Why is it so hard to relax?

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The truth is that there’s probably a million answers to this question. I’ve found so many ‘reasons’ for why it’s so hard for many of us to chill out. Why do ‘chill pills’ work for some, but not us?

Some of us are born with highly sensitive nervous systems, which makes them quick to set off the ‘alarm system’ in response to possible stressors.

The relatively new science called Neuroscience offers us a lot of insight (and hope) as to why it can be so hard for some people to feel calm.

Neuroscience has discovered that just like we can strengthen our bodies through exercise, we can also create change in our brains based on the same concept.

The old adage 'use it or lose it' is true for the brain also, because our brains are efficient, they only maintain the neural pathways that we use and allow the others to 'drop off' or weaken. Our brains naturally strengthen the neural pathways we use regularly, in the same way that repetitive physical exercise strengthens the body.

This goes a long way to explain why some of us who think and feel deeply have developed a tendency for worry, and that worry literally strengthens our brains capacity to, well, worry. Once we develop a neural pathway and use it regularly, it can become an autopilot path for the brain to use.

This goes some way to explaining how anxiety disorders develop, the repetitive use of neural pathways which are related to concerns about safety and survival actually strengthen them and they become the brain’s ‘default’ setting.

This means that even when everything is going well, the brain is so accustomed to looking out for danger and predicting anything that could go wrong, it does so without being asked. This explains why anxiety doesn’t necessarily only occur in situations we’re worried about. It can happen anytime and any place, because our brains have developed the ability to use the ‘worry muscle’ even when there’s nothing much to worry about.  

The good news is that the brain is changeable, we just need to slow down the use of the neural pathways used for worry and strengthen new ones that help us to feel calm. It is this understanding that this guide has been founded upon.

Remember that our brains change according to what we do. If your brain is good at worry or doing stress, then you’re going to need to do lots of practice of new things that help it to change.

Coming soon: practical ways to do calm. To get started immediately, download the app 'Headspace' or 'Smiling Mind' and invite your mind to find a healthy focus for 5 or more minutes each day. Remember, we are what we repeatedly do. 


Her Story: Worry, Anxiety & Self-Doubt


Preparing for a night out with the girls, Leila added the final touches to her outfit whilst waiting for the taxi. She dabbed on her perfume, slid into her heels and donned the prerequisite for a fun girls night, the ‘I am happy, all is well’ mask.

Ready for a night out with friends, she was nervous with anticipation about what the night might bring. She sipped her drink and waited patiently for the taxi to arrive. In the pit of her stomach she noticed a nagging feeling, she winced and wished it might leave her alone. Tonight she was more than ready to feel free, free of niggles and free of tension. 

‘Throw caution to the wind’ said an inner voice, ‘Just see what could be’ it continued. She wished that she could, but felt sure that if she were to allow herself that kind of freedom, she risked her mask slipping. Showing her friends her true self, her true feelings, could be a sure way to lose them, or at the very least make them really uncomfortable. 

She sat in the taxi, silently willing her perfume to mask the smell of the inside of this stinky vehicle. She worried about the outfit she’d chosen, unconsciously smoothing and adjusting it. She contemplated the dresses she’d rejected, now strewn across her bed. She wondered if perhaps she could have chosen differently and avoided the overwhelming nervousness she was currently experiencing.

As the niggling feeling in her gut took hold, she noticed another feeling creeping in: disappointment. She realised that despite recently feeling as if she had conquered self-doubt at work, it continued to thrive in her personal life- including providing a critical commentary on her looks.

Arriving at the restaurant, she gathered herself and attempted to lose the sense of uncertainty that had taken hold during the taxi ride. She moved toward her friends sitting at the back of the noisy room. Smiles and greetings ensued, in the corner of her eye she caught the cool stare of a friend sitting across the table, it gave her a chilly feeling on her skin. She tried to ignore it, but she knew from past experience that the friend was quick to judge appearances.

She wished she could become invisible, knowing full well that the cool stare served to invite that critical voice of her own to intensify. It felt impossible to notice the warmth of her friend next to her as she pulled out a chair and sat down.

She drank her drink as quickly as she could, without appearing obviously anxious or reckless. She willed the vodka, cranberry and soda to calm her nerves and soothe that niggle in the depths of her stomach. Conversation bubbled along just like it does when a group of women get together to catch up, drink and gossip. Stories were shared across the table, the latest on work, men and plans for travel.

Leila told her friends the parts of her story that she thought they wanted to hear, whilst omitting the tangle of ongoing low moods, self-doubt and the very worst of it, the sense of being lost with no real purpose in life.  

