Mental Health Monday – Choose Hope

Over the last few Mental Health Mondays, I’ve written a lot about the things I learned on the Recovery College’s Holding the Hope course, so you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d written all there is to write on the subject, but oh no … there’s more! Last year, I also attended a second course on hope. It was the bitesize version of the first, and provided a good refresher of all that I’d already learned plus a few extra helpful ideas. One of the benefits of writing these posts, has been that I’ve gone over what I learned a year ago and reminded myself of all the things I’d forgotten or internalised. Internalising ideas and getting into wellness habits is a good thing, but sometimes I fall out of good habits because I don’t remember why I started doing them in the first place! But that’s a side note – on with today’s post …

I’ve called this post Choose Hope because that’s what I learned to do as a result of going on it. Often, we hear things like: look on the bright side, every cloud has a silver lining, or think positive, and it sounds so simple, but as anyone who’s suffered from depression or anxiety can tell you: simple is not the same as easy. Being positive is a choice, but it can be a very difficult one to make, especially when your brain’s chemistry is on the fritz. But what I’ve learned is that it’s okay to start small, to start with seemingly insignificant things that lift your spirits even the tiniest amount.

Hope can be found in all sorts of places. Hope can sound like birdsong, or a dog’s bark. It can taste like a hot cup of tea or a spicy curry. It can feel like a cool breeze or a warm blanket. Hope can look like a smile or a chink of blue sky. It can smell like freshly cut grass or freshly baked bread.

One of the activities we took part in during the course was to look at our own lives and the things we have achieved, both big and small. Here’s what I wrote:

  • Today I have: hung out the washing.
  • This gives me hope that: I will continue to make progress.
  • This week I have: spent time in my craft shed.
  • This gives me hope that: it’s okay to try things that still make me anxious.
  • This month I have: been on holiday
  • This gives me hope that: I can face and even enjoy the things I was previously scared to do.
  • This year I have: been discharged from hospital.
  • This gives me hope that: help is available and that I am able to accept and respond to it.
  • In my life I have: recovered from post-natal depression.
  • This gives me hope that: I will recover from this episode of depression.

Hope can be found in our achievements, in challenges we’ve overcome. It can also be found in the achievements of others, in stories of courage and perseverance. It can be found in music, movies, books, quotes, stories, games, art …

When I came home from this course, I wrote up my notes in my bullet journal and created a Choose Hope spread where I began to write down all the things that gave me hope at the time. Here’s a picture of it:

Over time, this spread expanded into a whole book which I named my Wellness Toolkit. If you’d like to have a look at how this development took place, I’ve made some videos about it. You can find them on YouTube:

As always, I came away from this Hope course with a bunch of inspiring quotes that I’ve referred to so much I have them engraved on my brain. My favourites are:

Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk it, the road comes into existence – Lin Yutang

The grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love and something to hope for – Allan K Chambers

When hope is hungry, everything feeds it – Mignon McLaughlin

That first quote especially has stuck with me because I am so grateful to all the people in my life who not only held the hope for me when I couldn’t hold it for myself, but who also walked my hope into existence alongside me. You know who you are …

Well, it’s late and my ‘wind-down’ alarm has just gone off, so I shall leave it here for today. I hope that you’ve found this series hopeful and helpful. Next week, I’ll be moving on to talk about Recovery and what it means to me.

Thanks for reading! Back soon. xxx

You can read more of my Mental Health Monday posts here.

Mental Health Monday – Soul Space

It’s been a while since I wrote a Mental Health Monday post! I’ve had a lot on recently – school holidays, design team work, bespoke card-making, spring fayre preparations, overwhelming tiredness – so something had to give, and that something was my blog. Things are a little quieter and more routine now, so I should have the time to write more frequently. That’s the plan anyway …

Today I want to talk about the nitty-gritty of my morning mindfulness, meditation, prayer and reflection habit. It goes something like this:

  • 08:00 wave the kids off to school.
  • 08:05 meditate using the Headspace app.
  • 08:15 pray using the Pray as You Go app.
  • 08:30 reflect using the Simple Abundance book and my journal
  • 08:45 stretches
  • 08:50 shower …

The first thing I want to say is that I don’t really draw a line between mindfulness, mediation, prayer or reflection. It’s all one and the same to me – perhaps different facets of the same jewel. I often start my morning habits with a simple breath prayer such as, ‘Here I am, Lord (in breath) I am here (out breath)’ or ‘You are in me (in breath) I am in you (out breath).’ These prayers not only acknowledge God and invite him into this special time, but they also anchor me in the present moment – my mind is fully engaged in the here and now. It’s not rushing away into my day or ruminating over yesterday. Which brings me to the main aspect, benefit and challenge of mindfulness – being fully present.

