It is time of us to reclaim our right to a full night of sleep. In doing so, we can be reunited with that most powerful elixir of wellness and vitality. Then we may remember what it feels like to be truly awake during the day.
Matthew Walker – Why We Sleep
Research shows that sleep plays a vital role in pretty much every system in the body. This includes cognitive functioning and our emotional state. So, when life seems to be throwing everything at you, one thing you can do to increase resilience and maximise your performance is to get enough sleep (and yes that is 8 hours).
It’s so easy to sacrifice sleep when you’ve got a lot to do, or when a good party or staying up late chatting with friends beckons. However, the impacts of sleep deprivation soon build up, so it is highly recommended to catch up with sleep and get back into a routine as soon as you can. For now, I will let the evidence (Walker, 2017) speak for itself and focus on what you might do to improve sleep.
When we’re struggling with stress, worry or low mood, often this shows up as disrupted sleep: struggling to get to sleep, or waking up during the night, or waking up too early (or all of these!). Then the lack of sleep exacerbates the problems we were struggling with. So for example, you’re worrying about an assignment and you can’t sleep, then the lack of sleep hinders concentration, focus, memory, cognitive functioning, emotional balance etc. Which then makes it even harder to get the work done. So you get even more stressed out. Sound familiar?
So clearly, it’s important to do our best to break out of this vicious cycle. The rest of this article focuses on tips to improve sleep so keep reading. And here is a guided meditation to help you settle for sleep, give it a try and let us know what you think.
Things to avoid or reduce:
Cut out caffeine from 6:00 pm onwards
Avoid computer games that get lots of adrenaline going, close to bedtime
Bed is for sleeping (or sex) don’t work in bed or watch telly and
It is best to avoid all screen based devices, so put away your laptop, tablet or phone
Turn off the phone, or put it on airplane mode and a few feet away from the bed
Alcohol seems to help at the time because of it’s temporary sedative effects, but later on it causes all sorts of rebound problems, and disrupts the sleep rhythms.
It is likely that alcohol interferes with a range of essential psychophysiological processes that happen in our sleep, so make sure you have enough nights of sleep without alcohol to catch up with essential REM sleep etc.
Nicotine is a stimulant, smoking close to bedtime will make it harder to settle
Avoid a heavy meal close to bedtime
Things that help with sleep
During the day, getting some exercise and exposure to some daylight is a good idea
Get bedding, duvet and pillow to suit you, if possible arrange the room so it feels ‘right’ to you
A nice warm herb tea is comforting (there are lots to choose from, try Camomile)
Have a good sleep routine, waking up and going to bed at the same time every day
A good bedtime routine helps, do things that are calming: reading, bath/shower, brush teeth, getting makeup off, changing into comfortable sleep clothes, listening to music, meditating, very gentle stretching
Reading in bed or listening to music or guided meditations is good
Have enough water during the evening, have some water beside the bed and have a sip before settling, have a sip if you wake up in the night (tea, coffee and alcohol will make you want to pee in the night, but water doesn’t irritate the bladder so works just fine)
The room should not be too hot, in particular cool your feet, try sticking them out of the covers, try and get some good ventilation
Get the room as dark as you can
If the environment is noisy you could try earplugs, or headphones to play ambeint sounds or ‘white noise’
There are lots of aromatherapy herbs worth exploring, Lavender is worth a try, just put a few drops on a tissue somewhere in the room
Strategies for when the mind is overactive, when we’re trying to switch off for sleep
Reduce the adrenalin in the system, here are a few more ideas to turn down the ‘activation dial’: This calming breath exercise, guided safe place visualisation, think of 5 things you are grateful for, remembering a time when you felt safe and relaxed
If there is a persistent thought of something you have to do, it is probably trying to remind you of something important. Acknowledge it and write it down on your list of important things to consider the next day. Out of your mind and on to your list.
Step back from ruminative thinking, learning to let go. This might not be easy but is one of the most important mental skills we can learn. Mindfulness teaches us to get better at this; here’s an introduction
The guided meditation above has been specifically designed to help you settle for sleep, listen to it in bed so that you can fall to sleep without having to get up. You can also play it if you wake up in the night. We can’t force ourselves to go to sleep, so be gentle with yourself. And if you don’t always fall asleep then you’ve got a win-win, because you’ve done you daily meditation instead.
Fridays 4:00 to 5:00 pm online, live via ‘Teams‘ – Starting on 25.9.20
We live in stressful times. There is just so much in the news and social media to cause us to worry. And then there are the stresses and strains of everyday living. University life is an exciting and positive time, and it comes with the challenges of a significant life transition, and academic work as well!
Here’s a fun and relaxing way to increase wellbeing and feelings of calm. Build skills to handle stress and improve mood.