Every one of her friends seemed to be doing so well in life. Even Jen who recently broke up with her long term boyfriend seemed great, and she had lost some weight. ‘I guess not everyone turns to pizza, chocolate & Netflix after a break up’ she mused. 

The night came to an end, and she found herself back in a taxi, this time less anxious, with thanks to the vodka. On the ride home her attention was far from the smell of the taxi. This time, she was preoccupied by that niggling feeling in the pit of her stomach. ‘What is the matter with me, why do I feel like this, even after having a nice night with friends?’ she asked herself in frustration. ‘Why can’t I just be like everyone else?’ she dwelled silently.

This story is a fictional story drawn from my own experiences and those shared by many others. Within the confidential space between client and counsellor, women have confided that they feel many of the things shared in this story. They've longed for someone to be able to share these feelings with, but the fear of being exposed as different (and the shame) has kept them from sharing.

As I've sat with women whilst they share these kinds of stories, I've tried to reassure them that they're not alone; because I KNOW they are sooo not alone. I've wished I could introduce all of these incredible women to each other; so as they could understand that they're not alone and connect with one another in a real and honest way.

If you can relate to this story, this is for you. I want you to know that you're not weird and definitely not alone. In fact, in my experience, you're most definitely awesome!  

Some questions I invite you to consider:

How might things be different if you freed yourself of the need to please others & ‘fit in’?

How might things be different if you stopped judging your own feelings & worked on accepting them?

Is wearing the mask working for you? If not, what is it costing you?

What would be the worse thing that could happen if you did be your complete self the next time you caught up with your girlfriends?

Are you willing to try it!? 

I also highly recommend watching Brene Browns TedX talks for words to soothe your soul!

Please do share your thoughts, I love to hear from you, it's so important we let each other know that none of us is alone in this x

Weird is awesome


On this lovely Sunday morning I'm relaxing on my couch feeling super inspired, thanks to the brilliance of TedX talks. I love watching TED talks because they're surprising, they offer the unexpected and they make me think. TED talks almost always lead to feelings of inspiration and leave me somehow changed.

Today I'm zeroing in on weirdness, who woulda thunk it? These talks naturally appeal to me, I'm already sold on the value of weird! The bonus is that they're funny, and if you're like me, you'll laugh out loud, for real.

'The most pervasive disease today is being normal, it affects about 90% of people and also has an impact on the other 10%.' This is just one of JP sears factual opinions he shares in his TedX talk. 

Today, I'm learning about why we should let our weirdness out. Anyone who's ever hung out with me will know that I'm pretty good at letting my weird out, I like playfulness, I dislike small talk and generally prefer not to conform to the regular social conventions.

Honestly, I usually can't help myself but to let my weird out, to say and do things that aren't expected. When it goes well, it makes people laugh or smile, when it doesn't go so well I kinda freak people out- they tend to keep their distance.I know who I'd rather connect with- the people with the sense of humour and a sense of playfulness.

My behaviour helps to attract the right people into my circle, the ones who enjoy my flavour of weird, who enjoy being surprised occasionally. At some point, they also become comfortable enough to share their weird with me; that's when things get really fun. 

It will come as no surprise then, that I enjoy spending time with kids. One of my favourite parts of my role as an educational social worker is having sessions with kids. A lot of the kids I meet haven't yet learned to hide their particular brand of weird, and if they have, they soon feel comfortable sharing it with me. In the safety of our bubble, the time we have when it's just us, we can simply let loose and be ourselves. 

Not so long ago, following a weekend of enjoying comedy shows, I returned to work on Monday in full swing with my amateur jokes. In a humorous mood, I sat with a young person who I'd known for a while and found myself letting loose with spontaneous 'jokes'. After a while I asked him if he was getting sick of my amateur jokes, because I knew they weren't that great- he said 'I could get never get bored of you'. Well, wasn't that music to my ears, particularly when I knew that I was the only one in the room who was feeling amused.

Whilst I probably wasn't very funny at all, this boy was most likely enjoying the experience of an adult being a bit silly and playful.

So, remembering we all have an inner child, we therefore have an innate desire to be in the company of someone who is playful- and unapologetically lets their weird out.

Perhaps consider, could you share some of your brand of strange with others? Do you already offer this weirdness as a gift to the world?

Do you need convincing or an affirmation of why your weird is awesome? Watch these talks and there'll be no looking back towards normalcy, it'll be all onwards and upwards for your unique self.

Could this be why substances which cause us to become uninhibited are so popular? Hmmm.

Enjoy these clever & inspiring talks on letting your weird out. Share with a friend who you think has a healthy amount of weird, or who you'd like to see let loose a bit more!

