Getting through Christmas

Image courtesy of jeswin at

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
Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at

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

Image courtesy of Keattikorn at

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.


Image courtesy of 9comeback at

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).


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.

Could ‘unplugging’ be helpful for you?

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

‘Unplugging’ has, in recent years, become one of those buzzwords that pop up on blogs and in conversation.  What does it mean and can it be helpful?

A recent blog post about an artist’s experience of ‘unplugging’ got me thinking about how much time we spend looking at screens instead of doing other things and why.  The artist found that she was spending so much time online doing what she felt she had to do that she missed out on doing the things she wanted to do, and ended up feeling lost and unhappy.  By choosing a different way, she challenged her beliefs about what she ‘should’ be doing, and became much more fulfilled.

Many of us spend several hours every day looking at our screens – both at work and in our personal lives.  I am not saying that this is an objectively bad thing.  For people who might otherwise be alone, electronic communication is important for wellbeing.  Friendships between people who otherwise rarely (or never) meet in the ‘real world’ can flourish via social media.

However, use of phones and other devices can interfere with our lives just like in the case of the artist.  ‘Unplugging’ is a deliberate choice to prevent this by switching off phones, tablets and computers to engage with ‘real’ life.  This can be part of mindfulness practice – how many of us have eaten a meal without really tasting it (an unmindful experience), because we are looking at our phones?!  Have you ever missed out on something because you have been looking at your phone?  You might even be ‘addicted’ to your phone, as described in this article!

Unplugging can also help you to enjoy spending time with loved ones without missing what is happening.  You might find you have more time to think, and to do so without being interrupted.  Facebook can be a lot of fun and a great way to stay in touch, but it can also be a time-suck and lead to FoMO.  We only usually see the ‘highlight reel’ of people’s lives on Facebook – the parts they want us to see.  It is easy to believe that ‘everyone else’ has better lives than we do, as we look at our ‘behind the scenes’ and see our own ‘bloopers’.

It is also possible that screen use before bed could impact sleep cycles.  Restful sleep is extremely important for both emotional and physical wellbeing, so unplugging a couple of hours before bed might be helpful.

You might find it useful to add up how much time you spend with electronic devices.  How much of that time is spent doing things which are, in one way or another, actually helpful for you?  If there is a difference between the timings then would you like to change that, and how?

These articles describe ways you could try unplugging, such as timing limits and working out your own rules for specific events you want to be unplugged for.


Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at

I am returning to my series on the positive emotions identified by Dr Barbara Fredrickson in her work on Positive Psychology.  I have previously looked at awe, serenity and pride.  Today I would like to consider amusement.

What do we mean by “amusement”?  Fredrickson says it is the emotion we experience during play, humorous situations and ‘fun’.  Amusement is probably one of the most powerful for building connections between people.  For instance, have you made eye contact with a friend or stranger when something funny happens, feeling that flash of understanding that passes between you?  Or burst into sudden laughter at the same time as someone else, with a knowing look?

Laughter can even have some surprising health benefits.

Amusement doesn’t just have to mean laugh-out-loud funny moments, though.  It can mean something low-key – seeing a puppy play, dancing around your living room or a board game with friends.

Watching a funny TV show, playing with arts & crafts or listening to upbeat music are all amusing activities that lend themselves well to solitary or group occasions.  What amuses you?  When was the last time you had ‘fun’?

When people talk about “finding their inner child”, it can mean many things – such as rediscovering innocence, curiosity or being carefree.  I think an important aspect is rediscovering a sense of fun, that might have been squashed by adult worries and responsibilities.  A balance between seriousness and fun can lead to a richer experience, a sense of enjoying and engaging with life more.

Sometimes amusement lands in our laps, such as a funny video on social media.  Other times we have to put the effort in to create a situation in which amusement can occur.  How do you try to bring amusement into your life?



Love languages

love languages
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

You can probably think of many ways to show how much you love someone, and many more ways to feel loved.  However, sometimes our preferred ways of giving and receiving love don’t match up with those of the people closest to us.  If we take for granted what “acting in a loving way” means without really thinking about it, we can end up confused and unhappy without really knowing why.

The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, an American relationships therapist, was published in 1995.  It was followed by other books which expanded on the idea.  Chapman says that there are five specific ways people give and experience love.

The ways he has identified are:

  • Words of affirmation (praise, compliments, appreciation)
  • Acts of service (doing a specific thing for someone)
  • Receiving gifts (symbolic of affection)
  • Quality time (attention free from distraction)
  • Physical touch (holding hands, cuddling, sex)

Chapman believes that everyone has one preferred (primary) love language, and a a secondary one.  He bases his ideas on his experience of counselling couples, rather than specific research.  However, the idea is popular even without any scientific backing because it is straightforward and makes sense.  These love languages don’t just apply to romantic relationships, non-romantic love can be expressed and given in similar ways.

