Kalpna Hirani Counselling in Central London, Waterloo SE1

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Emotional Wellbeing during the COVID-19 crisis
It's natural to worry and feel anxious in light of the uncertainty surrounding the current COVID-19 outbreak. Its important to remember the impact on your emotional wellbeing. There are many things you can do to manage your emotions.

The best way to look after yourself is:

Consider the information you receive.
Some of the reporting around the Coronavirus is factually inaccurate, feeding feelings of mass hysteria and paranoia. Lack of information and poor quality information, both contribute to increased irrational thinking. Reflect on how you are receiving your information. Seek accurate and factual information from a reliable and legitimate source e.g. NHS and the WHO website in order to help you distinguish facts from rumours and misinformation.

Limit how often you look for updates.
This can be quite difficult for some, especially those who want to know what’s going on, as they feel that not knowing makes it worse. Whilst it is important to stay well informed so that you can take practical steps to prepare and plan to protect yourself and loved ones, constant monitoring of news updates and social media feeds about COVID-19 can increase feelings of worry and distress. Minimise or set limits to how much news you watch, read or listen to on the subject by setting specific times during the day – once or twice a day. Consider turning off automatic notifications in order to take a break from the news. This will allow you to focus on your life and may even help reduce thoughts and worries about the ‘what if?’.

Stay connected.
The government has told us to stay at home and limit going out. It means many of us will be spending a lot of time at home and our regular social activities will no longer be available to us. This is a chance to be in touch with others in different ways than usual. You can stay connected via telephone, e-mail, social media or video conference. Stay in touch with other people regularly as these are still good ways of being close to the people who matter to you. Talking through your concerns and feelings may ease the stress caused by COVID-19 and help you find ways of dealing with challenges. If you are feeling lonely, there is lots of support out there, so search in your local area and contact someone who knows what is available.

Supporting others and yourself.
Helping and supporting others in their time of need can benefit both the person receiving support and the helper. You could, for example, check on vulnerable neighbours or people in your community who may need some extra assistance, by phoning them. Working together as one community in addressing COVID-19 crises, can help to create solidarity.

Allow yourself those feelings
During times of stress, pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Make sure you are doing what you can to prioritise and look after your wellbeing. Where possible, maintain your daily routine and normal activities or create new routines to adapt to your person situation. Our brains and body connection means that managing your emotional well-being during this time is as important as managing your physical health. When we feel anxious, stress hormones are released which can exacerbate physical symptoms. These feelings and symptoms are by no means a reflection that you are weak. Engage in healthy activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. This will have a positive impact on your thoughts and feelings. To help express anxiety in a way that you can control, do something creative, for example, drawing, painting, playing or listening to your favourite and upbeat music or try writing your feelings down in a journal. Once you’ve written down, let it go. Put the journal away. You could catch up on reading or watching movies and programmes you’ve wanted to watch but never got around to. Perhaps you wanted to try out a new hobby or a new exercise regime or relaxation techniques, or finding new knowledge online and learning new skills like an instrument or a craft. Keep regular sleep routines and eat healthy meals.

Perceive things differently
In a funny kind of way it’s a great opportunity to slow down your lifestyle, maybe engage in some mindfulness practices, which are kind of anti-anxiety practices. Perceiving the slow down as an opportunity that might have benefits like finally catching up on sleep or a chance to prioritise looking after yourself.

Focus on the positive
Try and focus on things that are positive in your life and find opportunities to amplify positivity. Laughter is often the best medicine for anxiety. It might be a great time to take advantage of those comedies on Netflix. Seek positive stories and reflect on what you can be grateful for in your life.

Keep things in perspective.
Although the idea of self-isolation may seem daunting, keep in mind that this is only temporary. Be really aware of what you’re thinking. If you notice that you are catastrophising, bring your thoughts to the present rather than thinking of worries about the future. Reassure yourself.

If all of this does not help, consider reaching out for support by a professional counsellor. Your internet search engine may be helpful. The stigma associated with mental health problems may cause reluctance to seek support. Don’t ignore your feelings. A counsellor can help you explore why you are feeling the way you are, whether it is struggling due to social distancing and isolation or the anxiety surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak.

