My top ten stress busters

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Stress is really really bad for us. So when we start to feel under pressure, the best thing we can do for ourselves and for those around us is to tackle the stress – fast. It may not always be possible to address the cause of your stress, so when you need to take action and feel better quickly, I recommend trying one of the following:

1. Exercise

Exercise is my number one stress-buster. Going for a run, or just doing a quick 15-minute burst on the exercise bike, never fails to energise me, restore a positive outlook, and give me the motivation to tackle whatever is on my mind.

 

2. Mindfulness

When I’m under so much stress that I can physically feel it in my body, that’s my signal to stop and do a quick 3-minute breathing space. It helps me to understand and process my stress and get back in touch with my more centred calmer self. My regular daily mindfulness practice is also crucial to the way I manage any long-term stress in my life.

 

3. Get out into nature

Going for a long walk in the woods or the local park calms me. The gentle exercise gives me energy, and the peace and quiet gives my mind the space it needs to work on my problems in the background in a way that is productive without being agitating.

 

4. Spend time in the garden

If I don’t have time to go for a walk, a few minutes in the garden or the greenhouse can be almost as good. Taking time to nurture my plants forces me to slow down. As Lao Tzu said: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished”.

 

5. Cook a special meal

The very act of getting into the kitchen and focusing on food gives my mind a more attractive alternative to ruminating on my problems. Putting together a colourful and vibrant salad, or cooking a fragrant Thai curry from scratch, not only gives me the promise of a delicious meal to look forward to, but is a relaxing and calming activity in itself.

 

6. Play

Playing with my children grounds me and reminds me of what is most important in my life. It gives me a chance to connect with the people I love the most, and it helps me to tap into their innate sense of fun. Like mindfulness, playing is a way to live more in the present moment without dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

 

7. Housework

This might sound like an odd one, but most housework is fairly mundane and doesn’t require a lot of thought, so it’s a great way to let my mind mull over a problem in the background while I get a few things done. And a tidy house makes me feel in control, which is empowering and uplifting.

 

8. Relax in a warm bath

A warm bath is the ultimate in easy pampering. Taking half-an-hour (or an hour) for myself is my way of showing myself that my time and my wellbeing are valuable and that sometimes the best thing I can do for everyone around me is to look after me.

 

9. Go to bed early

When I’ve got really angry or frustrated over something, I’ve learned to accept that I’m unlikely to achieve anything productive until I’ve calmed down. Sometimes the best thing to do is to draw a line under today and start afresh tomorrow. It’s amazing how much better things can look after a good night’s sleep.

 

10. Chocolate

When all else fails there is always chocolate! When I’m feeling really stressed, treating myself to a little bit of something I would normally avoid placates my inner rebel and makes me feel better.

We all have our own ways of relieving stress. While I’m willing to bet that at least one of the above suggestions would be helpful to you, it’s much better to figure out what really works for you. If you have a go-to stress buster that I haven’t mentioned here, let me know via the comments below. Lets build up a list of all the things we do to nurture ourselves when life gets tough.

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Boredom – another valuable negative emotion

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If someone were to ask you when you were last bored, your first thought might be “I don’t have time to be bored”. If you are a busy working mum like me, your days are filled to the brim and you never cross everything off your to-do list. There is always (at least) one more task to be done. But boredom isn’t really about having nothing to do. It’s about having nothing meaningful to do. And in that sense, boredom can sneak up on you even when your life is busy – perhaps especially if your life is busy.

When our lives are full every day with the tasks that are necessary just to get by, those tasks tend to take on a certain sameness. Every day we get up, we rush around getting ready for work and taking the children to school, we go to work, we come home, we cook, we clean, we take our children to their after-school activities, we supervise homework, and at the end of the day we collapse exhausted into bed. And the next day we do exactly the same. Our lives are full of activity, but empty of novelty, of challenge, of purpose. If this goes on long enough, boredom sinks in – but we don’t experience it as boredom because we’re too busy to be bored, right? Instead we feel frustration, dissatisfaction, even depression. We feel that something is missing from our lives; but then we look at our lives objectively and realise we have so much – our families, home, career etc. – and so we start to wonder if we are the problem, if our sense of frustration and dissatisfaction is, in itself, the problem, something we need just to get over.

