Monthly Archives: June 2016

Why being comfortable with yourself doesn’t mean giving up on hope

Quite often I write about being comfortable with who you are, but when I do I’m sometimes taken to task by a Moodnudges reader or two.

In the nicest possible way, of course. We’re an awfully civil community here, for which I count my blessings.

In general there’s much to be said for accepting yourself as the person you are, for there are certain aspects which may be pretty much set in stone.

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Sometimes for instance I think I’d like to lose a few pounds, but since I enjoy my food, like a drink now and then, and am frankly unlikely to take up marathon running, it’s probably better that I should be satisfied with who I am rather than becoming dissatisfied with who I’m not.

Where people politely pick me up on this concept, though, is when it comes to the nasties such as depression and anxiety.

They wonder if I’m suggesting that someone who suffers from a mood problem should simply accept it as a given – as a permanent condition.

And, of course, I’m not.

I’m really not.

Of course there may be a few for whom long-term treatment is the only answer, and it’s crucial that they get the support and care they so vitally need.

For millions more, however (and I’m convinced that it’s the majority) the real you isn’t the you who’s currently experiencing problems.

With the right help, the right mind-set, the right level of acceptance, it should absolutely be possible to visualise yourself being in a better place.

Almost certainly this can’t happen overnight.

While moods fluctuate day to day, real change takes place over time, and we hear evidence of this all the time from Moodnudges readers.

Patience is a necessity when it comes to emotional repair.

Yesterday I talked about not being defined by your current state of mind, if it’s a low or troubled one.

So maybe the ‘us’ we should be comfortable with is the true ‘us’, not necessarily the one we may be feeling right now.

How to turn a regular diary into a gratitude journal

Right now I’m running two daily diaries.

One is my regular journal, whose pages I fill each morning with a summary of what happened the previous day.

The latest volume is the twentieth in a series that started back in 1996, and somewhat obsessively I’ve hardly missed a day in what has just reached twenty years.

Right now, however, I’m more interested in telling you about the other smaller diary in which (at the suggestion of a friend) I jot down two or three things each day for which I feel grateful.

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The way it’s turned out, these too tend to revolve around things that happened the previous day – and they can range from a delicious meal or a rewarding conversation to some kind of significant development on the Moodnudges project.

There’s a lot to be said for this sort of ‘gratitude journaling’.

In fact it’s pretty widely believed that positive emotion is a strength we can build by actually experiencing it: think positively and you’ll end up thinking (even more) positively.

Although I’m collecting my things-to-be-grateful-for in the morning, you may find it makes even more sense to do so last thing at night.

This way you can head for bed with positive thoughts whispering to your mind.

Some suggest aiming for a fixed number of items: three seems to work well.

You can simply summarise them in your head, or (as I prefer) write them down.

To me, doing so seems to formalise and crystallise them.

Whether, whenever and however you decide to experiment with recognising the things you can be grateful for, there’s no time like the present to have at least a little play with it.

So, what three things can you be thankful for right now?

1.

2.

3.

Now, how did that feel?

What if you’re just not cut out to be a juggler?

Jugglers, I suspect, are made rather than born.

Until someone tells me otherwise, I’d put money on juggling being a skill you acquire over time rather than a talent you produce spontaneously.

Of course the scientist in me recognises that you should never completely discount theories until they’ve been firmly disproved, and you never know, there might just be some kind of ‘Victorian Bernard: The Three-Year-Old Savant Juggler’ story waiting to be found in some dusty archive.

But, for now, let’s accept that the best way to become a juggler is to, well, juggle.

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Beg, borrow or steal a set of padded juggling balls (known in the trade as ‘thuds’, since that’s what they’ll end up doing – on the ground – most of the time) and begin to practice.

However, just as I’ve already suggested, to begin with most of your time won’t be spent juggling.

It’ll be spent failing.

Thud. Thud. Thud.

Time after time, the balls will fail to sail through the air, but tumble forlornly to the floor.

The real nub of this process, of course, is how you respond to this lack of success.

The way to learn to juggle is simply to continue with your practice.

The more you do, the less you’ll fail, and this is one way of dealing with adversity: the ‘if you don’t first succeed, try, try and try again’ school of thought.

But perhaps bouncing back needs to follow a different path sometimes?

Maybe you’ll discover that, try as you may, you just don’t seem to have the aptitude for juggling?

In this case, I wonder if it makes more sense to make the sometimes brave decision to move on to something else: tightrope walking perhaps?

Or stamp collecting.

Or soufflé cooking.

There are at least two big ways to deal with adversity.

One is to believe that you’ll overcome the problem in time.

The other is to take a different route.

I’m sure you’ll know which makes sense for you, and when.

The 3-step way to set goals on the shabbiest of days

On some of my darkest days, my only goal has been to make it through to bedtime: not exactly the loftiest of ambitions. But maybe better than nothing.

When you’re going through a rough patch, nothing seems very meaningful. Every step feels like plodding through treacle. Each minute can add to the weight bearing down on your soul.