So how do you know what your love language is?  Or that of your partner, friend, sibling?

You can take a quiz on Chapman’s website – you can either sign up and have it calculate the scores for you, or download a pdf of the quiz which does not require sign up.  You can choose from different quizzes depending on your current circumstances.

However, while quizzes might be interesting and useful, they are generalised.  You can also gain this insight into yourself just by considering the acts of love that caused you to be happiest, giving or receiving.  What comes to mind when you think of “love”?  How do those around you show love, and do those actions help you feel good?  What do you wish you had more of?

Obvious as it sounds, communication really is key in relationships.  Do you talk about love and your relationships with those around you?  How do they feel loved by you?  What would you like to do more of?  Is there anything you would like to receive more of?  What would they like more of from you?  What do they like to do most?  Have you made any assumptions about what each of you likes to give and receive?

There is also communication with yourself.  How do you care for yourself?  Have you assumed what you “should” be doing, or taken on what others have told you, and is it right for you?

How do you love?

Using senses – grounding part 2

Image courtesy of panuruangjan at
Image courtesy of panuruangjan at

My last blog post focussed on grounding and what it is.  This time I will  look at senses and how you might use them for grounding.

We are usually taught that there are five senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste.

Grounding involves feeling more connected to the here-and-now, rather than on worries or concerns.  So anything that stimulates your senses enough to focus on and cut through anxiety might help.  This is why I suggested a variety of things for different senses in your cuddle baskets and comfort boxes.

However, anything harsh or unpleasant could cause discomfort rather than bodily connection.  You know yourself best and what is likely to cause you to reach out for more and what might make you withdraw.  Choose carefully based on your own experiences.


Here are some ideas if you struggle to think of anything:

Sight: an image in your favourite colours (or even one you can colour in yourself), a pretty piece of scenery, a toy kaleidoscope, a glittery object.

Hearing: your favourite music, birdsong, the sound of waves, running water, wind through the trees, a purring cat.

Smell: aroma oils, baking bread, your favourite perfume or scent.

Touch: soft jersey fabrics, a pet’s fur or skin, a cuddly toy, objects to ‘fiddle’ with (e.g. a physical puzzle such as a Rubik’s Cube).

Taste: mild spices (e.g. cinnamon), chocolate, fresh fruit, warm milk.  You could experiment with different types of taste – e.g. salty, sweet, umami, bitter, sour.


This isn’t the end, though!  You might have sensory difficulties or disabilities that make using some of these difficult or impossible.  You might also find that these examples don’t stimulate you very well.

Interestingly, it seems humans have more than just the five “traditional” senses!  You might like to explore ways to stimulate these as well:

Temperature sense: the ability to distinguish warmth or cold.

Kinesthetic sense/proprioception: the ability to know where parts of your body are relative to the others (particularly limbs) without looking (martial artists sometimes practice blindfolded to develop this sense).

Balance/acceleration: the ability to tell what way up you are and when your speed changes (close your eyes on a roller coaster!).

Organic sense: the sense of what is happening internally, such as hunger or thirst.  Do you listen to these signals?

Vibration: the ability to detect small changes in pressure.


What might work for you?


Image courtesy of artur84 at

You may have heard people talking about “grounding”, “grounding exercises” or “being grounded”.  What does that mean?

The idea of grounding is from meditation.  It involves being connected with the Earth (usually physically through bare feet) and feeling this connection mentally.  Some people also refer to a feeling of being “centred”.  Your focus is brought to the here-and-now.  You can use this to develop feelings of stability and calm.

When you are stressed or upset, especially with many sources of stress, it can be difficult to feel really “here”.  You might feel overwhelmed, unable to concentrate, or even frozen into inaction.  Grounding exercises are meant to help you cut through the concerns swirling round your head.  You might, when anxious, waste energy worrying about things that may or may not happen.  You may feel exhausted and struggle with powerful emotions.  While grounding exercises cannot fix your problems, they can help you to feel more in control and powerful so you can work through them.

Grounding exercises are very simple, but can take some practice.  If you find it difficult, start small!  You could begin with a short breathing exercise, such as this one, every day for a week.

Another simple grounding exercise is to take off your shoes and socks and wriggle your toes in some lush grass (you might want to leave this bit until the weather warms up in the spring!).  Feel the connection to the Earth and other living things.  Breathe deeply.  Don’t push at negative thoughts – just let them flit by and watch them as they fly past like birds.  You can perform a similar exercise indoors if you like, concentrating on the feeling of your feet firmly on the floor.  Then gradually move up your body, feeling the weight of it in the chair and the sensation of your clothes.

You can also try the method described here.  This might help you let go of those concerns you cannot influence right now, perhaps from your circle of concern if you did that exercise.

There are many different grounding exercises available.  Some will work for you better than others.  In my next blog, I will look at your senses and how you might use them to feel more in the here-and-now.