Keep Calm, It’s Only Christmas!

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It’s not exactly news that Christmas (or the ever-expanding Festive Season) can be one of the most fun but one of most stressful times of the year. The media has created an insta-perfect image of what Christmas ‘should’ look like.  Think along the lines of a White Company catalogue- decorated tree and table, which is of course heaving with a perfectly-cooked array of Christmas treats, surrounded by happy, smiling families, all wearing ironic Christmas jumpers. Oh and don’t forget the handmade gingerbread house, complete with stained glass windows!

Really? Is that what Christmas is?

And what if your Christmas isn’t?

I’ve already heard people stressing out about Christmas. About having everything ready, and how they’ll cope on the day, what to buy, what to cook. And how on Earth they’ll pay for it all.

It seems to me that it’s all such a long way from the true spirit of Christmas.  So if you’re feeling the pressure of conforming to the ludicrously high expectations we seem to have about Christmas, it’s worth stopping to think, now, about how you could turn the stress dials down.

Last year I was pretty much bed-bound for most of December. I was devastated that I couldn’t even lie on the sofa and watch the kids decorate the tree, let alone get involved. CFS had my nervous system so revved up and my body so exhausted, that the excitement, noise and lights were such an assault on my senses that I lasted about two minutes before I had to take myself back up to lie quietly on my bed. My mum had to help me wrap presents and my husband did all the cooking on Christmas Day.

As someone who absolutely loves everything about Christmas (including the home-made gingerbread house) I had to completely lower my expectations. And guess what, we all had a lovely Christmas. We spent the morning opening pressies on my bed, and I had to leave the table before everyone else to go and lie down, but it was the most relaxed Christmas I’ve had in years. Yes I missed out on the parties and days out. But there’s other years.

And I’m so grateful that this year I’m far better, and, touch wood, hope to be back decorating the tree (if the kids will let me!).  I’m still not likely to be up to the parties, or going with the hubby and kids to London to see the lights – I wish I was, because as much as it’s all a bit far removed from the ‘real’ spirit of Christmas, I’m a sucker for all things glittery and sparkly.   But I can honestly say I’m fine with the fact that I can’t go.   That’s the way it is right now and I can let it upset me or I can choose to be happy about what I CAN do. Which is plenty. I mean, not being able to go to a Christmas party or see a few lights is a seriously 1st World problem, right?

SO HERE ARE MY TOP ‘CALM CHRISTMAS’ TIPS…

These are my three top tips for a calm and happy Christmas – and they’re not your usual ‘make lists’ and ‘be organised’. They basically all boil down to not giving a crap what everyone else thinks:

– VALUES: think about your values and how Christmas fits into those. Depending on how religious or spiritual you are, this might be thinking about the true meaning of Christmas or what this time of year means to you. What’s really important? Is it the perfectly-roasted potatoes and insta-worthy tree? The big pile of presents? Or is it about love, kindness and celebrating life?  Once you’ve worked out what YOU really think is important then keep that in mind with whatever you do. Because if Christmas is really just about love, does it matter if the turkey’s dry or you forget the cranberry sauce?  Do you really care if your table isn’t big enough to fit Great Auntie Pat and all her children around? Can you get some rugs on the floor and have a Christmas picnic?

– GRATITUDE: be grateful for what you have, however little, because there will ALWAYS be someone who would love to have what you have.  I think Christmas has become far too much about the presents. I mean even Jesus only got three!  And was born in a barn… no perfectly decorated house for him with matching plates and serviettes.

See if you can truly just accept and be happy with what you can do and what you can’t – and let the latter go.

– STOP COMPARING: Drop the perfectionist!  (This has been a biggie for me!) Something I’ve really understood recently (from some fantastic people including Faith Canter and her new book Loving Yourself Inside & Out, and Toby Morrison who runs CFS Health) is that we’re all busy comparing ourselves and trying to be like each other!  But it’s pointless – none of us are the same or on the same journey. We have no idea what’s going on behind other people’s facade. The reality is we all aspire to be these perfect people – but they don’t exist. They’re all trying to be like someone else too.  I’ve spent my life comparing myself (unfavourably) to other people and trying to be perfect. It’s exhausting and it’s fake. I’m a million times happier now I’ve decided that I just want to be me.

Keeping it simple, letting go of expectations, consciously enjoying each moment and remembering that, for me, it’s all about feeling the love – that’s the plan I choose for Christmas this year 🎄 💕

Hazel x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Labels and our thoughts – can letting go of labels help to heal our bodies?