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Thankfully it’s not the way I feel right now, but that doesn’t prevent me recalling what it’s like. At times like that, you may have little appetite for life. In fact, were someone to ask you what you were looking forward to, it wouldn’t be surprising if you replied ‘Nothing’.

Nothing. Imagine that. Imagine genuinely believing (since that’s one of the cruel tricks that low mood can play on you) that there’s nothing (nothing!) on the horizon. No goals. No treats. No things-yet-to-come.

I don’t know about you, but to me this doesn’t sound a very pleasant place to be. It would feel like being locked in a cell with no prospect of release.

The trouble is, it’s a vicious circle. When your mood is low, you stop making plans: you stop setting goals. But then when you stop setting goals, it’s not unreasonable to expect your mood to dive even lower.

What to do then?

Perhaps this three-step process can help:

1. Acknowledge that, even if you’re feeling very low, in principle people do respond well to having things to look forward to.

2. Admit that (feeling the way you do right now) you’ll never in a million years be able to make big plans.

3. Accept that even the tiniest piece of anticipation is almost certainly better than none at all.

How tiny is tiny? I think it can be REALLY tiny. Look forward to eating something good at lunchtime. Tell yourself that you’ll take a ten minute walk this evening. Promise yourself a soak in the bath later on.

On a good day, these may seem insignificant ambitions. But on a bad day they can make all the difference.

How you grow as you learn

On the day you were born, you knew little. True, you had your instincts. We all do. But just about all the knowledge you now possess has been acquired since then.

Some of it was gathered through experiment: that’s how you know to test the bathwater before you step into it, and what avocado tastes like. A lot came to you through formal learning, leaving you able to quote dates from history, divide 7,610 by 57, spell necessary and tell me what the capital of France is.

Then there’s the informal learning, which means you perhaps have the ability to stand up for yourself, know how to get along with others, and (maybe did have) the capacity to wheedle a little pocket money out of an older relative.

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We take it for granted that a tiny child has everything to learn, but can easily slip into thinking that after that it’s all downhill on the acquiring knowledge front, believing that it’s okay to lose the insatiable knowledge we once had to explore, discover and make sense of the world.

But when we lose our desire to do these things, don’t we also perhaps lose some of our love for life? Don’t we become more inward-focused and stuck in our ways?

Do you recall your school days, and that feeling of packing your pencil case ready for a new term? Remember how that felt?

In which case, why not resolve to keep learning new things this summer?

Why it’s good to take off the blinkers

The blinkers on a working horse serve a purpose, preventing the animal from distraction by its neighbours and focusing its attention on its work.

Over the years, trainers determined that this was the best approach: strap on the blinkers and your horse remains single-minded.

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Now and then we all have tasks which demand our complete concentration, and when this is the case it can be helpful to do the human equivalent of donning blinkers. Turn off the TV, switch your phone to silent, ask others not to disturb you.

If you don’t really need such laser-like focus, however, there’s much to be said for doing just the opposite, paying as much attention as possible to the world around you.

If you were to sketch a down-hearted person you’d probably draw him with a hanging head. Chin to chest, his eyes would be fixed on the floor. When your mood is low, your perspectives become shortened, and your attention becomes limited. The cause is having the blues, the effect is temporary blindness to the world around you.

We can hack these dynamics, however, running the machine in reverse so that the cause becomes looking intently around us, and the resultant effect is that our mood is lifted, even if only a little.

So look around. Properly. Almost certainly there will be a lot to see, and pretty certainly you’ll feel the benefits of paying proper attention, even if it’s just that you avoid walking into lamp-posts.

4 ways to connect with people when you really don’t feel like it.

Immediately before you give blood, a nurse drips a single drop of your red stuff into a small test tube filled with clear blue liquid, and in so doing is able to tell – among other things – whether you’re anaemic or not.

If you’re not, fine, you can go ahead and donate. Should you be anaemic, though, I think she’d send you off to see your doctor who’d probably prescribe an iron supplement and advise you to eat iron-rich foods such as dark-green leafy vegetables, wholegrains, beans and nuts.

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It’s a simple enough model, isn’t it? A quick test reveals a deficiency in something, which you fix by consuming more of whatever it is you’re missing.

It makes me wonder if a similar ‘take two of these and call me in the morning’ approach might work for us when we’re in need of an emotional boost. I’m not thinking medication, more simple actions we can take.

Let’s see how this might pan out, for instance, with human connection. When your mood is low, it’s pretty common to keep oneself to oneself. In a ‘chicken and egg’ kind of way, you may feel blue when you have little contact with others, but are also likely to initiate little contact when you feel this way.

Imagine there was a blood test that would tell you whether you’d connected with a healthy number of people the day before, and visualise the nurse or doctor giving you the results: ‘Ah, I can see you’ve been having fewer conversations than you normally might. Here’s what I’d like you to do…’

And this would be what, exactly? I’m sure you’ll have ideas of your own, but here are a handful of mine.

