How to overcome stress and stay connected these holidays

How to overcome stress and stay connected these holidays

We all know that Christmas is a big opportunity for stress. The combination of having to appear to be having fun, while coping with all the frustrations and extra work can be a real downer.

One of the things we need to know about stress is that it closes things down. It’s hard to feel joyful and enthusiastic when you are stressed. We tend to close in on ourselves and set up a kind of survival regime to get us through. Maybe it does help us to struggle along but it does not help us to care for ourselves, to open our hearts to others, to learn anything about the habits that lead to the stress in the first place.

Let’s take a look at some ways we could set about making connections this Christmas instead of going into survival mode.

Connecting with yourself as the basis to overcome stress

Do you ever feel like the people in this snow globe at Christmas—all in your festive gear but not able to communicate how you are really feeling? The holidays can be a strangely lonely time, even when you are surrounded by people.

As the lead up to Christmas gathers pace, why not take some time to check in with yourself and see what you are hoping for from the holidays.

Whether you are religious, or not you can ask yourself what is important to you about this holiday. Is it having family around and lots of good things to eat and presents to share? Or is it about having a few days off from work and routine in the middle of winter. Whatever it is, it will help you to set an intention for yourself—a kind of inspiration for the holiday.

Then at the other end of the scale, try to see what it is that triggers stress for you.

Take a moment to sit quietly and then ask yourself these questions:
  • At what times do I experience a high level of frustration over relatively small events?
  • How does it feel in my body? 
  • What do I do about it? 

Going through this exercise will help you to identify the times when stress can creep up on you, so you can prepare for it and hopefully, avoid it. Allowing yourself to use your body like a stress barometer shows you the effect that stress has on you. Spending time thinking about how you deal with stress helps to get you off the survival treadmill and really consider how you can ease your stress.

Connecting with the present moment

So often when we are busy our minds are just rushing away with us thinking ahead of all there is still to do. That’s particularly sad at Christmas when there are so many enjoyable rituals in getting ready—like making the cake. 

So one way we can ease a feeling of stress is to connect with the present moment. For example, try not to hurry with making the cake. While you are mixing it, don’t think about making the mince pies, a present for grandma and whether you have enough wine in the house. Instead, try focusing on simply sorting your ingredients for the cake, weighing and adding them in the correct order and mixing it all to a delicious consistency. Take time to smell the fruits and the brandy. Allow yourself to enjoy the texture of batter. Remember to make your wish and just be with the making of the cake. When it is in the oven, you can go on to the next task and approach it in the same way.

Connecting with a sense of enjoyment and celebration helps to dissolve stress

The more we can get our stress into perspective, the more chance we have to enjoy some of the magic that there can be around Christmas. We said earlier that stress closes things down and one of the first things to go is any sense of enjoyment and celebration.

Allow yourself time to look around you and see the things you enjoy. I am a big fan of Christmas trees both indoors and out in the open. There is something about all the lights and glitter on a dark winter evening that just says home and love to me.

What is it that you enjoy most at Christmas?

Connecting with family and friends

Probably if we are honest, one of the biggest sources of stress is how the family is going to manage together over the holidays. It can get complicated with all the in-laws and the extended family. We all know that awful tense feeling that can come when uncle George manages to come out with the opinions that we know will drive our teenage daughter to distraction. Or when grandma insists that we don’t know how to put on a Christmas like they did in her day. You dread the moment when your sister-in-law, who always manages to make you feel like bargain-basement wife, arrives for dinner looking as if she just stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine, along with her two immaculate children. You, on the other hand, hot and bothered from the kitchen feel less than glamorous.

Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind while the family dinner is underway:
  • Everyone around the table wants to be happy—just like you do.
  • None of them want to be anxious, or worried, or miserable and yet, inevitably they all have times when they are—just like you.
  • Chances are that each one of them have their own insecurities about the family gathering—just like you do.
  • Perhaps some of them are even intimidated by aspects of your behavior–what a good cook you are, how you juggle family and career—who knows?

