Connection and positive triggers

We have heard of ‘triggers’ that suddenly cause us to be transported back to a traumatic time or place. These can be sounds, sights, smells or sensations.

I wondered if, as in mindful self compassion or compassion focused therapy, we can use these same things to remind us and maybe even transport us to a feeling of safety and connection. A ‘positive trigger’ you might say.

I’ve created these little cards specifically to try and start the seeds of some positive triggers for people who are struggling. Instead of sending a card-sized card, these little designs are credit-card sized to fit easily in a wallet. They can be carried with them wherever they go and remind them of the person who cares for them and sent them the card.

They are made from recycled cotton t-shirts – so you could add some drops of your favourite smelly to them (maybe on the back so as not to discolour the design), they look pretty (I hope!), they feel nice and they have a little space on the back for a crisis number, a personal message from a friend or other reminder. You can get matching stickers as an extra reminder to place on a phone cover, at your work desk or somewhere else helpful.

If you are are currently committed to, or on a journey of developing self-compassion and able to handle such a gesture, you could even buy one for yourself!

When it changed.

A version of this post is also published on “The Mighty” here.

I have long been fascinated and moved by the beauty and complexity of biology. All through school, I lapped up popular science books and TV documentaries like a starved cat confronted with a bowl of cream. I studied it at uni, I loved it so much I did a PhD. And once I had recovered from the PhD, I went back to loving it again.

For most of my life, the most emotional you would actually see me in public (most of the time) was when listening to science seminars – anything from quantum physics, molecules, natural history to astronomy. I’d get shivers down my spine and tears, actual tears of Awe.

Although I stopped wanting to do the routine science stuff that fits pieces into that picture, I have never stopped looking adoringly at it.

So when I’ve thought about my mental, psychological or emotional health in the past, I’ve very much focused on the biological explanations. I knew there were limitations, social aspects to consider, and that the brain is so complex we may never understand it fully. But it was always my focus. It felt comfortable, interesting and right.

I think this was only partly because of my love of science. I think it was also because it made it easier to keep the focus mainly on me. My response to events, my faulty thinking, my difficulties coping and my personal vulnerabilities. This focus made things easier to manage. It’s less messy to only deal with your own head and not to get stuck in the murky waters of politics, society and power structures too.

I alternated between feeling like the most accomplished Vulcan in the universe who was fully disconnected from emotions; and experiencing utterly uncontrollable overwhelming feelings that came from nowhere.

And at both ends of the spectrum, it felt like my brain was somehow not like other people’s. Either people didn’t get the hurricane in my head or they seemed so vulnerable and needy compared to my ability to not let things faze me. The disconnection was with myself but with everyone else too. All around, counsellors, psychologists and other people (especially other girls & women) seemed to speak a language I could understand but not speak.

They talked of ‘processing’, ‘needing to express’, ‘bottling up’ or pushing down’ feelings. They often wanted to talk about their feelings, even when there were no solutions to be gained or any new information to add by doing so. I always tried to listen when people needed me to, and hoped it helped, but I never fully understood what they were getting from it.

So a biochemical explanation felt so right intuitively to me. It’s exactly how everything felt. Like random wonky wrong chemistry.

And then something changed for me.

I read “The compassionate mind“, a book by Prof Paul Gilbert. It changed me by letting me start somewhere familiar. It started from what was a deceptively biological perspective – evolution. We are born more vulnerable and stay more vulnerable longer than most other mammals. Then follows a no-nonsense explanation of how the human brain works because of this vulnerability. It creates a physiological need for safeness, bonding and compassion that is firmly and biochemically embedded in our bodies and our minds and is as vital for survival as food, shelter or water.

I should confess I balled my eyes out through the whole book. And I got through it faster than any book I’ve ever read before. I think my brain had been lulled into feeling like it was on comfortable ground and then it got smacked in its little brain-face with something earth-shatteringly different. And something it couldn’t find a defence against. Suddenly I didn’t have to understand the language of emotions to get it. I didn’t need touchy feely language or to connect with the spiritual or the intangible in order to get what everyone else what talking about.

