The A to Z of Emotional Wellbeing

Z is for Zealousness for Zen

Zen is a state of being. Of peacefulness. This practice is about being fully aware, here and now, in the present moment. 

Traditional zen practice is about living fully and authentically in the present moment. If this occurs it should makes each instant of our lives a peak experience.  Each moment is filled with a profound peace and clarity.  Each moment is perceived to have infinite depth and significance, charged with magic and mystery, infinitely precious.  Zen brings us face to face with our true original nature, undefiled by cultural conditioning and painful neurotic tendencies.   

In today's world, the term 'zen' can be used to refer to a number of things: simplicity; calmness; peacefulness; authenticity; mindfulness; presence; balance. Whatever meaning we attach, let's find our passion and zeal for finding and practicing our zen. It helps put our life in balance. It keeps us mentally healthy.

Y is for Youthful You

According to psychiatrist Dr Stuart Brown, play is essential to brain development.. “Nothing,” he says, “lights up the brain like play.”

We know this instinctively when it comes to bringing up children. But research shows that adults need to play, and be playful, too.

Defining play is difficult because it’s a moving target. Play is a process, not a thing. Brown called play a “state of being,” “purposeless, fun and pleasurable.” For the most part, the focus is on the actual experience, not on accomplishing a goal, he said.

Also, the activity is needless. As Brown said, for some people knitting is pure pleasure; for others, it’s pure torture. For Brown, who’s almost 80, play is tennis with friends and a walk with his dog.

Brown has spent decades studying the power of play in everyone from prisoners to businesspeople to artists to Nobel Prize winners. He’s reviewed over 6,000 “play histories,” case studies that explore the role of play in each person’s childhood and adulthood.

For instance, he found that lack of play was just as important as other factors in predicting criminal behavior among murderers in Texas prisons. He also found that playing together helped couples rekindle their relationship and explore other forms of emotional intimacy.

Play isn’t slothful, it’s useful. It is recreation with the emphasis on the last three syllables. Play is indispensable to human progress and good for individuals.

We all need to play, especially those of us who think we are too busy. Five minutes a day will make a difference. Why not start now?

X is for X-tracting Xenophobia

Webster’s dictionary defines xenophobia as the “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners.”  In someone who suffers from legitimate xenophobia, hatred is generally a reaction to the fear. Unlike other phobias, this malady is not limited to a small clinical population, but is found in a lot of people all around us. In addition, xenophobia need not be limited to those of a different race. Homophobia, fear of those from different cultural backgrounds and even fear of those who dress, speak or think differently could be considered subsets of xenophobia.        

It is believed that xenophobia stems from our desire to belong. The desire to belong to a group is pervasive and primal. Throughout history, those who have banded together in families, tribes or clans have thrived, while individuals who were separated by choice or circumstances faced increased dangers and limited opportunities.

While strong identification with a particular group can be healthy, it can also lead to suspicion of those who do not belong. It is natural and possibly instinctive to want to protect the interests of the group by eliminating threats to those interests. Unfortunately, this natural protectiveness often causes members of a group to shun or even attack those who are perceived as different, even if they actually pose no legitimate threat at all.

The twisting of a positive trait -- group harmony and protection from threats -- into a negative -- imagining threats where none exist -- has led to any number of hate crimes, persecutions, wars and general mistrust. Certainly, not everyone who suffers from xenophobia starts wars or performs hate crimes. Most sufferers are able to contain their reactions and live within societal norms.

If you suffer from xenophobia, you may feel uncomfortable around people who fall into a different group than your own. You might go out of your way to avoid particular neighborhoods. You may discount the possibility of friendship with certain people solely due to their skin color, mode of dress or other external factors. You might have trouble taking a supervisor seriously or connecting with a teammate who does not fall into your particular racial, cultural or religious group.       

Many people who suffer from xenophobia have lived relatively sheltered lives with little exposure to those who are different from them. Fear of the unknown is one of the most powerful fears of all. If you have not been exposed to other races, cultures and religions, conquering your xenophobia may be as simple as gaining more experience. Traveling the world, or even spending a week at a youth hostel in a nearby city, might go a long way toward helping you face your fears.

If your xenophobia is more pervasive, recurring despite exposure to a wide variety of cultures, then professional support might be in order. 

W is for Working through Worry

Worry is generally defined as a form of verbal mental problem solving about potentially negative future events. Productive worry is generally short-lived and leads to positive problem-solving behavior. Worry becomes unhelpful when it is about a number of things, is very frequent, and is difficult to control or dismiss. Prolonged or frequent worry can generate more anxiety and more worry which makes it quite vicious. It may actually prevent positive thinking and action.

People who are good at worrying (I’m one of them!) often hold false beliefs about worry which can work to maintain the worry in a vicious cycle. For example, some people may worry about the fact that they are worrying. Others may have thoughts that worrying is a ‘good’ thing (e.g., ‘Worrying motivates me to do things’, ‘Worrying prepares me for the worst’).

But holding these beliefs about worrying can keep the worry cycle going and make the process even more distressing. Luckily thoughts such as these (which are not actually facts) can be worked on to the extent that the worry cycle can be broken. Hoorah! (Some tips on how to do this can be found here).

