The Coping Kete

Category Archives: Engagement

No. 158: Plant Seeds and Nurture Them

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

… practice being aware of your valued actions by visualising or symbolically planting seeds for each of your valued intentions.

It is New Years Eve and that is good time to set goals for the coming months, but goals tend to be short-lived and easily side-tracked by shifting priorities. On the other hand, our values represent how we want to be in the world, regardless of the state of our goals. Values are always in progress, whereas goals can be achieved, failed or finished with. A goal might be to ‘Quit Smoking’. A value might be ‘Caring for my Physical Health.’ See the shift? A goal is a place on a map, but a value is a direction on the compass we use to guide us. Different values tend to take on differing levels of importance as we move through life. Much of the suffering we go through is the result of being distant from our values, or prioritising one set of values over things we also hold dear to our hearts.

So this week, try doing a ‘Seed Planting Ceremony’ for the New Year, or the day or week ahead. First, take a moment to sit in stillness and bring your mind to what you want to nurture in your life. How do you want to treat yourself, the planet and others in the coming months? What is most important to you right now? When your mind throws up thoughts of what you don’t want, name it to yourself and bring your awareness to the values you would like to be guided by in such situations. What do you want to stand for as a person? What brings vitality and meaning to life for you? Write everything down as you go, then read back through and pick out the things that are priorities for you at the moment.

Next, make ‘paper seeds’ for each of values you want to ‘plant’ and nurture in your life by writing each one down or drawing them on a separate piece of paper. Give a name to each of the ‘seeds’ you are planting so you can easily bring it to mind when you need help to find a valued path forward. Choose a small object or picture for each of the important ‘seeds’ too if you would like. Next reflect on what you are doing, have done, or would do when living fully in line with this value that is so important to you? What small actions will grow it? Write these down too and then place the paper and the object in a special jar or container.

Try to create at least one different ‘seed’ for each of the areas of your life that are important to your health and wellbeing. As you learn more about what you value in your heart of hearts, you can return and create more paper ‘seeds’ to grow.

Take some time once a day to turn your mind to the ‘seeds’ you ‘planted’. Pick a few out of the jar, reflect on the ways you have moved towards it that day, acknowledge the things that have pulled you away with compassion, and visualise yourself nurturing this in yourself tomorrow.

As you move through each day, see if you can practice bringing your attention to these valued directions, by naming them to yourself as a reminder and seeing how they can guide your next steps.

Once you are comfortable with setting your intentions by naming and visualising the values you want to nurture, add ‘Plant Seeds and Nurture Them’ to your Personal Coping Kete. Then in times of stress and distress, you’ll be able to returning to your values as helpers and visualise how you want to move forward, given what you have got.When you notice myself feeling lost or confused or distressed or uncertain, pause, find a valued direction, and choose one workable step towards it.

No. 157: Say Thank You for the Stories

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

…practice noticing and naming the ‘stories’ your thinking mind tells you and thanking your brain for trying to keep you safe, because that’s really is what our negative automatic thoughts are trying to do underneath it all. We usually all have a few chains of thought that repeatedly pop up when we encounter stress and distress and pull us away from the things we really want to be doing to focus on all the possible risks to our physical and social survival (as well as a bunch of the improbable ones too, thank you, creative imaginations). Basically our minds are natural problem-solving machines and they are geared to spot problems and solve them wherever we go. It would be a bit much to do this from scratch every second, so our minds create a set of stories or scripts to follow in situations that seem similar and they shoot off a bunch of physical responses and unpleasant emotions that are designed to make us act so quickly we often aren’t even aware what is pushing us forward.

Unfortunately this storyteller part of our mind is often using out of date or incomplete information, so following along with it isn’t always helpful. And trying to simply shut off or ignore that part of our minds usually just makes those stories intrude into our thoughts more and more. Often we get so caught up and stuck in the stories our minds are throwing up at us, we get pulled into doing things that actually make life much worse. So fighting our minds doesn’t help, ignoring or shutting it down doesn’t help, and acting upon everything we think isn’t helpful either. One way to detach from those stories, is to practice naming each one and then literally thanking your brain for doing its job. We don’t need to believe, accept or agree with the story or reject and disagree with it either.  Instead of resisting it and struggling against it, this week practice naming it and saying ‘thank you brain, I get you are trying to help!’