Things you can do during self-isolation

1. Keep a ‘quarantine’ diary / blog / journal – you could even write a short story or a novel

2. Write a ‘bucket list’ of 50 things you want to do when you are out of self-isolation

3. Join an online book club or download an audio book or listen to Podcasts

4. Use private outdoor space to have access to fresh air

5.Use online videos to enjoy home workouts / keep fit / yoga or other exercise classes

6.Get your cookbooks out and try out new receipes.

7. Register for an online training course or learn a new craft or skill such as calligraphy, a new language, a new dance - Use YouTube to learn a new skill or technique

8. Watch some films or TV box sets, or get recommendations from friends on what they are watching on Netflix / catch up TV

9. Spring clean your cupboards and list items you don’t want anymore on online marketplaces such as Ebay or Facebook. Upcycle something.

10. Contact someone you have been meaning to but have not had the chance previously.

11. Arrange group video chat sessions with your friends.

12. Download some online games, and encourage your friends to download them too, and take part in online challenges together

13. Review your finances, budgets and savings plans - Use Comparethemarket or other similar websites to review bills and household goings

14. Go through your food cupboards and check expiry dates and reorganise using the oldest food first

15. Games - Play on a games console (e.g. Nintendo, Playstation or Xbox) or simply do a crossword or Sudoku to challenge the mind. Search online for digital games or play board games or Complete a puzzle

16. Learn to play a musical instrument, or a new piece of music

17. Have a Spa afternoon - have a bath, use a face mask, give yourself a manicure

18. Take time to reflect and plan – what have you achieved over the last year, what are your future goals. Create a ‘Mind Map’ (to capture the thinking going on in your head)

19. Spend some time on DIY jobs or completing household maintenance, all those jobs we put off as we don’t have time!

20. Organise your albums – this can be your music album or all of your photos on your digital devices

21. Tidy up paperwork and admin – File away and organise your admin and clean up your emails

22. Make and install a bird feeder and tidy your garden/ private outside space

23. Trace your ancestry, spend time talking to family and go through photo albums

24. Visit virtual museums and sites online

25. Spend time on your hobbies or do something creative – draw, paint, listen to your favourite and upbeat or relaxing music.
Copyright © 2020 Kalpna Hirani

COVID-19 Anxiety
Read time 5-8 minutes
During this extraordinary situation we find ourselves in with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are a lot of people having reactions they don’t really understand. So today I thought I’d write something with my therapist hat on. Ladies and Gents, this is Pandemic Anxiety 101.

IN CRISES, WE START DOING WEIRD STUFF: Have you found yourself struggling to sleep, staying up late into the night, reading endless news articles, buying lots of things that you don’t even like very much, getting angry with your mum / partner / child for not staying home, drinking more, been a bit teary, and really want to eat ... cake, chocolates, biscuits and more cake. You are not alone!
If you’re feeling wobbly, you may have noticed all sorts of weird stuff going on. Are you arguing more, talking faster, struggling to sleep, feeling restless, desperate for information? Perhaps you are feeling teary and overwhelmed, and a bit sick? Struggling to make decisions, or think with a clear head? Just want to stay in bed? Tummy upsets? Having palpitations, butterflies, headaches? Ranting, picking fights or getting into arguments? Laughing unexpectedly or saying random, inappropriate things? Developing Very Strong Opinions on epidemiology overnight? Or have you just completely gone to ground?

If you are feeling any of these things: The good news is you are not going mad! And you are 100% not alone. In fact, its completely normal - a fully emotionally functional human being. I’ll explain: take a seat and put the kettle on.

WE ARE LIVING IN TURBO-ANXIOUS TIMES. Well, no kidding. We’re in the middle of an unprecedented crisis that has showed up unexpectedly (they have a tendency do that!) and which presents a mortal threat to ourselves, our loved ones and our way of life. It’s terrifying and it's getting worse, all of which makes us feel totally out of control. And this is in addition to everything else we have going on.

