Wellbeing and Mindfulness Virtual Drop-in

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
  • Learn how self-compassion and self-acceptance can be a key to wellbeing
  • Improve your memory, concentration and cognitive functioning
  • You will be offered resources to take away and practice to help strengthen these skills.

To sign up, just email me on Shehzad.Malik@Cumbria.ac.uk and I will send you the ‘Teams’ link to join.

Journeys

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.

Photo by Kun Fotografi on Pexels.com

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. 

Take notice of your surroundings, low mist in the evening light at the Ambleside campus

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! 

Kindness is the New Rock and Roll

I wish I’d come up with this aphorism, because it nicely sums up an important piece of wisdom (credit goes to the band that used it as the title of their last album, and a song on that)

We are in Mental Health Awareness Week – hosted by the Mental Health Foundation. The theme is kindness. They rightly say that: in times like these when the world feels upside down, Kindness is the way to turn things the right way round.

“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”

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week

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.

Please read the important guidance below before you begin
  • 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

References

Fehr, E. & Fischbacher, U., 2003. The nature of human altruism. Nature, Volume 425, pp. 785-791.

Gilbert, P., 2010. Compassion Focused Therapy. Hove: Routledge.

Graser, J. & Stangier, U., 2018. Compassion and Loving-Kindness Meditation: An Overview and Prospects for the Application in Clinical Samples. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 26(4), pp. 201-215.

Hofmann, S. G., Grossman, P. & Hinton, D. E., 2011. Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: Potential for psychological interventions. Clinical Psychology Review, Volume 31, pp. 1126-1132.

Kurzban, R., Burton-Chellew, M. N. & West, S. A., 2015. The Evolution of Altruism in Humans. Annual Review of Psychology, Volume 66, pp. 575-599.

Porges, S. W., 2011. The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Shonin, E. et al., 2015. Buddhist-Derived Loving-Kindness and Compassion Meditation for the Treatment of Psychopathology: A Systematic Review. Mindfulness, Volume 6, pp. 1161-1180.

Wang, Y. et al., 2020. Altruistic behaviours relieve physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 117(2), pp. 950-958.

Breathe

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).

Take Notice – 1 of your “5 Ways to Wellbeing”

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.

  1. Think of a real problem
  2. Think of a solution
  3. Act upon the solution
  4. Problem fixed

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.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Read more about how you can “Take Notice” here

What to expect when you refer to the University of Cumbria’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Team

Sometimes we need some sunshine that clears the mist and helps us to see our way ahead more clearly

If you find yourself struggling to cope then there are a range of support services at the UoC. Of course reaching out to family and friends is usually a good idea as well. Even though you might not want to worry them, just think how you would want to help them if they faced a similar situation.

This blog has lots of information and tips on looking after yourself and improving your wellbeing, just take a look at the tags for the various topics. And we have also produced a list of self-help resources. If you’ve got to a point where you think you need professional advice and support then you need to know that UoC has a Mental Health and Wellbeing Team.

The Mental Health and Wellbeing Team had 600+ students make contact with us in the 2018-19; wanting help for a whole range of difficulties. These included low mood and depression, anxiety, panic and stress, relationship difficulties (with family, friends, colleagues, housemates, partners, etc.), current or historical abuse (sexual, physical, emotional), bereavement, homesickness, self-harm, drinking too much alcohol, eating problems, sleep problems, and a range of other emotional difficulties.

The team has practitioners from a range of professional backgrounds, with a wide range of therapeutic training, interests and experience. This includes Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Person Centred Counselling, Integrative Counselling, Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), Mindfulness Based Counselling, Solution Focused Therapy, Advocacy and Motivational Interviewing. 94% of students who have used our service would recommend it to a friend

You can access our service if you are registered with a programme of study at the University of Cumbria by completing this self-referral form, which should only take you about 10 minutes. (If you are studying on a programme at a partner organisation of the University of Cumbria, you will need to access the support services at that organisation). Filling in the form with as much information about you and your present situation as you can, will give the team a good starting point to help you work through your difficulties. The details you put on the form will only be available to the Mental Health and Wellbeing Team (unless you ask us to share it with others, for example your GP, or it is required by law – please speak to us if you have any concerns about this).

We will then get in touch to arrange a therapeutic consultation with one of our practitioners. Your appointment will come via the email address that you provide in the online form, so do check this regularly. To ensure the message gets to you rather than getting filtered as spam, please remember to check your spam/junk mail folder as well.

Please respond to the message by accepting the appointment date and time (or requesting to reschedule, if you can’t make the one offered). Please note that we will usually close a file if the student does not respond or not show up for their appointment, and in that case you will need to re-refer yourself.

At our first (therapeutic consultation) meeting we will try to make you feel as comfortable as possible, so that you can let us know the situation you’re struggling with. We will advise you on the limitations of the service, including the limitations of confidentiality. It will be an opportunity for you to ask any questions you may have of the services we provide. We will then suggest things that you could do to help, provide information about resources and other services that might be appropriate, and decide what else might be needed from our service.

It might be that a single session is all that is needed for you to begin to resolve your situation. Or one of our wellbeing courses might be the most appropriate thing to do. Or referred to other services within the University, or referred to specialist services external to the University. Or it might be that further 1 to 1 work is needed.