Vhi Corporate Health & Well-Being Trainer

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The Vital “Sunshine” Vitamin

What amazing sunshine we’re having!  I hope you’ve been able to soak some of it up. Most of us feel the immediate mood-enhancing effects of the sun. Read on to learn why the sun is vital for our mental and physical health.

The UV rays trigger the body to produce Vitamin D.  Low Vitamin D levels can mean low mood, and even depression.  The sun is our main source of Vitamin D.
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How can we make sure we’re getting our minimum required levels of this “sunshine” vitamin?

  • 15 minutes of daily unprotected exposure to the sun as much as possible (unless you have been given medical advice to stay out of the sun completely). Not easy in Ireland!  But the body can store some Vitamin D, and we can top up our levels by eating vitamin D-rich foods (see below).
  • Wearing sunscreen, make-up or a moisturiser with an SPF will inhibit the body’s ability to absorb Vitamin D. Get your 15 mins sun exposure with a naked face (uness you have had medical advice to stay out of the sun completely).
  • Eat plenty of oily-fish such as salmon, tuna and mackeral.  These foods can help to top up the Vitamin D levels, but sunshine is the most important source!
  • We may also benefit from a Vitamin D supplement during the winter months.
  • Vitamin D also enhances your immune system, helping to keep you generally stronger and healthier.
  • Vitamin D is vital for bone health.  It helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorus from certain foods, both of which are important for healthy and strong bones.  For post-menopausal women, it’s especially important to have sufficient Vitamin D.  Another good reason to soak up some rays.
  •  If you think your Vitamin D levels may be low, you can ask your doctor to do a simple blood test.

World Health Day 2017 – Depression: Let’s Talk

Today (7th April) is the WHO-led World Health Day. The global health experts are making Depression it’s focus this year. Depression rates are rising around the world, creating a massive public health burden.

What are some of the key messages communicated to20160724_132642-1day from WHO on the launch of its campaign “Depression: Let’s Talk”?

  • Talk about it. Seek and get support. Talk to somebody you trust.
  • Treat your mental health as you would your physical health. You would go to the doctor with a physical health issue – also seek expert help for your mental health.
  • Don’t ignore your symptoms. Depression is not the same as feeling a bit down or sad from time to time. It’s more persistent (generally lasting over 2 weeks) and can affect all aspects of life, including work, relationships, appetite and sleep.
  • Anxiety and depression can be a consequence of work-related stress. The employer needs to play its part in helping its employees cope with normal work-related demands.
  • Men find it more difficult than women to talk about their feelings and difficulties. They need to be encouraged to talk when they’re experiencing symptoms of depression.
  • Depression is generally treatable. There are many different treatments available.

Mindset plays a key role in positive mental health.

So how can we learn to adopt a more positive state of mind? How can we train our mind to be more resilient, better able to cope with the difficulties that life will inevitably throw at us?

In my latest corporate health & well-being session “The 5 Steps to Happiness”, discover some key ways that we can improve our mental health and our happiness levels.

Health & Well-being talks and sessions are ever-more present in companies in Ireland. Successful companies know that it pays to support the physical and mental health of its people.

Take WHO’s advice – get the conversation going at your workplace!

Women and Depression

Yoga Classes Shiatsu MassageInternational Women’s Day will be marked around the world on 8th March. This year’s theme is about gender equality.  We’re well used to hearing about gender and equality when it comes to pay, rights and behaviour.  But one of the biggest gender gaps involves a common mood disorder –  depression.  The “black dog” affects much more women than men.

 

So why are women more prone to depression than men?

There’s no one reason why women are more susceptible to depression than men, but a combination of possible factors.

