Mental Health Monday: Unhelpful Thinking Habits

Before falling ill at the end of 2016, I’d not really given much thought to my thinking habits and the impact they were having on my mental health. We all know it’s better to think positively rather than negatively – who doesn’t prefer to spend time with a glass-half-full person rather than a glass-half-empty one, right? – but I guess I hadn’t realised how negative my thinking had become and how vulnerable to mental illness that had made me.

In hospital, I attended a workshop called ‘Anxiety Management: Your Safety System – A User’s Guide’. It took us through the impact anxiety can have on our lives; our threat system and survival instincts; the vicious cycles we get into; the role of memory and avoidance; some relaxation and mindfulness exercises, and finally unhelpful thinking habits. To quote from the handout:

Over the years, we tend to get into unhelpful thinking habits. We might favour some over others, and there might be some that seem far too familiar. Once you can identify your unhelpful thinking styles, you can start to notice them – they very often occur just before and during distressing situations. Once you can notice them though, you can challenge them and distance yourself from them and see the situation in a different and more helpful way.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It’s not so easy, though, when you’re in the midst of depression and anxiety. I totally understood what the psychologists were telling us, but it wasn’t until my mood was more stable that I started to see how I could achieve this ‘challenging and distancing’ thing. Before I talk more about that though, I’ll share some unhelpful thinking habits with you.

  • Mental Filtering. We notice only what our mental filter allows us to notice. It’s like we’re wearing gloomy glasses. We dismiss anything that doesn’t fit with our outlook. We only notice the bad stuff.
  • Mind-Reading. Assuming that we know what others are thinking.
  • Predicting. Believing we know what is going to happen.
  • Comparing and Despairing. Comparing ourselves negatively to other people.
  •  Criticising Ourselves. Putting ourselves down. Blaming ourselves.
  • Shoulds and Musts. Putting pressure on ourselves and setting up unrealistic expectations.
  • Catastrophising. Believing that the worst is going to happen.
  • Emotional Reasoning. Believing our feelings: I feel anxious, so something bad must be about to happen.
  • Making Mountains out of Molehills. Exaggerating the risks of danger or likelihood negative outcomes.
  • Making Molehills out of Mountains. Minimising risks and the importance of feelings, tasks or events.
  • Evaluating and Judging. Making judgments about ourselves or others rather than describing things as they actually are.
  • Black and White Thinking. Believing that something or someone can only be good or bad, right or wrong.
  • Ruminating. Thinking things over and over in the belief that by thinking about them, you’re actually solving problems. Reliving memories over and over.
Image Credit: Pixabay

Do you recognise some of them in your own thinking? I definitely do. Especially Mind-Reading, Shoulds and Musts and Ruminating. As I said, it wasn’t until my mood was more stable (thanks in large part to medication) that I started to see how I could challenge and distance myself from these habits. The first step, obviously, was to become aware that I was doing them. The workshop was great because it gave me the language to label my thinking habits and thus become aware of them. I really got to grips with it, though, through meditating using the Headspace app. The app introduced me to a technique called noting. During meditation, when you notice your mind wandering, you simple note that it has wandered, note what distracted it – a thought or a physical feeling – and then gently return your attention to the breath (or whatever the focus for your meditation is). There’s more detail here and here. I’ve been practicing this technique for a year now, and it has spilled over from meditation into the rest of my life, so much so, that I often find myself noting and labeling my thoughts. It hasn’t stopped me having unwelcome thoughts, but it has allowed me to step back from them and see them for what they are – just thoughts. Sometimes I even chuckle at them. What a relief!

Another technique for changing thinking habits, is asking yourself questions when you find yourself thinking in negative ways. Am I noticing only the bad stuff? Am I assuming what so-and-so is thinking? What is the evidence? How likely is it that X will happen? Am I comparing myself to others? Would I talk like this to my best friend? Am I expecting too much of myself? What is most likely to happen? Am I being realistic? Is this way of thinking helping me or hindering me?