To prepare, take some time to write down some of the things that your mind often throws up when you’re distressed. Then name the most repetitive thoughts or the ones that trigger the toughest emotions, literally give each story a title that is easy for you to recall. You don’t need to be especially creative about it either – there is often some kind of “I can’t cope” story, “bad self” story, “not good enough” story or “dangerous world” story in the mix.  These are tough thought-chains to deal with when we are caught up believing them or struggling against them, especially when they have been ‘true’ for us in the past. Underneath every tough emotion is a message about something our mind thinks is important, something you value or need. See if you can spot what that is, what is each story trying to alert you to? The ‘i can’t cope story’ could really be a message to stay away from something or a message to prepare for a challenge ahead. The “not good enough” story is often alerting us to our aspirations, the standards we are holding ourselves to, or the way we are being treated by others. Guilt, shame, sadness, anxiety, anger – they are all their to help us navigate our connections and hold on to what we need. Naming the story and saying ‘thank you brain’ lets our mind know we are aware and reframes the thoughts as ideas and words instead of realities we need to act on – this often lets our mind know it can stop telling the story so loudly and allows us to find a workable path forward, a way of testing it out.

Once you have named some of the stories you notice your brain often repeats, practice naming them as you notice them throughout your day. This week, pause whenever you move between tasks or situations to practice observing what stories your brain is telling in the moment and saying “Thank you brain, for telling me the xyz story. I hear you. There are important things at stake for me here.”  Then move forward with your valued direction or do another coping strategy to make things workable.

To start with, practice naming stories and thanking your brain for telling them in ordinary, transition moments, rather in times of intense distress when it is most difficult to detach from our thoughts this way. When the stories hook you, see what happens if you name this to yourself too. As above see if you can observe what the function of the story and the emotions that go with it might be.  It can also help to name what your intentions and valued directions are too.  These can be like alternative stories we are learning to tell ourselves. For example, “Thank you brain for the “I can’t cope” story, I know you are trying to make me anxious, to keep me safe from failure. My intention is to discover how to handle this risk because independence and new experiences are important to me.” Sometimes the risk really isn’t worth it though, so sometimes we do need to pay attention to the story and test it out cautiously only if it really is safe to do so. The aim is to be able to respond flexibly based on what works in the situation.

Once you are comfortable naming your mind’s stories and thanking your brain for telling them, Add the strategy to your Personal Coping Kete as a way of coping during times of stress and distress. Naming and acknowledging the chains of thought will help you to untangle from the automatic stories your mind repeats, and focus on the other story about what is important to you.

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Note: Saying ‘thank you brain’ is a common technique from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT – pronounced ‘act’). You can find some worksheets to help you identify your common stories and understand how they pull you away from your valued directions at www.thehappinesstrap.com/free_resources  

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No. 155: Make Space for What is Here

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

…practice allowing and making space for tough emotions when they appear. Rather than tightening up around them and getting stuck struggling against them or having to make them stop, test out what happens when you allow the thoughts and feelings to be there. Being human involves a wide spectrum of emotions; we are allowed to feel them all and we are supposed to feel them all. One way of allowing our feelings to be there without becoming engulfed in them is to observe them inside us and make room for them to be there. This is often called an acceptance or expansion strategy.

To begin with, pick a couple of neutral anchor-tasks that you do every day and can use to practice with, like making your morning cuppa, walking to the bus, eating a meal, or waiting for emails to load, something that allows your mind to wander.

  1. Whenever you find yourself doing your anchor-tasks, take a moment to observe the moods, sensations, and urges that arise within you and put words to what you are feeling in this moment. As you observe, take a step back and be aware of yourself noticing. There are these feelings inside you, and then there is you, noticing them. If you can notice them within you, they cannot get bigger than you.
  2. Notice the feeling again, where does it sit in your body? Where are the edges?  Gently remind yourself “I have space for what is here” and imagine yourself expanding around it, making room. Take a deep breathe in to help you do this. Feel your belly and your chest expand as you breathe in and let go as you breathe out.
  3. Take a second deep breath in and shift into an open, relaxed posture, and remind yourself gently “I have space for this” as you allow your breath to let go and your muscles to go loose.
  4. Then take a third deep breath. Imagine sending this breath to the place these feelings sit in your body, see space opening up around them, whatever that means to you. There is the feeling, and there you are noticing it. Remind yourself again that you have room for this. Then after a moment, bring your attention back to your surroundings and the task at hand (or what you really need/want to be doing), carrying this sense of space with you and returning it to when you need to.