It can help so much if before your irritation arises you can put yourself in the shoes of the person irritating you—perhaps they are more like you than you think.

Connecting with the rest of the world

As well as closing things down, stress makes us lose perspective. Whatever is going on with us seems so much more important than anything else that is happening in the world—which in the scheme of things, really does not make sense.

During the holiday period you can counter-act any tendency to feel that getting the lights working on the tree is more important than, say, global warming by consciously allowing yourself time to think about what is going on for everyone else in the world. Many millions of other people are celebrating Christmas around the world, with traditions that may be very different from your own. There are also millions who are not celebrating Christmas and it is just another ordinary day for them. Then there are the millions who whether or not they wish to celebrate Christmas are not able to because of poverty, or war, or persecution. Keep them in mind also.

So, a very merry stress-free winter holiday to everyone!

How to practice some Compassion Mind Training Techniques

How to practice some Compassion Mind Training Techniques

Photo by Alvaro Serrano via Unsplash

Here is the second of Chris’ two guest posts on Compassion Focused Therapy. This one gives helpful guidance on how to do some of the key practices.

In the first part of this post on compassionate mind training and Compassion Focused Therapy the core concepts were considered.  In this second post some of the practices I have found helpful are covered.    

Compassionate exercises

The practice of Soothing rhythm breathing

This is considering breathing with a purpose – a compassionate motivation-  to both soothe and act as a grounding tool, either at times of distress or in preparation for other exercises. 

As part of our overall nervous system, we have a component called the autonomic nervous system (ANS) looking after many of our automatic bodily functions – heart rate, respiration, digestion – so it regulates our internal environment.  It has two main branches – sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).  SNS is linked to our threat system, it prepares the flight-fight response.  For example, increased heart rate, reduced digestion.  It is indicative of psychological arousal. 

PNS is linked more to soothing and replenishment, so resting and digesting.   It is indicative of psychological relaxation. 

Our organs receive input from both, so activity (heart rate) is controlled by the relative levels of PNS and SNS activity.

What the science suggests is that certain behaviours or actions can help engage the PNS.  These include body posture, facial expression and breathing, in terms of depth and pace.  Given that in our modern lives our threat system can be highly active and so SNS is running on a high state of reactivity, it’s important to consider how we can engage PNS. 

Perhaps you can see how this ties in with the idea of using the soothing system to help with threat and drive balance, and one way to facilitate that is through a practice called soothing rhythm breathing. 

The practice involves a few elements – 

  • sitting in a relaxed and comfortable manner, focused on breathing but not in an alert state
  • having a relaxed facial expression, with a gentle smile
  • focus on breathing – deep breathing, really using all the lung capacity and using a count of 5 on the in and out breath. Recent research has also suggested a pattern of count of 4 on the in and 6 on the out.  

The motivation to perform a practice is two fold – one it can help on a daily basis that you take some time out to pause, to nurture your body with moments of rest and secondly its developing a practice that can be called upon at distressing times. 

Aside from perhaps creating a routine time to perform the exercise each day, it can also be helpful to pause at times during the day, to take a minute or two and engage in some deeper, regular breathing as part of a commitment to looking after your emotional wellbeing. 

And at times of distress or ahead of doing something challenging this practice can be very helpful to help engage the soothing system and support bringing to the fore the compassionate self.

Here are two example guided practices – one from Prof Paul Gilbert and one from Dr James Kirby 

The practice of Compassionate imagery 

One brilliant skill is that our brain can visualise many things and by doing so can cause us psychological and physiological reactions.  This ability to visualise as lead to so many of the great innovations and developments of humans,  It allows us to plan, remember and imagine.  It can also allow us to ruminate and wonder “what if” which may lead to creating catastrophic events in our minds that never happen.

Compassionate imagery employs this great skill we have with a motivation to provide support and one very helpful practice is the compassionate place. 

