Tracking The Maelstrom

When you are coping with mental health problems, it can be difficult to keep track of what helps you and what doesn’t make much difference. You are lost in a maelstrom of symptoms and can’t think clearly. Assessing deterioration and improvement feels impossible.

A simple tool which can help you to decipher your symptoms is tracking your mood. If you have ever had counselling or another type of talking therapy, you may have been given a grid of days and times and asked to make a note of your mood at regular intervals throughout the day. This is helpful, but it can also be a pain in the ass. You forget to fill it in or the grid doesn’t provide enough room for you to record the details you want. You might try it for a couple of weeks to see if you can spot patterns, but it’s hard to integrate it with your life.

The trick to making mood tracking work for you is to adapt the tool. There are apps, for example, which you can use anytime if you download them to your phone. You could also set an alarm on your phone to alert you to track your mood at regular intervals. Or you could go old skool and carry a notebook — this allows you to record as many (or as few) details as you like. You could draw your own grid or just write however you wish.

I use an app called Moodtrack, which is free if you keep your record public and costs 79p if you want them to be private. You can choose your own username, or get the app to generate one for you. If your username doesn’t make it easy for people to identify you, the free app is still pretty anonymous. You simply identify your mood and how positive or negative it is, whenever you want. You can also include an optional comment, so you can record what you are doing and any other possible triggers or reasons for your mood. Sometimes, other users leave supportive comments, but you can obviously ignore them if you don’t wish to interact.

As with most mental health management tools, you should experiment with tracking your mood and discover what works best for you. For instance, some people prefer to note more details than others. My own preferences vary depending on my current mental state: when I feel most depressed I write little or no details, whereas I like to include a lot more information when I’m able to analyse my mood. You should also consider how often you want to record your mood — once an hour might be appropriate if your mood changes frequently and/or you participate in a variety of activities throughout the day, but once every three or four hours is more suitable if your mood is more stable or if you are too busy to update more often. Personally, I find every two to three hours is the most beneficial interval for me.

Mood tracking is so simple that you may question whether it can be helpful, but it helps you to become more aware of the changes in your mood and to live more mindfully. It enables you to spot patterns which are unlikely to emerge when you are lost in the maelstrom of mental illness. If you are sceptical, just give it a try — you might be pleasantly surprised. What have you got to lose? A couple of minutes every few hours. What could you gain? A better understanding of your mental health, which could allow you to manage your symptoms better and possibly recover.

What I Want from 2016

Don’t worry — I won’t bore you by listing all my new year’s resolutions and goals. Many of them are continuations of what I have already been doing, such as trying to live more mindfully, whereas others are about taking a step (or a leap!) forward in my life. As I said in my last post, it’s no use in thinking of the new year as a completely fresh start: your goals need to be built on the foundation of your life as it is now.

That’s why my goals aren’t about transforming my world from January 1st — they need to fit my current lifestyle. Sure, I hope my life will be transformed by my goals, but I believe that permanent change is more likely (and easier) if I change my habits gradually. For me, working towards my goals is about working with my strengths and limitations, not against them.

Like many, many people, one of my main goals for 2016 is to lose weight. Unlike most people, I’m aiming to lose 120lbs. In the past, I have lost weight by restrictive dieting and it has taught me that diets don’t work. Especially not in the long term. So I am changing my lifestyle. This involves changing my eating habits gradually; instead of trying to live on vegetables as soon as the clock struck midnight on 1st January, I have been adjusting what I eat and will continue adjusting until I think my diet is healthy enough.

Another of my goals is to rewrite my novel draft to a good standard. I’m taking this slowly, but aiming to gather pace over the next couple of months. I want to get it done as soon as I can, but I’m not going to beat myself up if my mental health gets in the way. I haven’t set any definite deadlines for this reason: I have to learn to work around my anxiety and depression, instead of getting upset when they prevent me doing things when or how I had intended.

Which brings me to what I want most out of 2016: to get better at managing my mental health and to make progress towards my goals. I want to start 2017 feeling healthier and happier than I do right now. I want to have fun. I want to create art. I want to be stronger. I want to read a lot. I want to watch more films. I want to get outside more. I want to spend time with the people I love. I want to meet new people. I want to save more and stress less. I want to be fitter. I want to be open to opportunities. I want to live.

Oh, and I also want to continue blogging!

New Year, New Slate?

I think many of us like the idea of a new year being a fresh start. As we change to a new calendar, we would like to cast off our flaws, our bad habits, perhaps even our old selves. We envision a new life, where we have perfect bodies, plenty of money, fantastic relationships… Never mind that we have to start with the foundation we have already built: our current selves.

The Palimpsest 

Instead of considering 2016 as a new slate, it is more helpful to think of the new year as a palimpsest. We can overwrite what has gone before, but we can’t change what has already been written. We can use our pasts to inform the choices we make and which goals we decide to pursue.

Having our past as the foundation of our future is an advantage. No matter how much you hate your current life, you can learn to accept your past and learn from your mistakes. Acceptance is difficult, but it’s part of taking responsibility for your life — which is essential if you want to change your life.

On a mundane level, we can use our past to figure out how to approach practical goals. If you are prone to restrictive dieting followed by massive weight gain, for instance, you know that going on a crash diet isn’t the answer. You can use the information gleaned from your yoyo dieting to make gradual changes to your lifestyle and lose weight without regaining it once your diet ends.

