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Mindful Monday: The Toxic Cycle of Depression

Having talked about some of the typical ways that depression can manifest itself in men, it’s time now to assess some of the causes of anxiety, depression and suicide.

11923193_1079074222104390_1798667778734272587_nThere are many factors which can lead to depression and a lot of research has been done to prioritise these. In truth, however, it is clear that because men hide the problem for so long they end up with a whole cocktail of issues contributing to the illness. There may indeed be one major factor or one may rise to the top of the whole depressing mess. Of course it may be that after a long slow build-up of issues, one will reach the tipping point, leading to either a cry for help, a breakdown, or even attempted suicide.

Most surveys come to the same conclusion with the same two factors at the top of all their lists: relationships and economic factors consistently get blamed for depression. Of course, either one of these can also feed into the other and they often go hand-in-hand.

A recent study by academics from the universities of Bristol, Oxford and Manchester show a link between the economic dip of 2008 – 2013 and an increase in mental illnesses and suicide rates.

Another study by the Samaritans shows that people in the lowest socio-economic circumstances are ten times more likely to commit suicide than those in the most affluent. Poverty has no gender boundaries, but it seems that it is men who are more likely to kill themselves if they are poor.

Naturally, wealth is often linked with employment. In the 1990’s those most at risk were men in their 20’s. These days it seems that it is men in their 40’s who are most at risk of suicide. There has been work done to examine the long-term consequences of unemployment in the younger age group. Some say that this may lead to economic ‘scarring’ with lingering problems such as higher rates of unemployment, long-term unemployment and reduced earning opportunities later on.

It strikes me that the men who were at risk in their 20’s are now the same cohort who are killing themselves in their 40’s. At the time of writing I could find no research on this point but I cannot help thinking that it may be relevant.

Unemployment is regarded as the second most likely cause of tipping men into serious depression. Research shows that one out of every seven men experiencing unemployment will develop some kind of depression illness within six months of leaving work. Loss of a job may of course be aggravated by a whole list of attendant issues. For a man, his job may be a source of power, giving him the means to be in control of his life. If the period of unemployment lasts for a while, that feeling of control will slip away along with the income, the company car and the camaraderie of the workplace. Of course as depression deepens the job prospects may also diminish and you are now in a toxic cycle of unemployment and depression feeding on each other.

Relationship issues come top of every study into causes of depression. Collapse of a marriage or other significant relationship, even close family relationships, are the single most likely cause of anxiety, depression and even suicide. This is a huge and complex topic which I can only skim the surface of here.

Traditionally, men have considered themselvese6291399b63a7fdbeb05e08b06ff17ee head of their family, not just as the breadwinner but in the way that they control the lives of their family. Maybe it’s not surprising that is often the woman who instigates separation and even divorce. This undermines the perceived status of the man and so depression is more common in men who are separated or divorced. Of course just as with the side effects of unemployment, divorce has its own additional problems to. The need to relocate, loss of contact with children and shortage of money will also create their own toxic cycle.

Of course there are many other challenges which can lead to depression. Retirement carries with it many similar feelings to unemployment. Having a job can also be just as depressing as losing one. This can very quickly become a toxic cycle of not coping leading to depression, which leads to coping even less and so on.

We should not ignore pregnancy or childbirth either. Postnatal depression is well documented in women but it is also a recognisable trigger of depressive illness for one in ten new fathers. Of course becoming a father is generally a good thing and celebrated but it is also one of the biggest lifestyle changes that you will ever experience. Some of the side issues here include lack of sex in the first few months due simply to tiredness, but also the young husband may feel that for the first time he is taking second place in his partner’s affections.

A serious cause of anxiety for many men is living with illness. Having a serious illness, waiting for treatment, living with chronic ailments (cancer, arthritic pain, HIV/Aids, dementia etc.) can all cause stress and depression. Living with the illness of a partner, family member or friend can have the same result.

These days we cannot ignore the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder being suffered by a growing number of young soldiers returning from war, but also by the survivors of civilian terrorist attacks. To this modern phenomenon we should now also consider the many millions of refugees displaced by conflict, losing homes, work and even family in the process.

Sexual problems can of course also contribute to male depression or can become a side effect of it.

This final comment segues into the next part in this series where I intend to look in some detail at the specific problems of depression in gay men.

Mindful Monday: Men and Depression Pt. 2

Signs of Depression.depression-symptoms-men-400x400

Welcome to this second part of my look at the serious issue of anxiety, depression and suicide in men. In the first part we looked at some shocking statistics and some vague reasons why there is a specific male problem. Before delving too deeply into reasons and solutions I thought it might be useful to consider just what depression is and how it particularly manifests itself in men.

