The gloominess and doominess of January can sometimes seem clichéd and apocryphal, but pretty much everyone we know, even the most cheery, has had a dose of the blues in the last week. So we thought we’d give you a list of very simple ideas that can help lift the spirits.
The old sayings are old for a reason. ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ is a creaky platitude, but it is utterly true. Just as horses need a herd, so humans need a crew. Human beings are profoundly social animals, who evolved to live in mutually supportive groups. Friendship isn’t just a cute thing you see on the telly; it’s hard-wired into the human brain.
So January is the perfect time to stay in touch with your good friends and to get in touch with old friends – to have a laugh, have a moan, reminisce, ask for advice and generally get to feel exactly like yourself. That’s the point of friends: you don’t have to fake anything with them. Often, at work, you will have to put on a professional front, bite your tongue when your boss is unfair, refrain from asking the office bore to be quiet, agree heartily when HR is on another one of its mysterious initiatives. With your friends, you can say exactly what you think about everything. You can be indiscreet and silly and raucous; you can talk utter nonsense and nobody minds. That’s a great gift and a great release and it’s a huge boost for your mental health.
The other advantage of friendship is that you get to feel useful. Don’t be afraid to ask people how they are feeling, especially if you know they have been struggling with their mental health. And if they open up, really listen. They don’t need you to fix them, but a kind, listening ear can make a huge difference in someone’s life. At the end of the conversation, you have the boost of knowing that you have made someone’s day a little better. So everybody wins.
We come to another of the old sayings: laughter is the best medicine. But laughter does so much – it stimulates the heart, lungs and muscles of the body; it increases the endorphins released by the brain; it brings down your blood pressure. It can fire up your circulation and reduce many of the physical symptoms of stress. It also connects you with other human beings. Think of how potent it feels when someone gets the joke as much as you do. A shared sense of humour can bond two people for life.
It’s not a bad idea, at this time of year, to hunt down laughter like a truffle hound. Spend time with your funniest friends. Follow funny people on Twitter. Set aside time in the day to watch funny programmes. We’ve written about this before, and we’ll keep on writing about it, because we think it is so important. Laughter is everywhere, and it’s free, and it will make you feel better, so why would anyone neglect such a precious resource?
There is a moment when the laughter stops. That’s when the world goes dark. That is not January blues. That’s not a bit of post-Christmas gloom. That is serious depression and it needs the same intervention as any disease or injury. If you literally can’t laugh, it may be time to find the help you need. But as long as you can still laugh, the spark of life and hope are in you.
We at HorseBack talk often about getting out into nature, because we see the effects of it so clearly in our veterans. Just the power of being outside, even in the dourest Scottish weather, makes a huge difference.
We always understood that the nature effect was for mild, ordinary mental states – low mood, that kind of thing. However, the men and women who come through our gates will be carrying some severe mental conditions, and we’ve observed nature helping them in meaningful and lasting ways. Often, when they’ve finished the course and left these Scottish hills, they’ll send us pictures of themselves from home, walking in beautiful landscapes. If they don’t have open spaces on their doorstep, they will drive to get to them. This becomes an enduring part of their recovery.
The power of nature can be combined with the power of exercise. We can’t stand all those New Year health promises about suddenly transforming your body into a temple, the moment the 1st of January arrives. But we have read the literature about the psychological effects of exercise. You don’t need to go to the gym for hours a day; twenty minutes of walking can brighten your mood and relieve that persistent feeling of lowness that this time of year so often brings. (You also get a vital dose of Vitamin D.) Don’t think of it as a duty or a chore; think of it as a gift to yourself.
Walking can also be a lovely moment to take time for yourself. Maybe it’s just you and the dog and the trees and you can forget about your To Do list for half an hour and appreciate the simple wonder of being alive in this moment.
There’s a big fashion for positive thinking at the moment. We are all for anything which has the word positive in it, and we tend to look on the bright side here at HorseBack, but we are a little wary of some of the more simplistic claims.
We’ve seen men and women here whose reality is not going to be changed by a few affirmations. That leg is always going to be lost in the dusty valleys of Helmand. That traumatised brain has been rewired. That chronic pain is chronic.
But we do agree that shifts in perception can be very powerful. You can’t simply change your entire life by deciding that you are a marvellous human being who lives in abundance, but you can help yourself by becoming aware of the stories you tell yourself.
