Small Pleasures

Small radiator with red wall

The world seems big and scary and out of control right now. I remember feeling just like this as a child, hiding behind the sofa and peering out occasionally at The Daleks, who seemed so utterly terrifying. (I met a real Dalek many years later backstage at the BBC and it was honestly like something I might have made as an art project – but that was alas too late to console a seven-year-old who regularly suffered Dr. Who-related Saturday nightmares.)

Fear and blind panic aren’t going to do anyone’s mental health any good, however. And they’re not going to solve or change anything at a time of global crisis. So I thought I’d share my coping strategy when the big picture seems overwhelming – which is to focus on the small stuff. In particular, small pleasures, which really can lift the spirits at dark times in a way that’s totally disproportionate to their size. I don’t think you have to be Pollyanna to get a boost from watching a bunch of daffs blossom on your kitchen table, or feeling happy at the unexpected sight of a rainbow. Read More…

Blowing Hot and Cold 

Hot and Cold Tap heads cross design with chrome

“On the off-chance that anyone fancies a cold dip and hot sauna after, bring towel and swimmers” emailed my yoga instructor, two days before Christmas.

With cabin fever already beckoning,  I dug out my least awful swimsuit without giving the cold/hot message too much thought.  Until  I arrived at the local unheated lido to see that the water temperature was six degrees.

Exactly how cold is six degrees Celsius?

I know now that it’s colder than wading into the North Sea any time in March, when the temperature hovers around seven degrees.  I’d once swum off our eastern shoreline in December (when it’s weirdly a few degrees warmer) when I’d  been tasked by the Today newspaper in 1992 with finding Freddie the Dolphin. Injured and hanging out in Amble Harbour, north of Newcastle, he was apparently lonely and up for visitors.  I hired a boat whose skipper gave me a half wetsuit and pushed me into the freezing sea where the photographer kept me for 25 minutes,  first waiting for Freddie to appear from the inky depths (one of the scariest moments of my life) and then while he barked  “smile, smile, smile” while my shaking hands tried to stroke Freddie’s shammy leather back.

My only defence is that it was the Nineties.  Today’s millennials would have flatly refused, citing health and safety regulations. The whole extraordinary episode evidently sharpened my senses, a common side effect of cold water therapy,  because I  recall writing up the piece extremely quickly in a local pub and filing it over the phone.

Anyway, back to the waters of London’s Parliament Hill Lido which on that sunny December morning looked so very blue and so very freezing.  We followed the example of our north European cousins and went into its new sauna first for a quick warm-up, where the temperature was a cosy 80 degrees.  The bodies inside were as pink as newborns and one man was physically shaking, having  just completed twenty lengths in the icy waters of the 60 metre pool.  Mad.

I intended to do no more than jump in and scoot up a steps within seconds.

Geronimo!

The effect on the body of immersing it in freezing water is instantaneous, regardless of how much body fat you hold, and is one of the biggest jolts you can ever give it.   Otherwise known as the cold shock response, cold receptors in your skin are suddenly stimulated, causing an involuntary gasp, several in my case, followed usually by hyperventilation or very rapid breathing.  Your heart rate rapidly shoots up too – so step away anyone with high blood pressure or heart disease – as blood is diverted from extremities to your main internal organs.  Yet after less than ten minutes back in the sauna I wanted to repeat that surge of exhilaration.  So we plunged in one more time and then ran into the changing rooms, savouring that delicious feeling of your blood returning to the outer edges of your body as you warm up.

I felt invincible for the rest of the day and was back for more in the new year.  This time it was busier and everyone in the sauna seemed to be talking about cold water therapy.   Three young women were chatting to ‘James’ about their new addiction.  “I dreamt about it recently,” said one.  “It’s really helping me get over my broken relationship,” confessed another.  All three took cold showers at home (tap water comes out at around seven degrees) which prompted queries from  James about where they got their power showers, obvs, until the conversation switched to cold water therapy podcast recommendations.

I blame Gwyneth Paltrow and Hugh Fearnly-Wittingstall, both of whom have relayed  the wellness benefits of cold water in the last few weeks. Our favourite double-barrelled named chef tried it out on the TV show Easy Ways to Live Well  in a bid to tackle his anxiety.  He joined a group of cold water converts in a painful 4.3 degree lido and in between loud gasps for breath, was the only one screaming: “OH MY GOD this is so unbelievably cold, it’s SO cold”, while a gaggle of 60 year old matrons, casually treading water, giggled from afar.