The compassionate place is an exercise to bring to mind a place which nourishes and replenishes you.  This can be a place you know well, somewhere you have visited or perhaps seen on television or social media – or it could be a made up place.  Mine is a made up place, although with elements of places I know, of a wooded area.   As part of imagining it I use all my senses – to visualise what it looks like, to sense the movement of air, to feel the tree bark, to hear the nearby brook, to smell the wood.

The important thing is that this doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s not something to get right.  It’s something to help you and the place will be personal and meaningful to you, so don’t be influenced by what you might think you “should” be imagining. 

The practice of Compassionate letter writing

As well as the formal compassionate letter writing exercise ,  I use the techniques and approach when writing in a daily journal as well.  Personally writing about emotions, depression and everyday challenges can really help to bring some clarity and engage the compassionate self,, fostering the compassionate wisdom and encouragement I may need . 

The key intention behind the writing exercise is to acknowledge our suffering or distress and to help with managing that.  That links into the definition of compassion from episode one. 

To start it can help to foster the intention and motivation towards the writing by sitting and doing the soothing rhythm breathing exercise. It can also help to pause if something causes you a lot of distress while writing, to revisit that breathing exercise and also the soothing place exercise.

With the motivation and intention in mind, consider what the letter will be about.  Its a letter to yourself , no-one else will read it, so have the motivation to be open and honest within it, as challenging as that may be. You write it as a letter, so addressed to yourself.  In the first part acknowledge what the issue is, in a way that you might talk to a friend who is struggling.  Supportive and understanding.

Then consider what you are feeling and validate it.  Acknowledge that this is a difficult time or challenge you are facing. Validate all the feelings you have around this.  This may include considering how your threat an or drive systems have played a role.  It can be helpful to acknowledge that some of your reactions are part of that evolved way of thinking, so often the reactions are natural. 

Really consider what you are responsible for and what you are not responsible for. 

Now start to consider what thoughts and actions you could take , being guided from a place of compassion, towards yourself and to any others involved. As part of that reflect on any challenges or barriers that may come up, what could you do if they happen and is there any support you need.

Finally close off with a compassionate commitment to the changes you envisage, to help sustain the actions.  So this is an encouraging, coaching commitment towards yourself – no judging or criticising.

The last part is to read, which you can do immediately or leave for a while.  Bring your compassionate self to the reading – don’t judge how well you have written, any misspellings or errors.  They don’t matter – recognise that you have written with honesty and openness to help address something which is causing you distress. 

A free guide to this practice is available from the Compassionate Mind Foundation. 

In conclusion

I hope that these posts have provided an overview of the core concepts and some of the exercises from compassionate mind training.  Deepening compassion, especially around self-compassion, made a real difference to me…perhaps these posts will inspire you explore compassionate mind training for yourself.  Further details about CFT can be found via the Compassionate Mind Foundation

Chris Winson is an author, blog writer and founder of #365daysofcompassion, which is an online community of people sharing thoughts, reflections and information about compassion and well-being. 

During his life Chris has managed depression, often hiding it until a major period in 2016 lead him to seek help.  That introduced Chris to Compassionate Focused Therapy, which has lead to his focus on how compassion and Compassionate Mind Training can play a supportive role to health and wellbeing. 

Chris recently recorded a series of video talks on CFT which can be found here https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCX-zBQP7u2fRY-riGNGuaDw

How Compassion Focused Therapy has helped me

How Compassion Focused Therapy has helped me

Photo by Nick Fewings via Unsplash

Awareness in Action is delighted to publish the first of two blogs from Chris Winson on the subject of Compassion Focused Therapy. Thanks to Chris for this accessible and informative overview of how CFT works. Part 2 of the blog will go into some useful methods.

You can’t miss articles, talks and social media posts advocating how helpful self-compassion can be, it’s running a close second to mindfulness for coverage and promotion. 

But what does compassion mean to you ?  How can it can help with mental wellbeing ?

I hand’t really thought this until in a therapy room, working through what depression really meant to me.  At that stage self-care meant getting through the next hour – self-compassion wasn’t in the room, it wasn’t in the same building as I was.