  • Hormones.  The gender difference in depression is first apparent at puberty. Hormonal changes that accompany menstruation each month can bring on mood changes similar to those that occur in depression. Some women suffer from depression after giving birth and during the menopause – both of these times in a woman’s life are when hormone levels fluctuate greatly.  These hormonal changes may render some women more vulnerable to depression, especially when other factors are also involved, such as stress.
  • Genetics.   Women are genetically more predisposed to depression than men.  Studies have shown that certain genetic mutations which are linked with the development of severe depression are present only in women.
  • Stress.  Women are thought to be more deeply affected by stressful events than men.  It seems that women tend to dwell more on challenging events, making them more susceptible to depression. There’s also many different demands on women today.  Although women are thought to be masters of multi-tasking, juggling home and work life can be extremely challenging. Women are often the main carers in the family, not only of children but also of elderly or unwell parents. As long-term stress is a major driver for depression, it’s no surprise that depression is common among today’s busy women.
  • Socio-cultural. There may be other reasons contributing to higher rates of depression amongst women.  Women are more likely to seek medical help, leading to a diagnosis of depression.  So perhaps many men suffering from depression are simply undiagnosed.

While we all feel a bit sad or low from time to time, depression is different. Normal feelings of sadness usually pass after a while, and are often related to certain events or changes in life. We can all relate to this.  But depression is different – it can create a black cloud over every aspect of life.  Everything is affected – relationships, work and physical health. Even getting out of bed may take a huge effort every day.  Things that used to be enjoyable no longer bring any pleasure.

There’s no one way to tackle depression.  The most important thing is to recognise it, and to get expert help.

Get professional help
This first step may be talking to your doctor.  Or you may have a counsellor at work who you can talk to confidentially. There are many other experts who are trained in helping people with depression and you may be guided to one.

Take care of yourself
Taking care of yourself in every way is key.  Simple things such as getting 8 hours sleep on a regular basis and eating well. Include lots of whole foods, coloured veg, oily fish such as salmon or sardines, and whole nuts and grains in your diet.  Limit sugar as this creates a sudden rise and fall of your blood sugar, which can enhance an already low mood.

Limit Alcohol
Alcohol can increase low mood and anxiety so stay away from it altogether or limit your intake. The key is being aware of the effect it can have on your mental health.  If you find it challenging to cut out alcohol, it can be helpful to write down how you feel the day after having had a few drinks. If a pattern emerges that your mood is even lower, it may encourage you to temporarily stay away from it, until the depression is under control.

Exercise
Yes, you’ve heard it many times!  Getting moving can literally change how we feel. The “feel-good” hormones that are released into the bloodstream when we exercise can have a measurable positive impact on our mood.  If the gym doesn’t appeal, just get out walking or running. Even 20 minutes a day can lift your mood – just do it!

Mind/body Practices
Holistic disciplines such as Yoga and Meditation are known to help us feel better, both physically as well as mentally.  Learning techniques to help quieten the mind can be very helpful in managing depression. The environment is generally calm, supportive and non-competitive, which is often soothing if you’re feeling vulnerable.

Connect
Women are biologically programmed to create strong social and emotional connections.  Underlying this natural behaviour is a hormone called oxytocin.  Oxytocin is released during stressful situations, as well as in childbirth, breast-feeding and caring for a child.  The main role of oxytocin is to help us to connect with people, to create strong social and emotional bonds.  These connections can be an important support mechanism during difficult times.  Today’s busy women often don’t have much time to dedicate to friends or the extended family network. Feelings of isolation and loneliness are normal if you’re suffering from depression, so it may take a massive effort to talk to somebody, let alone be social.  But having just one trusted friend or family member to talk to and confide in can go a long way.

Depression is manageable, with the right treatment, support and mindset. Know that the sun will come out again.

Workplace Well-Being: how important is it really?

workshopfeb8-22Workplace Well-Being has been big over the past years. We’ve seen the steady introduction of all sorts of health-promoting activities to the workplace. From healthy eating options, and running groups, to yoga classes, massage and mindfulness sessions – even financial planning workshops are common now. These activities are of course appreciated by employees. People feel more valued and appreciated when their employer shows an interest in their well-being. There’s an abundance of statistics showing how health-promoting activities significantly help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, improve overall health and resilience and overall morale and job satisfaction.

