In line with this years Mental Health Awareness Week focus on stress, we had a discussion on this topic.
“The word stress was originally an engineering term. It referred to how much pressure a building could take before it collapsed. These days a lot more people are collapsing from stress than buildings.” Joyce Meyer
“Stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure.
Pressure turns into stress when you feel unable to cope. People have different ways of reacting to stress, so a situation that feels stressful to one person may be motivating to someone else.” (NHS inform)
Another way of understanding stress as brought in the group was a picture of a jug of water, and more and more water was being poured into it and it just overflowed; we really can only take so much until we spill over.
People in the group shared their experiences of what this could look like for them, from having an angry outburst to excessive shopping trips, or becoming unable to make a decision about anything, or going over and over and over situations.
Typical signs of stress include the following:
Emotional signs: anxiety, fear, sadness, frustration.
Behavioural signs: withdrawn, indecisive, inflexible, irritable tearful.
Physical signs: sleep affected, sex drive affected, changes in eating patterns, use smoking, alcohol or drugs.
Bodily changes: headache, nausea, indigestion, shallow breathing, sweating, palpitations, aches and pains…if prolonged stress, sleep and memory are affected, along with Irritible Bowel Syndrome, ulcers and cardiovascular disease.
People in the group were able to recognise their signs of stress and realise that this is really important in order to look after themselves. We talked about different ways to deal with stressful situations in life:
For those who like writing, or making lists, it can be helpful to write down all the stressful things, see which ones can be attended to and prioritise, which can be delegated, deleted or cancelled and which are out of our control, recognising that sometimes unresolvable situations are very stressful and we have to find ways of accepting them. Group members talked about the difficulty of long term suppressed emotions in these types of situations.
People also talked about recognising what their bodies needed, such as saying no to something and getting a rest, or going out for some fresh air and a walk.
We looked at who can support you?-are some relationships stressing you? This led us onto a big conversation about boundaries. We needed a bit of help understanding how it looks when we take ownership of other people’s issues that actually aren’t ours to carry, but then end up doing things we’d rather not because we’d feel guilty if we didn’t.
Mood helping food is something we have had a few group topics on over the years, and it’s worth remembering that good choices of what we eat, and how often we eat can help reduce stress. Cutting down on smoking, alcohol and caffeine, can also help to reduce stress.
When stressed you are negatively reacting to a change. All earth’s creatures are subjected to stress. There is some research to suggest that serene nature scenes reduce stress, as little as five minutes a day of walking in nature can have a positive effect. You don’t have to be in nature to enjoy the benefits, a nature scene painting or photo can calm the mind and feel relaxing. Nature scenes can buffer you from stress and when you are less stressed you have more emotional reserves for coping with real and imaginary threats.
We discussed feeling able to take time-out and practise self-care. The idea of accepting that this is ok takes some working on, as people think it’s selfish, but if you look after yourself properly you will probably look after others more attentively too. Some people talked about how they had found mindfulness and meditation to be helpful.
Ultimately, don’t be too hard on yourself.
- Try to keep things in perspective.
- Remember that having a bad day is a universal human experience
- When your inner critic or an outer critic finds faults, try and find truth and exception to what is being said
- If you stumble or feel you have failed, don’t beat yourself up
- Act as if you were your own best friend: be kind and supportive
- Take a few minutes each day to appreciate yourself
Today was the first part of the new programme. As with every programme we try to make it varied with a wide mixture of content. For today’s group we did an exercise where everyone was asked to write down places that meant something for them. These places did not necessarily have to be holiday destinations, they could be any place which hold an emotional attachment. Some of the destinations chosen by group members were; Japan, Arthur Seat (Edinburgh), Arizona, Spain, Italy, Jersey, Alaska, Texas, North Wales, Portobello (Edinburgh), Tibet and former Czechoslovakia just to name a few.
One of the most fascinating things about doing the exercise were the emotions that were invoked . It was really nice to feel the positive energy and passion shown throughout the room. The exercise seemed to help facilitate group members into have a different perspective on ways to deal with things which they find challenging.
