There’s a verse in the Bible that says a merry heart does us good and acts just like a medicine (Proverbs 17:22). I’d agree with that! A couple of weeks ago I visited my aunt. We don’t see each other as often as I’d like but when we do we tend to first of all, over a cup of tea usually, solve most of the problems of the world. I’m only sorry there aren’t any politicians there to join in the conversation! Then once that’s done somehow or other we always get onto other topics, topics that make us laugh. I love those times! Sitting with someone very special, a sense of connection that draws you to each other, the warmth of that connection bringing joy to the heart and then – the laughter. It does indeed act just like a medicine. Sometimes we laugh until the tears roll down my face, until my tummy aches with it all, and then we take a big breath and laugh some more.
…a merry heart does us good and acts just like a medicine…
A few years ago, I was doing some teaching on managing stress. It was an evening session and the attendees were all nurses, some of them having come straight from work. It was a heavy topic – most of them were going through some sort of serious stress, so at the end of the presentation, I put up a clip of a baby laughing. You know those clips that are all over YouTube? I watched their faces, and at first it seemed the tiredness would win, but one by one they started to smile, and before the 4-minute clip had finished most of the nurses were laughing. It was great to see the change. Yes, they had learned a lot about stress, but they were also reminded that a good laugh can make the world of difference. It won’t change the circumstances but it does make a difference. What it does is makes you feel good so that you are more likely to see stress as a challenge rather than a threat. When this happens, you can face demanding and difficult situations constructively and with a positive attitude. This often results in better outcomes.
Laughter makes you feel good so that you are more likely to see stress as a challenge rather than a threat. You can face demanding and difficult situations constructively and with a positive attitude. This often results in better outcomes.
Here are some other reasons you should laugh more:
If you want to read more you can go here – you’ll find lots of information as well as links to scientific studies just in case you don’t believe laughter can be so good for you!
For a week I’ve made excuses. ‘It’s too cold – this is not an excuse,’ I told myself, ‘it’s a fact.’ And it was cold. Minus 4 and even -5 degrees Celsius IS cold! But today my brain and body are telling me they want to get outside. ‘It’s only -2 degrees this morning,’ I mutter, ‘a walk will do you good.’
The upside of a freezing night is the brilliant day that usually follows. So, while my brain and body are chatting about the need for a walk, my eyes are drawn to the sun’s rays bouncing off the window in the entrance, and my ears are tuned in to the exuberant twittering of a family of wrens flitting through the ferns outside the kitchen. Then I am wrapping the gray scarf around my neck, shoving both arms into the thigh length polo fleece jacket and pulling on the cute beanie and mittens I bought when we were in Ireland.
Frost-touched gravel crunches underfoot, three of the alpacas look across at me, momentarily interrupting their chewing. The other two ignore me. A neighbor flies out of his drive, going too fast as he usually does. He waves and smiles and I wave and smile in return as I pick up the pace.
I am choosing to be mindful today, to enjoy every minute of this walk. I’m getting good at bringing my attention back to what I’m doing in the present moment. So I notice that even the leafless trees sparkle in the sunshine, I see the patches of frost shining on the dark road in time to avoid them. I breathe deeply of the fresh morning air and I feel it doing me good!
I am reminded that we are all connected, and it's good.
I hear the school bus before I see it. The driver and I wave and smile as it whizzes past. We’re old friends although we’ve never met – greeting each other like this for a couple of years must mean something! Neighbours wave as they flash by on their way to work or to drop the children off at school. I am reminded that we are all connected and it’s good. The horse on the corner hangs his head over the fence snuffling as I walk by. So I greet him and say ‘hello’ to my favourite tree on the other side of the road. I am convinced it flourishes because I talk to it whenever I pass by! A couple of golfers are teeing off and they wave before settling into serious golfing business.
Being outside, in nature makes us feel happy.
Research tells us how good it is to get outside, to be in nature; how it stimulates production of neurotransmitters that even out our mood and make us feel happy. I don’t need the research though; I know it, experience it right now. I feel calm, peaceful and focused.