Would you like to increase your coping skills? Is there a way to increase wellbeing and resilience? Here’s your chance to be kind to yourself and to create a nurturing space for yourself. We can’t ‘magic away’ the struggles of everyday life, but we can increase our ability to cope, and strength to face our challenges.
These sessions aim to introduce you to practical, easy to use, skills that can help to enhance your physical and mental wellbeing, and increase your ability to handle stress and manage difficult emotions.
The sessions offer ‘wellbeing hacks’ drawn from a wide range of sources – Movement & Yoga, Mindfulness, Breathwork, Compassionate Mind, CBT, Polyvagal Theory, EFT, Guided Imagery and the NHS Five Ways to Wellbeing:
Breathing and focusing techniques to help calm and centre
Simple mindfulness meditation practices to focus and quiet the mind
Visualisation techniques to increase feelings of wellbeing
Movement and postures that can settle emotions, and help us to feel more grounded
Today’s blog is written by the University of Cumbria’s Chaplain, Rev. Caroline Kennedy.
During lockdown, the journeys we’ve been able to make have been restricted, and for many of us that must be quite a change. If you’re someone who loves travel and has looked forward to and enjoyed, exploring new places, or holidays in other countries, then life might feel smaller and limited right now. And if, like me, you’ve been used to travelling for work or study, hopping on to trains or taking the car out regularly, you might also feel that life is a bit narrower. Even shopping is something most of us go out less to do, and the enforced changes brought about by lockdown will surely have an impact on our habits, possibly meaning that online buying is the preferred option for many of us in the future.
To state the obvious, journeys involve movement; the going from one place to another. Before lockdown, we probably took the small everyday journeys for granted- going to see friends, calling in on relatives, meeting in the pub, having something to eat in the Cube if we were on the Fusehill campus…and although things are changing and lockdown is easing, it’s hard to imagine that all of these things will come back fast. Yet a journey doesn’t have to be understood solely in terms of physical movement. Journeys can be connected to inner growth and change, to experience and to the passing of time. You’ve no doubt heard phrases like ‘life’s a journey,’ and ‘life has many paths.’ The image or metaphor of life as a journey is a very ancient, deep seated one, and it can help us to understand and grapple with the idea that life holds tough times as well as periods of happiness. In a long journey made on foot it’s probable there would be different scenery, places where the path was steep and rocky, as well as points of being high up with wonderful views. The journey metaphor can encourage us in the places where we struggle and seem to be making no progress. It reminds us that there could be something wonderful round the corner, that at the end of a steep uphill climb there’s often a great view, and that stopping to look back and see how far we’ve come is a really important part of journeying well and understanding our current situation.
I wonder what stage of life’s journey you’re in now? And whether you feel as though you’ve reached the top of a hill or are starting to climb a very steep one. Perhaps you have a sense of reaching a plateau, being in a flat place where there’s not much change. Maybe, because of the pandemic we’re still facing, the view you’re dealing with has suddenly switched from a wide open space where you could walk or run fast, and knew where you were going, to a ravine you didn’t expect to come across, or a place with a high wall blocking your progress. Whether you’re a student about to graduate or planning to go into another year of study, or a member of the university’s staff, the view you have now is probably different from the one you saw before the arrival of Covid 19.
The writer of psalm 139, addressing his thoughts to God, says in verse two: “You mark out my journeys and my resting place.” This person, living in what we think of as the Mediterranean basin and believed to have been writing from his position as king almost three thousand years ago, surely understood life as a journey, held and directed by a god who wanted his character to develop and saw a much wider picture than the circumstances faced by the writer at the time. And taking a wide perspective, understanding our own situation as part of something much bigger, can be a very helpful lens to see things through, one which eases anxiety, and lessens the tendency to drive and put pressure on ourselves.
In fact, understanding that the world of our own immediate experience isn’t all there is can be part of what ‘s called awe. The word ‘awesome’ is so commonly used now that we can take it generally to mean ‘good’ or ‘great,’ but awe is actually about wonder; about being aware that there are things so amazing and so much bigger than us, that we’re left breathless. Like seeing a huge mountain topped with snow, a waterfall higher than we’ve ever seen, or being in a powerful storm. American scientists have found that experiencing awe releases endorphins, the hormones that make us feel good. So to be able to experience awe, or a sense of wonder at what is much bigger than us, is a great attitude or ability to carry on a journey through life. If you’re based near our Ambleside campus, then getting out into the countryside close by could be a good way of promoting this. Looking at the night sky or getting up early to watch the sun rise are recognised ways of promoting a sense of awe and wonder at the mystery of the natural world around us. Being up on Donkins Hill at the heart of the campus itself gives a great sense of the mountains close by, and a feeling of being held in a wonderful, colourful bowl of countryside with all sorts of possibilities for exploration and escape from day to day pressures. The campus isn’t open currently, but when it is, try standing or sitting up on Donkins Hill and just take in the view.
