Find your place of peace

Place of peace

One of the most powerful mindfulness exercises I have experienced involves creating your own personal place of peace. This place of peace is sometimes referred to as a safe place or a healing place. It provides somewhere for your mind to retreat to when the world becomes too stressful and you need to reconnect with your inner peace. It can also help you to step away from unpleasant situations – for example, you can mentally retreat to your place of peace when you are at the dentist, while waiting to be called into a job interview, or in any situation where you are nervous or stressed but cannot physically remove yourself from the source of your anxiety.

Your place of peace is something very personal and unique to you. It can be a real place, or a place that exists only in your imagination. It is somewhere where you can feel completely relaxed and safe in your own company. It might be a deserted tropical beach at sunset, a campsite at night with a camp fire burning and the Milky Way blazing overhead, a formal garden crowded with flowers or – my own place of peace – an English woodland carpeted with bluebells.

Close your eyes. Imagine yourself in this peaceful place. Fill your mind with the most detailed image you can possibly imagine. Look at the ground, the sky, your surroundings. What is the weather like? Is it sunny? Is it windy? Notice how the shadows move softly in the gentle breeze. Gradually start to bring in your other senses. What can you hear? The wind in the trees? Birds singing? Insects buzzing? Waves lapping on the shore? Now think about what you can feel. Is it warm or cold? Can you feel the touch of sunshine warming your skin? Where are you standing or sitting? If you are walking along a beach, can you feel the sand between your toes? If you are sitting on a bench, can you run your fingers along it and feel the texture of the wood? Once you have explored every detail of this place, start to notice how being here makes you feel. There are no responsibilities or commitments here. While you are here, no one needs you, no one is asking you for anything, you do not need to do anything you don’t want to do. Time slows. The frantic pace of normal life doesn’t exist here. You have stepped away from the outside world, into this place of calm. Rest here for as long as you need. Feel the energy of this place calming you, nurturing you, recharging your spirit.

When you feel ready, you can slowly open your eyes and come back to the real world. But you will carry with you a little of the calm that you felt in your place of peace. By calming the storm you felt on the inside, you will now be better equipped to cope with whatever stresses the world outside is throwing at you.

If you practice this visualization often enough, you will learn to retreat to your place of peace in a second, any time you need to. It will help you to stay calm whenever you are in a situation that causes you stress. You can even bring a reminder of your place of peace into your everyday life. I have a photograph of my place of peace on the wall in my office. If your place of peace has a particular sound or scent, you could try to find a recording or scented candle that reminds you of your special place. These reminders can subconsciously evoke the sense of calm that you associate with your place of peace, enabling you to bring some of that inner stillness into your everyday life.

So, close your eyes, right now, and ask yourself, where is your place of peace?

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The difference between pleasure and happiness

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I recently watched an interview with Dr Robert Lustig, author of The Hacking of the American Mind. I was fascinated by his views on the difference between pleasure and happiness. Much of what he has to say is directly relevant to those of us who are struggling with or recovering from depression. If you can spare half-an-hour, I highly recommend watching the full interview, but for a quick summary of the main points, read on.

Have you ever considered what the difference is between pleasure and happiness? I’m sure many of us use these two words interchangeably. However, they are two distinct concepts, rooted in fundamentally different brain chemistry. Dr Lustig defines pleasure as the short-lived high we get from doing or consuming something that makes us feel good, whether that be eating a chocolate bar, checking Facebook or playing video games. When something is pleasurable, we want to do it over and over again, we constantly need more of it, and even if we know deep down that this thing we want more of isn’t doing us any good we still succumb to the temptation. It is easy to see how pleasure can lead to addiction if we don’t have the inner strength to manage it properly.

Happiness, on the other hand, is the long-term contentment we get from knowing that are lives are as we want them to be. It is the satisfaction of sharing our lives with the people we love, knowing that we are making a difference, and having financial security, a beautiful home and food on the table. Happiness is experienced on a deeper level than pleasure, and it doesn’t come with the constant need to have more. When we are happy, we have enough and we don’t want or need more.