You can practice this on any experiences at all, positive feelings can drive us into unhelpful responses sometimes too. There are no good or bad, right or wrong feelings. Once you are familiar with using this strategy at a planned time, it will get easier to do it throughout the day when you notice yourself dealing with stress and distress. Sometimes, part of making space for stress and distress, means soothing it. It might help to respond to distressing thoughts and feelings with supportive self-talk as you breathe, observe and open up around them. Expanding to make space also means accepting what you need and getting those needs met. You might need some self-care or distraction or support to help you, making room for our own distress, doesn’t mean you have to carry it on your own, give up on trying to feel better, sit in it, agree with it, like it, or want it. It just means that we start out by allowing it to be.

When you are comfortable doing this, add ‘expanding to make space’ to your Personal Coping Kete as a way to survive the times when you are struggling.  You’ll be able to take a moment of observe your thoughts and moods in the moment by putting words to them. Breathing deeply, remind yourself “I have space for what is here” and imagine yourself expanding around it.
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Acknowledgement: “Expansion” is an acceptance strategy found in Russ Harris’s ACT self-help book ‘The Happiness Trap‘.

This post is one person’s way of learning and practicing expansion – it isn’t necessarily the right way. When it comes to coping there is almost never a right way. We’ve each got to experiment to make it our own.   

 

No. 153: Label Thoughts As Thoughts

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

… practice noticing your thoughts and seeing them for what they are – thoughts. This week, whenever you notice yourself look at a clock, take a brief moment to be still, take five deep breaths, register what is in your mind and name what you notice in this time. As you notice a thought running through your head, say to yourself “I notice the thought that…“.  For example, if I look at the clock, breathe and think “I am going to be late”, I will say to myself “I notice the thought that I am going to be late”.

Sometimes we have second thoughts about our first thoughts. Thoughts often come in chains of ‘this’ and ‘then that’ and then… etc. If you notice a second thought attached to the first, describe that too.  Try to be an impartial observer, not a bullying or critical observer and use neutral words to describe what you notice.  If you notice yourself judging or labeling your thoughts as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in some way, describe that to yourself self too, “I notice the thought that…”.

If your mind goes blank or you feel distressed, label your thoughts about that and come back to your breathing. After you have taken five good breaths in and out, move your attention outwards again by describing what is around you right now, “Right now I see…Right now I hear… “. Then turn back to whatever you were about to do before. As thoughts pop up to distract you from your task, label them as thoughts and return your focus to what is around you and what you are doing now.

Usually our thoughts are constantly running through our minds without us noticing them and we just go along reacting to them on auto-pilot.  By doing this exercise, I will get used to taking a step back to observe my thoughts and recognise them as ideas happening in my mind. Labeling my thoughts as thoughts will highlight the distinction between what is coming in through my senses and what is the meaning attached to it by my mind. Often these two things we will be an obvious match. However, just as often things are a bit more ambiguous and unclear. Often there are multiple potential meanings and labeling thoughts can help me keep sight of that. This can help the body know it is safe to calm down any stress responses it has been automatically firing off.

It is harder to step back and label our thoughts as thoughts when our emotions are high. This is why practicing for just a moment at regular intervals when emotions aren’t high is helpful while we get the hang of it. You might find that looking at a clock isn’t the most useful reminder to practice for you. If that’s the case, pick another thing you do everyday to use as a reminder to practice.

