Understanding One Another

I read a quote the other day that said: A lot of problems in the world would disappear if we talked to each other instead of about each other. It got me thinking, which isn’t always a good thing. I thought about the level of truth in it and then I thought again. Talking is one thing isn’t it? Listening without judgement is another. And then I wondered, which one is more important or are they both of equal importance? Do we hear properly when we listen or do we hear only part of what’s being said because our judgemental thoughts are having their own conversation with us?

Lots of questions and I didn’t come up with many answers, just more thoughts. Is it possible for the world to be a better place with many of its problems resolved if we talked to each other more, or is the art of true conversation being lost in the jungle of technology in which we all live? Emails, Whats App, texts………there’s an endless list of available methods to communicate with one another. How many of us really knew what Zoom was before March of this year? Another thing to add to the talking technology jungle which helped to keep many of us sane in the early days of lockdown. All of my paid work at the moment is taking place on it, as is the educational Breathworks mindfulness training I’m completing. It’s kept many businesses alive during Covid-19 and for that we’re extremely grateful but it’s not a suitable forum for lots of services. Zoom fatigue has affected many of us. Face-to-face client work is still essential for so many things not least of which is reading body language correctly and picking up on subtle signals indicating that it’s our turn to shut up and listen to what another person has to say. This is so easily missed on Zoom. Who knew Halloween would look so different this year? Zoom Zombies are an actual thing now.

I digress, because the quote wasn’t examining the virtues of the different ways that we have at our disposal to talk to another human being in our post COVID-19 world. Its essence was highlighting the virtue of talking to each other as opposed to talking about each other, to resolve the problems in our world.

The ability to do this requires us to take off our judgemental hats, place them to one side and step into another person’s shoes. The uncomfortable fit of those shoes helps us to see the world from their point of view. The homeless person whose background and story we know nothing about. The person struggling with addiction whose life chapters we haven’t read. The person who was born into domestic conflict which meant they were never going to experience a trouble free childhood or know times where their home was warm enough with cupboards full of food. Instead their lives would be filled with trauma, neglect and abuse.

As judging humans we have the ability to pass total strangers in the street and judge them based on what they’re wearing, the colour of their skin, their sexuality or their age. Our judging eyes know no limits. The quote is ringing in my ears again: talking to each other instead of about each other. So how do we get to understand one another better? Perhaps closer to home, it starts with family and friendships. Talking to each other instead of about each other. The art of conversation is the soul of relationships; the glue that’s binds them together. It’s not a mobile phone, a laptop or the latest gadget. It involves our ability to move our mouths and use our ears, engage our minds and open our hearts.

My mantra for myself today is this: talk less, judge less, listen more. Being the best version of us isn’t easy because we’re human. We’re all a work in progress with imperfections and shortcomings but the world can be a better place with less problems in it, if we play our part. We’re all more alike than unalike. All of us want to be heard, loved and live a life free from pain and suffering. The process for change starts with us.


Hello you!

Hi there!  My name is Laura Ashurst.  I’m a wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, cousin and friend. For the last 17 years I’ve also been a cancer patient at James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough;  I’m one of the one in eight women worldwide who develops breast cancer in her lifetime. I’m also a human being behind that statistic. I’m me and I’m living with cancer.

I joined this group of women as a ‘primary breast cancer’ patient in September 2001, shuffled along to ‘primary breast cancer patient with a reoccurrence’ in September 2004 and then became a Stage 4 ‘secondary, incurable breast cancer’ patient in December 2007.

Just sticking with the stats for a bit longer, because this bit’s important to me, really important; I’m approaching 12 years surviving secondary breast cancer and that’s why I blog about my life and my experiences of living with cancer. It’s a monumental milestone.  Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to still be here, 10 years after the day my oncologist said ‘You have terminal cancer’. But I am and I hope I am for a long time to come.

I’m also very, very lucky indeed which may not be a word that you expect to hear in a description of a person who has incurable cancer but that’s exactly what I am.  I’m lucky because I have a husband who has literally been my rock, two children who have blossomed into fine young adults, a wonderful wider family and a group of friends who have supported, loved me and enriched my life in so many ways.

Each of us has different challenges that we face; cancer happens to be mine. I’m blogging to share my experiences and if any of that helps one other person, my mission will have been accomplished.

Here’s to this wonderful life and the help we can give one another.

