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New Year, New Beginnings

I read recently that a new year is a new book with 365 blank pages to fill (366 this year as it’s a leap year). In some ways I can relate to this – we don’t have any control over what happens to us in life but we can to some extent choose whether or not to take the opportunities available to us and choose how we respond to what life throws at us. Being one of millions of people who battle with depression, choosing how we respond when we feel rock bottom isn’t always going to happen. Sometimes we just have to go with it and hope the black clouds lift sooner rather than later. Anyway, I’m starting the year thankfully on a positive note and have a good feeling about it. 2016 is a year in which I want to be more than a bystander in life. I really want to make things happen. By ‘things’ I don’t mean massive life changing changes. I will be happy to see success in little steps towards a more healthy and positive attitude to life. I really do hope that it will be a year in which we embrace the positives, show more love and compassion and treasure what is simple and good.

Suffering and positive emotions

Suffering is universal. No-one gets through life without knocks, adversity and trauma. Suffering and pain are part of the human condition. Being humans, we suffer more than animals because we have the power to stand back from ourselves and reflect on our reflections. However, whilst we don’t always have control over what happens to us, we do have the capacity to turn our suffering into something useful, something we can learn from. I never tire of reading about and trying to put into practice ideas from positive psychology, so surprise, surprise I’m doing another course run by Coursera.   https://www.coursera.org/course/positivepsych delivered by Dr Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So, some of my take home lessons today are that on average people experience more positive emotions throughout the day than negative emotions (unless we are depressed and anxious). Positive emotions are quite subtle so we don’t pay enough attention to them and so can end up with a bias towards negativity.  However, if we focus more on positive emotions we store up the potential to be resilient when we’re faced with adversity. ‘Hope` is a really interesting and useful positive emotion as it is often found in the midst of negativity when things are really at their lowest ebb.  Hope has for a long time been one of my favourite ’emotions’. Other positive emotions discussed were: joy; interest; awe; pride; gratitude; love; serenity, inspiration and amusement.  I’m looking forward to hearing more, but these days I’m finding that too much thinking  is mentally draining.  I don’t have the powers of critical thinking that I used to have and this can be upsetting if I dwell too much on it, so need to be mindful of that.

Challenging the inner dialogue

I’m not an avid blogger but do like to read other people’s blogs when I have good days, i.e. energy. A blogger I have followed for a while seems to have the knack of just saying the right things at the right time in his posts. It’s a bit unnerving sometimes, but I think it’s because he talks about things close to the universal human condition. A recent post was about our power to change the thoughts we have about ourselves and challenge our inner critics, inner dialogue or whatever label we give to those unwanted, unhelpful intrusions which seem determined to destroy us. We really can change those voices in our heads to more positive ones, but it takes a lot of work and courage and we can easily slip back into those dark spaces if we’re not careful.

Over the years I’ve studied a lot of psychology and if I had the energy now that I used to have I would be able to write more coherently, but I think what’s happened to me is that too much psychology has mashed my thought processes to the extent that I overthink everything. I believe that too much analysing can hijack our thinking and stop us from growing. It can make us too self-focused and prevent us from enjoying the moment and life itself. Everything becomes an exercise in trying to second guess our own and other people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Being self-aware can help us find areas we need to work on and improve, but being over-tuned into ourselves and over monitoring can be damaging, not to mention exhausting.

So, as well as becoming kinder to ourselves and working on replacing those hurtful voices with compassionate friendly ones, we need to find a way of really engaging with life, of getting out of our heads and into our lives.

Let’s work on it.

Journey in 2015 Being in control

Lately I’ve been reflecting on what it might be like to realise we’re losing our memory and our power to initiate activities and make those important everyday decisions. How might it feel to be faced with the knowledge that at some time in the future (sooner rather than later) we will be unable to express our anxieties, frustrations and wishes, when our powers of language and verbal expression no longer serve us? How will we understand the world and our place within it and make ourselves be understood when we can no longer process information in the way we’ve been used to using logic and reasoning, organising our words and sentences coherently. I’m thinking more about this lately as someone I know has been diagnosed with vascular dementia and she is in her fifties. I know if it were me I would be very frightened about the prospect of losing control over my life. I’d be frightened of losing what makes me ‘me’. On the other hand, I would hope that there would be people who would support me, engage with me, remind me of who I am by reminiscing with me and finding out what motivates me. I would still want to be part of society and take part in meaningful activity and not hidden away. Physical pain can be horrendous and draining, but if given the choice, I would choose this over loss of memory and cognition. One thing I believe, though, is even if we lose control of our cognitions, we are all still entitled to respect and compassion and we should give these to others. Behind each of us there is a story of struggle, of striving to make sense of the complexity of our lives. We all have a story worth telling and we all need to listen and to be heard.

Journey in 2015 Vulnerability

As I’ve got older, I’ve learned that it’s ok to feel vulnerable because in reality most of us do. What doesn’t happen is that many of us are afraid of admitting to it for fear of being seen as ‘failures’, or as ‘weak’. Not many of us sail through life without hardships, adversity, and often trauma. Some of us are more resilient, either because of personality, more helpful thinking styles, or genetics, but more likely a combination of these factors. Others can be so scarred that living from day to day is a constant battle. I’ve heard some amazing and courageous accounts lately of people who have battled with so many adversities and have shared their experiences because they want to help others not feel alone. Their generosity in admitting their vulnerability is huge. My respect goes out to them as well as to those who still live in fear.

Journey in 2015 Laughter

Being able to smile and laugh are amongst the greatest gifts of all time. I’m so grateful that I’m able to do these things again after several months last year when depression took hold and I lost my ability to smile. The only time I was able to experience joy was when I had the opportunity to spend time with our two beautiful grandchildren now aged 4 and 11 months. If anyone were to ask what I’d like for Christmas I would be secretly thinking ‘my smile back please’. Thankfully, that particular black cloud has lifted and I’ve even caught myself laughing while trying to play tennis.

I’m so fortunate to be amongst young children two mornings a week. Most of them are non-verbal but able to communicate so effectively in other ways that they would melt the hearts of the stoniest of people. Children bring so much joy. We can learn so much from their simplicity. As adults, we often forget how to enjoy the simple things in life and lose our sense of playfulness. I recently read about a man in the US in his late seventies who has turned his home and garden into a playground to keep his mind and body active. He seemed to be having so much fun inventing apparatus and games. What an inspiration!!

So, here’s to being playful, smiling and laughing more. They must be good foodstuffs for the neurons.

Journey in 2015 Connectedness

Sometimes I long to be a hermit. The outside world can seem a scary and tense place – people pushing and rushing around like there’s no tomorrow. What kind of world have we made for ourselves? Certainly it doesn’t feel a safe and kind one. These days the default is for keeping our distance. We notice and are surprised when people smile rather than when they don’t. Yet, as humans we need to connect for survival and for maintaining our mental well-being. We need to reach out to others even when it’s so hard for us to do this. The smile we exchange with someone might be the only smile they or we receive that day. Those few words we exchange might be the only words they or we hear or speak that day. We all have our struggles in life. We all share a common humanity. We need each other. We need to connect.