Most of us have experienced periods of time when we have felt down, miserable, or depressed. This can often be attributed to a known event, cause or trigger but it does not really dominate our lives, seldom lasts long and is soon forgotten.

For some however, the feelings do not go away. The depression may continue for weeks or months or the feelings may become deeper. This can leave the victim feeling very much stuck in a rut or in a downward spiral and unable to lift themselves out of it. By this time they will feel it’s beginning to affect every area of their life and even before others recognise that there is a problem, they may have feelings of guilt about it which simply fuel the deepening depression.

What is going on in your mind will start to have physical consequences and also lead to behavioural changes. Where the mind and body are concerned the problem may remain purely personal, but once behavioural changes begin it will only be a matter of time before others notice that you have a problem.

Depressed people will recognise some, most, or all of the following feelings. It becomes increasingly difficult to find joy in anything. For much of the time you may feel down, unhappy, miserable, sad or depressed and those feelings just will not go away. For some the feelings are worse at particular times of the day, especially first thing in the morning when you are facing the day ahead. You may find it difficult to concentrate on anything and you may lack motivation. There may also be feelings of guilt, even about things which have nothing to do with you. You may lose interest in social activities and start to lose touch with friends. As you become more pessimistic you may start to feel hopeless, overwhelmed and even suicidal.

These problems of the mind will often manifest themselves in physical conditions. Most depressed people have difficulty sleeping, either in getting to sleep or staying asleep. Often this results in a broken sleep pattern or the habit of waking up very early which of course leads to physical tiredness. Depression can also affect your weight in one of two ways. Some people ‘comfort eat’ and gain weight while others cannot eat and start to lose weight. Many depressed people also experience a loss of interest in sex.

Of course as these physical symptoms become more noticeable they are added to the growing list of anxieties so increasing the bad feelings.

As things either get worse or just go on for longer, the depression will start to affect your behaviour. This is when it is possible that others will notice a problem even if they don’t recognise what it is. Your poor concentration may lead to mistakes at home or at work as you lose focus. If you start to worry about more things you may also become quieter than usual or even withdrawn. You may become more irritable than usual and you may even begin to complain about vague physical ailments such as headaches etc.

Man-with-depressionAfter a time, your personal hygiene, appearance and tidiness may fall victim to the depression. You may begin skipping showers, not shaving, not washing your hair or brushing your teeth. Shirts may go unironed or even unwashed. At home you may lose interest in cooking, cleaning, or changing the bed sheets.

Where anxiety features in the depression there are additional symptoms such as feeling ‘on the edge’ or constantly worried that things will go wrong. You may become fearful of unknown problems occurring and will find it increasingly hard to go out or to face people. Anxiety also causes its own set of physical problems which may include sweating, palpitations, breathlessness, shakiness, dry mouth, stomach churning or even diarrhoea.

So far the symptoms I have described a fairly general and although there is no specific diagnosis of ‘male depression’, it is quite clear that some symptoms are more common in men than in women. These include increased irritability or temper. There is often a feeling of losing control or you may increase risk-taking. There may be aggression and men are three times more likely than women to commit suicide.

In many ways it is not the symptoms of depression which are different for men so much as their attitude towards it and their coping mechanisms. These often in the long term lead to not coping at all. For many men drugs and/or alcohol become a means of self-medication rather than admitting to any problems or talking about them. Personality does not seem to be a great indicator for depression since, although shy men may be more likely to become depressed, it can also affect the strongest of men. Depression has affected many famous and successful men, even some who have famously spent all their time making the rest of us laugh. Sir Winston Churchill could hardly be called a shy man and yet he suffered deep depression which he called his ‘black dog’.

It is often the classic male attitudes which exacerbate the illness. These attitudes prevent us from talking to loved ones or to health professionals and so we do not get the help which is needed. Many men feel that if they tell their partners, family members or colleagues, that these will be unsympathetic.

For too many men it is their very masculinity which gets called into question. Men can be competitive, ambitious or concerned with power, control or success. This of course makes it much harder to admit to feeling in any way fragile or in need of help. Whatever the perceived reason most men will feel that they must sort the problem out for themselves.

For some men work itself can become the coping strategy, but focusing on that can cause conflict in other areas, especially relationships.