I sit by a warm fire with my cup of Monk Pear tea, savouring the aroma, the flavor, the feel of the mug in my hands, and I am grateful that today I didn't make an excuse; I went for a walk.
“What are you doing and why are you doing it?” have you ever asked yourself that question? Every now and then I do. Sometimes I get a bit lost and seem to be ambling along but there’s no sense of purpose to what I’m doing. I lose sight of my goal; so that what I do each day is a bit meaningless because it isn’t taking me anywhere.
Goals are important. They’re the dreams we’re willing to work for and they are fuelled by our desires- so it’s really important to know the ‘why behind your what.’
What goals have you set for your life? Are they goals that are fuelled by your desires? Or are they goals that you think you ‘should’ aim for – like many New Year’s resolutions?
So… ask yourself the question, then take a pen and paper and write down what you want to achieve, in, say the next six months, before the end of the year. Setting goals means we are taking responsibility for our lives and it makes us feel good because it adds a sense of purpose and direction to our lives.
Here are some things to consider when setting goals:
“Practise makes perfect.” I don’t know about you, but I heard those words many times as I was growing up. I remember saying them to my own children, and to the young nurses I worked with when I was an educator – and repeating them to myself throughout my growing up years – and even now, as I try to learn something new.
When we repeat an activity, when we practice over and over, we strengthen neural circuitry in the brain. If you’ve heard the brain referred to as a muscle, you’ve probably also heard the saying that “practice is like doing a push-up for the mind.” There’s a great video from Ted Ed that explores what actually happens in the brain when we practice, practice, practice to develop a skill.
Myelin is a fatty substance in the white matter of the brain – in fact it gives the white matter its whitish appearance. It’s like a sheath that protects nerve fibres, prevents energy loss and helps information move along neural pathways. In fact the more myelin there is the more rapid and effective the transfer of information. It's the repetition of an activity that causes the thickening of the myelin sheath.
I encourage you to watch the video.
To get the best out of your practice time (whatever you are practising) try the following:
3. Use your imagination. Studies suggest that once we have practiced something enough that action can be strengthened through imagination.
The self- esteem movement is about 30 years old now – and back when it became all the rage it was embraced whole heartedly by schools, counsellors, and even governments because it was supposed to be the answer to all the problems in society. If we could just teach the kids how great they were, it was thought, we’ll have a happier, healthier (mentally) society.
It’s become a truism – everyone accepts that you have to have high self-esteem if you are to be happy and healthy. We have to think positively of ourselves at all costs! The quest to raise everyone’s self-esteem though has backfired – big time.
It sounds good… but, because high self-esteem usually requires feeling special and above average it tends to come at a high price. Being average is just not acceptable any more – everyone has to be above average… and as it’s not really possible for everyone on the planet to be above average at the same time, a way around this is to socially compare ourselves in a way that continually tries to build ourselves up and puts others down.
One of the most insidious consequences of the self-esteem movement over the last couple of decades is the narcissism epidemic. Yes… that’s what I said… narcissism epidemic- we know that narcissism is far more common now that it was before the self-esteem movement and studies have shown that around 65% of students on university campuses score higher in narcissism than previous generations. We can probably assume that means that we have more narcissists out in the world beyond university campuses too!
The thing is – that even if you do have high self-esteem, all it takes is for you to blow a work project, put on some weight or not get invited to a party everyone else got invited to, and your self-esteem flies out the window!! Our self-worth is dependent on our latest success or failure. And we don’t want low self-esteem either. So, what’s the alternative?? I think you knew I was going to say self-compassion.
You’re right! Self-compassion is not based on positive self-evaluations of ourselves. Rather, it’s a way of relating to ourselves. It involves being caring and supportive to ourselves when we fail, feel inadequate or struggle in life – extending the same feelings of compassion to ourselves that we typically extend to others. People are compassionate to themselves because they’re human beings who suffer, not because they’re special and above average. Unlike self-esteem then, self-compassion emphasises interconnection rather than separateness. It also offers more emotional stability – no more emotional roller coaster rides – it’s always there for you – when you’re on top of the world and when you fall flat on your face.
