The Spoon Theory and Pacing

Spoons
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You may have heard people refer to themselves as “Spoonies”, or say they “have run out of spoons”.  So what does this mean?

“The Spoon Theory” was created by Christine Miserandino in 2003 in her essay of the same name.  Christine has lupus, which is an invisible illness that can cause a variety of debilitating symptoms.  Christine used spoons as a stand-in for units of energy.  They model how activities can be difficult and costly to people with chronic illness.  Each task cost a ‘spoon’, and someone with chronic illness starts with only a limited number per day.  There is no way to start with more, and trying to ‘buy’ extra ‘spoons’ can end up causing further problems.  This helped Christine’s friend to understand that people with chronic illness have to plan out their activities carefully.  Unexpected tasks might mean they cannot do other things due to having limited ‘spoons’.  The full essay is here.

The Spoon Theory can be a useful way of describing your experience to people around you.  It can also be helpful for self care.  Thinking about how many spoons you have each day (which may not be consistent), how many spoons will be needed for various tasks (which, again, may not be consistent) and planning out activities within those limits is known as “pacing”.

Pacing is a self-directed way of managing illness and fatigue that is personal to you.  It means getting to know your abilities and responses to certain stimuli.  This helps you to organise your time and activities.  It is all about balance – not cramming everything in first thing in the hope that you can rest later!

Perhaps one of the most tricky aspects to pacing is the self-discipline needed.  It is very easy to think, “I’ve only got this thing to do, I’ll just push through and rest later!” even if that will result in a much longer recovery time. You might also struggle with feelings of embarrassment if you need to stop an activity right in the middle, or fear letting people down.  I’ve written several times before about saying “no”.

Pacing isn’t an easy or quick thing to arrange, but it can be very helpful.  Long-term, pacing activities may be much better for your health than ‘soldiering on’.  Action for M.E. has produced a wonderful booklet that explains pacing, the evidence base for it and how to use it.  The booklet can be found online here.

Illnesses such as CFS/ME, fibromyalgia, EHS and lupus are very real, not just “in your head”.  This means counselling cannot ‘cure’ them.  However, these illnesses and their symptoms can cause, and also be made worse by, mental issues such as stress, anxiety and depression.  You may need to work through your grief or fear around your diagnosis, and get support in working out how to live your best life within these limits.  If you would like to make an appointment, please contact me.

THE FEAR

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THE FEAR I am talking about today is that terror of getting something done in case you do something wrong, make a mistake, get into trouble…  It’s paralysing, and can occupy your thoughts to the exclusion of all else.

THE FEAR can be very difficult to get a handle on, especially as an adult.  I wondered why that might be.  A friend of mine said that as children, our fears of getting things wrong and into trouble tend to be focussed on a person – for example, a parent or a teacher.  However, as adults, those we can end up answerable to can seem a bit more faceless – HMRC, the police, government agencies.

I thought this was interesting, and it got me thinking about power dynamics.  Something about a faceless threat can seem so much scarier, perhaps because we can’t plan for how to deal with it or because it can have so much more power to impact our lives.  As children, losing our breaktime to a detention might feel devastating, but as adults we are more aware of how much bigger and scarier consequences and punishments can be.  We are also far more aware of the consequences of our actions – knowing that we could make a mistake or choose a path that leads to harm to others or ourselves.

Those “what ifs” are what are so paralysing.  “What if I get my tax return wrong?”  “What if my documentation isn’t correct?”  “What if they find an error when I’m audited?”

The trouble is, not facing and doing these things can also lead to bad consequences.  For example, a fine for a late submission, or even hurrying and ending up making a mistake you otherwise might not have.

My top tips for facing THE FEAR:

  1. Plan ahead.  Set aside a specific time to complete the task.  Not too far in the future, but not in the next 5 minutes either.
  2. Divide the task into smaller steps, and complete them in an order which makes the most sense to you.
  3. Perhaps the most difficult – ask for help.  It’s okay not to know or understand everything at once.  That’s why we have lawyers, accountants, electricians, plumbers…!  If money is an issue, check out free or low-cost sources of help such as ACAS (for work disputes), Shelter (for issues with housing, renting etc), MA (for money advice) or the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (for all sorts of things).
  4. Plan a reward for yourself for afterwards, if you need extra motivation.

Getting the scary things done is an act of self care.  Self care isn’t just bubble baths and scented candles.  It is also completing the things we need to get done, rather than letting them hang over us and potentially causing worse problems.

As Susan Jeffers said, Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway!