504B5A82-A58F-4667-83AC-BA503D73FA0BI haven’t written in a while, because in all honesty I just haven’t felt like doing so. It’s been a fairly tumultuous six weeks where at times I’ve felt like I’ve been flailing. Fighting against the wave instead of riding it, the water crashing over my head, pulling me under. At times I’ve managed to get my head above the water briefly, to take a breath, only for the next wave to engulf me. Finally, though, I stopped fighting, I stopped trying so damn hard to fix it and instead I relaxed and that’s when the wave carried me back to shore.

Now that the wave has gently put me down, I’ve been able to think about what these last few weeks have been about, why I needed to go through them and what I’ve learnt.

Which brings me to the theme of this blog. Labels.  Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Two of the labels I’ve been given over the last year. Yes, they have in many ways been hugely helpful. Having a name to pin things on means I’ve been able to look into these conditions, learn about them, speak to other people with them.  Give those people who ask, a name for what’s going on with me.

But other labels often come alongside these ones – words like ‘suffering from’ and ‘ill’ and needing ‘treatment’. Not exactly inspiring words.

So now I’m going to be a little controversial and I may upset some people reading this who have these labels. I’m all for debate so if you don’t agree (or do!) with what I’m about to say, please do pop your thoughts in the comments below.

First though I want to tell a quick, true story.  I can’t remember exactly who it’s about, but I think it’s Einstein.  One day, this boy (who we’ll say is Einstein) came home from school with a letter from his teacher for his Mother. When he asked what it said, she replied that the teacher said he was too clever and the teacher couldn’t teach him anymore and suggested his mother teach him herself. She did, and he went on to become, well, Einstein! But he later discovered that’s not what was in the letter at all. It actually said that he was failing so badly and was clearly so stupid that the teacher couldn’t teach him.  We now know he was actually dyslexic.  What might have been different if Einstein had grown up labelling himself as stupid?

Going back to chronic fatigue and anxiety, I think there comes a time when the labels become unhelpful and can contribute to keeping us stuck in our condition.  And I believe there’s enough science out there to back this up.

Because one of the main biochemical issues going on with both these ‘conditions’ is that the brain is stuck in the stress response. I’ve talked about this before so I won’t go into much detail, suffice to say that stress or anxiety releases stress hormones, which are vital to put our body into the very necessary fight or flight mode.  If the reason for the stress or anxiety goes away quickly then the brain stops pumping out these chemicals and the body calms back down. But if we’re under continuous stress (either mental or physical), a loop is created whereby the brain keeps releasing these chemicals into the body, so the body believes it’s under attack, which sends signals back to the brain that there’s a threat, which means it creates more stress hormones. And so it goes on, wreaking more and more havoc, until the cycle can be broken by calming down the body and the brain.

Whatever the initial trigger, this continued prescence of stress hormones causes a cascade of problems throughout the body – inflammation, gut issues (which themselves feed into the stress loop as the majority of seratonin – the ‘happy’ hormone – is produced in the gut, more than in the brain), fatigue, pain, brain fog, etc etc. Essentially it puts the whole body out of balance.  As an example, at the moment, when I get hungry, I get physical symptoms of anxiety – tightness in my chest and short of breath. My stress response is on such high alert that even hunger is telling my brain I’m under threat (of starvation) and it’s doing it’s thing by warning me physically.  I eat and the symptoms reduce.

So, to get back to my original point about labels.  When I think of myself as being ‘ill’ and ‘suffering from’ Chronic Fatigue Syndrome what does that thought tell my brain?  It tells it there’s a problem. And what if I were to think of myself as perfectly well and healthy, that my body is working exactly as it should be (by sending me stress signals, which are, after all, designed to keep me safe), I just need to work on breaking that stress cycle?  I might still have the same symptoms (I’m  not suggesting they’ll magically disappear – if only!) but I feel a hell of a lot more relaxed about them. And more in control. Which starts to send the message to my brain that I’m safe and it doesn’t need to do anything. I can relax.  And if I’m relaxed what might happen?  My whole system will gradually calm down and the stress response cycle will, in time, be broken.  Not straight away, but if it keeps getting positive messages instead of negative ones, it will stop reacting so much as it won’t be on such a constant high alert.

And then my body has a chance of healing itself. Exactly as it’s designed to do.

So what if you were to believe that you’re not broken and you don’t need to be fixed? What if you could accept yourself exactly as you are and be ok with it?  You may still want to work on improving your health, or how you react to your thoughts, but if you come from a place of not thinking there’s anything ‘wrong’ with you, you’re just a normal, flawed but perfect human being, it’s a more peaceful place to start from.