The drug or alcohol route of course becomes destructive itself in the long run. This path can lead to addiction which can then result in unpleasant, irresponsible, reckless, dangerous, or even self-destructive behaviour.

Hopefully this delivers some understanding as to what depression is. Next time I will take a look at some of the causes of anxiety, depression and suicide in far too many men.

Mindful Monday: Death by Silence

Why are so many men suffering and dying in silence?

Much has been said recently about mental health being treated as the poor relation when it comes to policy making and provision within the health services. Here in the UK we have become used to high profile, high-impact campaigns to combat such challenges as obesity, smoking and pollution, cancer and even safe driving. Depression and suicide get almost no attention from policymakers but this needs to change.

10430845_790370061034702_7524635976603527807_nIn 2012 there were 5,981 suicides recorded in the UK. Of these an astonishing 75% (4,590) were men. The latest confirmed figures that we have were for the following year 2013 and they were equally if not more shocking. During that year 6,233 people in the UK took their own lives and while the number of women committing suicide has shown a steady decline in recent decades the same cannot be said for men. The numbers of men taking their own lives has risen markedly. In 2013 its share of the total had gone up to 80%.

Suicide is now the biggest single cause of death for UK males below the age of 50 and that 2013 figure was the highest rate for middle-aged men in over 34 years.

Reading recent polls and research papers I get the impression that we are experiencing a perfect storm of factors fuelling a crisis in masculinity. Many men are going through catastrophic life experiences but feel unable or unwilling to seek help to resolve them. Factors may include the economic downturn, bereavement, job loss, divorce, return from war, bullying, prejudice, loss of the bread winning role, access to their own children, loneliness, or even the simple pressure of peer expectations.

Is it biology or society which leads to this difference between men and women? In fact women are more likely to suffer from depression but they are far more likely to seek help with their problems. Men on the other hand are more likely to suffer in silence,shackled by such stereotypical norms as laddishness, stiff upper lip and ‘manning-up’, they are seeking the ultimate escape. Outdated ideas of masculinity are killing our men. It is clearly a cultural problem and not a biological one.

I originally set out to put together a blog post about the rising problem of depression and suicide in young gay men. I soon realised that the problem was much bigger than that. Following this introductory post I will be returning to the subject to look at some of the causes of male anxiety and depression. I also do still intend to look specifically at depression in young gay men. Finally I will look at options for change.

COEVJPUUYAEd-ZQMany of the factors driving depression are external but the problems become internalised. Even where bullying is a factor this is seldom as strong as the self-stigmatising that goes on within. The very act of seeking help becomes a factor in the depression. Admitting the problem is seen as a weakness and a failure to live up to the accepted mythology of manhood. Too many men stay silent in that silence all too often kills them.

Coming soon: What is depression and how do you recognise it?

Mindful Monday: Green Spaces for Well-being.

8One of the noticeable effects of modern urban living is a well documented gap in the well-being of the rich and poor. Many would argue that the wealth gap leads to a health gap, particularly regarding mental health, and that this will only get worse if left unchecked. A recent study from the Center for Research on Environment, Society and Health, of Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities seems to suggest a way forward in closing this gap.

It appears that living within easy reach of a decent park or other green space can drastically reduce the gap in well-being. The research suggests that the reduction may be as much as 40 per cent. In particular it may be that having access to such spaces locally can improve our mental well-being. The researchers used the data from the European Quality of Life Survey which charts the responses from over 21,000 urban dwellers across 34 European nations. Academics analysed the data by comparing economic status and mental well-being against ease of access to five different neighbourhood facilities and services.

The findings clearly showed that it was only the access to recreational green space3bb00ca005aa3b699c18fb9d8c3afacfs which could be linked to any narrowing of the inequalities of well-being. These findings were published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. We are of course all well aware of the feel-good effects of the great outdoors and so these findings should come as no great surprise. The suggestion now is that we should look at our green spaces and use them to reduce the worrying trend of socioeconomic health inequalities.

Further research is needed in order to establish the case for using our green environment locally to reduce inequalities of health, particularly mental health. Such findings would be a huge boost to local and national conservation groups if it can be argued that developing these open spaces would be a worthwhile  investment in a healthier future. Of course you don’t need to wait for the research or the long slow march of political progress to reap the benefits.  Get out and explore your local green spaces. Take the family for a fun afternoon in the local park, or arrange a picnic with a loved one. Even the office lunch break could be a good time to escape with a book and to sit under a tree for a while.

Mindful Monday: Maturity Rules!

Fifty-somethings are the new Middle-aged.

