Thursday, 13 January 2022

Ten reasons to smile more

For most of the time, smiling and laughing are involuntary responses to something that we find funny or that makes us feel happy, however, they can also be a conscious action. Whether you smile voluntarily or involuntarily, they can both have the same effect on our mental and physical wellbeing. 

It’s often said that laughter is the best medicine and there’s a good reason for this. Many studies have shown that both smiling and laughing can have a positive impact. A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, states that: “in addition to a stress-relief effect, laughter can bring about feelings of being uplifted or fulfilled to showing that the act of laughter can lead to immediate increases in heart rate, respiratory rate, respiratory depth, and oxygen consumption. These increases are then followed by a period of muscle relaxation, with a corresponding decrease in heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure.”

So, if you’re feeling under the weather and are in need of a natural reliever, here are some more reasons to smile:

Smiling can lift your mood

When we smile, it triggers neuropeptides in your brain, which can have a positive effect on your emotions. Like dopamine and serotonin, smiling can elevate your mood. But you can also trick your mind into feeling happy just by making yourself smile or laugh.

Smiling can boost the immune system

When you smile, your body automatically feels more relaxed and its this relaxation that strengthens your immune system and makes it work more effectively. So, when you smile more, you could be fending off colds and flu without even realising it.

Smiling can lower blood pressure

As cited in the study above by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, when we laugh it initially increases our heart rate and breathing which then lowers our blood pressure.

Smiling is a natural painkiller

Smiling releases serotonin and endorphins in the brain. These are natural chemicals that are produced to make us feel good and improve our mood. But as well as elevating our feelings of wellbeing, they can also reduce physical pain.

Smiling can help you live longer

Because smiling has such a positive effect on our mental and physical wellbeing, it can also contribute to living a longer life. When we’re feeling happy, we may see improved health and it’s believed that this could increase our overall lifespan by several years.

Smiling is contagious

Not only can smiling have a positive effect on our own health, but it’s also contagious and can elevate the mood of others. When we see other people happy, our brain recognises this and often makes us imitate their smile or laugh subconsciously.

Smiling makes you look and feel more vibrant

There’s a reason why we are drawn to happy people – smiling gives the impression that you are a more positive person and fun to be around so naturally, others will want to spend more time around you. This, too, can have a knock-on effect on how you feel about yourself, making you feel more self-confident.

Smiling helps you feel positive

Even when a smile or laughter is forced, just the action of moving the smile muscles in your face can increase feelings of positivity as this will provide the necessary feedback to tell your brain that you are happy. In turn, your brain then tells your body to act accordingly, making you feel more positive emotions.

Smiling can relieve stress

When we’re stressed, not only does it show in our expressions and bodily movements, but it can also have long-term effects on our health. By smiling, even if you don’t feel like doing it, it can benefit you mentally and physically. Studies have reported that smiling can have a positive impact on our heart rate which can help to relieve feelings of stress.

Smiling can reduce the risk of heart disease

Smiling or laughing can help lower your blood pressure and this is a positive factor in reducing the risk of developing heart disease.

Sunday, 2 January 2022

Ways to embrace change

While some people continually seek out new adventures or experiences in life, others find it easier and less stressful to maintain a peaceful life of comfort and dependability. However, whichever way of life you intend to live, life inevitably throws us curveballs that are out of our control and we may face unwelcome changes that we aren’t mentally prepared for.

There are lots of situations where you could find yourself facing change, for example:

  • You might have been made redundant from your job
  • A close family member or friend might have passed away
  • You may have to sell your home and move somewhere new
  • An unforeseen accident might have left you unable to continue with your usual routine.

Whatever the reason for change in your life, when it happens unexpectedly and you aren’t mentally prepared, it can lead to feelings of fear, anxiety and even depression. These kinds of unexpected stressful events are also believed to be the cause of adjustment disorder.