There was less laughter but better swimwear on display when Gwyneth Paltrow sent her minions out to Lake Tahoe for The Goop Lab’s Cold Comfort episode on Netflix, which also aired in January (BTW you have to watch the one on female orgasms).  Could freezing  water stop their LA whining and general malaise?  With them to the lake went one of the world’s leading cold water protagonists, a Dane called Wim Hof, aka The Iceman.  He looks like the wild man of Borneo and has done some pretty wild things in his time, including running a half marathon on his bare feet in the snow and climbing Mount Everest in his shorts.  Within a few days, his deep breathing technique had turned a bunch of strung-out goopsters into hardy cold water swimmers who barely gasped as they came up from the freezing lake for air.

So how exactly does the cold-water therapy help? TV personality Dr Zoe Williams said on Fearnley-Whittingstall programme: “One way to think of it is that our stress ‘alert system’ has become over-sensitive in today’s world, and a short blast of freezing cold water every morning reminds it what a real threat feels like, and makes those everyday irritabilities less likely to trigger the full stress response.”

My second plunge into the lido, by now a balmy eight degrees in January, saw me jump into the middle of the pool and swim ten metres to the steps. Initially, all I could think of was that frozen water scene in the film Titantic. On the night of the real disaster, the water was something like minus two degrees and Kate Winslet’s Rose would have frozen solid alongside Jack with his memorably blue lips.  But puffing through that ten metre swim to the ladder felt totally doable. In fact I did the hot sauna/cold plunge routine three times and then strode across Hampstead Heath afterwards with wet hair plastered to my head, but feeling like I was luminous. That night I fell asleep instantly and woke up at 5 am instead of the usual 4 am. Result.

Apart from being mood-enhancing, cold water plunging can help achy joints by  constricting blood vessels and reducing inflammation. It also releases brain positive endorphins,  which is good for depressives,  triggers the aforementioned sleep hormones, and there is even talk of it generally making you live longer.  Biologist and Harvard Professor David Sinclair, who looks a very young  51, explains that slowing down the ageing process may be connected with the cold turning bad white fat into good brown fat.

“Specifically, the sirtuin-3 gene gets activated by cold, which promotes the browning of fat, which we believe is good for us.  Brown fat is full of mitochondria that use energy and speeds up the metabolism.”

I am contemplating daily cold showers and in the meantime dunk my head into a sink of cold water after washing my hair in a bid to leave it super shiny. Add that to the cold pool therapy and I’m slowly getting there.

Wim Hof has said:  “At one point the cold will feel just as comfortable as wearing your favourite pyjamas.”

Well, maybe.  I’m just not sure Gill would ever agree.

Summer Sadness Is More Common Than You Think

Summer Sadness

We might be in the throes of one of the hottest, sunniest summers in history, but new research suggests that millions of Brits are unknowingly suffering with anxiety and depression. While we should be reaping the rewards of surplus serotonin (happy hormone) levels, according to a survey carried out by treatment clinic Smart TMS, 33% of us feel less confident than we used to and over 20% of us are sleeping more than we need to. 

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) might be something you usually associate with the cold, dark months of winter, but summer SAD is more common than you think. Read More…

Cool To Be Kind

be-kind-by-jackie-annesley

The place was rammed.

Friday night,  late November, a gallery on Duke Street in St James, central London. Inside home counties couples and groups of W11 women shuffled through the small space, straining to see every drawing covering the walls of both rooms. The objects of their gaze were anthropomorphic sketches of a horse, a mole and a fox, plus a young boy and girl, in the breezy ink-on-paper style of artist E H Shepard’s Winnie the Pooh.

One of them portrayed the boy and the mole on the bough of a tree. “What’s your favourite thing about the horse?” asks the mole.  “His power? His wisdom? His beauty?”

“He is kind,” said the boy.

In another, the mole tells the boy:  “We often wait for kindness, but being kind to yourself can start now”.

The artist Charlie Mackesy,  better known for his sculptures and lithographs, stood behind the counter looking bemused at both the volume of people and sales. He later posted on Instagram – 115k followers and rapidly rising – that he wasn’t ready “for so many tears. Particularly men’s tears.”