That didn’t mean I wasn’t a compassionate person.  I was towards others, struggled to sometimes accept help from others and any self-encouragement was drowned out by self-criticism. Then I was introduced to Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and things started to change….

A definition of Compassion Focused Therapy

Compassion Focused Therapy was developed by Professor Paul Gilbert.  It includes concepts which help to inform and provide insight on some of the psychological behaviours and systems which have evolved and developed to help us, but can sometimes be tricky to manage and can present problems,  even though they are trying to help and protect us.  It includes practices and exercises which form compassionate mind training.

Within Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) compassion is a seen as a motivation – a motivation to both acknowledge and work with distress , in self and others, with a commitment to address and alleviate if possible.  

And that is far from easy.

Some concepts of Compassion Focused Therapy

Emotional systems 

Within CFT a three emotional regulatory system model is defined, blending neuroscience, physiological and psychological processes into a very understandable model.  The three systems are threat, drive and soothing, often presented with a colour scheme of red, blue and green.   This doesn’t mean we have these three parts of our brain, its a conceptual model involving emotions and motivations which have evolved to help us. However in our modern world they sometimes cause issues while trying to look after us. 

Threat, the red circle, looks after us, evolved to to be alert to predators and risks to life, with a set of predictive abilities based on a “safer than sorry” approach, which is therefore more negatively focused. However it evolved to be an immediate response for short periods of time, which is not the case often in our lives today. In a world of social comparison and competition the threat system can be on all the time.  Without the opportunity to reduce levels or constantly overestimates threats,which may not be real, the threat system can be functioning at a unhealthy level.

Drive is the system that motivates us to seek resources, rewards and pleasure, represented by the colour blue. It includes feedback loops so when we achieve something we get a feeling of pleasure, which can reinforce the behaviour or activity, which an be helpful. However the system can go into overdrive, pushing ourselves too hard, often to meet the requirements of others and how we feel that we are perceived by them.  As its a reward based system if we fail to meet the achievements we strive for then we can feel like a failure.  This is very true within perfectionist thinking.

Additionally if the rewards are based upon external feedback then we can feel very vulnerable and hurt when somebody doesn’t respond as we expected or if they question or criticise us. 

The systems do not work independently , most of the time we feel a mixture, nor are threat or drive are good or bad systems. They are both essential to us and its perhaps better to view them as in terms of having a healthy or unhealthy balance.  And what helps them balance is the third system, the soothing system. 

And its this green circle that for me embodies compassion.

This is the system that often needs help though, which CMT practices can help with. techniques. We are usually very good at caring for others, usually okay, but not always at receiving care back from others.  We are not often great at taking proper care of ourselves.  It helps to really bring awareness to what is important  to you and for you to focus on, to take the best care you can, even at challenging times when the threat system is very activated. 

This is a helpful representation of the three systems via Dr James Kirby 

Flows of compassion in Compassion Focused Therapy

In addition to the three systems, three flows are considered – compassion to others,  compassion from others and compassion to ourselves.  

Showing compassion to others, through help, kindness and caring behaviour comes naturally to many, especially towards those close to us.  If you see a family member or friend in distress or needing some help we are likely to offer it – sometimes whether its needed or not and sometimes at a cost to ourselves.  But what about to strangers or to people who may not share our views or be different to us?  Does compassion become harder towards them.  Research would suggest it does.   Research also shows that acting and being compassionate towards others can bring positive effects to ourselves and wellbeing.

Receiving compassion from others can sometimes be trickier.  How many times do we say “I am fine” and soldier on. We can also be so wrapped up in our busy lives that we don’t notice when someone shows us kindness or interacts with us with warmth.  It happens to us all.  The reason that being more open to receiving compassion from others, even just a simple random of act of kindness, is important is that it fosters feelings of connection and shared experience, which are helpful to our wellbeing. 

