The importance of trusting our own senses

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Earlier this week, I woke up at 4am with the distinct smell of burning coming through my nose.

The last time I smelt something like this, I ignored it. I thought that my sense of smell was playing tricks on me. Turns out that there was actually something on the stove downstairs burning to a smoke.

So this time, I got up to investigate.

It turned out the smell was coming from outside. It was actually pretty nauseating just standing out on the street. My window had been open so I could smell it pretty distinctly from my room.

When I looked online for information, I read about a burning recycling plant on the other side of Brussels. The fire was seemingly large enough that the smoke had covered its way across to my neighbourhood.

One thing I’ve learnt about myself is my heightened sensitivity. My ability to pick up sounds, smells, movement and emotional shifts is higher than normal (sidenote: these are probably signs of Autism).

For a long time I had often ignored these heightened senses. Since my heightened sensitivity picked up things other people didn’t, I would be told that I was imagining things. Noises in the background didn’t exist, and my disgust at strong smelling foods was me being a fussy eater.

It’s hard to compare when the only reference point for perception is myself. Many things I just assumed was the case for everyone, so I never stopped to question it.

I now realise that my sensitivity is one of the reasons that I pick up on subtle things earlier than other people. For example, my attunement to the vibe of the room has helped me immensely in positioning myself during work meetings.

Yet such sensitivity comes at a cost. After smelling the burning smell, I did not get back to sleep for another hour, and I felt fatigued afterwards. If I had just slept through it all, there wouldn’t have been any negative repercussions either.

It means I have to be more careful with how I manage myself. I now wear an eye mask every night because of how perturbing I find the morning light which can wake me up at 6am.

It’s also pretty easy for me to get overstimulated. Too much noise or intensity can be so overwhelming that I can shut down pretty quickly. I find it particularly hard to listen to a conversation in a noisy space. When I’m overstimulated, my ability to sense things gets distorted. This can turn into worry and fear pretty quickly.

Yet despite all of this, my senses are my gifts. When I use them right, I can sense things that most people would not otherwise notice. And in a world lurking with uncertainty and danger, that’s as important as ever.

I personally believe that a lot of us are far more sensitive than we think. The idea of being ‘sensitive’ is seen as negative – it is often used as an insult. We don’t want to be seen as sensitive (particularly men) as this makes us sound weak, but we also don’t want to be seen as insensitive either. So we go with a balance of middling emotional expression. For some reason, we seem to think this is the gold standard.

It’s almost like we are taught to be hyper-rationalist, logic-based people, because that is what the world expects of us. I should know, I used to see myself as a calm, ‘rational’ person. This is in stark contrast to the hypersensitive person I now see myself as!

If we were not sensitive, we would not be able to react to anything. Our inability to sense would mean we were walking through life blind (quite literally).

Our senses are what gives us joy. They are a real gift, so it is worth treasuring our own sensitivities.

Feelings of happiness, familiarity, love, touch – these are the things that give our lives meaning.

Taking time to appreciate our physical bodies

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I’ve generally been pretty fortunate when it’s come to injuries. I’ve generally not had anything particularly inhibiting or life threatening.

The one exception was when I needed surgery for a finger on my dominant hand. I’ll spare you the gory details, but it essentially meant that I could not use one of my hands properly for months. Inconveniently, this was at the same time as me needing to finish typing up my master thesis. It added an extra level of pain in an already painful process.

Otherwise, my injuries have been relatively minor. This has meant that I somewhat forgot how frustrating and painful it can be when we have an injury. Yet getting one also is a reminder of how well our bodies function – most of the time we use them without even thinking much about how much they do.

On Tuesday, I rolled my ankle whilst walking down Brussels’ infamous pavements with a random hole in the middle of it.

Ironically, I was just walking back from doing an exercise class. I was feeling pretty good about it too, my body was holding up well and I didn’t feel particularly sore.

I’ve had quite a few ankle twists before, so I figured this one would be alright. I did some icing and elevation as is recommended, figuring that would do the trick.

