In Practice: Making the most of small pleasures

Tuesday wasn’t a good day.  I  broke a glass while making breakfast and had to rush to my doctor’s appointment through the snow.  I struggled to cross the icy roads safely.  My migraine brain disliked the glare from the snow, the cold outside and the heat in the GP surgery. Later that day I got a crushing migraine and spent most of the afternoon in bed.

But in between I managed to take advantage of a couple of pleasant moments, and remembered to use a couple of techniques for making the most of small pleasures

It didn’t make the feelings of sadness or discomfort less intense but I’m glad I remembered to pause for a moment and enjoy these moments too.  I was reminded of the poem A Dust of Snow by Robert Frost.  It was a bad day – but there were happy moments too.

“Whatever else there is, there’s this as well” – Maitreyabandhu1

Adding to my happiness jar2

I wrote a note to add to my collection of happy memories that I keep in a jar on my desk.

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“Sharing a sweet funny moment with strangers before going on with my day.

I was walking through the park and saw small dog going crazy in the snow.  Wriggling on its back, kicking the snow up behind himself, scrabbling in it with his front paws, pushing his head in a snow drift.  I couldn’t help laughing out loud.  His owners were laughing so hard they could hardly stand up straight when he sat up his eyebrows and moustaches covered in snow and looked around puzzled before dashing about again.”

Pausing to enjoy the sensory aspects of a moment

On the way home walking through the same park I stopped for a moment.  Felt the warm sun on one cheek and cold air on the other.  Watched the gently swirling snow blown of the trees and felt it land on my face.  Heard the crunch of snow when I walked where no one else had.  Admired the imprint of boots in the snow.  Felt snuggly and warm in all my layers with soft fabric next to my skin.  Saw the pattern of the shadows made by the sun through the trees.  Appreciated the blue of the sky after the dark cloud earlier.  Heard children laughing and playing in the school yard next to the park.  Heard birds in the trees.  Experienced a sense of peace alone in an open space.

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Resources

1. ‘This’ by Maitreyabandhu,  Crumb Road, quoted in Burch & Penman Mindfulness for Health

2. Make a happiness jar Can you bottle happiness?

Today’s going to be a rest day…

I read this article sometime last year ‘The Difference Between Bad Days and Rest days’.  In it the author argues that rest days are for recharging and restoring when you are not ill, while bad days are time you have to rest because you have no choice.  She suggests that rest days may help prevent bad days and should be scheduled regularly.

I was really taken with the idea.  I didn’t really expect to reduce the number of bad days, because migraines cause my fatigue rather than the other way round.  But I could see that incorporating rest days into my schedule would give me time to recuperate and keep me from pushing myself too hard.

However, I never actually go to round to scheduling them, apart from the odd occasion when I know I’ve got something planned that is really going to test my limits.  Then I might plan to take the next day off.  Despite not scheduling them I still find the concept a useful one.  A rest day sounds nicer than a bad day.  It encourages me to take better care of myself.  To be more compassionate toward myself, and to feel more positively toward time spent ‘unproductively’.

I take rest days when I feel I need one.  On days like today when I’ve struggled to get out of bed.  Failed at my morning routine, and am struggling to write this now.  I had something of a migraine yesterday.  But for some reason instead of taking better care of myself than usual I abandoned my evening routine and then had a bad nights sleep followed by oversleeping this morning.  Today I am suffering with migraine symptoms, vertigo and fatigue.  This blog post and a 5 minute walk are the sum total of my achievements today and it’s mid-afternoon.

But that’s okay because at around 11.30 this morning, when I finally made it downstairs, today officially became a Rest Day.  On a Rest Day all I need to do is the basic, essential self-care like the 5 minute walk.  The rest of the time can be spent resting and lazing in whatever way suits me.  Or I can writ a little or read a little if I fancy it.   I still use my timer for pacing and tracking.  This time resting counts as time usefully spent.  And hopefully, tomorrow will be a better day because of it.