These two states – pleasure and happiness – are controlled by different chemicals in our brains. Pleasure is governed by dopamine; happiness is governed by serotonin. Being constantly under stress causes our bodies to produce cortisol. When we have too much cortisol, it reduces our levels of both dopamine and serotonin, and can lead to depression. The problem is that dopamine can work against serotonin. So, if we try to fight our depression by doing things that give us pleasure, we increase our dopamine levels, which can make us feel good in the short term, but at the same time we reduce our serotonin levels, which makes it harder for us to find long-term happiness and inner peace.

Dr Lustig suggests that the solution lies in strategies that he calls the 4Cs – connection, contribution, coping and cooking. I suggest you begin by focusing on coping, because when you are struggling with depression, it’s best to start with the areas where you can make changes with the least amount of effort and see the quickest results.

Dr Lustig explains that there are three main strands to coping – sleep, mindfulness and exercise. These things (along with eating a healthy diet, which comes under “cooking”) are the foundation of taking care of ourselves. Getting enough sleep, practicing mindfulness and taking regular exercise all reduce the levels of cortisol in our bodies.

So, the next time you are tempted to check Facebook one more time after your children have gone to bed, stop and think whether it would be more nurturing to go to bed early with a good book. Next time you think you have “earned” one more go at whatever video game you are currently addicted to, take a three-minute breathing space first and see whether your craving goes away. Next time you feel as though you need a sugar boost, try doing a few minutes of exercise instead – some stretches or a brisk walk around the block. Perhaps by focusing more on things that make us happy, and less on things that give us pleasure, we can all take steps towards conquering our depression.

I hope I have inspired you to watch the full interview with Dr Lustig,but if you still don’t feel you can spare half-an-hour, his website has a great infographic that explains the difference between pleasure and happiness and summarises the 4Cs.

Using houseplants to bring nature indoors

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In previous posts, I’ve talked about the importance of finding time to get outside and into nature and also the satisfaction that comes from growing your own fruit and vegetables. But, in the depths of winter, when it is cold, wet and dark, the idea of getting out can be unappealing to say the least. An alternative is to bring a little bit of nature into your home, in the form of houseplants.

Houseplants not only bring greenery to your indoor space, they can also be good for you. Spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum) and snake plants (Sansevieria), among others, can help to remove pollutants from the air. Phalaenopsis orchids (moth orchids) can flower for months at a time if given the right care. And if you grow a few herbs on your kitchen windowsill, you can enjoy the fresh taste of summer almost all year round.

Houseplants can help lift your mood in other ways. The act of caring for a plant, keeping it alive for months after you first bring it into your home, can give you a sense of achievement. Watching your plant gently push out a new leaf or shoot over several days and weeks can remind you to slow down and appreciate the beauty of now. Once you start to notice the tiny changes in your plant as it grows, you can experience the wonder of watching a new leaf unfurl or a bud open into a new flower.

There are many houseplants that are easy to care for. A quick internet search will tell you what conditions your plant likes – should it be on a sunny windowsill, or kept out of direct sunlight? Will it do best in the bathroom because it loves high humidity, or will it be fine in your bedroom? What temperature range can it tolerate – plants on windowsills can get surprisingly cold if you trap them behind closed curtains on chilly winter nights, and surprisingly warm if you have a radiator under the window. How often should you water your plant? I recommend setting a regular watering schedule. Put a recurring appointment in your diary if necessary to check your plants once or twice a week. Plants such as peace lilies (Spathiphyllum) like to be kept fairly dry, so they won’t need water every time, but you should still check them on a regular schedule. Carefully lift up the pot – the damper the plant, the heavier the pot will feel. You will get to know how light the pot should be before you water it. I like to add a few drops of plant food to the water each time I water my houseplants, because I find the consistency makes it easy to remember. However, you can set a schedule to feed your plants every few months instead if you prefer. It is also important to turn your plants regularly so that they grow evenly.