Mindfulness In Action

What does living presently look like? How does it feel when we focus our attention on the moment that we’re in without the heaviness of dwelling on difficult past events or the uncertainty about what might lie ahead; transporting ourselves to events in the future that take us away from today and the time that we’re living now; the ability to enjoy just this moment.

The term “mindfulness” is defined differently by different experts around the word but in essence all it really means is focusing our attention in the moment . The Cambridge Dictionary definition describes mindfulness as ‘the practice of being aware of your body, mind and feelings in the present moment.’ That sounds simple enough so why do so many of us find ourselves totally lost in thought for so much of the time and as far away from the present moment as we could possibly be? And, what’s the impact of this upon our wellbeing?

We have a mind that is designed to wander and indeed which requires no help whatsoever to wander to thoughts that often involve us being unkind to ourselves. As humans, the majority of us find it relatively easy to show kindness to others but being kind to ourselves is often something that we have to work a whole lot harder at achieving. The wandering mind can seek out self-doubt and insecurities even when we’re surrounded by the most beautiful scenery, the most amazing sunset and in the most tranquil of places. Learning to observe our thoughts by creating some distance between us and them and being able to cultivate the ability to remember that we are not our thoughts, helps us to enjoy wherever we are presently. Mindfulness doesn’t have the ability to make everything right in our world but it certainly has the transformative power to enable us to enjoy being in the present moment without thoughts of what we have or haven’t done or said, getting in the way.

We are highly seasoned time travellers; we’ve been doing it for most of our lives. We possess the ability to travel so many miles physically but we also possess a finely tuned ability to mentally travel and it’s the mental travelling that clocks up the most miles, so much of our time and which can be so detrimental to our wellbeing. How much do we miss of what goes on around us because we are miles away from the present moment? How often are our ears really listening and taking in what’s being said? How well can we tune into our present surroundings without our thoughts taking us to difficult and challenging places?

Mindfulness gives us choices. We can choose to allow so much of our lives to go by without our noticing or we can choose to pause, to slow down and to acknowledge where our wandering mind has taken us. Mindfulness meditation involves actively choosing to focus on the breath as an anchor point to which we can choose to return over and over, moment-by-moment. Learning to harness the emotionally restorative and soothing effect on the nervous system that focused breathing can achieve is there for all of us to enjoy. If we are breathing and noticing, we are living. Mindfulness meditation creates an opportunity to use the gift of life that is the breath, in a way where each inhalation and each exhalation is a reminder that we are living one moment at at time. It has the ability to reduce levels of anxiety, to focus our attention, build resilience and boost our immunity. There is a growing and robust scientific evidence base to support its effectiveness. I’m with Raheem Sterling. C’mon on England!


What kinds of things do you challenge? This is a general question but on International Women’s Day, I’m aiming it particularly at women. Depending where in the world you are as you read this, your answer will vary dramatically.

Thanks to the support of people like you who read my blog, its content manages to reach people living around your corner and much further afield. I write it from my living room in Stokesley but because you share it and others re-share, it’s read in far flung countries around the world including places such as Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Columbia; countries where, if you are a woman, the ability to challenge is compromised. In several parts of Nigeria, violence against women is a cultural norm in communities where women are regarded as ‘belonging’ to their husbands. Forced marriage is illegal in every country in the world but throughout Pakistan, as in several other countries, it’s still common practice to be forced to marry a man against your will. In Saudi Arabia, it’s only two years since women have been able to drive unaccompanied and in Columbia, violence and attacks against women’s rights activists continue to be commonplace four years after the war torn nation’s peace agreement came into effect. Choosing to challenge as a woman? It depends where you live and whether your life is at risk if you do so.

When I celebrate International Women’s Day today, I won’t be looking over my shoulder with fear. I won’t be afraid to hold my head high and acknowledge what it is to be a woman in 2021. I won’t be at risk of being targeted because I’ve used my right to express my opinion. Instead, I’ll be joining women across the globe who live in freedom and who speak up for others whose birthplace and where they happen to live, means speaking out is not a viable option.

Choosing to challenge is a life skill. It creates empowerment and progress towards ending gender bias and inequality. The women who went before us who died trying to secure the right for women to vote and the women who found themselves in positions, often of privilege, where their voices could be heard, have paved the way for us to exercise our ability as women in 2021 to challenge and to end discrimination. Three years ago, The Equality and Human Right’s Commission published their report Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Report in 2018. With 10 themes and 30 subthemes it’s a detailed but compelling read. It highlights the progress that’s been made since 2013 such as the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act and stringent regulations on gender pay gaps but it also comprehensively reviews the issues that continue to affect gender inequality against women. Reading this report makes me both angry and grateful; angry that still in 2021 there are women in the UK whose lives are lived under daily clouds of fear and coercion and grateful that I live in safety, with freedom and choice.