When people talk to me about my mindfulness practice, they often ask: do you have to empty your mind? My answer is no; the clue’s in the name … it’s mindFULLness. Mindfulness is about being fully present in the moment, letting our thoughts go and simply being. I know … easier said than done, right? Our brains are programmed to think; they’re programmed to figure out how to overcome challenges and threats – perceived and real. It’s our survival instinct. And our thinking brains do not shut off just because we live in a relatively safe environment. In fact, our brains will take any challenge and try to figure out how to deal with it, no matter how minor. Maybe your co-worker has commandeered your desk while you’ve been on annual leave. Maybe one of the kids in your child’s class has headlice. Maybe your local supermarket has run out of bread. Our brains see all these things as threats and try to think of solutions in the same way they would if you’d just spotted a sabre-toothed tiger lurking in the bushes. OK, your reaction might not be as extreme, but if you’re suffering from anxiety or stress it might well be. Your brain might not be able to tell the difference between a sabre-toothed tiger and a co-worker, and you’ll experience your Flight or Fight response as if they presented the same level of danger. At the height of my anxiety, my brain was like a game of Whack-A-Mole. Threatening thoughts would pop up in my head, and I’d try to bash them back down, but as soon as I got rid of one, another would pop up … over and over and over again. I just couldn’t stop them, and they grew and grew and grew until they were all-consuming. But it wasn’t just in my mind. Thanks to adrenaline and cortisol, it was in my body too. Imagine the stress and the strain and the wear and tear of living in code-red-high-alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week for months on end. Anyhoo …

Now, however, when threatening thoughts pop into my head, my response is much calmer. I acknowledge them for what they are – just thoughts – and let them go, like leaves floating away on a stream, or clouds floating across the sky. As my husband says: you can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can stop them from nesting in your hair. (He’s very wise!) As well as letting thoughts go, I also turn my attention toward whatever it is I am doing: cooking, painting, walking, breathing. I feel, taste, smell, hear, see. I fill my senses, and therefore my mind, with the present moment. And all this I do without judgment. I don’t label the thoughts as good or bad, and I don’t criticise myself for having them. My mind wanders. That’s what minds do – forever on the lookout for danger and opportunity. It has taken months of practice to be able to be mindful in this way. Thanks to the Headspace app, just ten minutes of practice a day for over a year now has started to hone my mind. Like any exercise, the more you do it, the better you get.

I almost always do my Headspace meditation before using the Pray as You Go app because it prepares me, settles and opens me for a focused time with God, just listening to his music, his story, dwelling in his love. As my mind inevitably wanders during this time, I remember to gently, and without judgment, return to prayer, to allow my mind to be filled by what I hear – not thinking, wrestling, studying, rationalising, struggling or striving, just being still and knowing and not rushing away in thought or in action.

I’m reminded of a verse from the Bible: Acts 17:28.

For in him we live and move and have our being.

After the day’s PaYG prayer, when I’m ready, I move on to the daily reading from Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Joy and Comfort. This is a kind of doorway into the rest of my day, a time to read, reflect, re-engage my thinking brain. I’m very much enjoying the challenge of this book. Some days, I find myself nodding in agreement. Some days, I find myself holding the polar opposite view. Some days, I find myself amazed at how the author seems to be writing my life! Everyday, I find something to chew on, to mull over, to note down in my morning journal and take with me into the day.

Reading this back, it sounds a bit as if I think I’ve found the secret to never being depressed or anxious again. I haven’t, and I know I haven’t. I’m still a Work In Progress as much as the next person. I think what I’ve found, though, is both a tool, and more than a tool. My time in the morning, is my Soul Space. As an artist primes her canvas for the paint to come, I prime my soul for the day to come. This ordinary, sacred time is to my life, what primer is to paint – the same but different. My Soul Space trains me and hones me and reminds me that everything in my life and every moment of my life is spiritual and sacred. My Soul Space is a reminder that God is always with us, and it is God with me. My Soul Space is a time of alignment and refinement as well as stillness and silence. It is both preparation for and part of my walk with God.