PothosA plant that I recommend for beginners is a pothos (Scindapsus or Epipremnum). This is one of seven I currently have in various places around my house. They are tolerant of low light, don’t mind if you occasionally forget to water them and are incredibly easy to propagate. They also grow reasonably quickly, so you are constantly rewarded by the sight of new leaves unfurling. They can grow quite large, but its easy to cut them back if you want a smaller plant. There are various types – I have a spotted (satin) pothos, but there is also a golden variety and many other kinds.

If you have never grown houseplants before, don’t be afraid to experiment – buy several different plants, space them out around your home and see what works where. Soon your plants will be bringing a little bit of nature into your life even when it is raining or snowing outside.

Focus on what you can achieve, not on what you can’t

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The first step in lifting yourself out of depression is always the hardest. When you are at your lowest, every little thing takes more energy than you have. Your motivation has vanished, and you feel overwhelmed by all the tasks that need to be done. This is when it is vital that you focus on what you can achieve, not on what you can’t.

When you are feeling low, you are your own worst critic. You constantly beat yourself up about all the things that you should be doing; you call yourself lazy, or a failure, or worse. Perhaps you think that being tough on yourself is the only way you can force yourself into taking action. But, look at it this way. Would you be more likely to get on with the task at hand if you had your best friend by your side encouraging you and supporting you, or if you had your worst enemy watching your every move and being critical and judgemental? Right. When you are depressed, you need to be your own best friend.

If you’ve been overly self-critical for a while, you probably believe some of the things you have been telling yourself. You probably think you are lazy and useless, and you don’t like yourself very much right now. It’s time to start showing yourself that you are a caring and worthwhile person and that you are stronger than you think.

Pick one small thing that you can do for yourself every single day that will make you feel proud. I suggest it should be something in your home, so that every time you see it you’ll be reminded of the positive steps you are taking. Making your bed every morning is a good place to start. It takes less than a minute to straighten the duvet and fluff up the pillows. For the rest of the day, every time you walk into your bedroom, stop for an instant and look at your neatly made bed and feel a surge of pride that you made the effort. That one small action will lift you up more than you can imagine.

After you have made your bed the first day, set yourself the goal of making your bed every day for a week. Put a star on your calendar or in your diary so you don’t forget which day you started. When you finish the week, take a moment to congratulate yourself and to notice how good it feels to follow through on your commitments to yourself.

Once you’ve started making your bed every day, you may find the habit starts to spread. As the novelty of seeing a neatly made bed starts to wear off, you may notice the pile of magazines and empty glasses on your bedside table. That’s the time to clear off the top of your bedside table (it will only take five minutes, or less) and then resolve to keep it tidy. Then you’ll find that you won’t want to leave yesterday’s clothes lying on the bedroom floor any more… and so the process continues.

If you already make your bed every day, or you can think of another small action that will be a better inspiration for you, feel free to pick a different task. It might be putting things into the dishwasher after every meal so that your kitchen worktops stay clear; it might be spending two minutes tidying the living room before you go to bed so that it looks great when you walk in the next morning; it could even be giving the toilet a quick clean every day so that it never gets visibly dirty – whatever is going to give you a sense of satisfaction and achievement.

The wonderful thing about this technique is that it never feels like much effort. Even when you are having a bad day, you can push yourself for one minute to make the bed, and then you get to feel proud of yourself. The reward is both immediate and lasting. And that’s what you need when you are working through depression – little rewards to make you feel good about yourself and visible signs of the progress you are making.

What can you do today that will make you smile at yourself?

 

Using routines to help your mornings

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In my post Three steps to a happier morning I suggested a few tips that can help you to start your day in a calmer frame of mind. I mentioned the importance of eliminating stress from your morning by not rushing around, and in this post I want to look at this aspect in more detail.

If, like me, you struggle to think clearly when you first get out of bed, it is really helpful to have a simple morning routine. This is a set of steps that you do in the same order every single morning. The repetition reinforces these steps in your mind, and they very quickly become automatic. Then, you won’t need to think about what needs to be done – you’ll be calmly working your way through everything while your brain is still getting into gear.