Many artists, writers and philosophers have been inspired by the human life cycle and have presented the various states from birth to death in their own way. One such was the Renaissance artist Titian, who 500 years ago painted his The Three Ages of Man.  Titian looked in allegorical terms at childhood, manhood and old age. This was a time when old age was all about approaching death, but that is no longer the case. I believe it’s time to reassess and to insert a new stage in between ‘manhood’ and old age.

1024px-Tiziano,_tre_età_dell'uomo_01

Fifty is the new middle-age. Just a decade ago, anyone entering their fifties might be thinking of slowing down. It was time to embrace the elasticated waist and the plaid slippers as you began the more sedate Autumn of your life. Things have moved on since then and our traditional view of old age needs to be challenged. The first stage has always about you as a child. The second is the stage of responsibility, with you as a parent. The third stage was usually about you as a grandparent with one foot in the grave.

Of course you may well have reached your fifties and become a grandparent. You could, however, just as easily be the parent of a pre-school child or of a bunch of teenagers. Alternatively the kids may have flown the nest, or they may even have done that and then returned home again. The cost of living, particularly the cost of accommodation, means that huge numbers of twenty-somethings continue to live at home depending on the Bank of Mum & Dad. Cultural changes mean that you may be in a long term relationship, but you are just as likely to be on your second or third marriage. You may have chosen the single life, or you could be back in the dating game.

The biggest changes to contemporary old age are longevity and improved health. With people now living to ages well in excess of eighty, that one foot has been pulled back out of the grave with the prospect of another thirty years or more still to come. Improvements in health and social care mean that we are fitter and healthier in our fifties and now much more in control of our own latter years.

Many fifty-somethings are starting new ventures. Not only are most still working, but this age group are the fastest growing group for new business start-ups. Even in these austere times, this extended employment leads to greater spending power too.

We are swamped with information about how to stay fit and healthy as we grow older, but since we are thinking in terms of mindfulness here, it is your mental well being that I want to look at. If the first stage of life was about you being a child and the second stage was you as a parent then I think the third stage must be about you being you.

Whatever else is going on in your life, whether it involves, work, family, partner, children or business, you now need to make time just for yourself. This starts with a taking good look at all the important areas of your life so that you can see which areas need some improvement. A great tool to help with this is the Wheel of Life which I have described in detail elsewhere. Whether or not you use the wheel you should divide your life up into some or all of the following areas: Work, finances, home, family, creativity, spirituality, health and fitness, relaxation, social life/friends, love and romance. Give each area a score out of ten so that you can highlight those areas that need development.

Don’t be scared to get help with any weak areas or challenges. Call on your GP, maybe access a life coach or therapist. If you have financial worries get expert help from an accountant or even one of the financial charities. If you have relationship challenges then try to sort them out before they become a serious problem.

Make sure that you build ‘me time’ into each and every day. Get back in touch with the real you or with the you that you always wanted to be. Whether you want to grow old gracefully or disgracefully, make sure that you are doing it on your own terms.

Mindful Monday : Dance Like nobody’s watching.

I’m sure you will have come across this verse or lines from it in many forms and in many places. It is often quoted but it seems that nobody is sure where it came from.

10255439_10152019431592793_8595509808069636734_nDance like no one is watching.

Love like you’ll never be hurt.

Sing like nobody is listening.

And live like it’s heaven on earth.

Let a smile be your style today!

Whatever the origin, the message is powerful. Live life for today. Smell the flowers. Soak up the sunshine. Kiss the baby. Do it all with a smile. I have talked about Mindfulness and the power of Mindful meditation but I also believe that too much introspection and too much time spent deciding how to connect can, leave one taking life far too seriously and not actually living it.

We get so absorbed in the search for happiness that we miss the chance to be happy. Contemporary life is filled with challenges for all of us and everyday things bring new sadness, more worry and ever more stress. Let’s just take that as read and decide to be happy anyway. Alfred D.Souza once wrote:-

For a long time. It seems to me that life was about to begin, real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, or a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles. Were my life.”

If we choose to view life from this perspective then we see that there is no way to happiness, happiness is itself the way. If we accept this and we must also learn to cherish every moment. Try to share every treasured moment with someone special. Surround yourself with people worth sharing your precious time with.

Remember that in the bank account that is your life, time is unique. You are making steady withdrawals as you go through life, but you cannot make any deposits. Time waits for no man, and your time will not wait for you. So stop procrastinating. Banish ‘until’ from your thinking. Stop waiting….

Until you finish school.

Until you go back to school.

