A Shift in Perspective

A weekend away should be fun and relaxing, right? Not so much when you have anxiety and depression.

I stayed at Bathampton in a cottage for a couple of nights with a few friends. It was beautiful, despite being January, and it was great to spend time with my friends — I even had some fun, playing games and drinking a little wine and appletinis… Yet it was very difficult.

The view from my bedroom window.

Mental illness sucks the pleasure out of everything and turns me into a negative person, which I hate. I believe I’m naturally optimistic and positive, but these aspects of my personality are obliterated by depression and anxiety.

I can’t help but compare my life to my friends’ lives: they all seem to have so much to live for compared to me. They all have proper jobs and none of them live with their parents. They have all had relationships. I feel like a freak next to them.

I know my friends will be appalled if they read this, but I feel like I’m dragging them down when I’m feeling this way. I spent a lot of the weekend feeling guilty because I know I’m not fun to be with right now.

 

The good times also tend to emphasise the bad aspects of my life — and most aspects of my life feel bad at the moment.

Feeling happy for a fleeting moment is great at the time, but afterwards it reminds me of how few happy moments I have experienced lately. I come crashing down to the reality of my problems, which I managed to forget for an hour or so, and the contrast makes me feel even worse.

As I said in my last post, I have been repeating “this too shall pass” a lot, in an attempt to find comfort and hope, but most of the time it doesn’t feel like my depression will pass. I know it will, on a logical level, but I can’t feel it emotionally.

My friends (who are awesome and supportive, by the way) did their best to cheer me up, but nothing really works. They kept reminding me that I have my Machu Picchu trek to look forward to, but that didn’t help because it doesn’t feel real yet. I’m constantly expecting bad things to happen which will prevent me from enjoying the experience. Even now, I’m convinced that everyone else in the group is a lot better than me: fitter, more prepared and much more successful fundraisers. I feel like I will be the fuck-up in that group, too.

 

But it’s not all terrible. It gave me a slight change of perspective.

I did enjoy many parts of my weekend away and getting away from my daily routine did me some good. I missed my dog, which makes me appreciate him more! It was also nice to get away from my family (in the best possible way, of course) because living with my parents and brother often feels claustrophobic.

I’m also looking forward to returning to modern jive classes, after missing loads due to illness, and seeing the friend I go with more often than I have over the past few months. I’m also terrified, thanks to the anxiety, but it will do me good to get out more again.

We walked along the canal into Bath and back on Saturday, which reminded me of how walking improves my mood. I hadn’t walked much last week, since it rained a lot and I felt too unmotivated. However, I walked up the lane today and intend to keep walking regularly.

I managed to find small things to appreciate, despite my low mood: pleasure in watching the boats on the canal, playing a singing game with my friends, finishing the novel I was reading. That’s improvement.

I wish I could tell you that the weekend led to an epiphany which has given me a fresh new mindset, but mental illness just doesn’t work like that. I enjoyed my weekend overall, but I came home exhausted and spent a lot of yesterday crying because I hate my life at the moment.

However, you may have noticed I keep using the phrases “at the moment” and “right now” which indicates the possibility of change. I think that’s hopeful.

 

This Too Shall Pass

Fluctuations in mental health are normal; fluctuations in mental illness are also normal, but knowing this doesn’t make it easier to bear.

The only solace I can find during worse episodes, is that everything ends. Good times and bad times are transient. Though it might feel otherwise, repeating “this too shall pass” helps me get through.

The origins of “this too shall pass” are murky, but one of the most popular versions is a fable told by Attar of Nishapur, a Persian poet, who said a great king commissioned a ring which had the power to make him happy when he was sad and sad when he was happy. The ring was simply inscribed “this too shall pass.”

 

While comforting during periods of depression, “this too shall pass” can also remind us to be mindful and find value in the present — whatever our mental state.

Acknowledging that periods of joy are transient reminds us of the importance of appreciating them whilst they are happening. I take issue with the notion mentioned in many fables that “this too shall pass” makes people sad when they are happy: I believe it intensifies the joy felt in the moment.

When you realise the happiness you feel right now will end, it makes you aware of the meaning that moment has in the context of your whole life. It adds poignancy, which does have a tinge of sadness, but it emphasises the significance of happy times and what makes them happy.

It encourages you to think more deeply about how those joyful times are created: the relationships between you and anyone sharing the happy moment, the activity contributing to the joy, how your state of mind is enhanced by your current thoughts and attitudes, etc. This self-knowledge can help you create more joyful moments in future.

 

Ultimately, “this too shall pass” is about hope.

Hope that sadness will end. Hope that there will be more happy moments in future. Hope that finding value and meaning in your life will make the suffering worthwhile.

