With all the upset and worry caused by the current Corona virus, it was a bit of a holiday to have something to celebrate. On 9 July 2020 my second book, The Stress Workbook was published. It’s been very heartening to receive so many congratulations from people. It’s particularly special to see people holding your book and getting ready to read it.
All my life I have looked for meaning and ways to work with my habits in order to live more harmoniously. It’s been a natural progression from that to write about things that are relevant to peoples’ lives. My blog aims to pick up on issues that impact wellbeing and offer ways to work to increase your own. So, when it was suggested to me that I should write about stress and show how compassion can help to work with it, I jumped at the chance.
1.We’re going through challenging times
There’s no doubt that the last few months have been extremely stressful. Worry about the virus is one thing but then there is all the fallout to deal with as well. Lockdown and all its ongoing effects have changed our lives in ways we could never have imagined a few months ago. Conversations with friends are opportunities to share how we are trying to manage the strangeness of the situation.
I had a significant birthday in June and had planned to celebrate the passing of another decade with trips to the UK to see family and friends. Obviously, the plan is now on hold. My eldest niece had her first baby during lockdown and as her mother is in the vulnerable category she had to go through the whole thing without her mother’s physical support. One of my nephews has lost his job because of layoffs and the other one had to celebrate getting his PhD in a virtual ceremony. All over the world people are struggling to cope with loss, upheaval, financial hardship, anxiety and uncertainty.
2. Stress is something we all need to cope with
Stress tends to get a bad press. When we talk about feeling stressed, we generally mean we don’t feel well in ourselves. That’s not surprising, as stress can make us tired, irritable, and generally uninspired. However, from an evolutionary point of view, our stress response was designed to keep us away from danger and safe enough to reproduce and raise our offspring. The trouble is that our modern lifestyle is very different from the one our ancestors led. The stress response that was designed to help us run away from danger, or to stand and fight it when we had the chance, nowadays is triggered by traffic jams, lost keys, crowded supermarkets and so on. Our sympathetic nervous system is chronically over-stimulated. We’ve become exhausted by our own reactions!
Although it is only natural to want things to go well in life and for things to turn out as we want, experience has shown us that life a series of ups and downs. We all face frustrations and disappointments. The Stress Workbook aims to show how stress is an inevitable part of life. We can learn to work with it in useful and productive ways that will benefit us.
3. The Stress Workbook points out our unhelpful habits
Of course, as we go through life, we adopt all kinds of coping mechanisms to help us get by. Some of these strategies work well but some of them can stop us being able to understand more about how we are coping.
For example, when we experience stress our tendency is to try and make it go away. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable, so we turn away from it. Sometimes we distract ourselves with a holiday, or TV, or by buying something new. Maybe we try and comfort ourselves but all too often it’s with an extra glass of wine, or more chocolate.
Another habit we have is that we don’t pay attention. Research has shown that for almost 50% of our waking hours we not thinking about what we are doing at that moment, but our mind is wandering off and thinking about completely different things. Have you ever driven home from somewhere and when you arrive, you have almost no memory of the journey at all? Or been in a meeting where you zoned out for large sections of the discussion and when it was your turn to speak, struggled to find the thread? The thing is that this does make us happy but rather stops us from being fully present for our experience.
Both of these habits are example of habits that get in our way and prevent us from moving forward. We need to replace them with beneficial habits—ones that will build our resilience and enhance our wellbeing.
4. We can develop new, useful habits to improve how we cope
With regard to stress the new habit we need to develop is that of leaning into our stress. This doesn’t mean to indulge in stress but to quietly allow ourselves to explore what is happening for us and how it is affecting us. We can begin to notice where in the body we register stress, and how it makes us react. Over time, we can learn to see what triggers our stress and even how to avoid these triggers. Instead of distracting ourselves we become curious to see how this all works and to find new ways of coping.
The best way to work with our wandering mind is through mindfulness meditation. With mindfulness we can learn to be in the present moment. Instead of going over something that has already happened, or worrying about what we’re planning to do next, we can simply be present. When we are present, we can bring so much more energy to what we are doing. We’re more focused and effective and our attention is sharper. That means we can notice what is going on for ourselves and others, so it’s a good strategy in working with stress.