To develop a morning routine, you need to think about all the tasks that have to be done between the time you get out of bed and the time you leave the house. Only include the essential tasks. If mornings are a struggle, any tasks that can be done the night before, or moved to later in the day, have no place in your morning routine. You need to focus on the basics. So, your list might look something like this:

  • Get out of bed
  • You time
  • Bathroom – wash/shower
  • Brush/dry hair, put in contact lenses
  • Get dressed
  • Set breakfast table
  • Eat breakfast
  • Brush teeth
  • Leave for work/school run

The “you time” is very important. You need a few minutes to put yourself in the right frame of mind to face your day. Depending on how you use this time, you might need to move it to a different place in the routine. I exercise, so I fit it in as soon as I am out of bed, before the children get up and before I have my shower. Wherever you put your “you time”, make sure you don’t view it as optional. If you think you have a spare 15 minutes in the morning, it is all too tempting to press the snooze button a couple of times and get up 15 minutes later. But, if that extra 15 minutes sleep really is more important than taking a few minutes to focus on yourself, you aren’t going to bed early enough. It is crucial that you take time, throughout the day, to nurture yourself, and your “you time” in the morning is just as important as every other part of your routine.

Once you have your routine established, you need to look realistically at how long each task takes. Then you can make a note of what time you need to have started each task in order to leave the house on time. Work backwards through your list and you will be able to see whether you are getting up at the right time.

In the early days of using your routine, you may find that you fall off the schedule. This can happen for several reasons. Perhaps the task takes longer than you thought it did, or perhaps you need to adjust your routine to fit in with other members of your family. Your routine won’t work if someone else is in the bathroom when it’s time for you to have your shower. Morning routines work best if every member of the family has their own routine, so you can all predict what each other will be doing at any given time. Alternatively, perhaps a task took too long because you didn’t prepare for it yesterday. You might be able to set the breakfast table in two minutes if you put the bowls and spoons and cereals out the night before and all you have to do is get the milk out and put the kettle on. But, if you need to clear away last night’s dinner plates, empty the dishwasher to find clean bowls and wipe down the table, it’s going to take longer.

Once you’ve ironed out any problems and found a routine that works for you, you will quickly find that you’re able to sail through your mornings on automatic pilot. And when your mornings go smoothly, the rest of the day is likely to feel much more manageable.

 

Achieve more by slowing down

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“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and
over again and expecting a different result.”

The above quote is often attributed to Einstein, although there is no evidence he ever said it. The sentiment behind it though is something we all too often forget. How often has someone told you to “just try harder”? How often have you said that to yourself? But if you just try harder without trying differently, all you are going to do is wear yourself down, reinforce the idea that you are a failure, and feed your feelings of frustration and resentment.

The truth is that you are already trying the best you can, with the resources you have in the circumstances you are in. If you aren’t getting the results you want, it’s either because you aren’t devoting enough of your time and energy to reaching your goals, or because you aren’t targeting your efforts in the right direction. In either case, carrying blindly on doing what you’ve been doing and beating yourself up for not doing more/better, isn’t going to get you to where you want to be.

The way to achieve more is to take a step back. Give yourself the gift of time to reflect. Set aside half-an-hour or so – every day or every week – to think about where you would like your life to go, what it is realistically going to take to get you there, and what a sensible next step would be.

If you find this difficult, try this exercise. Imagine you are writing a letter to someone you trust and respect. It could be a close friend, someone at work who you admire, or someone you follow on the internet. Someone you know or believe to be gentle, supportive and non-judgmental. Explain your situation to them. Tell them what you want to achieve, and what obstacles are stopping you from getting there. Now, put yourself in the position of the recipient of your letter. How would you reply? From the vantage point of success, what advice would you give to this person who is struggling?

As you do this exercise, you will probably be surprised at how well you already understand your situation. Most likely, you know what the solution is, or at least what next steps you should be taking. You may know, deep down, that you need to stop doing certain things that aren’t helping you, so that you can free up time to work towards your goal. Or you may be aware that you are going about it all the wrong way and it’s time for a fresh approach. When we get caught up in the pressure of “just try harder”, we don’t listen to the voice of wisdom that is already inside us. But when we take time out to reflect, we allow that voice to be heard.

