Brain overdrive

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For the last three days, my brain has been in overdrive. In fact, it’s happened several times over the last couple of weeks, and I’m really starting to feel the resulting stress. It’s like the opposite of brain fog – when I’m struggling with brain fog, my mind feels sluggish and I can’t focus. But when my brain is in overdrive, I can’t stop thinking. I have hundreds and hundreds of thoughts running around in my head and they – just – won’t – stop.

I remember trying to explain this brain state to my therapist when I was going to CBT. She assumed it was anxiety, but I don’t see it that way. To me, anxiety is uncontrolled worry, it’s a deluge of negative thoughts, of troubling “what ifs”. The thoughts that are running round in my head right now aren’t troubling, they aren’t even particularly negative, but they’re overwhelming, they’re interrupting my ability to focus, and they – just – won’t – stop.

My brain overdrive is usually triggered when something out of the ordinary happens, particularly something that requires my mind to focus in a way that’s not part of my normal daily routine. I’m an introvert, so socializing doesn’t come naturally to me. But I do have a small group of friends that I meet up with once in a while – and although I love spending time with them, I don’t love the brain overdrive it causes. If I go out in the evening, I know that no matter how late it is when I get home, or how tired I am, it’s going to take me two or three hours to fall asleep because my brain is still deep in conversation. My mind is still in the restaurant chatting to my friends, turning over everything that we talked about – not in a ruminating, anxious or worrying way, not analyzing the experience or seeking to judge it, just not able to stop. Having got my mind into that higher gear, I can’t slow it down again.

I suspect that brain fog and brain overdrive are, at least for me, two sides of the same coin. When I have brain fog, my mind is working too slowly and I can’t speed it up enough to get anything done. When I am in brain overdrive, my mind is working too fast, and I can’t slow it down enough to get anything done. In both cases, the frustrating part is not being able to control my thoughts or the speed at which my mind is functioning to allow me to focus on the task at hand.

I don’t claim to have any answers to this one yet, but, as with so many other aspects of mental wellbeing, I feel the first step is learning to take care of me. Although I can’t always fix my brain overdrive, there are a few things that I know help, and for the most part they’re the things we should all be doing to safeguard our mental health anyway:

  1. It’s really hard to get to sleep when my brain is in overdrive, but when I wake up in the morning the overdrive has usually gone down at least a gear or two.
  2. Channeling all my energy into something physical sometimes helps to take the excess energy out of my thoughts.
  3. Nourishing food. I tend to be more prone to brain overload when I’ve been eating too much sugar. Resetting my diet and focusing on vegetables and fruit helps me to calm my mind and feel nurtured.

 

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Why it’s important to make time for you

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We spend so much of our lives rushing around trying to fulfil our obligations to the people around us – our employers, our families, our friends – that time spent nurturing ourselves often gets forgotten, or pushed to the bottom of the priority list, or relegated to the end of the day when we’re too tired to do anything other than flop in front of the TV. When was the last time you put your needs ahead of those around you? When was the last time you put one of your obligations on hold to do something you wanted to do? If it was so long ago that you’re struggling to remember, you could be putting your mental health at risk.

I have a strong sense that I should put my family’s needs above my own. After all, isn’t that what being a good wife and mother is all about? But the thing is, when you constantly put other people first, you are constantly sending yourself the message that other people are more important than you, and that their wellbeing matters more than yours. And that’s not true.

My family functions best when we think of ourselves as a team. And all the members of that team have a part to play in making sure that all the other members of the team are happy and fulfilled. So, no, I can’t neglect my family, but I can’t neglect myself either, and when I’m struggling, it’s OK to let my family help out sometimes. It’s been hard for me to accept that prioritizing my own needs occasionally isn’t selfish, asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, and sometimes it isn’t possible to “just try harder”. But in learning to accept those things, I’ve become a calmer and happier person.

If you have the balance wrong, if you never seem to have the time or the energy for the things you enjoy, the following changes might help:

  1. Practice saying “no”. Don’t let the people around you pile on more commitments than you can handle. Be realistic about what you can take on.
  2. Leave work on time. Sure, you might occasionally need to stay late if you have an important deadline, but if it’s happening regularly, you’re putting your employer’s needs ahead of your own.
  3. Put your phone away sometimes. Time for you means not having to respond to every text and email instantly.
  4. Involve your family. Ask for help when you need it, but also talk to them about what you all enjoy doing and how you can do more of it.
  5. Plan your week to include some fun. Arrange to meet a friend for lunch, or check the weather forecast and pick a day to take the children to the park. Whatever you decide on, treat it like any other commitment. Don’t let anything else impinge on that block of time.
  6. Have a daily hobby. Whether it’s spending time in the garden, learning a musical instrument, or some sort of craft activity, make time every day to do something you enjoy. If you can set a regular time for your hobby, you’re more likely to integrate it into your routine and less likely to skip it when you get busy.