Which leaves the third flow – self-compassion. This can be seen as being “soft” on yourself; misunderstood as “oh its okay I will be nice to myself and everything will be fine” or even self-indulgent. Some people fear that without the more critical inner voice they won’t be successful.  The truth is that most of us are our worst critic and harshest judge.  We will use a tone and language with ourselves that we would not say to another or even say out aloud.   But does that help ?   

Why are the three flows important?  They are important to our wellbeing and its important to consider their balance, similar to the three systems.  It is often the case that we have them out of balance, so we may be offering a lot of help and care to others and neglecting our own wellbeing. 

The compassionate self

The compassionate self is different to self-compassion, it’s a psychological concept that we have multiple selves – a happy self, a sad self, an anxious self, an angry self, a confident self and so on.  Often one self can dominate our thinking, influence our behaviour or actions, in different contexts and on different days.  That doesn’t mean we switch from one self to another – just like the three systems concept, we are a blend.

So why focus on the compassionate self ?  Because it isn’t one of those that often comes to the fore, especially towards oneself.  Part of compassion mind training is to spend some time considering what compassion means to you, how it’s embodied and considering ways in which it can provide deeper help. 

It can help to focus onto some attributes that the compassionate self can embody, for example attention, wisdom, a commitment to caring and courage. 

All these things take time to deepen and work with, its not easy and sometimes we take a step forward, to then pause and rest before the next step.  And that is perfectly fine. 

This first part has considered the core concepts of Compassion Focused Therapy and compassionate mind training.  The second part will consider some of the exercises and practices which help deepen our compassionate self.  Further details about CFT can be found via the Compassionate Mind Foundation

Chris Winson is an author, blog writer and founder of #365daysofcompassion, which is an online community of people sharing thoughts, reflections and information about compassion and well-being. 

During his life Chris has managed depression, often hiding it until a major period in 2016 lead him to seek help.  That introduced Chris to Compassionate Focused Therapy, which has lead to his focus on how compassion and Compassionate Mind Training can play a supportive role to health and wellbeing. 

Chris recently recorded a series of video talks on CFT which can be found here https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCX-zBQP7u2fRY-riGNGuaDw

How To Take a Fresh Look at Your Commute

How To Take a Fresh Look at Your Commute

How do you use your commute time?

Do you cycle to work, or drive in your car? Maybe you take a tram, or bus? Perhaps you use the metro or ride a train. Whichever way you make the journey, your commute is a solid chunk of time twice a day, every working day. You’re not at home but you’re not in work either. The time is your own but not really. You’re free to be as you wish but within strict parameters. On the way in to work, the tasks of the day are already pressing for your attention. On the way home, anticipating a pleasant evening competes with processing what has gone on during the day.

 

Maybe we choose to use the time travelling to fend off the thought of the working day ahead by catching up on some good reading. Perhaps we shut ourselves off from the crowd by turning up the volume on our headphones. I hear of an increasing number of people who watch Netflix during their journeys. Alternatively, we could use this time to steal a march on our working day by scanning through our emails on our phone, or tablet and running through the schedule for the day.

 

Taking a fresh look at your commute

Here’s another idea—to take charge of this time by yourself and use it for your wellbeing.

 

In research carried out in 2010 at Harvard University it was found that people spend almost 50% of their time thinking about something different to what they are doing and that it undermines their happiness. One of the most common times when people were ruminating in this way was on their commute.

 

So how do we take a fresh look at our commute?

 

A lot of the people that I work with, who are interested in making meditation part of their lives, find it difficult to make the time they need for meditation. Quite a few are experimenting with using their commute as a time to do a meditation session. Some use a meditation app and listen to a guided meditation. Others simply wait to find a seat, and then sit quietly and focus on their breath.

 

Here is a very simple way to do this.

  

Try being mindful and come home to yourself

  • Take a few moments to check in with your breathing—pay attention to the sensation of your breath entering and leaving your body
  • Notice how your body is feeling—do you have any places that feel tired, or weary, or are you feeling fresh and up for anything?
  • Check in on your mood—are you feeling good about the day ahead, or is there something worrying you?
  • Try to become aware of the thoughts passing through your mind—notice how quickly they change and turn into other thoughts
  • Just register all this—try not to get drawn into feelings of liking, or not liking any of it.