Until you win the lottery.

Until you lose weight.

Until you gain weight.

Until you get a job.

Until you get married.11062693_10206189599515939_5483164311003855328_n

Until you have kids.

Until you get divorced.

Until the kids start school.

Until the kids start college.

Until the kids graduate.

Until the kids leave home.

Until you retire.

Until you get a new car.

Until you get a new house.

Until tomorrow.

Until the sun comes out.

Until the rain stops.

Until the weekend.

Until Monday morning.

Until the end of the month.

Until spring.

Until summer.

Until autumn.

Until winter.

Until after Christmas.

Until the New Year.

Until payday.

Until your song comes on.

Until you have a drink.

Until you are sober.

Until you die.

Until you are born again!

1528722_479233458864358_1378845511_nDecide that there is no better time than right now to be happy. Happiness is the journey, not the destination:-

Sing like nobody’s listening.

Live like there is no tomorrow.

Work like you don’t need the money.

Love like you’ll never be hurt.

And dance like no one is watching!

 

This is an edited and updated version of a blog which I first posted in March 2012.

Mindful Monday: The Value and Power of a Smile.

This may seem a strange note to begin today’s blog on, but Monday 1st June 2015 has seen the death of the widely admired British politician Charles Kennedy. A man haunted by personal demons he is remembered for many things but the one thing mentioned by all commentators has been his wit and good humour. These are things sadly missing in much of modern political life and I believe this to be a large part of the reason why our liking of politicians is at a very low ebb. Our world needs more joy and happiness in every field. I believe that we have within us, the means to revolutionise relationships, business, sport definitely politics. The power source for this revolution would be the widespread use of that universal indicator of happiness and friendship: the smile.

The smile is the shortest distance between people. -Victor Borge

Genuine smiles can warm hearts, spread peace and light up cloudy days.VirgilGriffithFace by Meng Weng Wong Smiles do so much more than express happiness. A smile transmits clear messages about a person’s approachability, sincerity, trustworthiness, attractiveness and sociability.

Of course not all smiles are genuine, but fake smiles are easy to spot and usually only involve the mouth. A true smile however, what psychologists call a Duchenne smile, involves the eyes also. For a long time this was considered to be the mark of a real smile but it is now known that even Duchenne smile can be feigned.

A truer marker might be the speed at which a smile develops. The fake smile (‘Botox smile’, ‘Pan Am smile’) can be switched on in an instant. A genuine smile, however, will spread across the face more naturally, appearing to draw in its recipients. Slow onset smiles are seen as more authentic, trustworthy and even more seductive.

If we use our smiles in the work or business context, does that mean that they will always be of the false (non-Duchenne) variety? Of course not. If we truly believe in what we are doing, if we are acting with honesty and integrity, if we genuinely love our interactions with other people in all their variety, then those smiles will be as warm and true as any.

10882177_10205741722678650_4073863254311667909_nLaugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone. – Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

Laugh and the world laughs with you; Slobber and they put you outdoors. – Snoopy

You will have read or heard much about the fact that it takes fewer muscles to smile than it does to frown. There is much more to the muscle thing too. Scientists have known for a long time that emotions are accompanied by numerous physiological changes, from increased heart rate to flexion of the zygomatic major muscle (i.e. smiling). More recently however, we’ve come to understand that the effect can work both ways. Your brain actually pays attention to what your body is doing, and it affects your emotions. Posture can influence the way you feel and although this was first called the “facial feedback hypothesis”, it applies to more than just muscles of the face. The good news is that while it is not always easy to control our emotions, it’s much easier to control our muscles. So try smiling more and you may well start to feel happier too!

The smile is an immensely powerful tool. 10013913_804587782888142_1591503148_nMost people think that we smile because we feel happy, but it can go the other way as well: we can feel happy because we smile.

So go on, smile. Just do it!

 

This is an updated version of an article originally posted on here in August 2012.

Mindful Monday: Self-Confidence.

Do you lack confidence? When we are bombarded with negativity it is easy to wallow in it, either temporarily or over  the long term. Our self confidence can influence every area of our lives from work or study, to relationships and personal success. The way that you see yourself has a huge impact on the way others see you. The more confidence you have, the more others will believe in you and the greater your chance of success will be.

It may seem that many of the things affecting your confidence are outside your control. You may feel the need to get advice from someone else to help you out of this low place. A life coach is a good option as an impartial listener who can guide you towards a more self assured and successful future. There is also much that you can do to improve your own confidence levels and Mindfulness is just one of the many options. Some would say that goals oriented coaching is at odds with Mindfulness and it’s focus on the here and now, but I really believe that the two things can work very effectively side by side.

