Hiking, Hygge & the Happy Hypothalamus
I recently started thinking more purposefully about what I do for self care and mental wellbeing. What do I do that helps me be a joyful, centered and aligned person? I was thinking about how joy and happiness are different, how joy is a deeply felt, almost spiritual element and happiness is fleeting and dependant mostly on outward things not under our own control.
Talking to others about what I found from asking myself these questions, I found that a lot of people I know manage, cultivate and support their mental wellbeing using unique and unexpected self care methods and they, in turn, found my self care activities that I will share shortly kind of weird!
I shared these thoughts and my own self care activities with our January meetup attendees as I really wanted this meetup to be an inspiration to others to think about and find their perfect self care methods that work based solely upon their individuality.
Self care is not ‘one size fits all’
As someone who believes we have something like a soul or inner spirit, not unlike this blue fire vagina that Google Image Search returned for ‘soul’, I think that there are unique ways we all have to manage our mental health, peace of mind and sense of joy.
I’m also reminded that physical brain wellbeing and spirit/soul wellbeing are separate.
Some of us require medical intervention for mental health that is physically caused by chemical imbalances. But my belief in addition to that is that all of us have this individual essence, that unique blue fire vagina inside us all, that needs feeding for wellbeing purposes. Inset wink emoji here amirite?!
I’ve spent a long time trying to understand and tweak how I respond to self care activities and understand when and why I need them. I’m sharing what I do with the caveat that anything I do for my wellbeing and self care is based on my individuality.
Individuality and mental health
NO ONE CAN FULLY EXPLAIN YOU OR KNOW YOU EVER. Oof that’s intense! But it is what makes our world a beautiful, ugly, amazing and terrifying place to be. It’s the mystery of that blue fire vagina we have inside us all.
The world and the things in it push us into category boxes all the time. When you’re going through hard and anxious times, if you’ve not cultivated your individuality to make it strong and resilient then it will be hard to find that unique activity, process or experience that helps you get back to feeling aligned in yourself.
For me, two of the biggest challenges to, and enemies of, my individuality have been imposter syndrome and relationships. (I’ve talked a lot about imposter syndrome before.)
I’m hoping I’m not the only one, but I have frequent thoughts about not being special, that there’s nothing exceptional about me. I’ll remember a time when I thought I was special and exceptional and I’ll tell myself that it was foolish to think that, I should be embarrassed. I’ve started to realise that this only happens when I am faced with something I could fail at, like speaking in public, giving advice and going for a new job. That’s what imposter syndrome is to me. It destroys my desire to stand out and be my individual self. It crushes my desire to be different from anyone else because I could fail, I could become an imposter.
True story: you can’t be an imposter of yourself. I’ve found that learning to trust myself is a really important and ongoing activity for me and that’s why I have the type of self care activities I do. They help me to trust myself more. More on that in a second.
Do relationships ruin your individuality?
BUT RELATIONSHIPS?! Rachel, aren’t they full of goodness, support and fun sexy times? Well…yes…and also, not always.
At the beginning of a relationship, it’s full-on attention and adoration. You can’t get enough of each other, you spend ALL the time together, and eventually that tends to be subdued into something less intense; it evolves into something more mature, and increases in meaning, purpose and stability.
Sometimes it doesn’t and you go back to being just you again.
My experience in both those situations is that I have sacrificed my own individuality unintentionally and unknowingly. Decisions are made together in relationships about what to do, eat, when to go to bed, where to go on holiday, what to do on said holiday. I found I wasn’t exploring life as an individual anymore and that meant, for me, I wasn’t giving myself what my individuality needed.
I’m an independent person, happy on my own, maybe a little introverted as my public-facing self. I usually need breaks from people, being relied on and relying on others. I am a massive idealist, adventurer and can be very flakey in my personal interests. As a result of not knowing this about myself earlier, I became resentful, restless and unsatisfied. I needed to practice a certain type of self care for my individualistic spirit.
I tried activities like an acting course, and, while it helped my confidence, I was still relying on and being relied upon by other people in a really intensive way. I got really into acting, and then the interest was dead to me like so many previous hobbies and interests have become.
My self care activity needs to really jolt me and be a new experience each time. I learned I needed to scare and shock myself.
So I started taking Selfcations every 6 months
When I’ve tweeted about my Selfcations, I’ve had a surprising amount of DMs slide right in asking how I managed to get that round my partner, or how I managed to convince him to let me go. Wasn’t he upset that I was going without him?
The answer to these questions is always twofold: 1. I’d have bigger problems if I was with someone I would have to ask to ‘let me go’; and 2. Dan is just as much an advocate of individuality as I am.
When we met, we didn’t know each other…obviously… and whoever we were then, as single people, caused us to fall in love. Life does change us, and we change each other, but that doesn’t mean we can’t maintain our individuality. If Dan didn’t like that I needed to go away for odd trips by myself, then we wouldn’t work. Dan respects and enjoys the fact that I need something as an individual and understands that it is vital to my wellbeing and maintaining the individuality of who he fell in love with.
Self care means challenging myself and going on random adventures. Dan knows this so much that my present for Christmas is my next trip. For those interested, it is an overnight bushcraft survival experience where I get to forage for my own food, build my own shelter, make fire and learn knife skills. He went to the extreme of helping me to cultivate my individuality. SO much so that he’s made sure I’ll be able to do it IN THE APOCALYPSE, which we all know is coming soon.