Being human means we feel emotions. As a woman reading this, never apologise for being in tune with yours, it’s what makes you a compassionate human being and if you’re fortunate enough to live with the ability to challenge and thereby able to help to create change, we can use our emotions to drive us forward in helping women who are living without the the privilege of choice.

Emotional resilience is developed through facing the challenges that life throws at us. Being nurtured in an environment that fostered resilience, is part of how I was socialised. I am grateful that I recognise this. My childhood was filled with care, love and support. Many women across the world live their whole lives never having experienced the empowering ability of those three words.

International Women’s Day 2021 reminds me that choice is a privilege that is still denied to millions of women worldwide who have yet to witness its transformative power. In some of my professional work I see firsthand the transformative power of choice. Working with the team at the Halo Project has taught me lots of things, one of which is that not seeing something in our day-to-day lives doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. The most appalling things are often very well and cleverly covered up; in that way they can continue to exist. The Halo Project exists to break the silence around forced marriage, honour-based violence and FGM.

#ChoosingToChallenge is a choice I have every day. As I celebrate this fact, I’m also remembering those who don’t currently possess this option. You are not forgotten. We hold you in the light as we continue to shine a spotlight on your darkness.

The Wonder of You

There are only three days left of this year or three more sleeps whichever way you want to view it. It’s that time of year between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve where our bodies are starting to feel a little over indulged and yet we’ve got still got lots of lovely chocolates to wade through and festive food to munch.

What’s different this year is very clear so I’m not going to insult anybody’s intelligence by stating the obvious. What I’m going to do instead is reflect on something that might feel helpful and if it feels helpful for only one person reading this, then my mission has been accomplished.

The usual resolution-setting stuff seems so very insincere this year when we all have something so much more important to think about than losing half a stone before the end of January. We have the importance of our mental wellbeing to consider as we each try to do our best to navigate the next two long winter months that lie ahead with the additional burden of local lockdowns being the new normal during January and February. For all of us, the imminent approach of a new year requires resolve, courage and a lot of hope. The three go hand in hand in so many areas of life don’t they? I have friends starting new cancer drug regimens in the coming weeks. Friends, who despite their fear, summon courage every day to continue to manage ongoing side effects from treatment. And, in amongst all of that, nestles hope that drug regimens continue to work.

I sit in an outlier position in the cancer community. I’ve been on second line treatment for stage four/secondary breast cancer for 13 years. That’s something that’s unusual but it’s not entirely unique. There are more and more of us living longer with this disease but there are still far too many whose lives are cut short. New drugs are coming to market that mean more people’s lives will be extended providing the bureaucracy and barriers to drug access can be removed. This year has taught us that the snail pace at which new cancer drugs become readily available and accessible for all can be changed to a fit for purpose pace to match that of recent vaccine development. Shared knowledge, communication exchange and a collective sense of urgency can be a feature of the cancer drug development world too.

I know how fortunate I am and I also know how quickly my position can change. Tumour marker testing and CT scans never get any easier but we learn to make fear our friend because without it none of us would know what courage feels like. I’m very familiar too with the pain and heartache that lots of us in the cancer commnuity are feeling now as we reflect on a year that has robbed so many of our friends of time with their loved ones in the weeks and months leading up to their death. We remember you all. Every day. We will never forget you.

If you are still reading, thank you. This is the part about you, the wonder of you, and where I’d like to ask you some questions. You’ll see they have a general theme:

Do you ever wake up dwelling on the mistakes you’ve made with no recognition attached to the things that you’ve done really well?

Do you ever wake up feeling like you’re not good enough?

Do you ever wake up feeling like a failure?

Do you ever wake up feeling like the day is going to be too much for you?

As human beings, our negativity bias means that from time to time the answer is ‘yes’ to at least one or more of those questions. So here’s The Thing. We don’t have to be like that. Instead, we can each have something joyful and nurturing to acknowledge and consider every single morning when we wake up. After a nod of gratitude to the fact that we’re alive and breathing, it’s this: The Wonder of You. YOU in all your beauty and I’m not referring to the physical kind. I’m referring to your beauty inside. The inner you. The beauty that really counts. The one that ultimately determines our mental wellbeing. The one that has brought us to this day.

