When Life Gives You Lemons
We all know the saying ‘if life gives you lemons, make lemonade’, but sometimes finding the positives can seem like an impossible task. Some days I can hardly get all my lemons in one basket let alone find the energy to make lemonade. I have struggled with my mental health for years and in my second year of university things just got all too much. Since then I’ve read self-help books, tried counselling, medication and retreats. You name it I’ve tried it. But what I’ve found most useful is viewing my mental health in a different way. I now don’t see it as me, I don’t let it consume me and most importantly I don’t give it more energy than it’s already taken. Although this is still work in progress, viewing my thoughts and feelings with curiosity has allowed me to understand what my body wants and needs. I have tried to put in a wide variety of strategies so even if you struggle with stress or just staying organised, hopefully you will be able to take something useful way from this. Not all will be right for you and that’s fine. It is about exploring what works for you in order to find what can assist you to be your happiest you. So without further ado, lets begin.
Success and happiness
Throughout our young teens and adult lives we are taught that success and happiness come hand in hand. We are constantly surrounded by stimuli that lead us to believe we will only be happy once we have that job, when we have reached our next goal or when we have the perfect busy life that doesn’t allow us to stop, slowdown and just be, well, content. We are so busy worrying about our future and thinking about our past, we forget to be happy in the now. Happiness is not something we can aim for. Happiness is not a one size fits all. What makes me happy will not be the same as what makes you happy. We put so much pressure on ourselves to be ‘all big smiles, my life is great ‘happy all the time, that we can forget that happiness will always be a work in progress. It is time to admit that as humans we cannot be happy 100% of the time and that’s ok. Life is a constant ride of highs and lows. But it’s about realising that how you are feeling at that particular point in time does not equate to your whole life. That every feeling or thought you feel will pass and that your thoughts and feelings are not you. It is time to stop living in our past and future and focus on the present. By doing this I have come to realise that most of my worries become irrelevant. That by living in the now makes my past obsolete and my future, well not worth fretting about.
"It’s all well in saying this but how can I put this into action?" I hear you say. Baby steps my friends, baby steps. A lot of learning about what works for you is re-learning how to walk not run. Unfortunately learning how to work through our thoughts and feelings is a task of constant self learning and building up our relationships with our mind and body. I have listed a few strategies and tips that may help:
Shower yourself with kindness
You wouldn’t tell your best friend that she looked awful today, so why should you treat yourself this way? One of the biggest challenges I face is focussing on the negatives about myself. I will be the first to point out my failures or my faults, and I know a lot of women will do the same. On a recent retreat I went on (the Holistic Health Project, I encourage you to look it up!) one of the tasks we were given was over the course of the week we had to write down 10 amazing things about ourselves. This of course led me to squirm in my seat and a lot of time spent avoiding it. But once I did get going, and gave myself the permission to find good things, I found the task got easier and it felt good to be kind to myself. So I encourage you to write those lists, tell yourself one good thing about you or your achievements each morning. As you are bloody brilliant, and you should let yourself know it.
Learn from the past and then accept it
- Make a timeline from the day you were born up to the present day. Insert significant memories/ life events big or small. Doesn’t have to be every single memory but ones you feel hold importance.
- Now go through and highlight events you feel are important. For each one journal about each event: 1. How did each of these experiences make you feel? 2. How have they affected you and your life so far? 3. How/have they changed you? 4. What have they taught you? 5. Is there a common pattern or story?
- This task does not have to be done at once; you could do specific ages in one half hour or 15 minutes and then come back then next day and reflect on them.
- By doing this it allows us to spend time to look at our emotional patterns and how we react to certain situations. By recognising how each event makes you feel and react will enable you to recognise future situations and what you can do differently to break past cycles.