What got me particularly worried was when the pain swelled during the night. It got to the point where I couldn’t sleep at all. In my wakened, painful state I ended up looking up how bad the injury might actually be on my phone.

Luckily, the pain was more the inflammation than the twist itself, and within a day I was back to being able to walk around without too much issue.

Yet, I can’t help but think how different things would have been if it was a worse injury. I probably would have needed to stay home and recover, with little outside contact. It made me realise how reliant I am on my physical body to move around with, and do the things I do everyday.

When such incidents happen, we have a choice of how we look at them. The temptation can be to see them as a period of misfortune. I can curse the pavements of Brussels for bringing me unnecessary misery.

Or, I can choose to be grateful that the injury was actually pretty minor. Furthermore, I can also use it as a reminder about how much I need my body, and how easily it is to take it for granted.

In recent times, we’ve heard a lot more about loving our bodies. Whilst this is often talking about it aesthetically, it also holds true mechanically too. The amount our bodies do for us is incredible. In fact, it is so good that we can forget it’s even doing anything.

Appreciating our bodies is important. After all, we only have one of them.

The tale of the misplaced wallet

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Grand philosophical ideas around peace and harmony are great. But they are only useful if they can hold up when coming into contact with our real, messy and unpredictable lives.

This week I had the fortune (or misfortune) to be tested on my worldviews.

On Wednesday, when looking to leave the house I simply could not find my wallet. After a rather long search I came to the conclusion that I must have dropped it when coming off the bus the day before.

Here I had a choice of how I reacted to the situation.

Naturally, losing a wallet is not particularly nice. It meant quite a lot of administrative burden, blocking and reordering various bank cards as well as losing my Belgian ID. For this, I had to go to the police station to file a claim, which took out two hours in total yesterday.

For a second, I fell into a negative frustration of ‘why me’ – I actually had a nice day when I had lost it, so for a moment I had this pessimistic thought that the world was pushing me back down.

But on the whole, I was quite happy with how I reacted to it. Considering my current state of lethargy, I was quite surprised at how functional and direct I was to sort out the situation. Thanks to our world of technology, I could see my bank accounts were untouched. Within moments, I blocked and reordered the cards.

These days you can even add a new card straight onto Google Wallet, meaning I could pay for things with my phone – I was effectively cashless only for about an hour.

I was worried that not having my Belgian ID would mean some complications for a medical appointment next week. But after a quick google of the process, I figured out the system to get a provisional document in the police station. I have a tendency of underplaying how well I can manage these things, particularly considering all the information and interactions I had with the police were in French.

These small bumps in life can be a good moment to check in with our current state of mind. Now when I think about it, the thought of blaming myself for making an error didn’t actually cross my mind at all. In fact, I haven’t lost my wallet in probably around 15 years, so with the benefit of that perspective I figured that I’d actually had a pretty good run of it, all things considered.

For someone who is still in the midst of anxiety and fatigue, it’s nice to see that I’m a lot more effective at dealing with situations than my current predicament suggests.

It has crossed my mind that this could be a sign of ADHD – being prompted to act in a crisis gives me a good level of dopamine to act effectively and efficiently. This is in contrast with things with a longer timeline, often with far less work that I’m struggling to do. But for now, that’s just a hypothesis.

I’m very grateful for the work I’ve done over the last years to re-frame my worldview. Considering how much I’ve invested in that space, there have definitely been points where I’ve questioned whether the time, energy and money was worth it. But it’s moments like these which demonstrate how valuable it is to work on ourselves.

When challenges are but small bumps rather than big mountains, it is far easier to glide through life.

Finding an outlet to express our internalised emotions

This week started more anxiety driven for me than most. I found I woke up with a lot of existential dread without really being able to pin point why.

This week ended up being about finding ways to express the emotions outwardly, without necessarily trying to analyse them. Spending too much time trying to think about ‘why’ usually ends up worse rather than better.

One thing that helped a lot was talking it out in therapy. Having the space to explore and divulge what was going on internally made it apparent how much turbulent internal emotions were swirling around within me.