Embracing change

Firstly, it’s important to realise that many things in life are out of our control and no matter how much we would like to be the master of our own destiny, we must accept that now and again we have to adjust. Initially, it might seem impossible to put a positive spin on a situation or to visualise how we can make the best of a bad, or different, situation. But you’ll be surprised at how we can turn things around and focus on positive outcomes.

Unless you’re the kind of person who thrives on new experiences, facing change can be challenging and uncomfortable. It might also mean you have to get out of old routines and patterns of behaviour, which in itself can be daunting. But change can also be rewarding and beneficial, it’s just that you’ve yet to recognise these benefits. So how can you learn to deal with changes that you haven’t planned for and embrace a new direction in life?

Mentally prepare yourself

Carefully consider what the change will mean to your life and how it will affect your daily routine and long-term future. It might seem difficult at first but the longer you refuse to face your fears, the worse it becomes. Once you start to rationalise the situation, reflecting on and planning for worst-case scenarios, you’ll feel more prepared to deal with the unknown. But also consider the benefits and positive opportunities that might arise from this.

You could also try meditation and visualisation to help you feel more at peace with what’s to come. Visualisation is a great way to imagine a situation and create a positive outcome in your mind.

Respond to the imminent change

Once you’ve spent some time thinking about the impending situation, you’ll need to take action. Depending on what the change involves, there are certain things you might need to put in place. By being proactive, adapting and facing the situation head on, you’ll start to feel more in control. Sudden change can be scary because it feels like you’re not in control of your destiny so when you’re being proactive, you can begin to take back the feeling of control, which will give you a more positive outlook and mindset.

Reflect and learn from the experience

When you’re confronted with sudden change, you might find it hard to imagine the benefits. But as you adapt and work through the situation, you’ll be able to look back on the experience and recognise all the positive changes you’ve made. Each time you overcome a difficult situation, you’ll feel stronger and more equipped to deal with any future changes that might come your way. Take a look at the bigger picture and make a note of what you learned from stepping out of your comfort zone. How did you feel at the time, what did you achieve, and what skills and strengths did you develop during the process?

At the end of the day, it’s not the change that’s important, it’s how you responded to a situation that made you feel frightened at the time.

Sunday, 12 December 2021

Mindfulness in everyday life

Mindfulness is about bringing our attention to the immediate present and focusing on something specific, such as breathing, sounds, the way something looks, or tastes. While there are many mindfulness exercises that we can practise, we can also become more mindful in our everyday lives. Here are some ways:

Shower mindfully

Take notice of the texture of your clothes as you remove them. Consider the cleansing process. Feel the water on your skin and note the sensations that this brings you. Note the temperature of the water, the smells around you, the sensations of your hands on your body, and the sounds of the shower. Be grateful for the cleansing process, the hot water and the time to yourself. Indulge in every bit of the process.

Eat mindfully

Take a small piece of a food that you enjoy. Look at it, notice it's colour and texture. Take a sniff. How does it smell? Put it in your mouth. What does it feel like on your tongue? What flavours can you taste? 

Start to chew and notice what this feels like. As you swallow, imagine the food nourishing your body and give thanks for being able to enjoy it.

Mindful waiting

This is a good exercise to use when you're waiting in line at the shops. Connect with your breathing and take in your surroundings. How does your body feel right this minute? Try not to think about your frustration. Be at peace with the waiting process and if your mind wanders, gently guide it back to focus on your breathing and your surroundings. Be grateful for the time with yourself. 

There are many other ways to practise mindfulness every day. Try mindful washing up, mindful learning or mindful dressing. Follow the same principles as above and notice how you feel after your mindful moment. 

Friday, 10 December 2021

Mindful listening

We're all different and that's why it's important to find the methods of mindful practice that work best for us. 

Yesterday we looked at Mindful Observation. Today we're exploring mindful listening. 

The exercises below will help you notice the sounds around you and help you develop the skills to listen more mindfully and without judgement or preconception. As you practise more, you will find it easier to listen without your mind wandering off and you will find it easier to gently guide your wandering focus back to listening. 