To continue with the journey metaphor, if we don’t have a map or SatNav, if we come across unexpected disasters, or if we meet people along the way who ask us to go somewhere with them for a while, there will be points when we need to stop and rest, re-think our route or direction, look for another way, or decide to spend some time taking in what’s right in front of us. I wonder whether you feel the compass that guides you through life is a reliable one, or whether you’ve always been too busy to really think about what helps you navigate each stage? Whatever is leading you, the practice of stopping to look back and see how far you’ve come is a good one to remind yourself of your achievements so far, and how much ground you’ve covered. And if you need a bit of encouragement and are feeling low in your own sense of value, taking a few minutes to write a list of your achievements (academic and personal- from gaining qualifications and completing assignments to things like walking the Roman Wall, finishing a book, writing a blog, managing a budget, making new friends…anything that for you has meant a step forward), is a great way to remind yourself that you have ‘made progress’ and are in fact, journeying well, whether this particular time feels like being stuck in a bog or not.
On March 1st it was St David’s Day. “And what,” you might be asking, “has that got to do with where I am now? I’m really not interested in hearing about some old saint…”
Fair point. Saint David though, has a link with the practice of kindness which is being recommended nowadays to boost our mental health as we journey through life. During Mental Health week recently, kindness was the theme that was promoted. Saint David (the patron saint of Wales), is believed to have said to his followers before he died “Do the little things.” This didn’t mean finding tiny and easy tasks. It meant doing the things that seem very ordinary and wouldn’t attract attention. The things you can’t point to on your CV when you want to demonstrate success, but that really matter to other people. Like taking time to listen to someone who has trouble expressing him/herself, encouraging someone who’s feeling low, sending a card or making a call to an elderly relative, praising someone who doesn’t get much praise, cooking dinner when others are tired, and being generous when you feel overlooked. Doing things for others makes us feel good, and the value of the ‘little things’, unseen by the wider world (and that’s the point), shouldn’t be underestimated. These actions move us in a direction that’s to do with contribution and service, with the development of our character, and they add to our inner journey, our growth as people. When we feel stuck and bored, unable to make progress in the way we’d thought, or to move on in a way that’s visible to others, noticing what we might be able to do quietly for good, in our immediate environment, paying attention to the ‘little things,’ can help us to re-focus, look out and move in our souls.
The organisation Mind says that giving to others is one of its Five Ways to Wellbeing. Being kind to someone else is also being kind to you. And in times of change, when things may feel uncertain and unclear, as they do now on a national and worldwide level due to the Corona pandemic, it’s worth remembering our ‘circles of influence’ as Stephen Covey, the Leadership guru and organizational consultant advises. These are the areas of our lives we CAN control, and they encompass the values we decide to live out, the amount of time we put into our relationships, the way we behave in our families, the encouragement we give to our friends, the level of effort we put into our studies as well as many other things. These are all the things under our hands, the things within our reach, which done well, can actually be transformative. They’re the steps along the way to successful living, and they involve us in the process of prioritising and deciding what is most precious, most of value to us.
I’ve spoken to lots of people who, over the last few months, say they’ve re-evaluated, changed their priorities, and don’t want to ‘go back to normal.’ This could mean they want to slow down, spend more time with their families, get outside more…make changes which mean that their lives will seem richer, not in financial terms, but in relationships and feeling alive. You could say they’ve decided to change direction or take a detour on the journey of life. Perhaps they’ve found a shortcut or gone off the main road and decided to travel a bit more slowly, but in a way that seems to have better views!
Wherever you are on your journey, remember that it’s important to be you. Your life matters to the world, and you will have skills and abilities and experiences that no-one else will have in quite the same combination. There are things that only you can contribute and bring, and taking time to notice and reflect on your skills and the things you enjoy is important to help you understand which direction to take and when to stop for a rest. Put hope, and faith in the way you’re made, generosity and openness in your backpack as you journey this year, as well as some awe and wonder, courage and patience…I’d love to know how you get on, and imagine you’ll make great progress!
“We all know that being kind is the right thing to do but did you know that kindness is good for you? A little act of kindness can boost your mental health, reduce stress and it can cheer you up to think of someone else – not forgetting, of course, to be kind to yourself. It is a path to a society that better protects our mental health”
They point to research evidence for the positive impact of kindness on protecting and improving mental health. Their survey has shown that almost three quarters of UK adults say it’s important that we learn from the coronavirus pandemic to be more kind as a society. Also almost two-thirds of UK adults say that being kind to others has a positive impact on their mental health.
Psychologists have long shown that kindness to others (altruism) also has a positive effect on the giver (Fehr & Fischbacher, 2003; Kurzban, et al., 2015; Wang, et al., 2020).
There is evidence that accessing states of caring and compassion have a profound healing effect on us (Gilbert, 2010) and there appears to be a evolutionary neuro-biological basis for this (Porges, 2011).