Its simple reminder of the transience of life opens up the possibility of different emotions and experiences. 

This is especially powerful during depression, when it feels like there is no hope. You might not believe the episode will end, but repeating the phrase “this too shall pass” can provide comfort because you know — logically, on some deep and hidden level of your mind — it’s true.

It also serves as a reminder to consider what gives your life purpose, meaning and value. Depression makes you feel like your life has no purpose, meaning and value, so it’s important to think about this during better episodes — you can make a list or vision board to look at during worse periods, which opens up the possibility that your life is worthwhile when you are feeling worthless.

I often find that I only recognise the power of “this too shall pass” in hindsight. In the depths of depression, I feel like an idiot for repeating it to myself (in my head, usually, but sometimes aloud). I think it’s stupid to even remind myself of the phrase. Yet the episodes of depression shift and change. They become less intense or end altogether. And each time they do, their transcience gives “this too shall pass” more power.

The beauty of “this too shall pass” is its simplicity and truth. It’s undeniable. Even when mental illness is obliterating your life, repeating the phrase offers the possibility of comfort, reassurance and hope. It’s always worth trying. 

 

Light in the Gloom

This photo sums up how my depression feels at present:

I took it a couple of nights ago, when I was walking along a seafront so obscured by fog that I couldn’t see the sea. It was a strange feeling, being able to hear and smell it without the familiar sight. The streetlight did little more than cast some colour into the gloom.

My level of depression at the moment is affecting me enough that I feel like my life is in shadow, but I can see some light — even if all it illuminates is fog.

That probably sounds pessimistic if you haven’t experienced mental health problems, but it’s actually hopeful. There is light.

Self-Intervention is Part of Self-Care

Knowing when you need extra help is a crucial part of self-care, although it can be difficult.

Learning to recognise when a worsening of symptoms becomes a need for extra help and support is vital for long-term mental health management. However, it can also feel like admitting failure. When your symptoms have improved, a decline in your mental health can feel like it’s your fault — that you have done something wrong which has caused your symptoms to get worse.

Everything feels darker and you are trapped into the “old” pattern of mental illness you thought you had come through.

The logical part of your mind knows this is wrong and nobody is to blame for their mental health problems, but the messed-up parts of your mind constantly tell you the same old myths: it’s your fault, you fucked up, you are doomed to be miserable forever.

 

You may try to ignore the situation, but it’s important to get help sooner rather than later.

I speak from experience. Over the past 3/4 months, my mental health has declined. This came after a fantastic summer during which I did things that were previously impossible for me (going to jive classes, for example) and felt well enough to stop taking medication after over a decade.

I came up with excuses for not going to my GP: I was stressed out because major renovations had turned my home (and life) upside down. I felt more depressed because I had been hit with one virus after another. These excuses were true, but my assumption that things would go back to normal when the workmen left and I regained my physical health were not.

I wasn’t coping and by delaying getting help, I suffered more and my mental health got worse.

I finally went to my GP on Monday. He is referring me to an organisation which offers counselling, which I believe will be most beneficial for me right now. I told him I would prefer not to go back on antidepressants at the moment, but I would never rule them out as a possible treatment. He was brilliant and accepted my insight into my own mental health — I had been a little wary of feeling pressured to take medication again without trying counselling on its own first, but that turned out not to be an issue.

If you aren’t so lucky and your GP pressures you to try a course of treatment which you feel isn’t right for you, remember you are entitled to a second opinion. However, it’s also worth examining your reluctance to follow the suggested course of treatment — some people resist medication, for instance, because they believe myths perpetuated by the media. Do some research, always asking whether your sources have an agenda which is at odds to your wellbeing, and make an informed decision.

 

Self-intervention, like self-care, is different for everyone.

For me, self-intervention was about recognising that I needed professional help and would benefit from counselling, which I hope I will receive. For other people, it might mean enlisting the support of family or friends, altering their lifestyle or adopting more self-care strategies. It could mean something entirely different, which I might not consider.

It’s about recognising when your mental health has dipped enough that you need extra strategies in place to prevent it from getting worse.

Ideally, this will lead to an improvement of symptoms, but the initial reason for self-intervention is to stop the situation declining further. The signs that you have reached this point vary depending on your recent mental health history and self-knowledge. Symptoms which may not concern one person, may be very worrying to another.

For example, I wasn’t concerned by a slight increase in my depression, because I know it gets worse in winter. However, while my low mood was normal for me, the increase in anxiety to the point where I was having panic attacks more often is a red flag. For someone else, the increase in depression could be a red flag whereas if they were already regularly experiencing panic attacks (as I did in the past), an increase in their frequency might be considered a small change.