All kinds of relationships can affect individuality, so being mindful of how and when that happens is something I’ve learned in the last few years.
How Do I #Selfcation?
1. Go somewhere I’ve never heard of
SkyScanner is my friend. I find somewhere I’ve never been and, even better, somewhere I’ve never heard of! Travel broadens the mind AND the soul.
2. Be a local
I recommend going to local gigs and smaller pubs/bars/parks – Norwegian Friday nights are mental and the cultural difference, if you can blend in, is fascinating to become a part of. I love this blog about Norway!
3. Let random thoughts flow through my mind
I have a LOT of time to be in my own head and freedom to not think about anyone else.
4. Be aware of how new people may see me and how that makes me feel
This helps me to be more aware of myself, how I come across and how I feel about that. A great deal of self-awareness and understanding has come out of seeing myself through strangers’ eyes and reflecting on how that makes me see myself anew.
5. Imagine myself not being able to get home
This one really came out of a time when I was unsure of a lot of things. I was changing jobs because of a horrible experience at a previous company and my self-esteem was at an all-time low. I wasn’t sure of anything, much less myself.
So I went to Lanzarote by myself for six days and nearly died on a volcano. No kidding, I really thought I was going to die, and EVERYTHING that mattered and didn’t matter slid right into its place. I came home absolutely aligned. Fear is very healthy.
6. Visualise myself living there and how that would change me
Being among different cultures has been a major part of the benefit to building and strengthening my individuality and therefore my sense of wellness. How would their way of doing things and living change me? After my last selfcation to Stavanger I now want to be Norwegian.
7. Do something scary
The volcano death incident was a good selfcation lesson for me. Though I never wish to get that close to death again, it was absolutely revolutionary to my mindset when I came home. I try to incorporate a huge physical challenge into my trips – something that will scare me or make me uncomfortable. It means that when I come home and have a bout of imposter syndrome, I can remember I’ve survived things on my own that are weird and dangerous. My mindset and sense of wellbeing are then emboldened again.
Comfort, learning and panic zones
Someone showed me this graph once and I have never forgotten it.
We stay, usually, in the comfort zone, which does not promote development. It’s warm and cosy and safe (I’ll come on to why those things are important to my wellbeing too later!), but it doesn’t push us to grow in any meaningful way or become more aware of our individual needs.
Stepping out into the learning zone is a way of keeping yourself in control but being just uneasy or challenged enough to learn new things and remember them.
Dipping into the panic zone, for me as an individual, works wonders in certain circumstances, which is why I have made this a core element of my selfcations.
Practice doesn’t make perfect
Practicing wellbeing or self care isn’t to get it RIGHT. It’s practicing an ongoing activity that doesn’t have an end. It develops as you do.
I didn’t even know I needed selfcations until the fourth one I had. You may be doing something, or a version of something, already to enhance your wellbeing without any structure or acknowledgment of it. Some people turn to work, drink, bath bombs, sex or shopping when they need self care as a default. Being mindful about what you need and why is core to what I’ve learned, and there are things masquerading as self care out there.
Make sure self care methods really do something for you. I need to go away by myself every six months or so, Lana needs to do yoga, Allegra and her husband plot elaborate practical jokes to scare the crap out of each other! What works for someone else might not for you, and that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong or that you’re not good enough. It means your beautiful, unique individuality craves something else.
My solo trips mean I encounter different cultures and traditions and, apart from my volcano death trip, nothing has had such an impact on me as the concept and practice of Hygge.
But first, the shoehorned-in science bit!
The hypothalamus is the part of your brain responsible for hormonal activity and the centre for processing and feeling emotions. It produces and releases oxytocin, which is the ‘feel good’ hormone, responsible for the feelings of love and joy.
Hygge and hiking are great practices for a healthy hypothalamus. Provided all is working as it should chemically, a healthy hypothalamus will release oxytocin when you embrace loved ones and cause feelings of empathy or trust. Hygge is all about the oxytocin being released. It promotes feelings of safety, comfort, love and togetherness. All key triggers for the release of this brain ‘cuddle hormone’.
What IS Hygge?
It has become a bit of a ‘trendy’ Instagram hashtag/buzzword. A lot of blogs and visual social accounts will have you think that Hygge is some kind of Oliver Bonas, millennial, pink type trend. It is so much more. The word ‘Hygge’ is one of those magical Scandinavian words, Norwegian in origin, that does not directly translate into English; it is more of a feeling than something that can be explained verbally.
Looking deeper into its real meaning after my selfcation to Stavanger, I realised that my own purpose for creating Brighton Digital Women has fundamental Hygge themes aligned with these…
For me personally, Hygge has been a reminder to draw close to people I meet on my trips, to really engage with local people and genuinely come to understand something of someone different from me. I’ve learned some amazing things that have stayed with me and will wax lyrical about Norway until the fjords flood over!
Brighton Digital Women, our community, is a safe sanctuary for digital professionals. One that invites closeness and makes its members and attendees feel alive and ‘open hearted’. I want us to connect and support each other and make sure everyone feels that sense of belonging and unity in supporting and lifting each other up.