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!

What happened in the silence in between

What happened in the silence in between

I began this year with great gusto, buzzing with a sense of adventure and with all sorts of things planned. The kind of self development I found was quite different from what I’d been seeking, but probably even more valuable.

Planting Seeds in the New Year

January lived up to all my expectations with an uplifting workshop on ‘Planting Seeds’ with a group of wonderful women who I’m also fortunate to call friends. We talked about setting intentions, set them down on paper in a variety of creative ways, and coached and encouraged each other to bring it to life.

I like to join in with these things too, when we are working in a small group, so I drew a big globe and plotted on the map where I was planning to go this year, with playful illustrations of what I would do when I got there. First up was India at the end of January, which was a fantastic experience once again and I wrote about it in my blog about Feeling at home wherever you are.

Things changed

And then I caught another virus straight after I got home and was stopped in my tracks again. Little did I know that I would still have chronic fatigue months later. I haven’t even been able to write, as I can’t seem to find the words.

It can be hard to stay connected and motivated when my mind and body is running on empty, and I have often felt frustrated at ‘sitting around doing nothing’.

And yet, that’s not really true. It’s a story I’ve been telling myself at times, being naturally fed up as it’s been 3 years now, on and off, since I first became ill. When I read this quote from Mozart recently, I felt a warmth spreading from my core…

“The music is not in the notes, but the silence in between.” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Inwardly I said a big “YES” and breathed a sigh of relief.

In the time that it has been necessary to rest and apparently ‘do very little’ I have also been doing profound inner work, as I feel a deeper layer of myself has begun to emerge. Despite not being at my best at times (nowhere near it!), I hold a solid belief that this is part of my path which will fundamentally influence the way I live and the type of work I do in future. And that is important to take my time over.

Here are some examples of what’s been happening in the ‘silence in between’…

Personal Reflection

I have taken time to notice how I think, and what patterns and words I use relating to my health, becoming aware of what helps and what holds me back, consciously accepting and letting go of how I wish things were. For example I have been very aware of my tendency to focus on others over my self, and my habit of finding a silver lining in everything, which I now understand can be detrimental over the long term. I have invested in coaching and holistic therapies which have been a lifeline when I have felt adrift at times. I have had lots of lovely messages and offers of support from friends too, but I have just not been well enough to make plans, far less meeting up.

Self Development: Learning how the mind, body, and nervous system works

Studying the science has greatly helped me to understand why I have been so unwell and not hold blame or shame, or feeling I ‘should’ be better by now. I have also read incredibly insightful books including ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ by Bessel Van der Kolk and ‘No Bad Parts’ by Richard Schwartz on the fascinating topic of Internal Family Systems (IFS). I have done some deep work to embrace difficult emotions and welcomed aspects of myself which have long been buried or ‘exiled’ as Schwartz calls it.

Reading about nature, flowing with the seasons, ancient traditions, and modern philosophy has been a mind-opening adventure. And I’m certainly not done yet.

Modelling how other people have recovered

Online and in a variety of books, there are accounts of people who have recovered fully from chronic fatigue and post-viral symptoms. These publications highlight how they think, what they believe, and what they do to make progress. I am taking small steps forward from what I have learned, and although it will take time, I am feeling a renewed sense of hope.

Seeing clients again

I have loved opening up my diary to see clients, just a few at a time and I am very careful about giving the experience and quality of attention they have come to expect, as well as managing my health and energy levels.

Other opportunities for learning and self development

As well as being one of the most challenging periods in my life, this has been (and still is) an opportunity to re-evaluate and open up to a new level of awareness. I have invested in self development. I have enjoyed getting to know myself in my 50th year, and although it has not been at all what I expected it has been so enriching and enlightening.

So, there you go… I seem to have gone from being stuck for words to pouring out several hundred of them in one go! It feels good to connect in this way again, although now I am ready for a long rest!

I will be opening up for another couple of one-to-one clients in August, either for Executive Coaching or Personal Development coaching, so please feel free to book a discovery call if you think you’d like to snap up one of the slots.

In the meantime, I am wondering what this blog has opened up for you? Are you curious about your own development and the ‘silence in between’?

Au revoir for now, and I hope it won’t be too long til I am back posting again!

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

Maps of the world

Maps of the world

A couple of years ago I visited Kelvingrove Museum with my daughter to see an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s work. I was intrigued to see the brushstrokes and pencil drawings in person, imagining him creating them all that time ago… little did I know it would spark my curiosity way beyond that.

There are many similarities in the style and form of his work, but these two stood out when I realised what’s different and unique about them.

The first is an anatomically correct study of a human spine, with every vertebra meticulously studied and set out on the page. Nothing like this had ever been done before, yet look at how the shape and form is precise, with structured notes and uniformity. Imagine the tenacity and attention to detail which went into such a piece of work, and how this helped physicians and scientists at the time.

The other picture is a map of an area in Italy which was entirely created through studying from ground level and IMAGINING what the aerial view would be. There was no aerial photography, no means of flying (yet… although he was a pioneer in that too), and yet he was able to create a map which is representative of the real landscape.

The mind which created these fascinates me, and especially the belief and determination which he must have had to boldly go where – literally – no one had gone before.

“The most important places on a map are the places we haven’t been yet.” ~ Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

During a planning meeting last week, Carolyn and I were talking about ‘maps of the world’. It’s an expression used in NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) and it helps to describe how we each have a unique perception of the world which shapes our experiences. In metaphorical terms, this internal representation could be likened to a ‘map’, with all the features set according to what we have experienced, our beliefs, values, memories, conditioning… and everything we have taken in through our senses. And yet this internal map which us humans have is only a representation – it’s not the whole truth, it’s not factual, and it has missing bits!

Just like Leonardo da Vinci we have created a map based on a sub-set of information, although perhaps less consciously.

As one of the Beliefs of Excellence (or pre-suppositions) in NLP says:

“The map is not the territory.”

What this is saying, in human terms, is that we have our map imprinted and integrated with all we know and have experienced, and yet there is no single version of the truth. We filter from subjective experience, which is essentially what NLP is about – the study of subjective experience, focusing on excellence and ‘doing what works’. Even having been in the same place at the same time as someone, there will be two versions of events. I am a twin and my sister and I recall different things from the same situations sometimes, either remembering different things or describing the same thing but not in the same way.

If you’d like to know more about the Beliefs of Excellence, and how they can significantly impact on our thinking – and the results we get – Carolyn has written a great blog about it.

And if you’re curious about developing different perspectives and progressing personally and professionally, take a look at various events coming up in the New Year, as well as books, cards, and other resources. You’re also welcome to book a discovery call to talk about how I could potentially support you, and have an experience what it’s like to work with me.