5 Ways to Beat the Winter Blues

Anyone who tells you they don’t feel a bit more crap than usual in January is either lying, or is an alien from the planet Zog (you want to watch them). Trust me. The post-Christmas slump (when your body finally holds you accountable for going entirely off-piste where its wellbeing was concerned for the entire month of December), coupled with plummeting temperatures and a severe lack of sunlight leads to a collective form of exhaustion tinged with malaise – a nagging but non-specific feeling of ‘what now?’ We try to shake it off and kick start the year with enthusiastic resolutions like: “I must eat less!” “I must exercise more!” “I must work harder!” “I must take up that hobby!” Ad Nauseam. But by the end of the month those who started dry January are tearing out their eyeballs and those who didn’t are checking into rehab.

Those of us who live in places that experience prolonged spells of cold and dark each year employ various coping strategies to get through them with our sanity intact. Some choose to avoid it altogether by booking a one way ticket to Australia (and who can blame them?) But for the majority this isn’t a feasible option, so we stock up on Vitamin D tablets and sun lamps (well, those of us that can be arsed do – can’t say I’m one of those people), book holidays to warmer climes to titillate our ailing imaginations (guilty) and let every nanosecond that the sun succeeds in elbowing its way through the thick nimbostratus clouds be reason for unbridled celebration (after all, it is nearly spring, sort of). And for the rest of the time we pull our woolly hats down over our ears, slip our chilly fingers into gloves and leave the house each morning, in the dark, with grim determination etched across our faces.

But there is hope. In the wealth of personal experience I’ve gleaned through the endurance of numerous winters, I am now in a position to share with you a handful of things that really can alleviate the symptoms of this gloomy time of year:

  1. Read a good book – by which I mean a book you enjoy so much it’s like having a love affair; you want to be with it every moment of the day, and can’t stop thinking about it even when you are apart.
  2. Have a lot of baths – soaking in hot water with scented bubbles really does melt your worries away. The deeper the bath and the longer you spend in it the better.
  3. Do guided meditations every day when you wake up – I’ve recently discovered these ones from the Chopra Centre in California, and I find it helps a lot to take a few minutes after waking to focus on breathing in the context of which ever topic you have chosen.
  4. Keep a daily morning journal – as advised by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. I’ve struggled with this a lot over the past couple of years because I often tell myself I’m too exhausted to write as soon as I wake up. But after a hiatus of a few months I have today started again, because I’ve noticed the difference in my stress and creativity levels since it last tailed off.
  5. Live life more mindfully – this is one I struggle with on a daily basis. There are always so many distractions that it’s often hard to create space to observe and appreciate the minutiae of life. Last year I did the #100HappyDays challenge which involved taking pictures each day for 100 days of something that made me happy. And you know what? I found I was being a lot more mindful – always looking around for something beautiful, striking or inspirational. That’s why I’ve decided to start my own #MindfulnessMonth – every day in February I will document, by way of image, blog or both, something that I have taken the time to stop and appreciate.

Those are my ways of coping with the winter blues. Good luck finding yours.

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Q: What do Gyms and Puppies Have in Common?

A: Like puppies, gyms should be for life – not just for Christmas (or, for the purposes of this blog post, January).

Over the Christmas holidays, as I was midway through my second helping of bubble and squeak (whilst simultaneously eyeing up the chocolate log and mince pies) my mother unsubtly dropped into conversation – with a meaningful stare – that her diary for that same day the previous year documented that I had completed an 11 mile run. I lowered my fork momentarily and glared at her over the mound of food between us, feeling thoroughly hard done by – I had, after all, had to pull out of the marathon I’d been training for with nine days to go, after suffering a prolapsed disc, so it was hardly appropriate to make me feel bad about it, especially at Christmas. Honestly.

But, much as I hate to admit it, Mum was right to bring my lack of exercise up. True, I did have a nasty injury that required several months of physiotherapy (although if I’m honest I can only blame myself, seeing as it was the result of overtraining – a concept that right now seems entirely alien), but the physio ended with the summer, and even my physiotherapist told me I was ready to get back to exercising – so why didn’t I? Because I was afraid – of how much I had lost my fitness, and of how much work I would have to do to get even a fraction of it back again.

Fortunately the new year has, for me as well as thousands of others, brought with it fresh resolve. No more the upward creeping of the scales, whilst my blind eye is turned the other way. It’s time to face my fears and get my thigh gap back. It is also, I have decided, the year I manage to prove my abdominal muscles really do exist – no small goal. There shall be no excuses, just regular exercise and a predominantly healthy eating regime. If I can train up to 17 miles for a marathon I can surely claw back some of that enthusiasm now?

So, I’ve joined a gym, which is conveniently located about a minute’s walk from my front door (greatly helping with the ‘no excuses’ side of things). And so far this year (today being the 12th of January) I’ve been a whopping SEVEN times (never mind that two of those times involved the sum total of about 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise – everyone has to start somewhere, right?) But this post is not intended as a gloat-fest, I actually wanted to discuss something that has been amusing me no end since I joined, and that is ll the New Year Resolution gym goers (I realise I could well be placed into that category given my recent hiatus, but trust me, I know I’m in this for the long haul).