I’d better add that I’m not suggesting I just pretend there’s nothing wrong so go off and do a 10k run. Clearly that would be disastrous. It’s not that it’s all in my mind. My body’s hugely fatigued and depleted and isn’t going to stop being so just because I decide to stop thinking of myself as ill.  I would do it huge damage if I ignored my current limits.  I’m absolutely NOT suggesting anyone do that.

I’m still pacing, doing only what’s manageable and resting regularly. I’m eating only (ok, mostly – I’m about 90/10 because over-obsessing about healthy eating is also anxiety-causing) nutritious foods, I’m cutting out as many of the toxins in my life as I can, only increasing activity slowly and listening to my body’s needs. It definitely needs time, and loads of care, to repair itself. It’s not about not accepting where you are at this moment. In fact, quite the opposite. It’s about accepting where you are but not letting it define you.

Because it’s not just that negative or stressful thoughts create chemical changes. They also influence our actions. If we think our current state can’t be changed, then the likelihood is that we won’t take positive actions to try and change it.  But if we believe our bodies are set up to self-correct (given the best healing conditions) then we’re far more likely to act accordingly and nourish our bodies and minds to give them the best possible chance of healing.

And if I’m wrong, and breaking the stress loop isn’t the answer, or is only one of the answers, well I’ll deal with that when I’ve given this approach some time. And at least in the meantime I’ll hopefully be a lot more relaxed.  Which is pretty nice.

Hazel x

Do your life choices make your heart sing? What our holidays can teach us…

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Aren’t holidays just the best?  A change of scene, a chance to get away from the usual  busyness of life.  I’m currently feeling blissed out lounging on a swingy chair by the pool in a beautiful spot in South West France on a family holiday.  Hubby and kids are off on a bike ride through the pine forests – which I’d desperately like to join them on but CFS of course has other ideas.  But I can’t complain, I’m having a wonderful week of rest and rejuvenation in the sunshine. Yoga, meditation, floating in the sea and the pool, lying in the sun, relaxing. I’m using my sunbathing time to really rest and recuperate – using things like breathing techniques, meditation, positive affirmations and visualisation to help switch off my brain’s sympathetic response, that fight or flight response that floods the body with stress hormones creating that feeling of stress and anxiety, and instead training my brain to switch on its parasympathetic response – the rest and relax response.  Chronic stress and anxiety keep the brain stuck in a circle of stress response because those stress hormones create a stressed state, which tells the brain that there’s a reason to be anxious, which further causes it to release more stress hormones. So using techniques to help interrupt this cycle is really important.

I’m also finding ways to do something each day that I really want to do, whilst resisting the temptation to do all the other things I also want to do but I know would be to much. So a few strokes in the pool rather than the gliding up and down the pool that I really want to do (and am visualising being able to do in the future!). It’s all about balance.

It’s got me thinking about why it is we love holidays so much. Ok it’s probably fairly obvious for Brits like me – sunshine and warmth on our bodies! The chance to swim in the sea, feel the sand between our toes, slow down and not have our days dictated by the clock. No alarm to wake us up, no work to go to. A change of scene, maybe different activities and sports to try. And time. Life slows down. We can do what we want, when we want.  We wander around with bare feet. No suits and ties constricting us. We spend more time outside. We do things we just wouldn’t normally do at home – like suddenly decide to drive to the beach to watch the sun go down and a storm come in, like we did a couple of nights ago. Not something we do when there’s school and work the next day.

But then the holiday ends. And we go back to ‘real life’. But what if we had a life we didn’t need a holiday from?  What can we learn from our holidays about ourselves and the life we’d really like to be living?  And could we be better at incorporating more of that holiday feeling into our everyday?  I’m not suggesting we then wouldn’t bother with holidays – I think they’re an important part of life as they give us the time and space that can be difficult to find every day. But we can definitely learn from what it is we love about them and do more of it. Which brings me back to the balance I mentioned earlier.

What I’ve realised is that I crave change. I don’t like being in the same place for too long. It can make me feel stagnant. I love being at home but I also know I want to experience as much of this world, and what it has to offer, as I can.  I also am happiest when I’m outside a lot. I love feeling the air on my skin, the sun (even the rain) on my face and the ground under my bare feet. I love being near water. And whilst some routine is good, I also need a break from routine, a chance to be spontaneous and feel free from routine’s shackles.  These are all things I can take home and find ways to include more in my life.  Could I get up early one morning and watch the sun rise? Of course I can!