Work on that work/ life balance
As humans we are not made to be working machines. Although at times it can feel like our whole world depends on it, it is important to remind ourselves for our own sanity that there is quite literally more to life than work. I like to see it as a meal. You wouldn’t just eat chips all day as that would be bad for you. You might add in some fish for omega 3, vegetables for those vitamins and maybe a slice of cake to finish, because why not?! It is important we have balanced meals in order to remain healthy. So why not view your week or day the same? Meet your friend for a coffee to let off some steam, build in exercise every day and activities or downtime that you love and take pleasure in doing things that make you feel happy.
Hello thoughts, goodbye thoughts
One strategy that has enabled me to cope with my anxiety, is to recognise the thoughts that enter my head but not allow them to Tasmanian devil. By repeating ‘hello thoughts, goodbye thoughts’, it gives me the chance to acknowledge my thoughts but also allows me to not keep building them up. Another strategy my friend introduced me to was to imagine a river and visualise yourself throwing all your negative thoughts and worries into it and watch them drift away.
Do more of what you love
Go out with your friends, use your lunch break to go for a run, start a hobby, go for a walk round the block. Literally anything that breaks up your day and leaves you with that warm positive feeling inside.
A really simple technique that makes me feel instantly more clear-headed and ready for the day is getting organised. It’s not only an excuse to buy beautiful stationary (you can never have enough notebooks) but starting the week with a clear desk and a weekly or monthly planner provides space to think and prioritise the events ahead. I have also found having a separate workspace or corner of the house you only use to work, is a good way to mentally and physically separate downtime areas to work areas.
Don’t make that to do list too long
Everyone loves a good to do list, but when it’s longer than your arm it is doing more harm than good. Prioritise what things need doing straight away. Followed by things that would be good to get done that day but are not urgent. Compartmentalising the list breaks down what you need to do in more manageable chunks and makes it seem a lot less scary.
Now I am not a girl who jumps to do physical activity and I know for a fact my Mother would be externally rejoicing if she heard me utter the words ‘exercise is good for me.’ But I have to admit, that Mum you were right. Exercise has been proven to be good for boosting concentration, reducing stress & anxiety and improving sleep. Even doing 30 minutes a day get those endorphins flying which combat stress, depression and helps boost your overall mood. It is important to find a form of exercise that you love, if you don’t like running don’t force it. Try a gym class; kick boxing, cycling or even yoga. Just make sure it doesn’t become a chore.
Start with honesty
I would like to challenge you to think of the last time when someone asked you ‘how are you?’ that you answered honestly. We are so scared to build any emotion into our passing conversations, that we have conditioned ourselves to believe that talking honestly about our feelings and mental health is a one big no go zone. By not talking openly, those negative thoughts and bad days can escalate into a whole inner warzone and can make going about your day-to-day activities almost intolerable. I know what is like to be kept awake all night by the endless cycle of thoughts that race though our minds, to be surrounded by friends but feel like there is no one to turn to or that no one would care. But when I finally did open up about how I was truly feeling, I came to realise I was by no means alone. By talking honestly and openly it enabled the people around me to do the same. It drew my friends closer together and more open to lean on each other.
Sit with your feelings
Apparently we have 5 bad thoughts to every good one. When we let these bad thoughts build on top of each other we end up with a mountain of worry rather than just the one initial bad thought that we started with.
For example: You have missed the bus to work. Your first initial thought is ‘I am going to be late.’ From this suddenly you start to think:
1. Because I’m late, I’m going to disappoint my boss
2. I’m going to be sacked
3. How will I afford to pay bills and buy food when I don’t have my job?
4. I am going to lose my house
When in actual fact the only thing that has happened so far is that you are going to be late. Instead of letting your thoughts spiral out of control, sit with the initial bad thought you have. Notice how you are feeling, is it something in your control or out of your control? What are you going to do next to fix it? In this case you would ring your boss to tell them you are going to be late this morning and will finish later to make up for it. By doing this, it allows you to rationalise your thoughts and feelings and gives you the opportunity to sit and let them pass instead of giving them more power to spiral out of control.