I’m not exactly shy about expressing what is going on within me with other people. I’m certainly not one of those ‘bottle in all the emotions’ type. Talking to friends is definitely beneficial, but a proper professional session goes to a deeper level of introspection that gives the time and space needed for such conversations.

The funny thing about emotions is that it’s often more about experiencing them rather than trying to solve them. Talking about my fears does a lot to alleviate them, even if it doesn’t necessarily fix the issue. It’s just nice to get it off my chest. Right now my thoughts are frazzled, so I’m in need of time just to piece it all together. It’s a slow process, but it’s progressing.

It is also one of the reasons I like writing these articles. I find it a way to have some space to share my thoughts outwardly, rather than keeping them stuck in my head. The weekly habit also means that I’m prompted to make sure I actually am listening to myself on a regular basis. It’s no wonder why journalling is a recommended activity for mental wellbeing.

It’s probably also worth mentioning that yesterday was Pride in Brussels. This year I actually joined the parade and marched along. Despite my anxiety of the large crowds of people, it was very good for me to go outside, see people and move around. Walking, talking, moving and dancing are other ways just to get the feelings out. It’s funny how the fear of crowds and sensory overstimulation wasn’t too much of an issue when my mind wasn’t so focussed on it (though I will admit to a sense of agoraphobia trying to move through the crowds).

Pride for me was a nice reminder of how much more settled I feel in Brussels. I bumped into a lot of people I knew during the day, without really trying too hard. It felt cosy and familiar, as well as warm and welcoming. Whilst last year’s pride was about chatting and meeting new people, this year felt like it was more reconnecting with those I hadn’t seen in a while.

My emotional expression has certainly been varied this week – introspective withdrawal to extroverted socialising and movement. I personally don’t think one is better than the other – they both have an important place.

Whatever method we choose, it’s worthwhile reflecting on how we are expressing our emotions to make sure we are doing so in a healthy way.

After all, the last thing we want to do is bottle them all up until we burst.

Sometimes it’s just not that deep

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We can get stuck in the endless frame of asking ‘why’.

I’m upset – why do I feel this way?

What do I need to change to make things better?

Is there maybe something I’m missing?

These questions can be genuinely valuable. But it’s also helpful to recognise that not everything needs a deep analysis.

Sometimes we wake up tired or sad without any clearly discernible reason.

In our need to understand why, we can often end up spending more mental energy trying to connect the dots of our life than it’s actually worth. We end up feeling more tired, sad and probably stressed after finding a rational answer which only serves to remind us of our woes.

Maybe the reason we’re tired today is just because the sun woke us up earlier through the blinds this morning. It doesn’t always need to be linked to some deep, dark trauma. Chances are that if it is something deep, this will become evident anyway. I find that these realisations tend to come when I’m not searching for them, but instead when I’m open and listening to my emotions.

The theme of this week was inspired by Yung Pueblo, a writer around healing and mental health. I saw a video of him speaking about this topic on Instagram. He spoke of how his wife and himself used to go through the cycle of finding reasons to blame the other when they felt down or upset about something. The video itself was only a short snippet, but it definitely resonated.

I have a tendency to look deep into the meaning of things. It’s certainly helped me uncover a lot about myself, and I do like my inquisitive and curious nature.

But it’s also important for me to recognise when my ‘need’ to understand can be counterproductive. When I try and understand why, my brain often takes over. Going into rational mode can often come at the behest of listening and feeling to what the emotions are really saying.

Yesterday, I felt incredbily anxious. I was walking around on a sunny day in the neighbourhood I’ve lived in for several years. I found myself quickly retreating home after feeling overwhelmed by the outside stimuli. The fact I had this intense burst of anxiety certainly took me by surprise.

It’s hard to rationally say why this happened. I hadn’t done anything particularly anxiety inducing yesterday. Even if I rack my brains, it’s not totally clear where it came from.

So rather than spend too long agonizing about the why, I just chose to not think about it too deeply. I got into a cosy position at home and simply surrendered myself to the feeling.