A wandering mind creates thoughts. These thoughts are not reality, but we often treat them as such and they affect our emotions. Negative feelings result from negative thoughts. Learning to let your thoughts come and go, gives your mind a rest from its wanderings and it is these rests that can help reset the stress mechanism.

Exercise 1 - Mindful listening - Open your ears

Try this exercise, developed by Alfred James at Pocket Mindfulness

  • Select a piece of music you have never heard before. You may have something in your own collection that you have never listened to, or you might choose to turn the radio dial until something catches your ear.
  • Close your eyes and put on your headphones. Try not to get drawn into judging the music by its genre, title, or artist name before it has begun playing. Instead, ignore any labels and neutrally allow yourself to get lost in the journey of sound for the duration of the song.
  • Allow yourself to explore every aspect of the track. Even if the music isn't to your liking at first, let go of your dislike and give your awareness full permission to climb inside the track and dance among the sound waves.
  • The idea is to just listen, to become fully entwined with the composition without preconception or judgement of the genre, artist, lyrics, or instrumentation.

Exercise 2 - Listening and thoughts

Listen to this mindfulness meditation by Professor Mark Williams of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. It's a great introduction to listening mindfully.

Thursday, 9 December 2021

Mindful observation

Yesterday we started a week of posts on Twitter #fourweeksofwellbeing about mindfulness. Mindfulness is an ancient practice that is all about focusing the mind on the immediate present. If practised regularly, mindfulness is a great tool for calming your mind and reducing feelings of stress. 

There are many different ways to practise mindfulness and the method you choose really depends on what works best for you. It's good to try a few different things to see which ones you like best. 

Today we're looking at mindful observation and we have included a few options to try. 

Mindful observation enables you to really observe the world around you and to connect with it in a way that you perhaps have never done before. We often rush through life with our minds preoccupied with our thoughts and actually miss a lot as a result. Mindful meditations are great because they are simple, short, and require no equipment. It's best to find somewhere comfortable where you won't be disturbed and get practising. 

Exercise 1 - Mindful observation - Observe an object

Try this exercise, developed by Alfred James at Pocket Mindfulness.

  • Choose a natural object from within your immediate environment and focus on watching it for a minute or two. This could be a flower, a plant, or an insect, or even the clouds or the moon.
  • Don't do anything except notice the thing that you are looking at. Simply relax into a harmony for as long as your concentration allows.
  • Look at it as if you are seeing it for the first time. Visually explore every aspect of its formation. Allow yourself to be consumed by its presence. Allow yourself to connect with its energy and its role and purposes in the natural world.
TIP The good news is that while it is best to do these exercises from real life, if you can't get outside, images of nature have been shown to be effective for relaxation too. Why not take some photos when you're out and use them when your access to outdoors is limited. 

Exercise 2 - Observe your thoughts

This practice is from Fablefly, Mindfulness for teens and adults. The purpose of it is to show you that your mind is able to be still. It's a simple meditation in which you allow your thoughts to come and go and observe them in a passive way without judgement. 

With practice, you will find that you are able to immerse yourself in the experience and will be able to gently observe your thoughts coming and going but bring your mind back to your focus. It's not easy at first, but if you persevere, you will notice that these short breaks for your mind will really help you reset and manage stress.

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

What causes stress?

Stress is something that most of us are familiar with but while we may know how it feels to be stressed, we may not know why we get stressed.

When we talk about stress we are really referring to the emotional and physical reactions that take place in our body when we feel under pressure or threatened in some way. 

There are a whole host of reasons why somebody may feel stressed. We may feel threatened physically or we may experience stress as a result of anxious thoughts and worries. The first step to managing stress is understanding what is causing it. 

There are two main kinds of stress: internal and external stress 

Internal stress

Internal stress comes about due to our own internal thought processes. We may worry about things that we can't control, impose unrealistic expectations on ourselves, or have low self-esteem and treat ourselves unkindly. All of these things create unhelpful thoughts that can lead to internal stress.