When this happens, we need to realise that the dissatisfaction we feel comes from boredom. It’s not that raising our children and balancing career and home life aren’t valuable and rewarding activities; they are. But sometimes we need a bit more; we need change and challenge in our lives. If our lives are filled with trying to stay still and there is no room left for trying to move forward, then we can understand our frustration for what it is – boredom. And, like so many other negative emotions, boredom is our mind’s way of sending us a valuable signal. It’s a signal that our lives are not OK the way they are, that we are neglecting ourselves and our need for challenge and change.

When we are already too busy and constantly exhausted, its natural to assume that taking on new challenges – adding to our existing commitments – is a bad idea. But, done carefully, it might be just what we need to reinject some motivation and energy into our lives. What would you really like to succeed at? Could you negotiate a change in your responsibilities at work to give you a new challenge without having to work longer hours? Can you use the time your children are in their sports club to pursue your own fitness goals? If you help your children with their homework, is that an opportunity for you to learn alongside them?

Life changes constantly. Our circumstances change constantly. If we resist that change, if we fail to see it for the opportunity that it is, we get stuck. We get bored. And eventually we get frustrated and depressed. But, when we embrace that change and adapt to it, we challenge ourselves, and we grow and develop as human beings. And that is intensely rewarding.

It’s OK to hang on to your negative emotions if you’re not ready to let them go

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So many times when we are depressed, or just having a bad day, people will tell us to “cheer up” or “look on the bright side”, as if repressing our negative emotions or pretending they don’t exist is going to make them go away. It can feel like we’re supposed to be happy and cheerful all the time, and if we’re already struggling with low mood – perhaps because we’re facing genuinely difficult challenges in our life at the moment – that extra pressure is the last thing we need.

When we’re facing a difficulty in our lives, what we need to do is work through that difficulty. If that difficulty is what’s causing our low mood, then once we’ve resolved the problem, the low mood should dissipate of its own accord. Trying to get rid of the low mood – or pretend it doesn’t exist – in order to get ourselves in the right frame of mind to focus on the problem is the wrong approach. We don’t always have to be happy to get things done. Jessica Gimeno has given a popular TED talk called “How to get stuff done when you are depressed”. If you’re struggling so much right now that getting anything done is a monumental effort, her talk is well worth watching.

But if you know your low mood is the result of a difficult problem or situation, your priority has to be addressing the problem rather than addressing your low mood. And you don’t need the added pressure of everyone telling you that your low mood is somehow “wrong” or “the problem”. And you don’t need to be putting that pressure on yourself either. It’s perfectly OK to hang on to the doubt or the fear or the insecurity or whatever negative emotion you have right now, as long as it doesn’t stop you taking action to solve your problem.

That idea was something of a revelation to me when I was struggling with depression. I’d lived with negativity – doubt, lack of motivation, a deep sense of unworthiness – for so long that I’d got comfortable with those emotions. Unpleasant though they were, they were familiar, and the idea of letting them go was scary. I didn’t know who I’d be if I wasn’t depressed. It was a huge relief when I realized that I could just go ahead and move forward with my life, start living, get things done, without having to worry about letting all those negative emotions go. It was as if one of the barriers to moving forward had suddenly been taken away. I could work on the problems that I knew how to tackle, and I could carry all my negativity along with me if it made me feel better. In a strange way, that was a really comforting thought.

I’m well on my way out of depression now, and I never really have tackled my negative emotions. Through mindfulness, I’ve learned to live with them. But I find that the more I accept my negative emotions as just being a part of who I am right now, and the more progress I make on bringing my life into line with where I want it to be, the more the negative emotions just seem to fade away. I’m not making them go; I’m not taking positive steps to get rid of them. Rather, the negative emotions are floating away all by themselves because they’re not needed any more.

Sometimes the solution doesn’t lie in trying ever harder to solve whichever problem you or someone else thinks is most important. If that approach hasn’t been working for you, perhaps work on a different problem for a while – and the original problem might just sort itself out along the way.

Supermarket gardening

Avocado

I love growing things for free, and its surprising what varied and unusual plants you can grow from ordinary fruit and vegetables that you buy in the supermarket. I generally have a pot of something germinating or rooting on my kitchen windowsill, and the beauty of supermarket gardening is that you’ve nothing to lose. If your experiment doesn’t work– your seed doesn’t germinate or your cutting doesn’t root, it doesn’t matter. You can always try again or move on to something else.

