The Survivors’ Guide to Early Autumn, Part Two

Well, I have been absolutely blown away by the responses to my last post, in which I garbled on incoherently about Autumn. It has generated a lot of chat about how we cope with the change of the seasons, and I shall be dedicating a post to your thoughts and experiences in the very near future. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed, it means the world to get your thoughts.

I’ve have a morning free whilst I wait for a missing scarecrow (don’t ask…) so I thought I would strike whilst the iron is hot, as they say.

And so, without further ado, I am delighted to present to you, as promised, (insert drumroll noise here) Part the Second (Letters M through Z) of The Early Autumn Survivors’ Guide (Without Mentioning That Scandinavian H Word) in Glorious Listicle Format.

*takes bow, with flourish*

 

M is for Meditation. Well, what did you expect?

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Meditation still often conjures up images of people in orange robes sitting omming in the lotus position; or can be marketed as something you need to invest time and money on learning from a mentor or there’s no point in it, or you might ‘do it wrong’. Fortunately, meditation is for everyone and is within everyone’s budget, whether you choose to look at some of the YouTube videos available that teach you the essentials and foundation of the practice, or you have the opportunity to attend meditation classes (which are becoming a lot more popular). I use the fantastic ‘Stop, Breathe and Think’ app for my phone (Android), and I know many others who love the Headspace app.

Taking time to meditate takes as long as you’d like to give it, or as long as you have. Sometimes I will have a session that will last thirty or forty minutes, sometimes I meditate for five minutes.

The longer sessions are a treat for my brain, a chance to really shut down my crazy-fast mind buzz and just float in the awareness of my breath. The shorter sessions tend to happen when I really need them, when I need a breather and a chance to refocus and regather so in many respects I think these frequent, shorter sessions are actually the most useful to me.

Meditation, for me, is a wonderful way of gathering my thoughts. I like to imagine my ‘busy’ brain as several big, tangled balls of yarn; and the act of meditation is me taking the chance to slowly and gently untangle all the balls of yarn. I tenderly tease the knots apart, untangle the thought-yarns and then make a decision whether to keep this yarn out for use, or pop it away into my mental stash-bag. The decision is mostly subconscious – I trust myself to make the best choice as to whether having a snooze is my most pressing mental need, or whether I should carry on with whatever tasks have been occupying me. Other people I know have described meditation as a ‘mental massage’, and I love that. You’ll come to find your own metaphors that will describe how it feels to you.

The most important thing to remember about meditation is that no, it doesn’t come naturally, so don’t worry if you feel as though your mind is pinging around your skull at a million miles per hour. Yes, you are encouraged to settle down and concentrate on your breathing and use that as a focus; but it is absolutely perfectly natural and absolutely OK if your mind wanders….just gently bring it back to your focus and keep going and, most importantly, enjoy it.

 

N is for Nature. 

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Recently, several scholarly papers have been published linking interaction with the natural world with a significant improvement in mental health and outcome and, I think for many of us, this is something we have known for some time. Pop ‘Nature and Mental Health’ into Google and you’ll be able to read experts telling us that getting into the great outdoors can have a huge impact on both our mental and physical health. There seems to be evidence that even looking out at a natural view can speed up physical recovery times in hospital patients; and even looking at paintings or photographs of land or seascape can have significant effects on mood.

I am a walker, and I will walk in any weather (though obviously I have my preferred walking weather). I favour wild places, but I have also become slightly obsessed with finding the wildness creeping back into our urban environment, or those tiny pockets of our pastoral past that has hung on whilst land all around it has been developed. For easy, low-level walking, canal tow-paths are a fascinating wander through our industrial past and are an intriguing natural habitat to explore.

I am, however, aware that not everyone is able to get out as much, or for as long, as they would like; so let us not underestimate the importance of bringing nature to us. A coffee on your back step, or just looking out of the window. If you live in a built up area, look up at the sky. If you have a garden, consider planting bulbs for the Spring. Do think about feeding the wild birds throughout the colder months, during the Winter the sight of so many birds thronging around our feeders fills me with joy however hard my day is being. If you don’t have a garden and are unable to find nature easily due to location or personal circumstances, don’t dismiss the power of beautiful photographs and paintings – Pinterest is absolutely fabulous for this. I can sit and gaze at a painting for ages, allowing myself to submerge myself into the image itself as though I am wandering through its landscape, sensing the weather, smelling the scents and absorbing the sounds. Make prints of images that resonate to look at when you need to, or take a few moments to try your hand at sketching them, or sketch your own perfect landscape. If you’re not particularly artistic (not that THAT matters), you could daydream a perfect walk; make it a place you can mentally retreat to when you need it.