I find that listening to my emotions is a far better way of regulating my emotional wellbeing than trying to explain them. But it’s also more painful – experiencing anxiety is not fun, and it’s certainly tempting just to try and distract myself from it to reduce the intensity. But I think these feelings come up one way or another, so it’s better to experience them rather than try and avoid them.

Alas, the feeling passed. I woke up today feeling a lot more relaxed. I cannot explain what changed. But then, I also don’t need to. I can be grateful for feeling better today without needing to analyse why.

Opening up to a deeper vulnerability

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I had a moment this week where I felt deep fear.

There was nothing to be scared of externally, and I knew that. But I felt fear all the same.

I am someone who has generally always kept my composure in situations. I rarely lose control. Even in moments of intense emotion, these are often calculated, deliberate actions.

But here I was in a situation where I opened up more deeply than I am used to. I no longer felt in control. It was like standing in a room where the floor suddenly disappeared. I was at a loss on how to manage it all.

It may seem that I am very open with the way that I write and talk about my emotions. Perhaps that is true – I am more open to talking about my feelings than a lot of people. It’s not any sort of deep bravery, but something that is just natural to me.

But I always feel in control of this. I decide what I really want to share, and why. I think the logical part of understanding that sharing emotions usually helps means I learnt that it was an important thing to do.

But the truly scary part for me is letting go of control of how I act and react. When I drop the ability to analyse, I feel truly naked.

I’ve been more socially reclusive recently. This has meant that when I do go out and spend time with people, I have an increased sense of social anxiety. This has made my analytical way of working even more obvious. Even in calm times, I tend to subliminally assess the situation – the mood, response of people, their eye contact. I make a conscious effort to pay deep attention to what they are saying to show that I am present with them.

But with my currently more frazzled mind, these sensitivities have been on overdrive. Small gestures, such as a glance away when speaking (which was most likely nothing) have felt like I have done something wrong. My internal reaction is to hurry up what I’m saying in case I’m boring the other person.

The challenge for me this week has been to get comfortable with however I come across to other people. Letting go of my fears that I might be too boring, obnoxious or intimidating. It’s the only way I can come to a place of calm and comfort mentally.

The process for this is accepting that the fears are valid. People have indeed told me I can be intimidating, and I certainly can sometimes come across as obnoxious. I don’t doubt either that I can be boring when I talk about something that has no interest to the other person either.

What I am increasingly seeing is that these opinions are not necessarily a reflection on me. My quirky behaviours are just that – quirks. Some people will like them, some people will not. And when I come from good intentions, I can absolve myself of the upset and harm I might cause to others in the process of being me.

There are many things we can be scared of in life. But I find that the deepest fear is during introspection.

Being genuinely honest about ourselves is one of the most frightening experiences we can have in our spiritual existence.

The art of learning nothing

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Every day may be an opportunity to learn something new. But we can afford ourselves a break sometimes.

I’ve been tuning out my brain from needing to learn or do too much. Earlier in the month I spent a lot of time reading about Autism, ADHD and the like. Right now, I’m doing very little.

Sometimes our brains need time to properly digest the information we take in. I don’t doubt that my recent bouts of fatigue come from the amount of information I’m still processing about myself. I think my brain is working subconsciously on overdrive, reviewing past moments through this new lens.

I think the least helpful thing I could do right now is cram my brain with more information. Whilst it can be tempting to want to find out more, it’s probably not healthy. My tendency to go into what I now know as a ‘hyperfixation’ can lead me to obsession. Since learning a bit more about Autism, I ended up reading a 300 page book on it within two to three days.

These hyperfixations can be very helpful to get a lot done in a very short amount of time. But it’s also recognising that it’s not an optimal state to always be in – I need downtime between intense periods else I will eventually break down.

So this means accepting that certain periods will be far less about doing or learning. Yet this is easier said than done – there’s a stigma around slowing down, symbolised through overwork and lack of breaks.