There are many strategies you can try to increase you self confidence. First and foremost, always have clear goals and visualise what it might look, sound and feel like being the new and self confident you. In order to do this of course you need to believe that you can be confident. Identify your limiting beliefs and negative opinions and be prepared to shed them. If you can only see negative outcomes you will simply reinforce you own well developed, poor self image.

Here are my 10 suggestions for action. Any or all of these will help to reinforce a powerful self image which others will perceive as your new found self confidence.

1. BE HAPPY. Personal happiness is essential to good health and well being. Seek out those things that make you happy and make them happen for you. This can be as simple as a stroll in your garden or park, or even a drink of tea from your favourite cup. Optimism too is a powerful tool that leads to persistence and ultimately to success. Think positively and distract yourself from any grumpy moods by visualising happy memories. Mindfulness meditation can be a powerful facilitator in this.

2. LOOK GOOD. Nobody is more aware of your personal appearance than you are yourself. When you don’t look good, your whole posture changes, as does the way you interact with others. Stand up straight, keep your head up and always make eye contact. This will make a positive impression on others and make you feel more alert and assured. Walking faster will also make you look and feel more important. Of course your appearance will also be enhanced by good grooming and good dress sense too.

“Hold your head high. Stick your chest out. You can make it. It gets dark sometimes but morning comes. Keep hope alive.”

– Jesse Jackson

3. NOURISH AND REWARD YOURSELF. Do you usually vegetate in front of the TV at night? Why not turn it off and engage in activities that exercise your brain cells instead. Reading, crosswords, Sudoku etc. can all help. Eat well and healthily. Treat yourself occasionally, even if it is to your favourite calorie-laden chocolates. When you do, buy the very best you can and really enjoy the quality and flavour.

4. PERSONAL TESTIMONIAL. Be your own motivational speaker and develop your own commercial. Ever heard of a business tool called the Elevator Pitch? Write your own pitch highlighting your best attributes and strengths. Recite it to yourself (in front of a mirror?) whenever you need to boost your confidence.

5. BE GRATEFUL. Sometimes when we dwell on what we want, our minds start to create reasons why we can’t have it and then we start to accept our own weaknesses. The best antidote for this is to set aside time to focus on everything we can be grateful for. Recall happy successful times, great relationships and individual skills. We have all made mistakes and will do so again. Do not judge yourself on the mistakes but how you deal with them. Be careful not to dwell in the past but learn from it.

6 COMPLIMENT OTHERS. When we are in a negative mood ourselves it is easy to see others the same way and we can get drawn into gossip, prejudice and insults. This cycle is easily broken by simply learning to give compliments and praise others. You will become well liked and as you seek the best in others, you will also bring out the best in yourself.

“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”

– Old Irish Proverb.

Of course our relationship with others can be our greatest source of happiness and contentment. Try showing your friends how much you care about them through small, meaningful acts of kindness.

7. SPEAK UP. Public speaking is regularly cited as the biggest fear for most people, We fear making fools of ourselves but in any group, others will be feeling the same, so go for it and try to say something in every group situation. You will be recognised by others as a leader and you will become a better public speaker.

Likewise, how often at school or in the office do we head for a seat at the back, hoping not to be noticed? Choose the front row, feel more confident and be more visible to the important people in the room, e.g. the speaker.

8. LEARN SOMETHING NEW. Make a commitment to learning a new skill or some new knowledge and devote an hour a day to do it. Find time when you can focus without distractions from family, TV or mobile phone. Knowledge breeds confidence.

9. EXERCISE. In the same way as personal appearance can lift our spirits, physical fitness can have enormous impact on our self confidence. We are all well aware that being out of shape can make you feel unattractive, insecure and can be a drain on our energies. Working out or exercising can help in two ways. We can feel energised, have more stamina and improve our appearance. Secondly, the actual discipline of a regular workout will create a positive momentum of its own which helps in so many ways.

We should exercise daily for 20 minutes, in order to release feel-good chemicals into the blood stream. It is also important to get regular, good-quality sleep and daily doses of sunshine (or at least daylight), especially during the winter months.

10. MAKE A DIFFERENCE. It is easy to get caught up in our own desire and become self-centred. if we turn our attention outward and look at the contribution we are making to the rest of the world, it can distract us from our own worries. This could be helping in your own local community where there are many opportunities to volunteer or it can be in the wider global community. This contribution will reward you with personal recognition and success.