We each carry with us so many things. Some of those things can make us feel really heavy but we resist so much in putting them down to make our load lighter. Sometimes it feels easier to keep on carrying them because it’s what we know. Layering up our load is easy. It becomes second nature. The challenge is to look at the goodness we have within us; hang on to that and let the other stuff go. Acknowledge your wonderment, your essence, your YOU.

Carrying The Wonder of You into each of our days has a brightness and lightness to it that might feel very much at odds with the heavier things we carry. Infact often, we forget to pick it up at all. Old habits die hard, leaving us feeling smoothered and laden with things that we don’t need. When we all eventually come to the end of the road, how heavy do we want to feel? The ability to live and breathe each day is something that has been taken away for so many this year. We’re all supposed to have learned so much in 2020. Letting go of stuff has to be one of them.

I have one resolution for the year ahead. It’s not to look thinner, earn more, be more, have more. It’s to learn to carry with me into each of my days the most beautiful of things that we all possess; the wonder of you.

Being YOU. This is with us until the end. Let’s show ourselves kindness, love and warmth. What we say to ourself counts. The Wonder of You is listening.

What Does Courage Look Like?

I have lots of precious childhood Christmas memories. One of them is sitting back-to-back with my twin sister on Christmas Day morning as we unwrapped our presents so that neither of us spoiled the surprise for the other in respect of the contents of a Christmas gift. (In those days twins were given the same gifts by aunt and uncles. Does that happen now?). Another great memory was playing out for hours in the snow with nobody saying, “Don’t throw snowballs. It’s dangerous”. (Back then, we seemed to have several inches of snow in the North-East of England every Christmas school holiday before global warming took effect). And, up there with the best of my memories, is the Christmas Day viewing of The Wizard of Oz. First shown on television in the UK on Christmas Eve in 1975, it became a annual feature of Christmas TV in millions of households across the nation. Last year its slot might have moved to New Year’s Day, but its appeal and the messages in it are still relevant almost 45 years later.

Who is your favourite character? Mine, without a second thought, is the Cowardly Lion. The lion who needed courage to make him into a proper lion. The lion who used to make me wonder how he wore his lion outfit for so long without itching! The lion who was scared of his own shadow. But in December 1975, I didn’t know anything about courage. I only knew that lions were supposed to have it and the Cowardly Lion didn’t.

It wasn’t until I got a bit older that I started to wonder what courage was all about. I started to wonder because I became a terrible worrier and dreamed about what it must be like to be brave and to have no worries; by the time I reached secondary school I was frightened of my own shadow. My worries grew worries of their own and all the while, my twin sister, who was a whole head and shoulders bigger than me on our first day of secondary school, tried to comfort me by telling me everything was going to be ok.

Why am I writing about this? Because, I’m still trying to work out what courage looks and feels like. I’m far less of a chronic worrier but it’s still very much part of who I am. I recognise now when the worry wheel starts to spin but it’s taken a lot of work to reach this point and I can’t take sole credit for that. I have hugely supportive family and friends but it’s the professional help that I receive along the way that’s made me understand that I’m normal, that courage is there within me, it just looks different to how I think it should look. We all have courage within us. Worry just makes it a bit harder to find.

This last year has required enormous amounts of courage from all of us: courage not to lose hope, courage to know that tomorrow might be a better day and courage to face our greatest fears and show up.

Please share this blog post with anybody you know that is searching for what courage might look like. Turn to yourself too, because it’s all of us. Just like the Cowardly Lion, we can be encouraged to open our hearts to find courage and it’s ok to feel vulnerable. It’s ok to feel scared. It’s ok not to feel ok. It’s ok because it’s how each and every one of us feels at some point or another. It’s just a bit harder to tell who’s feeling that way because we’re not wearing itchy lion suits.

If this feels like a time where you’ve lost sight of your courage, close your eyes, take a pause and a breath, and if you listen closely, you’ll hear it talking to you. It’s there and it’s saying, “I’ve got you”.

Helping Hands

“As you grow older you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself and the other for helping others”.

This quotation, attributed to Maya Angelou, is the foundation on which this blog post grew.  I came across it earlier this week and I’ve thought a lot since, about what it means. So much so that I’m writing about it now.

Do you ever read something and wonder what the inspiration was behind somebody’s words? Quotations sometimes feel like they’re talking to me and were written for me (of course they weren’t but when words really resonate, it can feel like that. Or at least that’s how I see it).