Being alone and why it’s useful

alone
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Being alone has negative connotations – perhaps that the person is a “misery guts”, or is “unfriendly” or “isolated”.  However, I believe that time spent alone is necessary, useful, and valuable.

I’ve written before about coping with the demands of others and juggling responsibilities.  Being alone can give you time to recharge, decompress, and think about your own needs for a bit.  It’s easier to make plans and decisions if you’ve been left alone to think about them for a while, as you can escape other people’s agendas.  It might also help you be more productive. A friend of mine recently said the disruption to her office from the recent heavy snowfall meant she could get on with her work without interruption and was extremely productive!

The flip side of not being around other people and having their needs and demands placed upon you is that you don’t rely on them so much either.  Being alone and having to regulate your own emotions and needs can help you build strength and resilience.  That is why so many people recommend learning to love yourself before looking for love from others.  You will develop inner strength and the power to manage your own self-worth rather than needing someone else to do it for you.  You will learn to trust your own opinions and decisions rather than looking for reassurance and guidance from others.

Is there a movie you want to see but you friends don’t?  Or somewhere you want to eat, or travel?  Is lack of companionship holding you back from activities, and would it be so bad to go alone?  Why or why not?

Being alone can be a conscious choice for self care.  Remember, self care isn’t just about lighting and candle and having a nice bath!  It can also mean getting a stack of bills paid or having a medical appointment.

Happiness in your own company can also increase self-confidence and satisfaction.  Listening to our inner voice, agreeing with or challenging it appropriately, can help us feel more grounded and sure of ourselves.

So strike your best Greta Garbo pose and say, “I want to be alone!”.

 

JADE-ing and saying no

Stop JADE-ing
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I have written previously about saying “no”.  Actually resolving to say no is the first step, but what do you do when the other person won’t hear it?  You might be JADE-ing.

There are of course times when saying “no” isn’t appropriate – e.g. to a policeman, your boss, or to someone who is asking you to stop doing something that causes them harm.  This article is not about those times!

I have previously linked to this excellent article on how any why you might say no.  However, I’m sure we have all been in situations where, for example, “I’m sorry, I’m busy” doesn’t work.

At that point, it is tempting to start JADE-ing.

J – Justify

A – Argue

D – Defend

E – Explain

JADE-ing is when we come up with various reasons why we want to, need to, or choose to say “no”.

With friends who care about us, it’s not so much of a problem – we want to soften the “no”, to avoid hurting them or our relationship.  The problem arises when we are faced with someone who cannot or doesn’t want to accept our “no”, who hurts us with their demands.

In his book The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker says, “‘No’ is a word that must never be negotiated, because the person who chooses not to hear it is trying to control you… Declining to hear ‘no’ is a signal that someone is either seeking control or refusing to relinquish it.”

When faced with this situation, JADE-ing doesn’t help.  Giving reasons or explanations, defending your choice  or arguing with the person hands them more opportunities to not hear your “no”.  Offering up information as to why you are saying no enables them to provide ways round it.  It’s as though you are saying “yes, but…”, and asking them to find ways to make it happen.  It’s easy to think they will understand your point of view if you just explain it to them.  Unfortunately, that is only true if they are actually interested in your point of view – and they might not be.

JADE-ing can be exhausting, and doesn’t actually get you any further than just saying “no” does.  It can even make it worse, as someone without your best interests at heart might then turn the situation round and insist you are the one causing the problem.

JADE-ing is a habit we can so easily fall into.  We can even end up JADE-ing ourselves!  Saying “no” can be an act of self-care, but when we are used to putting the needs of others first that we end up working really hard to convince ourselves of that.  It’s okay to say, “because I feel like it”.

So how can you tell if you are JADE-ing?  You might feel confused, uncertain, scared, or attacked.  You might find yourself struggling to find the ‘right’ words, going round in circles or off the subject.  The other person might start making accusations, becoming aggressive or otherwise escalating their demands.

Stopping JADE-ing and saying “no” outright might cause some ruffled feathers for a while.  There may be various consequences, such as changes in or even endings of relationships.  Only you can decide if you are able to accept those consequences.  Where do you want it to end?  Can you stop JADE-ing?

Juggling

juggling
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We are all juggling various things.  Not  throwing various objects around, but keeping up with the many tasks, jobs and obligations we have every day.

At what point does it become too much, and what can you do?

Only you can decide what you can handle, but you can become so bogged down with things that you can’t even think straight.  At times like this, you might even end up compromising on the quality of what you are doing rather than the quantity.

This is not necessarily wrong – but if you find things are getting worse, it could be worth re-examining what you are doing any why.

I’ve written before about Saying No, but how do you know at what point to actually do it?

