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Dogs for Mental Wellbeing

Raffi is a three year old poodle dachshund cross – a doxiepoo- but is also the family’s Head of Welfare. He’s earned this honourable title because he has a knack of lifting people up when they feel down and intuiting what they need at that moment.

This usually comes in the form of selecting one of his much loved toys and handing it over in the same way a parent will snuggle a sick child into bed with a favourite teddy.

When he does this to me he watches for my reaction and if I don’t seem to thrilled with the well-mouthed fluffy toy with most of its stuffing ripped out, he quietly pads back to his stash and selects another.

When we bond with our dogs during the many hours we spend playing with them, fussing them and walking them, our brains release the feel good chemical, oxytocin. All pets, but especially dogs, are a great source of comfort and companionship, especially for anyone living alone. Stroking a pet alleviates stress and has an immediate calming effect and if we have something to get up for in a morning, it gives us meaning to our lives.

Dogs are great at encouraging us to get exercise whatever the weather. Fresh air, being out in nature is good for mental health especially low mood and anxiety. Raffi senses the moment it’s time for “walkies” and will dash into the hall where his lead and hi-viz jacket are waiting.

Being out and about with a dog offers an easy opportunity to be sociable. Raffi is a friendly dog and wants to play with others. I find myself stroking whippets, huskies and dachshunds before I’ve said a word to their owner. We do the dog talk, move onto the weather and I often find myself engaged in longer conversations and on occasions being invited for coffee.

Not all dog owners as approachable though. I tend to read their facial expression letting Raffi launch in. There are times when I prefer to wander in solitude, dog at heel and not have to do the small talk.

When I’m writing, Raffi is happy to sit on the sofa and snooze. I chat to him about a character or an idea and if he opens one eye it’s a sign of approval. People say dogs don’t understand or talk, but I beg to differ. Raffi has a vocabulary of about ten words, most of them involve food but the one he protests is “bed.”

Pets give us so much love and it’s a great feeling to come home and see his tail wagging away like a windscreen wiper. Having responsibility for a pet means being less focused on your own problems, just for a while.

Not everyone is in a position to have a pet, especially a dog, but Borrow My Doggy is a website which connects owners to responsible dog sitters. Animal shelters are often looking for volunteers and it’s always worth putting a card in the window of your local newsagent or post office to offer dog walking services.

Dogs are our everyday heroes. They offer us unconditional love and can have an enormous impact on our mental wellbeing. If they’re anything like Raffi, they’ll always be there for you.

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Kick Those Negative Feelings

I find myself arching an eyebrow at anyone who tells me they don’t suffer from negative self-talk from time to time especially in the early hours of the morning when fears and doubts are magnified.  

  So what is negative thinking?  In many of my training programmes on human behaviour over the years, I used to begin with a simple group exercise to compile examples from personal experiences.  The same responses came up each time: anger fear, guilt, worry, sadness, envy, grief, loneliness, not being good enough, shame, blame, despair and so the list grew. When asked to reverse the exercise and consider positive responses, groups struggled to come up with three or four. Why is this?

  The brain focuses in on negative thoughts and feelings because it senses DANGER. Without a super human effort to counteract this pattern, we get locked into a downward spiral which is difficult to climb out of.  We can’t avoid negative thinking but when it takes over our lives, putting a block on what we want to do or achieve then it’s time to take action.

  As a writer, I don’t always want to write. The words don’t flow easily and whispering into my ear is the ever taunting voice. ‘You’re wasting your time. Who do you think you are? Lee Child’s a writer. So is Paula Hawkins. You’ll never be in that league.’

   True but I can be in my own league. I have to remind myself that my voice is my own and my narrative is carved from many difficult personal experiences that might help others.

Although I don’t always put my techniques for breaking the cycle into practice, I’d like to share what does work for me, especially when I wake and can’t get back to sleep.

  Keeping a notebook by the bed means I can transfer what is in my head to paper which takes away some of the angst. Journaling has long been used as a way to manage feelings and make sense of tumbling thoughts. It helps to contain the catastrophizing and focus on what is really going on. Next to the feelings, I write down an action. It might be small such as make a phone call or write a letter. Taking back control in some form, not of other people but of turbulent emotions is a powerful thing to do.

  Break the loop by doing something practical. Bake a cake, tidy a cupboard, clean out your shed, bag up unwanted stuff for charity. Simple actions help to shift focus especially if they involve moving around. Ruminating is best left to cows.

  I’m a great believer in getting started on a project rather than planning. Seeing something take shape even it’s distorted and not what you had in mind can lead to something better than you envisioned. Putting it off because you don’t have the right tools or you need to think about it a bit more is a defence mechanism against fear of failure.  It’s also self-sabotaging and self-defeating.