Once you start making time in your life for the things you enjoy, you’ll quickly find that the momentum builds and other aspects of your life will start falling into place. Scheduling time for the things you enjoy will naturally push you to be more organised about scheduling the boring-but-necessary tasks as well. Once you realise that you can do things you want to do, and still fit in the things you have to do, you’ll feel a sense of achievement. That sense of achievement will lift your mood and energise you. And as you feel happier and more energised, you’ll be able to do more. It might not feel like it right now, but there are enough hours in the day to live a happier and more productive life. And the first step towards that is making time for you.

The distinction between depression and stress

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You may know intuitively whether you’re depressed or stressed, but to those around us the two problems can look similar, so it’s worth taking a moment to explore the similarities and differences.

Both depression and stress make us feel as if we aren’t coping with life, and that feeling of not coping can manifest itself in particular ways that are common to both depression and stress. We can get irritable. We can get frustrated and angry with the people closest to us, often over trivial things. We can even get tearful.

However, what is going on in our heads is very different in the two situations. Depression is draining – every action feels like a huge effort, we have no motivation or enthusiasm for anything. We feel overwhelmed because we lack the energy and inner resources to cope with the normal demands of everyday life. In other words, the depression within us is stealing our energy so we don’t have enough left to cope with the demands of the outside world.

Stress, on the other hand, usually comes from outside. When a combination of factors come together to throw more at us than we can handle, we begin to feel the pressure. Like depression, stress is about not having enough energy to deal with the demands that are placed on us. But, whereas with depression it is our energy levels that are too low, when we are under stress, it is the demands that are too great. Our energy levels are fine, even elevated, but the demands on us are so great that we still don’t have enough energy to do everything we need to get done.

Stress can be energizing, at least in the short-term. When we have too much to do, often our first instinct is to rush around in a frenzy desperately trying to get everything done, or at least as much of it as we can. It’s even possible to feel happy and stressed – when we enjoy everything in our lives but there is just too much of it. Depression, on the other hand, is characterized by a lack of enjoyment. When we are under stress, we get angry or frustrated at the people or situations that are asking so much of us –anger and frustration are emotions that require energy. They aren’t the emotions of depression.

But when the stress lasts for a long time – when we spend weeks or months constantly feeling as though we can’t get everything done and we are falling behind, then the stress can tip over into something more draining. Eventually, we become so exhausted from trying too hard for too long, that we run out of energy. We become so dispirited from falling further and further behind, or constantly failing to live up to other people’s expectations of us, that we give up and lose our motivation. It’s at this point that there is a very real danger of our stress pushing us into depression. And once that’s happened, it’s going to be very difficult to climb back out. We will have even less energy to cope with the demands that are still too great.

So, although stress isn’t depression, and in it’s early stages it doesn’t even feel like depression, it can be a warning sign that things are not right in our lives. And, if we don’t heed that warning sign, eventually our minds will have to resort to something more drastic – depression – to get our attention.

If you are under more stress than you can handle, and if that feeling has persisted for more than a few days, you need to take action to redress the balance and safeguard your future mental health. Which of the following actions can you take?

  • Practice saying “no”. Don’t take on anything new. Your health comes first.
  • Eliminate existing commitments where possible. You might feel bad about letting people down now, but you’ll feel even worse about letting them down later. Be realistic – if you’re not going to be able to follow through, say so now.
  • Ask the people around you for help. If your friends and family could see how this stress is affecting you, don’t you think they would want to lighten the load so that you can feel happy again? You’ll be able to return the favour when you’re feeling better.
  • Take shortcuts. If it has to be done, can it be done faster/more efficiently? You might need to let your perfectionism go for this one, but perfectionism is a luxury your health can’t afford right now.
  • Prioritise the things you find most rewarding. If you can’t get everything done, you might as well get maximum benefit from what you can achieve.

Stress isn’t the same as depression, but both are unpleasant feelings that warn you that your life is out of balance. Take steps to regain that balance, and you’ll be well on the way to feeling calmer and happier again.