Avocado

AvocadoAvocado stones can sometimes be persuaded to root. Clean the stone of an avocado and push three matchsticks in, evenly spaced, around the middle. The matchsticks should go in just far enough to hold the stone securely over a jar of water, so that it is half in and half out of the water. Keep changing the water every week or so and topping it up when necessary so that the bottom of the stone always stays in water. Eventually, a small white root will push its way out of the bottom of the stone, and soon after a green shoot will start working its way upwards. Once the root is a few inches long, you can pot up the young avocado plant. This avocado has been on my kitchen windowsill for about six months. I water it a couple of times a week and turn it regularly so that it grows straight. It grew fairly slowly over the winter, but has started shooting up again now. Avocados aren’t hardy, so although I could put the pot outside during the summer, I’d have to bring it back indoors in winter.

Ginger

Ginger budI’m very excited, because this is my third attempt at growing ginger and the first time I’ve got it to root. The process itself couldn’t be simpler. Just take an ordinary piece of fresh ginger from the supermarket – ideally you want one that looks fresh and has a few “eyes” that you could imagine it might sprout from. Keep it in a dish of water on a sunny Spouted gingerwindowsill so that just the bottom third or so of it is in the water. Eventually it either rots or sprouts! This one took several weeks to sprout and I almost threw it away. The bright green shoot pushed out first, followed a couple of days later by two tiny white roots. Now that I know it’s rooted, I’ve potted it up – as I’ve never grown ginger before, it’ll be fascinating see how it develops.

Chilli

ChilliIt is perfectly possible to grow chilli plants from the seeds of chillis that you buy in the supermarket. Just plant them a half-inch or so deep in pots of moist compost, and keep them somewhere warm, such as a sunny windowsill, until they germinate, which usually takes a couple of weeks. They are best started in April or May, and if you are lucky you should be able to harvest your own chillis by October. Once the plants are about four inches high, pot them into five-inch pots –they don’t generally need anything larger than that. If you have a greenhouse, they will grow happily in there throughout the summer. Alternatively, you can put them outside once all risk of frost has passed, although they may not fruit unless we get a long warm summer. Or, if you have space, you can keep them indoors on a sunny windowsill and they should fruit just fine.

 

I’d recommend avocados and chillis as the best plants to begin supermarket gardening. Other things I’ve tried, but not yet had much success with are sweet potatoes (cut them in half, and then sprout them in a dish of water in a similar way to the ginger) and basil (apparently it is possible to root cuttings from supermarket basil, but I’ve not managed it). My next project is to try germinating orange pips. I’ve read that it’s not too difficult.

If you have successfully grown any plants from supermarket fruit and vegetables, please do let me know in the comments section below.

Using a timer to prevent procrastination and perfectionism

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Two things that can negatively impact our self-esteem, and thereby potentially our mental health, are procrastination and perfectionism. When we have both, it can be a particularly lethal combination. You put off a task until the very last minute, all the while feeling guilty that you haven’t made a start on it, and then, when the looming deadline finally spurs you into action, you haven’t left yourself enough time to do it perfectly, so you do less than your best, and feel as though you have let yourself down.

However, the good news is that something as simple as using a timer can help with both procrastination and perfectionism. Many years ago, back in the days of paper-based offices, I attended a time management workshop where the speaker introduced the concept of “I’ll just get the file out”. The theory is that it’s seeing the project as one overwhelmingly big thing that stops you from getting started. The task is too much, and you just can’t face it. The way to tackle this is to break the task down into smaller parts. Some tasks lend themselves to being broken down, others don’t. Or, perhaps you can’t yet see the necessary sequence of steps that will allow you to break down the task. But you don’t have to break the task down into discrete steps to avoid tackling the whole thing at once. You can “just get the file out”. That means you decide you’re going to work on the project for just ten minutes, or five minutes, or whatever you feel you can manage. You set your timer, you tell yourself you are just going to work on this for five minutes, and that feels so much more manageable than trying to summon up the motivation to tackle the whole project.

Once you’ve done the easy job of setting your timer, you’ve made a commitment to yourself to get started, and you’ll find it that much easier to get going. And here’s the magic – once you’ve got going, you’re quite likely to want to continue once the timer goes off. You’ve given yourself the gift of momentum, and, if you want to (and only if you want to), you can choose to carry on. You might surprise yourself by how much of the task you get done before you feel like stopping.

