone so you won’t see new emails without actively going in to look at them? If not then consider switching your phone to airplane mode on Sunday evening.

3. Get my free audio download ‘leave work worries behind’ from this website – you can click on the link at the bottom of this blog. Do the guided exercise to relax and release tension, followed by the visualization exercise. You might choose to visualize how you want to feel at the end of your working day on Monday. Imagine having a great day at work and how you might feel at the end of the day. Positive expectations put you in the right mindset for a good day.

4. Swap your old Sunday night habit of switching into work mode, for a new calming and nurturing Sunday night ritual. Psychologically this change means you will look forward to Sunday evenings instead of dreading them. In the hour or so before you go to bed, start winding down. Have a bath with candles or try some gentle bedtime yoga. ‘Yoga with Adriene’ on YouTube is a great free resource. She has a 7-minute or a 20-minute bedtime yoga session. Explore other ways to peacefully replenish, so your Sunday night ritual is one you want to do each week.

5. A simple gratitude exercise is very powerful. Ask yourself what three things you have most enjoyed over the weekend? Consider what experiences have you had, and who you have shared your time with over the weekend. It is also a wonderful practice to recall three small simple things you have enjoyed over the weekend such as hearing a birdsong, seeing the sun break through the clouds, the smell of your coffee, or that delicious slice of cake. Recollecting and feeling grateful for your weekend really does enhance your feeling of having had a fulfilling weekend, and that’s a much more satisfying way to end your weekend than worrying about work!

To download FREE audio ‘Leave work worries behind’ click here

3 things you must do NOW to stop work pressure from deteriorating your health

3 things must do NOW to stop work pressure deteriorating your health

Does feeling vibrant and healthy, with a great work-life balance, feel like an unrealistic fantasy? Corporate jobs can be very intense, with diverse and competing demands on us. We put internal pressure on ourselves to do our best and to do more. Challenges are good and stretching ourselves is healthy – unless we are overstretched for prolonged periods of time. Overstretching can become a habit, it can seem like the norm – and that’s a dangerous thing. Prolonged stress is the primary cause of deteriorating health and of illness. So what must you do to avoid that slippery slope, or to do an about turn if you are already on it?

Number One – look out for the signs. That may not be as obvious as it sounds. Stress manifests in different ways for us all. It is a collection of behavioral and physical symptoms. Some of them you may not recognize as important indicators that you are off balance, perhaps thinking ‘that’s just the way life is’, ‘that’s just the way I am,’ or ‘isn’t that just normal’.

Before I share the symptoms with you, let’s look at action Number Two – acknowledge where you are. As you read the list, honestly assess (a) how many of them you are impacted by and (b) how often. Are they occasional, frequent, or near constant occurrences?

  • As a health/stress indicator first look at your energy levels and sleep patterns – are you regularly fatigued, is your sleep disturbed or do you suffer from insomnia?
  • How is your appetite? Have you been overeating, or experiencing a loss of appetite? Is your digestion out of balance, resulting in constipation or diarrhea? Your gut health is a key indicator of your overall health and state of wellbeing. Common colds and flu also show that your immune system is down.
  • Looking more at your physical health – do you get tension headaches, migraines, have aching neck and shoulders, lower back pain, suffer from menstrual distress, or have high blood pressure?
  • How moody are you? Have you become irritable or impatient with colleagues? Have you had inappropriate outbursts of anger or hostility? Do you brood for prolonged periods? Do you get depressed? Do you have a lot of worrying thoughts? Do you worry excessively, especially about trivia?
  • Looking at other behavioral symptoms, are you working late or more obsessively than usual? Do you have difficulty making decisions, large or small?
  • When we are overloaded and stressed we are not as present. Have you been having minor accidents? Do you get confused or forgetful about dates, places, times, or other details?
  • Finally has there been a sudden increase in your drinking or smoking habits?

That’s quite a big list I’ve shared and it’s by no means exhaustive. In isolation many of these may seem minor, however, each one is a sign that you are off balance. The more signs there are telling you that your wellbeing is out of whack, the more you need to take notice. As the saying goes, ‘health is wealth’. Consider a time when you have felt sick, with a cold or a stomach bug for example. Recall how much you craved feeling better. We all know that being ill (short or long term) is undesirable, yet how often do you sacrifice your wellbeing for your work?

So the next action, Number Three – change your priorities. Nothing is going to change unless you do.

What are the biggest causes of your stress symptoms? Step back and look at the bigger picture.

Are you putting too much pressure on yourself with unrealistic expectations? How much of the pressure is coming from others? If your health is being impacted that’s when you need to speak up.  I’ve been there and had to have that conversation. Although it felt daunting at the time to initiate that conversation, the results had a huge positive impact on my life so it was really worth it.  You may be surprised by how supportive others are when they know you are willing to explore other solutions but are not willing to put your health at risk. If they are not supportive, quite frankly, that’s a red flag. No job is worth your health, so it may be time to look elsewhere.

Changing your priorities may only require some simple changes such as getting out of the office at lunchtime, learning simple mindfulness techniques, going to yoga once a week, cutting down on refined sugar, getting regular massages or acupuncture, an occasional digital detox and early night, or scheduling catch-ups with friends who make you laugh!

In a nutshell, my recommendations are to be aware of your stress symptoms, address the root cause, and do more things that make you feel healthy, happy and vibrant!

If you have enjoyed this blog and think it may be of use to others please share. Thank you!