V is for Visualising and Voicing your Values

Values can be a really difficult concept to explain and to understand. The psychological framework of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) defines values as “desired qualities of ongoing action”. In other words, values are about what you want to do on an ongoing basis and the manner in which you want to do it. Values are the things that often bring direction and meaning to our lives. When we feel that our lives are lacking direction and meaning it may often be necessary to re-explore our values and ensure they are in line with what we are doing across the spheres of our daily life.

The word 'value' comes from a Latin root that means 'worthy and strong'. It carries an implication of action, with the same root leading to the word 'wield'. It connotes actually using what is important and strong. Values define not only what you want to pursue from day to day but what you want your life to be about.

If you’d like to explore values work in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy some more, there some good information here.

U is for Understanding Uncertainty

One thing is certain in life — nothing is certain. Yet for a lot of people – myself included! – at times we can have difficulty understanding and tolerating uncertainty. When we have this attitude, uncertainty, unpredictability, and doubt can be seen as awful and unbearable experiences that must be avoided at all costs.

If we hate uncertainty, then often we might think that worry is useful. We might think that worrying is a way of preparing ourselves for the worst – getting ready for anything that might happen. We might see worry as a way of attempting to predict life so that there are no nasty surprises. As a result, worrying reduces our experience of uncertainty, so we continue worrying and worrying and worrying. In other words, worrying helps us believe we have more control in life.

In reality though, worrying doesn’t make anything more predictable or certain or change any of the outcomes. Life is still as uncertain as it ever was. All that’s happened is we’ve thought up all the worst case scenarios, worked ourselves up, started feeling really bad and often paralysed ourselves from taking any action. So is it all worth it?

Another option is to work on accepting uncertainty and reducing thus reducing worry.  The best way to deal with uncertainty is one step at a time. And there are both thought challenging and mindfulness strategies that can help..

T is for Transformative Therapy

For some weird reason most human beings seem to prioritise their physical health over their psychological health. Take for example our teeth. There are so many things most of us do, to ensure good dental hygiene. We brush our teeth. And not just every single day, twice a day. We eat appropriate foods. We might use mouth wash. My Dad even flosses! And we’ll have regular check-ups at the Dentist and if something feels wrong in our mouth, we’ll make an emergency appointment with the Dentist. We do this, despite going to the dentist being one of the most despised activities on the planet.

Compare this to our psychological health. We all experience emotional injuries or pain ALL the time. Things like failure and rejection and sadness. And often they get worse if we don’t look after them or go off and get them treated. And mostly we don’t go and get them treated. Research shows that only 35% of people who experience significant mental illnesses seek treatment. And this is so very weird, because psychological treatment is not like going to the dentist. Seeing a counsellor/psychiatrist/psychologist or therapist is awesome!

There are so many wonderful things about therapy. Therapy is like an education course where you are the subject matter. Could anything be more interesting? You can explore yourself, go deeper into your current thoughts and feelings, or just sit and ‘be’ for a while (a pretty vital practice that often gets ignored).You get to practice all the things that just seem way too hard in the real world.

There is stack loads of research and scientific evidence behind talk-based therapies showing that it is effective for making painful experiences more tolerable. It’s a proven method for changing harmful thinking, relational and behavioural patterns. It’s also used to make good lives great. And I haven’t come across many people who don’t want to change anything about their life.

And lastly, you get to be an explorer of one of the most complex and grandest things – the mind. And more importantly, your own mind.

S is for Suffocating and Solitary Shame

The fabulous shame researcher, Dr Brene Brown defines shame as ‘the intensely painful feeling of experiencing or believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging’.

Shame is an incredibly awful, but incredibly universal experience and one of the most primitive human emotions that we can experience. As humans we’re all psychologically, emotionally and cognitively hardwired for connection, love and belonging. Shame is the fear of that disconnection. It’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection.

Sometimes we think that shame is reserved for people who have been through horrific trauma, or people who have committed unspeakable acts. But it’s just not true. Research shows that it’s something we all experience, but we like to try our best to keep it to ourselves or hide it away in the darkest corners. But research shows that shame rears it’s ugly head in pretty common categories. Places like appearance and body image, money and work, parenting, family, sex, aging, religion and being stereotyped and labelled. Things that nearly all of us are involved in some way.

But we don’t like to talk about it. And fair enough, because we believe that if people find out about our shame our connection with them will be lost. But the problem is, the less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives, And shame can be solitary and suffocating and awful.

Brene Brown talks further on this topic and shame resilience in this brilliant TED Talk. Check it out.

R is for Responsible and Relieving Relaxation

Despite what the modern world yells at us, the human body has not been designed to go 24/7/365. We need to give ourselves consistent breaks and a little downtime works for almost everybody. It gives our body and mind a chance to recharge.

There are so many physical, biological and psychological benefits to be gained from engaging in some form of relaxation. To name just a few, these can include – lowered heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels, improved sleep, stronger immune system, control of pain, increased sense of well-being and improved capacity to think clearly, focus and sustain your attention, manage stress, regulate emotions and increase awareness. Awesome.

It doesn’t matter what form our idle time takes, as long as it’s not destructive. Take a really deep breath or watch the sun go down.. And if we fall into the trap of telling ourself that we’re being unproductive, remember that we can’t function well if we’ve exhausted all our resources by never stopping to take a rest. Again, it doesn’t matter when we do it. This is not about tradition. Pick whatever day and time works best for you, and make it a plan. By committing to take some time for yourself and for those you love, you are giving yourself a gift.