Growing your way to health – Summer-fruiting raspberries

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My summer-fruiting raspberries are currently reaching their peak of fruit production, so this seems like a good time to summarise how I grow and use these wonderful fruits.

I have two types of raspberries on the allotment. Summer-fruiting raspberries, which fruit over about three weeks in June/July, and autumn-fruiting raspberries, which have a longer season, but, in my opinion, less flavour.

Summer-fruiting raspberries are slightly more labour intensive than their autumn-fruiting cousins. They fruit on the previous year’s growth, so need support for most of the year. I grow a single row of raspberries, which I tie in to four horizontal wires stretched between posts at each end of the row. Summer-fruiting raspberries can reach around 5ft in height, and in a good year the fruit can weigh the canes down substantially, so it’s important they are well supported. The canes that will fruit in June/July start growing the previous summer. At some point after the end of the previous year’s fruiting but before the worst of the winter weather arrives (so, ideally, in August-early October) I cut down all of the old canes that have fruited this year. If you wait until further into autumn to cut them down, they will have died off and it will be very easy to tell which are the old canes and which are the new growth. Once the old canes are out of the way, I tie the new canes (which, by autumn, will be almost the same height as the old canes) to the wires – not too tightly, but firmly enough to ensure they will be supported throughout the winter.Growing

By the time spring comes, the new canes can look almost dead, but as soon as the weather starts to warm up, little buds will start appearing along the upper half of the cane. It’s so exciting to see the buds, as it means the canes have survived the winter and will reward you with a crop of delicious berries in just a few short months. At this point I check the ties and give the canes a little mulch of well-rotted manure or compost. Before long, the canes will push out leaves, followed by tiny white flowers, and soon after that, you notice the first fruits setting. Once the fruits have set, it is important the canes get plenty of water. I water mine at least every two days if the weather is very warm and dry. If they don’t get enough water, the plants will cope, but the fruit will be noticeably smaller.

Once the fruit starts to ripen, it needs to be harvested frequently – at least every two to three days. If possible, pick raspberries when they’re dry – wet berries don’t store well. If the weather has been particularly wet, the quality of the fruit may suffer, but it’s still worth picking them even if most of the crop goes straight on the ground. Taking the spoiled berries off the plant gives the berries that are still ripening a chance to ripen without damage and makes picking the next batch a much pleasanter process. There’s no better way to spend a spare half-hour than picking raspberries!

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Summer-fruiting raspberries are delicious eaten just as they are. Some people like to sprinkle a little sugar over them, but I don’t think they need it. Shop-bought raspberries are often picked a little under-ripe so that they travel better. When you grow your own, you can pick them at the peak of their sweetness. At this time of year, I like to start the day with a bowl of raspberries topped with some Greek yoghurt and a sprinkling of toasted oats. It’s like starting every morning with a little bowl of sunshine! Alternatively, are great in a fruit salad, or as topping for a pavlova or cheesecake. They also work well with chocolate, and can add interest to chocolate mousses and milkshakes.

Summer-fruiting raspberries freeze reasonably well. I give mine a quick sort to remove any damaged or blemished ones (how much blemish you are prepared to put up with is largely a matter of personal taste, and I’ve become a lot less fussy over the years). Then I tip them straight into a freezer bag and pop them in the freezer. Provided the fruit is dry when you pick it, the berries stay reasonably separate in the freezer and you can defrost a handful or two at a time whenever you want them.

I’ve always loved raspberries. To me, they have a more interesting and complex flavor than strawberries, and I love how easy they are to grow. I’ve had the current canes in the same place for twelve years now, and they come up happily year after year. I guess at some point it will be worth moving them to a new location, but for the moment I’m happy to just enjoy a hassle-free reliable crop of delicious fruit.

Five techniques to build self-belief

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The most amazing experience of my life was when I gave birth to my son, at home, in 45 minutes, with no pain relief. The single biggest factor that enabled me to do that was my total unshakeable faith in my ability to do it. It is so often true that if you have faith in yourself, you can achieve whatever you want to achieve – and that includes lifting yourself out of depression, changing your life to bring it more into line with your values, or whatever other challenge you might be facing right now.