To finish, I’d like to leave you with this thought from Brother Lawrence (1614 – 1691):

I have abandoned all particular forms of devotion, all prayer techniques. My only prayer practice is attention. I carry on a habitual, silent, and secret conversation with God that fills me with overwhelming joy.

There is nothing new under the sun …

Thanks for reading! Back soon. xxx

You can read more of my Mental Health Monday posts here.

Mental Health Monday: Holding the Hope – Part Three

Hello and welcome! In my last Mental Health Monday post, I finished by saying how I think the knowledge and skills I’ve gained over the last year have made me stronger, more resilient and less vulnerable to mental illness, and I said that in this post, I’d pick that apart a bit and talk in more concrete terms about how this knowledge and these skills manifest in my day-to-day life. So that’s what I’m going to do!

My daily life goes something like this:

  • wake up no later than 07:30
  • 07:30 eat breakfast, drink coffee, take medication
  • 08:00 pray and meditate in bed in my jim-jams.
  • 08:30 shower and dress
  • 09:00 do something: work, coffee with friends, shopping, chores, go for a walk etc
  • 12:00 eat lunch and watch a bit of TV
  • 12:30 do something: work, coffee with friends, shopping, chores, go for a walk etc
  • 14:30/15:00 greet kids and chat about their day for a bit
  • 15:30 do something: work, coffee with friends, shopping, chores etc
  • 17:30 cook dinner
  • 18:30 eat dinner with family
  • 19:00 do something: planning, journaling, watching TV, chores, go for a walk etc
  • 21:00 start winding down
  • 21:30 take medication and have night time chats with kids
  • 22:00 get into bed, meditate, pray, use lavender essential oil, do relaxation exercises, sleep

During the school holidays and on weekends, some of these things move about a bit, but I always take my meds, I always wake up no later than 07:30, I always pray and meditate, I always use lavender and do relaxation exercises and I always make sure I’m in bed by 23:00, preferably 22:00. These routines and habits are a big part of what keeps me well and have been developed over the course of the last year.

It goes without saying that it’s important to take my medication every day even though it makes me tired and hungry. I know it is bolstering all the hard work I have done. Getting a decent night’s sleep is crucial to my mental health too. One of my early warning signs for depression is a disturbed sleep pattern. If I don’t get enough sleep, my resilience to stress decreases and my sleep gets even worse, and thus begins a vicious cycle. To help avoid getting into that cycle, I don’t nap in the day unless I am totally exhausted, and I keep my evenings quiet and relaxed. Using lavender as my soothing scent and doing progressive muscle relation exercises at bedtime, sends signals to my brain and body that it is time for sleep, and I’m usually out by the time I’ve snuggled under the duvet! I generally sleep well at the moment, but I have crazy vivid dreams and often wake up in the night in a cold sweat, but I seem to be able to drift off again afterward. Knowing that a good night’s sleep is fundamental to my recovery means that if my sleep goes downhill, I’ll be banging on my doctor’s door for early intervention!

After sleeping well, comes starting the day right. I keep it slow. I know I’m lucky to be able to do so, and I’m very grateful for that. I eat breakfast with the kids and see them off to school before going back to bed for half an hour of prayer, meditation and reflection. To help me with this, I use two apps: Headspace and Pray as You Go. Headspace has been instrumental in training my brain to let go of thoughts, and Pray as You Go is a beautiful daily podcast based on a passage from the Bible and includes music and gentle reflection. Recently, I’ve added Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach to my meditation time. It was a gift from my lovely friend Helen, and is giving me a framework for thinking about gratitude, simplicity, order, harmony, beauty, joy and abundance. This half-an-hour is the time when I am still with God. I don’t pray for things or about things, I just show up, open up and listen for that still, small voice of calm.