I also read a beautiful, heartbreaking but inspiring poem this week, which I’ve already shared on my Facebook page (if you haven’t seen it you can find it at –  https://m.facebook.com/myfriendanxiety.blog). It’s about how we take that wonderful wild, free spirit we have as children and mould it into what we believe is ‘acceptable’ and ‘civilised’ behaviour.  We teach children how to pass exams so they can get a ‘good’ job. We make them wear the right clothes (school uniform, polished shoes, later maybe a suit and tie, or high heels to make their legs look longer). We even employ tutors so when they’re not in school we can make sure they don’t get behind or they get into the right school.  We taxi them to this activity and that club – so they have no time to just play and we have no time to play with them.  Is it any wonder that stress, anxiety and chronic illness are so on the increase?

And yes, I’m as guilty of the above as anyone. Which I’m pretty sure has contributed to my CFS. But I’ve been questioning it all for quite some time and am doing so more and more. While I test my seven year old daughter on her times tables in the car on the drive to France (so she ‘doesn’t get behind’) I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing.  Part of me craves upping and moving to somewhere completely different, where my children can learn about their planet through being immersed in it. Where they can run free, make mistakes, learn about life by living it, not by Googling it.

Until then, I’m going to work on bringing more of these things into our lives at home. I’m going to learn how to bring the holiday pace into our daym

So our ‘holidays’ won’t be breaks from ‘real life’ but a part of our lives that we choose to do just to get to experience different places.

Hazel x

https://m.facebook.com/myfriendanxiety.blog/?tsid=0.9860015289048174&source=result

“What if…” you asked yourself a better question?

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“What if…”  Two words that are so often followed by some kind of disastrous potential scenario. I should know, I’ve asked myself those sorts of questions far more times than I care to remember. From the more mundane,

“What if we miss the plane?”

to

“What if that temperature is meningitis?”

“What if my bad back is a slipped disc and I have to have an operation?” Closely followed by “… and I for some reason I die and my kids have no mum? I can’t bear the thought of how upset they’ll be.”

To someone that’s never suffered from Anxiety (as opposed to more ‘normal’ anxiety) it must sound totally crazy. It sounds crazy to me, now.  But that kind of ‘snowball’ thinking (where your thoughts literally spiral out of control until you’re imagining the worst possible scenario) has been normal for me for too many years. It would leave me an anxious mess – until of course none of those scenarios I’d imagined ever happened.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve never missed a flight, my kids’ temperatures have never been meningitis, and I didn’t need an operation on my back. Oh and I’m not dead. But would really happen if I missed a flight? Am I really likely to die from a back operation (if I even needed one) and if I did, yes, that would be pretty traumatic for all of my family, but would they be ok? Yes, of course they would, in time.  Because stuff happens all the time to people all around the world. That’s called life.  But it’s taken me a really long time, and a lot of work recently, to get to a place where I get that. And it’s still a work in progress that takes conscious effort from me – but I can now see when it’s happening and have ways to shift my perspective.

A huge part of the shift has come from one simple change – learning (from some of the amazing people I’ve been working with) to ask a better question.  And learning to ask myself “does that thought serve me? Does that help me in any way?” If the answer’s no then can I find a different thought?

As in the quote in the picture (one that I’ve always loved and was reminded of recently), instead of the “what if” being bad, we can choose to look at the amazing “what ifs”. Just as “what if I fall?” can become “what if I fly?”, so “What if I fail?” can become “What if it’s amazing and the best thing I’ve ever done?”

But even positive “what if” questions can be a bit dangerous as they can so easily be met with the opposite negative.  An even better question to ask is “How can I …?” Or “What can I do…?” because both more naturally lead to more positive answers. So for me, I’ve changed “What if I never get better (from CFS)?” to “How can I give myself the best chance of getting better?”, “What’s the best thing I can do right now?” and “What do I need to do to help my body recover?”  Or going back to worrying about making a flight – “What can I do to make sure I’m on time for my flight?” That naturally leads to thinking of solutions rather than focusing on problems and what could go wrong. And of course when you focus on solutions, things are far more likely to go well.

Probably one of the most important questions you can ever ask about a situation you’re worrying about though is “Is that within my control or outside of my control?” With the flight scenario, certain things are within your control, like leaving plenty of time. But certain things aren’t, like traffic problems – yes you can leave some extra time but you can’t control the traffic conditions. If something’s out of your control, worrying about it is totally fruitless.  If I do happen to miss the flight, only then do I need to think about that. And I can ask myself “What can I do now? Can I see if I can get the next flight?”

Believe me, I know that’s all so much easier said than done, but as I’ve started moving towards a more positive way of looking at things, I’ve found I’m naturally worrying less, because the pathways in my brain have become more used to looking at the positive instead of the negative.

