Find calm and focus – 4 steps to overcome stress

Find calm and focus – 4 steps to overcome stress

Walking towards the edge of the Avon viaduct, my easy stroll along the canal has just changed its tune into gripping fear. The calm and focus I had as I walked among the trees, and admired the reflections on the water, has disappeared.

The last time I walked over here, my fear of heights hit me like a sledgehammer and my sister had to take my arm to walk to the other side. I made the mistake of looking down the 100-feet drop. My head swam at the vast gap between me and the ground.

This time I have a bouncy labradoodle, and I know from experience she’ll sense if I become anxious.

Do I turn back?

No. I can do this.

What’s next

Taking a deep breath, I focus on the path ahead and notice how solid the stone feels below my feet. I think about the techniques I’ve learned to help me connect with a resourceful state. I focus on the outcome of reaching the other side smoothly and calmly.

Continuing with the deep breaths… I place one foot in front of the other. Strong, solid, and calm. I repeat these words with each out-breath: strong, solid, and calm. And it has a transformative effect to the extent that I feel meditative and uplifted by cool clear breaths. I notice a slow, steady rhythm to my movement. I even cheerfully say ‘hello’ to a man walking a sheepdog coming the other way.

As I reach the other side and step off the viaduct, I experience a feeling of celebration and courage, as if on a voyage of discovery, and I’m overflowing with positivity. I’m excited by what I’ve discovered on the other side of my fear. No big deal in the whole scheme of things, but I feel like I’ve proved something to myself.

Lessons learned

I find life is like that, too, and I feel enriched through personal growth each time I step out of the other side of challenges which may initially have brought fear. I often take time to reflect on what I’ve learned, and in this case I have the ideal opportunity to test and integrate the learning as I have to make it back the other way across the viaduct again!

Same as before, I bring myself into a resourceful state by focusing on the outcome (not the problem!) and saying the positive mantra in my head. I glide across with ease and grace. What could have been a fight-or-flight adrenaline rush has instead become a confidence boost.

And I’m reminded how much our thoughts and beliefs shape our experiences, something I’ve learned through NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and which has opened up my world to infinite possibilities. My connection to real-life experiences of building resilience, mindful living, connecting with creativity, and living with purpose, have helped to deepen my experiences and my relationships.

4 steps you can follow

If you want to feel more calm, confident, and focused when you’re experiencing fear, here are four simple steps for you to try:

Pause

Slow down your thoughts and body movements and pause in-the-moment so you can take a step back. If your mind is still busy, picture a giant ‘pause’ button in front of you, and imagine clicking on it to completely pause your thoughts and emotions.

Notice

Where is your attention right now? Are you focusing on the fear and what could go wrong? Observe with curiosity; with a ‘beginner’s mind’.  Simply acknowledge what comes up and how you’re experiencing it just now, without judgement or telling yourself off. You might have a mental image, or sounds, or physical feelings and emotions. This is natural, and we’re wired to respond to what our subconscious perceives as a threat. When we understand this, and acknowledge it, we then have a choice as to how we respond. We don’t have to engage with it.

Breathe

When we are having these natural, unconscious reactions to fear, all sorts of things can happen which are not helpful to how we would consciously choose to be. We might notice an increased heart rate, breathing is shallow and faster, we may start to sweat or have cold hands.

The first thing to do to ease this is to take a deep breath. Notice how the cool, clean air feels as you breathe all the way in through your nostrils… and the warm air as you release a relaxing breath all the way out. As you focus on your breathing, notice how your body softens, allow yourself to let go, and the tension starts to drift away. Ideally, do this for at least 2-3 minutes, regularly, for lasting results. 

And if you find it a challenge to be still, moving around can help. Go for a walk, run, dance, do exercise of any kind that suits your fitness level. Or do something creative. The main thing is to change state to a more resourceful and connected way of being.

Focus

Now you’ve cleared some headspace and calmed the fight-or-flight reactions, you can choose what you want to focus on, in line with the outcome you want. And your brain has more capacity for thinking, now that you have more oxygen and fewer stress hormones running around!

You could bring a specific goal to mind, or simply imagine being peaceful and positive, or calm and focused. Notice what words come to mind for you.

Tune in to your senses

And now vividly imagine that as if it’s already happening, for example:

  • See an image in your mind’s eye; the colours, shapes, light, and shade. What can you see happening around you, and in the distance?
  • Hear any sounds, and their tone, pitch, rhythm.
  • And what are you saying to yourself?
  • Notice sensations in your body, what success feels like, any emotions that you’re experiencing now you’ve achieved your outcome.

What you focus on you get more of. What do you want to create more of in your work and home life?