But how do you build that self-belief? There probably isn’t one single solution that works for everyone in every situation, but the following strategies should give you some starting points:

Recognise that you are stronger than you know

Have you faced a challenge like this before? Did you survive it? Did you come out of it stronger? Remember that successfully navigating the obstacles that life puts in our path is the only way we grow and develop as human beings. Maybe you’ve never battled depression before, but if you’ve experienced another debilitating negative emotion – grief perhaps, or shame, or embarrassment – remind yourself that you’ve struggled before, you got through it, you learned from it, and you are a better person for having had the experience. This challenge that you are navigating now will be the same. You will come out the other side a better and stronger person.

Reflect on your best qualities

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. When we are feeling low or confronting a challenge that feels like one step too far, it’s very easy to focus on our weaknesses – on all the reasons why we can’t do it or we don’t deserve it. But, our lives are built on our strengths, not our weaknesses. Think about what you are good at. If you are struggling with depression, that might be hard, so think about what other people think you’re good at – ask them if you can’t think of anything. Then see how those qualities could help you deal with this challenge. You might need to think creatively, but have faith that your talents are just what you need to solve this problem, if you just approach it the right way.

Be your own best friend

If you haven’t experienced anything similar to your current challenge yourself, do you know someone who has? What did you do to help? Can you imagine how you would respond if it was your best friend who was going through this? If you know how you would help someone else, then you can apply those exact same strategies to yourself. Don’t let your depression trick you into thinking you don’t deserve your help – you do.

Learn from others’ experiences

Seek out the stories of others who have faced similar challenges. These could be friends or colleagues who you can have a conversation with, or they might be bloggers or celebrities whose stories you can read online. Understand how they overcame their problems, and then reflect on how you are just as capable, just as resilient, just as deserving as they are. If they did it, so can you. All you need is the will to succeed, and you have that in abundance.

Knowledge is power

You’re bound to feel more confident in your abilities if you know exactly what you are facing. So, read everything you can find on the topic. Take every opportunity to learn about it. Take time to understand the causes, the options, the consequences. Remember, you’re already an expert on you. When you become an expert on your problem as well, you have a very powerful combination.

 

I hope the above ideas will empower you to take charge of whatever challenge your life is throwing up right now. Know that you are more than capable of surmounting it. Know that you have or can obtain all of the skills and resources you need to succeed. Know that you are just as deserving as all those who have succeeded before you. Know that the answers are already within you, just waiting for you to acknowledge them. When you truly know all of these things, success is almost inevitable.

 

Five habits that will reduce your stress levels

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Stress destroys our inner peace. If you want to live a happier, calmer, more peaceful life, the number one thing you need to focus on is reducing your stress levels. But, in practice, it’s never that simple. Life throws us into stressful situations all the time. The key is to learn to manage them better so that they don’t overwhelm us. The following five habits can help you reduce the amount of stress you’re exposed to and cope better with the stress you can’t avoid.

1. Downsize your commitments

I’ve finally realized why I find it hard to get up in the morning. It’s because the minute I wake up, I remember the massive list of things I need to do today, and my subconscious takes over and decides the only way to avoid the stress of my overwhelming to-do list is to hide from it by going back to sleep. If you’ve ever felt the same, then, like me, you’re probably trying to pack too much into every day. So much of finding inner peace is about simplifying your life, and that means simplifying your time too. Take a long hard look at all the things on your to-do list and get rid of any that aren’t absolutely central to you living the life you want.

2. Create a sanctuary to retreat to

If, like me, you struggle to maintain a clean and tidy home, then the chaos around you will be constantly contributing to your stress levels and probably also making you feel bad about yourself. In the long-term, you’ll need to find a way to get on top of your housework. But, changing the habits of a lifetime and working your way through months or years of accumulated clutter is a daunting prospect. What is easier is to focus on one tiny part of your home. Choose a space that you would like to be able to relax in, and focus on making that the beautiful space you want it to be. Then, whenever the rest of your home is getting you down, you have somewhere peaceful to retreat to.

3. Take regular breathing spaces

When we are under a lot of stress, particularly if that stress is connected with not having time to do everything, it can be tempting to rush around trying to achieve as much as possible. But, this leads to us feeling exhausted and dissatisfied by the end of the day, with many of our tasks still not finished. Taking just five minutes, two or three times a day, to pause, evaluate where we are, and consciously calm ourselves, allows us to manage our stress. It’s time well spent, because being able to stay productive for longer more than compensates for the few minutes we spend in the breathing space.