These were men dressed like barristers and bankers and who could drop £3,000 for an original drawing with an accompanying truism about life beyond capitalism, Trump and Brexit. For £100, I chose a print that said: “What do you think success is?” asked the boy.  “To love,”  said the mole.  For one of the teens, I thought. If only someone had gifted that to every young baby boomer, perhaps we wouldn’t be in this global holy mess.

Luckily, the call to kindness seems to be gathering pace. The Mackesy exhibition (which has since led to a book deal) had come just a few weeks after fashion company The Vampire’s Wife posted a poem entitled Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye. Only true sociopaths (quite a few out there, mind) won’t feel moved by its introductory verse:

“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.”

Losing things and finding ourselves in a desolate landscape – who hasn’t been there? It’s where crumbs of kindness are devoured. Which is probably why last year’s bestseller The Language of Kindness by Chrissie Watson, the memoir of an NHS nurse, sparked a 14-way bidding war between publishers and is being turned into TV drama.

I reviewed it for the Sunday Times when it came out,  writing:

“Who knew nurses prepared the bodies of those who died on their wards, massaging the grey skin of a drowned six year old with baby lotion in readiness for the grieving family. Watson’s final duty? To brush the little girl’s teeth with her dinosaur toothbrush and toothpaste ‘until I smell nothing but bubble gum’.”

In her acknowledgements, the saintly Watson thanks her patients: “What an extraordinary privilege it was to be your nurse”,  and yet the privilege was surely theirs too. God knows the world needs more Nurse Watsons.

Actually we are genetically wired to be kind. In The Little Book of Kindness, out last month, David R. Hamilton lays out the scientific evidence in favour of popping round to see that elderly neighbour or surprising your partner by picking him/her up from the station in the pouring rain.  Page 17 is divided into two parts: What Stress Does and What Kindness Does. He has zero good things to say,  obvs, about stress.

But kindness? It reduces blood pressure, protects the heart (perfect synergy), boosts the immune system, relaxes the nervous system, reduces inflammation and can be an antidote to depression. Beats all those drugs. Apparently it even slows the ageing process.

So physically this kindness shtick is a no-brainer.  But how exactly does it benefit our personal relationships, always a thorny work-in-progress? It was the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius who said  kindness is mankind’s “greatest delight,”  and many a scientist has set out to prove just that, most notably American psychologist John Gottman. In 1986, he co-founded The Love Lab (I mean, fab name) and for  the past four decades has studied thousands of couples in a quest to figure out what makes relationships work. As the guru of divorce prediction and marital stability,  Gottman divides us all up into Masters and Disasters.

Exactly what I was thinking – which are you?

The Masters scan their social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They purposefully build this culture of respect and appreciation. Disasters scan for partners’ mistakes. Even if talking about mundane events, their bodies are in fight or flight mode, preparing to attack and be attacked. Disasters deliberately ignore, or continually criticise their partner’s style or choices and kill the love in the relationship by making the other person feel invisible.

Gottman’s extensive research concluded that kindness glues couples together, making them feel cared for, understood and validated. By the way this is a man who at  76  is on his third wife Julie, whom he has been with for more than 30 years, so you can only presume that he’s become of Master of what he preaches.

This June another psychology professor – Jamil Zaki from Stanford University – launches his scientific take on empathy with the release of The War for Kindness. In an age of rampant tribalism and a divided Britain, Zaki argues that empathy is  like a muscle – a skill we can all strengthen with a daily workout. I totally agree with this – when I found myself cast into a desolate landscape a few years ago, I got the kindest message from a former colleague not exactly known for her empathy. It was so unexpected I still think about it, and her, most weeks. Life changes people, often for the better. In his forthcoming book, Zaki tells the story of a former neo-Nazi who is now helping extract people from hate groups, as well as US police officers who are changing their culture to decrease violence among their ranks. “An inspiring call to action” says the publicity blurb.

Shoot me if I sound straight out of Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner but my favourite message of all comes in the final line of Naomi Shihab Nye poem. It is, she writes, only kindness that makes any sense amid all this madness.

“…
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”

The boy, the girl, the mole, the horse and the fox would surely agree.

The Link Between Depression And Constipation

constipation

Over the past few years research has continued to flag up the importance of having a healthy, balanced gut. The latest study might be of interest for those who suffer with depression and constipation. While discussing depression might have become more socially acceptable, there is still a stigma attached to speaking freely about our bowel movements, or lack of. Read More…