I’m going to get back to my cross stitch now.

Q is for Quality Quiet-time

Solitude and silence is a completely underrated as a quality pastime. Solitude can be very broadly defined as the act of being alone. From the outside solitude might look a lot like loneliness, but the two are worlds apart. In loneliness we feel that something is missing and we’re in a state of discontent. Solitude is a desirable state, being alone where we provide our self with wonderful and sufficient company.

Solitude can bring all these wonderful things with it:

  1. Solitude allows our body to catch up with our mind. It pulls us out of our fast-paced worlds and immerses us back in the present.
  2. Solitude allows our brains to rest. Solitude kick starts the parasympathetic nervous system (the branch of the autonomic nervous system that calms us down). When we’re able to get some time to our self, our muscles relax, our blood pressure decreases, and our heart rate slows. Think of solitude as the anti-adrenaline system that kicks on when there’s no longer a need for the stress response.
  3. Solitude prevents burnout. Burnout is what happens when we’re subjected to prolonged, intense, and unresolved stress.
  4. Solitude enhances creativity. This is a fact! Solitude frees the mind up from all the distractions of everyday life and allows it to focus more fully on one thing. It allows our brains to think outside the box and to come up with unique, extraordinary solutions to ordinary problems.
  5. Solitude can be a time of self-reflection. Solitude is our chance to learn something about ourselves. Self-reflection is so very important to human development and learning.
  6. Solitude allows us an opportunity to deal with the big questions in our lives. It takes time and a lot of careful thought to come up with the answers. Such answers are more likely to come to mind in a quiet, introspective moment — solitude — than when we’re fully engaged in our usual day-to-day activities.
  7. Solitude provides an opportunity for perspective. When we’re caught up in the hassles of day-to-day life, all we can see is what’s directly in front of us — the problem of the moment. If we want to see and appreciate the big picture of what our life is all about, we have to step back and get a more objective view— and that’s exactly what solitude allows us to do.
  8. Solitude grows our brains. The brain is the most complex and powerful organ, and like muscles, benefits from rest. UCLA research showed that regular times set aside to disengage, sit in silence, and mentally rest, improves the “folding” of the cortex and boosts our ability to process information. Turns out carving out as little as 10 minutes to sit in your car and visualize peaceful scenery (rainforest, snow-falling, beach) will thicken grey matter in your brain.

I think we all need periods of silence and solitude. But when I look around at times in my own life and those of others I wonder if we’re getting enough for it to be of benefit to us? Because being alone and being quiet can give us the power to regulate and adjust our lives. It can restore our energy and provide us with rest. It can bring out our curiosity and our longings and our hopes and wishes. Alone time can be a fuel for our lives.  

P is for Punishing and Paralysing Perfectionism

Perfectionism sucks. And it’s a form of paralysis – the tighter we hold on to it, the more it seems to hold us back.

Perfectionism is often mistaken for ‘being perfect’ or ‘doing something perfectly’. Many people assume that it must be a good thing. But perfectionism is not about being ‘perfect’. It involves putting pressure on ourselves to meet high standards which then powerfully influences the way we think about ourselves.

Perfectionism involves:

  1. Relentless striving for extremely high standards (for yourself and/or others) that are personally demanding, in the context of the individual.
  2. Judging your self-worth based largely on your ability to strive for and achieve such unrelenting standards.
  3. Experiencing negative consequences of setting such demanding standards, yet continuing to go for them despite the huge cost to you.

As a reformed perfectionist, I used to have really good reasons for justifying my behaviour. I saw perfectionism as challenging myself, allowing myself to be efficient and organised and prepared for anything. But turns out - and here’s the paradox - these standards can get in the way and actually impair performance. The excessive drive to achieve ever-higher levels of performance is self-defeating as it leaves you little chance of meeting your goals and feeling good about yourself. Enter feelings of stress, vulnerability and helplessness.

It can be a vicious and painful cycle, with significant impacts on wellbeing. Often the best way to improve something is to let it go. Do the best that you possibly can, finish it and relax. But sometimes this is easier said than done. For further information and helpful resources check this out.

O is for Obstructively Overwhelmed

It can be pretty common to feel overwhelmed at times. When we think that a stressor is too great for us to manage, we can feel completely overcome in mind and emotion. Feeling overwhelmed can have many faces. It can manifest as an intense emotion, such as anxiety, anger or irritability; maladaptive thought processes, such as worry, doubt or helplessness; or behaviours, such as crying, lashing out or experiencing a panic attack. Feeling overwhelmed can be awful.

There’s so many different things that can make us feel overwhelmed. It might be that we’re trying to get too much done in too little time, or we don’t know how to deal with something in particular.

When everything seems so endless, feeling overwhelmed is normal. Sometimes it is helpful to take it right back to the basics -

  • Figure out the real problem: Not what somebody else did or is doing, but what the real thing that’s overwhelming you is.
  • Figure out what you can change: Look at the problem realistically. What bits of it can you change? Remember, one of those bits might be the way you’re thinking about it.
  • Figure out how you will do it: Write down or type out all of the things you can do to make that change happen. Then scrap the unlikely ones, and give yourself a couple of things to try.