Other useful habits that have emerged over the last year include: taking vitamin supplements and Omega-3 oils everyday, making sure I drink at least five drinks a day (otherwise I get extra-tired and headachey), taking breaks from my work (I have an alarm set on my phone so that I remember to eat lunch.), being creative everyday and going for a short walk everyday (Truth be told, I don’t always manage this!). All these practical things contribute to my wellness and resilience and make me stronger.

As well as all this, every month I review the Nine Pillars of a Balanced Life to make sure my life is balanced and not skew-whiff. I look at my level of contribution, the way I spend my leisure, the exercise I take (or don’t take), the things I do and time I spend with family, friends and especially my husband. I look at how much time I spend working, how much ‘me time’ I have and what I do with it. I look at what I’m doing to grow as a person, what new things I’m learning. And if something is under or over-represented, I try to redress the balance to reduce potential stress and resentment.

A big and positive change for me this year has been starting my own business making and selling cards and being chosen to serve of two design teams. Before falling ill, I was a bit rudderless and I’m sure this contributed to my mental fragility. The kids are older now and were starting not to need me to be so hands on, so I didn’t feel I had much of a purpose, but now I have my business (which is still very small, but who knows where it will go?) and regularly sharing the story of my recovery journey, I now feel a sense of purpose and passion again, and this is what gets me out of bed in the morning, especially on the days when I wake up feeling as if I’m made of lead.

Well, this has turned into another long post, so I will leave it there for today. Next week, I’ll talk in more detail about the benefits I’ve experienced from practicing mindfulness and meditation. And I want to talk about the areas of my life that still need plenty of work!

Thanks for reading! Bye for now. xxx

You can read more of my Mental Health Monday posts here.

(Image Source: Pixabay)

Mental Health Monday: Holding the Hope – Part Two

In last week’s Mental Health Monday post, I began sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned about hope and its role in recovery, and I said that this week, I’d write about the cycles of hope and hopelessness. So, here goes …

Both hope and hopelessness can be viewed as cycles, or maybe spirals would be a better illustration. Hope can help us spiral upward, whereas hopelessness is a downward spiral.

Let’s look at hope first: when we have a sense of hope, we believe that change is possible, and this leads us to take responsibility for setting goals and for asking for support when we need it. As a consequence, we learn that we have a measure of control over our lives; we develop a sense of agency and feel empowered. Hope becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – positive change occurs, which in turn gives us an even greater sense of hope. We spiral upward.

Now, let’s look at hopelessness: when we lose hope, we believe that things are hopeless, that change isn’t possible. As a consequence, we abdicate responsibility and learn to be helpless. Hopelessness becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – nothing changes, or maybe things actually get worse. Our negative beliefs about ourselves and about our situations are reinforced and we become more hopeless. We spiral downward.

I know that before my admission to hospital, I was stuck in a downward spiral of hopelessness. I’d been hopeful when I’d first gone to my doctor, but that hope had been eroded by repeated set-backs. I wouldn’t say that I’d totally abdicated responsibility for my life, but I knew I’d reached the end of my own resources and needed serious help. Looking back, I realise that asking for that ‘serious help’ and agreeing to hospital admission was an act of hope. I guess that’s were I first started the long, slow spiral back up. Getting my medication right was a big part of the beginning of my recovery, as was knowing that I was in a safe place while the doctors tinkered with it, but another big part was the attitude of the health care support workers there. They were all convinced I’d get better and helped me to feel that I had some degree of control over my life, even in a mental hospital, even if it was only choosing what I wanted to eat, or whether to go to workshops or not, or what day to do my laundry. It was tiny things like these that kept me afloat, kept me moving. And then once I came out of hospital, my community support worker was relentlessly positive about my future, even when I hit a couple of bumps in the road. There was also the Recovery College – a whole organisation built on the premise of hope, that recovery is possible and probable – which gave me the knowledge and language I needed to take back full responsibility for my life. And through it all were my friends and family, holding the hope for me when I couldn’t hold it for myself.

So what’s to stop me flipping back into the downward spiral of hopelessness the next time I hit a bump in the road? Well, I think the knowledge and experience I’ve gained over the last year has definitely made me stronger and more resilient. I know from first hand experience that it’s possible to return from rock-bottom, and from where I am now, I can look down into the darkness that once engulfed me and not be afraid. I might slip a bit once in a while, but I’m now equipped with improved skills and much better climbing gear than before. Plus I’ve come to recognise that I’m in a team of fellow climbers who are all willing to offer each other a leg-up when we need one.