 

What does this accomplish?

 

When we connect with ourselves in this way we are tuning into the present moment and getting in touch with how things are for us. We try to do this without judgement, without wanting to change anything—just with the aim of coming home to ourselves and settling our minds.

 

This will help us to move into our work situation in a more relaxed and stable mood ready for whatever comes our way. On the way home, it helps us to shake off the concerns of the day and get ready to spend an evening with our friends and family.

 

 

Consider other people as just like you

So much of the stresses and strains of the day come about during our interactions with other people. Often, we focus on the things that separate us from others, when in fact, there is a great deal that we all have in common.

 

If you still have time on your journey, try to turn your attention to your fellow passengers.

  • Notice who your neighbours are—take a few moments to scan the compartment, tram or bus and to see as many of the other passengers as you can.
  • Take note of the thoughts and emotions that pass through your mind as you do this:

—notice if you make a comment in your mind about someone

—notice the people you feel drawn towards and the ones you do not like the look of

  • Try to imagine how they might see you as you sit, or stand alongside them
  • Take a moment to be aware that everyone travelling with you wants their day to go well and to avoid any unpleasantness

—just as you do

  • Then realize that inevitably for some people things will go wrong during the day

—let that feeling touch you and help you to feel a common humanity with your fellow travellers.

 

What does this accomplish?

 

Reflecting in this way reminds us that everyone wishes for a happy life and wants to avoid pain and suffering but that pain and suffering are an inevitable part of life. Coping with all this gives a common thread to all our experiences. It enables us to see that however different our interests are, we are all in the same boat. This can help us to develop a feeling of equanimity towards others as we engage in our working day.

 

 

It’s up to us

Of course, sometimes we just want to read, or listen to music and that’s completely fine but we do have the option to take a fresh look at our commute. We can prioritise self-care and use this limbo-time in our day to develop our mindfulness—both of ourselves and of others. Spending a bit of time each day in this way will help us to deal with our work from a less stressful perspective. It will also help us to actually relax and enjoy our time when is over for the day.

 

Do drop a comment in the comment section and let me know if you have tried meditating during your commute and how you got on with it.

 

If you found this post useful you might like to check out our free 5-day e-course

HOW TO MAKE YOUR COMMUTE BENEFIT YOUR WORKING DAY

 

 

 

 

 

How Starting the Day is My Connection to the World

How Starting the Day is My Connection to the World

Using the news to connect with compassion

Recently, I got the chance to hear Karen Armstrongspeak at a symposium on diversity at the Vu University in Amsterdam. I do some work for the Charter for Compassion, which she founded, and I was interested to hear what she had to say.

 

She spoke about how polarised our world has become and stressed that each of us needed to find a way to do something to change that. She was asked how someone could contribute to this change on a personal level. Armstrong pointed out that when we watch the news, we come across things that upset and worry us. Her suggestion was that we look into that feeling of discomfort and use it to generate compassion. I do that myself sometimes, and it certainly does work.

 

However, more and more people that I speak with tell me that they have stopped watching the news because it distresses them too much. It got me thinking about a less confrontational way of connecting with compassion, rather than conflict.

 

 

What gets in the way of connection?

One of the greatest obstacles to connection is to just see another person as an object—not really human at all. We can do this just ouhttps://www.awarenessinaction.org/why-it-is-important-to-know-how-interconnected-people-are/t of habit, or just not paying attention. The check-out person in our local supermarket, a serving person in a restaurant, or the person driving the tram can all be people we just see as agents to provide what we need at that moment.