If you can’t change it, can you try and accept it? It might be worthwhile seeking out some further information on developing new coping skills or trying a form of meditation . And if nothing is helping, it might be time to ask a professional for some help.

N is for Navigating ‘Normalcy’

According to social comparison theory, we compare ourselves to others in an attempt to make accurate evaluations of ourselves. And while comparison can be a valuable source of motivation and growth, it can also spin us into a tail-chasing frenzy of self-doubt. With the explosion of social media giving us access to continuous material upon which to compare ourselves, our attempts to keep up with the Joneses have moved beyond the neighborhood and onto the web. This makes it especially important, now more than ever, to think about the downside of using others as a benchmark for what is ‘normal’.

Mark Twain said that “comparison is the death of joy,” and the science agrees. Research has found that comparing breeds feelings of envy, low self confidence and depression, as well as compromises our ability to trust others. Even downward comparison - comparing ourselves to those less fortunate - comes at a price. It requires that we take pleasure in someone else’s failures or misfortunes in order to feel adequate, which can fuel mean-spirited competitiveness versus collaboration; jealousy versus connection. When comparing leads us to devalue yourself or others we’ve entered dangerous territory in terms of our self worth.

Secondly, what we’re probably comparing ourselves too is inaccurate. Let’s face it: What people present to the outside world is usually an edited version of their reality. A recent study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin confirmed that people are less likely to reveal their negative emotions than their positive emotions. Additionally, the study found that people tend to overestimate the presence of positivity in the lives of others, while they misinterpret or fail to detect negative feelings in others. So not only is what’s being delivered an incomplete picture, we tend to distort the information we do receive — a double whammy. So next time you find yourself comparing to someone else stop and ask yourself if it is really fair to compare when you don’t have all of the information? As Steve Furtick explains, “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

And lastly, comparing ourselves to what we think is ‘normal’ doesn’t help us accomplish our goals. Ruminating about how someone else is better looking, has more friends, or is more successful than you is both time-consuming and ineffective. Being hard on ourselves actually zaps motivation and decreases goal completion. It’s much better if we use our own personal values as the barometer upon which we compare, rather than the accomplishments of those around you.

If comparing is how we evaluate your worth, we will always be losing. Part of what makes life awesome and interesting is learning from the talents of others. Instead of trying to be as good as or better than others, let’s focus our energy on being the very best version of ourselves.

M is for Mindful Mental Mood Management

Mindfulness can be defined as intentionally paying attention, to the present moment, in a non-judgmental way. An important component of mindfulness is the lack of judgment involvement – that is, you don’t snap at yourself when you notice that you might not be in a good place. When you stand back, you don’t try to interfere with what’s going on or what mood you might be experience, it’s not even purely about relaxation, but about witnessing whatever is going on without the critical commentary that often we are so very good at.

When we stand back and become aware we can develop a new view of our inner and outer worlds along with internal changes in our brains. By sharpening our focus on what is happening right now, we can begin to notice that thoughts aren’t actually facts, they’re constantly changing patterns; they come and go, transform, disperse and dissolve. We can begin to experience them, not as something solid of threatening but as ambient background noise. The idea is to relate to thoughts as merely brain events, they are not who we are, they are merely patterns in our minds and we can pay attention to them or we can choose to ignore them.

There is buttloads of evidence to support the practice of mindfulness in daily life to benefit our psychological health. It can counteract high levels of anxiety, improve our sleep, assist with regulating our emotions (i.e., feel less stress), make our brain work quicker and become more agile, be less sensitive to pain and reduce the effects of ageing on the brain.

But mindfulness is not just something we can gain overnight. It’s a practice. A practice that does involve a lot more than just colouring in. If you’d like to start with some simple mindfulness practices, you can a good one here

L is for Lonesome and Lousy Loneliness

Loneliness is a universal human emotion, yet it is both complex and unique to each individual and it turns out that loneliness is actually a state of mind. Loneliness causes us to feel empty, alone and unwanted. When we feel lonely we often crave human contact, but our state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people.

Loneliness, according to many experts, is not necessarily about being alone, but about perception. The most broadly accepted definition of loneliness is the distress that results from discrepancies between ideal and perceived social relationships. That is, loneliness is the distressing feeling that occurs when one’s social relationships are perceived as being less satisfying than what is desired.

For example, a woman might feel lonely despite being in a married relationship, having three small children and living in close proximity to her parents and parents-in-law. A young university student might feel lonely despite being surrounded by roommates and other peers.

Loneliness can be really lousy on our physical and mental health. Some of the risks associated with loneliness include:  depression and suicide; cardiovascular disease and stroke; increased stress levels; decreased memory and learning; antisocial behavior; poor decision-making; substance misuse; poor sleep; and altered brain function. Scientists have concluded that given all the drastic ways in which loneliness impacts our bodies, it represent as great a risk for our long term health and longevity as smoking cigarettes. Indeed, studies have concluded that chronic loneliness increases our risk of an early death by 14%.

And the sad news is that research suggests that loneliness is on the rise. When polled as part of a 1984 questionnaire, respondents most frequently reported having three close confidants. When the question was asked again in 2004, the most common response was zero confidants. This trend is unfortunate, since experts believe that it is not the quantity of social interaction that combats loneliness, but that it is the quality. Having just three or four close friends is enough to ward off loneliness and reduce the negative health consequences associated with this state of mind.