If you need any help with confidence issues or developing self-esteem, then these are areas where Life Coaching can definitely support you. Drop me a line, and let’s see what we can do for you.

Mindful May: Mindfulness Meditation

Many people have mixed feelings about the idea of meditation. Some see it as a form of escapism where you sit and empty your mind and think of nothing at all. Others view meditation as a mystical, quasi-religious activity. I was originally a sceptic and I still believe that there is a lot of misinformation about meditation and its uses. Mindfulness meditation however, has been studied closely for around thirty years now and has been well tested in clinical settings.

ccf0200a80a63ec85056662998e0a58eAlthough rooted in the Buddhist tradition, Mindfulness meditation can be used in a completely secular way without any reference to mystical behaviours. Far from training you to think of nothing, Mindfulness meditation teaches you to pay very careful attention to whatever it is that you have chosen to focus on. The first subject is usually your breathing, but once you can experience this attention you can move on to any of your other senses or body parts. As the technique becomes easier you can also begin to focus on your feelings and emotions.

There are two distinct types of Mindfulness meditation: Formal Meditation and Informal Meditation. The second of these may be the more useful technique for long term daily use. I would however suggest that you start with Formal meditation in order to train the mind in the habit of meditation.

Before embarking on any explanation of the two forms I want to clarify my use of the word ‘practise’ in this context. Setting aside all confusion about the use of ‘practice’ or ‘practise’, use of the noun or the verb, or the differences between English or American versions, I am more concerned with the meaning of the word. Yes, at first we will need to practise meditation in order to make the practice of meditation easier. In the first instance we are using the word to imply repeated training to reach perfection in the way that we do something. In Mindfulness meditation there is no requirement to achieve perfection. It is the quality of your experience which matters most. Therefore in this context I am using the word to describe the ongoing use of a technique where you actually engage with your own experience of the meditation.

Formal Meditation

In order to engage in formal meditation you will need to set aside some time to carry out the activity. Only by taking time out from your everyday life can you become more attentive to your own mind. Over time this will train you to be mindful for longer periods of time and to focus more deeply on any habitual behaviours with greater curiosity, tolerance and kindness towards yourself and your current experiences.

Formal meditation is best practiced sitting alone in a quiet,11f003ed73be04af584f36c8b8d03b48 comfortable place with your eyes closed. As previously mentioned it is usual to start by giving attention to your breathing. Focus on how your abdomen moves in and out as you breathe, or how the air flows in and out through your nostrils. Of course other thoughts will pop-up in your mind but you simply return to focusing on your breathing. Try to do this for 10 minutes each day to begin with and the more you do it the easier it becomes to really become attentive to your breathing. Once you are satisfied that you can regularly focus in this way, then you can expand your awareness to include thoughts, feelings or other actions in a mindful way. Formal Mindfulness meditation should be seen as mind training.

Informal Meditation

This is a very different style of meditation where you need no special time or place to enter the meditative state. You can focus your attention in a mindful way while you are carrying out your normal everyday activities. Whether you are walking the dog, cooking the family dinner, or pushing a trolley around the supermarket you can enter the meditative state at any time and in any location. This further trains your mind to stay in the present moment focusing your attention on the here and now instead of drifting back into the past or forward into the future. Informal Mindfulness meditation gives you the means to rest in a mindful state at any time and in any situation.

Now, at the start I mentioned research and those of you who know me will know that I am very much a science guy. If I am to believe in something like Mindfulness meditation I need to at least know a little about how and why it works. Mindfulness has been the subject of study for some thirty years now. It is however in the last decade that advances in imaging techniques have enabled an explosion in neuroscience and have allowed researchers to more accurately observe what the brain is doing during meditation.

In November 2011 a group of researchers published a paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science 6 . Here they suggested that Mindfulness meditation affected some components of attention regulation, emotional regulation, body awareness and changes in our perception of self. The group went on to say that neuroimaging techniques suggest that there were observable “changes in the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, fronto-limbic network and default mode network structures within the brain”.

Don’t panic. You have not wandered into an episode of Bones, nor do you need to know this stuff. I am simply using this research exemplar to show that Mindfulness meditation does seem to cause observable changes in the brain. It is these kinds of neuroplastic findings which are now feeding into much more in-depth research relating to treatments for mental health disorders.