Keep practising and, over time, you will form new habits and patterns of thinking to bring about more of the results you want.

Reflections

Bring to mind something you are holding some fear about at the moment, or where you find your mind is busy when you think about it. Go through the four steps above and notice the impact of taking a few minutes to reset.

If you like, you can go through this by listening to a guided meditation with me.

This blog was originally published in September 2019, and features in my book ‘Roots for Growth’ with the title ‘The other side of fear’.

Mindful Living and its place in mental health

Mindful Living and its place in mental health

Mindful living is something that you may hear described differently, depending who you’re speaking to. I find that it’s interpreted or applied in a variety of ways. Wellbeing practices have become so widespread in our daily lives, there are many different ‘flavours’!

I’ll start by explaining what I mean by different aspects:

Mindful living

This a term I use to describe a way of living your life, which is conscious, aware, and present. It’s accessible and follows simple principles. These include tuning in to your senses, practicing gratitude, spending time in nature, and being thoughtful and compassionate with yourself and with other people.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a state of awareness, with quality attention placed on something in an intentional way, without judgement. Contrary to popular belief, it is not ‘clearing the mind’ or emptying your thoughts. It’s simply observing what arises with curiosity, and knowing that thoughts come and go like weather patterns.

Meditation

Meditation is a mind and body practice, and has a spiritual focus for many. Its purpose is to bring about a state of mindfulness, which could be by sitting in silence, following a guided meditation, or a simple activity in a mindful way.

All of these have featured in different cultures and civilisations since the beginning of time. That’s because they work! Human beings are complex and we can train our mind just as we train our bodies.

Why are these important for mental health?

The more you invest time and attention in mindful living, mindfulness, or meditation, the more benefits you will notice. Even in 8 weeks, with consistent practice, the structure and function of the brain begins to make positive changes. Neurons fire differently, and reactions follow different pathways in the brain, known as neuroplasticity.

We live in a world where our attention span, mental health, and wellbeing are challenged by a variety of factors. These include:

  • Our natural fight-or-flight reaction – you know that feeling when a stressful moment hits, or you get a fright? Your heart begins to pound, maybe you’re short of breath, sweating, and so on? Your nervous system is doing what it was designed to do in ancient times. It’s for survival against predators or other threats to life. And research has shown that emotional threats have a very similar response to physical ones, which happens automatically. No wonder life can feel stressful at times!
  • Vast volumes, types, and variety of information are constantly coming our way via the technology we carry with us pretty much all the time. We get a dopamine hit with each notification, for example from social media. And hey presto, it can develop into a habit of mindlessly scrolling.
  • We have a tendency for mind-wandering, which is linked with both of the above. Did you know that a US study revealed that, on average, our minds are wandering 47% of the time? An example of this is when you’re doing a simple daily task and your mind is on something in the past or future, like ‘did I lock the front door?’ or ‘what will I have for dinner?’. The effects of this are even more pronounced when our minds are occupied by more major life events, which could also be creating stress hormones.

The good news is, we can address the adverse effects of these things with tangible benefits for physical and mental health.

However, there are some exceptions such as certain mental health conditions. If this applies to you, speak to your health professional before trying out meditation.

And whether you have a diagnosis or not, please do reach out for help if you need to (which I did). It could be the day you change your life forever.

What mindful living means to me

When I first began to learn about NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), I discovered a level of self-awareness and awareness of others which was far beyond anything I’d encountered before. I found that I was imagining or remembering situations or outcomes vividly through the senses as if it was happening ‘live’ in that moment. From training in NLP, I discovered valuable perspectives which opened doors and built my resilience, and then I found the courage to change my life.

This took a big leap of faith because I’d increasingly found it difficult to balance work and home. My husband’s illness was progressing in devastating ways. Frankly, it challenged my mental health so much I wasn’t sure I would ever be the same again. My husband has been medically retired since 1997, so I felt the weight of the decision heavily and was anxious about the risk to our finances.

After much soul-searching, and a big, deep breath, I took a different path. And what a difference it made.

After working with NLP for a couple of years, I became aware of various parallels with mindfulness. I began to develop meditations and visualisations through reading articles and books on the subject and practicing regular meditation from a variety of sources. I gained a qualification as a meditation teacher. During this time, I also committed to continuing to learn and apply NLP as a way of life, which naturally began to develop positive patterns of thinking and behaviour. Soon afterwards, I also studied Jikiden Reiki, which is a gentle healing modality working with energy.

Some quick tips you can try for yourself

Here are some of the things I do, which are simple day-to-day adjustments.