Sorry if that climbing metaphor sounds a bit vague, neat or even twee! Next week, I’ll pick it apart a bit and talk in more concrete terms about how it manifests in my day-to-day life. See you then?

Thanks for reading! xxx

You can read more of my Mental Health Monday posts here.

(Image Source: Pixabay)

Mental Health Monday: Holding the Hope – Part One

Holding the Hope is the name of the second Recovery College course I went on last year, but instead of it being a half-day course, it lasted a whole day. I confess: I was a bit apprehensive about going – I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stay awake for the whole thing as I was still in the foggy-head-eyes-propped-open-with-toothpicks stage of recovery – but I did make it all the way through. One of the great things about Recovery College is that the courses are led by two people: one with professional experience of mental illness, and one with lived experience, so there’s always at least one facilitator who knows, first-hand, exactly how taxing just being in a room with other people can be. They make sure there are always plenty of breaks in which you can catch your breath.

Until taking this course, I’d never really thought about the role that hope plays in recovery from mental illness. The first activity we did was to think of something we enjoyed doing or that was meaningful to us. We then identified what it was about this thing that made us feel good, and what it was that enabled us to do it. This led us to thinking about hope … what is hope? If you click on the image above, you’ll be able to read some of the definitions we came up with. I particularly like the quote at the bottom as it acknowledges the difficulties we face:

Hope advises us to look squarely at the realities that confront us while remaining aware of the possibilities.

As we were talking about hope, one of the students asked a question: how is it that someone can lose hope to such an extent that they want to end their own life? This got me thinking because that was exactly what had happened to me. After a few moments, I answered her … I said something like this: when I had post-natal depression, back in 2005/6, I went to the doctor, received a few visits from a health visitor, spent six months on anti-depressants and gradually got better with only a few minor ups and downs along the way. This time when I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I thought things would go pretty much the same way, but they didn’t. Every time my doctor upped my dose of antidepressant, my anxiety got worse, and as my anxiety got worse, I lost a little more hope, and eventually I became so detached from reality that I ended up in hospital because it wasn’t safe for me to be anywhere else. My loss of hope didn’t happen overnight; it was a slow, gradual erosion to nothing.

Other students nodded. They understood. I’d found my tribe; it was good to be among people who just got it. I think that’s when I actually felt that first spark of hope.

The rest of the course consisted of activities aimed at helping us further explore the concept of hope. We thought about what hope felt like, looked like, smelled like, tasted like, sounded like. For some of us it was coffee with friends. For others it was spring flowers. For others still is was sunrises, the dawn chorus, butterflies, the sound of the sea. We all managed to think of things that lifted our spirits and gave us that sense of positive expectation, of optimism, of perseverance – things we could write on slips of paper and put in a Hope Bank; a box or jar we could dip into when we needed a dose of hope. Next, we talked about what a hopeful person is like and about the differences between hope and hopelessness. I’m going to write about the cycles of hope and hopelessness next week as they deserve a post of their own.

I came away from this course with a new understanding of hope and how it could help me recover. Last April, about six weeks after leaving hospital, was exactly the right time for me to start thinking about hope and to start looking for hopeful things in my life. Recovering from the catastrophic effects of severe mental illness isn’t as simple as ‘looking on the bright side’ or ‘staying positive’, but building into my daily routine activities that give me hope, and regularly reminding myself of the things I find hopeful has had a profound impact on me.

I came away from this course with a bunch of quotes which I wrote down in my bullet journal and now know off by heart because I’ve referred to them so much:

A hopeful person surrounds herself with people, colour, sounds and work that nourish her.

Hope shines brightest in our darkest moments.

Hope is the small lump of coal that starts the fire burning again – even the smallest belief that we can get better can fuel the recovery process.

Hope shines brightest in our darkest moments.

Nearly a year on from attending this course, I’m still holding the hope. I watch the sunrise and the sunset with the confident expectation that as time passes, I will continue to recover. I see the daffodils in nextdoor’s garden standing tall again now that the snow has melted and smile as I think about how I am no longer cowed by depression. I watch the starlings nesting in the eaves of our roof and know that although each day brings new challenges, it also brings new joys, new blessings, and new opportunities. And everyday, I surround myself with people, colour, sounds and work that nourish me.