5.We don’t necessarily see compassion as a means to work with stress
If we’re asked how we cope with stress, it’s likely that compassion is not the first tool that springs to mind. However, developing compassion for ourselves and other people helps to widen our perspective. Our focus on our own problems is lifted, as we take into account what is happening for other people. When we’re going through hard times, it’s all too easy to wonder, ‘why me’? Compassion teaches us to see that everyone, whoever they are, has difficulties and worries. We are not being singled out for special punishment. It’s just how life is.
Going on from this, we can take a fresh look at our reactions to events that cause us trouble. Let’s take an example. Say you had a work meeting that went badly and left you stressed and depleted. The event of the unsatisfactory meeting is one thing, but our tendency is then to pile on our reactions. We feel responsible for the meeting going wrong, while also feeling some anger towards those who did not agree with your point of view. So, we blame ourselves and blame other at the same time. Then we feel even more stressed and miserable. Learning to work with how we respond to difficult situations is an important act of self-compassion.
6. The Stress Workbook is packed full of practical, workable advice
Because this is a workbook, it’s full of reflections, exercises, worksheets and meditation scripts. The Stress Workbook is designed to flow as a continuous story and so the exercises are embedded into the text. This means that you can read the theory and then quickly put it into practice.
I have also included many stories from the workshops that I have given. They’re a great way to see how other people manage stress—where they get stuck and how they resolve it.
In theory you can begin at the beginning of the Stress Workbook, take your pencil and work through everything step-by-step. I suggest pencil because you might want to erase stuff and write something different. It means that you are evolving a set of strategies to work with stress through the power of compassion from the beginning of the workbook.
Do let me know how you get on. I always love to hear!
Last week was quite a rough week in which gratitude did not readily leap into my mind. A close family member was admitted to hospital early in the week. Our car developed an ominous rattle, which turned out to signal the need for massive repairs. Various work deadlines had to be pushed back. There was plenty of worry and stress.
On Sunday evening we were due to go over to a friend’s place for dinner. We really wanted to see him but were struggling to pull our energy together and make the journey across town by public transport. My partner rang him to finalise travel instructions and our friend picked up on our exhausted state. He immediately suggested that he bring the food over to us and cook the meal for us right in our own home!
Suddenly gratitude was a much bigger part of my world view.
Gratitude can increase your happiness
The relationship between happiness and gratitude is one that is being thoroughly researched in the field of Positive Psychology. There is now quite a considerable body of studies and findings that show the benefits of gratitude.
In her book, The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky details research her department of psychology in the University of California has carried out on the power of gratitude. Subjects are required to keep a ‘gratitude’ journal every Sunday for six weeks in which they record five things that they could feel grateful for during the previous week. Their levels of happiness and well-being were found to have increased as a result.
The importance of noticing things you are grateful for
If I am honest, I used to find that my eyes would glaze over as I read the huge lists of ways your life can improve once you make room for gratitude. It’s probably because of my upbringing and the emphasis on always saying ‘thank you’ and having to write an endless stream of thank you letters to aunts and uncles every birthday and Christmas. I got into the way of feeling gratitude was a bit of a chore – something I was ‘supposed’ to feel.
It’s really through my meditation practice that I have found the space to allow gratitude to flourish. It’s something to do with my mind quietening down sufficiently to allow me to experience more directly. Then I can notice what I want to be grateful for. The more I allow myself to open to it, the more settled I feel, and my happiness is increased. Last week was not a very happy week and yet our friend’s kindness resulted in us both going to bed more relaxed and happier than we had been all week.
365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life
I particularly recommend this short, readable book for its no-nonsense, practical approach to gratitude. The author John Kralik tells the story of how he turned his life around by focusing his attention on what he had of value in his life rather than on what was missing.
In Kralik’s case that was no hypothetical shift. He was a middle-aged and overweight divorcé. He was estranged from his older children, on the point of losing his current girlfriend and possibly his business too. He felt things had come to such a point that he needed to make major changes in his life.
Inspired by a thank-you note that he received himself he decided to spend the year writing at least one thank you letter a day to cover all the things in his life he could feel grateful for. The book tells the story of how this process did in fact change his life.