Kristen Neff describes self compassion as giving the same kindness and care to ourselves that we’d give to a good friend. Self-compassion.org
This isn’t actually very easy to do because our brains and thoughts seem to be hardwired to be negative. This is because, at a very primal level, our brains are looking after us by being very vigilant to threat and danger; if we are aware of danger, our brains rev into gear releasing adrenaline and cortisol preparing the body to take action against the threat, this is known as the body’s threat system, reptillian or old brain, survival mode, or fight or flight. We experience this as anxiety and sometimes even panic attacks. It is our brain looking out for us, to protect us. So to be relaxed and taking some time out to be kind and loving to self is a bit worrying for this old brain which needs to constantly be looking out for whats wrong. And since we are no longer fleeing for our lives from things which might eat us, the brain has a look elsewhere for whats wrong. And it turns in on our very selves, attacking and critical of self. A quote that sometimes resonates with the group is:
When we are bullied our body will activate the threat system. Our critical voice will create anxiety. Our worrying thoughts have an impact on our wellbeing;
“…the mind is your ultimate battleground. It’s the space where the greatest and fiercest conflict resides. It’s where half of the things you thought were going to happen, never actually happened. It’s where your inner resistance buries you with negativity. And, when you allow these thoughts to dwell in your mind, they gradually succeed in robbing you of peace, joy, and ultimately your life. You think yourself right into nervous breakdowns and bouts of depression, time and again.” (from marc & angel, Hack Life)
Owen Fitzpatrick in his Ted talk ‘Mind Control’ talks about this voice as being a dictator with damaging propaganda.
This coupled with the idea that our brains are wired to the negative as suggested in the Ted talk ‘Getting stuck in the negative’…and very importantly ‘(and how to get unstuck)’ by Alison Ledgerwood.
we could think that we are screwed (yes, ironic negative mindset) particularly when we also throw emotions into the mix, because unbound feelings that we think are valid will properly screw you over!! They can be so powerful and overwhelming that we just kind of follow where they lead:
“We sometimes feel we can’t control these things, so we just go with the flow…It’s like finding ourselves in a canoe on a fast moving river. The more you ruminate about your anxiety and dwell on your fears and how terrible it will be if you fail, the more anxious you will become.” (Paul Gilbert)
The is that we can manage our brains and our emotions, we start by becoming aware of how we are thinking, and then we can employ strategies which help us to be compassionate to ourselves, to speak kindly and to discover gratitude as a way of thinking which helps to deflect the negative default. As a group, on a weekly basis we make a list together of what has been good in the previous week. This can sometimes be a powerful exercise in showing us that it’s not all bad and when we do focus on a good thing it can help shift that negativity.
So, what is self-compassion?
Self-compassion involves feelings of warmth and care towards self when faced with our own failings and short comings. And when we experience negative emotions to be able to accept them and be caring to ourselves in them. (Kristen Neff-full definition here)
Kristen Neff also helpfully describes the three elements of self-compassion. These are outlined in the link above.
- Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment; being kind when we get it wrong rather than criticising.
- Common humanity vs. Isolation; understanding that many people feel the same as us in any particular struggle, we are not alone.
- Mindfulness vs. Over-identification; acknowledging how we feel without falling headlong into that negative story
We had a bit of a discussion as a group as to what people thought self-compassion might look like for them. For some it was a bit hard to get to, but it is about allowing yourself to be human, be kind to yourself in mistakes. For others it was acts of kindness towards self, like taking good self care and baking a cake to eat….in fact just like the way you would treat another person!
We tried a couple of self-compassion exercises where we just acknowledged that things can feel hard, but that we are not alone in that, others feel the same as we do, and how then can we be kind to ourselves in that moment. To be accepting, compassionate, forgive ourselves. We can then extend this out to how we may be feeling about another person and extend compassion and kindness to them also.
We also thought about where we feel our negative emotion, where is it in our bodies? Maybe we can hold ourselves or touch that place of pain in a soothing way, and be mindful of how we feel, allowing it to happen without fighting to get away from uncomfortable feelings but to be kind to ourselves in it.
These exercises and many more like them can be found on the self-compassion website.
We will end with marc & angel’s excellent summary:
“…you were not born feeling this way….[At] some point in the past some person or experience sent you the message that something is wrong with you, and you internalized this lie and accepted it as your truth. But that lie isn’t yours to carry, and those judgments aren’t about you. And in the same way you learned to think negatively of yourself, you can learn to think new, positive and self-loving thoughts. You can learn to challenge those false beliefs, strip away their power, and reclaim your self-respect. It won’t be easy, and it won’t transpire overnight, but it is possible. And it begins the moment you decide there has to be a better way to live, and that you deserve to discover it. Make that decision for yourself!”from marc & angel, Hack Life
We had a long standing friend of the group with us today, Geoffrey Baines; dream whisperer, blogger and doodler! Geoffrey started the session with a very relaxing breathing exercise which was much appreciated and put people into a very chilled state for a new concept to us; mindful doodling. The picture also has a very gentle thought journey and it was a bit of a discovery for some people in the group that by using one part of the brain to focus on colour and shapes and creativity, it allows the mind to stay focused on a particular thought process. Some people also found that where they might normally not feel very confident about anything creative, because this was part of another process, they found they weren’t worried so much about the art and felt a bit freer. People experienced that they became fully absorbed in the activity and found it very relaxing, some people chose not to follow the thought process and enjoyed the relaxation of colouring. At the end of this mindful colouring, Geoffrey asked us how long we thought we’d been colouring and in general the group though it was 40 or 45 minutes. In fact it was 15 minutes, showing us that this type of process slows us down, actually allowing us to properly progress a thought process rather than being heightened and stressed and ruminating, states in which our thoughts don’t help us to achieve resolution. At the beginning of the session Geoffrey spoke about how through these mindful thought processes we might discover what we want, and our potential and discover the best version of ourselves and our giftings and to come to ourselves with kindness and a non-judgemental attitude. As Geoffrey says in his own blog, Thin Silence
“…Every day, though, we have the opportunity to develop and contribute who we are and what we do.