The current clinical point of view would appear to be that Mindfulness meditation is more effective than some supportive therapies  but perhaps not as effective as traditional Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This of course assumes that there is some existing condition which needs treatment. I cannot help thinking that just like exercise or healthy eating, making Mindfulness meditation a part of your everyday life will contribute to the mental and emotional aspects of a healthier you.

Mindful May: Stress Management

“I’m having such a stressful day!”

How many times a day do we hear that said? With all of our worries about money, work and relationships, many people are having to cope with increased stress levels. As a Life Coach I get asked about this more than any other challenging situation. A coach will be able to help you manage your stress or even to harness it so that it helps you. There are also a great many things that you can do to manage your own stress.

Some stress is very important to us. We need to be stressed to some extent in order to drive us on towards our goals. This healthy stress can appear as excitement or enthusiasm, enabling us to achieve goals or meet deadlines. Positive stress is what lifts us out of our comfort zone and gives us the power to achieve greater things.

The negative side of this is not so much stress as distress! This occurs when you become overwhelmed by whatever challenges you are facing, the enormity of which can drain your energy. If not resolved through coping or managed intervention, this distress can lead to anxiety or depression along with a wide variety of physical manifestations.

There is clear evidence that the number of prescriptions for anti-depressant drugs such as Prozac have risen dramatically in recent years. It has been suggested that economic problems are fuelling this rise in depression, since GPs and charities are increasingly seeing people struggling with debt or job worries. Ironically, this increase has occurred alongside government initiatives to increase access to the kind of talking therapies that should in theory reduce the need for prescription drugs. Therapists are increasingly turning to elements of mindfulness in an effort to equip their patients to partially manage their own problems.

Stress is a well researched and well understood state triggering neurological and biochemical processes in the body. These changes must be reversed to defuse the stress and if left unresolved it can cause long term damage to both mind and body.

There are really only two ways to reverse the effects of stress, and ‘working through it’ is not one of them! Firstly, exercise can kick start the body’s return to its unstressed state. Secondly, and not surprisingly, good quality relaxation (including sleep) is a great treatment.

You can develop some simple stress management skills that will come in useful even when you aren’t stressed:

EXERCISE – This has so many benefits. Since stress triggers the primitive ‘fight or flight’ response in our bodies, it makes sense that physical exercise would reverse the process. Many experts agree that regular exercise is a great tool to manage stress. Alongside this, it is important to eat well. During times of stress the body needs the right fuel, but it is in times of stress that we all too easily slip into bad habits such as eating fast food ‘on the run’. Some may rely on alcohol, smoking or even drug taking to ease tension. This may help in the short term, but substance abuse actually induces stress and reduces the bodies ability to bounce back.

RELAXATION – The body does have a natural antidote to stress called the relaxation response. The biochemical benefits of relaxation are a sense of calm and well being which can easily be triggered by any one of a number of relation techniques. Simple breathing exercises in times of stress can help enormously. It is important to build relaxation into your schedule. Listening to calm music, reading a good book, spending time with loved ones or pets, working on a hobby, or having a soak in the bath can all work wonders. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to be of great benefit and I will return to this in another blog.

The most important relaxation tool of all is good quality sleep.

Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing, of just going along listening to all the things you cant hear, and not bothering.

Pooh’s Little Instruction Book. Inspired by AA Milne.

There are many other techniques to help manage stress. Learn to say no, or know when to seek help with a task or challenge. Be realistic in your expectations of yourself and others – nobody is perfect.

A positive mental attitude can help a lot, so watch what you are thinking and modify your attitude. Develop a sense of optimism and learn to put your causes of stress (stressors) into perspective. One way to do this is to grade your stress on a line from zero to one hundred. Right now your email inbox may be a major stressor but, imagine instead that you are a victim of the Nepalese Earthquakes or living in a war zone such as Syria or Iraq. Where do these sit on your line? 90 to 100? Now where does that full inbox sit – less than 10?

Another approach with this is to look into the future. How much will the contents of your present email inbox matter in five years time?

Stress is a huge challenge for many people. If ignored, it can shorten your life at least as much as heavy smoking! However, it is  easy to manage and control before it deteriorates into physical illness, depression, or mental illness.

There are many examples out there of people who have overcome extreme stress, but if you want to be inspired by an outstanding example I recommend reading Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was sent to Auschwitz during  The Holocaust, and writes movingly about how the attitude of hope can overcome the most extreme forms of stress. I wrote a review of this book for The Coaching Academy online Magazine which you can read here http://www.timorahilly.co.uk/?p=592 When you read his words your problems will suddenly become very small!

If you have any questions or would like any help just contact me at anytime.

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