HERE’S THE SCIENCE BIT. When we are feeling threatened, our brain springs into action. Specifically, a tiny, innocent-looking thing buried behind your ear called the amygdala (fun fact: it's the size and shape of an almond. In Latin Amygdala = almond). It’s the alarm system of our brain and the bit in charge when we are frightened - and right now, it’s in full klaxon mode! Unfortunately, it’s also very primitive bit of our brain. It was very useful when threats basically consisted of being eaten by large scary animals like sabre tooth tigers. Well, to the amygdala, everything looks like a sabre tooth tiger is about to attack you. It’s also pretty basic, so it really only has two settings. They are no tigers and TIGER!!!.

THE ALARM IS SET - TIGER!!!. All threats look like a tiger to the amygdala, it preps you accordingly. There are really only two reactions to a tiger about to eat you: fight it, or run away really fast. So, this is what the brain automatically tells the body to get ready to do – it does not have time to think, it just reacts because it needs to react very fast to escape or protect. It’s called the Fight or Flight response (there’s also freeze, meaning you just get paralysed). It does this by flooding your body with chemicals like cortisol, and adrenaline. Your heart rate goes up in order to pump more blood and oxygen round the body and muscles tighten to get ready for action. Your lungs take in air faster to supply your body with oxygen. Your senses are on super alert - the pupils in your eyes get larger to see better. And your digestive system slows down for the moment, so the brain can concentrate on more important things. These chemicals are also largely responsible for the huge range of other cognitive / physical / emotional reactions - see the intro.

In group fear situation like a pandemic, this tends to happen whether you think you're scared or not - anxiety is even more catchy than COVID. Your brain and body reacts even if your conscious mind doesn't.

TIGER V VIRUS: Obviously this is all great if you really are running away from a sabre tooth tiger, but we’re now in a situation where we’re being asked to do the EXACT OPPOSITE of running away. We are being told to sit tight. Literally stay put. We need to process large amounts of information, make complicated and life changing decisions, and stay calm. All while a bit of your brain is running around yelling TIGER!!! TIGER!!! TIGER!!! This isn’t easy. The result is an awful lot of stress and anxiety. You end up feeling really overwhelmed and having all sorts of reactions.

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS: Anxiety isn’t just an emotional reaction – it’s also physical, cognitive and behavioural.

Physiological: You will notice all kinds of things such as rapid heartbeat, stomach upsets, constipation or diarrhoea or both, headaches, dry mouth

Behavioural: You may find yourself eating more frequently and often it’s the unhealthy stuff. Changes in the way you talk…fast and louder. Hoarding is common as it provides instant relief from anxiety and a sense of control and safety. The more hoarders accumulate, the more insulated they feel from the world and its dangers.

Cognitive: it’s very difficult to think straight when you’ve got the TIGER!!! TIGER!!! TIGER!!! alarm ringing loudly in your mind – so we have feelings of dread and fear of dying. We also become very bad at making decisions, absorbing information or thinking rationally. Which is EXACTLY what we need to do.

WHAT TO DO: The good news is it is possible to dampen and turn off the alarm system and calm down. We can turn the amygdala from TIGER!!! to NO TIGER , and not just by distracting it with cake and chocolates. Here are some solid, scientifically proven things you can do.

1. BREATHE: Breathing exercises are basically magic. You can do them anywhere and they work in minutes. They work because of all the physical reactions the amygdala triggers, rapid breathing is one over which we have conscious control. By control your breathing, you are basically telling your body that it’s OK - there is no sabre tooth tiger! Your body will then start to dial down the adrenaline and cortisol and all the other reactions will slow or halt.

How to control your breathing? It’s easy. The golden rules are these:

• Breath in through the nose, out through the mouth. SLOWLY. If it helps breath in for a count of 7 and out for a count of 11. The idea is to make the outbreath longer than the inbreath – try and imagine there’s a candle in front of you and it mustn’t go out.

• Breathe through to your tummy not just the chest – really make your tummy go out when breathing in.