This is how we are able to find and live in meaning.
It isn’t this way for everyone yet, by any means.
What better thing then can we live for but to spread the word, encouraging and enabling as many as possible to bring more to the party than others expect?”
If you are interested in some mindful doodling and acquiring a book, there is more information here:
Occasionally in the group it’s requested to have a more relaxed session doing a creative activity, especially after some sessions which although very beneficial can be quite emotional and challenging as we work on some difficult things. Today was just such a day. We are hopefully approaching the end of our very long winter this year in Scotland…even the daffodils the group planted in November have not yet flowered, though there are buds so we are hopeful for some cheerful yellow flowers trumpeting the arrival of spring for next week! Accompanying this long winter it feels like people have been struggling a bit longer with colds and flu and various wintry infections, so again we celebrate some warmer weather on the way to increase our immune systems!
We had a bit of a free art session today with a bit of a focus on messages of kindness to self and others. We had a mixture of making kindness elves, angels, fairies, bunnies and cards to carry these messages:
Not everyone feels comfortable or able with creative activities, but we talked about the many different ways to be creative, some people can sit and paint, draw or craft an item, but creativity is anything which absorbs you and occupies your mind as you engage with it, be that getting involved with colours, fabrics, sounds, smells, ingredients and cooking, shapes, dance shapes, words, taking photographs, numbers or perhaps it is in the way of organising admin systems or furniture and being creative with how you use spaces or an abstract way of appreciating a landscape, or how you organise a party! What’s important is that we find a way to express ourselves, and it may only need be for us, expressed emotions are healthier than suppressed emotions. Some people in the group discussed how they wouldn’t do a creative activity alone but in a group setting because of the relaxed atmosphere allowing a gentle way of talking about things it could be therapeutic.
Everyone in the group created something for themselves or for another, with reminders of how to be kind. This could be positive encouragement and hope, reminders of what is possible, reminders to look at difficulties from different angles, messages to let people know they are being thought of, and plans to show kindness through baking cake. (Yum!) And reminders that we are all growing, we’ve all changed something and there is an aspect of our life that we have learned to do better than we used to.
Today at the group we returned to a popular group topic ‘music’. We have mentioned many times in the past how music can provide an outlet for our emotions. We wanted to do something a wee bit different this time by focussing on four different emotions and the music pieces people felt appropriate to that emotion. Below is an example;
From the songs that make us happy, to the songs that make us sad people realised that indeed some songs could easily overlap into the other categories depending on how they felt. Most people had quite eclectic tastes which was fascinating to see. This proved to be an emotional experience for all concerned! Below are some songs that were chosen;
Today we asked group members to write a letter to their younger-self. We were very aware of the emotions that this could bring up for people. The benefit in doing this is that it can help us to develop more self-compassion. This can be really useful for people who attach self-criticism to themselves for things happened in the past. We did not want this to excercise to be a ‘If only I knew then what I know now’ type. It was to focus on a challenging time from your life. When we feel anxious we more often than not go into ‘child’ mode and feel fear which can then manifest itself into irrational thoughts. We all have the inner ‘child’ but we must learn to love it and comfort it just like we would any other child.
In our younger years we deal with life through the viewpoint of our learned experiences. Due to not having a lot of life experience we can grow up blaming ourselves for the way we handled situations but forget that we were only working with what we knew at the time. Sadly people who have been the victims of abuse can often incorrectly attach the blame to themselves and somehow believe they deserved it. It’s worth remembering that nobody can possibly know what it’s like to walk in your shoes and deal with the challenges encountered.
By the end of the exercise we all felt quite emotional but immensely touched by the bravery shown by all involved. Being in ‘adult’ mode had allowed people to show more compassion for their inner child and gave the opportunity to look from the outside-in to see things a bit more objectively.