The gratitude story in Kralik’s book that stood out most for me
My favourite story concerns Scott, the guy who serves the author in his local Starbucks. Not only does Scott remember how Kralik likes his coffee but he greets him every day by name in a genuine and friendly way. When Kralik delivers his thank you note, Scott assumes it is a complaint letter and is momentarily dismayed only to be delighted on realizing his has received appreciation and gratitude instead.
Gratitude can help us to really see people
It made me more aware of how I interact with the ‘routine’ people in my life—cab drivers, waitresses, shop assistants—all the people it can be so easy to glaze over while my attention is focused elsewhere. Just because someone is paid to do a job or offer a service it does not mean that we no longer need to feel appreciated for what we do. Like Kralik, I also quickly saw how much better I feel in taking the time to properly acknowledge the services I receive.
A thought about gratitude in the workplace
At work it is all too easy to take our colleagues for granted, or to feel unappreciated ourselves. Lyubomirsky points out that, among other things, gratitude helps us appreciate what we have rather than yearn for what we do not have and so increases our sense of self-worth and self-esteem. When we see how much we have to be grateful for it increases our confidence and helps us to unlearn the habit of over-focusing on our weaknesses and failures. So, a work team that is able to share appreciation for each other’s work and gratitude for each individual’s contribution has to be a healthier, stronger and more effective operating force. Take a look at Kralik’s book if you need convincing.
Some ways to cultivate gratitude
1. Keep your own gratitude journal
You could try keeping your own gratitude journal. This does not need to be anything fancy. A simple notebook that you use to jot down things that happened to you during the day which inspired gratitude. It helps us to notice things we are grateful for and to remember them.
2. Start a gratitude ritual
I have some friends who have a family ritual. Over dinner at the weekend each member of the family gets to share something that happened to them during the week that they are grateful for. They say it really brings the family together and everyone enjoys hearing the other people’s stories.
3. Try writing your own thank you notes
Of course, you could always try your own version of John Kralik’s thank you letters.
As I write this post ……
I am working on a tight schedule today and my partner just offered to cover my share of the morning chores so I could get started. It’s quite amazing how such a simple gesture can help me to settle so much more deeply. Feeling gratitude certainly can lead to a greater feeling of contentment. We just need to be open to noticing it and letting it nourish us.
Awareness in Action is dedicated to building a community of people interested in living a life of meaning and purpose based on sustainable wellbeing. If you would like to join with us, you could make a start by sharing and commenting on the ideas you find in the blogs on these pages. Your story is part of our journey.
My partner and I have just got back from a short break in Drenthe, a province in the NE of the Netherlands. It’s a beautiful area and we got to spend lots of time in nature. We were both struck by how relaxed we were when we came home and how well we slept. It reminded me of a recent article reporting on research carried out by researchers at Exeter University in the UK and Uppsala University in Sweden. The study found that people who spend 2 hours a week in nature were ‘significantly more likely’ to report good health and psychological wellbeing.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that spending time in nature is beneficial for us. The thing is, what about all of us who live in cities and don’t get the chance to be out in nature every weekend? The study points out that you don’t need to get your two hours all in one go. Shorter, frequent doses of nature are also beneficial. It got me thinking about how to maximise the nature we have in the city, so we can really feel the benefit.
1. Start your day with a moment outside
Take a look at your morning routine. Do you have time for a cup of coffee in the garden before you start your day? Where I live in Amsterdam, most people in the city don’t have a garden but they do have a balcony. Dutch people are great balcony gardeners. It can be just wonderful to step out on to your balcony while the city is waking up. The birds make more noise than the traffic and the flowers are fresh from the cool of the morning.
2. Make sure to go out for a bit at lunch-time
Are you caught up with working through your lunch break? Maybe think about taking a short break outside. You don’t have to go far. Just find a spot under a tree, or maybe find an office window with a view. Just a few moments in the calming atmosphere of nature, outside of the busyness of your workplace will be nourishing.
A psychologist colleague of mine recently messaged me to share that she was making time to sit out in the garden in between seeing clients. What a great way to settle and prepare for a session.
3. Look at the stars
For a few years, my partner and I used to go regularly to a small cottage in rural southern France in the summer. The cottage was in a tiny village and by 10 pm most people were in bed. My partner would finish each day with some time on the terrace, just looking at the sky and the stars. He said it was a wonderful thing to just be with the night sky in the quiet.