It’s the intentional nuance implied, by saying ‘one for helping yourself’, followed by, ‘the other for helping others’. Why wasn’t it said the other way round, ‘one for helping others’ and ‘the other for helping yourself’? And therein lies the hidden message within that clever little package of words. This quote is years old but when it was said doesn’t matter.  What matters is its relevance when we read it today. Its message to me is subtle yet very clear; it’s talking to me about self-care, albeit it was said a long time before self-care was A Thing that people talked about.

If you were to score your self-care from 1-10, where would you be, 1 being poor and 10 being excellent? And remember, the concept of self-care isn’t just about how you physically take care of yourself; it’s got as much to do with the emotional aspect of how you care for yourself. Considering this might alter your score because many of us are quite good at incorporating physical exercise into our lives but what about our emotional needs? How are they cared for? What does our internal landscape look like? Is it calm and settled or does it have an element of negativity to it, that makes it look a little rough and choppy? Most of us will have an internal terrain that has both elements to it because we’re human, and part of being human is the tendency that our internal wiring has to veer towards the negative bias; that inbuilt mechanism that evolved during a time when we wore next to nothing and were being hunted by scary, sharp-toothed animals.

Our brains have developed over thousands of years to the point where our intellect and knowledge allow us to send people to the moon but that ability to seek out the negative around us and look for things that might eat us still remains as it was back then.

The general message that neuroscientists are now able to tell us about this concept is that being human means we have to actively work on steering our natural negative bias in the opposite direction. Last time I looked at a cat, it possessed that air of “I don’t care what you think of me.  I’m going to lick myself clean whether you’re looking or not”. See the difference? The animal brain equals, “couldn’t give a monkey what you think”, versus the human brain that cares a lot about what others think of us, wondering and twisting those thoughts to a negative spin, very easily.

And back we come (in a fashion) to the order of our helping hands. Putting one out to help ourselves first has a bit of an uncomfortable feel to it because doesn’t that mean we’re being selfish (note the negative slant creeping in)?  Look at your own hands now. Which one do you comfortably put forward first without feeling guilty?

Harmony in our lives is very much linked to balance and when I read those words this week, I was reminded about life balance and the ever so important aspect of self-care. It struck me that it took a set of hands to remind me of this.

Looking after ourselves emotionally and physically isn’t selfish, it’s crucial to be able to effectively look after others. Giving out all of the time, without checking in on ourselves first to see if we’ve got something to give is self-care. Tending to our inner landscape is part of that. We are worthy of self-care and the point where we forget that is when we need it most.

In the next week, I’m going to practice looking at my hands. I invite you to join me. I’m left-handed but you might be right. It’s our external physical differences that make us who we are. Internally, we’re all pretty much the same. Being human took care of that. Our shared negative bias often makes us forget to take a step back to look at our hands and realign their balance.

It’s a fact of life that as we grow older our hands’ age. This is something beyond our control. What we can control, is ensuring they age at the same time.




Kindness Rules

Today marks the start of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020. For the last 19 years, the Mental Health Foundation has used a week in the month of May to shine a spotlight on mental health. It encourages us to talk about mental wellbeing and in doing so helps to remove the stigma associated with the range of mental health issues that human beings face throughout our lives.

It feels so apt that this year’s theme is kindness. It’s been a deliberate choice by the Foundation to focus on kindness in light of the pandemic the world is facing. Now more than ever, we each need to experience the gift of kindness and the boost that it brings to our mental wellbeing. It’s the bond that unites humanity; it breeds and underpins acts of courage and without it in our lives, in one form or another, each of us would fail to thrive and flourish emotionally.

I doubt there are any of us who are immune to having been on the receiving end of an unkind comment or action and equally, there will be few of us who have never been unkind to another person. Perhaps we could say our halo of kindness has almost been fully intact in adult life. But during our childhood, there will have been many times that we were unkind: to our friends or siblings for example and each of us, as children, will have experienced the effect of other children’s unkind deeds. Children’s unkindness to each other is one thing, unkindness served by adults to children is another entirely.

Research shows that the impact of unkindness, whether it be an unkind word or deed, stays in our memory far longer than a positive memory of kindness. Our ability to recall negative experiences works much more easily than our ability to recall positive experiences as our negatively biased brains cling on to the hurt, wounds and emotional damage that unkindness creates.