Knowing your red flags is important in managing your mental health.

If you don’t have a high level of self-knowledge and self-awareness, keeping a record of your symptoms is helpful. I try to do this when my mental health problems get worse because whereas I normally have a high degree of self-awareness, this gets skewed by anxiety and depression: I tend to think things are fine until they get so bad I can’t deny it any longer. By keeping notes on my mental health, I could have noticed the worsening of symptoms before things got so bad.

Like so many things related to mental health, this is easier said than done, but keeping even a rudimentary record of symptoms can be useful.

 

Self-intervention is needed because many mental health symptoms aren’t noticed by other people.

There are plenty of reasons why other people might not recognise your symptoms worsening:

A lot of symptoms are internal. Negative thinking, headaches, low mood, etc. aren’t always apparent on the outside, especially if they are not expressed.

It can be difficult to distinguish when an already-present symptom is getting worse. If someone knows you experience a specific symptom, such as feeling nervous around other people, they may think all signs of this are normal for you and can’t tell when it’s worse or better.

Nobody is with you 100% of the time. Many symptoms are most apparent when you are alone and many may not seem concerning when glimpsed by someone who doesn’t realise how frequent they are. Under-eating or over-eating, for example, are often secretive behaviours and might not worry people who only see you displaying the behaviour over a limited period of time, such as your working hours. They don’t know whether this continues when you get home, or whether these behaviours are balanced out by other ones.

People might not know if something is a symptom of mental illness. There is a lot of ignorance around mental health and some symptoms might seem unconcerning to people who consider them merely quirks. Some symptoms might be considered normal by some people, such as dismissing a persistently low mood as pessimism or chronic under-eating as a low appetite.

Even if other people do realise your mental health is deteriorating, they might not know how to tell you.

They may assume you already realise or that you would feel uncomfortable if they brought it up. They might tell themselves it’s none of their business or that you might get better without their intervention. These assumptions may or may not be correct — the point is that you cannot rely on someone else to recognise your red flags and tell you to get help.

This means you have to make an effort to recognise your own red flags early, so that you can take action and get the help you need.

 

It’s better to plan self-intervention before it’s needed.

When you are relatively well, it’s the best time to make decisions abot what to do if your mental health declines. Don’t wait until worsening symptoms cloud your judgement.

I wish I had a clear plan in place. It would have made things easier and enabled me to get help sooner.

I had some vague ideas about what it would take for me to go back to my GP, but nothing written down. There was no list I could refer to, which would probably have convinced me to see the doctor when my symptoms got worse, rather than a few months later. This is something I plan to change.

While so much of self-managing your mental health is about focusing on positive change, having contingency plans is essential. If you have close friends and family members you trust, you can ask them to help. For example, you may ask them to flag up when you are displaying certain symptoms, such as withdrawing from social events. You can also indicate the kinds of treatment you would prefer in various situations, so they can help you get the treatment which is best for you.

I wish my mental health had continued its upward trajectory, but it hasn’t and self-intervention was necessary to prevent my health from deteriorating further. It’s a potent reminder that mental illness is not linear and for many of us, self-care involves preparing for episodes of worse mental health — perhaps for the rest of our lives. 

Writerly Expectations

I recently read a fantastic book called Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. It is a compilation of advice columns Strayed wrote anonymously as an online agony aunt. It covers a variety of topics, but a particular letter from a writer in her 20s who felt she ought to have been more successful by now struck a chord with me. As did Strayed’s advice, which can be boiled down to the title she gave to this letter and reply: write like a motherfucker.

The problem with writerly expectations is that so much is outside your control.

Life gets in the way of writing and as Strayed says, you need to let go of your grandiose ideas in order to write well — you have to focus on your art and approach it from an attitude of humility. Many writers have a strange mix of arrogance and insecurity: we paradoxically believe that we should be accomplishing great things and that we are incapable of achieving those great things.

This mindset is not conducive to productivity. On one level, you expect to write well and on another you expect what you write to be shit. It’s no wonder so many of us procrastinate or start stories we discard before finishing!

There also seems to be a process of gaining life experience and trying to make sense of life before many writers are able to complete their first substantial piece of work. This process might take a couple of years or a couple of decades, depending on the writer. The consolation is that things somehow work out:

“I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person.” — Cheryl Strayed

 

All you can do is concentrate on the writing — nothing else is guaranteed.

As a writer, you hope that your work will be published and affect people’s lives. You hope it will earn you money. You hope people — especially people you admire — will like your writing. You may have bigger dreams — winning prizes and/or becoming a bestseller.