K is for Kindred Kindness

Kindness can be really generally defined as the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate. An act of kindness is a spontaneous gesture of goodwill towards someone or something - our fellow humans, the animal kingdom, and the kingdom of nature. Kind words and deeds come from a state of benevolence, generated by a core response deep within all of us. When we carry out an act of kindness it is a message from one heart to another, an act of love, an unspoken "I care" statement. And here at Hope Street Cards it is one of the qualities we value the most! Why? Because it has the most wonderful side effects – regardless of whether you are the giver, the receiver or even just the observer of the act of kindness – everyone reaps the rewards!

Kindness has been shown to result in an increased production of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is the naturally occurring neurochemical that has a very calming, soothing and comforting effect on us. It helps regulate our mood and reduces our anxiety and generally makes us ‘feel good’. This is the mechanism of action in which a lot of anti-depressant medications work as they limit the re-uptake of serotonin by the brain which helps to alleviate some symptoms of depression. So engage in an act of kindness and say hello to activation of the feel good pleasure centre in the brain! And this increase in serotonin happens to the giver, the receiver and the observer. That’s a win-win-win!

Quite naturally we feel good when we give, help or serve others, a phenomenon called the ‘helper’s high’. This ‘high’ has been described as a feeling of exhilaration and burst of energy similar to the endorphin-based euphoria experienced after intense exercise which is then followed by a period of calmness and serenity.

And there are physical benefits too. Research has shown that those who routinely engage in acts of kindness, such as volunteers, experience alleviation of stress, chronic pain, and even insomnia.

Acting kindly can be so very easy to do as well. While you may not realise it, you are performing many acts of kindness each day. Such things as smiling and greeting people in a friendly manner, whether they be friends, associates or total strangers. A kind act can be sincerely complimenting someone about their hair, eyes, smile, laugh, an item of clothing or jewellery, their positive outlook, their caring attitude, or something they do or have done well. It can be helping someone on or off with their coat, opening a door, saying please, thank you, excuse me, and other common courtesies. It can be giving our total attention to people when they are talking, it can be offering support to someone who has a problem, it can be helping to heal a rift. Or it can be not doing something. For example, refraining from such things as gossiping, finding fault, or making negative judgements. There really are acts of kindness for us to engage in everywhere.

J is for Judgmental Minds

Here at Hope Street Cards we’re fully aware of how capable our minds can be of beating ourselves up. They do it to ourselves all the time! – Incompetent! Idiot! Fake! Selfish! Uncaring! Nobody likes you! Nobody is even reading this! – It goes on and on and on. Our minds can be so very good at playing judge, jury and executioner. Particularly when it’s about our ‘I’m not good enough’ stories. Our minds can be so very quick at laying out all the evidence about what’s wrong with us and sending us strong sentences to make us suffer.

When we make global statements about ourselves or other people, which are based only on behaviour in specific situations, then we are labelling. The problem is, that by defining a person by one specific behaviour - and - usually one that we consider negative, we ignore the other positive characteristics and actions. If you were to consistently label yourself or others in this way, what effect do you think this would have on how you feel?

It would be near impossible to eliminate our judgmental thoughts from our mind, but there are numerous strategies to assist us with ensuring that these unhelpful and untrue judgments don’t have unnecessary consequences. One is to label them back. Name them whenever they show us. As soon as you notice your judgmental mind, spewing stuff out at you, you can silently say to yourself, ‘Oh, judgment time again’, or ‘here comes the ‘idiot story again’. The moment you do this, you start to distance yourself from the story instead of getting trapped inside it.  

I is for Inquisitive Insight

Self-awareness (sometimes also referred to as self-knowledge or introspective) is defined as conscious knowledge of oneself; it’s about having insight into our own needs, desires, failings, habits, and everything else that makes us tick. The more we know about ourselves, the better we can become at adapting to life changes that suit our needs.

Self-awareness is a big part of both psychological therapy and philosophy. It’s one of the key ingredients required if we would like to make a change to a part of our lives.

The Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “For a person who is not aware that he is doing anything wrong has no desire to be put right. You have to catch yourself doing it before you can reform.”

Self awareness is all about paying attention to things. To what we are thinking. What we are speaking. How we are acting. How we are feeling. How we are reacting. How we make decisions. What we might be hiding. What patterns there are in our lives. How our body is responding.

Be present as the watcher of your mind - of your thoughts and emotions as well as your reactions in various situations. Be at least as interested in your reactions as in the situation or person that causes you to react. Notice also how your attention is in the past or future. Don't judge or analyse what you observe. Watch the thought, feel the emotion, observe the reaction. Don't make a personal problem out of them. You will then feel something more powerful than any of those things that you observe: the still, observing presence itself behind the content of your mind, the silent watcher. - Eckhart Tolle

When we begin paying attention . . .

  1. We discern whether or not what we are doing/thinking/feeling/deciding is aligned with who we are or wish to be as defined by our integrity, values, etc.;
  2. Or we don’t know who we are or who we wish to be because we haven’t defined where you might be going, but we have an intuition (from that higher self again) that what we are doing/thinking/feeling/deciding is positive or negative, life-affirming or life-destroying, peaceful or agitating.