This was so much fun to write, I've had a cheeky smile on my face the whole time, please do share your weird and wonderful thoughts in comments. 

Neuroplasticity simplified

Neuroplasticity Part II

Let's explore an incredible healing power that lies within us, the capacity to change our brain & physiology, aka Neuroplasticity. Stick with me, while I get technical for just a moment: 'Neuroplasticity, also called brain plasticity, is the process in which your brain's neural synapses and pathways are altered as an effect of environmental, behavioral, and neural changes.' Study.Com

Essentially, Neuroplasticity refers to the brain as ever-changing. It's an exciting science which has brought us a truck load of evidence proving that we can change our own brains, and therefore we can change our lives. The science is kind of mind blowing, the further I've explored, the more it's rocked my world and the more enthusiastic I've become to keep learning. 

So, let's get into my simple and super down to earth explanation of how this works, and what it could mean for you, and your loved ones. 

Consider a neural pathway a bit like a bush track, the track is there as a means to find your way from point A to point B, it serves a purpose. Neural pathways are the paths in our brains which allow us to think certain thoughts and perform certain functions. For example, you have neural pathways which know how to drive you home from work- these often become so strong that we can drive home on autopilot. 

Your neural pathways that know the way home from work, without thinking, are similar to a bush track that's been walked many many many times. The track (neural pathways) is well worn and clear and easy to follow, with very little effort or thought on your part. You might even arrive home and realise that you've been lost in thought the whole way, seemingly paying no attention to driving.

However, if you get a new job and need to drive a new route to work, you will initially need to pay a lot of attention to the direction you're taking. Driving this new route will take a significant conscious effort. If you don't pay enough attention and allow yourself to drift into autopilot, you might just end up at your old workplace, oops!

When we do something novel, a 'track' is not yet established in our brains. We must deliberately and consciously lay down a new pathway from point A to point B. We stop and have a good think about it, map it out and then pay attention to each step. This ensures we're focussed and on the right path.

Just like the bush track that is tread upon regularly, frequently used neural pathways strengthen and become easier to use. With repetition, the neural pathways become easier for your brain to use, it knows exactly what to do and how to do it. 

Wow, look at you, you're still reading! There's clearly something here that's got you intrigued...I totally get it, I find this incredibly fascinating and it honestly fills me with hope- hope for change, a different future, for healing and releasing stuckness. I'd like to share about all of that some more.

Watch this space for the next part of this 3 part series on Neuroplasticity, I'll share more about the issues we can heal through neuroplastic change.

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Neuroplasticity & the science of hope

For the past couple of years I've been learning about the impacts of trauma on the body and mind. I've also been learning about neuroplasticity, which is an incredible means to healing a lot of conditions and issues. The power to heal by changing our brain is so big, that I consider neuroscience to be a science of hope.

I've gained knowledge about the way our brains work, how they influence our entire being and the ways in which they can heal, which has helped me both personally and professionally. Driven by a desire to understand my own experiences of illness, as well as to know how to support myself and others towards healing, I've devoted a lot of time and thought to building my understanding of mind-body health. To know about mind-body healing, is to know about Neuroplasticity. 

Neuroplasticity is the concept that that the brain can change itself, that it is essentially 'plastic' and is therefore malleable. We used to believe that once the brain was fully developed, that was it, not much more change would take place; unless it was the decline that typically occurs with ageing. 

We now know that the power of neuroplasticity is incredible, we can change our brains, by choice, at any age. They are also changing, by default, throughout our lives, according to a process called 'neural pruning'. 

Our brains are complex, really really complex, so I'm not even going to try and get technical or detailed here, consider this a brief intro to neuroplasticity and if it gets you intrigued, go forth and explore the many resources available to learn more. 

Just like the widely accepted understanding that exercising and moving our bodies can strengthen them, and that we can target certain muscles to strengthen and or lengthen them, we can also create change in our brains based on the same concept. 

The old adage 'use it or lose it' is true for the brain also, because our brains are efficient, they only maintain the neural pathways that we use and allow the others to 'drop off' or weaken. Our brains naturally strengthen the neural pathways we use regularly, in the same way that repetitive physical exercise strengthens the body. 

Intrigued to learn more? Click to read Part II of this series 'Neuroplasticity Simplifed'

I'd love to hear your thoughts, comments or questions, don't be shy!

Resources to dive deeper with the experts:

NB: I am not a neuroscientist, I have shared information to the best of my understanding, with the hope it might be spark your interest and support you to explore further. I encourage you to do your own learning & come to your own understanding of these topics.