  Finally train your mind to think,  So What? It’s not the fear of losing or not achieving something but more about how you are going to react. Do you have the resilience to cope with anything that comes your way? Actually you’re stronger than you give yourself credit for. Some of us are harder on ourselves than on other people.

  I’m not into modern psychobabble but there is something to be said for self-nurturing. This doesn’t mean eating your feelings with sugary treats but it does mean respecting your body, giving yourself time and attention and not relying on others to do it for you and above all reprogramming your inner voices.

   My children used to sing along to an American nursery rhyme.  You can do it, you know you can.’  I’ll leave you with that thought.   

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Anxiety in these uncertain times

As a counsellor, I’m receiving calls and emails from a growing number of people who are finding it difficult to tear themselves away from the news, be it on the television, radio or online. As they tell me about the compulsive nature of their behaviour, driven by anxiety, I am at a loss to do anything to help other than listen and validate their feelings, avoiding catastrophizing and melodrama which adds fuel to their already raging fire.

   Emotions swing from disgust to rage to fear and a profound feeling of doom. All anxiety brings a range of physical symptoms which we can do something about; eating disorders, inability to relax, loss of sense of humour and mysterious aches and pains.

    It’s the sense of powerlessness which drives these feelings and it brings to mind the old adage: ‘Worry is like a rocking horse. It gets you nowhere but gives you something to do.’

   Anxiety is a good thing as it can motivate us into taking some action in order to take back some measure of control. It’s when we allow it to paralyse our thoughts that it digs deeply into the psyche and triggers more serious symptoms.

    When I get bogged down with analysis paralysis the first thing I do is to drastically cut down on my news sources. Flicking between channels or online sources trying to make sense of all the contradictory information can drive you crazy. Studies have shown that when we are really stressed from information overload which we can’t filter properly, the brain gives up trying and accepts what it’s being told. This sounds like how brain washing works. When the brain is exhausted from one activity, it needs rest. Hobbies or activities as I said in my last blog are a life saver. It doesn’t matter what you do: make biscuits, go to a singing class which is fantastic for releasing tension or meet up with friends to talk about anything other than potential war, immigrants, Brexit, the economy and so on…. Make that a rule. With obsessive compulsive behaviours, something has to break the cycle of rumination even if it’s for half an hour.

   Inability to switch off at night for restful sleep is major complaint. Lack of refreshing sleep can make everything seem so much worse and I think this is something that needs proper attention without, hopefully, resorting to drugs. The mind can churn over horrendous possibilities in the early hours thus making the anxiety or mood problems much worse. We may well go to war but we have to be optimistic and take into account that world leaders wouldn’t allow it to happen irrespective of their bluster. In a world teetering on madness, we must stay earthed.

   I lived through the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and while it was very frightening (as well as the Iran-Iraq war), we got through it and became wiser as a result.

    I’m a great believer in being proactive. Is there anything you can do? Write something? Join an activist group to influence policy makers? Go on protest marches? It might not seem worth it as anxiety dulls down the senses and brings a feeling of ‘what’s the point?’ True. You might not effect change but by doing something, anything, you will get back a feeling of control and the energy used in worrying will be harnessed for something more positive.

   I manage anxiety through regular yoga sessions. If I can’t find time for a class, then I do ten minutes at home with a video. Similarly at night, I chose a ten minute meditation tape before going to sleep. Everybody can find ten minutes at either end of the day to do something that will calm the mind and therefore calm the fears.

     Knowledge is power so it’s good to understand how politics works rather than focussing on what is coming out of the mouths of politicians who are driven by their own agendas in many cases. It’s a good time to read some of the Greek philosophers.

   My favourite is What Would Aristotle do?

 https://www.amazon.com/Would-Aristotle-Self-Control-Through-Reason/dp/1591020700/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1276867539&sr=1-1

    What we need to remember is that our parents and grandparents went through the world wars and got through the fear, grief and despair because we are in the main resilient and that’s what we really need to develop in order to cope. Grit and determination.

   In whatever way these current world events are affecting our emotional stability, I say this; Maintain your dignity if you find yourself arguing with others because you don’t agree with their point of view. Avoid resorting to yelling, verbally abusing and calling someone as asshole or worse. It destroys your argument. Work on being calm and rational, agreeing to disagree then disengaging.

   It’s your choice as to whether you engage with any of this at all. You can choose to not read a newspaper, mainstream or alternative, not fire a volley on insults in comment boxes or get involved in any sort of attack. It might give you a powerful adrenaline fix for a few moments but what about afterwards? What damage have you done and for what reward?

   I prefer to work towards evolution of self rather than revolution towards others. Rise above it is the one action you can take and make peace with yourself. That’s one way you can take control and reduce the anxiety levels. Nothing can make you feel bad unless you allow it to do so.

I’ll leave you with my favourite quote:  You can often change your circumstances by changing your attitude” ― Eleanor Roosevelt

 

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