 

O is for Open.

Be it. Throw off your preconceptions, look past what other people think and say, and do things FOR YOU (within reason!). Don’t listen to other people’s opinions as law, what’s right for them might not be right for you.

A good example of this is medication – I make no secret of the fact that I take both antidepressants and beta-blockers. I take these in the same way as I wear an insole in my shoes to protect my Achilles tendons, or I take warfarin to keep my blood flowing. Other people choose to go without medication and have different methods of dealing with things, and that is fantastic – but they are no ‘better’ than me.

We are all individuals, we all have our own complex issues and past experiences, and our treatment should be personalised to our needs. Maybe mindfulness and meditation isn’t for you, perhaps you think walking in nature is a waste of time, you might be thinking that we are poisoning ourselves with brain-numbing pharmaceuticals. We are all different, and that needs to be remembered when you are giving your opinion just as much as when you are looking for advice.

 

P is for Planning.

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When you’re having a truly crap week (and we all get them, you’re absolutely not alone), it can be really helpful to make some plans of something to really look forward to. Easy things that don’t have the potential to be a massive, depressing let-down are usually the best to aim for. A visit to a favourite restaurant, a wander around a museum, a catch-up with a friend, a film night, a night in with a good book. Don’t hold back on your planning, you could even combine them with lists (see last post).

 

Q is for Quiet

When was the last time you were enveloped in true silence? How often do you sit without music, a TV or radio, traffic noise or any other interference, however small? How much does other people’s noise impact on your life, without you even really noticing it on a day to day basis?

I’ll leave that with you. Quiet is worth seeking, even if it’s only for a couple of moments. Cut the chatter.

 

R is for Rest

Take it when you can. Nobody ever got a medal for battling through the day when they didn’t have to. Need a snooze? Listen to your body and have one. No time for a snooze? Try a ten minute ‘Bodyscan’ meditation where you relax your muscles in turn, you’ll feel refreshed afterwards, or just leave what you’re doing for a few moments and get a change of immediate scenery for a quick fix.

 

S is for Self-Care Package

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These are one of these wonderfully indulgent things that you’ll enjoy putting together as much as you’ll enjoy using, and everyone should have one. Ideally kept together in a box, it’s a wee treasure-trove of goodies for when you’re feeling as though you need a boost; and what you put in it is up to you – they can be as basic or as lavish as you’d like. Some popular items include: Favourite childhood books, nail polish, pampering skincare treats, sachets of hot chocolate, scented candles, magazines, cosy socks, lip balm, notebook, memory stick of music/photos, crafting kits, herbal tea.

These kits also make lovely gifts for friends who might be having a tough time and who might benefit from a big mental cuddle. The first one I ever received was from a beautiful friend F, who sent me a box of wonderful goodies when I had finished the West Highland Way with a wee card that made me cry. It was such a beautiful surprise and it remains one of the most wonderful things I have ever received.

I am very conscious that this particular tip is very ‘female’ – I’d love to hear what men would like in a self-care kit. Do please comment….

 

T – Is for Taste

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When the nights draw in and it gets dark so ridiculously early food takes on a new significance in our days, so why not head to the kitchen and try out some new recipes? Rediscover the joys of taste. Some of my favourite memories of wet Winter Saturdays involve baking with my youngest, the kitchen warm and cosy, smelling of cake and spices. What beats a hearty stew or a curry when it’s freezing cold and raining stair-rods? The importance of gathering together for food goes back many, many centuries. Preparing, cooking and eating food together with family and/or friends gives it a ritual, makes it an event, a memory rather than just a chore to be completed. Cook together, chat with your partner or teach your children something new to make. Turn off the TV and eat together, chat together. Give quiet thanks that we’re no longer storing our harvest to last us through until next year, be grateful for this time shared together and our bodies’ sense of taste meaning that meals can be a sensory experience rather than just an essential daily task.

 

U is for Unique

You are. Please stop comparing yourself with others. That is all.

 

V is for Volunteering

Another thing that is really good for mental well-being, and something I’m going to dedicate a whole blog post to at some point in the near future but, in the meantime, read this.

 

W is for Weather

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I live in Scotland so I feel well qualified to comment on this, living as I do with four seasons in one day. The great fellwalker and writer Alfred Wainwright once sagely said that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inadequate clothing and, as much as I want to headbutt him when I’m caught in the middle of a torrential downpour in a denim jacket because the sky was clear blue two minutes ago, he has a point.