 

It can go much further though. During World War II, U.S. Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall asked infantry soldiers how often they fired their guns in combat. The results were surprising and uplifting—only 15-20% of soldiers actually fired at the enemy.The reluctance to kill is hard-wired into our psyche. Unfortunately, this research led to the U.S. Army working on ways to dehumanise the enemy, so that soldiers felt less connection to the other side as human beings.  It worked—by the Vietnam War, 95% of soldiers were firing their weapons but this came at a great cost. Between 18 and 54% of the 2.8 million military personnel who served in Vietnam suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder—far higher than in previous wars.

 

 

Creating a habit of connection

I mentioned already that not paying attention can mean that we don’t notice people as people. This is a habit that we can change if we take it on. One of the ways I am experimenting with since Karen Armstrong’s talk is to use my morning routine as a means to reach out to people beyond my immediate circle. As I shower, dress and eat breakfast I try to think of all the people involved in making the things I use available to me. In addition, I try to think of using natural resources well, whether workers are treated fairly, and the carbon footprint of what I am using.

 

 

Getting ready for the day

Showering

The toiletries we use—shower gel, shampoo, body lotion and make up—are sourced from all over the world.Micais used extensively, especially in make-up, and comes largely from India. However, child labour is often used in the mining of mica, with children not attending to school and working in unsafe conditions for tiny sums of money. There is work going on to try to put this right, but it goes slowly. I try as best as I can to use toiletries that are manufactured ethically but it is not always easy to tell. As I use my shower gel and so on, I try to consider all the people involved in making it—from the people who source the raw materials, to the people who market and well it. It must come to hundreds of people for each product.

 

Getting dressed

A lot of our high street clothing comes from countries such as Bangladesh, India, China, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Indonesia. Certainly, these will all be people living very different lives from my own here in Amsterdam. In some cases, such as garment workers in Bangladesh, they will be struggling with unfair—or even unsafe—working conditions. Many of the workers will be women with homes to look after and children to feed. I don’t want to wear clothing that has been made by workers who are treated badly but, again, it is not easy to tell. A few years back, Primark was targeted for its role in using cheap labour in Bangladesh. Since then it has set up CottonConnect,training camps for women in India to learn more efficient ways of farming cotton. Although it has improved conditions for many cotton farmers, it is still part of the cycle that keeps cotton prices very low.

 

Eating breakfast

For breakfast I usually have porridge, with spelt-bread toast and Redbush tea. The oats for my porridge come from Scotland, and the cranberries I sprinkle over it are from the USA. Spelt is harvested in Germany and Belgium. Redbush tea comes from South Africa.

 

 

All these people help me to start my day

So, by showering, dressing and eating breakfast I am connecting with hundreds of people in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Mostly I direct my attention to the people who source and make the items that I use. I try to see them at their work and going about their lives. It’s unlikely that we will ever meet but we are connected through my using the product of their work.

 

We could go much further—the people working on packaging, transport, marketing and selling. Then there are all their families who depend on their work and the friends they hang out with.

 

Sometimes people say to me, ‘Well, it’s their job!’ That is true but who says I can’t feel gratitude and appreciation for the care and hard work of others? Most importantly, it helps me to remember that I live in an inter-connected world, relying on the effort and kindness of many people through each step of my day. We might lead different lives, but we are the same in that we want to be happy, to take care of our families and make our way in the world in peace.

 

5 ways my passport renewal was unfriendly

5 ways my passport renewal was unfriendly

It’s a pretty straightforward situation—your passport is almost out of date and you need it renewed. Even an old hippy like me, with an aversion to bureaucracy, can get her head around that. The thing is that although a British citizen I have lived in the Netherlands for many years. It used to be possible to renew your passport through the British consulate in Amsterdam but not anymore. Now it is HM Passport Office in the UK and you already know that you are in trouble.

 

On top of that there were date crunches when I could not be without a passport, but the renewal was unlikely to be ready. I needed some advice in order to work out how to manage it.

 

 

  1. You need them more than they need you

It did not take long to realise that your passport renewal is only of interest to you, no-one else is interested at all. The system is obviously creaking at the seams. If you get put off in your application, that’s just one less worry for them. There was not a moment when I felt like someone buying a service—indeed the over-riding attitude was that I was being granted a favour.