This was just a whistle-stop-tour of where I am with thinking habits and how I got here. I hope you’ve found something helpful here, but if you need help with your thinking habits, please seek professional counsel. I’m not an expert! Just someone who’s been through some stuff.

Thanks for reading! See you soon. xxx

Mental Health Monday: Self-Compassion Part Three

It’s Monday morning, so it must be time to write my Mental Health Monday post. Today, I’m wrapping up my Self-Compassion mini series with the last few things I’ve learned.

Firstly, I want to share how mindfulness has played a massive part in my awareness of my need for self-compassion and my ability to be self-compassionate. In a nutshell, mindfulness is the art of paying attention without judging yourself when your attention wanders. It’s about focusing on the present moment, noticing when your mind has wandered, and then simply bringing your attention back to the present moment without telling yourself off for having let your mind wander. Daily mindfulness practice is helping me pay attention to the way I think, to the stories I tell myself and the negative thinking habits that I have a tendency to get into. I’m learning that that I can choose what I focus on and that I don’t even have to finish a thought if I know it’s not going to be productive to do so; I can just let it go. I’ve also stopped berating myself for having certain thoughts – I can stand back, observe them and even chuckle at them sometimes. My husband once said: you can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can stop them from nesting in your hair. He was so right. Thoughts come and go, but – with practice – it’s possible to mainly focus on the positive ones. If you’re interested in finding out more about Mindfulness, I highly recommend the Headspace app. I use it every day and it’s made all the difference.

Secondly, I want to talk about the power of imagery. Most people find it quite easy to conjure up the image of something in their mind. If I were to ask you what your favourite meal was or where your favourite place is, you would probably imagine them straight away. I know I’m thinking about fish and chips on Swanage beach right now. I can almost taste the salt and vinegar! But as well as being able to imagine pleasant experiences and places, we can easily imagine unpleasant ones too, and this can trigger off our flight or fight response and even lead to a panic attack. Sometimes, our thoughts and feelings can be as vivid and strong as they would be if the events in mind were actually occurring. Flashbacks can be incredibly distressing. But … it is possible to train our brains to build compassionate images that we can call on when we need to activate our soothing system.

So, how do we go about building a compassionate image? Well, we can start when we are feeling calm, when our breathing is slow and steady, when we’re somewhere safe and surrounded by things that soothe us. We can then ask ourselves some questions:

  • When I feel calm and safe, what images naturally come into my mind?
  • What are my favourite colours?
  • What are my favourite smells?
  • What are my favourite tastes?
  • What are my favourite textures?
  • What are my favourite sounds?
  • What do I want my compassionate image to look like? A person? A group of people? An animal? A place? All of the above?
  • Do I want my compassionate image to be completely imaginary, or do I want it to reflect someone/somewhere/something real?
  • Would my compassionate image have been through the same things I’ve been through?
  • What qualities are associated with my image? Wisdom? Strength? Warmth? Non-Judgment?
  • How would my ideal compassionate image relate to me?
  • How would I relate to my ideal compassionate image?

Sometimes a compassionate image can spring fully-formed into our minds. Other times, it can take a while to build. This may sound a little bizarre, but over the years, I’ve created a corridor in my mind’s eye, along which are lots of doors. Behind each door is a different world populated by fictional people – some are my own creation, and some are from films, TV shows and books I love. When I want to imagine something soothing or exciting or distracting or adventurous, I walk through the appropriate door, sit back and watch the action. It’s like going to the cinema – but a lot cheaper!

Lastly, I want to remind you (and myself) that it’s okay to be self-compassionate. It’s not selfish or self-centred to care about YOU. Self-compassion is the first step toward self-care, and self-care is what enables us to not just survive life, but to thrive as we live it. It enables us to be the people we were created to be. It also helps us to care for others. You can’t pour from an empty cup! Yesterday, I was reminded of the words of Jesus: Love your neighbour as yourself. Loving our neighbours, first requires that we love ourselves!