But how beneficial are they really to the employer? And are they worth the investment?

Well, it seems that the employer will reap the benefits of a healthier and happier workforce. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), some of the benefits of workplace health and well-being activities include:

  • Reduced sick-days.
  • Increased productivity.
  • Reduced health insurance/healthcare costs.
  • Increased retention.
  • Increased morale.
  • A positive and caring image.

Employers across different sectors know it pays to look after their employees. Ireland even has an awareness day dedicated to the promotion of Workplace Well-Being (31st March this year).

What are the most popular health and well-being activities that companies in Ireland provided in 2016? According to the organisers, the top five were:

  1. Lunchtime Mile (Walk, Jog, Run, Cycle)
  2. Healthy eating initiatives
  3. Fruit bowls
  4. Mindfulness/Yoga
  5. Health Screening

Mental Health talks also featured on the list, and are becoming more popular this year. Considering that one in ten people at any one time suffers from depression in Ireland, the workplace is certainly an effective platform to create awareness and understanding.

So while health & well-being activities may in the past have been perceived as a “nice extra”, they’re now a normal part of almost every company’s culture. And it looks like they’re here to stay.

Feeling blue this Monday?

Don’t worry, you may be feeling the effects of Blue Monday. Yes, today is apparently the most miserable day of the year. Based on a formula of factors including debt, time since Christmas holidays, weather and low motivational levels, Blue Monday may have been created for marketing sun holidays, but many of us may indeed be feeling a bit blue this time of year.imag0541

So what can you do to beat the January blues?

  • Before even hauling yourself out of bed, set the tone of the day with a simple practice of gratitude. Before judging this as new-age spiritual stuff, just open-up any of the papers in January, or check-out what global business leaders include in their tips to increase happiness – you will see gratitude is a consistent feature. Acknowledge 2 or 3 things you’re grateful for – it could be your health, your job, somebody in your life, coffee or a hot shower.  This practice can help change our perspective and set a more optimistic tone for the day.
  • Meditate.  It can be for as little as 5 minutes.  It’s not about shutting out negative thoughts, it’s about being able to sit with them and know that they will move on.  Meditation is known to help us in many ways, including improved focus and concentration, greater emotional resilience, improved physical health and improved relationships.  To begin your meditation practise, commit to 5 minutes in the morning.  Focus on your breath by repeating to yourself “breathing-in, breathing-out” or, breathe in for a count of 4, and breathe out for a count of 4.  Make it consistent, and you may gradually increase the time of your meditation.  There are many different apps out there to help you.  I recommend headspace.
  • Move.  Movement can literally change how you feel.  We know that getting out for a run or brisk walk can help you feel better, but you can also incorporate movement into your daily life.  For example, choose to use the stairs instead of the lift.  Walk over to chat with your colleague in person instead of emailing or phoning.  Get up from your desk and have a stretch every 60 minutes.  Interestingly, scientific studies have shown that if we adopt a “power” pose when we’re feeling anxious or negative, by literally “faking” a feeling of confidence through our posture, hormonal levels change in the body, having both a calming and confidence boosting effect.  This is because testosterone levels can rise and cortisol levels fall when our physical body takes on a strong and confident position.  Think of the New Zealand rugby team doing the haka!  That may be an extreme example, but by simply standing up, opening up your arms and chest, and taking a few deep breaths, you may be able to literally change your mood.
  • Connect.  Human connections are necessary for good mental health.  Sharing a problem with somebody can be enough to help you gain a different perspective & feel better.  Now is a great time to join a new club, take up a new interest or do some voluntary work.  Reach out to somebody you haven’t been in touch with for a while.  While technology is a great tool, there is no replacement for real human connection.
  • Get out in the sunshine.   Get out in the fresh air and sunshine as much as you can.  Most people need at least 15 minutes of sunshine daily to maintain correct Vitamin D levels.  This can be difficult in Ireland, and use of sunscreen, make-up or moisturisers with SPF all inhibit the absorption of Vitamin D.  Vitamin D is important for many functions of the body and brain, including immune and bone health.  Low Vitamin D levels are also linked to low moods and even depression.  The main source of Vitamin D is sunshine, so unless you have been medically advised otherwise, get outside every day and feel your mood improve!
  • Set realistic goals.  Use this time to find focus and purpose by setting achievable goals.  If you want to get fitter and healthier, look at this as a long-term goal and lifestyle rather than a quick hard slog.  Find a physical activity that you enjoy – if running isn’t something you enjoy, don’t do it!  Try dancing, walking or cycling.  If sorting out your finances is important, focus on the big picture rather than what you need to sacrifice.  Use this time at the start of the year to get into a positive new mindset.  Just start today, and take the first steps into a positive tomorrow.