 

 

Making the most of small pleasures

“Whatever else there is, there’s this as well” – Maitreyabandhu1

It’s hard being ill, I have lost so much and there’s so much I can’t do.  This drags down my mood and my well-being.  There’s also a lot of physical discomfort too.

I first came across the idea of deliberately looking for the pleasurable aspects of my experience, no matter how tiny, when I worked through Mindfulness for Health, a self-help book for coping with chronic pain and illness.

I’m coming back to these ideas again now because I have just started doing vestibular rehabilitation exercises with the aim of restoring some of my balance function by retraining my brain.  The process of doing these exercises brings on motion sickness.  I’m spending a lot of my day feeling horrible and I worry that this will bring my mood down considerably.

Hopefully by practising deliberately identifying and paying attention to pleasure, however small and insignificant it might seem, I’ll be able to counter that to some extent.

Since realising that I need to actively seek out and create pleasurable experiences I have found three strategies for making sure I have plenty of opportunities and make the most of them.

Strategy 1: Schedule pleasurable activities

Make sure there is something fun or pleasant on your schedule each day.  For example, I recently added time to have a cup of tea with my partner when he gets home from work.  It might seem unromantic but putting it on my calendar makes it much more likely to happen.  If many of the things you enjoyed are now difficult maybe experiment with new things, or revisit old things.  I fell out of the habit of reading novels when I was so busy with my PhD, and I hadn’t read poetry since A-Level English Literature.  But it has given me a great deal of pleasure to pick them both up again.

Schedule events to look forward to.  Occasionally including things that might be a bit ambitious.  I think it’s okay to test limits sometimes so long as my ‘normal’ approach is being kind and considerate of my condition.  Occasionally I plan to do something that means a lot to me but really isn’t compatible with my condition.  In my case this would be going to a gig.  I love live music but it’s about the most migraine-unfriendly activity I can think of.  I still go once or twice a year with help from my friends or partner and by using the facilities for disabled people at the venues.  Sometimes I have to cancel at the last minute, sometimes I only manage to stay for half the evening, but it’s worth it.  When it is even half successful I can feel like myself again and get such a lift it is worth pushing my limits a little and testing what I can do.

Make a list of pleasurable things.  On a bad day it’s hard to think and nothing feels appealing and everything is too difficult.  It is helpful to have a list ready to go, like a menu to choose from.  Then there is no need to think, just pick out the first thing that appeals.   My counsellor pointed me toward a “big list of pleasurable activities” and ideas for self-soothing activities in the Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Skills Workbook to provide some inspiration.  Other lists can be found on the internet, like this one with over 300 suggestions from the Centre for Clinical Interventions, and uses as a starting point for building your own list.

Strategy 2: Look for pleasurable aspects of my current experience

This approach came from chapter 5 of Mindfulness for Health.  Vidyamala Burch talks about how even when we are suffering from pain and illness we can still find pleasure in our daily lives by “learning how to seek out subtle experiences”.

“The pleasant experiences that you become attuned to may even seem rather ordinary, such as an absence of hunger or a tiny tingling somewhere in your body. But it’s important to learn to recognise these, to appreciate and enjoy them.” – Mindfulness for Health

And don’t worry if you can’t find anything – instead try to accept your experience as it is.

Paying attention to pleasurable sensations.  The kind of things I might look for are physical sensations, think about the different senses, temperature, touch, pressure, texture, visual, sounds, smells and tastes.  The other day when I was doing my exercises I felt really grotty, but I also had a soft cushion, a hot chocolate, a warm wheat bag, and a tiny patch of sunlight on my arm.  These are all really small experiences that would have gone unnoticed in my ‘normal’ life.  This isn’t a Pollyannaish suggestion to look on the bright side.  It is perfectly okay to be sad about the things I miss.  But I don’t want my life to be any more miserable that it needs to be either.