If you invest in two things this Autumn, make it a decent waterproof coat and a pair of decent boots. I have walking boots, but I spend most of Autumn stomping around in my wellies. Why? Because I don’t have to be precious about my footwear and my wellies mean I don’t have to worry about my feet getting damp so it massively increases my potential areas of exploration.

Don’t let the weather hold you back from getting out in it. Rain can make for wonderful photographs of clouds, of raindrops, of reflections in puddles or sparkling, shimmering cobwebs.

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For further inspiration on the beauty of walking in ‘bad’ weather, Melissa Harrison’s ‘Rain: Four Walks in English Weather’ will have you donning your Gore-Tex and seeking muddy puddles.

X is for X-Ray your daily life

We spend so long assessing our physical state – our size, our hair, our skin, how we appear to others; we can often forget to check inwards. Take time every day to check in with how you are feeling. Are you tense in your shoulders because you’ve been hunched over with stress, or clamping your jaw because you’re tense? Are you jittery and nervy because of pent-up anxiety? Stretch, do some very simple yoga moves, get out for a walk round the block. Check into your mind and heart, because what’s happening inside shows on the outside.

Y is for Youth

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Oh, look at those happy, enthusiastic faces, would ya?

Your youth. Another thing I intend to blog about in the near future (get me, huh?) is the importance of not letting go of our youthful exuberance, our enthusiasm and wonder at the world around us; our desire to learn and develop. Becoming jaded and cynical seems to be the scourge of the modern world, when did we decide we were too old to believe in the power of beauty and the magic in the world? The beauty of a view, piece of music, a piece of writing. The magic of an evening out with friend, a delicious home cooked meal or an incredible night’s sleep. When was the last time we laughed at something so hard we thought we might burst?

Z is for Zip

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Zip it. When you’re on social media and it’s like International Whack A Troll Day, or when – shock horror – someone is wrong on the internet, then just take a big, deep breath and then move on. Don’t stress yourself out arguing however much you want to. It’s taken me months and months to resist rising to the bait but now I just move away and do something else. You’re not giving the trolls the oxygen of attention, which is what they crave; and arguments on the internet seldom change opinion – your passions are better suited to different methods of communication, so don’t waste your energy. Look, instead, for a way to use your energy to force real, positive change.

 

And there endeth my first alphabetical listicle and, I confess, I enjoyed it more than I expected I would. Join me next time as I let you into some of my friends’ secrets on coping with seasonal changes, things that make them happy and probably me adding two thousand words of pointless waffle.

Be lovely to each other.

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Self Care September

 

I was mooching around on Twitter this morning, as I do, and I came across the hashtag #selfcareseptember . I will confess right now that it’s the first time I had heard of it, but it immediately struck me that a) this is a fabulous idea and b) I have been subconsciously using September as my own self-care month.

OK, I am getting married at the beginning of October; and part of this urge for self-care is, quite frankly, to stop me getting so stressed that I’m an absolute wreck and on three bottles of gin a day by the big event and also, in a rather uncharacteristically girlie way, a chance for me to feel and, hopefully look, the best I can. Although, let’s face it, given my usual look is slept-in-a-hedge chic, just having my hair brushed and no dirt on my face will be a vast improvement.

Just a quick disclaimer: I don’t have any medical training, though I’m very good at putting randoms in the recovery position, and I’m not squeamish about blood. I’m not trying to say that a bit of self-care is going to solve all your problems and ‘cure’ mental illness. It would be a gross and insensitive underestimation of all our intelligence to even imply that this could be the case. What I can attest to, however, is how various things I do at this time of the year personally help me.

For those of you who don’t know me, I suffer from a delightful combination of clinical depression and severe anxiety. I am currently on Citalopram for the depression side and beta-blockers and mindfulness for the anxiety and, touch wood, I have been pretty stable with only fairly minor peaks and troughs for the past few months. So yes, having lived with this for at least the past thirty years, I do get mental illness. I also appreciate that we are all totally different, and what helps some will not necessarily help others. Always remember that mental illness is a spectrum, and all of us are on it somewhere, and wherever we are can be massively traumatic and confusing – do try not to compare your emotions with those around you.

There are times where you might like to try some of these. There are times where you might be too scared to leave the house, or too wired to concentrate, or too sad to get out of bed. Don’t worry, there will be other days to try, if you want to. Don’t add to your troubles by feeling you somehow fail because you can’t always manage self-care. That defeats the purpose.

“Autumn casts a spell
and dying never was so beautiful.” – Amelia Dashwood

September is a strange time of the year for me. It is undoubtedly breathtakingly beautiful, with the myriad colours and early frosts and morning mists; but also tinged with sadness. It has always represented, for me, an ending of things. The close of summer, the death of warmth. I’m not sure why I was always so pessimistic about the changing of the seasons, I can only put it down to the fact that I love hot, sunny weather and, as a naturally outdoorsy type I love the long days and the buzz of nature.