And the negative effect on our wellbeing isn’t restricted to unkindness shown to us by others. For our mental wellbeing to thrive, we need regular encouragement and a personal reminder to treat ourselves in a kindly manner. Understanding why we can be kind to others more readily than we are kind to ourselves would be a useful addition to the national curriculum called ‘Kindness To Oneself – A Cradle To Grave LifeLong Lesson’. Its main learning point is this: kindness to others begins with kindness and compassion to oneself.  The content of some lessons don’t ‘click’ until years later but the key objective of self-compassion when grasped properly can change our whole outlook on life.

But it’s not only our outlook on life that can be improved by kindness. Research also shows that the more we give and receive kindness, our immune systems are boosted by the release of the feel good hormones seritonin and oxytocin and the effect is cumulative on our wellbeing; the phenomenon of ‘helpers high’  may even add to our longevity.

In essence, kindness is a strong force from which we can all benefit. But its very nature makes those who are most vulnerable feel valued, those who are struggling feel supported and those who feel forgotten, receive the help they need to flourish again. During this time of uncertainty, kindness really matters. It helps individuals find courage to act, despite feeling afraid, and it helps the human spirit feel hopeful that better times lie ahead. Kindness really is a force to be reckoned with.

And we’ve known for a long time that kindness is infectious. This pandemic has served to remind us that as kindness is passed on, one kind act leads to another and it’s something that all of us benefit from by receiving. It’s one of the things in life for which we don’t need an antidote. If this period in time is teaching us anything, it’s that kindness is something that will always make somebody feel that little better.

Kindness is also helping us to remember, that now is an opportunity for us all to look at what we have and to make space in our hearts for others who have far less. For many of us, the things we possess are taken for granted: the ability to look around and be grateful for the things we do have in our lives has been lost along the way for many of us.

Kindness and consideration for each other means so much but we are all human and as such we make mistakes. Our biggest lesson is learning that in every single situation where we got it wrong, a moment of kindness and thought for somebody else would always have made the outcome better.

Kindness rocks and for our mental health it will always rule.







Mood Boosting

Since my last blog, we’re two weeks further into this Annus horribilis: we will forever remember 2020 as the period in our global history where life as we knew it ground to a halt due to COVID-19, a new disease caused by the corona virus, so-called because of its crown-like shape under a microscope.

The year that heralded a new decade has, within three months of its clock striking midnight, become a time when global social distancing is the new norm, with lockdown forcing us to stay indoors and adapt to a new, restricted way of living.

Whilst the effectiveness and benefits of restrictions on our movement, self-isolation and quarantine can be measured in gains by the reduced spread of the disease and subsequent deaths, what is less well documented are the losses to our wellbeing due to an enforced reduction in human interaction and the emotional and mental strain of this way of living.

We are all acutely aware of the scale of this pandemic. Globally, to date, recorded cases have totalled over one million, with more than 54,000 lives lost as a result of the disease.   We will tell the generation who come after us of the sadness we experienced during this chapter in our lives and the things that we took for granted before the reign of corona. Things like our freedom, and being able to visit family and friends whenever we wanted; the power of a hug and its importance to our health; being able to say goodbye properly at the end of a loved one’s life, whilst being present in our droves in hospital wards following the birth of a new one.

And it’s here that I move to self-soothing and its importance during this time. Living as we are has caused a dip in the cocktail of hormones that fuel our feelings of happiness: the production of seritonin, oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins have all been affected by our current way of life. Recognising this is important because it helps us to understand part of the reason why we feel different inside. Their diminished levels within me, have really helped me to recognise what a powerful impact they have upon my mood and how hugs and cuddles with our nearest and dearest provide far more than we appreciate.

The importance of exercise at this time also cannot be underestimated. Endorphins released during physical activity are crucial in order to support our mental health which is why, for those of us that can, it’s so beneficial to carry on with our local exercise routines, albeit if it has to be at home. The benefit of this is two-fold: our own personal wellbeing gain and the ongoing support for our community based exercise instructors who overnight, have been forced to learn new ways of bringing their expertise to us. They have worked so hard to develop their businesses and  client base; exercising remotely is helping to protect and preserve all that they’ve worked so hard to create, and in turn our physical and mental wellbeing is being protected and supported too.

You might remember in my last blog, that I said I’m currently taking part in mindfulness training. It’s delivered via Zoom and is proving to be a great form of exercise for my mind. Little did I know when I signed up to the course in January, just how connected Zoom was going to make us all feel this year. Being in a room, virtually, with lots of other people, felt very strange on day one of my programme. Now of course, for so many of us, our days and weeks are being totally supported by its presence.