Treasuring little moments of happiness and fully engaging with them.  I try to pay attention when something funny, or cute, or enjoyable happens.  Even the really small moments, like a child making faces on the bus, or when a robin comes to sit by me at the allotment are worth treasuring.  I try to stop what I’m doing and pay attention, to note to myself that this is funny, or happy.  And I try to do something that will help me to keep it in my memory.  I don’t think it matters if the source of the pleasure is big or small, it is experiencing the emotion that is important.

Ways to make the memory stick:

  • Gratitude journal
  • Happiness jar
  • Imagine telling someone about your experience
  • Taking a photo

Strategy 3: Make my daily routine activities as pleasurable as possible.

Because I can’t do everything I want to I have saved money in some areas.  Some of that gets spent on adding a little more luxury or a little more pleasure to the things I have to do every day.  If I can I like to make it feel good, rather than feel like a chore.  If I need to exercise I try and find something that I like, rather than making myself do something boring.  When I needed to improve my diet, I tried to find a set of healthy meals that I’d actually enjoy.  It takes a bit of time and creativity to figure out how I could do what I need to do to manage my symptoms in ways that still reflect my personality and tastes.

A few examples:

    • develop rituals to help create a mood
    • use essential oils to fragrance facial oils, shampoo, room fragrance etc.
    • starting a collection of loose leaf herbal teas so my tea breaks are a little fancier
    • adding a little oil to the bath (taking care as it can get slippery)
    • allowing a little more time so an activity isn’t rushed (rest after a shower)
    • taking steps to reduce discomfort
    • making evening face cleansing into a facial massage with the oil cleansing method

How does looking for pleasure help me?

It reminds me that two different things can be true at once.  Yes, I am in discomfort and struggling, but I can still enjoy the pleasant aspects of life too.

It makes me feel more like myself and less like an invalid.  I am living the life I have and enjoying my life to the best of my ability.

I have things to look forward to that remind me that I am still the same person I was before.  However, it also requires me to accept that my circumstances have changed and be prepare to adapt.

Putting it into practice

  • Don’t leave it to chance: set reminders, add it to your to-do list
  • Write a plan to build it into a habit,
  • Experiment with all the techniques – give each one a good try until you find some that work for you.
  • Make time for it.
  • Practice.

Are there any downsides?

There can be a risk of disappointment if you make plans and have to cancel.  You may also feel like you are letting other people down if you have to cancel last minute.  It takes time to get used to doing this, and some friends will be more understanding than others.

I think there’s also a risk of increasing sadness sometimes.  If I look for pleasure and can feel very little, my thoughts can drift towards things I’ve lost or how hard my life is.  I feel that the benefits outweigh the risks for me.

I like the WOOP method for tackling potential problems.  By having an idea of how I might respond to any feelings of sadness or thinking about what I’ll do if I’m too unwell to go out in advance I’ve found it easier to make plans to incorporate more opportunities to look for pleasure in my life.

Notes

  1. ‘This’ by Maitreyabandhu,  Crumb Road, quoted in Burch & Penman Mindfulness for Health

Everyday Heroics

Everyday heroics is not pushing yourself to go further and faster.  It’s not about battling against your circumstances, whatever the cost.  It’s not about insisting on living life as you did before.

It’s getting up and starting another day, even though yesterday sucked, and so did the day before it.  It’s finding the courage to face the reality ahead of you, and deal with it one small step at a time.  It’s recognising that some days it’s an achievement to have got up and gone out the door.  And other days it’s a struggle just to get your socks on your feet.

Everyday heroics is about celebrating victories no matter how small.  It’s about developing the acceptance, resilience and compassion to face those everyday difficulties and challenges with realism and determination.

 

Bone Tired

Bone tired is the only way to describe how I feel today.  My skeleton is sleepy, my muscles sluggish and when required to speak or think my brain just shrugs.  I hate this feeling, it seems like such a waste of a day.  And I don’t feel like I’ve any control over it.  I’ve taken rest breaks, meditated, been to bed, fell asleep unintentionally and done a little exercise.  None if it has helped.  Each time I gradual fade back into drowsiness.