When you are comfortable with stopping to label thoughts as thoughts during everyday moments, add it to your Personal Coping Kete as a way of coping in times of stress and distress. When you notice emotions getting high or your mind starting to race, take a moment to breathe into your belly and observe your thoughts one by one. As you notice a thought, describe it to yourself “I notice the thought that…” . Then turn your mind to your senses and the world around you. “Right now I see… Right now I hear…”. When you are ready to move on to the next task in your day. Think to yourself, “Right now I could…” . This might be a self-soothing or distraction exercise or some form of expression, support or engagement.  Labeling distressing thoughts as thoughts might help to soothe their sting if they are overwhelming, slow them down if they are racing or make them clear if they are clouded. If we can notice thoughts as events that happen inside us, we can choose which ones we want to act on and which ones are just the chatter of our minds on autopilot.

No. 152: Do Something for My Future Self

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

… practice choosing the course of action that will make you feel better later by doing something for your future self each day. We so often spend our time caught up in surviving the day-to-day things that lie in front of us, that we forget to spend time setting up our future selves  to thrive. This week, practice nurturing my future self.

Think about you in a week from now and imagine you find yourself in a good frame of mind; what does that person wish they had experienced or done? What are they proud of? What do they treasure? What brought vitality to their week? Then fast forward past next week, to next month, next year, and decades from now. Make a list as you go of small things you could do in a day to help your future self have these experiences they need to build the kind of life they want. Each day, choose one thing from your list to do and plan in a time to do it.

For example, going to bed 30 minutes earlier might make your mornings easier; eating breakfast might make your afternoons easier; chatting with a friend might have given you a laugh; doing a job you’ve been putting off might make you feel less stressed tomorrow; going for a walk might give you a mood lift and help you sleep better later; setting some goals might help you feel like you have a bit of direction later etc…

As you get used to the practice of doing small things for your future self in a planned way, practice pausing as you make decisions in your daily life to ask yourself what course of action would help build a thriving life for your future self.

When you are used to making choices for your future self, add ‘Do Something for My Future Self‘ to your Personal Coping Kete as a way of coping during times of stress and distress. When you find yourself feeling upset, you can use this strategy to value yourself in the presence of that distress and keep moving towards the kind of life you want. How does your future self want to see you managing this?

No. 151: Mindful Moment

This week to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

… pause once a day to practice being mindful of the present moment and yourself inside it. Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment on purpose, without judgment and with full awareness of both the internal and the external parts of our experience. You can do this by purposefully observing the present moment, describing it to yourself and then participating in the experience.  In order to fully observe, describe and participate in the moment we need to focus on one thing at a time, take a non-judgmental stance and be effective. Being effective means choosing the direction that is most helpful or doing what needs to be done without being trapped in our emotions but without ignoring them either. This week practice taking the time to observe what is around you and what is inside you. You might need to set an alarm or decide on another reminder ahead of time to help you remember to practice. While you’re new at mindfulness, practice at a time when emotions aren’t running super high.

Once a day practice taking a mindful moment. Breathing calmly and moving into a comfortable position, focus your mind on the here and now…Noticing yourself there breathing and notice what is happening around you right now, observe your surroundings and describe them  to yourself without judgement. When you notice judgments, observe them, and return your mind to the present moment as you continue with your breathing. You can ground yourself in the present moment by paying attention to your five senses and participating in them with awareness. What do I see around me right now… what do I hear… what do I smell… what do I taste… what do I touch? Allow your thoughts and feelings to register and come back to your senses. Name thoughts as thoughts, memories as memories, feelings as feelings, separating the past from the present, acknowledging the things that are unwanted instead of pushing them away. Observe and describe any thoughts and worries about the past or future that arise, without evaluating them or chasing them and again turn your attention back to observing and describing the physical environment around you and how you experience it. Once you have observed the whole of your surroundings and what is going on inside in the moment, turn your attention to the next task at hand.

When you are comfortable paying attention to the present moment at an ordinary time, add ‘Mindful Moment’ to your Personal Coping Kete as a way of coping with stress and distress. When you notice emotions starting to run high, you will be able to pause, ground yourself in the present and observe my distressing thoughts and feelings without being so hooked or tangled by them. It will be easier to stay connected to the moment as part of a wider context and to choose what direction to move in next.