Well, that’s it! I hope you’ve found this little series useful. Next Monday, I’ll be back with a post on unhelpful thinking habits. Until then … Thanks for reading! xxx

Mental Health Monday: Self-Compassion Part Two

I remember the first time I really thought about the word ‘compassion’. It was in a Religious Studies lesson at school. Our teacher explained that it has its root in Latin, where ‘com’ means ‘together’ and ‘passion’ means ‘suffer’, so being compassionate means, suffering together with someone, feeling someone’s pain, understanding, even experiencing, what they’re going through. I’ve never forgotten this way of thinking about compassion – it’s stuck with me because it evokes such a powerful feeling within me … to choose to suffer what someone else is suffering is an amazing act of love.

Fast-forward thirty years to the Compassion-Focussed Skills workshop I attended in hospital. There, we talked about how a compassionate person isn’t just a nice person; there’s an element of bravery, courage and strength in the way they support people. There’s a willingness to take responsibility and an ability to face and tolerate distress. They understand the problems people are facing, but they have a way of helping those people to help themselves. Sounds a lot like what my RS teacher said!

So, how does this relate to being self-compassionate? After all, if you’re suffering, you’re already suffering with yourself.

When it comes to mental illness, one of the main ways I’ve learned to be compassionate towards myself, has been to learn about my brain and understanding how it works. In last week’s post, I wrote about the drive, threat and soothing systems that we all have. It should have been obvious, especially as I have two children who I’ve had to soothe too many times to count, but I’d never really thought about humans having a soothing system. As a sufferer of anxiety, the threat system – flight, fight, freeze and appease – was all too obvious too me, but the idea that I could regulate it by activating my soothing system was a revelation. When my children were babies, I’d activate their soothing systems with cuddles or milk or a nappy change, but I didn’t twig that I could do the same for myself as an adult, even as a life-long comfort eater. Two and two just hadn’t made four in this area of my thinking. I wonder if it’s because society often tells us that comfort-eating is bad, and that spending time and effort on ourselves is selfish. To quote Daft Punk: everything needs to be done harder, better, faster, stronger. Slowing down to take a breathe is routinely frowned upon.

But I digress. The main points of the Compassion-Focussed Skills workshop were that people in crisis can often be very hard on themselves, but what they need to get through the crisis is support and encouragement, and that the best person to give them support and encouragement is themselves. Often, people can be good at looking after others, but not so good at looking after themselves – hands up if you can relate to that! What really helps is if we think about ourselves as our own best friend and find ways of thinking about ourselves and treating ourselves as if we were.

In the workshops, to help us become our own best friends, we learned a number of strategies. One of them was to engage in Compassionate Thinking/Self-Talk when we find ourselves thinking negatively about ourselves. For example: you realise you’ve forgotten to reply to a text message from a friend, and you start to criticise yourself and tell yourself that you’re a bad friend. Instead of thinking in that way, you could try to be compassionate toward yourself, as you would be to your best friend. Tell yourself that everyone is forgetful sometimes, and that when you’re busy or ill things can easily slip your mind. Tell yourself that your friend will understand, and that they’ll just be glad to hear from you – it’s better to reply late than not at all. This way of thinking acknowledges our common humanity, is non-judgmental, is encouraging and takes responsibility. It’s self-compassionate. Easier said than done, I know, but it just takes practice.

Another strategy we talked about was using a self-soothing smell. Apparently, our sense of smell has the fastest route to our brains than any of our other senses. Smells can trigger off our threat system – for example, the smell of rotten food will stop us from eating rotten food – but they can also be a good trigger for emotional memories. Smells can result in us remembering happy events or times which in turn can trigger our soothing system. I’ve always loved the smell of lavender; it reminds me of childhood visits with my grandma and picking lavender in my parents’ garden and hanging it up to dry in Dad’s shed, so, during the workshop, I chose lavender as my soothing scent and inhaled it during the relaxation exercises we did. When I first came home from hospital, I’d carry a pouch of dried lavender everywhere I went, so I could sniff it if I felt anxious. I can’t say it triggered off any specific memories, but just the act of slowing my breathing and inhaling a pleasant scent made me feel a little better. Even now, I put a few drops of lavender essential oil on my nightshirt before I do my morning mediation and evening relaxation exercises. It’s become part of my routine. It is a twice-daily reminder that to really take care of myself, I need to get into good wellness habits and that I shouldn’t stop doing what makes me well if I want to stay well.