4. Use the city parks and squares
Although I live in Amsterdam now, I am a Londoner by birth. Both cities have plenty of green areas. London is well-known for its green city squares with lovely, old trees. In Amsterdam there is a deliberate policy of planting as many trees along the streets as possible. I can stand on my balcony and look along a long street of beautiful trees. The Japanese favour forest bathing as a way of increasing your wellbeing. Even if you do not have regular access to a forest, you can get a lot of nourishment from the trees in a city. I find quite joyful to watch the birds flying in and out of the trees. The patterns of the branches against the sky can be dramatic. It helps me keep things in proportion.
5. Bring nature into your home
I came across a lovely article the other day. One of the universities in Amsterdam is opening a plant hotel. The idea is to provide a place where students can leave their plants to be cared for while they are away from the university for the summer. The university recognises the benefit to students’ wellbeing of keeping plants in their rooms and wants to support it.
We have window boxes on every window ledge in our apartment. It feels as if we are surrounded by flowers. When we look outside, we are immediately connected with nature.
Another good idea is to have a bird box by a window to encourage birds to visit. You have the benefit of watching them throughout the year.
If you do have a garden, you might consider re-wilding your lawn. By stopping regular mowing and trimming you can encourage the growth of wild flowers. This in turn will encourage bees. This is already happening along some motorways, where road side meadows are springing up.
6. Look for 5 beautiful things each day
You might like to get into the habit of looking for five beautiful things you can find in nature in your city each day. When we are busy and caught in our routine it is all too easy to miss them. Keep an eye open for a new window box in your neighbourhood, or a newly planted tree.
7. Stay mindful so you don’t miss it
In fact, a key to finding our 2 hours of nature when we live in a city is to be mindful. If we are continuously checking our phone, or always hurrying we will miss a lot. If we can be present to where we are and what we are doing, we will notice so much more. When we notice, it will help us to quieten down. So much of the beauty of nature is in its deep quietness and unhurried rhythms. We will be more deeply nourished by tuning into that.
If you are interested in astrology, then you will know that for those of us born under the sign of the crab, much of our interaction with the world is carried out through the currency of emotions. Even if you are not interested, as a Cancerian, I can tell you it is true. As a child I remember being overwhelmed by the range and power of my emotions. One minute I could be blissed out with happiness and then minutes later, plunged into a vortex of sadness. I was my parents’ first child and they were not at sure what to do with the emotional rollercoaster I seemed to live on.
An early memory
I have a painful memory of being in school and something—I don’t remember what—going badly wrong in the classroom, and me ending up in the cloakrooms, locked in a cubicle and howling with rage and anguish. I was in those early stages of puberty, when everything is already heightened to an almost unbearable degree. A teacher came to find me and to insist I get control of myself—she didn’t offer any advice as to how to do that. The school rang my mother and when I got home, I got a major lecture of the importance of growing up, being responsible—and yes, learning to control my emotions.
The thing is that until I came across meditation, I never found anyone who could give me meaningful advice on how my emotions worked, why I was more emotional than my sisters (a Gemini and a Taurean), and how to deal with them beyond learning to control them—which I came to understand, meant supress them. When the emotions were positive, things were intense but manageable but when negative emotions got the upper hand, I felt helpless and totally at their mercy.
Neuroscience and emotion
With the developments in neuroscience, we can understand more about the relationship between the brain and our emotions. Richard Davidson, a leading neuroscientist and pioneer in research into the effects of meditation on the brain, has developed his own system of six emotional styles. He claims that it is these emotional styles, rather than our passing emotional reactions, that shape the way we interact with the world. Furthermore, by understanding our personal emotional style, we can learn where we are the most vulnerable in terms of how we respond, and gradually earn to try new approaches.
Meditation and emotions
Meditation is a sustainable way of doing just that. When we work with our emotional responses in meditation we can come to see that there is nothing problematic with the emotion itself—in fact, it is just energy and a natural part of life. When an emotion is triggered it rises, lasts for a few seconds and fades away. It is our on-going stories—our prejudices, our habits, our longings that cause us to go back and rekindle the emotion and replay it over and over again. We want to hold our ground, and to make things real and solid, so we use our emotions to back us up. Meditation helps us to view this parade of reactions without hope and fear—just to acknowledge what is happening and then let it go.