4. Don’t turn fun into a treat

When we have too much to do, it’s very tempting to push all the fun stuff to the end of the day. We tell ourselves that we need to get the unappealing but necessary tasks out of the way first, and the fun things can be our reward for doing them. But when your to-do list is far too long, what happens in reality is that you never have time for the fun stuff. And when every day is filled with the tasks you don’t enjoy, is it any wonder you end up feeling stressed, resentful and depressed? Think about which of your hobbies or interests gives you the most pleasure, and make it a priority in your life. Give it at least the same importance as the other things on your to-do list. It may feel as though you are just adding one more task to your list, but it’s a task that will help you remember the importance of looking after you.

5. Exercise

Study after study has shown the huge benefits that regular exercise brings to both our mental and physical health. On a direct physical level, exercise makes you more resilient to stress. And on an emotional level, while your body is physically active, your mind can take a backseat for a while. I often find that I come up with solutions to problems while I’m exercising, even when I’m not consciously thinking about the problem. My mind is able to turn it over in the background, without causing me conscious stress. The key thing about exercise is to find something you enjoy and which you can fit into your regular routine. That way you’ll be more likely to make it a long-term part of your life.

Implementing the ideas above isn’t going to magically remove all the stress from your life. Stress will always be there. But, if you feel that you are in control of your stress, rather than letting it control you, you will have taken an important step towards living a calmer, more peaceful life.

Quitting, failing and that awkward bit in the middle

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This post was inspired by Josh Mabus’s TED talk on Quitting Versus Failing, in which he makes the distinction between failure, which is caused by circumstances outside our control, and quitting, which is a choice we make. When we’ve had a project that hasn’t worked out, I think this is a very important distinction.

If we attempt something and fail, we might feel sad; we might even judge ourselves negatively for not having the necessary skills, knowledge, time or resources to make a success of our project. But what we don’t feel is regret, because we don’t see how things could have gone any other way.

On the other hand, if we decide to quit our project, the emotions are very different. If we later come to regret our choice, we might feel frustrated with ourselves, we might feel angry with others who judge us negatively for our lack of staying power, and we might feel very motivated to try again. These are energizing emotions, in contrast to the depleting emotions triggered by failure.

But in between quitting and failure, there is a grey area. What happens when our project fails because we know deep-down that we didn’t give it our best shot? What happens when we think the reason we failed was because we didn’t try hard enough? The emotions that arise then are some of the most difficult to deal with. At the point the project fails, when we are forced to confront our lack of commitment, it’s too late. At that point, we are dealing with failure, not quitting, because by then we don’t have a choice about it. But this little voice inside us tells us that if we had just put in a bit more time, a bit more effort, taken a different approach, the outcome might have been very different.

It’s when we experience this sort of failure that it’s very easy to fall into the trap of being too hard on ourselves. We tell ourselves we are lazy or stupid for letting things get to this point. But criticizing ourselves for what is already done is not only bad for our mental health, it’s a waste of effort. We can’t change the past. A far better approach is to mindfully examine what happened, and to reflect on what it tells us about ourselves and on what we can learn from the experience.

If you feel you didn’t put enough effort into a project that was really important to you, it can be very illuminating to reflect on why that happened. What were you doing when you could have been working on your project? Why did you feel, at that moment, that the other activity was more important or more appealing than your project? Was your heart telling you that the project wasn’t that important after all, even though your head felt it was? Were you afraid of working on your project because you didn’t know how to move forward with it? Did you think your project was doomed to failure before you even started? Were you trying to avoid expending time and effort on something that might not work out? Were you reluctant to break out of your comfort zone?

By taking time to understand why you weren’t 100% committed to your project, you can gain valuable insight into what you should do next. If you discover that your project didn’t really matter to you – that you were embarking on it because you thought you should, or because you wanted to impress someone – then you might decide that the failure was a blessing in disguise, and you should move onto something else with no regrets. On the other hand, if you realise that you went about the project in the wrong way – that you didn’t plan it properly or didn’t make sure you had the skills and resources to succeed before you started – then you can decide to learn from your mistakes and have another go, safe in the knowledge that your initial failure has increased the chances that you will succeed this time. And if you find that you were reluctant to push outside your comfort zone, that you were afraid to succeed, you can remind yourself that the most rewarding experiences in life are the ones that don’t come easily. Life is a journey – we never know what’s around the next corner, but that’s not a reason not to take the next step, because the true joy of life is in the exploration of what is possible.

If you have failed at something because you didn’t fully commit to it, that could be a sign that it wasn’t meant to be, or it could be a sign that it’s going to be more challenging and more rewarding than you originally thought. Don’t dismiss it without careful reflection, because it could be that trying again is exactly what you were meant to do.