But what if this doesn’t happen? Is your writing enough for you?

Let’s be blunt: most writers fail to achieve the big goals like winning the Man Booker prize or selling over a million copies of their novel. There are many examples of writers who were hailed as geniuses only after their deaths. If you knew you would never be published, would you still write?

My answer is yes. I’m a writer. It’s a calling and part of my identity. I still hope for success, of course — I’m human! — but my writing is more important to me than the potential rewards it could bring.

The only thing you can do is what Strayed advises — get down in the dirt and write so well that it transcends everything else. She says:

“Nobody is going to give you a thing. You have to give it to yourself. You have to tell us what you have to say.”

I recommend you buy Tiny Beautiful Things for this column alone. Strayed’s advice on writing is fantastic and I would love for her to write a book focusing on writing. However, the rest of it is amazing, too. Go read it now!

And remember, write like a motherfucker.

Create a Not-To-Do List

I first came across the idea of creating a Not-To-Do list, aka a Stop-Doing list, in a book by Chris Guillebeau (I can’t remember which one, but it might be The Art of Nonconformity). The basics are:

1. Write a list of things which you often waste time doing, which don’t add value to your life

2. Stop doing the tasks on the list

So it’s the opposite of a To-Do list, but harder to follow!

Start your not-to-do list today

What kinds of tasks should go on your Not-To-Do list?

Anything you use as a distraction from doing things which add value to your life. These may include:

Constantly checking email, texts, social media, etc. Very few people need to be on call in order to respond to a life or death situation (i.e. mainly firefighters and doctors), yet most people act as if the world will end if a few hours go by without checking their messages. Checking your emails, phone, etc. at regular but less frequent times throughout the day saves time, allows you to respond efficiently and minimises the probability of your getting distracted (especially in the case of social media, when a “quick check” can easily turn into an hour’s browsing).

Busywork which doesn’t yield results. Sending several emails instead of collating the information into one, constantly rearranging documents, writing unnecessary reports… Anything which you do because you feel you ought to, rather than because it’s effective.

Watching television programmes you don’t particularly enjoy. As a rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t bother to record a programme when you go out, don’t watch it just because you’re in!

Casual gaming. This is one of my downfalls! These types of games are designed to be addictive and to distract you throughout the day. If you can’t limit your playing to a certain period of time, for example 30 minutes in the evening, cutting them out altogether might be easier.

Online shopping. Instead of immediately searching for something you want as soon as the thought occurs to you, make a note and shop for it later. This consolidates and reduces the time you spend shopping (including the research as well as the actual purchasing!), plus it prevents impulse buying.

 

You can also include mental timesucks.

Certain thinking patterns can be as much of a distraction as physical activites. While limiting them can be difficult, especially if you have mental health problems, putting them on your Not-To-Do list can help you to become more aware of these cognitive pitfalls — which is the first step in tackling them.

Mental timesucks might include:

Worrying, particularly about things outside of your control. A lot of people find it useful to set aside a time every day (around 15-20 minutes is common) to spend worrying. Whenever you start to worry throughout the day, you write it down and defer the worrying until your worrying time. Often, you will find your worries aren’t important when you return to them.

Generating excuses for not doing something more productive. It’s amazing how we can put more time and effort into procrastinating than is required by the task we are putting off! Increase your motivation and get stuck in.

Daydreaming. I know it’s something adults aren’t supposed to admit to, but everyone daydreams — even if they define it as something else. You might not indulge in full-on fantasies, but everyone wastes time wishing things were different, remembering past events and wondering “what would happen if…?” Try practising mindfulness to bring yourself back to the present.

 

So what do you do with your Not-To-Do list?

You can simply read your Not-To-Do list each day to remind yourself not to succumb to bad habits. You could make it into a poster and display it above your desk or some other prominent place where you will see it throughout the day. Or you could track your progress…

Try making a mark next to an item on your Not-To-Do list each time you engage in that habit.

You will build an accurate picture of how often you waste your time by doing this, which could motivate you to improve. It can also be useful to make a chart showing days and/or times, so that you can spot patterns and anticipate when you are liable to slip into bad habits.

 

Don’t forget to update your list!

Habits and tastes can change over time, but the main reason for updating your Not-To-Do list is that you will notice more timesucks as you become more aware of how you spend your time.

Because many of the ways in which we waste time are habits, we tend not to notice them until our awareness is increased. Not-To-Do lists increase your awareness of how you spend your time.

A note of caution: you are not creating a Not-To-Do list in order to punish yourself.

Don’t beat yourself up if you spend more time than you would like on the tasks on your Not-To-Do list. Creating the list is about regaining control  of your time and punishing yourself for not measuring up to your expectations relinquishes control. Acknowledge that you could do better and move on.

