The kindness conundrum

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‘Keep that wine flowing – when you’re drunk, I’m funny,’ crowed the compère at a recent comedy night, and the crowd roared with laughter. That wasn’t the only point in the evening that his self belittling quips drew snorts and guffaws – in fact each reference to his beer gut, hair loss and general inadequacy with women seemed to elicit even louder applause. Our shiny-headed host was using the time-old art of self deprecation to bring the funny and connect with us through something we can all identify with – putting ourselves down.

Everyone has an inner critic – and if you suffer from depression and/or anxiety I’ll bet you’re particularly vulnerable to self flagellation. I should know, I’ve duelled regularly with the black dog and will always invert the finger of blame back at myself should the occasion allow it. Didn’t get that job I applied for? Must be because I’m a horribly inadequate person. Even if there were 600 other competitiors.

In an economy where creative opportunities are slimming down at terrifying speed, the spectre of self doubt is never far. It’s easy to take job rejections, ignored pitches and a general dearth of prospects as a personal hit – assuming it’s a lack of talent holding you back, rather than a lack of luck.  And it’s not just us mere mortals that have self deprecation demons to wrestle with.

King of neurosis Woody Allen was once quoted saying: ‘I never make a film I’m not disappointed in’. Perhaps it’s this level of self criticism that’s kept him producing at unfathomable pace for nearly 60 years, but I have to wonder just how much inward whip cracking can be deemed constructive. Twenty minutes into writing this piece I’m already starting to despise my inarticulate scrawlings; but I know that won’t help me reach a Camus-esque conclusion. Watch this space.

Is it really so difficult to practice self compassion? Random acts of benevolence towards others are everywhere – as shown by artist Michael Landy’s project Acts of Kindness. Aiming to eventually display and celebrate examples of everyday generosity and compassion on the tube, the site ended up being flooded with touching tales of rush hour thoughtfulness. Then there’s the Coca-Cola’s campaign ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, which spotlighted a rabble of people caught on camera doing lovely things for total strangers – from a woman who high-fives everyone she sees, to a secret gardener.

We’re a fairly caring, sharing and squishy bunch, I’d say. So how about redirecting a morsel of that kindness back inwards? It may even help with your career, apparently.

Self compassion can actually lead to higher levels of productivity and a higher likelihood of improving performance after failure. Maybe now’s not the time to tell prospective employers that you’re this century’s answer to Orwell, but weeping into your pot noodle because your portfolio ‘isn’t good enough’ to land that publishing deal eight million other writers want clearly won’t help either.

As for me, I’m not sure this article is Pulitzer-prize worthy but it must be at least deserving of a cuppa and a Hobnob. Biscuity nutrition over crippling self doubt? Perhaps there is something to this kindness thing after all.

Massage therapy – patting the black dog

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‘Just relax’ rasped the sturdy Estonian lady as she pummelled essential oils into my lower back with what felt like a club, while I struggled to wriggle my crushed skull into a comfier position in the face hole.

The Baltics are renowned for having some of the best spa facilities in the world, but my second ever massage was less than relaxing.

The first one hadn’t been much better – in a wooden hut nestled into a Thai beach I’d hoped for a tension-easing rub down, in reality I had my toe knuckles popped by a fairly unconvincing lady-boy, who then proceeded to rearrange my spine with her elbow. Or his elbow, I’m still not sure.

A few years later and having tried a few more massages on my own turf here in England, I love them. As someone that’s vulnerable to bouts of depression and anxiety I’m constantly on the look-out for ways to calm my mind and improve my mood when the mental illness tsunami comes to town – massage therapy has really soothed me during some turbulent times. Once you get used to the weirdness of having a complete stranger grope your naked body, and can survive the embarrassment of that time you nervous-twitch-kicked your masseur in the face, it’s pretty great.

And not just because it feels nice – the physical and mental benefits of massage therapy are endless. Here are just a few…

1. Reduces anxiety – we store bucket loads of tension in our lower back, shoulders, abdomen, and neck. Relieving these areas allows the mind to let go of anxiety and, you know, float off to Shangri-La on a wave of serenity and zen.

2. Improves posture – forget circumnavigating the living room with a book on your head (it’s normal to do this, right?); massage helps the spine and its surrounding muscles to become more flexible and supple which can improve posture.

3. Increases circulation – all that poking and prodding allegedly helps blood move through congested areas thus removing toxins. Nice.