Oh dear, this has turned into another long post, and I haven’t said everything I wanted to say about self-compassion yet, so it looks like next week’s Mental Health Monday post will have to be Part Three. Until then, what strategies do you have for activating your soothing system and being compassionate toward yourself? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading! See you next time. xxx

(Image Credits: Pixabay)

Mental Health Monday: Self-Compassion Part One

A few weeks ago, I began planning what I wanted to blog about this month, and today was the day I planned to post about self-compassion. It’s funny how things work out because this weekend was pretty tough, and I had to be compassionate toward myself in a way I’ve haven’t had to be for quite a while now.

Nothing bad happened. Quite the opposite; we went to a family party and caught up with people we haven’t seen for a couple of years. It was lovely, but it was also exhausting. All that talking and smiling and having the same conversation over and over again – I haven’t had to work so hard in ages, and it wore me out. I went to bed at 6pm on Saturday and didn’t even get out of my jim-jams on Sunday. It took me be surprise. I’ve been feeling pretty bright and bouncy lately, fueled by my creativity and all the work I’ve been doing on myself, but expending all that social energy knocked me for six, and yesterday I found myself feeling down and frustrated. I started criticising myself: come on, girl, it’s been a year, you should be back to normal buy now … pull your socks up, woman  … get in the shower, you lazy moo. That kind of thing. It look me a little while of thinking like this to remember that being hard on myself doesn’t do me any good. In fact, it’s bad for me.

Anyhoo … On to what I was planning to write about. The picture at the top of this post is another page from the bullet journal I was using last Spring. It’s part of the notes I made from a workshop called ‘Compassion Focused Skills’ that I attended while in hospital. It consisted of two three-hour-long sessions, so I won’t go into all the detail, but we talked about compassion, what it is and what qualities people who are compassionate have. We learned about the brain, about or ‘old’ brain and our ‘new’ brain and the roles they play in our thinking and our responses to threat. And we learned about the three emotion systems that influence our behaviour and motivation: the drive system, the threat system and the soothing system. We also learned how we can identify what system we’re in at any given moment, particularly, how we can activate our soothing system to regulate our threat system. It’s pretty cool stuff.

Being self-compassionate can play a big part in regulating our threat system, the system that’s triggered when we sense a threat and that sends adrenaline and cortisol coursing through our body, making us feel angry, anxious or scared. It’s our flight, fight, freeze and appease system. Being compassionate toward ourselves can trigger our soothing system which helps us manage our distress via the release of oxytocin, sometimes called the ‘love’ hormone. It makes us to feel safe and protected, cared-for and contented.

So what does self-compassion look like? Well, for me I try to think about how I would talk to my best friend if they were experiencing what I was experiencing. I wouldn’t say things like: come on, girl, it’s been a year, you should be back to normal buy now … pull your socks up, woman  … get in the shower, you lazy moo. I’d say: you’re doing so well … it’s only been a year; it can take a long time to recover from such a severe depression … don’t forget you’re still taking medication, so you’re not completely well … and don’t forget the medications have side effects too … they can make things hard work. I’d say: why don’t you take a bath, lie back and relax … take it easy for a few days … just do something nice … something that nourishes you … light a candle … have a hot cup of tea … an early night … meditate … visualise your happy place … listen to music … watch some TV … doodle in your sketchbook.

It can be hard to be compassionate toward ourselves. We may worry that we’re really just making excuses or being lazy. We may worry that we’ll become less resilient and weaker. We may worry that being kind toward ourselves will open some floodgate of emotion that we’d rather not wash over us. I think it’s important to get support when we feel like this. There are times when I only start being self-compassionate after my husband has given me a pep-talk. Somehow it feel okay to believe myself if I hear it coming from him first.