Last year I decided to do my best to get a grip on how I dealt with the colder, darker months. I was already unwell, I knew that, and understood that I needed to knuckle down and deal with getting through that without being bogged down with additional seasonal depression; and the best way I could think to be proactive was to find things that I really enjoyed doing and fit them into a self care routine as a way of treating myself whilst my poorly brain rested and recovered.

Here are a few things that work for me:

Walking It Out

They say there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. They have obviously never spent November in Scotland. Nevertheless, there is a lot to be said for a stroll, whatever the weather. Some of my favourite stomps have been on the dreichest of days where I have sloshed through mud, felt icy rain batter my face, and watched the rippled circles from raindrops dance on the Clyde. Coming home and drying off and putting on my cosiest clothes and indulging in a cup of tea in front of the fire is a treat in itself. I also find frosty mornings when it is so cold your jaws ache hard to beat.

My pro-tip here would be to always carry your phone or a camera; and invest in a pair of small binoculars and take every opportunity to stop and investigate your surroundings, and notice things you might never have noticed before. I’m going to write more about this, and the concept of Awe Walks in a later piece, else I ramble on forever.

Cosy Crafts

Autumn and Winter are perfect times to curl up with your favourite crafts and get stuff done in front of the fire with plenty of tea on the go. As you know if you’ve read my blog before, I am an avid crocheter and spend much of the colder months working on longer projects – last year I worked on my Hebridean Islands ripple blanket (you can find Lucy at Attic24’s pattern and tutorial here).

Another really worthwhile thing I was able to do was to stay involved with the local craftbomb club, and we organised a Christmas craftbomb in the village – it wasn’t an awful lot of work, but it kept me in touch with friendly faces and I enjoyed our meet-ups and discussions very much. Craftbomb / yarnbomb groups are popping up all over the country and often meet in local cafes and libraries so it is worth checking out your local community noticeboards.

Emma Mitchell, blogger at the lovely silverpebble blog has a whole book on beating the winter blues coming out next month.

You should probably buy it, like I will be doing the moment I can get my grubby paws on a copy. (Actually seriously cannot wait!).

Kitchen Witchery

 

Once you’ve burned all those calories with a good, bracing walk; why not indulge yourself with cooking something wonderful? I can understand that many people work really long hours and have other responsibilities such as caring for relatives, but if there is any way at all you can lose yourself in a recipe, you won’t regret it. When I am feeling particularly anxious, there is something incredibly soothing and comforting about just pottering in the kitchen, radio on, prepping and planning and taking time to concentrate on every aspect. I will confess I am not a very good baker and can destroy a Victoria sponge with a single glance; but I love making main meals for my family and experimenting with flavours and modifying recipes; and I have a particular love for making jams and chutneys. There is something very zen indeed about leaning over the jam pan, and something deeply satisfying about seeing all those lovely jars of hot preserve cooling on the windowsill.

 

Also, did anyone mention rhubarb gin? Quite ridiculously easy to make….

 

 

Over to Facebook

I thought I would ask my friends on Facebook how they liked to prep for the colder months, and what they would include in their personal September Self Care packages:

“Make time for yourself every day. You’re allowed to. It’s not selfish” – EO

“I get my SAD lamp out around about now and read by it most evenings. I also batch cook on the Sunday after pay day and freeze healthy meals for myself and my daughter – great for those nights you come in late and/or knackered after work.” – AG

I let things go – coming up to winter and going into summer are the two times of the year where I get rid of unnecessary things that weigh me down. Declutter of everything really – people, stuff, worries. A wonderful fire purge around Winternights/Halloween/Bonfire night is always welcome. It’s done almost subconsciously I think now. For winter its preparation for all the fabulous Christmas/Jul things. But also…you don’t want dead weight following you into a hard winter and a new year.
I feel similarly about spring into summer – shed the layers of clothes and any unnecessary baggage.” – CMcH

“I make a point of watching the sunrise from the swimming pool/sunset while I walk by the river. I make sure I stop and stare at everything beautiful that catches my eye on my walks – from a dramatic sky to a tree bending beautifully to catch the light.  I write those moments down for my memory jar too – a lot of repetition to others reading them but each one is memorable to me and makes me smile. Listening to music and TED talks too. Classical tunes, folk music etc for quiet relaxation and proper rock songs to lift my mood.” – CM

 