1. If you really don’t feel like talking, email or text a friend you’ve not contacted for a while. Just a ‘Hello’ might be enough to elicit a reply.

2. Connections with people you don’t know can work too. When you’re in the supermarket or library, ask the person who serves you what sort of day they’re having. Maybe it’ll result in a little exchange.

3. Find an excuse to knock on a neighbour’s door, even if it’s simply to say you wanted to make sure they were OK. A few minutes on their doorstep could make a valuable contribution to defeating your connection-anaemia.

4. Another tip for feeling connected on days on which you truly, madly, deeply feel unable to engage in conversation? Listen to a talk radio show. Don’t just have it on in the background, concentrate and follow along, just as you would if you were chatting with someone.

Just as your blood needs iron, your soul needs connections. So when you’re running low, be sure to take a supplement or two.

4 physical health tips that can also lift your emotional health

I expect you’re already pretty aware of many of the life-style factors that affect the health of your heart. You’ll know how much sense it makes to eat and drink more of the right things and less of the wrong. You’ll be aware that smoking isn’t the most helpful of vices to have. Too much stress is bad for your heart. Exercise is good for it. And so on, and so on.

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We take for granted the fact that we need to adopt a holistic ‘whole body’ approach when it comes to cardiac conditioning: so why isn’t it always as obvious to us that our emotional wellbeing can be every bit as much influenced by our all-round physical health?

While it may be an overclaim to suggest that depression can be somehow ‘cured’ by adopting a healthy lifestyle, it certainly does no harm to take care of your body if you want to take care of your mind.

Eat healthily. I’m sure you know what’s good for you and what isn’t.

Drink sensibly. This means alcohol only in moderation (if it’s your thing) but plenty of glasses of water.

Exercise regularly. Every little helps. This doesn’t necessarily commit you to a gym membership, but it does mean walking whenever you can. A little faster than usual is always a good thing.

Aim to get a good night’s sleep. I know this is not easy for many, but it may help to start winding down a good hour before bedtime, to avoid caffeine in the evening, to eat at least two hours before retiring, and as far as possible to aim for consistent going-to-bed and getting-up times.

Your body and mind are intimately connected. Look after one and you’ll also be taking care of the other.

How to be… yourself

The predictive searching gizmo on Google is a revealing way to learn what other people think, as its suggested searches are based on what they’ve been looking for.

For instance, when I typed in ‘how to be’ just now, it informed me that the top four most common requests are: How to be happy, How to be pretty, How to be funny, and How to be good kisser. (On that last one, the top site returned suggests that it all starts with looking after your lips. Make a note: buy lip balm.)

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The thing is, and it’s confirmed by the large number of volumes you’ll find in the Self-Help section of a bookstore or library, it seems we all want to be something we’re not. We’re unhappy so we want to be happy (understandably). We think we’re not pretty, so we want to be more attractive. We’re a bit serious so want to be funny. Or we worry we’re not a great kisser so we want to discover what we’ve been doing wrong.

I guess self-improvement is a natural human drive, but it’s a crying shame when this interferes with being comfortable with yourself.

Your life has made you the individual you are. It has shaped and moulded you, and there’s no-one on the planet who’s exactly like you: surely something to celebrate rather than regret?

Rather than wishing you were somehow different, why not tackle the day being glad that you’re you?

As Oscar Wilde said: ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.’

How to avoid thinking in black and white

Infuriating isn’t it? Let’s say you’re feeling decidedly below par. Hopefully it’s not the case right now but it does happen to the best of us now and then.

So you’re going through a rough time, and you know quite incontrovertibly that if you could only just take a positive approach to things, you might be able to edge yourself back on track. You know this. But you know this in theory. The chances of being able to think anything other than negatively at a time like this are, frankly, remote. On a par with winning the lottery.

So what the heck do you do?

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Well let’s imagine a scale which has Very Negative on the left and Very Positive on the right, and let’s add a Fairly Negative and Slightly Negative to the right of Very Negative, and a Slightly Positive and Fairly Positive to the left of Very Positive.

Then I think we’re entitled to add one more position on the scale: there’s no reason at all why we shouldn’t place this slap bang in the middle – right there between the Slightly Negative and the Slightly Positive, and we might choose to label this as Neutral.

So where has this piece of mental origami taken us? I reckon it suggests that when taking a positive approach is out of the question, it may be more realistic to see if we can actually adopt a neutral way of viewing things.

An example? Certainly. Let’s imagine you’ve been invited to a party when you’re feeling pretty gloomy. The (most likely) negative viewpoint is to believe you’ll have an awful time if you accept, while the (unlikely) positive is to predict that you’ll really enjoy it. To some extent these are both extreme views, though, and the truth is that you can’t actually know how much or not of a good time you’ll have.

You might still not really want to go to the party, but at least you’ll keep an open mind if you do.

Next time you’re faced with a situation that seems to depend on you either taking the positive road or the negative one, why not add a third direction?

The neutral approach may just be a more realistic one.