  • Are you compromising important aspects of health and self care, such as sleep and food, in order to get tasks done?
  • Is your mood dropping because you’re so overstretched?  Have you started snapping at loved ones?
  • Are you spending what should be down-time worrying about your list of tasks?
  • Have you totally given up the things which bring you pleasure and relaxation in favour of a list of jobs?

If you are saying yes to any of these, you might be juggling too much.

So what can you do?

For a start, look at the tasks you have and work out what actually needs doing and what doesn’t.  You can mentally group tasks into “necessary”, “not necessary but would be nice to have done” and “unnecessary”.  Be ruthless about it!  Much as we would all like to have a sparkling kitchen with alphabetised spice racks, sometimes it’s better overall to just settle for a clean space where we can find things reasonably easily!

Are your thoughts getting in the way?  Perhaps you believe things will collapse or people will think much less of you unless you Do All The Things.  This might not be a conscious belief, so it is worth examining carefully what you fear might happen if you stopped doing certain things.

Next, you could look at your tasks and check what you are really responsible for and what you are not.  So often the bulk of work in a household can fall to just one person, something which is being discussed more and more on social media lately.  Writing lists of what tasks fall to which person can be eye-opening!  Are you doing certain things just because that’s the way it has always been, despite lifestyles and working hours changing?  Do you cause yourself enormous disruption and difficulty to avoid someone else having to put up with a little discomfort?

Are you juggling more than you can manage because you find it difficult to ask for help?  It can be so hard to ask for help, as we might fear we are letting people down or damaging their view of us.  Only you can decide at what point the risks of asking for help are less than the risks of buckling under.  It’s also a good idea to be really specific.  It is easier for people to respond to a specific request than a general, “help me!”.

Which juggling ball will you put down today?

Getting through Christmas

christmas
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I’m sure you’ve heard people complaining that “Christmas starts earlier and earlier”.  It does seem to start sometime around August lately.  If you love Christmas and everything that goes with it, this is excellent news!  However, if you are feeling Christmassed-out, you might be worried about the upcoming week or two.

The enforced jollity and pressure of social engagements, preparing for activities and the requirement to “be HAPPY!” might be exhausting and overwhelming.  It can be very difficult to admit to not really feeling it, especially if people around you aren’t willing to accept your feelings.

Matt Haig recently wrote an article about his experiences of battling depression at Christmas and what he learned from it (content warning: depression, suicide).

I’ve written before about various ideas to get through the Christmas period if it isn’t going well for you – including looking at your ‘shoulds’, mindfulness, grounding and using support networks.

Recently KentOnline published an article, “Where can I escape Christmas in Kent?”.  Please note that a couple of the listed events have now passed, but there are still some good ideas there.

It can be especially difficult to say “no” at Christmas.  Some people will use the season as an excuse to ramp up expectations and use emotional blackmail to get you to do what they want.  Perhaps you’ve heard “But it’s Christmas!” or some reference to “goodwill to all” used in this way?  Fortunately, The Pool has recently published an excellent article with suggestions of techniques you can use to tackle this.

Maybe you feel it is too late to change things for this year now.  So, this year might be a chance to take stock of what works for you and what doesn’t.  You can start making changes early enough next year that people can get used to it.  It’s okay if you would rather stay home at Christmas.  If you would prefer to have a ‘quiet one’, that’s fine.  If you want to skip some events and go to others then do so.  You are not obliged to justify yourself!

I wish for all of you to have the Christmas which brings the most happiness to you, whatever that looks like.  I will be closing on Wednesday 20th December 2017 and reopening on Tuesday 2nd January 2018.  Any texts, calls or emails during this period will be answered as soon as I can do so after reopening.  If you need to talk to someone between these dates, there is a list of other organisations and their contact details here.

The Tyranny of ‘To Do’s

to do
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In January last year I blogged about Goals and “To Do” lists.  I have decided to revisit this to address why To Do lists can go wrong, and how to tackle that.

Most of us carry a rolling To Do list in our heads, giving mental energy over to them not so much through need to remember but due to fear of forgetting something.  Unfortunately, the constant reminders to ourselves, the running internal commentary of “mustn’t forget, mustn’t forget” can potentially cause more stress than the task itself – and feeling stressed is linked to poor memory.  Ironically, making such an effort to avoid forgetting or missing something can bring about the very thing you fear.

My previous blog post suggested ways to manage this, such as using streamlined and prioritised written lists or phone apps.  This can be helpful for many people, but doesn’t tell the whole story.

I recently read this book (language warning!), which asks us to re-examine the things we care about and whether those are the things which we really want or need to care about.  We all have limited energy and time to devote to things, but often get bogged down by the routine tasks which “must” be done.