I think it’s important to identify ways of being self-compassionate when we are in a well period, because in some situations, it could be easy to choose the wrong things to soothe ourselves with. I know that I’m a ‘comfort eater’ and I know that I over-indulge in unhealthy foods to try to activate my soothing system, but I also know it’s a short-term solution that has long-term health implications, so I’m trying to soothe myself in other ways, such as doing something creative that will occupy my mind and body until the threat I’ve sensed has passed. I’m also very mindful of the way my mind works these days and can spot when I’m getting into a negative thinking loop or unhelpful thinking habits. Through self-compassion, mindfulness and creativity I’m starting to retrain my brain and even though it gets tired and overwhelmed sometimes, I know it’s more resilient than it was a year ago.

Gosh! This has turned into a long post. I’d better stop and save the rest of my thoughts for another day. I hope you’ve found this helpful. Have you any experience with self-compassion? What do you do to activate your soothing system?

Thanks for reading! See you soon. xxx

Mental Health Monday: The Stress Bucket

This is a page from the bullet journal I used for the first half of 2017. When I made this page, I’d not long come out of hospital and had just started writing up the notes I’d made during the workshops I’d attended there. (See The Nine Pillars of a Balanced Life for more information.)

I can’t remember the title of this particular workshop, but I’ve not forgotten the things I learned in it. The stress bucket, in particular, has stuck with me; in fact, just the other week, I sat down with my twelve year old and drew her a stress bucket to help her manage her school-related stress levels. It seemed to help.

The theory is simple. The water flowing into the bucket from tap at the top represents the demands placed on you and the things that cause you stress. The tap at the bottom of the bucket represents your coping techniques, the things you might do to mitigate the effects of demands and stressors, as well as the things you do to relax and refresh yourself. The bucket itself represents your inner strength and resilience, your inherent ability to thrive and survive whatever life throws at you – your beliefs, your values, your gifts and talents, your goals, your hopes and dreams, your identity.

Imagine that the tap at the top is fully open and water is pouring into the bucket. What is going to stop the bucket from overflowing, or worse, from breaking? Well if it’s well-made of strong stuff, the bucket will be able to hold a lot of water without breaking, and if the tap at the bottom is fully open, it won’t overflow either. It’s the same with us. If we are strong in ourselves and if we have good coping abilities, we should be able to deal with the stresses that come our way. But we’re not always strong in ourselves. All sorts of things can weaken us: physical illness, mental illness, abuse, neglect, addictions. And our coping abilities aren’t always up to snuff. Through no fault of our own, we might not have time to relax; we might not have the money for avocados and a gym membership; we might not even know what is good for us and what isn’t.

Before I became ill, toward the end of 2016, I’d been dealing with some major stressors for a long time, but I’d not been taking care of myself properly, and I was busy doing things I didn’t really feel called to do, so when yet another stressor came along it tipped the balance, and I ended up with anxiety, depression and a five-week stay in hospital. But since then, over the course of my recovery, I’ve adopted a number of coping techniques and resilience-building habits that are helping me manage stress. These techniques and habits include planning using the bullet journal system, habit and mood tracking, getting out of bed between 7am and 7.30am everyday, being in bed by 11pm every night, drinking at least five drinks a day, meditating everyday using the Headspace app, praying everyday using the Pray as You Go app, creating something arty and crafty everyday, writing in and decorating my artful journal, doing Progressive Muscle Relaxation before bed, using lavender oil as a soothing scent, leaving the house once a day if possible, walking in the fresh air, cutting down on junk food, regularly reviewing my life and setting small goals. I’ve also let go of the idea that I have to say ‘yes’ to everything, and I am learning to pace myself and rest when I need to, as well as only investing my time and energy into the things I really believe in. This last one, in particular, has given me a renewed sense of purpose and direction, which in turn is giving me something to focus on during times when I do feel low or anxious.