As I said above, next week I’m going to write about the cycles of hope and despair and after that there are a few more things I’d like to share, so please do come back for more posts on hope. In the mean time, I wish you every blessing.

Thanks for reading! Catch you soon. xxx

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

You can read more of my Mental Health Monday posts here.

Mental Health Monday: Regaining Control

It’s just over a year ago now that I was discharged from hospital, having spent nearly six weeks being treated for severe depression, and it’s almost a year ago that I attended my first Recovery College course: Regaining Control – It’s Up to Me. I remember feeling like a zombie as I walked into the room and found an empty seat at the table, wary of the other people already there – my life was still a foggy haze, and I had no real idea how to get out of it – but by the end of the two-and-a-half hour session, I had a sense that I could regain control of my life and start moving in a vaguely forward direction.

My recovery has been a long, gradual and mostly gentle process. It started in hospital, where, for the most part, I felt my views were listened to and my wishes, respected. The psychologists were particularly empowering as they took the time to chat to me about all that was on offer in hospital, and left the decision about what to go to, completely up to me. Since leaving hospital,  I’ve continued to be encouraged and supported by health care professionals (especially my Community Support Worker) and friends and family alike, and as a result, and as I’ve learned more and more about mental health, mental illness and recovery, I’ve moved from being in the passenger seat to being in the driving seat of my recovery. I guess I’m one of the mental health care system’s success stories!

The ‘Regaining Control – It’s Up to Me’ course was a great one to start my Recovery College journey on. We explored how taking personal responsibility can contribute to not only recovery, but also to staying well. We looked at how it can be the first step toward achieving personal freedom and regaining control of our lives. For me, the severe depression and anxiety I was experiencing before I was admitted into hospital was triggered (in part) by a lack of control in a certain area of my life, and, as the illness took hold, everything in my life, and especially in my mind and body, felt as if it were spinning out of control. It seemed to me that I was trapped in a never-ending downward spiral of fear. Fear bred more fear bred more fear bred more fear …

I couldn’t have started my recovery without my admission to hospital – I needed to be somewhere safe while the doctors figured out how best to help me – but once I was out of hospital and had started attending Recovery College courses, I started taking back control of my life, started making decisions for myself, started doing things again that I’d had to stop doing before. The fear didn’t go away completely (It still hasn’t, if I’m honest.) but I feel I have a form of control over my life, not a tight control – that was part of the problem before – but a kind of light control as if I’m holding it in the palm of my hand rather than clutching it in a death grip!

One of the quotes from the Regaining Control course that’s stuck with me is:

Accept personal responsibility; achieve personal freedom.

I love that. I’ve realised that although the medical profession can facilitate my recovery, it’s up to me to implement the changes I need to make. I have to accept responsibility and do what needs to be done. Putting this into practice by keeping up with my wellness habits, is one way I’ve taken personal responsibility and am achieving personal freedom. The things I do everyday are helping to keep me well and are making me more resilient. I am not dependent on others for my recovery. I am in control of my actions – no one else can live my life for me.

Another quote that’s stuck with me is:

Responsibility is the ability to choose your response.

I can choose how I respond to challenges and triggers now. I don’t have to react or over-react; I can respond appropriately. That sounds simple, but simple does not mean easy. Responding appropriately is something I’m going to have to work on for a long time to come, but I am choosing to work on it – that’s me taking personal responsibility and choosing freedom over fear.

As well as the concepts of responsibility and control, we explored things that we should take responsibility for and things that we shouldn’t take responsibility for – but I’ll save that for another post as this one is getting long!

To finish, I’ll leave you with a few more quotes from this course, as they do a great job of summing up the journey I’m on.

The price of control of one’s life is personal responsibility.

You are the expert on yourself. You are best placed to know what you want and need.

You will get more out of life and your recovery if you take personal responsibility for your wellness.

Your life is going to happen anyway … wouldn’t you rather have the major say in it?

Thanks for reading! Wishing you every blessing. xxx

You can read more of my Mental Health Monday posts here.