It is worth asking ourselves what we think the outcome might be if some of these ‘To Do’s did not get done.  Are we looking at a worst-case scenario?  What might a realistic view be?  Are these tasks things which really matter to you, or are they things which were drummed into you as “musts” when you were growing up?  For whose benefit are these tasks being done?  Are we taking on a share of work which rightly belongs to someone else?  Do you have anyone else who can take on some of these tasks?  Why aren’t they doing so?  Does the thought of letting them do something their own way, possibly doing it badly, cause you anguish?  What will the effect on you be if they do the task badly?

In many households, one person feels they are carrying the weight of the routine ‘To Do’s that keep everything running.  That can not only be draining and frustrating, but also very isolating.  Drawing a boundary by saying, “I cannot do any more” and insisting others take responsibility can be very hard.  Many of us were raised to be “helpful” and “hardworking”.  The thought of saying “No, that is your responsibility” can be frightening because it means letting go of those expectations from self and others.  It can just feel easier to accept the draining daily grind than to risk rocking the boat.

If you want to start a conversation about this with those around you, it is helpful to use ‘”I” statements’ to keep communication lines open.  Saying “You always…” or “You never…” might well be true, but it also encourages defensiveness and closing of communication by the other person.  For example, how might you react to “You never complete this task and I am fed up with it!” versus “I feel utterly exhausted by completing this task every day.  I feel upset that I am not receiving help from you”?  This can also be managed by considering the roles you might be playing in a Drama Triangle, and how that causes things to go round and round rather than resolving.

What is on your ‘To Do’ list today?  How much of it is really yours?  What would you like to let go of, and can you give yourself permission for that?

If you would like help with some of the issues raised by this blog post, please contact me to make an appointment.

Sleep and how to get it

sleep
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We spend around a third of our lives asleep.  We set aside special rooms, special clothes and special furniture for it.  Many of us have set routines around sleep, and sleep deprivation can have severe health consequences.  Despite sleep being so important, no-one really knows for certain why we do it.  Plenty of research has been done and a number of theories have been proposed.

Lack of sleep can have a significant effect on your mood – increasing stress, anger and anxiety while decreasing happiness.  A former Prime Minister may have declared that “sleep is for wimps”, but there is plenty of evidence that actually sleep is vital for physical, emotional and mental health and stability.

However, good-quality sleep can also be difficult to get.  While lack of sleep may increase depression and anxiety, it is also true that sleeping poorly can be a result of those conditions.  So how do you break the cycle?

Getting good sleep might take planning.  Behaviours to promote good sleep are known as “sleep hygiene”.  That doesn’t mean cleaning up or taking a bath, but can be part of it!

Here are some tips for good sleep hygiene:

  • Get into a routine – try to go to bed and get up at the same times each day.  Start the wind-down process an hour or two before bedtime.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine or energy drinks from mid-afternoon onwards.
  • Avoid intense exercise late at night – try stretches or yoga instead, and get your aerobic exercise done early in the day.
  • Have a warm or hot bath, then allow your body temperature to drop slowly – try not to keep your bedroom too warm.  You can also try a warm milky drink for this.  While it might seem counter-intuitive, good quality sleep is linked to a lower core body temperature.
  • Avoid using electronic devices in bed, or having a TV on in the room.
  • Avoid fast-paced TV shows, for example where the perspective or action changes every few minutes, in the hour before bed.  Try gentle music, or a book.
  • Ensure your bedroom is comfortable – check your mattress is in good condition (being jabbed by springs won’t help) and that your curtains cut out light properly.  Make your bedroom a place for relaxation, a sanctuary for sleep.
  • If you do wake up in the night, give yourself 15 to 20 minutes to get back to sleep without trying to force it.  Try not to stare at your clock, either.  If you are still awake after that, try going for a glass of water or pick up a book until you feel sleepy again.  Associating your bed with stressful feelings can make things worse.
  • Keep a diary of sleep times and quality, along with records of food/drink/exercise/medication/events.  You may find there is a pattern that could explain your sleep difficulties and help you resolve them.
  • If you have a sleep issue such as insomnia, narcolepsy or restless leg syndrome, it is worth discussing it with your GP.  Likewise a GP visit is helpful if you would like to discuss the sleeplessness you may be suffering as a result of depression and anxiety.  If you would like to try talking therapy to work through these issues, please feel free to contact me.

Hygge

hygge
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Hygge style and ideas became quite prominent in the UK last year, but what is it and how could it actually help you?

No, I haven’t decided to branch out into interior design!