This is important because when we are in the grip of strong emotions we might think we are establishing a position, but it is built on an insecure foundation. In 2005 Dalai Lama attended a conference in Gotenborg, where he met Dr. Aaron Beck, the founder of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). During their conversation they struck up a great rapport and shared insights that showed similarities between Beck’s work and Buddhism. The Dalai Lama was particularly struck by Beck’s assertion that according to CBT, when a person is angry 90% of their reaction is an exaggeration and a projection. People talk about ‘seeing red’ when they are angry. Perhaps this is a colloquial way of realising the truth of this research.
A story of emotions
I had an experience when I was out and about in Amsterdam recently that reminded me of this. After a long bout of ‘flu, my partner and I were enjoying a trip into town for dinner and a movie. He went ahead to collect the cinema tickets and I made my way to the restaurant. As someone who has rheumatoid arthritis, when I get tired my walking can get a bit unsteady. I came to a road junction and checked that it was all clear and began to step out into the road, when along the cycle track sped a young man on a scooter, with his girlfriend riding on the back. He saw me at the edge of the pavement and deliberating aimed his scooter towards me, making me wobble uncomfortably. He was delighted with my reaction and made a sort of ‘Ohhhh, ohhhh, ohhh!’ noise which he felt summed up my response.
He sped off laughing loudly, while I teetered on the edge of the pavement feeling a mixture of embarrassment, resentment and shame. For a few moments I could only stand there but then I glanced up and just caught a glimpse of the girlfriend looking back at me. Her expression was concerned and a little embarrassed as well. It helped to bring me back. Instead of feeling abused, and sorry for myself, my attention went to the guy driving the scooter. It was a Saturday afternoon, he had a girl to impress and a chance to show his skill with the bike—after all, he never came near to hitting me.
A quote from Taking the Leap by Pema Chodron
……when the whole thing is just not working and we don’t know what to do, this is the time when the natural warmth of tenderness, the warmth of empathy and kindness, are just waiting to be uncovered, just waiting to be embraced.
The whole incident brought to mind this quote from Pema Chodron. I had been on the verge of giving into a rush of emotion, which would have not shown me anything at all and certainly would not have helped the situation. The expression on the girl’s face acted as a reminder of how emotions work, which enabled me to turn the moment into a feeling of tenderness to the boy, trying so hard to be cool. The incident has come to mind several times since it happened. The line between realizing what is going on with an emotion and being swept away by it can be very thin. Fortunately, in this situation my own vulnerability acted as a support for seeing vulnerability in the one who was triggering my emotion and I could drop the rest of the story.
If you find this post helpful and would like to know more about meditation, you could try this online course
When you started with meditation did you think that within a week or two you would immediately be feeling the benefits only to find that it is harder than you thought? Meditation itself is quite easy to learn but getting used to doing it regularly can be quite a challenge. If you learn meditation by attending a course then you have the support of weekly meetings to get your routine together but once the course ends, and you are on your own, it can be a different story.
None of this is surprising when you think how hard it is to learn anything new. Getting into a rhythm of regular exercise, or learning a language, or practicing a musical instrument can all be frustrating at times. It helps to know why we can find it hard to make meditation part of lives because then we can see what to do about it.
1. We don’t have the habit of meditation
Even though meditation has been around in the west now for a while, it is still something that only a minority engage in. It’s quite new to most of us—we didn’t learn it in school, most likely our parents did not do it and maybe most of our friends and family don’t meditate either. We’re reaching out to something new and that is rarely easy.
Add to that the fact that the brain loves habits as a way of conserving energy and has no way to tell the difference between a habit that is good for us and one that is not. Making the connections in the brain to set up a new habit is a process which takes time, because given the choice our brains will fall back into familiar patterns of behaviour.
One of our most enduring habits is distraction. The Harvard study carried out in 2010 by Gilbert and Killingsworth showed that for 46.9% of our waking hours we are thinking about something different from what we are doing and that on balance, it does not make us happy. This is how we can go through so many of activities on a kind of autopilot—going through the motions with our attention elsewhere. In meditation we bring our mind into focus through paying attention in the present moment—whenever our attention wanders away we just gently bring it back. If we can learn to manage our distracting urges, rather than give into them, then we have the possibility to of being more intentional about what we say and do. This will help to increase our dependability, improve our relationships and raise our performance.