“I walk, a lot. It’s worth it to pay more attention to the changing seasons. Even in the rain, the sounds and scents change. I also have a clear out and rearrange where I can. An organised space definitely brings me a call mind. I try to do seasonal crafts with the kids.. I’m lucky they are going enough to still be interested. If not, we bake.. and have our treats for movie afternoons. Reading is a must too.” – LH

Wise words from some very wise women, I think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blue Monday, 2017

Happy / Grumpy / So-So / Dreadful (delete as applicable) New Year, my dearest reader. Why yes, I do appreciate that is already past the mid-point of the first month of this, the year of Our Trump – sorry – Lord, 2017, and this is the first I have typed; but surely you know by now that I am a champion procrastinator and whilst there was a wall to be stared at or snoozing to be done, nothing else of note was going to appear from me.

I am, nevertheless, ready to rejoin the world and return to something of a routine. With my usual dark humour, I have chosen Blue Monday – the most miserable day of the year – to hurl myself enthusiastically back into the blogosphere and dazzle you all with my sparkling wit and literary genius.

Just as Virginia Woolf needed a room of her own; all I need is a cheapy drop-leaf table from the local Christian charity furniture warehouse and more felt-pens than is probably healthy of a woman of my age (23. Again).

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I am currently channelling my inner Virginia by wafting around the place in Tesco pyjamas and slippers with animal faces on whilst looking for a clean wine glass for my bottle of Co-Op Spanish Red; and trying not to think about hurling myself into a river. So far, so good.

As you know, 2016 wasn’t really the greatest for me; culminating in a pretty impressive breakdown at the end of it (how delightfully Virginia!) and I will confess that I have spent the last couple of months doing the absolute bare minimum, mentally; getting through Christmas and Hogmanay; and just building up my strength so I’m more prepared to face what we have to deal with in 2017. The tablets (Citalopram) are definitely working, probably better than I expected, to be honest, and now is the time to start plotting and scheming and planning ways to successfully get through the next challenges we face, if I don’t decide to slope off for a wee nanna-nap first.

(I think my cortisol levels were so high that I was like a coiled spring the whole time. I told my GP that I felt as though every single cell in my body was trembling in fright, awaiting something horrible to happen at any second; and when I think back now to how long it has been like that – over two years – I don’t mind that the Citalopram seems to have led to a bit of a ‘shut-down’ and that I am permanently exhausted, because I’m sure I could actually physically feel my brain relaxing, then my muscles loosening. I felt what it was to be still, with my mind at peace, for the first time in so, so long. It suddenly dawned on me that it felt as though my brain hadn’t slept for two years; that even when I physically slept, my hormones kept my brain racing, processing and over-processing and over-analysing and over-exaggerating and spreading its poisons far and wide. So, you know, pardon me if I need to take it slow and heal.)

With this in mind, my plans for this year have shifted somewhat. I just want to work on feeling better, on finding the old me – I know she’s in there somewhere. She’s a bit older, a lot greyer and thicker around the waist than she used to be, but she’s there.

I want to write more, too. I rediscovered one of my old, long forgotten blogs recently, and I forgot that I was, on rare occasions, actually quite funny. (That strange parping sound is the sound of me blowing my own trumpet, incidentally). I always loved writing, sharing words and stories, dreams and fears, tears and laughter, but anxiety and depression silences you. It undermines you, it calls you stupid. It mocks you as talentless, as a no-hope. It smacks eager fingers from keyboards. It doesn’t, after all, want you to talk about it. It wants to stay the terrifying, snarling black dog lurking in the shadows ready to bite. It doesn’t want to be understood, far less does it want to be tamed.

New Lanark (my photo with Prisma filter)

New Lanark (my photo with Prisma filter)

 

I shall spend this year doing more of what I love. Writing, walking, watching the changing of the seasons, embracing everything that nature has to offer. Celebrating the beauty in each month, the new growth, the metamorphosis as the year’s wheel turns without dreading what is to come. I have learned, since moving to Scotland, to love the Winter, to embrace the cold, crisp days that make your cheekbones ache but also to embrace the low cloud and drizzle that helps to bring forth the new greenery, to cosy up in the current buzz-word of ‘hygge’ – we have long had our own sense of hygge with after-school onsies, hot-chocolate and boardgames and laughter on dreich and dismal days followed by bowls of wholesome broths and stews with homemade bread; I’m not entirely sure why it is suddenly ‘a thing’, but that’s a rant for a different post.

This year I am going to love my brain, and I am going to do whatever I can to make it as well as it possibly can be. Anything else, well, that’s a bonus.

Watch this space.

 

Falls of Clyde. My photo with Prisma filter

Falls of Clyde (my photo with Prisma filter)