Knowing yourself completely is really, really difficult. But there is a number of things we can begin to do to improve our level of insight:

  • Learn to look at yourself objectively. It's nearly impossible to actually look at yourself objectively, but it's always worth a shot. The main idea here is to study and critically reflect on your decisions. Even better, find some trustworthy friends to talk with and listen to their reflections.
  • Write your own manifesto: The main purpose of self-awareness is self-improvement, so it makes sense that you need to have goals. If you're struggling with that part, a manifesto is a great way to push yourself into figuring out what you want.
  • Keep a journal: Our memories colour the past pretty deeply. If you want a more accurate gauge of yourself, a journal is excellent. A journal makes you more aware of what you're doing and where problems might be coming from because you can document anything. If you spend time documenting the little things, like food intake, water intake, or sleep, you might notice a larger trend that you can correct for. If you're looking for a deeper understanding of your decision making skills, the Harvard Business Review suggests writing down what you think will happen with a decision, then wait nine or ten months and review what you wrote.
  • Perform a self-review: The self-review is one of those annoying little things we all do at work, but you can make them less annoying and more beneficial.   Instead of spending your time thinking about what you should improve about yourself, think about what you boss thinks you should do and what co-workers might say. This way, you can see yourself from someone else's perspective and gain a little extra insight into yourself.

It's important to remember that self-awareness is introspection, but it's not navel gazing. Self-absorption and overthinking doesn't get us anywhere, but being aware of our needs and acting on them can help us make the changes we might want to make.

H is for Happy and Healthy Habits

According to scientific research, habits account for about 40 percent of our behaviours on any given day. That sounds like a lot of doing without a lot of thinking attached.

Developing new habits can be hard work. Unfortunately it’s not just a matter of saying “I’m going to go to the gym this year” on the 31st December. Habit formation is a hard slog.

Research studies have shown that on average, it takes over two months before a new behaviour becomes automatic – 66 days to be exact! And this length of time varies widely depending on the new behaviour, the person, and the circumstances. In a recent study which followed over 100 people attempting to implement a range of new behaviours, it took anywhere between 18 and 254 days for people to form a new habit.

If we’re going to make resolutions and attempt a journey of habit formation it’s probably best if we set some realistic expectations - the truth is that it will probably take us  anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behavior into our life. So, let’s not get down on ourselves if we try something new for a couple of weeks and it doesn’t become natural. It’s supposed to take longer then that. Let’s embrace the long, slow adventure and focus on the repetition of what is still a relatively new behaviour to our brain.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if we mess up every now and then. Building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process. Let’s give ourselves permission to make mistakes and develop strategies for getting back on the adventure quickly.

If we can understand that developing habits is a process and not an event, perhaps we will have more chance of success. Understanding this from the beginning might make it easier for us to manage our expectations and commit to making small, incremental improvements — rather than pressuring ourselves into thinking that you have to do it all at once.

G is for Generous and Grounded Gratitude

Most of us associate gratitude with saying “thanks” to someone. From a scientific perspective, gratitude is a bit more complex than that. It’s been depicted as an emotion, a mood, a moral virtue, a habit, a motive, a personality trait, a coping response, and even a way of life.

Let’s take the emotion gratitude for instance. Think about a time when you felt grateful. What feelings do you associate with this state? Most people report states as peaceful, warm, friendly or joyful. You are unlikely to say that gratitude makes you feel burdened, stressed or angry. This small experiment illustrates that gratitude is a positive, desirable state that people generally find enjoyable.

According to Dr Robert Emmons (the universe’s leading expert in all things grateful), gratitude has two important stages:

  1. First is the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life. In gratitude we say yes to life. We affirm that all things taken together, life is good and has elements that make it worth living. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.
  2. Second, gratitude is recognizing that the source(s) of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self. The object of gratitude is other-directed; one can be grateful to other people, to animals, but never to oneself.

And it turns out that people who practice and experience gratitude consistently report a whole host of benefits to their physical health - Stronger immune systems, Less bothered by aches and pains, Lower blood pressure, Exercise more and take better care of their health, Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking – their psychological health - Higher levels of positive emotions, More alert, alive, and awake, More joy and pleasure, More optimism and happiness – and their social health - More helpful, generous, and compassionate. More forgiving, More outgoing, Feel less lonely and isolated.

F is for False and Frightening Fear

Fear can be such a helpful emotion and such a destructive one.

We can think of fear as an automatic alarm response that switches on the moment there is danger. Think about what would happen to you were in the ocean and you saw a shark fin. For most people it would be panic stations! Almost all of us would go through a whole series of bodily changes - our hearts would pump, we’d breath faster, start sweating - all in order to respond to the danger in front of us. This alarm response would probably lead us to either swim for our lives or become sufficiently ‘pumped up’ to physically defend ourselves by attacking the beast with our surfboard.

This alarm response is an important survival mechanism called the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is where fear and anxiety can be helpful. It can keep us alive.

Sometimes, however, it is possible to have this intense fear response when there is no danger – it is a false alarm that seems to happen when we least expect it. It is like someone ringing the fire alarm when there is no fire! Essentially, a panic or anxiety attack is a false alarm. This is where fear becomes destructive.

Many people experience some mild sensations when they feel anxious about something, but a panic attack is much more intense than usual.  A panic attack is usually described as a sudden escalating surge of extreme fear.  Some people portray the experience of panic as ‘sheer terror’.