When you feel things becoming all too much, the STOPP technique is a good place to start calming yourself down and thinking more rationally.
1. Stop and step back – don’t act immediately. Pause.
2. Take a breath – notice your breath as you breathe in and out
3. Observe – What am I feeling and thinking? What are the words that my mind is saying? Is this fact or opinion? Accurate or inaccurate? Helpful or unhelpful? What unhelpful habits am I using? E.g. thinking the worst, mind reading or negative thoughts.
4. Pull back: Put in some perspective – look at the situation from an outsider’s point of view. Is there another way of looking at it? What advice would I give my friend? How important is it right now, and will it be in 6 months? Is my reaction rational?
5. Practice what works – Do what works and what is most helpful. What do you need? What will help me make the most of this situation? Go for a walk, meet a friend, do something different. Anything that works for you to put things back into perspective.
Take control of social media
With the growing pressure to be online and on social media personally and for work, it can be hard to keep control of how much time we spend online and who we are letting influence are thoughts and feelings. Taking back control by being strict with how much time we spend on it and when we use it can help us to focus more on the things that matter and use social media in a more positive and helpful way. Unfollowing accounts that increase negativity is a good place to start to take back control of what you see in your feed. While using social media to find support groups and positive inspiration is a good way to unlock the good side of social media.
Journaling is a great way of getting all the negative thoughts and feelings out of your head and onto a page. There is no right way of journaling, it could be scribbles, words, paragraphs or swear words whatever helps you to get what’s bothering you off your chest. You don’t even have to re-read it. You could choose to write everyday or every month, whatever works best for you.
It has now become the norm to be working so hard and to take on so much that we can’t remember what we had for breakfast let alone what we achieved last week. I often become anxious about not having enough to do, that when I do have a moment to just sit with a cup of tea, I feel guilty (?!) for not having a million different thoughts flying through my head at the same time. But having this down time, allows us to switch off and reboot for the next working day. I have found even taking 10 minutes to sit quietly and notice what I can see, smell, hear and taste around me, enables me to refocus, slow down and quieten my thoughts.
Meditation does not have to mean silence
I don’t know about you but after a whole day sitting at my desk or in the library the last thing I feel like doing is sitting down some more to mediate. So another mediation technique I have found helps is making a spotify playlist of your favourite fast upbeat songs and let yourself, I mean quite literally dance like your life depends on it. Closing your eyes and allowing yourself for 20 minutes to only focus on the beat of the songs, allows yourself and your body to well and truly let all the stress and strains from the day out in the form of some crazy dancing.
It’s ok to not be ok
Some days you wake up and you know its just going to be a really s**t day and no amount of tea or friendly faces with get you out of it. And you know what that’s ok!! Recognise you are feeling like this and accept today you need to be kind to yourself. Have a lie in, take a bath, leave the hard things on your to do list for a more positive day. But DO NOT beat yourself up about it.
We all need a helping hand from time to time
I cannot stress enough, the importance of learning to accept that we physically cannot cope with the strains of day to day life and our internal thoughts and feelings without leaning on a friend or family member when things get tough. Although it can feel like opening up will only give your friend/ family more to deal with. The people that care about you will always have time to listen. And opening up may even allow them to feel that can do the same.
Read up and re-learn
Below I have listed a bunch of books, online blogs and resources I have found useful. So go on, I dare you, have a cheeky read.
The power of now: a guide to spiritual enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle
Get your sh**t together: How to stop worrying about what you should do so you can finish what you need to do and start doing what you want to do by Sarah Knight
The life changing magic of not giving a f**k: How to stop spending time you don’t have with people you don’t like doing things you don’t want to do by Sarah Knight
F**k it, do what you look by John C. Parkin
Little book of Hygge: the Danish way to live well by Meik Wiking
Reasons to stay alive by Matt Haig
The Holistic Health Project http://www.theholistichealthproject.com/the-quarter-life-health-project