Through this lens my past approaches to therapy suddenly became really obviously deficient. I had continued to avoid my emotions by talking and engaging with an illness. This had given me validation for my pain, access to support and a level of understanding from others, but one which didn’t necessarily require me, or anyone else having to stay present with my actual emotional needs. I talked about irrational thoughts and about symptoms and “doing something nice for myself”. I spent years trying to prop up my brain with drugs, challenging my inaccurate thoughts and trying to change my behaviours. It helped to some extent, but my brain hadn’t actually been experiencing anything physiologically different, despite all this. None of these things were interacting with that soothing, bonding, safeness and contentment system I’d been reading about.

I realised I needed an intervention that my brain would understand and experience at a biochemical and physiological level that was fine-tuned to the systems evolution had created. Ones created precisely to down-regulate the brain’s ‘things are going wrong” system. Pills thought to increase neurotransmitters throughout the brain (and body) or to reduce the activity of neurons, may help (and may even be life-saving) – but they did not, by themselves, give my brain anything new to work with.
This was the first step on a journey of change, recovery and self compassion.

Resilience

It’s not us, it’s you

You’re weak and slightly wrong

You need more ‘resilience’

or you’re going to break the bank

You see, your flesh and blood are problems

You bleed when you are cut

Your brittle bones keep breaking

Everytime you’re hit by a truck

And look, when we push you,

You always seem to fall

It’s okay, though we can help you

To live in our world

 

We can take all your bones out,

Fill you full of gold,

Replace your nerves with steel wires,

To build a cage for your soul

We can wait for a while but try not to take too long

Come back when you are ready

to live in our world.

Newspaper yarn Gallery

You can buy my newspaper yarn creations on my Folksy shop here.  

Cooking with fatigue/pain

One of the things filling out the dreaded PIP form has helped me to realise is that I don’t have usuallu enough energy to feed myself.

On a really good day, I love cooking. Most days are bad days energy-wise and some days I use that energy to LEAVE THE FLAT or shower or write a blog post or some other wildly extravagant pastime. Inevitably this leaves me eating coco pops, rice cakes, satsumas and bananas all day most days.

On some days I can do some Making of Actual FoodStuffs, but I also am on a fairly restrictive FodMap diet for IBS symptoms. The diet has been really helpful – but impossible when you consider the fact I don’t like eating animals and I struggle with preparing meals and that high fodmap foods include onion, garlic, chickpeas, wheat and many other random foods! This makes even using ready meals or takeaways to feed yourself tricksy! NB: A low FodMap diet should be done with a dietician according to the NHS, so this is about sharing ideas rather than recommending you eat the things I do, or that you should also do this diet – *I am not a medical doctory person/dietician*

I’ve been trying out various recipes and I would like a place to keep them, so I can access on my surgically-attached smart phone, and I thought others might find it helpful for self care when energy/ability is low so here they come!  Some are a bit more demanding than others but laziness  I mean, chronic illness and fatigue, are the mothers of invention.

I shall start you off with my favourite thing:

MUFFINS. Because when you can’t summon up the energy to hold a plate, do chopping, clean a plate, think about plates or cutlery and you haven’t slept and you are hungry:  having these in the freezer or in a tin is very very handy indeed. They come with a muffin case and you can just shove them in your mouth.

I use cups because….well….so much easier!

Maple, pecan, banana breakfast muffins (NOM!)

Oven: 180 degrees, preheated

12 Muffin cases in a muffin tin – fill them with mix and bake for about 20 mins. Use a timer in case you doze off whilst resting after this activity!