The idea that certain periods I will be far less capable is actually quite a scary one. Yet the reality is that we all face these dips and resurgences, even if we don’t feel like we can be totally honest about it. But being honest about them also means that we can ride the peaks and troughs far more successfully. If we’re always trying to be at top performance we’re doomed to crash and burn.

The constant need to learn more can be a real risk. There is always another course, book or workshop with more information. Whilst learning more is not bad in of itself, it can become a distraction from genuinely digesting the information and finding ways to use it in our lives. I fell into this somewhat last year – whilst I do not regret doing the amount of courses I did, towards the end I I was no longer getting much from them because I was so saturated.

So for now I’m not reading anything, learning anything, or really doing anything to develop myself in particular. The only skills I’m improving is my trick combos on Tony Hawks Pro Skater and my bug killing on Helldivers 2 (for democracy).

In a world where there is constant pressure to learn and improve, it’s important to sometimes have a break.

Finding peace in the space of solitude

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It’s taken a few months, but I’m finally getting used to not having any plans for the day.

At the beginning of the week, it felt quite empty. I had a few social activities but also a lot of space. Honestly, it was pretty intimidating to comprehend what to do with all that time.

I’m a planner at heart, so to not have anything set in stone is disorienting. When I saw a completely empty agenda, I felt the lurch of panic at the uneasiness of nothing to do.

This week has been about learning to be at ease without having a plan.

It’s perhaps evident if you’ve been reading these articles that I’ve been off work for a while. I’m taking time to rest and recuperate, though that is an ongoing work in progress.

I’ve been scheduling certain social activities to ensure that I get out of the house. I can easily turn very reclusive if I’m not careful. But in the midst of this, I found myself almost desperately wanting things to do. Getting outside is good, but filling my calendar with social activities for the sake of it defeats the point in getting rest.

So this week I’ve been spending a lot of time in my room just lounging around. I let my mind wonder and the time pass by. I don’t get a whole lot ‘useful’ done – scrolling social media and playing phone games is not quite the gold star standard of capitalistic productivity.

But actually, it’s been pretty nice. There is a freedom in being able to relax at home alone. It’s easy, and simple. I don’t need to plan it, and I don’t need to arrange it with someone else either.

I’ve felt more comfortable with life, as I’m no longer needing to drag my tired body around to social engagements I signed up to out of anxious boredom.

This anxious boredom has been a real bane for me over the last few months. A lack of stimulation has felt a real challenge, but the underlying behaviour is the discomfort around solitude. The more I get comfortable without having anything to do, the more the anxiety recedes.

This has allowed me to be a lot more selective on what I actually am choosing to do. Whereas in the past I would throw myself at pretty much any social interaction I could go to because ‘why not?’, I’m now far more discerning as to what I actually want to do.

Part of this is a forced change, simply because I currently have far lower energy than before. But I also don’t really feel a calling to go back to the older version of me either. Now when I look at it, it feels like I put in a lot of directionless effort.

I don’t deny that it can be difficult to make this shift. I live in an environment where everyone seems to be doing cool and exciting things all the time. Whilst the ‘Fear of Missing Out’ was a very 2000s term, it’s become painfully obvious how much it’s influenced my life the last year.

But when I’m comfortable being alone, it gives me the freedom to choose solitude as a viable option. I see how much better I feel when I’m clear of what I will and won’t do.

Here’s my invitation to you to rebel against our capitalistic system – it’s okay to take time doing nothing. In fact, it’s pretty vital for our existence.

The art of managing our energy levels

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It’s been a humbling experience to see how little energy I’ve had recently. Basic tasks which I would usually do without thinking have taken a large amount of effort.

Sometimes this is about my mind – logistical tasks like doing washing or cooking food can get overwhelming the more I complicate it in my head. I’m probably as indecisive as I’ve ever been – when I don’t know what I want to eat I can change my mind several times within a few minutes. Even deciding on a Youtube video to put on in the background seems like a difficult endeavour.