Aim for gradual improvement, rather than a massive shift overnight. You will be surprised at how effective small tweaks can be!

 

 

Glimmers of Hope

The end of January is limboland: the year is no longer shiny and new, but spring feels far away.

My depression tends to get worse in winter and by the time February comes around, my mood has been low for weeks. I have to search hard for small signs of hope, like the gradually lightening evenings and these catkins I saw when I went for a walk today.


As trees, flowers and other plants emerge from winter, it shows the strength of nature’s faith.

Nature doesn’t doubt that spring will come. It knows there will be better times ahead, when flowers can blossom and leaves can flourish. I struggle to find that faith in the midst of depression, even a comparatively low level depression such as I’m experiencing now, but seeing glimmers of hope in nature helps. It reminds me there is a cycle to everything, including mental illness — even when the seasons seem unbearably long.

Nature is preparing for the spring and summer ahead: I need to figure out how to do the same.

I need to search for the glimmers of hope in my own life and use them to motivate me to prepare for better times. It’s too easy to focus on the negative aspects of my life and ignore the positives.

In fact, seeing those catkins today counts as a positive in my life, because I can walk my dog on my own — this time last year, my anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t go out alone. When I walked up the lane alone in March last year, it was the first time in over a decade. That’s another glimmer of hope.

 

 

 

Chatting vs Counselling

Chatting and counselling are not the same.

I’m sick of the number of times I have heard people say things like this:

“Counselling won’t do any good — it’s just talking.”

“Talking about stuff doesn’t help, so counselling is a waste of time.”

“If I wanted to talk about my problems, I’d talk to a friend — there’s no waiting list and it’s free.”

These comments stem from supreme ignorance regarding counselling. I believe most of the people who say these types of remarks have never tried counselling. Their perceptions are based on snippets of (often mis)information they have gleaned from television, social media and the tabloid press.

I’ll repeat it in the hope that the words sink in: chatting and counselling are NOT the same.

If you have never experienced counselling and would like some background information, check out this brief overview from the NHS.

 

Counselling provides you with a safe environment.

One of the main benefits of counselling is that it provides a safe space for you to express your feelings. You can talk without interruptions. You can say anything without fear of being overheard. It’s confidential and you won’t be judged.

Clarification: you might feel as though you will be judged, but that doesn’t make it true. There is a possibility you will be judged by your counsellor, since humans have a tendency to make automatic judgments, but a professional will never expose you to this judgment because they understand that it’s their issue, not yours.

This isn’t true of the people in your life, no matter how empathetic and compassionate they are, because they cannot separate themselves from their emotional relationship with you.

They also bring a lot of emotional baggage to the conversation — knowledge of your history, assumptions they have made about you based on your interactions, their own desires (to be liked by you, to avoid conflict, to steer you onto a path which suits them). All of these things influence the conversation in ways which, while well-meaning, can be unhelpful.

 

Because you have no emotional connection to your counsellor, you can talk about yourself, your relationships and your problems in a different way.

You don’t need to censor yourself. You don’t have to worry about hurting the other person’s feelings. You don’t need to consider the other person’s life and whether what you say might be insensitive given their circumstances.

You can focus on yourself 100%

Maybe that sounds unimportant, but unless you are a narcissist it’s likely that you seldom have the opportunity to talk about your situation without considering anyone else. When you chat with a friend, you not only consider their feelings, but also the information you are revealing about people they know — your partner, children, parents, siblings, other friends, etc.

When you talk to a friend, you censor what you share. You do it to spare their feelings and also to show yourself in a certain light, to avoid jeopardising your relationship. This means you are presenting a skewed, inaccurate picture of your problems.

Doing this isn’t a bad thing — you are protecting yourself, the person with whom you are talking and other friends/family members — but it isn’t the most conducive way for you to find solutions to your problems. Especially if you have complex mental health problems.

Counselling enables you to set out your problems with as much clarity and accuracy as you can, free of the emotional politics which are present in any relationship.

The counsellor will ask questions which allow you to see your situation from a different perspective. He or she will explore the issues you bring to the table and help you choose what to do. Often, he or she will play devil’s advocate and encourage you to answer the questions you have been too afraid to ask, such as whether talking a certain course of action would be truly disastrous or if there would be a period of discomfort followed by greater happiness in the long term.

Compare this to a chat with friends who, even with the best intentions, will say things like “you can’t leave your husband because he loves you” or “you shouldn’t quit your well-paid job because you don’t know if you’ll need the money in future.” These comments are usually based on their own fears and ideas about “conventional behaviour.” They are unhelpful and potentially damaging, no matter how well-meaning the spirit in which they are said.