None of this has happened overnight – it’s taken a year to get here, and what I’ve learned over the last twelve months is that I need to take things slow, to change each area of my life one at a time, gently, mindfully, non-judgmentally and with self-compassion. Discovering the idea of a Stress Bucket and The Nine Pillars of a Balanced Life was the start of this journey, a journey I’ll be on until the day I die! In the past, I’ve tried to get into good habits, but have often got bored with them and let them fall by the wayside. I can’t afford to do that this time. I’ve seen the positive changes that these habits have had on my life, and I know that I need to keep doing them and not stop even when things are going well. If these habits stay in place, they’ll be there when I need them most. I won’t have to try to remember what to do – it’ll come as naturally as breathing.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for persevering with this rather long post. I hope I haven’t rambled too much and that this has been helpful. Feel free to say ‘hi’ in the comments. Have you come across the stress bucket idea before? What helps you cope with the demands and stresses of life?

See you soon! xxx

Mental Health Monday: The Nine Pillars of a Balanced Life

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to share more of what I learned about mental illness recovery from the workshops I attended in hospital, and from the Recovery College courses I’ve been on since I left. The other day, as I was flicking through my bullet journal from the start of 2017, I remembered that the first notes I wrote up after leaving hospital were about The Nine Pillars of a Balanced Life.

It’s almost a year since I attended this workshop, but the message I received there still rings true: I need to regularly review my life in order to make sure I don’t neglect any areas of it, and to make sure I don’t put too much time and energy into any other areas of it either. I need balance. I need all-round nourishment. I need to look after the whole me.

The theory goes something like this: think of your life as a ceiling that is held up by nine pillars. If one or two of those pillars are a neglected and fall down, the ceiling should stay up, but if more than a few pillars are neglected, then the ceiling will come crashing down, or at least be at risk of it. I think this is one of the reasons I became as mentally ill as I did: there were pillars on which I spent very little time and energy, and pillars on which I spent too much, and it made me vulnerable.

So what are these nine pillars?

  1. Contribution e.g. volunteering
  2. Hobbies and leisure
  3. Physical exercise
  4. Family time
  5. Time by myself/me time
  6. Personal growth
  7. Work
  8. Significant relationship
  9. Friends

I don’t think that this list is the list to end all lists, but breaking my life down in this way gave me defined areas to assess and work on. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! I discovered I’d been putting a lot of time and energy into volunteer work that I no longer found fulfilling, and I’d been putting very effort into my personal growth and leisure. The time I did spend on leisure was in front of the TV. Work was also a problem pillar. As a full-time mum, I’d reached the point where my kids didn’t need me to be as hands-on as I had been, and I’d yet to find a new sense of purpose or direction. I couldn’t write fiction any more either – I’d lost my creativity. Basically, I now realise that I had low-level depression for quite some time before anxiety took hold. Because my life was unbalanced, I was mentally fragile, and it didn’t a particularly big last straw to break this camel’s back.

Sitting in this workshop, I had one of those light-bulb moments. I could see how unbalanced my life was and that I needed to rebalance it. The nine pillars gave me a framework to do that. When I’d first become really ill, I’d laid down all my volunteering responsibilities, so I decided to go through the list and see if there were any I wanted to pick back up. Of the ten ministries I was doing at church, I’m now only doing two – none of which involve small children – and I am so much happier. Slowly, my creativity has returned. I am now selling handmade cards, and although I’m only making pin money at the moment, I feel a sense of achievement every time I sell one; I’m excited about the new opportunities this might bring. Physical exercise fell by the wayside last year, but now I’m getting out for short walks and intend to build up from there. In fact, I’ve renamed the Exercise pillar, Exercise and Nutrition as my diet is something I also need to address.

Looking at this list could be overwhelming if there are a lot of neglected pillars in your life. It might also be disheartening to see how unbalanced your life is, but Rome, as they say, wasn’t build in a day. It’s okay to take it slow. It’s okay to address each pillar one at a time. It’s okay to tweak and keep tweaking; we are all works in progress.

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve realised that I haven’t put a regular review of my nine pillars in my planner, so that’s what I am going to do right now. I’m going to add it to every month in the Future Log of my current bullet journal, so that I never overlook it again.

So, how about you? What do you think about this pillar idea?

Thank you for reading! Catch you soon. xxx