I’d genuinely forgotten how hilarious these people are. The other day, for example, I saw a man on the step machine who, instead of using the machine correctly and stepping as if stepping on air, was just standing on the floor and lifting each step up in turn beneath his feet. Not far away another man was using a weight machine on the lowest possible weight setting (which would barely develop muscles in an ant), and another still (this one VERY overweight after the festive season’s over-indulgence) was cycling at the most leisurely pace possible on the sit-down bike – whilst reading his book.

My favourite new-year-resolutioner of all was the girl who came to the gym in full make up and an outfit that would have been more appropriate in a bar, and proceeded to spend ten minutes pulling the bar of the rowing machine with as much gusto as a weak fart, before getting up and leaving. It really is no wonder these transitional folk don’t last beyond the first couple of months of the year – with such minimal exertion they can’t possibly see any results. Maybe they’d have more luck with a puppy…

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Stop Fighting Hate with Hate – Try Love Instead

As tempting as it is to wallow in depression at the future of humanity after today’s horrific massacre of satirical cartoonists in Paris, to do so would achieve one thing and one thing only: It would mean the terrorists have won.

Whilst it’s heartening to see the numerous messages of support for the victims (and indeed for freedom of speech itself) on social media, as well as the hastily organised rallies across Europe and the newly created cartoons in response to the tragedy, less heartening is the hashtag #killallmuslims, currently trending on Twitter.

It is sadly inevitable that the events of today will lead to reprisals against innocent Muslims, as well as the usual torrent of ignorant comments about religion being the root cause of all evil. But as British journalist Emily Davis succinctly put on Twitter in the aftermath of the incident: “Islamic extremists. Not Islam. They are different entities and shouldn’t be casually associated. Terror has no religion.”

Terrorism in the name of religion is NOT religion, but rather extremism based on a warped perception of it. As someone who has grown up in a household with religious leanings, I have witnessed the positive side of having faith, such as the sense of community and charity that it fosters. Blaming religion in all its forms for this kind of evil, extremist activity is almost as ignorant as the terrorists themselves. Not only that, it instigates a misguided campaign of hate against innocent people who are merely trying to follow their religion in the name of peace.

If only we could all learn to practice tolerance and acceptance, we might yet be able to pull ourselves back from the brink of what could well be the end of civilisation as we know it. Hate is not the way to fight hate. The only thing that will defeat it is love.

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New Year Musings

It’s with a surprising degree of trepidation that I return to Brussels today after the Christmas break. With hindsight I think the first eight weeks of our life abroad were made easier by the fact of our imminent return, whereas now I have no such trip back to the UK planned to anchor me here it feels somehow more final. Which is of course so very silly when you consider that it only takes a little over two hours to get from Brussels to London-the same time as a trip to Manchester, no less. I guess it’s especially hard to return anywhere after spending the festive break catching up with friends and family and having such a wonderful time. The past two weeks have been ridiculously busy but enormous fun and I’ve loved every minute. But life can’t be all about the parties and family time. If it was we wouldn’t appreciate it half as much when we do get a chance to enjoy it. So enough of the sentimentality. I know once I’m back in our gorgeous flat I’ll settle back into the routine in no time.

I’m not a fan of new year’s resolutions as I think people all too often set unrealistic goals and in doing so set themselves up for a fall. But having said that I do feel a sense of optimism about 2015. My goals are simple and, I believe, achievable:

1. Make writing a daily practice again, even if only for 15 minutes each day. Discipline is everything where writing is concerned, so this is non-negotiable if I really want to achieve my writing ambitions for 2015 (finish screenplay, get back into short story writing, start new novel).

2. Make meditation a daily practice again, even if only for 5 minutes each day. Mindfulness is such a valuable way to still the mind, reduce anxiety and help focus on the ‘bigger picture’. When I practised meditation daily in India I reaped the benefits, and I want to get back to that calm state of being.

3. Exercise regularly. This one sounds so simple, but as someone who one year ago was training for a marathon and who now can only comfortably run about ten metres for a bus, I’m acutely aware of how easy it is to lose fitness and get stuck in a rut of no exercise and low self-esteem as a result. My own inactivity has in large part been due to the prolapsed disc I unfortunately gave myself through overtraining for the Rome marathon (which I was subsequently forced to pull out of), but it’s been months now and I’m physically quite ready to get back on the horse. The only thing stopping me is my own fear and laziness, so a new year is the perfect time to kick those inhibitors into touch.

4. Make time for reading. As a writer this one seems obvious, but all too often reading is something that gets relegated behind a million and one other things each day, whether it be cooking, washing, ironing, watching TV, writing-the list goes on. The only way I will get better as a writer (which I certainly need to do) is to improve the breadth and scope of the materials I read. Not only that, reading others’ work is refreshing and inspiring, not to mention relaxing (there are few nicer feelings than being swept up in a story you never want to end). So this is my final goal for 2015. I don’t have to read every classic ever written, but I do have to make a concerted effort to read something every day. I know my mind will feel all the better for it.

Having set those goals out en route to  St.Pancras station it seems fitting that I’m now waiting to board the Eurostar and continue the adventure that began some ten weeks ago. Who knows what this year will bring, all I hope is that my loved ones stay well and happy and that I do myself, and them, proud in whatever ways I can.

Happy New Year to you all from this wandering muser. May 2015 bring you one step closer to your dreams. Xx

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