So… would you rather have high self-esteem or self-compassion? A roller coaster ride? Or stability? Hmmm… I choose self-compassion!
Have a wonderful self-compassionate week!
James Pennebaker is a psychologist, and the person considered to be the first to use writing as a way of working through trauma and other difficulties in your life. It’s come to be known as Expressive Writing, and some 200 studies later the outcomes of those first studies have been confirmed - and added to. Expressive writing can make a difference; it boosts immune function, brings about a drop in blood pressure, and can reduce feelings of depression and elevated daily moods.
Following those early studies, not everyone could agree upon why writing made a difference, since why writing is effective for one person does not necessarily explain why it works for someone else. However, in trying to figure out what it was that made writing so effective, the researchers forgot one thing, says Pennebaker, “What early writing researchers failed to consider was that people were using words to describe their personal upheaval.”
It seems obvious that people were using words when writing. And it is obvious… but it’s the words they used that needed to be investigated. And this lead to the development of a computer program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC). The idea was that this program would analyse the words people used – whether in expressive writing or in everyday speech – and this would provide insights into their emotional states.
"the words people used...would provide insights into their emotional state."
In his book The Secret Life of Pronouns Pennebaker shows us how the words we use can help us to understand ourselves. He says that he began looking closely at words in his own life, at the words he spoke in talking with friends and family, when writing emails and letters, and while not fundamentally changing the way he spoke or wrote, the analyses he did, pointed to some natural shortcomings, which he has been working on ever since!
Robert Tennyson Stevens, says that ‘language changes are extremely powerful!’ In his book, The Logos of Now he writes of the ‘momentous’ day when he had an ‘aha’ moment, recognizing that his own words, his thoughts, his inner language, were all shaping his reality, how he was living his life. Like Pennebaker, Stevenson used this awareness to reshape the language he used – both the inner language he used when talking about himself and his circumstances, and the expressed language he used to communicate with those around him.
"His own words, his thoughts, his inner language were all shaping his reality."
We’ve known for a long time that the words we speak, the conversations we have can bring life, or death. What language are you using? How are you shaping your life? Are your words positive, encouraging, life-giving words? Or are they negative, discouraging, death words? When you are confronted with challenges and difficulties, how are you likely to speak of those things?
It’s just too hard. I can’t do this.”
When things don’t work out quite the way you wanted them to, what sort of conversation do you have with whomever you are talking to about it?
“I don’t know why I even bothered, things just don’t work out for me.”
When you make a mistake, what is your inner dialogue?
“ I’m so stupid, I knew that would happen.”
Well, that was a stupid thing to do.”
The words you use can help you, or not… start with yourself, and begin to practice being aware of that inner dialogue that can sabotage you and prevent you from moving forward into a better, brighter life. This starts with noticing your thoughts, and not accepting everything that comes into your mind as truth or reality. It’s just a thought, not fact, so you don't’ need to engage in conversation with it! As you start changing the inner dialogue, the words you speak will change too – watch for changes in your life as you do this!
Making Time for Me in Siena
In a recent post I wrote about decluttering, with a focus on getting rid of ‘stuff’ in the house – you know all those bits and pieces we hang on to and put in a drawer or cupboard, or on the table. When we open the drawer, or cupboard, we see them (sometimes they fall out of the cupboard but we push them back in and shut the door quickly – I remember my mum doing that!), but we know the ‘stuff’ is there, and that one day we will have to do something with it. Getting rid of anything is hard. It’s even harder when it comes to decluttering our personal life…
...how we manage our life is not so much about time as it is about where we place our attention.