  • Practice being in the present moment. Simply focus on exactly what is happening, and be aware whether you’re focusing on what you intended (or not!). Start with a few times a day for a minute or two, and then do it more often and for longer. If you notice your mind wandering, gently guide yourself back. Be kind – it does not help if you tell yourself off!
  • Tune in to your senses – Whether you’re out in the woods or standing at a bus stop, notice what you’re seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and even tasting. This cultivates a quality of awareness which gently trains the mind to be more focused. It’s also a great technique for reducing anxiety as it gives the brain and the mind something else to do.
  • Leave your phone in another room in the evening, on silent (if you can). Allow yourself a quick check once an hour or every two hours. Put it somewhere other than the bedroom overnight. Some people tell me they need it for an alarm: I use a sunrise alarm clock which feels far more natural. It can also be used as a light box over the darker months.

You can even jot down some notes or use a journal, if you like. This can be helpful to notice and appreciate your practice developing over time.

In my book ‘Roots for Growth’ I expand on nine principles for mindful living. I may run a few posts about these on my Facebook page or Instagram if you would like to follow me there. I also write about personal experiences which have significantly shaped my life, and share professional insights on a variety of subjects around how we think, beliefs we hold, and how to follow our own wisdom to navigate through life.

And if you would like to experience a meditation, visit my resources page for some examples. Do remember that it may not be easy right away. If you notice your mind wandering or struggle to sit still, simply notice, and gently guide your attention back. Noticing in itself is a sign of success, and will ultimately support your mental health and wellbeing by investing in a consistent practice. Mindfulness practice has even been linked to improved memory, less likelihood or severity of chronic health conditions, and youthfulness… I’m still waiting for the benefits of that one :-)!

If you would like to chat about how all of this can help you, feel free to book a discovery call. My coaching sessions often include tailored meditations to settle into the space, or to close off at the end. I bring meditations and mindful practices into development programmes and workshops as well. I’d love for you to get the benefit of this!

How to feel at home wherever you are

How to feel at home wherever you are

Adventures in India

I stopped in my tracks as I reached the top step of the open-air restaurant.

I was captivated by the view of the warm terracotta roof tiles and palm trees framing the pale blue sky and the vast Arabian Sea, where fishermen worked for hours every day to bring in their catch.

We had just finished yoga on the beach at sunrise (Cherai Beach in Kerala, India), and I was feeling invigorated by the grace and flow from moving my body , the sounds within and around me as we chanted, and how present I felt in my body and mind. My heart was also pumping from the ride home on the bikes which Carolyn and I hired to get us back and forth from yoga.

A-ha moments

This was how we started each day on the 8-day NLP Intensive run by Sue Knight and Ramesh Prasad, and I found that I had many a-ha moments outside the training room as well as within it.

I’ve found it fascinating how moving, stretching, and focusing on my body in this way reinforced and enhanced the changes in my mind, and how at home I felt from the moment I arrived.

Some of this was because I have been there before, but it’s more than that…

There was a moment last time when I squeezed a juicy piece of lemon into my tea, and I later anchored* that moment. Right then, I realised that I can feel at home wherever I am. And I smiled and re-connected with that when I had my first cup of tea this time in the garden at Blue Waters hotel, where we had the course.

If you’ve ever read The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho, you’ll be familiar with the concept of seeking and travelling a long way to then discover that what you were looking for was right under your nose! It was a bit like that, AND I was glad I had such an adventure far away from home to discover it (and re-discover it this time).

Stretching my comfort zone

‘Comfort’ was a theme that came up quite a bit before and during this programme, in how I acted and how I spoke about my learning outcomes. Sue challenged me on it – and I’m glad she did – because it had become a blind spot for me in various aspects of life. Perhaps (at least partly) because of living in limbo with the pandemic, and especially having long-covid on-and-off for over two years, I found ways to just accept things as they were at the time (settle, maybe?).

It feels important to challenge and update my beliefs around my health, as well as what I’m capable of as a professional. I have become a little too comfortable with my natural style which is soft and gentle. It does work well and my clients find they can go deep with exploring and understanding themselves… However, I can flex my coaching muscles and benefit clients by being more provocative and challenging, at times!

I believe that where there is discomfort, there is learning, and I have felt the benefit through this training programme, once again.

“I am STRONG”

One of the a-ha moments was when I noticed a tangible, visceral shift from believing “I am resilient” to “I am STRONG”. This feels so different for me, because resilience implies that there are things to be resilient against. Being strong is about a way of being in the world, from the inside-out, and is not dependent on a set of external conditions. It’s about getting myself – and any stories I might be telling myself – out of the way.