The answer is often to get out of the head and do more physical activity. That has helped, though unfortunately I’m still finding it very tiring to do things physically too. Even actions like going to the supermarket can be really tiring. It was quite sobering to see how attending one Toastmasters evening for a few hours left me completely wiped out. This feels very different to a few months ago where I would do a full day of work followed by things on most evenings of the week without issue.

I’ve needed to learn to be very discerning with how I spend my energy. Whereas before I could seemingly conjure life force out of thing air, in my current period of fatigue it’s been pretty tricky.

The positive about this is that by being more energy-conscious, I’m seeing how much I would previously use inefficiently. Retreating into my shell has been good to see where I’m putting in energy in places (pursuits, hobbies, people) that don’t really yield a whole lot of positive results.

It also means that I need to be a lot more intentional about what I choose to do, as well as giving myself more leeway for shortcuts than I would have given myself in the past. In social settings, I’ve allowed myself escape routes (i.e. leaving early), for dinner, I’ve often shifted to meal replacement shakes when too overwhelmed with cooking. I’ve also kept my days relatively free with room for flexibility in case I simply do not have the energy to do things.

When we’re in the constant rush of life, we can get into a habit of expending a lot of wasted energy. This slow-down period for me has shown how much that’s been the case.

Connecting with our intuition on feeling safe

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I never thought of myself as a particularly anxious person. Mainly because the idea of anxiety was something very visible and pronounced. It turns out that I just have become very good at managing my anxiety, rather than it not existing.

But in recent weeks I’ve been noticing how much unattended anxiety I’ve actually had. I don’t think this is something I’ve always had, but it’s certainly built up in the last few months. These haven’t been particularly noticeable (both to other people and myself) because my way of demonstrating anxiety is far less visible. Rather than having a visible panic attack, I tend to retreat inwards and disassociate from my body.

The challenge with examining areas such as anxiety and mental health is that it is very hard to compare and contrast. For a long time, I believed that the amount of thoughts I would have flurrying on in my head. Turns out, it’s probably not – whether it’s to do with me potentially having ADHD, or perhaps my therapist thinking I’m a high potential individual (or both).

It seems fairly obvious now when I examine it, but when we never stop to question things that we just accept as normal, we can miss some crucial information about ourselves.

One of the benefits of actually listening to the anxiety rather than trying to manage it is that I’ve become a lot more cognisant of my intuition around social interactions. Honestly, I can get bored with small talk and chit chat very quickly. This makes group conversations often quite tedious for me in social settings, particularly when people are first getting to know one another, and conversations are surface level. In the past I learnt to be disciplined to follow these sorts of conversations because I thought that was what I was meant to do. I thought everyone had trained themselves to do this as a matter of social etiquette.

What I’m realising now is that I have the option of not engaging too much if I don’t want to. My current mantra is that if something quite basic like a conversation is feeling like a lot of effort than I probably shouldn’t do it. It might feel a little rude sometimes, but I’m better being honest with myself than doing something I don’t enjoy.

It also helps that the spaces I frequent these days are generally very respectful of people shifting in and out at their own pace. In fact, I’ve become a lot more aware of how safe I feel within different spaces more generally. I think I got so good at melding myself to a situation that I somewhat lost my intuitive sense of where I could really let me guard down. It made me feel like a chameleon because of how much I would shift depending on the situation. I sometimes have questioned myself around what my true personality really is because of this.

Being more aware helps with my energy management. There are lots of places where I have been putting in lots of energy when it wasn’t really worth it. People might be a bit more closed, or have very different interests to connect upon. This meant that I felt like I was putting lots of effort in for not a whole lot of reward, much to my frustration.

So right now, my goal is to focus my time and energy on spaces where I feel like it comes naturally. In this way, I’m also more discerning of where to go and who to spend time with too. It feels so different when people tell me they have really enjoyed my company when I feel like I haven’t really tried all that much, as opposed to in previous instances where I probably tried too hard and then felt unappreciated.

So here is an invitation for you to look at what spaces you spend your time in, and how much you feel at ease within them. Whether you’re spending too much time in scary places or actually only spend time in comfortable ones, it may be time for a rebalance.