The result is whereas chatting with a friend can be reassuring, it will not allow you to fully consider your options in the same way that counselling can.

 

Counsellors are trained to deal with mental health problems.

Your friends are not. I’m pointing out the obvious because it’s important: a counsellor will recognise when what you are saying is indicative that you intend to harm yourself or another person. They won’t shut you off when you discuss feeling suicidal, convinced that it means you are about to kill yourself today. Neither will they ignore the warnings which untrained people might not recognise.

Mental health professionals have protocols in place which enable them to handle dangerous situations. When you attend your first counselling appointment, the counsellor tells you that everything you say is confidential but if they think you are in danger of harming yourself or another person, they have a duty to intervene. If this happens, they will follow the appropriate protocol.

In contrast, your friends probably wouldn’t know what to do if they believed you were about to harm yourself or someone else. They might take a course of action which puts you, themselves or other people at risk through their ignorance. 

This applies to their comments as much as contacting authorities. Many people make well-meaning comments which could cause distress and cause further damage to your mental health. Because your friends haven’t been trained in counselling, they are liable to make these comments when you are at your most vulnerable.

They will also find it difficult to hear you say certain things. It is horrifying to hear your friend talk about feeling suicidal, for example, even if they emphasise that they are not about to act on those feelings. Your friends’ instinct when they hear you say things which make them feel uncomfortable is to protect themselves by silencing you. This leaves you feeling, at best, unheard and frustrated.

It could also have more harmful effects, such as making you think you have no right to feel this way or that you are selfish/stupid/a terrible person — none of which is true. A counsellor, on the other hand, will listen. You can voice your deepest, darkest thoughts and emotions. They will empathise and empower you to explore these feelings.

Counselling is a safe way of expressing yourself: you won’t be silenced or exposed to comments which make you feel worse.

 

There are different types of counselling.

When you hear people talking about counselling, they usually give the impression that there is one definitive type of counselling. There is not.

There are many types of talking therapy and different counsellors use different approaches. Furthermore, counsellors with similar approaches may have different styles. For example, some might be more blunt and direct, whereas others focus on presenting themselves as compassionate and supportive. There is no “right” way and it may take some time and experimentation to find an approach and an individual counsellor who suits you.

Unfortunately, many people who try counselling don’t take this into account. They have a single bad experience and conclude that all counselling is crap and useless.

When they voice this opinion, it can lead people with no experience of counselling to think they are correct and have authority because they have tried counselling. This is dangerous. It prevents people from seeking help for their mental health problems.

Of course there are crap counsellors — there are people in all professions who somehow slip through the net despite their skills or manner of working not being up to the required standard. It shouldn’t happen, but it does. However, these people are a minority and should not be used as an example of the profession as a whole. If you encounter a counsellor who behaves unprofessionally, report them and find another counsellor — don’t write off counselling as an option because you have a bad experience.

You may also benefit from different types and styles of talking therapy at different times.

When I first had counselling, for instance, I saw a very nice lady who had been told by the NHS to deliver a CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) focused service because the efficacy of CBT has been proven in studies and appears to be more effective than counselling on its own. I diligently worked through the exercises and found that they didn’t help — I felt a little better during sessions, but this wore off soon after I got home. Looking back, I realise I needed a different type of talking therapy and even plain old counselling would have been better than CBT at the time. Later on, after receiving a year of drama therapy, I was ready to use those CBT techniques I’d learnt and nowadays I find them helpful.

The point is not to lambast counselling or any other therapy if it doesn’t work for you. It might work for other people. And don’t discount the possibility of it working for you in the future.

 

Talking with friends is great, but it’s not therapy.

I want to make it clear that I value talking to friends. I love chatting and do it a lot. At no point in this post have I meant to give the impression that talking has no value. In fact, I advocate talking about your mental health as much as you can — but in addition to seeking professional help.

It can be helpful to discuss your problems with friends, as long as you are aware that it cannot be a neutral exchange. When you have a relationship with someone, your conversations are loaded. It is a different type of dialogue.

I encourage you to chat about your mental health problems  to anyone you trust, but be aware that talking to friends and/or family is not an alternative to counselling.

Chatting can be a useful strategy in managing your mental health, but if you need more help don’t dismiss counselling as “just talking.” Don’t assume that it’s the same as hashing out your problems with your friends. And definitely don’t make ignorant comments about counselling when you haven’t given it a fair shot.

 

 

How to Get Motivated

Many of us get caught in limbo between wanting to achieve our goals and not being able to find the motivation to work towards them. It makes no sense — we want to succeed, yet we struggle to take the  necessary steps.