Based on ancient wisdom, a growing body of research suggests that kindness & compassion meditations activate these healing systems within us. These meditative practices can be effective as part of the treatment of a wide range of mental health conditions and promote physical and emotional wellbeing (Graser & Stangier, 2018; Hofmann, et al., 2011; Shonin, et al., 2015).
Here is a short introductory guided meditation to help cultivate this state of self healing. Please read the guidance below before you try it.
This guided meditation requires active engagement and participation, so while it can be calming, it does ask for some mental effort
A bit of perseverance is likely to pay off, with a bit of practice the positive effects of meditation increase
If you find it difficult to settle and follow along with the guidance, then you might need a bit more brain-training with a breath practice
By using the meditation, you are taking responsibility for your wellbeing. It is not a substitute for counselling or treatment. It is an educational and self-development resource
Meditative practices have been shown to offer powerful tools for mental health and wellbeing by helping to develop enhanced emotional and thinking skills. They are not a quick fix and require effort and practice
Meditation is not usually suggested as mental health first aid. It can be very helpful in managing difficult emotions, yet this skill takes time to build. I think when you’re feeling anxious or unsettled, there are lots of other helpful things you can to do first, for example here is a calming exercise which I have used with many people (link opens in dropbox where you can directly play the file or download it for offline use)
Of course if you are acutely unwell then please get appropriate support, make yourself safe, and come back to this practice when you are feeling stable enough to engage with it
I hope you find this meditation helpful, feel free to get in touch with any feedback
Fehr, E. & Fischbacher, U., 2003. The nature of human altruism. Nature, Volume 425, pp. 785-791.
During the current lockdown there is a lot of good advice out there. Our contribution here is just a small practical thing that you can do to help reduce stress and increase wellbeing. There is strong evidence that stress levels can have a significant impact on our immune functioning.
This is a short guided meditation. The visual element is just to add flavour, it is OK to close your eyes during the practice, if you like. At just under 8 minutes you can pop this on anytime you have a bit of time to spare.
Mindfulness isn’t the same as relaxation, but is a very good way of building wellbeing if practiced for a time. A very common misunderstanding is to expect to have an ‘empty mind’ or feel more relaxed (which may or may not happen). So if there is agitation or lots going through the mind, then there is no need to suppress anything, just observe what’s there.
Meditation is not first aid for anxiety. It can be very helpful in managing anxiety (and other difficult emotions) yet this skill takes time to build. I think when you’re feeling anxious or unsettled, there are lots of other helpful things you can to do, for example here is a calming exercise which I have used with many people (link opens in dropbox where you can directly play the file or download it for offline use).
Life can easily rush by, and we can miss moments that can make us happy or happier. Taking time to focus on the here and now, can aid with your 5 Ways to Wellbeing.
When we feel low, we often get into a spiral thinking pattern known as rumination, where we often focus on the past. Thoughts that often start with, “If only…“, and focus on lots of regret and disappointment, they include “I should have…“, “I could have…“. Conversely, when we ruminate when we are feeling stressed or anxious, we often fear about future events that haven’t even taken place, thoughts often start with “What if…“. The more we ruminate, the more it impacts on our ability to think straight.
Think of a real problem
Think of a solution
Act upon the solution
When we ruminate, we repeat and don’t get to an end point
Think of a problem
Worry about the problem
Think about the problem some more
Worry about the problem some more
Repeat on and on and on and on and on and…. you get the idea.
The more we ruminate, the more habitual it becomes. When negative rumination gets a grip, it can lead to unhelpful behaviours such as self-isolation, heavy drinking, self-harm, comfort eating, etc.
What can be done about rumination?
Try to be more aware of your thoughts processes
“I don’t need to go over these thoughts right over and over again right now, I can think about my options when I am in a more positive mood”
“I can’t stop my thoughts but I can choose not have ruminations right now”
Do something that will take your attention away from your thoughts
“What can I do now that will make me feel better?”
“Is there someone I can talk to to help me problem solve?”
“Instead of focusing on the negatives, is there something else that I can take notice of?”
Taking notice can be in many forms. It can include meditation, mindfulness, and there are plenty of apps that can help you with that. ORCHA is an organisation that reviews health based apps including ones for mindfulness, on the basis of how effective they are. To see some of the apps they recommend, click here. If you are a campus based student at the University of Cumbria, there are mindfulness sessions available at various times of the year, some of which are free to attend.
Of course, at this time of year, there are so many little, but beautiful moments to cherish and take note of. The UK being a temperate climate, makes Autumn a particular good time to take notice. Take a look around outside, and focus on the changes.
This heightened awareness of what is going on around us, can enhance your self-understanding. Taking more notice in our lives doesn’t make our problems go away, but helps us to tune into what is important in our lives, or to give a break from rumination.