I was recently diagnosed with fibromyalgia in addition to the existing chronic vestibular migraines).  Poor sleep and fatigue are associated with fibromyalgia.  I’ll be getting advice on improving my sleep as part of my treatment.  In the meantime I think all I can do is try and get little tasks accomplished as best I can, interspersed with plenty of rest.

Worry Time

By life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened”
Michael de Montaigne

I have always been something of a worrier.  I was okay with that and sometimes found it useful as I’d make extra effort to rehearse something in advance or think through what might go wrong.

But now I have a chronic migraine I don’t really have the luxury of spending time checking everything twice (at least) when my energy is so limited.  The second problem is that chronic illness has been very wearing emotionally and I’m now much more prone to tipping into anxiety, and that can be paralysing.  The final problem is that there are more things to worry about.  In the past, walking across a busy room didn’t take a moment’s thought.  I didn’t use to worry about whether I’d want to be sick when choosing a seat in the cinema.  Now all those things have become a source of doubt and worry.

The upshot is I don’t want to waste my time, physical or mental energy on worrying about trivial things.  And if I do have a legitimate concern I’d rather tackle it in a more useful way than worrying.

A counsellor I saw in the summer introduced me to the strategy of postponed worry.  During the day all your worries get noted down, then at the allotted time you work your way through them using the worry tree to decide how to deal with them. Then you set your timer for 10 or 15 minutes and worry as much as you like. When the time is up you go back to noting down worries again ready for the next day’s worry session. It seemed mad but it was pretty effective.

My Morning Routine

Waking Up Ritual (15 minutes)

  1. Start my timer
  2. Spend  few minutes following a guided ‘Welcoming the Day’ meditation from Stop, Breathe & Think
  3. Drink a glass of water
  4. Eat a handful of nuts
  5. Stretching and strengthening exercises from Arthritis Research UK.  I’ve put the exercises in order so I can do the first few still lying in bed, the next few sat on the edge of the bed, and lastly standing up.

Once I’m up I’ll get dressed, set the timer again, have breakfast, then start a little ritual to clear my mind and then another to started on focused work.  In practice these routines flow into one another.

Clocking In Ritual (15 minutes)

  1. Take a cup of tea up to my desk
  2. Start my timer
  3. Check my work and personal email and add items that need attention to my to-do list
  4. Brainstorm anything that comes to mind – worries, jobs that need doing, distractions and ideas I want to follow up.
  5. Add any items that are tasks to my to-do list.  If I’m worried, anxious or have anything on the list that’s likely to distract me I might do a little thinking or writing about it immediately, or add a task to my to-do list so I can come back to it later.
  6. Check the schedule on my calendar still looks sensible.
  7. Adjust my pacing timer to suit how I’m feeling today.

Deep Work (15-25 minutes)

  1. Play the same piece of music.
  2. Open a jar with a drop of bergamot essential oil in it.
  3. Write the question I’m trying to answer today on my whiteboard.
  4. Write out what I’ll be doing (reading x; thinking about y)
  5. “Un-icky” anything that still seems a bit vague or scary
  6. Make a start

 

Rest Days

When I read this article about the importance of rest days it was like a light bulb went off in my head.  Sometimes I need to rest as I’m recovering from illness, but I don’t need to wait until I can’t carry on at all before allowing myself to rest.  I also need to rest on average days to take of myself.  After the worst of a migraine is over I often have days when I am completely exhausted and unfit for much, but not so ill that I feel content to do nothing all day.  Every so often, at other times I am just worn out for no reason in particular.  My instinct has usually been to press on, to try and catch up.  But this rarely results in much productivity, just a lot of frustration.

This article suggested an alternative.  And it has been really effective.  As soon as I declare a Rest Day (usually sometime mid-morning, after several false starts, lots of absent-minded staring and weak attempts to coax myself into action) the day turns around.  It’s not avoiding work.  It’s not laziness.  It’s not procrastination.  It’s giving myself, my mind and my body, what I need – and taking pleasure in doing so.  It’s an act of self-compassion and kindness.