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Acknowledgement: Mindfulness can be traced back to buddhist philosophy. Thich Naht Hanh is known for creating the Engaged Buddhism movement  and popularising mindfulness in the Western world. Jon Kabbat-Zinn is known for popularising mindfulness in the medical community with the Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction (MBSR) programme at the University of Massachusetts. Marsha Linehan is known for popularising mindfulness in the mental health community with Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT).  The basic practice of mindfulness features in many strategies shared in The Coping Kete. Once you learn the basic skills, you can use mindfulness in any moment you find yourself in, in countless different ways. There is an awful lot behind each of the skills involved. Follow the links above to learn more. 

No. 150: Make a Memory Jar

This week, to attain, maintain or regain your sense of wellbeing…

… practice holding onto good memories by making and using a Memory Jar. To make a Memory Jar, all you need to do is get a jar with a lid that you can fill with reminders of your positive, special or treasured memories throughout the year. Each day, write down at least one positive thing you want to remember later. Write down the small things like amazing views or scenery you have seen or fabulous food you have eaten or moments of laughter with friends as well as the big events and achievements that happen throughout the days and weeks of the year.  Some people add objects and pictures to their memory jars too – like ticket stubs from good movies and concerts, photos of friends, shells from beach trips, dried flowers etc etc. Your Memory Jar can become a real lucky dip of treasured moments that you will be able to use as fuel for feeling good in days to come.

To start with, you’ll need to get my Memory Jar ready.  Click here to see some Memory Jars made by other people. Some people decorate their memory jars – you could get really creative with this.

Next schedule in some time each day for the next week, to write at least one new memory on a slip of paper and add it to the jar.  If you have been feeling low, try to choose a time of the day when you usually feel the best. It is harder to notice positives when we are feeling negative, so if you find it tough to think of positive memories from the day, don’t be hard on yourself for it. It helps to start small with just little things that have brought us a bit of pleasure. You might find it easier to write things down as they happen or to think back further than this one day or week.

At the end of the week, look through your Memory Jar and practice remembering each of the good moments. Plan how to continue adding to your jar as you move through the year and then dip into it when you need some help to hold on to the good bits alongside the areas of dissatisfaction you carry or for those times you need some inspiration for how to feel better. It might help to keep it somewhere you will see it often. Reviewing your Memory Jar regularly will help you to get comfortable holding your positive memories in mind without cancelling them out with the bad stuff that has happened. This can help us to prevent the difficult things from taking over our whole view.

You might find yourself having pessimistic or cynical thoughts about the activity, especially if you are in a low mood right now. Finding it hard to remember positive things doesn’t mean that there have been no positive things. It just means you haven’t noticed any positive things or you didn’t count them when you did, maybe they seemed inconsequential or insignificant. Sometimes it can help to write down something you think you would find positive on a different day if you were in a better mood. By practicing the art of writing something down every day, you will practice holding onto positive memories in the face of difficulty and hardship, when it is all too easy to forget them. You’ll also have a really neat record of your year to look back on in days to come.

As you gather more and more memories in your jar, and get comfortable noticing, recording and recalling positive memories, add ‘Use My Memory Jar’ to your Personal Coping Kete for moments of stress and distress. If you are finding things hard, take out your Memory Jar and use it to shift my thoughts to good times and moments of gratitude and find some ideas for things to do in the present to shift your mood. In times of stress and distress, as well as remembering good memories, try to add one new good memory to your Memory Jar a day. Even when everything is terrible, you will be able to find one good thing to add to your Memory Jar. Doing this during tough times might help you to balance out some of your unwanted thoughts and feelings and shift the intensity of your moods a bit.

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Happy New Year from Engage Aotearoa/CMHRT and Engage Resources Ltd.

No. 146: Be Still and Breathe

This week, to attain, maintain or regain my sense of wellbeing…

… I will practice being mindful of the wider moment by pausing as often as I can remember and simply being still. Throughout the day, wherever I am when I remember, I will stop what I am doing, be still and just breathe. Whatever is going through my head, I will notice and let pass, while I breathe and be still. I will take this time to notice the light and temperature and textures around me and the sensations in my body as I stop what I am doing and settle into the moment.

When I notice thoughts I will practice noticing them kindly, without judging them. I will practice letting the thoughts I notice pass by looking at what else there is to notice in this moment. Moving my awareness on will help me make sure I don’t get hooked into one particular train of thought. If I notice myself making judgements, I will observe the judgement and again move my awareness to what else I notice while I am breathing and being still.