Applying Self-Knowledge 

We all have a wealth of information about ourselves which can be applied to new year’s resolutions and achievi goals. You just need to access this information. Think about it: you have lived for X number of years, during which you have learnt many things, coped with many issues and solved many problems.

Have you ever saved some money, even a tiny amount, so that you could buy something you really wanted? Great! You know how to save money. You also know how to delay gratification. It doesn’t matter if the only time you have saved money was when you were 12 years old and wanted a computer game; it doesn’t matter if you have spent the last 20 years racking up credit card debts to pay for what you can afford. You know how to save money. Sure, things may be a lot more complicated now and your life might be completely different, but you can still apply the principle to your current situation.

Adaptation and Evolution 

Adapting information and self-knowledge is a useful skill. You can apply it to anything you want and transform your life in multiple ways. Again, this is easier said than done and I don’t want to imply that you can flick a switch and change your life overnight. Most of us learn gradually from our mistakes, even if we are not conscious of doing so, but being aware of the process acts as a catalyst which can help you make changes faster.

For example, I am energised by taking courses. Sometimes this bubbles over into stress, but when I’m enrolled on a course I am motivated by completing assignments, researching the subject and improving my skills. Perhaps it’s the perfectionist in me which thrives in an environment where I get graded, or at least get told whether I have passed or failed.

I approached my driving test in this way: I spent hours studying and practising. One of my main reasons for doing an MA in Creative Writing was that I knew my writing would improve much quicker than if I had just worked on it alone. A couple of years ago, I even did a bookkeeping course so that I didn’t feel so intimidated by the thought of keeping my own financial records if I was lucky enough to make a living from freelancing.

Observe what works for you. If you want to get fit but hate running alone because you would rather be at the pub with your mates, try joining a sports team or fitness class. If you hate following rules and tend to rebell, don’t embark on a rigidly structured plan to change your life. These examples might sound obvious, but when we are caught up in the ebb and flow of life, we simply don’t consider all of the options available.

Challenging Assumptions 

Often, we tend to think something has to be done in a certain way. Perhaps we are surrounded by people who do things in similar ways, who approach their lives from a similar perspective. We don’t think of challenging the status quo because we assume it works. We assume that what other people do is the “correct” way to do it.

While our family and friends have a huge impact on how we think and act, we are also influenced by television, the internet, celebrity culture, social networks, books, magazines, subcultures, advertising, experts, newspapers, forums/messageboards and, oh yes, blogs. Even if you aren’t strongly influenced by any of these things, look at how much they overlap — consider the power of the messages which are constantly being relayed to you.

No wonder do many people will start 2016 by going on a strict diet — over the course of a single television programme this morning, I saw an interview with a reality television “star” who has released a workout DVD,  watched a cookery item focusing on healthy eating and was told about a guest on an upcoming programme who has lost an “astonishing” 4 stone. I was also exposed to numerous adverts for diets, fitness DVDs and beauty products. The message is clear: I am fat and therefore inadequate. The proposed solution is a “healthy” but restrictive diet and aerobics.

Perhaps I would still be misled by this crap if I hadn’t already followed the “advice” and lost weight. Yep, you read that right: I am criticising methods which helped me lose weight. How much weight? 64lbs. Over the course of 4/5 months. Sounds great, right? So why aren’t I recommending you listen to all the pseudo-celebrities advertising their diet/fitness products? Because diets don’t work in the long term. I am currently 120lb above my lowest weight and must have been a lot more, because I was a UK size 26 when I graduated in 2011 and am now a size 18.

I followed the conventional “wisdom” and it left me fatter than ever before. When I was following the diet, I was miserable and felt like I was punishing myself. When I failed to sustain my unsustainable diet and regained weight, I felt like a failure. I have been gradually making lifestyle changes over the past few years and I have dropped 4 dress sizes — without feeling deprived or punished. Challenging what everyone else was telling me has led to long term success, which I hope will continue.

Think about the typical ways people tackle goals and ask whether there is a better option. If you want to save money, for example, the conventional approach is to cut back on your spending. But what if you don’t want to cut back? You might already be living on as little as you feel you can, or you might think you get excellent value from what you soend money on. You can turn the problem on its head: instead of looking for ways to cut your spending, you could look for ways to make more money. Once you reframe the question, you see the full range  of options: you could take on a second job, sell what you own, do online surveys, take in a lodger… Even if you decide against these options, acknowledging their possibility means you can make an informed decision.

What Do You Really Want?

You should also make an informed decision about which new year’s resolutions to make and which goals to pursue. Have you asked yourself what you really want to achieve this year, or have you just gone along with what you think you should do?

You might be overweight, but that doesn’t mean you need to prioritise losing weight this year. In fact, it may be beneficial to work on other areas of your life first. Personally, I had to sort out a lot of emotional issues before I could adopt a healthier lifestyle. Perhaps your family keeps telling you to strive for a promotion, but you’re happy with your current job. Maybe you think you should travel more because everyone else seems to be doing it. Stop! Reassess whether you want to make these changes.

After careful consideration, you may decide to follow the goals you have already set. Your health might already be suffering because you’re overweight and waiting a year would significantly increase your risk of heart attack or diabetes. You could decide that the pay rise you would get if you got that promotion is worth the change of job. You may decide to try travelling just to see whether you like it. That’s fine. Again, by asking these questions you are making an informed decision instead of blindly following the well-trodden path.

Whatever you want in 2016, good luck! I will blog about my goals throughout the year, so I hope you will enjoy reading about my progress (or otherwise!) as you pursue your own goals.