Hygge is a sensation, a feeling, an act.  In The Little Book of Hygge, Meik Wiking says, “Hygge has been called everything from ‘the art of creating intimacy’, ‘cosiness of the soul’ and ‘the absence of annoyance’ to ‘taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things’, ‘cosy togetherness’ and, my personal favourite, ‘cocoa by candlelight’.  Hygge is about an atmosphere and an experience, rather than about things.  It is about being with the people we love.  A feeling of home.  A feeling that we are safe, that we are shielded from the world and allow ourselves to let our guard down.  You may be having an endless conversation about the small or big things in life – or just be comfortable in each other’s silent company – or simply just be by yourself enjoying a cup of tea.”

This really struck me, because it’s something I and many others have experienced but previously didn’t have a name for.  For example, do you feel comforted and soothed listening to heavy rain outside while tucked up in bed?  That feeling is hygge!

I have written about self care quite a bit.  It seems to me that hygge is the essence of self care, in that it encourages slowing things down and nurturing yourself.  Many of the items suggested in my post on cuddle baskets and comfort boxes could be seen as very hyggelig (hygge-like).

Learning about hygge can be helpful, because I believe it is easier to understand and define things if we have words associated with them.  Knowing something is comforting and soothing is useful for self care purposes, but having a description and framework for that sensation of well-being can help you to find other things to evoke it.  That is why I particularly enjoyed the books I read about hygge – they gave me both affirmation that these sensations were real and recognised, and they suggested ways to increase these experiences.

Hygge does not have to cost anything – you don’t need to buy a £95 nordic-style throw cushion (but you can if you want!).  Instead, it uses familiar comforts of home and encourages simplicity.  A simple meal of bread and soup, some candles…  Whatever helps you feel warm, safe and separated from the aggravations of the day.  While those problems and responsibilities will still be waiting for us, indulging in a hygge experience sets them to the side for a while and provides an oasis of calm or a breathing space where we can take a break.  Taking such breaks, even for a short time, is enormously valuable for wellbeing, creativity and performing well at work.

You may have been doing hyggelig things already as part of your self-soothing and self care, without even realising.  Examining my therapy room, I realise it is hyggelig though I did not know the term when I furnished it.

Hygge encourages a mindset of living in the moment, which echo the teachings of mindfulness, and can be found alone or with friends and family.

 

You might find these books useful if you want to know more about incorporating hygge into your lifestyle:

How to Hygge: The Secrets of Nordic Living by Signe Johansen

The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Living Well by Louisa Thomsen Brits

The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking (my favourite).

Hope

hopeAs part of my continuing series focussing on the identified emotions of Positive Psychology, I am looking at hope in this post.  Hope is not just a wish or dream for something to happen, but also the deep belief that it can.  It might be a specific hope for something, or a general desire for things to be better.

It has been a very difficult time lately.  The bombings and attacks both here and overseas can make it very difficult to hold onto and sustain hope.  When we see these images and experience terrifying events, it is hard to maintain belief that things will be okay.

One of my favourite quotations is from Fred Rogers, a popular American television host.  He said, “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.’  To this day, especially in time of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realising that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”  I think that is very true – and while news reports tend to focus on perpetrators of such horrors, social media has given us an opportunity to share stories about the helpers.  The people who gave of themselves, even their lives, simply because they believed that was the right thing to do.

However, even watching these images for the helpers might not be enough if you are struggling.  Especially when we are already hurting, we can end up seeking out images and videos which we know will upset us but we feel a compulsion to do it anyway.  Then we end up feeling angry with ourselves for doing it, and spiral downwards.  Please be assured, this is quite common – but rarely talked about!

If you do feel an urge to look at news stories even though they are upsetting, remember to treat yourself with compassion.  Bullying yourself can make things worse.  Rather than telling yourself off, practise acceptance.  Gauge your internal reactions and check to see how you are tolerating your feelings.  Back off from things that cause you distress in a calm and gentle way.  Choose your own limits – say, three stories or 8 minutes.  Stick to your chosen limits, but be kind to yourself if you slip.  If you need to exit a conversation, or unfollow certain things on social media for a while, that’s fine too.  This is all part of self care.

Holding your own boundaries against the horror can give room for hope to grow.  Allow space in your mind for the possibility of change and improvement, and seek out stories where that has happened too.  Fantasise about how you would like your life and the world we live in to be, and compare that with where you are now.  What changes would have to happen?  How realistic are they?  What is possible for you to do to move from one state to the other?  What can you not control, and must learn to let go of?  You might like to use the Circles of Influence and Concern exercise to help you.