 

1 3/4 cups self raising gluten-free flour

1 tsp xanathan gum (worth having if you can’t have gluten)

OR NOT LOW FODMAP OPTION:  use normal flour (no need for xanthan gum if you have gluten)

1/3 cup of sugar – you can add more, but I am trying to do self care with these

1 tbps baking powder

a pinch of salt

1/2 tsp allspice, or cinnamon or something nice

 

GET ALL OF THIS OUT ON WORKTOP plus spoons for mixing and cups for measuring.

SIT DOWN AND PUT ALL OF THIS (in bold, above) IN ONE BOWL AND MIX

Maybe have a little rest or do some mindful breathing and chill

 

Now get another bowl and the following:

about 4-6 tbsp maple syrup depending how much you want it to be sticky and/or sweet

 

1/2 cup oil (of some description – I used olive oil)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup mashed up old bananas

EITHER 1/2 cup of soya milk/rice milk or real milk if you can do lactose

OR 3/4 cup of “milk” plus a large handful of cooked quinoa (I cook a whole box every now and then and freeze in bags for chucking into stuff to make it healthier and more filling)

PUT ALL OF THIS (not in bold) IN ANOTHER BOWL AND MIX

Ah go on, a couple of mindful deep breaths again…

 

Now pour the liquid bowl into the floury bowl – mix till you can’t see flour but not too much – it should be a bit lumpy

Add as many pecan nuts as you can handle/seems sensible and very gently mix in/fold in – I used about 50g and left them whole (I don’t use spoons for chopping!)

 

Spoon into muffin cases and bake at 180 degrees for about 20 mins and put your feet up.

Try not to forget them.

ENJOY with some kind of hot beverage!

I make a big load and freeze them – they are lovely pinged in the microwave for a couple of mins or left to defrost. I’d include a photo, but I ate them all. I will make some more and update this when I do.

I hope they work for you.

 

 

 

 

Making newspaper into yarn

A version of this post has also been published on “The Mighty” here.

The process I go through to make my newspaper yarn designs mirrors my therapy and recovery journey. It has mainly been about building a new way of “being”. I can’t change my brain or my history, but I can try to dismantle some of the power held by the stories that make up my ingrained feelings, thoughts and behaviours. The stories that do not help me to thrive (though they have helped me survive). It’s not possible to get rid of these well-rehearsed stories so it’s more about accepting why they are there and reshaping my response to them by not buying into them. To create something new from these stories.

Much like recovery or therapy, the process can be painful, difficult and tedious.

So I take stories that seem so sure of themselves, printed in black and white and presenting themselves as fact. And to start I crumple the paper, to soften and ready it for the process. I liken this to the fact that sometimes it is a “breakdown” or crisis, or some other major event that triggers me to seek help. The softening produced by this crumpling is the safeness and calming created in a trusted therapeutic and in safe supportive social relationships.

Without this, the process will just result in the paper ripping apart.

I then cut strips of paper, paying attention to the colours they contain and the slow process of twisting it through my fingers to turn it into yarn begins. I keep the colours I want and mould the paper yarn using my fingers – a part of my physical body.

In the same way, experience of new feelings and ways of being have to be felt with your body to truly understand and learn. Our feelings are real physiological, biological things that happen inside our bodies. All the thinking in the world cannot change your feelings. We need that embodied experience to really learn new ways of feeling.

We can learn from hearing about something or seeing something done but we only really understand when we do it ourselves. It seems to me we often concentrate on the words and thoughts of our lives and can easily forget the spaces in between, where our essence of simply “being” resides. I think this is where compassion, soothing and connection acts, on the spaces between the words. Only in embracing the whole can we recover a fulfilling life.

This is a slow, messy process resulting in ink-stained, sore fingers but it’s needed to create something new. I can create anything from this yarn. It was once a set story (full of bad news and trauma) as well as sometimes misinformation. It is now flexible, pliable, stronger and more beautiful and can be used to create any design. The words have got new meanings in their new contexts as part of the yarn itself, or lifted from the newspaper to be given new life as little tags on golden thread.

We are not our history. We can be so much more if we compassion, connection and care.