 

In fact, worse than that, at some subtle level I was made to feel that somehow, I was trying to buck the system. By needing answers to questions that did not fit neatly into the standard renewal pattern I was asking too much. Needless to say, any small variations that might exist are only there for the use of people living in the UK. If you’ve been reckless enough to leave, it’s obvious that you cannot expect to maintain the same rights as those who don’t.

 

Uneasily I recalled everything that I had read about the Windrush Generationand the heart-breaking stories of would-be asylum seekers holed up in the Jungle campnear Calais. If I felt treated in an unfriendly way how would be it be to be someone hoping to be given refuge in the UK?

 

 

  1. You never get to talk to a real person

The thing is, you never get to talk to a living person. HM Passport Office was not interested in my particular situation, or specific needs. All I could do was to study the website over and over again looking for answers—at least it was better than the endless chain of voice messages and prompts when I tried to phone.

 

According to a study by Google, 61% of mobile users call a business when they’re in the purchase phase of the buying cycle. The majority of respondents would call instead of reaching out online because they’re looking to get a quick answer (59%) or talk to a real person (57%). Most serious of all—constant communication without direct human contact undermines empathy.

 

 

  1. The whole process is slow and expensive

In the end I applied for my renewal online. It cost £105.86 including postage. The actual online process is simple and relatively easy to follow. There is just this uncomfortable feeling that if you get something wrong you will be forever doomed to chase around in lonely circles trying to fix it. It’s slow though. Once your renewal request is ‘approved’ it takes at least 6 weeks for the passport to be sent. It was longer for me because the summer was beginning.

 

Inevitably, I needed to purchase an Emergency Travel Document in order to travel during the time my passport was with HM Passport Office. There is no service by which you are issued with an official document that states that your passport is being renewed. Even though I was only travelling from Amsterdam to the south of France by car—so no need for identification at airports and so on—I still needed to pay an additional £114.00 for my Emergency Travel document.

 

  

  1. There is zero flexibility

It was possible to purchase the Emergency Travel document in Amsterdam though. I filled in an application online and made an appointment to deliver documents. It was getting pretty close to my departure date and time was running out.

 

You can’t just enter the Consulate building. You ring at one door and then have to go around the back and enter through another—communicating through intercom as you go. Once inside you have to surrender your mobile phone and put it into a safe. Eventually you arrive at a small, stark waiting room where behind a glass and grill protective wall, one or two people appear to be working. By that stage I was so grateful to meet an actual human that I did not mind the wait. What I did mind was being told that after all, I would need to come back tomorrow in order to collect my ETD.

 

I am sad to say that I got very cross. Perhaps it was because I had felt so disrespected throughout the whole process, which had been a frustrating experience in alienation. After a few heated exchanges I managed to negotiate an agreement whereby I could collect my ETD at 15.00 that same afternoon.

 

When I arrived back at the consulate, I rang the door again and waited. A security guard appeared at the door and asked me to wait—outside. After some moments, he reappeared with my document, a receipt and a form for me to sign. He same down the steps into the street to give me the document and for me to sign. When I asked why we were doing this in the street, he said that officially the consulate was closed. It felt as if we were doing an illicit deal.

 

He asked me to return the ETD when I had finished with it because it was UK property. I have not returned it.

 

 

  1. Premonitions of post-Brexit Britain

Perhaps it is fanciful, but all this seemed to be exacerbated by Brexit. I have never wanted to leave the EU and my resolution has only deepened as I watch with horror the incalculable mess that is being made of the UK withdrawal. For me, pretentiousness, arrogance and lack of concern for human beings and their ordinary lives are all hallmarks of the UK government’s approach to hauling the UK out of the EU. All of these were evident as I went through this every day, ordinary process. Form, appearance, adherence to some supposed standards of practice were all that mattered. My personal situation, my questions, my concerns were completely without merit in the process.

 

 

 

 

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