That’s how a timer can help you with procrastination, but how does it help with perfectionism? When we are striving to complete the task perfectly, we almost always to take far too long over it. And even when we’ve spent so long on the task that other tasks have been pushed out of the way to make room for it, we still don’t feel as if we have done enough. But, by deciding at the outset how long the task is going to take, you give yourself a definite end point. Instead of defining the task by the end result – the report must be finished, the house must be tidy, etc. – you define the task in terms of its time allocation. I will spend 20 minutes writing this report, or I will spend 10 minutes tidying up. When the timer goes off, you’ve finished the task. It takes a bit of practice to see the positive side of what you’ve accomplished in that time rather than the negative side of the things you didn’t fit in, but eventually you’ll find that you’re able to move on to the next thing with fewer regrets about not finishing the task perfectly.

Using a timer in this way makes it easier to plan your time such that all the things you need to do get done. Perhaps none of them will be done perfectly, and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Perfectionism leads us to do one thing well (but usually still not up to our exacting standards) while several other things don’t get done at all. Using a timer means we can ensure that everything does at least get started. We only have a fixed amount of time in every day, and using a timer can help us stay in control of that time and get the very best out of it.

When did a balanced diet go out of fashion?

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I’ve been watching a few Youtube videos recently about healthy eating and, specifically, about how what we eat affects our gut microbiota and how this can, in turn, affect our brains, predisposing us to depression, anxiety and a whole host of other mental health problems.

We have more bacterial cells in our bodies than we do human cells, and our guts are home to hundreds of different species of bacteria. These bacteria have been with us for a very long time – we have evolved to function best in their presence, and maintaining the health of our gut bacteria is essential to maintaining our own health.

Just like us, our gut bacteria are dependent on what we eat for their nutrition. In fact, they help us to digest carbohydrates in our food. Since it is important to maintain a diverse range of gut bacteria, it seems reasonable to assume that we should eat a varied and balanced diet.

Many popular diets focus on eliminating certain “bad” foods – we are advised to cut out fat, or sugar, or wheat, or grains, or dairy… But we evolved to eat most of these things – perhaps not in the quantities we eat them today, and perhaps not in a highly refined state where many of the nutrients have been lost. But, still, to remove certain foods from our diet completely might just be robbing certain species of gut bacteria of the nutrients they need to function effectively, and this just might cause us health problems in the future.

So, why are these diets so popular? I think it’s because they are simple. Generally it feels easier to follow a few simple rules than to make decisions. So, cutting out all sugar, for example, is an easier instruction to follow than “eat less sugar”. If you’ve made the decision to cut out sugar, you know that any sugar-containing food is a no-no. That might not be pleasant when you are craving a chocolate brownie, but it’s a simple rule. If, on the other hand, you take the more balanced view that a tiny bit of sugar (for example a square of chocolate at the end of a meal) isn’t going to do you any harm, but that eating an entire box of chocolates during an evening in front of the TV is not so good, then where do you draw the line?

Deciding to follow a balanced diet involves a constant awareness of what you are eating. You have to be aware of what you have already eaten today, what you ate yesterday, and how your body feels before and after eating – you have to have a feel for how much is too much for you. Some people seem to be able to eat junk food day in day out and remain relatively healthy. But our gut bacteria are as individual as we are – what may be fine for someone else may not be fine for you.

And that’s the other problem with popular diets – you are following someone else’s rules. Just like eliminating a food completely saves you the effort of having to make decisions about how much is too much, following someone else’s rules also saves you the effort of working out what diet suits you best. But, ultimately, there are no shortcuts when it comes to health.

You have to figure out for yourself what diet works best for you. And I don’t mean just picking which of the myriad of popular diets out there is going to help you lose weight, beat depression or whatever your priority is. I mean you have to figure out what combination of what foods will keep you in optimum health. And that diet is going to look different for everyone, which is why you have to figure it out for yourself.

There are a few basics – processed food is generally bad, lots of fruit and vegetables are generally good. We can be guided by what our ancestors evolved to eat. But that doesn’t mean we have to slavishly avoid all the things that our ancestors wouldn’t have had access to – in our modern world of intensively mass-produced food, it is impossible to go back to the diet that our ancestors would have eaten. Like so much else in the diet world, we should learn from it rather than trying to copy it.