(Image source: Pixabay)

Mental Health Monday: Gottman’s Tasks

I don’t know much about Gottman, but I know he came up with some pretty good tasks! I first learned about them in hospital last year, when I attended a workshop called ‘Taking Control’. It was all about distress and how to manage it. Distress manifests in different ways in different people, but it basically impacts us in three areas: our minds, our bodies, our actions. When I’m distressed, I find my thoughts racing and becoming more irrational; I can’t concentrate; I struggle to make decisions; I’m self-critical, and I could ruminate for England! My heart-rate goes up, my blood runs cold, my face flushes; I have palpitations and become short of breath; My hands shake and my tummy does somersaults. My actions speed up too; I pace and fidget, and I withdraw from whatever is causing my distress. At my most ill, I was suicidal – the ultimate withdrawal.

When we are distressed, it can be difficult to make effective or helpful decisions. Our Emotional Mind can take over. We find ourselves in a maelstrom of explosive feelings, and end up trying to manage those feelings by doing things that are ultimately harmful to us (and sometimes others). Sometimes, though, we can retreat into our Rational Mind – where we don’t feel emotion; we process everything factually and logically. It’s an avoidance strategy that blocks out feelings to help us cope. Sometimes this is useful – it helps us keep a clear head in an emergency – but as a long-term coping mechanism, it too is ultimately unhelpful as we become like robots. So what else is there? Well, there is our Wise Mind, where our Emotional Mind and Rational Mind overlap. When we think with our Wise Mind we can experience emotions without being overwhelmed by them, and we are able to respond appropriately and make good decisions. Gottman’s Tasks help us to move from the extremes of our minds into a place of balance and wisdom.

Gottman’s Tasks have helped me learn to respond with my Wise Mind, rather than with my Emotional Mind. They’ve helped me establish a plan of what to do when I’m faced with stresses and triggers. (In fact, I’ve stopped calling triggers ‘triggers.’ I now call them ‘challenges’ as I feel the word gives me a greater sense of agency and empowerment, but that’s another post.) It wasn’t easy to integrate these tasks into my life, but I regularly remind myself of them and review them, so they’re there when I need them. As with a lot of wellness strategies, Gottman’s Tasks are habits that are best formed when we are calm. When we are in a place of distress and desperation, it’s really hard to learn new skills, so it’s really important to get support while we try to do so. I’m not a psychologist; I’m just sharing my experience, so if you want to try these tasks, seek advice and help from someone who can support you.

Gottman’s Tasks:

Step One: Calm the Body – because distress effects our body, it’s helpful to start by calming your physical response. You can relax tensed muscles by doing Progressive Muscle Relaxation. You can steady your breath by breathing out for longer than you breathe in. If you feel hot, take a cold drink or splash some water on your face. Burn off some energy by going for a brisk walk. Calming the body, helps to calm the mind.

Step Two: Distract the Mind – just as calming the body helps to calm the mind, distracting the mind, helps to calm the body. Try naming five things that you can see/hear/touch. Count backwards from 1000. Think of animals whose names begin with every letter of the alphabet. Do something from your To Do list. Sing along to music. It just needs to be something that is not too complicated, but that will actively occupy your mind.

Step Three: Block Unhelpful Behaviours – this is about consciously stopping yourself acting in destructive ways. Whatever your destructive urge is, do the opposite. If you want to shout, sing. If you want to hit something, stroke something gently. If you want to give up, persevere. This is very challenging – simple is not the same as easy. You might need a lot of support with this, but that’s okay.

Step Four: Do What’s Helpful In the Long-Term – move yourself forward in a positive direction. Once you are calmer, think about what you need to do to make the best out of the current situation. Engage your wise mind. You might need to talk things through with someone. You might need to make a written plan about something. You might need to encourage yourself with some positive self-talk. You might need to make some progress toward a goal. You might need to do something that is good for you.

As I said above, these habits are best formed when we are calm. It’s virtually impossible to think of these things when you’re in a state of distress. Maybe make yourself a hot drink, sit down with pen and paper and write out a list of things you could do for each step and then keep the sheet somewhere where it will be easy to find when you need it: on the fridge or noticeboard, in your diary or bag, even as a photo on your phone. Regularly revisit the list and tweak so that it accurately serves your needs.

So now it’s over to you? Have you found any helpful strategies for managing distress? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading! See you soon. xxx

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)