Five steps to mental wellbeing

As I was walking home one evening I saw a card lying in the street. I picked it up and realized what it was; the five steps to wellbeing developed by the New Economics Foundation (NEF). This little card is a brilliant reminder of the 5 steps so I now make sure I see it everyday.

The Five Steps to Wellbeing

The five steps are simple and powerful.

Connect – I’ve often written about the importance of connection; in fact I think it may be the most fundamental source of wellbeing. The NEF research concurs: Having less than four close relatives or friends puts you at high risk of future mental health problems. On the other hand, wide social networks “promote a sense of belonging and well-being” (NEF).

Try to connect with the people around you:

  • Talk to someone instead of sending an email or text;
  • speak to someone your don’t know yet;
  • don’t just ask how someone’s weekend was; really listen when they reply.

Be active – In Exeter, there’s no excuse! Walking, cycling, kayaking, climbing, swimming, football or, of course, rugby! You don’t have to take on anything too demanding; just find an activity you enjoy and make it part of your life. I often recommend physical exercise for clients who are experiencing depression: Exercise can boost your endorphins and moderate aerobic exercise can help with emotional regulation (Bernstein & McNally, 2017).

So why not go for a walk, try a sport, take up yoga or maybe tai chi? If you walk to a colleague’s desk instead emailing them, you get a bonus social connection!

Take notice – Research shows that paying attention to your immediate experience and ‘savouring the moment’ enhances wellbeing. It can also deepen self-understanding, thus helping you to assess and reaffirm your priorities. Taking notice is related to mindfulness which has been shown to promote positive mental states and facilitate emotional self-regulation.

  • Cultivate your curiosity; look out for the unusual.
  • Notice the changing seasons.
  • Just pause to notice your sensory experience: Really be with this moment.
  • Remember to check in with your self: How are you feeling right now?

Keep learning – lifelong learning promotes optimism, enhances self-esteem and improves overall life satisfaction. Learning new skills also encourages social connection and is associated with a more active life. Why not join a class, a book club or learn to play an instrument?

Give – Remember the injunction to “practice random kindness”? It seems the Hippies were onto something! Evidence from a range of sources suggest that giving promotes wellbeing. It doesn’t need to be much: Research found that just one act of kindness a week boosts wellbeing. A simple smile or a kind word can count. Start small and maybe you’ll be encouraged to do more, like volunteering for a local community project.

While the NEF research notes the importance of contact with the natural world for wellbeing., they don’t highlight it. I think they’ve missed a crucal step there as these five steps work beautifully in nature. You could easily weave all five steps into a bird watching walk with friends, volunteering for a local conservation group or helping out a neighbour with their gardening!

Why meditate?

BBC Radio 4 explored the question of mindfulness: Is it a panacea or just a fad? Although the presenter was occasionally somewhat tongue in cheek about the whole topic, her cynicism was tempered by the fact that for a lot of people, mindfulness works.

But the programme got me thinking, and in my meditation this morning I began to wonder: what is the point of meditation? For a long time I was mediating because I enjoyed it for its own sake. I find it relaxing and occasionally blissful. While that’s all great, I was missing the real point of meditation, which is to cultivate mindfulness.

Mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Meditation is deliberately taking some time to practice being mindful. Whether focusing on the breath, music or the taste of a chocolate truffle, meditation is the conscious practice of paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally. Through meditation we become more used to being mindful, and I know from personal experience that regular practice leads to moments of being mindful at other times.

The potential benefits of mindfulness are myriad. While there is sound evidence that mindfulness alleviates anxiety and makes chronic pain much more bearable, it has far wider applications. My own experience bears out Eric McCollum’s belief that mindfulness makes us better therapists (2014) and long term practice can have profound spiritual implications. There is a lovely interview with psychotherapist Miles Neale that points out that the Buddha was a revolutionary who was “trying to empower people to have a radical transformation” that would enable them to “collectively change the fabric of society”. That leads a bigger question about mindfulness and morality that I’ll to return to later, but for now, if you don’t meditate, maybe you’d like to give it a go.

Mindful weeding

When Horace wrote that “He who has begun has half done”, I don’t think he accounted for weeding. Maybe they didn’t do weeding in ancient Rome.