Part of my programme this week has looked at the importance of self-soothing and its impact on mood boosting hormones.  It’s with this in mind, that I share with you this self-soothing exercise. It reinforces the value of a hug in the absence of one from somebody that you miss:

Step 1: Sit upright in a chair and close your eyes.

Step 2: Take a deep breath in as you stretch your arms out sidewards, to shoulder height, or a height that is comfortable for you.

Step 3: As you breathe out, bring your arms in and wrap them around yourself.

Step 4: Give yourself a pat on your arms with each hand and tell yourself, “It’s going to be ok. I’ve got you”. 

Step 5: Repeat steps 2-4.

The healing power of self-soothing, with a hug that you give to yourself, might seem on the surface to be superficial and a bit silly but don’t underestimate its potential effect. Have a go and see for yourself. We can’t measure what we can’t see but we know when it’s not there. You may find you feel a little better afterwards.

Be kind to yourself in the coming week. Acknowledging that this is a challenging time is necessary to get through it. And get through it we will, but what we look like at the end of it, depends on how we care for ourselves, during it. A regular dose of self-soothing might serve us all in good stead.






Mental Health and COVID-19

This blog post feels a bit different to my usual blog posts but it’s in keeping with the concept of us all currently facing a highly unusual time. Time is something that is going to feel very different in the coming weeks and months.


During the last five days of self-isolation, I’ve tried four times, to sit at my laptop and produce a blog post. My head’s had so many words in it, but each time I’ve tried to think coherently and write, a mish-mash of nonsense has appeared on the screen. I’ve been here before. I recognise the signs. It’s anxiety driven.

But actually, I haven’t been here before. None of us have. Covid-19 and its impact upon us, is part of a whole new frightening world. What started last December in Wuhan,  Eastern China, a place many of us hadn’t heard of, and which seemed so far away, is now on our doorstep.  And, of course, we all know where Wuhan is located now.

Our lives, and our little worlds, have changed for the foreseeable future. They have both become a whole lot smaller. The corona virus disease and the pandemic it’s caused, has hugely impacted our freedom of movement and that’s only the beginning of a long list of things that it’s changed.

I’ve just read that last sentence out loud; hearing and processing it makes me feel very emotional and not in a happy, joyful way. They’re emotions that sit hand in hand with an uneasy feeling that I’ve had in my tummy for days now. I know you know what I mean. I don’t need to explain.

Yesterday morning, the uneasy feeling developed into a tight knot that sat roughly in the centre of my abdomen. It woke me up, it had tied itself so tightly. Who put it there? Well, I guess I did. Or rather, my brain did. Painful muscular tension is a result of how the human body deals with stressful situations; the triggering of the stress response flooding our bloodstream with adrenalin and cortisol, preparing us for fight or flight, a highly adaptive mechanism that works exactly the same way now, as it did thousands of years ago.  This isn’t intended to be a human biology lesson but I’ve found it extremely beneficial to remind myself how our thought processes, and the way our minds cope with stress, enable and activate physical reactions in the body.  It’s how I’ve learned, over many years, to cope with anxiety and its effects on my mind and body.

Overactivation of the stress response causes a whole load of physical and emotional reactions which includes blood being driven away from the stomach, leaving you with a ‘nervous tummy’ feeling, as our blood is diverted to the large muscle groups in the legs – the ones that allow you to run for your life – away from danger. Except, we’re not going anywhere are we? We’re stuck and some of us are more stuck than others. But remember, this isn’t about me or you and our different degrees of ‘stuckness’. Because we’re all in this together and we’re all going to need a lot of help and support to get through the next few months. I recently learned about Kristin Neff’s model of self- compassion. It includes the concept of fellow human suffering. It’s something I want to read more about because my belief is this: patience, compassion, tolerance and understanding are coveted qualities and we’re going to have to dig deep to find them. If they’re qualities that you feel you’ve already got in abunandance then great, pass them on. Do the right thing and share your compassion. Don’t take twenty five toilet rolls when you only need four! Look around and take a proper look. Let’s ask ourselves a soul searching question. Who is less fortunate and less able than me? There is always somebody.

I’m in self-isolation and that’s an incovenience but I have access to what I need which  includes my daily cancer drug which is keeping me alive. You know I said earlier there’s always somebody worse off? I have friends in the cancer community who are staring death in its terrifying face because the clinical drug trial they were due to access next week is now no longer taking place.