I teach Mindfulness and stress management among other things, and something I hear all the time (and I was guilty of it too) is, “I don’t have time…” But is that really true? And time is always an issue, but how we manage our life is not so much about time as it is about where we place our attention.
The reality is, our attention is constantly under siege, and its never more apparent than this time of year when we are getting back into things after a bit of a break over Christmas and New Year. I put a planner together (you can get it here) because I like to keep track of what I am doing but not with the intention of planning everything on a daily basis down to the minute. I did it so I can deliberately factor in time for me. I haven’t been good at that in the past and have had some major health issues as a consequence. So, no more of that! Just as I am, day-by-day, throwing out what is no longer needed in the house, I am taking a close look at how I can be more present, more aware, spend some time ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ ALL the time. I’m clarifying my priorities, setting intentions and then practising putting my attention on those priorities.
Our busyness and distraction is, for most of us, a result of being this way for a long time. We build up habits and our brain just runs with what it knows. For that to change we have to decide we want something different and teach our brain that this is the way it is from now on. Habits are great while they’re serving our true intentions, or a situation’s real needs. Otherwise we end up going through the motions and missing what’s really important. Like decluttering the house, creating new habits that are good for us, is not easy… but it’s so worthwhile!!
Habits are great while they're serving our true intentions, or a situation's real needs.
In the frantic world we live in with so much demanding our attention, we can be on edge, reactive and scattered; this leaves us feeling off balance, and often running from one thing to another without a sense of having really completed anything. It’s starting to feel like the new normal, and that’s not good. Whether we are at work, at school or at home we need to manage ourselves, and Jeremy Hunter says to do that we need to manage our attention. If we don’t, he says, it undermines our ability to perform, connect, create and innovate. And it definitely undermines our ability to enjoy life. The best way to train our brain is to focus attention. Dr. Jeffery Schwartz, author of You Are Not Your Brain, says that we are what we give our attention to – what we attend to creates our lives.
If we don't manage our attention it undermines our ability to enjoy life.
What are you giving your attention to? In order to take time for yourself and care for you, you have to give your attention to doing just that. A good way to start is to clarify your intentions as this gives you direction in how you want to invest your energy. Ask yourself: “What’s vital for me to put energy in right now?” or “Is this the best use of my energy?” Another way of saying this is: “What am I doing and why am I doing it?”
Ask yourself these questions to clarify what’s important, what your priorities are:
Priorities apply to both short and long - term. In the moment, it means continuing to clean out that cupboard even when you hear your ‘phone ‘ping’ twice; it means taking 10 minutes of quiet time for you even when (especially when) your brain feels like scrambled eggs and your ‘To Do’ list just got longer.
...make it your intention to prioritise rest and renewal.
Over this year of 2017 make it your intention to prioritise rest and renewal. We often give up unstructured downtime without a second thought, letting other demands take over. If you are using a planner it will help you see at a glance if you are creating a schedule that is overly busy – if you are cluttering up your life instead of decluttering! Don’t fill every moment. Be deliberate about building in rest, renewal, and recovery time. Make time for you a priority.
A couple of years ago, not long after returning from a writer’s retreat in Tuscany, a few of the friends I met there decided to declutter their homes. I was taken with the idea and thought it would be a good thing to do, and so I purchased the book that inspired them, thinking it would inspire me too. The book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way of Banishing Clutter Forever by Marie Kondo is a great book, and I read about three chapters. The clutter remained and I forgot all about the decluttering I was so enthusiastic about for a few days.
I should have known then that I was only in what we call the Contemplation Stage of change. I’d definitely moved from the stage where I didn’t even see there was a problem (Pre-Contemplation Stage), but I certainly wasn’t motivated enough to have the determination to get in and start pulling things out of drawers and cupboards (Determination Stage). A few days ago I read a post on Facebook by a friend who had started a secret group for those interested in being part of a decluttering challenge. I commented that it was a good idea, she responded, and ... now I am a part of that group. Yep!! And that means I have a sense of accountability. I joined the group, said I would participate, that I am committed, and in the last three days, I have cleaned cupboards and drawers and moved things to the rubbish bin, as well as passing on to others who can use them, perfectly good things that I have doubled up on or no longer have use for. I am in the Action Stage of change!! As you can see there are stages we have to go through before we actually do something about what might be an issue in our life. It feels good to be cleaning out, and I do tend to agree with Marie Kondo who says, “ The key to successful tidying is to do it in the correct order, to keep only the things you really love, and to do it all at once – and quickly. After that for the rest of your life you only need to choose what you keep and what to discard.”