• Do it for two minutes - time yourself - and see how you feel. Seriously, try it – this technique is used by everyone from top athletes to the US military to help stay in control while under stress. There are all sorts of versions – from Pranayam or yogic breathing to moon breathing to 4-7-8. Google them to figure out what works for you.

2. CALL A FRIEND: Don’t suffer alone. Call someone you trust and who’ll listen while you have a bit of a rant, or a cry, or a general wobble. Someone who’s not judgemental and can simply be empathic to how you are feeling. If in case you on the receiving end of one of those calls, just be kind to them. You can’t fix what’s going on so just give them a bit of space to rant and remind them that its just normal to feel overwhelmed when faced with anxiety provoking situations. If you can, call your friends and check in on them. Especially if they’ve gone silent.

3. LAUGH: Find something that safe and makes you laugh – laughter is a huge releaser of endorphins. Silly memes, silly jokes, play and have fun with your kids. Chat to others over the phone, have a virtual party over video call, it will help you feel less alone.

4. USE YOUR HANDS: Yes, you can meditate. If this helps, it’s amazing. But if it’s not for you then trying to start this when you’re already anxious can be really hard. Instead, do something with your hands, that requires you to focus. Cook. Bake. Tidy. Knit. Draw. Paint. Garden. Mend things. Focus on something you find relaxing - this is what counsellors like me call Mindfulness.

5. TREAT YOUR BODY: Our minds and bodies are connected. So, the stress we hold affects both. Take a relaxing bath or a warm shower. Use nice scents on your body or use a diffuser perhaps. Stretch. Skip. Do yoga. Dance. Nourish your body with nutritious and delicious foods and drinks. All of these will help calm you down.

6. SPRING SUNSHINE: Amid this horror its easy to forget the beauty of spring and sunshine – enjoy it. If you can’t go outside, open the windows and feel it on your face and breath it in. If it’s safe for you to go outside (maybe you live in the country) do it, while of course observing social distance. Go for a walk. Being outdoors, connecting to nature, is hugely calming.

7. STEP AWAY: Being on social media and getting constant updates maybe tempting but all it will do is scare you more and add to the anxiety. Turn off the telly and for goodness sake avoid the psychopathic digital wild west. Stick to sensible sources like the BBC, WHO website and the NHS, and limit yourself to short need-to-know bits a day. You’ll feel better immediately. Talk to sensible friends instead – keep a physical distance, not a social distance.

8. FIND HEALTHY COPING MECHANISMS: Unhealthy coping mechanisms will all translate as TIGER!! to your poor brain. Getting drunk or taking recreational drugs may provide a quick relief but don’t do it, especially if you’re alone (TIGER!!!). Stay up all night binge watching (TIGER!!!). Get sucked into conspiracy theories (TIGER!!!). See? Stress levels going up already. Breathe.

9. BE KIND: to yourself and others. Now is not the time to start a diet. Nor is it time to makeover your life. You'll probably struggle to keep to it, fail and add to your misery. Don’t make this more stressful than it already is. Think comfort - books, comfort telly, comfy everything. Understand that if someone is angry or aggressive, then they are just scared.
So, there we go. Hopefully a bit less TIGER!!. That kettle should have boiled by now. Go make a nice cup of tea, sit by a window and drink it in this lovely sunshine and listen to bird song. We are British after all. And save me some of that cake!

Copyright © 2020 Kalpna Hirani

Appreciate your flaws - The Japanese philosophy of Wabi Sabi
Beauty is usually perceived as something which is eternal, flawless and perfect - a taste of beauty that is shaped by an appetite for excellence that cannot be exceeded. Since the arrival of Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook, perfectionism has ramped up a notch, arguably motivated by the need to seek approval and validation. Posts, videos and photos of photogenic holidays, aesthetic snapshots of meals out and a perfect selfie, accompanied by numerous adverts promoting everything from perfect skin to perfect life. Judgments, based upon what is considered perfect, have consequences that affect the quality of life, and the social and political climate of a society. We hear and experience so much anxiety and pressure to be perfect.