3.We are more into doing than being
Research carried out in 2014 showed that most people do not like being left alone with their thoughts and that some were even prepared to give themselves mild electric shocks in order to have something to do. We are so used to being busy—both in terms of activity as well as everything that goes on in our minds—that we find it very hard to simply be with ourselves.
When we sit down to meditate then we are doing something that we are not used to doing, that cuts across our habitual distraction and involves us sitting quietly with our own minds. Is it any wonder that we might find that we would prefer to do something else?
4. The choices we make
Of course we are all busy with many demands on our time but it is the choices we make with the time we do have available that is critical for us in establishing meditation as a habit. Although we say we have no time to meditate we do tend to find time to check FB, the news, watch a bit of TV and perhaps enjoy a glass of wine. There is nothing wrong with any of this but if we find that meditation helps us then we do need to look at our choices and see how and where it is possible to find time for it.
The trouble is that inspired by our first experiences of meditation we tend to make over-ambitious plans for our meditation routine and then get disappointed when we cannot keep to it. The trick is to start small—maybe 5 minutes a day—but to try and do it at least five times a week. That way we are making room for our new habit and building it into our routine.
Finding a trigger for meditation is another useful strategy. Perhaps we want to do our session in the morning after we have showered and dressed—so showering becomes the trigger for meditation. I have a client who lays out a tray for tea and then does her five minutes while it is brewing. Drinking the tea is her reward for meditating—because, yes, giving ourselves a small reward for building our new habit helps to make it routine.
5. Uneasiness with meditation
One of the subtler reasons we find meditation challenging can be that it makes us a bit uneasy. We’ve already talked about how hard it can be to sit in a room doing nothing, and how we love to keep busy. With meditation we learn to be with our minds as they are without judgement, letting go of our resistance to whatever arises. Without the usual defence mechanism of our distractions we can taste the delicate balance of our lives and sense our fragility in the scheme of things. Although we want the benefits that meditation can bring, there can be times when it feels as if in trying to bring them about we may lose our familiar preoccupations that remind us of who we believe ourselves to be.
So what can we do?
Don’t get too critical about how you are meditating—the chances are you are doing just fine. A question I like to ask in a meditation workshop is, ‘Who feels that everyone else is doing it right and you are the only one struggling?’ Most times almost everyone’s hand will go up. We tell ourselves all kinds of stories about how we are not meditating in the right way, and that our session was a waste of time because we had lots of thoughts and distraction. One thing I was always taught as I learned to meditate is that there is no such thing as a bad meditation—meditation is just what happens.
Making a welcoming place in your home for meditation will help with this. Find a spot that works for you and make it cosy and accessible, so that when you have that 5 minutes for your session then you know where to go. Maybe have a special cushion or shawl that helps you to settle and feel comfortable.
Don’t feel that you always need to do your session alone. You can find a local meditation group, or maybe pair up with someone else you know who is trying to meditate. You don’t need to meet up for every session but you could share schedules and things that work over a skype call. Having someone to share with really helps to overcome resistance.
Don’t get too precious about your meditation—try to find lots of short moments throughout the day when you can just do a few moments of meditation. I call these Stop Moments and you can do them anywhere—waiting in a queue, on a bus or train, while waiting at a red traffic light or as you take your first sip of coffee. Taking many short Stop Moments helps to break through distraction and is another tool in building habits.
Taking time to allow yourself to experience the benefits of meditation is perhaps the best way of ensuring that you will want to find a way to continue. This infogram from Emma Seppala gives a great overview. Take time to become familiar with the benefits as they are described and focus on the ones that speak to you. You might not feel all of these every day but if you sit long enough you will begin to experience a difference that will make you want to keep practicing. Remember that neuroscientific research into the effects of mediation on the brain shows a positive change after only eight weeks of practice.
If you are wanting to begin with meditation and need some support, you might find this practical online course helpful. It is available from Awareness in Action at any time – you can sign up whenever you wish.