Unnecessary fear is truly awful and it really holds you back from leading the life you would like to lead. Fortunately though it can be treated and managed well, with the right support and assistance.

Further information on fear and panic can be found here and if you’ve been experiencing symptoms such as these and would like to get some help, have a chat to your GP or give the lovely people at Lifeline a call (13 11 14).

E is for Excessive Exhaustion

I love to sleep. Sleep is such an important part of our lives, yet sometimes we don’t pay much attention to it. It’s usually not until we start to have problems with sleep that we notice it and start to understand the nature of sleep.

Sleep is essential to humans – much like air, water and food. The exact role and function of sleep has been a topic of debate for researchers for ages, but most agree that sleep serves a restorative purpose, both psychologically and physiologically. It is thought that delta sleep (stages 3 and 4) is most involved with restoring the body and physical energy, while REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is most important for restoring mental function such as memory and concentration. Sleep is important for general physical health, restoring energy, repairing injuries or illness, growth, psychological well-being and mood, concentration, memory, work performance and getting along with others.

People really vary in terms of how much sleep they need – while the average sleep duration for adults is 7-8.5 hours per night, some people function well with 4-5 hours and others require 9-10 hours. Whatever your individual needs, lack of sleep or poor sleep quality can have massive effects.

There’s plenty we can do to get the most benefits of the time we spend in bed and you can find some sleep hygiene tips here. If you have ongoing problems with sleep, exhaustion or insomnia though it’s really important to seek some help. Best starting point? Your GP.

D is for Deliberate Daydream

Daydreaming has received some unfair criticism in its time, being associated as a pursuit of ‘slackers’ and ‘time-wasters’. In the 1950s it was even believed that excessive daydreaming could cause psychosis in children (this has since been thoroughly disproved!). But daydreams are critical workings of the human mind which bring us the benefits of wisdom and creativity. According to research if you can learn to embrace daydreams, you can gain powerful insights into the world and your future.

Professor Eric Klinger spent most of his career studying daydreams and noted: “Daydreaming has a learning function. When you daydream about things that have already happened, you review the events and think about alternatives. So if you remember going to a party, you might think, what would have happened if I’d said something different?” In the same way, projecting into the future makes us smarter about our choices. Daydreaming has a rehearsal function,” says Klinger. “So if something important is coming up, you might play out different scenarios of what to do.”

As mental time travellers, we can review, rehearse and learn to understand our lives, without endlessly repeating ourselves. When our minds wander, it happens so instinctively that we often don’t realize we’re doing it. Our daydreams may arrive spontaneously, but we can learn to direct them. Almost all of our ambitions start life as daydreams. Paintings, books, buildings and companies all start as a quirky idea in the mind of their creator.

Of course, there are times when we have to concentrate on what we’re doing. But it’s also productive to set aside time to allow ourselves to daydream, and learn to embrace the peculiar and surprising directions that our minds want to explore.

What’s the best way to daydream? According to Carl Jung’s technique of active imagination the key steps to daydreaming are:

  1. Find the right place - Find an environment where you can be alone to think. You might want to sit in a chair with your eyes closed, or simply go for a walk, run or bike ride by yourself.
  2. Let your mind drift - Pick an idea ’anything that pops into your mind or something specific that’s been on your mind ’and allow your thoughts to flow from there. Don’t censor or worry about the direction your thoughts go and’let them run free. You might visualize scenarios, or you might simply hear a stream of thoughts running through your head. To expand your thought process, it can be useful to ask questions, too. Imagine telling someone about the idea or problem. Allow yourself to visualize freely, even if the images or scenarios don’t make sense.
  3. Write it all down - Afterwards, try writing down or sketching freely what you have seen, heard or felt in your mind’s eye. Don’t search for solutions; just accept that they may come as you need them.
  4. Do it all over again - Keep using this technique, and eventually you will recognize patterns or discover insights. It can take days or it can take years, but Jung’s active imagination technique can help you tap into your unconscious potential.

C is for Compassionately Combatting self-Criticism

Self-criticism refers to the pointing out of things critical/important to one's own beliefs, thoughts, actions, behaviour or results; it can form part of private, personal reflection or a group discussion. It is an essential element of critical thought and it can be incredibly destructive. Often leading to experiences of isolation, anxiety and shame.

Especially for people who are prone to shame, self-compassion can be exactly what is needed to make self-criticism bearable. According to Dr Kristen Neff, self-compassion has three elements:

  • Self-kindness – being warm and understanding towards ourselves when we suffer, fail or feel inadequate.
  • Common humanity – recognising that suffering and feelings of personal inadequacy are part of the shared human experience
  • Mindfulness – taking a balanced approach to negative emotion so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. Mindfulness requires that we not ‘over-identify’ with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negativity.

Self-compassion is like a parachute that allows you to glide safely down into the parts of yourself you're afraid to look at. When I am being particularly scathing with the self-criticism I like to remind myself of a line from Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’. It serves as a reminder to me that I can’t control everything and it’s probably best if I don’t. The line is “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”. Often we’re all running around beating ourselves up over the cracks, but sometimes we need those cracks. And sometimes they’re beautiful.

For more information on self-compassion check out Dr Neff’s website: www.self-compassion.org.