By slowing your life down and taking time to reflect, you can better focus your efforts. You can establish where your priorities lie and understand what is helping you and what is holding you back. By taking the time to listen to your inner voice, you can tap into the wisdom that already lies within you. Your inner self has been with you all this time, has watched all your struggles and knows how hard you have tried. No one in the world knows you as well as you know yourself, so ultimately, your own inner voice, your own intuition, is your best source of advice. Trust yourself. Listen to yourself. And believe in yourself.

What is your inner voice telling you?

Antidepressants – vital but overused

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In a previous post, I mentioned that anti-depressants can be a lifeline for people struggling with depression, but that I also believe they are not a long-term solution. In this post, I want to explore this in more detail.

Many people slide into depression gradually. Especially if it is your first experience of depression, you may not be consciously aware that something is wrong until you hit a crisis point. By that stage, just getting out of bed in the morning is a struggle, the basic tasks of everyday living take more energy than you have, and the idea of adding talking therapy or self-help techniques to your long list of commitments is just too overwhelming. When you reach this point, you need medication. For many people with depression, this is the first step on the road to recovery. You admit that you have a problem, you decide that you want to get better, you ask your doctor for help. You leave the doctor’s office with your prescription and you start taking your medication. Your doctor warns you that it might take a few weeks to feel the effects, but you are optimistic for the first time in ages. You know this is going to help. You feel relieved that finally things are going to change. And they do. Fairly soon you start to feel better. Life feels more manageable again. You start coping a little better than you were before. The antidepressants have worked their magic.

But have they? Many studies have shown that a large part of the effect of antidepressants is down to the placebo effect – you believe that the pills are going help, so they do. Opinions are divided on how much of the benefit is placebo effect and how much is genuinely the effect of the antidepressants. It is probably different for everyone. But, when you first start treating your depression, I don’t think it matters. What matters is that you are feeling better. Maybe it’s the antidepressants, maybe it’s the placebo effect, but the pills are helping and that’s what counts.

The problem with antidepressants is what happens next. After you have been taking them for a few months, you are coping better. Life is still difficult, but it’s manageable. However, you still remember how bad you felt before you started taking the antidepressants, and you don’t want to go back there. Now that things feel more manageable, counselling or CBT feels like a luxury you don’t have the time or the money for. And you’re not used to managing your own mental health – you’ve delegated that responsibility to the pills. The temptation to just stay on the medication is overwhelming. And your doctor, who is all to aware just how overstretched counselling services can be, is probably happy to go along with your wishes. So, you keep taking the pills.

But, antidepressants don’t fix your depression. They just mask the symptoms. More than likely, whatever caused your depression in the first place is still there, simmering away under the surface. But because you’re coping now, you can stuff it down, pretend it isn’t there, just get on with life. You’ve handed the responsibility for your mental health over to the antidepressants, and now you hand responsibility for your life over to fate, or circumstances or whatever you want to call it. The point is, you’ve given away control. And the only way you are ever going to conquer your depression is to take that control back.

Antidepressants help you step back from a bad situation, but if you want to experience joy and contentment rather than just dull the pain of depression, if you want to live a life that fulfills you instead of one where you just get things done, then you have to take control of your own mental health. This takes time and effort – you may have to commit to counselling or CBT, and you will certainly have to learn how to manage your mental health and make changes in your life to support your recovery. But, I promise you it will be worth it in the long run.

If you are at a really low point and struggling to get through every day, then you probably do need to talk to your doctor about antidepressants. But, if you have been on antidepressants for a while and are ready to take back control of your life, then you need to talk to your doctor about coming off them. It is important not to just stop taking antidepressants without talking to your doctor first. For most people, a gradual withdrawal, lowering your dose over a period of months, works best. And, it is important that you and your doctor monitor your mental health carefully during the process. In time, you will be able to come off your medication, and put steps in place to not only manage your mental health but to positively nurture it. Life can become not just manageable, but enjoyable and fulfilling. Isn’t that a goal worth aiming for?