4. Promotes mental alertness – I’m told that although a massage can bring you into a state of deep relaxation, you should also expect to feel reinvigorated and mentally alert. An optimum time for working on the five-year world domination plan, no?

5. Enhances skin health – nevermind that Jojoba and Kukui sound like potent crack derivatives from the foothills of Peru, massage oils can do magical things for skin tone. As well as soothing body tissues, muscles and joints they promote healing, moisturise and nourish the skin. Some are even associated with aiding in hair regrowth. 

6. Human touch – ‘touch my bum, this is life’ sang the Cheeky Girls, and those Transylvanian rascals had a point. As human beings, we all respond well to the touch of another person – and a massage can fulfil this simple human need, leaving you radiating calm and wellbeing.

No More Page 3 – an ode to tits and arse

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I remember The Sun newspaper littering the worn coffee tables of my school common room. The boys in the year above comparing Page Three models to various girls they’d seen naked. Katie from Dorset, 34DD, out on display like strawberry millions in the local sweet shop window. She was an aspiring photographer, apparently.

I remember listening to my male friends’ open commentary on which model had the best breasts out of those adorning lad’s mag covers in our local newsagents. The first time I camped out at Reading Festival and the boys decorated the tents with a paper-chain of lesbian porn mags. Feeling ashamed and stuffing my bra with cotton wool to match these buxom ladies, and ending up with lumpy boobs.

I grew up aware of female objectification, surrounded by it in fact. At school we were active participants in our own subordination – rolling our skirts up until they were a mere puffy grey bulge connecting hip and upper thigh, cooing over the ‘fit list’ that circulated round our year 8 class, trying to hide barely repressed pride the first time a white van man honked his horn at us. Such was the way of the world and we accepted our female bodies as vessels for lust, vying for male attention and adoration, competing with each other via lipstick and push-up bra weaponry to live up to the images of femininity peddled by the media that enveloped us.

It was only when I lived and worked in Honduras briefly aged 21 and suffered daily cat-calls, hisses and spitting from local men in the street, that something truly and irrevocably sank in. Being treated differently for occupying a female body wasn’t just frustrating and irritating. It was frightening. My grasp of Spanish was lacking, but even I soon knew my way around Latino slang for ‘whore’, ‘slut’ and ‘cheap’.

Whether I knew how it affected me at the time or not, I grew up surrounded by tits and arse. These days I’m grown up enough to know that my bra size isn’t the sum of my worth, but I know as a self conscious adolescent this conveyor belt of female objectification made me feel inadequate. And it was everywhere. The man on the bus flipping through topless photos of Paris Hilton, bikini-clad women on the front page of the Mail in the corner shop, raunchy magazines carelessly strewn in the gutter.

Depression is around twice as common in women as in men. About one in four females are bitten by the black dog at some point during their lifetime – this isn’t about to change while girls grow up enveloped in a media culture that ascribes value based on their bodies rather than their achievements.

‘Turn the page’, David Cameron once said – asserting that it’s the ‘parent’s responsibility’ to protect their children from inappropriate images in the media. ‘There are some things you don’t want your children to see and you should make sure they don’t see them.’ I’m fairly certain the only way a parent could truly shield their child from the kind of sexism and objectification our society promotes, would be to blind and deafen them.

So I’m supporting the No More Page 3 campaign, and I’ve signed the petition asking editor David Dinsmore to take the bare boobs out of The Sun newspaper. If you too have a problem with insidious displays of female availability in the media, then you should sign the petition here.

My young mind was yet to start really asking questions when I didn’t see being surrounded by wholesale female nudity as anything but the norm. I just don’t want my children growing up thinking that seeing naked ladies in the family newspaper is ordinary.

Braingasms and towel folding – the ASMR effect

 

“Hey everybody, this is The Water Whispers and I’ve decided to make a towel folding video today, and maybe if I have enough time I’ll do some paper cutting…”, murmurs a gentle, lilting female voice. You wouldn’t think you’re listening to the beginning of a hit Youtube video, but over 6,000 viewings say otherwise.

Strange things are afoot in the online video community of late. Nail tapping, towel folding, laptop cleaning and whispering videos are popping up all over the internet – many of which are attracting thousands, sometimes millions of hits. Are said activities being carried out in the buff? Perhaps they’re a strange prelude to watching Olly Murs get pelted with soggy hobnobs? Sadly not – their popularity is all because of something called ASMR.