So, unless you know you react badly to a particular food or ingredient, there is probably no need to avoid it completely. But there are certainly things you should cut back on and things you should eat more of. And you probably don’t need to buy the latest diet book to find out what those things are – your gut will tell you if you can learn to listen to it.

 

Summer is on the way

Seeds

During the uncharacteristically warm and sunny Bank Holiday weekend, I finally managed to get some seeds planted on the allotment. Normally, I would have started sowing parsnips and radishes in early April, but the weather just didn’t cooperate this year. As I sowed nine rows of various seeds, I was struck by their variety and beauty. It’s amazing what you can tell about a plant just from the type of seed it has.

Parsnips

Parsnip seedsParsnips are the main root vegetable I grow on the allotment. Germination can be erratic, much more so if the seed is old, so parsnips are the one crop where I make a point of buying fresh seed every year. I sow a little cluster of three or four seeds every eight inches along the row – if more than one seed in each cluster germinates, I thin all but the strongest seedling once they are a couple of inches high. Parsnips are slow to germinate and slow to grow, so I sow radishes, lettuce, spring onions or, for the first time this year, lambs lettuce in the spaces between the clusters of parsnip seeds. These faster crops will be harvested before the parsnips need the space, and because they are quicker to germinate, they mark where the line of parsnips is going to be, which makes weeding between the rows easier later on.

Parsnip seeds would naturally be distributed by the wind, which is why the seeds are light and have a rim around the edge that acts like a little sail. This makes the seed big enough to handle, but also means it blows around very easily if you try to sow parsnips on a windy day.

 

Radishes

Radish seeds

Radishes are very quick to germinate (often as little as a week) and can be ready to harvest in around three to four weeks. This makes them ideal as a marker for the slower growing parsnips. But, my family likes parsnip and is less keen on radishes, so putting radishes in all my parsnip rows leads to an unwelcome radish glut, especially in years like this one where I end up planting all the rows of parsnips at once. So, over the last few years I’ve experimented with using other plants as markers.

Radish seeds are approximately round, and large enough to sow one by one. I like to space them about an inch or so apart to minimize the need to thin them later.

 

Lettuce

Lettuce seeds

I grow cos-type lettuces, and, like the radishes, I use them as markers for the parsnips. Lettuce seeds are tiny and difficult to sow precisely, so I tend to just sow them as thinly as I can and thin them later. I have found that alternating two different marker crops along my parsnip row makes it even easier to spot where the parsnips are going to come up (at the boundaries between the radishes and the lettuces).

 

Spring Onion

Spring onion seeds

This is another crop that I use as parsnip markers. I’ve found them less successful than radishes and lettuces, but they are worth trying. I grow purple spring onions, which makes a nice change from the white ones that are readily available in the supermarkets.

Spring Onion seeds are black and pointy; they remind me of tiny little tetrahedra. Ideally, I would sow them about every half inch or so along the row. Although the seeds are just about large enough to handle, their dark colour makes them hard to see against the soil, so it can be difficult to space them exactly as you want.

 

Lambs Lettuce

Lambs Lettuce seeds

Also known as corn salad, I’m using this as a marker plant for the first time this year. I’ve tried growing it in pots before without much success, and the seed was from a packet I bought a couple of years ago, so it may not germinate well.

 

 

Kohl Rabi

Kohl Rabi seeds

The final type of seed that I sowed at the weekend was kohl rabi. Unlike the other seeds above, this one isn’t a parsnip marker. Kohl rabi is a brassica (all brassicas have little round seeds) and therefore I like to plant it in a different area of the allotment from the parsnips. I grow both green and purple kohl rabi. It’s a delicious and versatile vegetable that can be tricky to find in the shops. Previously, I’ve always germinated it in the greenhouse and then planted it out, because the type of seed I was buying didn’t have many seeds in a packet and I didn’t want to waste a single one. But, this year I managed to find some seed packets online more seeds per packet, so I’m experimenting with direct sowing it. If it works, it should be less work than planting out the individual plants.

 

 

Having got nine rows of seeds in, which probably equates to almost a quarter of my little plot, I feel the allotment is almost back on schedule. Later in the spring I’ll be planting swede and pak choi and planting out the seeds that are currently germinating in the greenhouse – squashes, courgettes, runner beans and kale. Finally, it feels as though summer is on the way.