3 Powerful Questions for the New Year

At the beginning of the New Year, many of you may be thinking about your resolutions or ways that you can improve yourself in some way.  Or not! You may just be enjoying some well-deserved rest before getting back to youimg_2770r usual routines. Either way, taking some time to ask ourselves a few questions at the very beginning of the New Year can help bring greater clarity and focus for the coming year.

I wanted to share with you a simple practice which involves asking ourselves 3 questions.

This can be a really powerful exercise to do as we move into a new year.  I’m giving credit to the wonderful Marie Forleo for this exercise – Marie is a business/life-coach extraordinaire!  She shares lots of practical ways to help us in our lives in a warm, witty, zippy & engaging way!

So, get yourself a pen and paper and a quiet 15 minutes or so.  Do write down your answers – just getting the words down on paper is a way of making each response more tangible than just keeping it in your head. Even if you burn/shred/throw away your answers after, get them down on paper!

QUESTION 1:   What have I done, created or experienced this past year that I’m proud of? (Could be related to your work, personal or spiritual life – you may need to dig deep! It’s often much easier to recognise the things we’re not so proud of!)

QUESTION 2:   What mistakes did I make? What didn’t go so well?  Was there any lesson that I can take? How can I do better next time?

QUESTION 3:   What am I willing to let go of?   (This could be a commitment to a particular project, a desire, a habit, it could even be an old hurt or resentment you’re holding onto, or an old belief – ask yourself who would you be without this? Would you feel different?

“It’s not till you let go of something that you can see how it’s been holding you back.”

Finally, one of the key things about this exercise, is to create some quiet space to reflect.  Often we are so busy that we don’t give ourselves time to reflect on these important questions.  It can really help us see with some perspective, the positive as well as the challenges we faced in the year that’s passed. This then gives us more clarity and focus to move into the New Year with a sense of peace and also purpose.

Emotional Resilience over Christmas

They come at autumn-ashfordus from all directions – messages of how we’re supposed to be feeling at Christmas – warm and fuzzy, happy, in love, in party mood, etc. But the reality is that many people don’t feel like this, which only makes this time of year even harder because it’s not easy to admit to feeling anything less than happy and excited.

There are so many pressures and expectations – financially, emotionally, physically, mentally – even the most emotionally and physically resilient of us can find this time of year extremely challenging.

Christmas can often trigger feelings of sadness, anxiety, loneliness and even depression. For people who have lost loved ones, this is a time when feelings of grief and sadness are often most acute. Also for people who are not where they thought they would be by the end of the year, Christmas can be another big milestone which often reinforces unfulfilled dreams or goals. Financially, especially when there’s children, it can be a huge drain. Physically, it can be a stressful and demanding time at work, maybe there are lots of social events, and over indulgence.  And so on.

So how can you support yourself at this time of year? Here’s a few suggestions which may help you look at things differently, and hopefully make your holiday a little more enjoyable!

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness means basically the acknowledgement of any emotions or thoughts without judgement. So for example, if you feel sad, just acknowledging this feeling for exactly what it is, is a good place to start. Tell yourself that its ok to feel whatever you’re feeling, and in fact, perfectly natural given all the different pressures and expectations. Being mindful is also being kind & compassionate – starting with ourselves is the best place to start. How would you speak to a a good friend or loved one who was feeling low or stressed? Instead of giving yourself a hard time for not feeling a certain way, give yourself a break! Be your own best friend and treat yourself kindly.