External stress

External stress comes from the world around us rather than our own minds and can be caused by things like noise, relationship issues, money problems, life transitions, pressure from work or family, problems with neighbours, etc. 

The stress mechanism

Of course, not all stress is bad and although stress gets a bad press, we actually sometimes need a bit of stress to protect us from harm. Stress brings about rapid physical changes, which help us to deal with an imminent threat:

  • Our vision sharpens
  • Our body fluids are diverted to our bloodstream
  • Our airways widen to allow more oxygen into our lungs
  • Our heart pumps harder to send oxygen and energy to our muscles
  • Our liver releases glucose into our body to energise our muscles
  • Our digestion slows down or stops to enable more blood to be diverted to our muscles
  • We sweat to help cool our working muscles and blood from our skin is diverted to our muscles.
  • Our muscles tense to enable us to react faster and we release calcium into tense muscles.

This process, known as the 'fight or flight' response, was really helpful for protecting our ancestors from wild animals but it is not quite so helpful in modern day life as it can trigger due to perceived threats. If this happens often, our bodies don't have time to flush out the stress hormones that allow all of the above amazing changes to take place. This can lead to longer term physical and mental health problems, so it's important to find ways to take a break from stress. 

Join us on Twitter tomorrow when we'll be looking at common symptoms of stress. #fourweeksofwellbeing

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Reasons for practising compassion

In a society where blame culture is rife, it can be difficult at times to empathise with others, particularly if we don’t want to be in the firing line. But in many cases, showing compassion to others not only breaks down blame culture, but it also frees us from negative emotions such as anger, frustration, and animosity.

People can be very quick to judge another person’s actions or intentions without giving any consideration to why they acted in a such a way. Not only can this create negative thoughts in our own minds, but our reactions can also be damaging to the other person. 

To develop relationships with people, whether at work or in our personal lives, we need to form a connection based on trust and respect. By showing empathy and compassion, we also begin to care for others, and this can have a huge effect on our own actions and thoughts. 

Feelings of resentment and anger can have serious effects on our health and can create negative self-talk, insecurity, and a lack of self-confidence. These kinds of behaviours can ultimately lead to mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, and depression. Without compassion, our thoughts might be imagined, misunderstood, and totally unnecessary. When we choose to only view the world through our own beliefs and prejudge before we have any facts, this can lead to prejudice and stereotyping.  

Researchers in positive psychology, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, believe that showing compassion and connecting with others in a positive way can improve our mental and physical wellbeing. Compassion doesn’t only help those needing care, it makes us healthier and happier too!

What is compassion?

Compassion is the ability to understand and show empathy for another person’s feelings and experiences and wanting to demonstrate that you care. This care should be given selflessly. 

How to be compassionate

Being compassionate not only helps us to connect with people but it also helps us to live in harmony, meaning we are less likely to become stressed or agitated. And it’s this that allows us to face difficult situations with a more positive outlook, and get things done in the most amicable way.

  1. Before you react to a person’s words or actions, ask yourself if you could have the wrong end of the stick. Sometimes we can misinterpret things depending on our mood, and any form of written communication such as emails or text messages, can very easily be misconstrued.  
  2. Question the other person’s current situation or past experiences. Perhaps they are going through something traumatic in their lives, and although their words may seem abrasive, they might be feeling stressed and don’t intend to offend anyone. Similarly, if you haven’t heard from a close friend or family member for a while, you shouldn’t automatically assume it’s because they are ignoring you, rather, they may be busy with work, or are struggling with a personal problem. 
  3. Before you prejudge someone, give them the benefit of the doubt. 
  4. Also remember self-compassion and don’t beat yourself up over making a mistake or feeling as though you’re not good enough.
  5. Practise acts of kindness that show people you care.
  6. Ask people how they are feeling and take the time to listen to them.