In this way, I will practice having little rest spots throughout my day, where I can slow down and notice what is happening inside and around me, without getting hooked into the stressful stuff. Taking moments to slow down and be still might help me be aware of what am dealing with, while I allow myself to be mindfully distracted by my surroundings. After a little while of being still and breathing, I will carry on with what I was doing.

When I am comfortable stopping to be still and breathe in everyday moments, I will add it to my Personal Coping Kete as a strategy for times of stress and distress. When I notice I am getting wound up, I will be able to stop what I am doing, be still, breathe and look around me to get a bit of soothing space between feeling and responding.

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This week’s Coping Kete strategy is inspired by a strategy from a member of the public who attended The Butterfly Diaries launch during Mental Health Awareness Week.

No. 144: Be Aware of My Choices

This week, to attain, maintain or regain my sense of wellbeing…

… I will practice noticing all the different ways I can control my outcomes by paying attention to the choices I make each day and purposefully choosing the option that moves me towards more of what I want.

This week, as I move through each day, I will practice being aware of each of the small choices I make. When I notice that I am making a choice, I will practice pausing to observe what options I am choosing between and what the possible outcomes of each of the options might be. I will then deliberately choose the option that will bring me closer to what I want for my future – whether that is how I want to feel later in the day or what I want to be doing next year.

I’ll start out doing this with the small choices I make, such as what I eat and drink, what I watch on TV, what I work on next, where I sit and everyday things like that.

Noticing how my small choices change the way I experience my daily life, might help me to be make more mindful decisions, that effect me in more positive ways. Slowing down and thinking about our choices is especially hard when we are distressed, which is why we so often do and say things we regret when we feel angry or upset. If I practice slowing down and being aware of my choices in everyday moments, it might be easier to slow myself down and think about my choices when I’m distressed. In this way, I will learn how to hold my own responses and act based on what I want and need, not just on what I feel.

This week, as I notice myself making a choice, I will pause, ask myself what the other options are, think about the possible consequences and what consequences I want, then choose the option that brings me closer the outcome I desire.

When I am comfortable pausing myself and observing my options before I make everyday kinds of choices, I will add ‘Be Aware of my Choices’ to my Personal Coping Kete as a way of coping during times of stress and distress. By being aware of the choices I am making and choosing the option that brings me closer to what I want for my future, I will be able to guide myself through the tough moments in a way that has a positive effect on me, rather than getting caught up in my distress and making coping decisions that make things harder in the long-run.  The simple act of stopping to think through the options and make myself aware of what I want and need will help me practice giving myself a delay between feeling and acting, a mini time-out to have a little think. Doing this could be a form of mindful distraction, moving my mind away from how I feel in the moment to what I want in the future and what my choices are.

No. 143: Finding Excuses to Get Outside

This week, to attain, maintain or regain my sense of wellbeing…

…I will find excuses to spend small amounts of time outside and work them into my day to give myself little moments of mindfulness in nature.  To start with, I will make a list of all the things I can do outside around my house or around my work or anywhere in between.

For example:
Weed the garden
Check the mail
Water the garden
Hang out washing
Bring in washing
Read the newspaper in the sun
Have lunch at the local park
Eat breakfast on the lawn
Drink my coffee under a tree
Walk to the dairy for milk
etc… etc…. etc…

Then, as I move through my week, I will practice giving myself time outside to do these things. I might schedule them in to my diary to help me remember to do them or I might be able to remember whenever the opportunity presents itself. When I find myself outside I will mindfully observe the environment around me and how it feels to be in it doing what I am doing. I will describe each part of my experience to myself and fully focus on participating in the experience of being outside. If I notice my thoughts distracting me from my moment outdoors, I will observe them for what they are and bring my mind back to the present moment. This will allow me to practice engaging with environments that are soothing and enjoyable as part of my everyday life. It might also help me get all the Vitamin D I need. Vitamin D comes from the sun.

Once I am used to enjoying outside as part of daily life, I will add it to my Personal Coping Kete as a way to self-soothe or distract myself during times of stress and distress. Taking myself outside and mindfully doing something else when I am distressed might give me the space I need to feel more calm before I respond to my distressing feelings, while still allowing them to be there.