Of course, the reality is complex. There are psychological reasons for procrastination, such as fear of failure or even fear of success. Sometimes it is valuable to work through these reasons, either by yourself or with a life coach or mental health professional, but what do you do when you just want to take action now?

Here are some strategies which can help you build motivation and be proactive:

 

Reconnect with why you want to achieve your goals.

Why do you want to do whatever it is you are avoiding? What will be the end result? How will accomplishing your goals make you feel?

Look at the big picture and the small one. For instance, going for a run today will contribute to your goal of leading a fit, healthy life and being able to play with your children without collapsing, but it will also give you a boost of mood and confidence straight after you do it.

If you are avoiding a task you hate and which seems to have no bearing on your happiness and long term goals, you might need to think creatively. A mundane task like filing, for example, contributes to your wellbeing by providing a well organised environment which you can negotiate easily when completing other tasks which relate more directly to your goals.

It helps to make a list of your goals or to create a vision board, whether with scissors and glue or on Pinterest. Look at this reminder regularly. Place it where you will see it every day.

It can also be helpful to read about people who have achieved similar goals. Scour the internet — you will find blogs, ebooks and forums full of people who have been successful in the area in which you are aiming to succeed. Their stories are not only inspiring, but often reassuring: many of them will have struggled at various points, but they overcame these problems.

Do anything you can to remind yourself of the benefits of completing the task(s) you are avoiding, instead of getting caught up in how bad it feels to procrastinate.

 

Gather a support team.

Find people who will help you achieve your goals. Sometimes you will be lucky enough to find these people already in your life, in the shape of family and friends; sometimes you will have to seek them out.

The most valuable people will be those who are aiming to achieve similar goals — or who have already achieved similar goals. They will be able to give you advice and empathise in ways which other people won’t be able to, because they have had similar experiences to you.

Depending on your goal, you might find your support team in local groups or classes. You could meet people through those you already know, such as a friend of a friend who has done something you are aiming to do. However, the internet is a valuable resource in finding your support team.

Search for blogs and forums which relate to your goals and use social media to find likeminded individuals. You may have to work hard to cut through all the crap and people you just don’t click with, but online friends can often be better sources of support than people you know in real life. Because you are connecting through your goals, it gives your interactions a focus which is very motivating.

Sharing your goals with your support team helps you to remain accountable. In addition to providing help and advice, they will want updates on your progress. This motivates you to do something — anything! — so that you don’t have to admit you have done nothing.

Of course, your support team should also be compassionate and have your best interests at heart. They will encourage you to work towards your goals, but won’t stress you out by putting you under a lot of pressure. Consider this when selecting who you want in your support team — anyone who endangers your emotional health will not be motivating in the long term, even if their pep talks get you fired up.

 

Divide your goals into chunks and start small.

Big goals are not only intimidating, but can lead to inertia because you simply don’t know where to start. You need to work out each step which leads to your goal — or at least the first steps.

If you face additional challenges, such as mental health problems, make these steps extra-tiny. They might seem ridiculous, but it helps. Make your chunks as small as they need to be — the sizes may vary at different times. For example, sometimes my to-do list says “redraft X story” and other times, this step is divided into smaller chunks like “flesh out the ending” and “refine dialogue in first section.”

The point is to reduce the steps towards your goals into chunks which are so small that they won’t seem intimidating.You can then start with the smallest/quickest/easiest steps.

Once you complete a couple of these tiny steps, you will usually finds your motivation kicks in and you want to tackle more chunks. If this doesn’t happen, simply repeat the process and (re)start with the next smallest/quickest/easiest step. Even if it feels like a slog, you will have gotten something done, which is better than nothing.

 

Record your progress.

It doesn’t matter how you track your progress, as long as you do it somehow. Figure out how you can measure your goals, whether it’s ticking items off a to-do list (my favourite method), colouring in a chart (I love how this lets me visualise my progress) or crunching numbers with an app/calculator. Recording small increments is usually more motivating than just tracking huge milestones which take ages to reach.

The most important thing is to use a tracking system which suits you and your lifestyle.

After all, a tracking system is only effective if you use it. Consider your preferences and what would be most convenient — writing everything in a beautiful notebook can be inspiring, but not if it’s too big to carry around so you forget to actually track your progress. Using an app on your smartphone is probably a better option if you travel a lot (I don’t, but I love Evernote anyway!).