Self-isolation is a necessary step for me because I sit in a vulnerable category. There are thousands of people, living with a whole range of medical conditions, that are going to have to do the same thing because it’s the best and right course of action to protect their wellbeing. It’s what we’re being advised to do.

Let’s try to understand better one another’s situation. Millions of people in our country are now going to bed every night faced with a level of uncertainty that was perhaps confined to the subject of a bad dream a few weeks ago. The prospect of job losses, personal income and livelihood because of this disease, is now very real. And of course, the biggest loss of all, that of human life, which to date and at the time of writing, has  tragically surpassed 5,000 in Europe alone. We know this number is growing by the day.

Physically, I can cope. I can breathe. But the mental impact of this pandemic upon us all is something entirely different.  Our lives are now filled with a level of uncertainty that is unprecedented during peace time. That feeling, of being at peace with oneself and the world seems very elusive right now. So I’m going to be reaching for my tool kit. The bag that’s got things in it that have helped me through some very difficult times. There’s stuff in there that I forgot I had. They’re things that have helped me to develop resilience and I’ve got a new tool, one that I learned yesterday which I want to share with you.

They say timing is everything and that could not be more true now, for a whole host of reasons. For me personally, I started an eight-week online mindfulness training programme three weeks ago as a lead in to a more advanced form of training later in the year. It’s going to help and support me enormously during the next few weeks. It sees me revisiting something I was first introduced to back in 2012. The organisation delivering the programme is called Breathworks. Yesterday, during the two hour online session, we were introduced to the breathing practice below. It can be done regularly throughout the day and has a gentle, grouding effect:

Step 1: Position your left hand with your palm facing upwards. Rest it in a comfortable position on your lap or, if  it feels more comfortable and you are able to, use your right hand to hold and support the underneath part of the wrist on your left hand.

Step 2. Close your eyes and take a breath in and as you do so, gently curl the fingers of your left hand inwards, until they touch the palm of your hand.

Step 3. Pause.

Step 4. Breath out and as you do so, gently uncurl your fingers until your hand is returned to its starting position.  

Step 5. Repeat this fives time.

Step 6. Repeat this exercise on your right hand.

Step 7. Open your eyes. 

Self-isolation is going to give me more time to think.   I’m going to try to use that thinking time wisely and try not to get entangled in thoughts that aren’t helpful. I hope to share some tips and techniques with you in the coming weeks that I’m finding helpful, which in turn, you might find helpful too. Apologies in advance if you see too much of me via this blog in the next few months. I might be indoors but I want to remain connected to you all.

And finally, this blog post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the enormous debt of gratitude that all of us owe to everybody in close contact with this disease who is working tirelessly to protect as many of our lives as possible from it. We remember too, those whose lives have been lost. You are in our hearts and minds.




Opening our Hearts to Kindness

Caroline Flack committed suicide on Saturday 15th February 2020. Like millions of others, I read about the tragic event that Saturday evening on social media. I immediately felt a wave of total sadness and shock wash over me. The circumstances leading up to Caroline’s suicide have been intensely documented within the media whose recent coverage and scrutiny about her has been described by many as a ‘witch hunt’.

Hearts and minds across the nation have since been gripped by her death. There’s been an outpouring of sadness: the manner and way in which her life came to an end highlighting the vulnerability of the broken human spirit; a stark lesson in the fragility of life and the threads that bind our physical actions and mental thoughts.

We cannot possibly know what was in Caroline’s mind in the moments leading up to her death. What we can try to understand is that her mental wellbeing had reached such a low point that she believed dying was the only way of ending her torture. That thought is so utterly heartbreaking.

The past week has borne witness to the emotional impact of her death on social media with millions using the hashtag BeKind. It’s been a week where we’ve been acutely reminded that what we say to people matters, how we say it matters and kindness to one another in all aspects of our lives matters a great deal.

Caroline Flack

Let’s all be kind to one another. It’s a simple sentence but like lots of simple things in life, their impact can be far reaching. None of us ever really know what’s going on inside somebody’s mind or to what degree life events have detrimentally affected their mental health. It’s those unknown factors that reinforce this one: kindness shown to a fellow human being might help touch a person where it’s needed most. The door to our hearts can be gently opened and supported by kindness.

I hope your week going forward has kindness within it, for a world with kindness is a much better place to be.

“For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others, for beautiful lips speak only words of kindness; and for poise walk with the knowledge that you are never alone”.

Audrey Hepburn