Weeding, like meditation, is ongoing, so I spent Sunday afternoon playing with the potential of a mindful weeding practice. Given that meditation is the process of turning attention “towards one’s moment-to-moment experience” (Paramanada, 2007), there are endless ways to practise. As I knelt amidst the weeds, with my hands digging and sifting earth from roots, I felt my mind slowing and opening.

Then my practise shifted to something more focused: What weeds were clogging the garden of my mind? Was each ‘weed’ shallow and easy to pull out or like bindweed, deep-rooted and persistent? I began to think with the place: Where do the root networks lead? What feeds them? Is it even a ‘weed’ at all?

According to a rule of thumb from The Times, deep-rooted weeds thrive in poor soil, while shallow-rooted weeds prefer fertile soil. It seems that mental weeds are much the same, so remember to feed you mind.

References

Focusing: A tool for troubled times

I’ve been feeling unsettled over the few days and I’m not alone. Many of us feel the chill shadow of uncertainly cast by the events of the last few months. What’s the best response to such troubled times?

The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr offered us a prayer which I find valuable:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold’s prayer implores God to grant serenity, courage and wisdom. I’m going to take some theological liberties, and suggest that an embodied approach – which for some of us is fundamentally spiritual – can facilitate that work beautifully.

Experiential Focusing provide a means of accessing the wisdom of the body. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating because it reminds us that we have the power to find serenity, courage and wisdom within.

First serenity. Ann Weiser Cornell draws on Focusing to offer a simple but effective way to be with difficult feelings. Instead of identifying with your emotions, which often means they overwhelm you, she explains how to be with your feelings.



Next, let’s consider how we might find the courage to create change. Mary Hendricks-Gendlin claims that:

“Focusing is a force for peace because it frees people from being manipulated by external authority, cultural roles, ideologies and the internal oppression of self attacking and shame”.

If you’re intrigued to know why Mary holds that belief, read her article on Focusing as a Force for Peace: The Revolutionary Pause.

The ‘revolutionary pause’ is just one of the valuable tools Focusing offers to help us change things. Focusing skills have been taught to activists to since the Vietnam War protests of the 1970’s. Rather more recently I’ve facilitated training in Focusing skills for activists and advocated using it as a tool for the Transition Towns movement.

Where does all this leave prayer? I have no doubt about how the divine – however you understand that – provides spiritual inspiration. The BioSpiritual Focusing website puts it well:

“In their connection to the Universe our bodies are our direct link to the Spirit that fills the Universe”.

The Endorphin Effect

I’ve recently facilitated a series of workshops on mindfulness and spirituality at a drug and alcohol rehab clinic. The most popular workshop by far was the one where I taught people how to use William Bloom’s Endorphin Effect. Endorphins, which are the hormones of pleasure, improve your mood, promote physical health and help to reduce stress. When you exercise or experience something pleasurable, endorphins are released. Endorphins are the body’s natural opiates – our ‘endogenous morphine’. The runners high, the bliss of sex and the pleasure of drinking alcohol are all due to endorphins.

But you don’t have to run a marathon, have sex or booze to get your endorphins flowing, because your body will react in a very similar way to a powerful visualization as it will to reality. Let’s suppose – for the sake of argument – that lying in a warm bath eating chocolate truffles feels really good to you. That actual experience will feel great and result in the production of endorphins, but so will vividly imagining the experience. Visualization techniques are well established in sports science, where they are used to improve performance. You can use visualization to stimulate the flow of endorphins at will. No wonder that workshop was popular!

I usually teach the Endorphin Effect as a stress management tool, but there are many more applications. Professor Karl Schmidt, a Consultant Psychiatrist, believes that the Endorphin Effect “is so self-empowering that … it should be an essential strategy in any addiction treatment unit” (Schmidt, 2010). The Endorphin Effect works well with other approaches. I’ve been using Focusing and NLP strategies to enhance the Endorphin Effect for a while and I’m now exploring how it might be tied in with more traditional meditations like Metta Bhavana (‘loving kindness’); another synergy between modern science and ancient practice.

The last word should go to Candace Pert, who pioneered the research into endorphins:
“we are physically hardwired to pay attention to, and plan for, pleasure” (Hardwired for bliss).