 Let go of unrealistic expectations

This can be challenging one. Especially if you’re watching TV! Whether its this year’s John Lewis Christmas ad or our own An Post one, many of us dream of having this picture perfect Christmas. Maybe it’s time to let go of this expectation, and create a more realistic one. Whether its an expectation relating to a relationship being a certain way, or you feeling a particular way, losing that expectation can be a relief! Or you may have an expectation about your extended family getting on well for this one day of the year – but if it’s not the case all year round, chances are it’s not going to happen at Christmas!

Focus on the Positives

Try accepting where you are, and what you have, as enough. Focusing on the positives in your life can help take the pressure off. There are always positives in your life and they are usually the simple but most important things, such as health, a home, family or friends. Maybe you can update your own personal meaning of this time of year – for example, if it’s always been about going out partying, or spending lots of money that you don’t have on gifts, perhaps doing things differently this year will bring you more benefits. Maybe invest that time or money on going away for a weekend to somewhere new to re-charge your batteries. What about New Years Eve traditions and expectations? This can be a great time to go away on a yoga or meditation retreat!

 Make Time for Yourself and your Needs

It’s easy to get caught up in all sorts of things at this time of year, so its important to take some time for yourself. That may mean just having a coffee break alone with a book for 30 minutes, instead of cleaning the oven (can it wait!?). Or go for your run/yoga class/walk/nap instead of giving those things up – we all know the list is endless at this time of year, so its up to you to look after yourself by not giving up the things that help you feel good. These things will only improve your emotional & physical health at the end of day.

Look after your physical health

Christmas and over-indulgence just go hand-in-hand! Try and balance things by getting out for walks or any exercise as much as you can. Alcohol is full of sugar, so just be aware that this will all add to the extra calorie intake at this time of year. Try and drink 2 glasses of water in between each alcoholic drink. Remember too that alcohol can often increase low mood and anxiety. If you’re feeling vulnerable, it may be worth staying away from the booze altogether.

Have an Action Plan  

If difficult feelings do persist or worsen over the holidays, make sure you have a plan which will focus on helping you to get through it. This will be different for each person, but listening to yourself and acknowledging your feelings is important. You may have a good friend who will be around for a chat, or maybe just getting out for some long walks will help lift your mood. Perhaps the couch will beckon for a few days, with some good books/films/music or whatever it is that will help you.

Finally, but I think this one is really important, you could use the time to reflect on how you would like to spend the holidays next year – maybe look into travel, or starting a new project or interest in the New Year. This will give you a new and positive focus and who knows where you will be this time next year!

Being Kind is Good for You

What’s all the fuss about kindness these days?  Whether we hear the words loving kindness, self-love, compassion, mindfulness or just kindness used in a spiritual or a business context, it’s all saying the same thing.  That it pays to be kind. Many studies show how our health benefits, both physically and mentally.  Our happiness and success levels also increase.  Another huge pay-off is that our relationships also improve.  Yes, its official – being kind is good for us!

With the aim of spreading the news, International Kindness Day was 13th November.

Being kind for some may well mean big gestures of giving, but kindness is something we can all bring more of into our everyday lives.

Starting with ourselves is a good place to begin practising kindness.  We all know how it feels to give ourselves a hard time – “I could have done better”, “why did I say that?”, “I’m fat/not good enough/etc.”  Our self-critical voice is often ready to speak up rather than our self-compassionate voice.  These self-critical thoughts can create anxiety, stress, low self-esteem and perhaps lead to depression if left unchecked.

Like anything that we need to learn, self-compassion or loving kindness, is a practice.  The good news is that we can train our minds to change the message to a more positive one.