Have you ever found yourself reacting oddly to certain stimuli? Maybe a colleague’s table-top nail drumming has left you with a pleasant buzzing feeling in the top of your head, or the sound of chalk on a blackboard almost puts you to sleep? I remember the sound of my boss gently tapping away at her keyboard in the afternoons used to leave me feeling ready to collapse in a dribbling heap on my desk, and as a child I found Neil Buchanan’s drawing sessions on Art Attack deliciously relaxing, but had no idea why. It turns out I’m not the first person to feel this way.

Only in the last few years has this tingly phenomenon been given a name – the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, more commonly known as ASMR. It even has its own research and support website, which describes ASMR as a ‘physical sensation characterised by a pleasurable tingling that typically begins in the head and scalp, and often moves down the spine and through the limbs.’ Not everyone can experience this – some people just aren’t susceptible to ASMR whereas others are highly sensitive.

I happily fall into the latter category. A friend introduced me to this online community of whisperers and yoghurt pot tappers about a year ago when I was suffering severe anxiety and having trouble sleeping – I swiftly discovered that by intentionally triggering my ASMR response by listening to these videos, I could be wafted off to sleep on a soporific wave of relaxation in no time. It’s the audio-visual equivalent of a lovely, mellow druggy high – without the side effects of sleeping pills or inexplicably waking up in the middle of the night to mount your clothes horse. It’s also a very difficult sensation to explain, so if you haven’t the faintest clue what I’m rambling on about, it’s likely you’ve yet to experience ASMR yourself. To a non ASMRer these videos must be the most brain meltingly dull thing to ever grace the internet.

Insomnia seems to be a common theme among those cruising the ASMR waves. Some listeners even seem to be using ASMR videos to soothe anxiety and symptoms of clinical depression – with a few commenters going as far as to say they can be used to halt their own panic attacks. Understandably the comments sections are also saturated with declarations of gratitude and affectionate praise for those providing this ASMR fix for their stressed out and sleep deprived subscribers – there’s a real community feel within this internet sub-set.

The ASMR high is commonly referred to as an orgasm for the brain, or a ‘braingasm’ but it’s not a remotely sexual sensation. Sexy time would actually completely interrupt the meditative flow of this natural high. Get off me Dave, I just want to watch videos of people playing with grains of rice, yeah? It’s still a bit weird though. There’s nothing about watching a complete stranger paint their nailsbuild a jenga tower or run you through the contents of their purse that feels normal – I think I’d rather someone walked in on me watching hardcore porn than one of these videos. Nonetheless if you can get past this voyeuristic discomfort, they’re a fantastic tool for relaxation, and by Tarquin does it feel good.

So is it possible that something so easy to trigger, which feels so great, really has no harmful side effects? Slight headaches, tiredness and nausea are listed as possible reactions but – aside from blissful sleepiness – I’ve yet to experience any of these. The only slight downside to ASMR is that it’s a little addictive. I don’t mean this in the heroin habit sense. You’re unlikely to end up weeping, sweat-drenched and shaking in the corner after three days without being able to watch someone delicately massage moisturiser into their hands, but you might just miss it a tad more than you’re comfortable admitting.

After all, what if you find yourself somewhere without internet access and you need that tingly goodness to get to sleep? I don’t see the ASMR video community ever branching off into illegal, underground cartels or loitering on street corners to whisper at kids and lure them into a web of ASMR addiction – but when you reach the point where you need someone attached to your bedside, whispering their shopping list in your ear to elicit slumber, I think you know you might have a problem.

Adventures in meditation – part 1

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‘Go away I’m MEDITATING!’ wasn’t something I expected to snarl at the knock on my bedroom door while in the throes of meditative bliss, but as it turns out, finding inner peace through this traditional Buddhist practice isn’t as easy as it looks. For something that from the outside looks like ‘sitting doing nothing’, learning to meditate is bloody hard.

I’ve signed up to Headspace, a project founded by former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe. It’s a social enterprise with a simple mission – to get as many people as possible to take ten minutes out of their day to sit in the here and now, decreasing stress levels and improving their mood. Except, as I’m discovering, being still and ‘in the moment’ isn’t something that comes very naturally.