This is basic Stoic philosophy, going back to the ancient Greeks. (Who really did know a thing or two.) It is the idea of accepting what is, and understanding that you can then choose how you think about it. If you tell yourself a relentlessly tragic story, your mind will respond to that and, to use a technical term, you will feel crappy. If you apply even a small perspective shift and ask yourself what would happen if you made that story a little brighter, you will notice a difference.
This is why we don’t focus on what our veterans can’t do, but what they can. If you are feeling overwhelmed, as a lot of people do at this time of year, ask yourself if there is one possible, positive thing you can do in any given day, however small. That’s the start of shifting the story you tell yourself about your own life.
Tiny shifts in perception add up, and the cumulative change is healing and empowering.
5. The Gratitude Rampage.
We’ve written before about the power of gratitude lists, but we have recently heard of a terrific new take on this idea. This is the Gratitude Rampage. You don’t merely list five things you are grateful for; you sit down for three minutes and write down every single tiny thing for which you are thankful. It can be the blue sky above your head or the clean water coming out of the tap or the eggs you had for breakfast. Keep going until you can’t think of one more thing.
6. Be Kind to Yourself.
One of the reasons that this day is known as Blue Monday is that it is the time when a lot of people realise that all their New Year’s resolutions have failed. This is often because the bar was set too high. You were going to change everything, from your eating habits to your job to your attitude to money, and you hit the 17th of January wall and feel as if you are just the same old scruffy, muddly you.
The fact is that you can’t transform yourself overnight. If you see life as a series of small steps – the building of small, helpful, daily habits – then the overwhelm does not get you. This is the essence of being compassionate to yourself. You can take those small steps forward, but you can also be gentle with yourself if you take a step back.
Sometimes, it’s helpful to make a list of really tiny changes which will make a difference to your life. Don’t think of right and wrong; think of helpful and non-helpful. What makes you feel more contented with yourself, or gives you a sense of achievement, or brings a smile to your face? Do those things, and try to fit them into your every day.
7. Don’t Compare.
Comparing yourself to other people is a pretty surefire way to feel rotten. For some reason, we humans always choose the people who appear to be doing far, far better than we are. That person has lost ten pounds! This person seems to be going to the gym at five in the morning! That person has cracked the secrets of the universe and has a hundred thousand followers on Instagram!
Our own experience in this comes from working with horses. We don’t compare our horses to other people’s; we compare them to where they were a month ago, or a year ago. Some of the HorseBack herd are exceptionally quick learners, and we can get them ready for the courses in short order. Some need acres of time and space to build up the calm and resilience needed for this kind of work. We don’t see this as failure, but simply as reality.
You may need more time than other people, as you move through life. You don’t have to be a world-beater; you just need to find the mental habits that make you feel at ease in your own skin and at home in your own world. Be true to yourself and be kind to yourself and go at your own pace.
8. Sit in the Uncomfortable Emotions.
If you are having a bad day, it helps not to fight it, or castigate yourself for it, or try to pretend it isn’t happening. Every human being has difficult emotions, especially at this time of year. Sometimes, the key is simply to accept that today you are not going to be doing cartwheels and singing show tunes.
You can do small acts of kindness for yourself – make some soup, go to bed early, give yourself a treat – and practise the art of acceptance. If you allow the uncomfortable emotions to exist, you can let them go. If you try to battle them or deny them, they’ll get tangled up inside and you will have a harder time undoing the knot.
Sit, and breathe, and know that this too will pass.
9. Make a Playlist.
This is a simple and fun way to lighten a low mood. Put together a playlist of your favourite songs, especially ones that are hopeful and upbeat, and play them at full blast and maybe even sing along.
10. Stay in the Present.
This is another thing that horses have taught us. It is the principle behind meditation, which has been shown to have a vastly beneficial effect on mental well-being. It is: anchor yourself in the present moment.
Regrets belong in the past; anxiety lives in the future. If you constantly torment yourself with what did happen or what might happen, your psyche will become exhausted.
Every so often, throughout the day, gently bring your mind into this minute of your life. Take some soothing deep breaths. Let your racing mind grow still. Feel your body, and release any tensions you find there. If you do this only for a couple of minutes, you will give yourself a little reset, and the next part of your day will be easier. And, if you get into the habit of doing this regularly, your sense of well-being will rise.