So how would you speak to a good friend or someone you love?  What advice would you give a friend if they were saying some of the things that are flying around in your head? Would you speak to someone else the way you speak to yourself?  Of course you wouldn’t.  It’s easy to be kind, offering supportive, non-judgmental advice or love to other people, but it’s not so easy to do this for ourselves.

How can you begin treating yourself with kindness and compassion?

  • Pay attention to your thoughts. Often our negative thoughts are like an auto-pilot reaction, and we don’t even realise we are having them (or so many of them!). Each time a negative thought comes, try just saying “here’s a negative/critical/anxious/difficult thought” – giving it a label, recognising it for what it is, can help it dissolve. This is practising mindfulness.
  • Stop torturing yourself. We all know how it feels to give ourselves a hard time – “I could have done better”, “why did I say that? etc”.  There is no such thing as perfection!  Instead of saying you’re not good enough, commit to improve a particular area of your life or to create healthier habits.  The power is in you!
  • Managing a difficult thought. There’s a saying I’ve come across a lot in the context of mindfulness, “What we resist persists”.  Mindfulness says, “what we accept, transforms”. When you notice a self-critical or other difficult thought arise, take a few deep breaths into your belly, notice where you feel any tension or sensation in your body.  You can place your hand(s) on any part of your body you feel any tension or sensation.  You may say “I feel tightness in my chest/belly/throat etc” or whatever it is you feel, wherever you feel it.  Then say to yourself a few times “it’s just a worry/stressful/difficult thought”, take another 5 deep breaths.  This allows the thought to arise, and to be recognised, with kindness and compassion.  It’s easier for it to move on then rather than lead to other stressful thoughts.
  • Be your own best friend. Be your own cheerleader.  Give yourself a break. Be kind to yourself.

So what happens when we start being kinder to ourselves?  On a physical level, our biochemistry changes, creating hormones which protect our heart, boost our immune system and regulate our digestive system.  The stress levels in the body which were raised during negative thinking drop back to normal.  This in itself makes way for so many body and mind benefits, including better sleep, greater focus and concentration, more energy, and a healthier weight.  Emotionally, negative thinking over time can lead to stress, anxiety and depression. Relationships with others are also improved.

Being kind to ourselves, I believe, is the most important place to begin the art of practising kindness.  Once we treat ourselves with kindness, it’s so much easier to treat others the same way!

Seemingly small acts of kindness towards others can have a huge positive impact on them, as well as on you.  Being kind releases hormones associated with emotional warmth.  This literally creates a “feel-good” factor.  Offer a word of support to somebody who’s having a hard time, offer to help a colleague who’s struggling with a deadline, phone somebody you haven’t spoken to in a while, send a kind text. The list is endless!

On many levels, being kind to ourselves means a happier, healthier and more successful life.

 

 

Depression & World Mental Health Day

How are you today? Fine, good, well, great?  This is how we normally reply when we’re asked this question – and the one we normally expect (and hope!) to hear when we ask. It may be the most common question we ask another person.

But maybe you’re not feeling so good. Maybe you’re having a bad day, or a few bad days, or maybe a bad month or two.

Being human, we just can’t get away without feeling sad or low at times! But we can usually get through these days with a bit of time.  But depression is more than this. It is something which is much deeper and hangs around a lot longer. It can affect everything, from our work to relationships, to our physical health. Thankfully, depression is not the taboo it once was. There are lots of ways to manage it, and feel the “normal” feelings of joy, contentment, peace and well-being again.

World Mental Health Day is coming up soon on 10th October.

The World Health Organization estimates that mental disease, which includes depression and stress-related disorders, will be the 2nd leading cause of disabilities by 2020.

It’s our own responsibility to find which practices or treatment can help us feel better. Much research shows that Yoga and Meditation can help enormously. Physical exercise is also proven to be extremely helpful.

I urge you to watch this short (4 minute) video which was made by the World Health Organization (WHO) as part of its Mental Health Campaign a couple of years ago.  Please share it too – it may just be the key to helping somebody who needs it.

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