Amazingly, just like a path you would walk down, the pathways that your brain uses to send messages to other parts of your brain, become wider and easier to travel down the more you use them. As an overgrown, narrow path gets used more and more, it naturally creates a more well-worn pathway.  In exactly the same way, if you practice thinking more positive thoughts, your brain makes those pathways easier and quicker to send messages along. There’s a huge amount of neuro science that backs this up – mine is an incredibly simplistic version but simple’s always good to me!

“A man can be imprisoned in a room with a door that opens inwards, as long as it never occurs to him to pull rather than push.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

It’s all about the way you look at things and what questions you ask yourself. Are you asking “What if I’m trapped in here forever?” Or “What could I do to open the door?”

Hazel X

 

Learning to be me. “If we slow down just long enough to see the beauty in a single flower, imagine what we might find in ourselves in a quiet moment.” Melanie Rogers Jimenez.

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It’s perhaps rather apt that I’ve used the quote above about the sun when I’m writing this whilst sitting in my garden on a hot English summer’s day, with the sun on my skin. It doesn’t seem long ago at all that it was Autumn and I was lying in bed, day after day, looking out of the window – which I’d always have open, whatever the temperature, to get some fresh air in.  Whilst I’m definitely a summer girl, I do love each of the seasons as they all bring something different and have a beauty of their own.

I don’t think anything in nature stays exactly the same, day after day. Plants and animals, the sea, all change over time, even just in minute ways. It’s why I love Linda Hall’s quote above so much.  It’s a reminder that the sun doesn’t go anywhere on a cloudy day, it’s still there, it’s just hidden by a layer of cloud. And at some point that cloud will part and we see the sun again.  And we are the same – the light is there within all of us, and given time, and the right conditions, it will shine again.

Over the last months I’ve been seeing the process I’ve been going through as being one of learning about myself and who I really am. But it’s come to me that it’s not quite true. Yes, I’ve been learning a huge amount, but the truth is that I’ve known all along who I am. What I’ve been learning is how to accept and embrace the person that I’ve always known was there, but was hidden.  I’m not so much discovering myself as re-discovering.

I look at my seven year old daughter now, so vibrant, and so naturally ‘her’ (actually, rather sadly I thought, she mentioned to me the other day that one of her friends is always ‘trying to be posh’ and she couldn’t understand why. But whilst my heart sank at the thought of girls so young already trying to be something they’re not, it started a conversation with my daughter about just being who we really are.) And my son, who doesn’t think about who he is, he just ‘is’.  It can be easy, over time, to lose sight of our natural selves as we try to fit in, to be the person we think other people want us to be. But that’s exhausting.

I look back now at my pre-children Public Relations career and I just think ‘what was I doing?!’. Seriously, there could not be a job I was less naturally suited to, but it sounded like the sort of job a confident, fun, outgoing person would do – and boy did I want to be that person.  For ten years I tried to play that part. But it wasn’t me. And it drained me. I constantly felt an underlying sense of anxiety as daily I put myself in a situation that I just didn’t feel at all comfortable in.  There were parts of it I enjoyed of course – it involved a lot of writing and creativity. I was in travel PR and I loved talking and writing about other places. And the people I worked with were (mostly) lovely. But it never felt right to me. I always felt that the ‘real’ me was hiding away, trying to be someone I wasn’t.  But I didn’t have the confidence to be that person – to say ‘this is me, like it or hate it.’

Meditation has been instrumental in helping me gain clarity.  Like so many other people, I used to think meditation was about trying not to think, which unsurprisingly I found impossible. So I thought I couldn’t ‘do’ meditation. But it’s not about that at all. What I’ve learned from wonderful teachers like Linda is that it’s about feeling it rather than ‘trying’ to do it.  It’s letting thoughts come and go, like clouds drifting through the blue sky, and coming down from your head into your body, usually by focusing on something like your breath. It was only when I stopped trying that I really found that peaceful place where I felt less in my head. And that really allowed those clouds to start shifting and the joy, my inner light, to start shining again. And my rather over-bearing friend anxiety has naturally calmed.

Now that the clouds are gradually parting, I can see myself again. And I’m finally starting to love the person I see. So now I’m just being perfectly imperfect me. It feels like a load has been taken off my shoulders and I feel lighter as a result. Perhaps not surprisingly I’m feeling some energy coming back, as I stop using it to fight myself, and I’m less weighed down by my own expectations of me.

If you’d like to listen to some of Linda’s wonderful meditations, you can find her on YouTube if you copy this link, or search for ‘Linda Hall’.  They’re all free to listen to. I love them.

https://m.youtube.com/channel/UCTDiRJp9MeAgZbmwmq4w4GA

Hazel x