B is for the Brilliance of Boredom

Boredom is a universal experience and is best described in terms of attention. When we are bored, we don’t just have nothing to do. We want to be stimulated, but for whatever reason, we’re unable to connect with our environment — a state which has been described as an an ‘unengaged mind’.

In a nutshell, boredom is the unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity.

Interestingly, it has been found that boredom can be associated with both low-arousal and high-arousal states. At times, boredom breeds lethargy — we might even have trouble keeping your eyes open. In other situations, being bored can lead to an agitated restlessness: think pacing, or constantly tapping your feet. Often boredom oscillates between the two states. We might pump ourselves up to concentrate on a dreary task, then slip back into listlessness as our focus wavers again.

Some of us are more likely than others to suffer the effects of an disengaged mind. Unsurprisingly, given boredom's close connection with attention, people with chronic attention problems such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder have a high propensity for ennui. Depression and chronic boredom can look a lot like depression and the two are highly correlated, however they’re not the same emotional experience – they are two distinct states.

Bored, restless, anxious, disconnected? The cure is curiosity and meaning.  Boredom signals that what you happen to be doing right now seems to be lacking purpose.

We can always try something new. And approach it with wonder and curiosity. Learn to dance. Snowboard. Paint. Sing. Juggle. Ask a child for their advice. Take it. Pretend that today is the last day of your life. Or the first. Turn off the television. Tune in to life.

A is for Acknowledging Anger Assertively

We all know what anger is, and we've all felt it: whether as a fleeting annoyance or as full-fledged rage.

Anger is a completely normal - usually healthy-  human emotion. And it’s okay to experience anger at times. Like a lot of the other feelings, it is accompanied by physiological and biological changes; when you get angry, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, as do the levels of your energy hormones, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.

Anger can be caused by both external and internal events. You could be angry at a specific person (such as your sister) or an event (getting told to create 26 illustrations of emotions), or your anger could be caused by worrying or brooding about your personal problems (Why won’t my housemates let me get a cat?). Memories of traumatic or enraging events can also trigger angry feelings.

The instinctive, natural way to express anger is to respond aggressively. Because anger is a natural, adaptive response to threats; it inspires powerful, often aggressive, feelings and behaviors, which allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when we are attacked. A certain amount of anger, therefore, is necessary to our survival.

On the other hand, we can't physically lash out at every person or object that irritates or annoys us; it’s possible that could get us into a bit of trouble, with our loved ones, our possessions or the justice system.

People use a variety of both conscious and unconscious processes to deal with their angry feelings. The three main approaches are expressing, suppressing, and calming. Expressing our angry feelings in an assertive—not aggressive—manner is the healthiest way to manage anger. This is about learning to make clear what our needs are without hurting others. Being assertive doesn't mean being pushy or demanding; it means being respectful of yourself and others.

For some extra information and advice on managing email you can check out these tips from the Australian Psychological Society  and Relationships Australia.

 

To celebrate the month of May, Hope Street Cards is embarking on an adventure into the world of our emotions, with the Dictionary of Emotional Wellbeing. Beginning tomorrow, each day Hope Street Cards will showcase a feeling or behaviour or a therapeutic technique with the aim of increasing our self awareness and emotional intelligence. Because emotional wellbeing and intelligence is not the absence of emotions, but our ability to understand the value of our emotions and to use them to move our life forwards in positive directions.  

When we are able to recognise and understand our emotions and reactions (self-awareness), all sorts of other wonderful things happen. We can also learn how to manage and adapt our emotions, mood, reactions and responses. We can figure out how to use our feelings to motivate ourselves to take appropriate actions and work toward the achievement of our goals. We can do empathy. We can discern the feelings of others, understand their emotions, and utilise that understanding to relate to others more effectively. Our social skills can improve. We can build relationships, relate to others better and work with others.

Still not completely sold?

Here’s what the evidence has to say on the benefits of emotional intelligence:

Physical Health – The ability to take care of our bodies and especially to manage our stress, which has an incredible impact on our overall wellness, is heavily tied to our emotional intelligence. Only by being aware of our emotional state and our reactions to stress in our lives can we hope to manage stress and maintain good health.

Mental Well-Being – Emotional intelligence affects our attitude and outlook on life. It can also help to alleviate anxiety and avoid depression and mood swings. A high level of emotional intelligence directly correlates to a positive attitude and happier outlook on life.

Relationships – By better understanding and managing our emotions, we are better able to communicate our feelings in a more constructive way. We are also better able to understand and relate to those with whom we are in relationships. Understanding the needs, feelings, and responses of those we care about leads to stronger and more fulfilling relationships.

Conflict Resolution – When we can discern people’s emotions and empathize with their perspective, it’s much easier to resolve conflicts or possibly avoid them before they start. We are also better at negotiation due to the very nature of our ability to understand the needs and desires of others. It’s easier to give people what they want if we can perceive what it is.

Success – Higher emotional intelligence helps us to be stronger internal motivators, which can reduce procrastination, increase self-confidence, and improve our ability to focus on a goal. It also allows us to create better networks of support, overcome setbacks, and persevere with a more resilient outlook. Our ability to delay gratification and see the long-term directly affects our ability to succeed.

So for the next 26 days, look out for our posts on Facebook and Instagram or stay connected on the Hope Street Cards blog. There will be a lot of feelings coming your way. Let’s try and use them intelligently.



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