Perfection – a different perspective
Perhaps the reason is partly to do with perception and the conventional concept of beauty and perfection. The ancient Eastern aesthetics is very different and the core of the difference is captured by a concept known as Wabi Sabi, for which Western languages have no direct equivalent. The Buddhist teaching known as the philosophy of Wabi Sabi in Japanese, provides a different perspective and helps us embrace our imperfections, it can even help us perceive them as things of beauty.

The philosophy of Wabi Sabi
Simply put, Wabi Sabi refers to a way of living that focuses on accepting impermanence and finding beauty within the imperfections of life.
Wabi generally means simple, unmaterialistic, and in tune with nature. Nothing about nature is perfectly linear or symmetrical or permanent. Its complex cycles of life, imperfect patterns and complexity serves as a lens through which we can understand the world as imperfect, unfinished, and transient.
Sabi signifies the beauty of ageing - the graceful and quiet dignity of something (or someone) persisting through time; a kind of beauty that comes only with age, such as the discolourisation on a very old bronze statue.

What can we learn from Wabi Sabi
1. Valuing your flaws
Characteristics of the Wabi Sabi aesthetic refers to rustic, asymmetrical, with quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction. The resulting uniqueness and elegance adds to the beauty of the object. The beauty is appreciated not only for its subtle form and subdued colours but also for the glaze which purposefully draws out the natural contours that form the characteristic of each piece of pottery. It is up to the knowledge and observational ability of the participants to notice the hidden signs of the true beauty of the design and glaze.
This helps us to perceive our imperfections as part of this ever-evolving life we live. Each and every one of us humans have our own flaws, making us diverse, unique, interesting and inspiring individuals, which adds to our beauty and marvel. But often, we try and hide our mistakes and our imperfections, and present only what we would like to show the world. Yet it’s those difficult life lessons, the mistakes we have made along the way in our life’s journey that at times serve us as some of the most important experiences of all, leading us ultimately to growth and deeper understanding. It is these struggles, experimentations and all those experiences that make each one of us rich with our own unique perspective and adds diversity.

2. Valuing experiences
The term Wabi Sabi derives not from invincibility, youth, flawlessness but respect for things bearing the marks of age as a result of passing through time. For instance, with wine, the process starts with the soil, the grape and its growing experience - the weather, the care: pruning, training and keeping healthy. There is a point at which the grape is deemed ready for harvest. Its crushed, pressed and fermented. The emergent wine is now ready to mature and aged in oak barrels to achieve perfection.
Drawing a parallel to this process and the essence of all our life experiences, when are we deemed to achieve perfection? When we have the sharp notes of youth or when these are softened and we’ve acquired the richness from periods of joys and struggles? Odd isn’t it, that we value and appreciate the delight of maturity in wines, but have somehow lost the ability to recognise its value and pleasures of our own experiences through ageing in our own lives.

3. Acceptance of Impermanence
A great example of Wabi Sabi is the art of kintsugi, where broken pottery is beautifully, lovingly and carefully repaired by filling the cracks with gold lacquer creating a beautiful lining. This is to emphasise the beauty of its flaws rather than make the cracks invisible, reminding the observer that nothing is permanent and awarding respect to what it has been through.
The same goes for human life – realising that our life is not meant to be perfect and that negative occurrences are not permanent, neither are positive ones. Rather than viewing our struggles as permanent, one can begin to see them as the precious gifts that they are. We can choose to fill our struggles with gold, turning something that could be ugly, making it beautiful and inspiring - with enough time, self-care, reflection, and self-compassion, we can learn to become better people.

Don’t let your flaws hold you back
Stop chasing perfection! It can be a hindrance to your self-development, and generally forbids you doing anything important that might fail. Perfect is a defence mechanism - if we are perfect then we can minimise or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield and we think it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that really prevents us from being good enough. Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace your true self. The near constant comparison of our lives to others is now cited as being hugely detrimental to our mental health. And the simple truth is, no one is perfect.
Copyright © 2020 Kalpna Hirani

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