I’m doing everything right. Sitting upright in my chair my feet rest lightly on the floor and my hands are still in my lap. As instructed by Andy, I focus on the various sounds of my immediate environment – the ticking of a clock, the gentle whirring of my laptop and the booming thuds and rattles from next door’s building site. I begin a simple breathing exercise, counting my inhalations and exhalations up to ten, then starting again at one. So far, so good. Except rather than feeling more connected to my body and the present moment, I find myself battling the urge to get up or to drift off in random thoughts. I just can’t concentrate, I’m fidgeting and it’s all I can do to resist bolting out of the chair and running outside to throw myself in the canal in despair.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. How often do we just stop, and be still? When you think about how often most people are attached to phones, ipods, tvs, laptops, books or are simply lost in their own thoughts, it’s not difficult to see why stopping everything feels foreign. And meditation is far from ‘sitting doing nothing’ – I’m fast learning that the simple act of being present requires a delicate balance of relaxation and concentration. Too much relaxation and you’ll fall asleep, concentrate too hard and you become stressed and agitated. The endgame is a calm state of what’s referred to as ‘mindfulness’ – where you’re aware of how you feel in that particular moment.

Claiming that just ten minutes daily can help even the most time starved of people achieve profound life changes and a healthier, happier mind, the Headspace website is crammed full of guided meditation podcasts aimed at equipping you with easy-to-learn tools to learn ‘meditation for modern life’. The aim is to guide you through a short meditation session, no pressure, just so you get a feel for what it involves and learn the skills to bring a little calm into your life.

This couldn’t be more appropriate for an age in which stress has become a precursor to a whole host of nasty illnesses and depression is projected to be the number one global health burden by 2030. Mindfulness practice features at the core of some modern talking therapies – cognitive behavioural therapy in particular – which have become very popular in treating psychological disorders, but it’s not just mental health that’s affected. Research suggests that meditation can actually slow down the ageing process ; one study indicated it could even delay disease progression in patients with HIV. It seems that on top of eating well and getting enough exercise, learning to meditate could be one of the healthiest things we can do for our wellbeing these days.

With the aim of ‘demystifying meditation’, Headspace cuts through all the usual myths – that there’s not enough time, it’s impossible to stop thoughts etc. The focus is on the concept of short periods of mindfulness – simply becoming aware of your own thoughts and feelings – rather than having to shut your mind off in any way. At one point in the meditation, Andy instructs you to let go of any focus and ‘let your mind do whatever it wants to do’, and bizarrely it’s at this point that my hyperactive mind stops trying to leap and vault into a thousand different thoughts at once, and can’t seem to think about anything at all. I’m positively blank, and perhaps that’s the point.

So far I seem to have mainly spent the ten minute slot squirming anxiously on my seat and trying desperately not to think about chips…which is actually exactly what you’re not supposed to do. Instead of trying to stop myself from thinking and pushing thoughts away, I need to simply notice when I become distracted and bring myself back to the present. I’ve got some serious work to do before I can find my inner peace while omming in a field. Watch this space.

Dealing with your depressed friend – the ten commandments

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1) Thou shalt not tell me to ‘cheer up’ unless thou is fond of a slap round the face with a wet haddock.

2) Unless actually possessing prior experience of depression, thou shalt not claim to ‘know how I feel’. Thou does not.

3) Thou shalt not fear picking up the phone to call me because thou ‘doesn’t know how to help’. Just staying in touch is more helpful than thou could ever know.

4) Even when I’m being the world’s biggest bitch-face nightmare, remember that thou loves me, and tell me.

5) Thou shalt not compare my situation with a starving elephant baby in Mogadishu to try and elicit some ‘perspective’. The way I’m feeling right now I would give my left bum cheek to trade places with said elephant baby.

6) Thou shalt not pressurise me to socialise if I don’t feel up to it. As much as I’d love to meet thy new boyfriend, I doubt he’d dig my pyjama-clad-electrocuted-hair look when I lack the energy to even dress myself properly for the pub.

7) Don’t walk on eggshells around me. No really, don’t – I’m too tired to clean my kitchen properly and there’s all kinds of crap on the floor.

8) Thou shalt not tell me you can’t honestly feel bad all the time. You can – it’s called clinical depression.

9) If the words ‘mad’, ‘crazy’, or ‘mental’ should slip out in conversation thou shalt not dissolve in a puddle of embarrassment. I know I’m not insane – it’s OK.

10) Thou shalt not give up on me. There’s a non-depressed version of me still inside and I’ll be damned if she doesn’t get to spend some quality time with thou soon.