This has been a revelation for me, and I am now exploring what that means in my life as it is now. And the more I pay attention to it and say it to myself, the stronger I feel.

That’s the beauty of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming): it’s about studying subjective experience, learning and doing ‘what works’… and sustaining it, too. Through almost 100 days of training (so far!) I have gained a treasure trove of skills and techniques.

And, most of all, I have found a way home to myself.

“Wherever you go, there you are.” Jon Kabat-Zinn

How to feel at home wherever you are

I couldn’t possibly do justice to this in a short paragraph, however here are the key components I have discovered which help me to feel at home, wherever I am in the world…

Be curious about people you meet, customs, food, and culture. Ask questions – most people love talking about themselves and where they come from, and enjoy welcoming people from other places, especially when they can learn from each other and form a bond in the process.

Notice what you have in common. The first time I was in India I noticed very quickly that the people I was with had all travelled a distance to be there too. So we were all fellow travellers! I find that a useful metaphor for life in general.

Tune in to your senses. You are probably starting to notice that I say this a lot. And it works! Right now I’m imagining the sand under my feet, the rustling of the palms above my head, and the vibrant flowers which seem to inspire a colourful palette for everything from clothes to buses to road signs! It can be very grounding and calming, and brings you to the present moment when you go through the senses one by one. When you are connecting with people, notice their expressions, what makes them laugh, and tune in to that (in a very genuine way).

Talking about humour, it’s a wonderful way to break the ice and get rid of any tension or formality. I can think of many examples of potentially daunting experiences which ended up being highlights because of the laughter and banter in the room!

Most of all, trust your instincts and remember the people who are great at this. If I ever feel like a fish out of water, for example in a state of confusion when travelling, I think about intrepid explorers who have far less information and resources than I do. And I also think “What would they do?” and “How would they be?”

*Anchoring is a technique where we can bring about a desired state – or way of being – by choice. For example you might want to bring about calmness, playfulness, or confidence, by choosing and activating a signal to ‘switch it on’. It really works!

Our regular driver Baiju who patiently drove us all over the place
Metaphors can change your life

Metaphors can change your life

​Working with metaphors has been life-changing for me, and for many people I have worked with.

A metaphor is a way of expressing something that conveys a variety of meaningful attributes, in the form of something else.

You might hear people say things like…

“It’s as if I’m on a treadmill and I can’t keep up”

“I went for a walk to blow away the cobwebs”

“You’re a star”

None of these are literal statements – not usually anyway! – but they mean something beyond the surface structure of the words to the person who’s saying them. In other words, what we mean goes deeper than what we say, and a metaphor is a sign that there is more to discover in the unconscious aspects of our experience.

Where it gets really interesting, I find, is when the person is having some kind of embodied experience in the form of a metaphor, for example…

“I can see red mist, I’m so angry”

“There’s a tightness in my throat when I talk about it”

“I just know. I can feel it in my gut… heavy like a stone”

“I can feel a buzz of positive energy”

Or it could be pointing emphatically to a particular point in the space around them, a or sound (like ‘whoosh’ or ‘bang’).

Again, none of these are literal but there is clearly some deeper meaning, and other insights to be found if we have a chance to explore.

Understanding your metaphors can create profound shifts, often bringing about new metaphors which change the whole outlook.

In the photo on this post, I show an example of a metaphor I held at the start of my transformational journey with #NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) – a scraggy old onion with lots of layers to peel back and discover. Through NLP tools and techniques, this then transformed into a beautiful lotus flower, with the petals gracefully unfolding with ease, representing the thinking and beliefs I now hold about how I learn and develop at my best.

And once you begin to understand metaphors you begin to develop a landscape of understanding, how things connect and relate to each other, and find solutions and choices you never even knew existed!

You can probably tell I’m passionate about this… I could go on for hours, but I won’t!

If you are interested to explore your personal metaphors, and the resources and insights they hold for you, then please get in touch for a chat! I offer Personal Coaching, Executive Coaching and development programmes, and various events throughout the year.

#metaphors #cleanlanguage #linguistics #NLP #coaching

A journey to India: Reflections and new beginnings

A journey to India: Reflections and new beginnings

As I sit looking out over the silvery shimmer of the Arabian sea, I feel the warm, golden sun on my face. It turns to a deep, rich red as it slowly sinks into the tropical haze on the horizon.

It’s been a day of discovery and learning, feeling unsettled with new realisations coming to the surface and also knowing and trusting that this is right for me at this exact moment. I sense that it’s time to let go of limiting beliefs and embrace all the possibilities of new beginnings.

