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 more of what brings you joy – why happiness isn’t something you ‘find’, it’s something you create.

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It sounds almost too simple really doesn’t it.  If you want to be happier, do more of what you love!  But when you’re doing something that brings you joy, that you’re so passionate about doing, there’s just no room for anxiety or negative thoughts. Joy and fear just can’t occupy the same space.

There’s no getting away from the reality that anxiety is pretty crap. Yep that’s putting it mildly!  It’s scary, frustrating and can affect your whole life. But I truly believe it’s possible to take charge of anxiety and not let it rule you.  The more I find out about how the brain works, the more I realise that it can be re-trained if it’s fed the right things. And joyful thoughts and feelings are seriously nutritious food for the brain.

In fact, think for a moment about the physical feelings of anxiety – racing heart, shallow breathing, the feeling of adrenalin racing through your body. Now think about how passion and excitement feel – racing heart, shallow breathing, adrenalin coursing through your body. Same physical feelings, very different emotional feelings.  You know how if you want to do something badly enough you can somehow find the courage to do it, even if it scares the hell out of you? That’s because passion can always triumph over fear if it burns bright enough.

Certain types of activity create an almost meditative quality, a quieter joy rather than a fierce burning joy. It’s called being in ‘flow’. It’s no less powerful. Your mind doesn’t wander off, you’re completely absorbed in what you’re doing.  Obvious examples are things like yoga, Tai Chi or even running.  I’ve been doing some painting recently and it’s the same feeling. I always use colours and images that bring me joy – so for me that’s lots of purples, pinks, turquoise, vibrant sunsets, birds, flowers.  Now, if I’m not in a great mood, painting’s one of the things I turn to.

What are your passions? What do you love doing – things that sweep you up and get you so absorbed there’s no room to think about anything else?

It’s so easy to get caught up in all the day to day stuff that ‘needs’ to get done. But what’s really important in life?  Yes, bills need paying, kids need taking to school, dinner needs to be made, but if you really want to do something you can – you have to – create a way.  Because it won’t just happen.  You can search for happiness as long as you like, reading books about how to be happy etc, but I’ve finally come to realise it’s way more simple than I thought.  Create a life you love.  Actually I do take that back, it’s not always simple when you have commitments, but there is always a way.

I can’t remember where I heard it, but I heard a story recently about a guy that had an accident and ended up paralysed from the neck down. He couldn’t do anything for himself and relied completely on his wife. She ended up sinking into depression. This wasn’t how she’d envisaged their life. So eventually the husband realised he had to do something – his wife needed him and she needed a life she loved. They ended up travelling the world.

You don’t have to be that drastic of course.  But you can create a life where you do more of what you love. Don’t hold yourself back or wait until something drastic happens to give you that wake up call.  Get up early and watch the sun rise. Start that hobby you’ve always wanted to do.  Whatever it is that ignites that fire of passion in you.

Last weekend I was camping with the hubby, kids and another family – one of my wonderful crazy best mates from Uni days who I’m lucky enough to live just a few minutes from. I knew it’d be a big ask for my still-fragile CFS body but I was so excited and we had an absolute blast.  I love waking up to the fresh crisp air, cooking outside around a fire, letting the kids run wild and getting filthy. There’s an absolute feeling of freedom that brings me huge joy.  Since we got back (I’m writing this four days later) I’ve been physically and emotionally exhausted from doing so much more, even though I thought I was being careful, and I’ve been mostly back in bed, recuperating. And I’ve questioned whether perhaps I shouldn’t have gone as I’d been progressing so well and it feels like a smack in the face to be back feeling crappy again. The anxious thoughts creep back in – what if this time I don’t get better?  But then I look back at the photos of us so happy, chilled out and laughing and I know that I wouldn’t take it back. We need those times of joy. They’re what life’s about.  I’ll never forget that weekend, it’ll always make me laugh thinking about it.  And the more we feed ourselves with those feelings, the more the brain chills out and gets used to that way of responding. It sends messages to our brain that everything is ok.

And my husband will roll his eyes when he reads this blog. It’s only something he’s been telling me for about five years. It took a while – and a huge wake up call – for the penny to drop for me.

I’ll stop blabbering on now and finish with a fab quote a friend shared recently that made me smile:

“The diem ain’t gonna carpé itself.”

What are you waiting for? Go and seize the day, in whatever shape or form you can.

Hazel x

 

It’s ok not to be ok!

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I usually write my blogs when I’m feeling in a positive place, because I think that’s when I can send out positive messages and be most helpful. But this time I’m doing it a bit differently as I’m writing this at a time when I’m frankly feeling crappy. I’m in bed, physically and mentally tired and pretty emotional. I’m not writing that for sympathy, but I thought maybe it would be just as useful to both myself and people reading this, to show that I’m not always this positive person now who’s got life cracked and has all the answers!  Because I don’t.

I’m just back from a mostly lovely week staying in Jersey with one of my best friends. It involved tackling Gatwick airport, which I knew my legs wouldn’t get me through, so I (deep breath!) used a wheelchair. Ok that was a big one to say publicly!  I’d been very anxious the morning of the day we were leaving so I visualised the kids racing me around the airport and my smiling face when I arrived the other end to see my wonderful friend. And that really helped.

Most of the trip was fantastic. I loved catching up with my friend and her family, and I did far more than I thought I’d cope with physically. But it caught up with me towards the end (post-exertional malaise, often one of the main symptoms of CFS) not helped by what in hindsight I know was a crazy decision time-wise to wean off one of my meds (I should add it was with my doctor’s advice). Cue me now knowing what withdrawal symptoms are like! Let’s just say- not good. And not realising that’s what it was made it all really scary.  So I completely panicked and really struggled to get myself back to a better place.

So I’m back on the meds for now (again with my doctor’s advice) and will wait until I’m stronger and do it much more slowly next time. But it’s left me exhausted and not where I wanted to be, given how well I was improving.

But what I want to say is that it’s fine. It’s fine to feel crappy. It’s fine to struggle and not have all the answers. It’s fine to question and doubt yourself and your ability to keep going and finding the strength to persevere when life’s tough. It’s completely human to have times where you just have to fall apart for a while.  In fact letting yourself fall apart when you need to can be far more helpful than trying to keep going and forcing yourself to feel better.

So today I’m giving myself permission to feel my crappy feelings, to rage against the unfairness of it all, to feel disappointed that I’d been doing so well and frustrated to feel like I’ve gone backwards. Because it’s only by acknowledging those feelings and letting myself go through them that I can deal with them and move through them. And come out the other side feeling stronger again.  Because what I have definitely learnt by now is that I do come through the other side.

So once I’ve let myself go through the crappy feelings, I’m more ready to look at doing something more more constructive.  And doing things like writing this is what helps that process. Getting it all down on paper (or blog) really does help. I’ve also booked in a chat with one of the coaches at CFS Health, one of the Chronic Fatigue recovery clinics I work with, I’m watching inspirational videos and reaching out for practical help and a bit of good old mum TLC. Because I also know that whilst it’s up to us to be our own coach and cheerleader, we don’t have to do it alone.  But we do have to take responsibility for doing something about it – and learn the lesson from what we did, or didn’t do.

So a bit of a different post today – but I hope it’s helpful to see that we can all feel vulnerable and have bad days. I’m down, but I’m not out!  And when I rise back up I’ll feel even stronger because I’ll know I survived, just like we do every time life gets tough.

So go easy on yourself, don’t give yourself a hard time if you’re struggling. You don’t learn when life’s easy!  It’s the tough times that help you grow.

Hazel x