How I put the idea into practice

I don’t tend to have particular days set aside on my calendar as rest days like the author of the article.  I tend to take them when I can feel myself slowing down.  I don’t know if this is the best strategy but it is still an improvement on my previous approach.

I don’t just wing it on a rest day.  I want the day to feel relaxed and easy-going but I don’t want to skip my self-care and good habits.  I use gamification for motivation and rewarding myself, and I don’t want to lose precious points.  As I am deliberately doing the right thing for myself I think that should be rewarded too.  So I have made a list of relaxing, enjoyable and restorative activities that I can do when I need a rest day.  In writing my list I thought about things that are relaxing for my body, for my mind, things that lift my mood.  Doing these things ‘counts’ in the same way that completing a housework or study task would count as time well spent.

My symptoms aren’t always predictable, and often produce conflicting needs.  Today my mood would be best served by visiting my allotment and doing a little planting.  But my body hurt just having a shower so that’s out.  Lying down reading yesterday was nice, until I started to get double vision from the migraine.  Having a long list of alternatives to hand makes it easy to find another activity to switch to.  My list is a work in progress.  I keep a copy on my to-do list app so that it is accessible wherever I am.

I set my pomodoro timer for 60 minute ‘work’ intervals and at the end of each hour I have a fifteen minute break for eating, moving about, whatever I need.  I use Habitica for tracking my healthy habits and goals and my daily routines.  The essential self-care items are tagged and those are the only ones I need to attempt on a rest day. To avoid accumulating damage my avatar visits the inn for a rest too.

Sometimes I will spend the whole day resting.  Sometimes I drift back into light housework or easy work tasks as I begin to feel better.

My list

  • read a book
  • read in bed
  • make a mug of hot chocolate
  • eat ice-cream
  • call a friend
  • write a letter or text
  • write in my journal
  • dictate ideas for my journal or blog
  • memorize a poem
  • listen to music
  • watch a familiar film
  • do a crossword
  • gardening
  • yoga
  • daydream
  • meditate (especially these self-compassion meditations)
  • watch crap telly
  • read gardening book and make plans for the next season

Getting adjustments in place at college or university

I was one year into my PhD when my chronic illness surfaced.  It has been and continues to be a huge adjustment.  I’ve had to learn new ways of organising my work, of doing the basics like writing, reading and researching for my degree.  All this alongside managing my symptoms, looking after myself generally and having time off sick.  It’s been a huge learning curve.  I’ve had support provided through my university and funded by the Disabled Students Allowance that has helped with some of these adjustments.  Not everything I have been offered has turned out to be helpful.  There’s also a cost in time and energy of pursuing support, getting assessment done and learning new software that needs to be weighed against the benefits you might gain from getting extra support.  I feel that it has been worth it in my case.  The support I have in place helps me to get more out of a good day, and to keep going a little longer on a moderately bad day.

Funding for adjustments:

If you are in Higher Education in England you may be able to apply for the Disabled Students Allowance to help pay for adaptations.

If you are in Further Education your college is able to claim back funding for support it provides.

Under the Equality Act 2010, they must make reasonable adjustments to avoid disabled students being placed at a ‘substantial disadvantage’. They receive money from the EFA and/or SFA to meet the costs of reasonable adjustments. In colleges this is usually called Learning Support and it is provided in a way to enable them to be flexible in the way they support all their students.

Disability Rights UK

There may also be adaptations your college or university can make that don’t require funding, such as accommodations to your schedule, deadlines, providing PowerPoint notes in advance or help using the library.

 Some of the adjustments I have in place:

Adjustments provided by my university:

  • Library books will be found and kept at the desk for me
  • Adaptive software:
  • Lectures will be in lower floor rooms
  • Study coaching
  • Voice recorder
  • Chair adapted to my needs
  • Longer loans on some library books
  • A budget for taxis

Other places to look for ideas or find assistance:

Disabled students helpline Disability Rights UK

Factsheet ‘Adjustments for disabled students’ Disability Rights UK