Sitting here bathed in sunlight, I become aware of the ebb and flow of the waves, noticing they’re louder than before, hypnotic in their rhythm. With each new wave washing in, the one before it fades away and disappears, and yet the wisdom remains.

With each wave I feel lighter, as if the things I’ve been unconsciously carrying are sinking into the ocean and fresh moments are arriving, making perfect sense yet I’m not ‘thinking’ about anything, just being present with what is happening right now.

Hypnotised by the steady rhythm, as each wave bubbles up onto the shore I hear the words ‘begin again’, over and over. There’s a comfort in knowing that I can always start from the present moment in anything I want to achieve and that I have everything I need to be successful.

As the sun disappears completely I come back into awareness, feeling the sand between my toes and taking a cool drink of water. As I set it down I have a strong sense of purpose building within me, feeling ready to take the next steps forward into my full potential, to live my life’s purpose like never before. It’s time for new beginnings.

I am filled with gratitude for the warm welcome to this beautiful place, for new friendships, love and laughter, learning and experiences that will stay with me forever.

(originally published in January 2017)

Mindful Eating – 5 tips for the festive season

Mindful Eating – 5 tips for the festive season

Have you ever over-indulged over the festive season, and felt guilty and bloated afterwards? I think that probably applies to many of us! I have adapted and re-published a blog I wrote a few years ago because it’s a good reminder for me too.

Clients regularly talk to me about what they “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing or having, which can result in guilt, regret, or even shame if they choose to indulge.

We all experience the world through our memories, habits, beliefs, and reactions. We naturally have emotional connections with food, and at a time of year when loved ones gather together it can be challenging to achieve a healthy balance. It can also be difficult for people who don’t have their friends and family around them, have recently lost someone close to them, or are just not feeling like themselves.

Making more conscious and mindful choices in line with long-term goals means we can allow ourselves the occasional indulgence. It doesn’t mean you have to eat a salad for Christmas dinner, unless you want to, of course! I believe that being healthy is about having a long-term outcome in mind, with a sense of purpose behind it, and doing the things which help with this most of the time.

Mindful eating brings your attention to what, when, where, and how you are eating. Often ‘why’ as well! This is about noticing the healthy habits which work for you, as well as being aware of your potential temptations for unhealthy choices.

Here are 5 tips to help you enjoy a guilt-free festive season and a happier, healthier New Year:

1. Focus on what you want, rather than what you don’t want. What you focus on you get more of. If I say I’m going to “give up chocolate” or “drink less wine”, guess what pops straight into my head?!

A friend shared an article about diet research and comprehensive studies by Charlotte Markey, which proved that strict dieting can result in craving and bingeing, and lead to less healthy habits over the long term. Worse still, evidence shows that people who are always on diets are more likely to regain weight. A sense of ‘missing out’ and an awareness of the lack of choice doesn’t help, in my experience.

2. Make more conscious choices, and plan ahead. Have plenty of healthy options available, and you can plan lighter meals to balance out the rich, stodgy feasts which are traditional at this time of year!

Be more conscious of what, when, where, and how you’re eating, noticing the triggers for less healthy choices in-the-moment. It can help to pause and check against your long-term goals for your health and wellbeing, and whether you really want or need to eat in that moment.

Dehydration can fool us into thinking we are hungry, so drink plenty of water. Herbal teas can be a good option too. And did you know that the body takes up to 20 minutes to register that we’re full? Try to eat more slowly, and don’t be tempted to rush your food in social situations.

3. Savour your food – with all the senses – and slow down. Enjoy the whole range of food and drink you choose. Notice the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures and feelings, one by one. Chewing slowly usually means you will eat less. At a recent workshop I took the group through a guided visualisation, and they were much more drawn to the rainbow of healthy foods, with their bright, vivid colours, the crunchy, juicy textures and fresh smells and flavours than the unhealthy ‘beige’ alternatives. And that was while talking about the range of temptations over the festive season!

4. Sit down – this will help to avoid grazing and you will notice more what you’re eating, and whether it’s something you really want. Try not to be doing anything else at the same time (e.g. checking emails, Facebook, or watching TV).

5. It’s all about balance. Be kind to yourself! If you have the occasional indulgence, you have many other choices available to you throughout the day/week. When you think about the bigger picture, a few treats don’t seem like such a big deal! It’s as much about thoughts, emotions and behaviour as it is about what you eat. I like to think of it as ‘setting a course’ for your health and wellbeing, and getting back on track if you go off a little bit.

I wish you and your families a happy and healthy Christmas and New Year. And remember, a little bit of what you fancy does you good. Just keep it balanced, make it a conscious choice, and savour it!

Anna

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