What is decluttering?
Decluttering is essentially about simplifying and minimizing; its about keeping only what is needed and what is useful, and streamlining. And, we can declutter our mind, our finances and our time as well as our home. But what I’ve found is, that when the home is cluttered it is almost impossible to declutter those other aspects of our life. Start with decluttering the home and you will see that the others follow.
“Decluttering makes it easier to find things, and without the stress hormones rampaging around your brain, it means your brain (along with the rest of you) can rest and rejuvenate when you are at home.”
Why declutter your home?
I’ve asked myself that for a while! Clutter is associated with stress. A 2009 study by Darbe Saxbi and Rena Repetti found that wives who talked more about clutter and unfinished projects had levels of cortisol linked to chronic stress, and chronic stress is bad for your health.
Living in an organized, clutter-free home gives a sense of physical space. It makes it easier to find things, and without the stress hormones rampaging around your brain, it means your brain (along with the rest of you) can rest and rejuvenate when you are at home.
Where do I start?
This can be a hard one, and often, it’s at this point, we give up! So here are a few tips I gleaned from Marie Kondo:
There are lots of websites you can go to for help. One I like is Keep Calm get Organised. Michelle offers a decluttering ebook that will give you lots of checklists if you need ideas. She also mentions some of the above tips.
I hope this encourages you to get started. I can assure you, you will feel great once you finish, but you’ll also feel good every time you deal with one category!
Read here about how a young mum found decluttering saved her motherhood!
Happy 2017! A new year is typically a time when many of us make resolutions. I know it’s not the only time, but because this is the end of one year and the beginning of the next it is a good time to pause, reflect on what has happened, and where we need to, to begin again.
I’ve taken the time this year to intentionally stop and do this: to reflect on 2016, to lay it to rest, and then to consider my resolutions for 2017… I thought for a long while about my word for this year, about what I want for 2017… and decided I will take a kind, gentle approach.
My word for the year is EXPANSION, which doesn’t seem to fit with a gentle approach. But, when we practise lovingkindness for ourselves, whatever we do can be gentle, since lovingkindness traditionally means wishing good things for ourselves: May we be happy, healthy, safe and loved.
For this year I have a number of loving resolutions for myself, and I would wish them for you too – and more may make themselves known as the year flows on. These wishes are for how I want to feel, what I want to do and how I want to be through this coming year.
If you are ready to pause and reflect and set your intentions for 2017, you may like to join my Your Brain on Paper 4-week course commencing February 2nd. This course is about change and transition and how to approach change with intention, passion and presence.
Here are some of my intentions for 2017.
May I greet each day with a grateful heart.
May I admit when I don’t know something.
May I help those in need.
May I go to bed early.
May I verify news before sharing or reacting to it.
May I drink more water.
May I really listen to others when they are speaking.
May I say “help me understand” when I disagree with someone’s position, instead of immediately defending my own.
May I rest when I need to.
May I see my thoughts as thoughts and not as truth or reality.
May I greet everyone I meet with kindness.
May I notice judgement, practice discernment and cultivate wisdom.
May I make time and space for me.
May I pay attention.
May I work with passion.
May I choose to say ‘NO’ when I need to.
May I tell those I love that I love them.
May I speak kindly to myself.
May I ask myself, “Is this helpful? Is it necessary?”
May I pray, meditate, stretch and walk each morning.
May I help others feel safe, loved and valued.
What would you wish for yourself?