Here are some old school ways to track your progress, which is the approach I favour:

6 Simple Ways to Track Your Progress Towards Your Goals

If you prefer a techy approach, here are some apps you could use:

7 Tools to Help Keep Track of Habits and Goals

And if you want some more ideas, I like this post:

7 Great Ways to Track Your Progress Towards Your Goals

Remember to look at your progress regularly, to remind yourself of how far you have come. It’s easy to forget when you are focused on what you need to do, so take time to celebrate your success and use it to propel you on to the next success.

 

Cultivate positivity.

A negative mindset is procrastination’s best friend. Do everything you can to adopt a positive attitude — here are some ideas:

Repeat affirmations or mantras. This can be very effective in crowding out the critical voice telling you not to bother trying to do something because you probably won’t succeed anyway. Something as simple as “I can handle it” (borrowed from Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway) is often helpful in reassuring yourself.

Challenge your negative thoughts. There are several types of negative thinking, which are addressed in more detail here, but the basic guide to challenging them is to look for evidence that they are wrong. For example, if you keep thinking “I’m stupid” consider situations you have experienced which dispute this, such as passing exams and performing tasks successfully. Write down the negative thoughts you are experiencing in relation to your lack of motivation and then write down at least 5 pieces of evidence which disprove them. You will find this evidence, because all negative thoughts are incorrect — they exaggerate and ignore information.

Remind yourself of your achievements. While this is related to challenging negative thoughts, it is a useful exercise in itself. List everything you have done which you are proud of, which you had to work hard for or which other people admire. Everyone has achieved something — don’t belittle your own achievements.

Surround yourself with optimistic people. Seek out your support team and tell them you need encouragement. Avoid people who bring you down, no matter how much you love them — not forever, but long enough to give you a break so that you can get things done. Find them online — whether via social media, blogs or YouTube videos.

Listen to upbeat music. Sing along, too. I have a “happy music” playlist for this purpose — make your own or find one you like on a music site. Singing along helps because, in my experience, it absorbs you so much that there is no room for negative thoughts.

 

Go for a walk.

Seriously. I know it sounds really random, but I think it’s a combination of factors:

Physical exercise. Which has loads of benefits for mental health and puts you in the mood for action because of the biochemical effects. It also gives me a feeling of accomplishment, which motivates me to take more action.

Mindfulness. I make an effort to focus on my surroundings when I go for a walk, not least because I tend to walk on a narrow country lane and have to step aside for traffic! Being mindful means I’m not paying attention to negative thoughts or stressing about anything.

Sunlight. Being outside in daylight, even if the sun is hidden by clouds, can boost your mood. Feeling better makes it easier to get motivated.

Connecting with nature. I don’t apologise for having a hippy streak, but this applies to everyone — regardless of a desire (or lack thereof) to commune with Mother Earth. Being outside makes you appeciate the beauty of the world and that you are part of it, albeit a tiny part. It puts your worries into perspective.

You don’t have to go for a walk — anything you can do which gives you these benefits will help — but I haven’t found anything else as potent for increasing my motivation. Give it a try!

 

Get ready to go.

Prepare to start your first task, even if you don’t think you will. Set up any equipment you need and wear an appropriate (comfortable) outfit. Put on some upbeat music. Drink coffee or cola if you need/want a stimulant to help. Switch your phone to silent and turn off the TV.

Make it so easy to start your task that it would be ridiculous not to do it.

Setting a timer can help — you can follow the pomodoro technique, but my version is to set the timer for 5-10 minutes and do everything I can to tackle the task at hand in that time. Sometimes I manage very little or nothing, but at least I know I gave it a shot.

However, I usually find that I continue the task until it’s complete. Often, this is enough to motivate me to complete more tasks. I think it helps that I have a cute blue owl timer. However effective this technique is, remember to be compassionate towards yourself — the results don’t matter as much as having tried.

 

Moving forward.

If you feel you need to work through your procrastination in more detail, I found this cool poster, which is free to download:

Get Motivated poster

Bear in mind that you will have to try these techniques over and over again — doing them once might get a few tasks completed, but reaching your goals requires more consistency.

Most importantly, figure out which techniques work best for you. Keeping notes can help, because different techniques may be more/less effective at different times. Don’t be afraid to experiment — you’re already procrastinating, so you have nothing to lose!

Response to Theresa May’s Announcement

On Monday, Theresa May announced that she intends to provide more support for children and young people with mental health problems. Here is a response I wrote on behalf of the mental health charity for which I volunteer:

The Project’s Response to Theresa May’s Pledge to Provide More Support  for Young People with Mental Health Problems 

While the blog is an official reaction from the charity, The Project, it also reflects my own views.

I have also come across a response from Mind which correlates with my thoughts:

Our Response to Theresa May’s Speech

The bottom line is it’s easy for politicians to make promises — and even easier for them to break those promises.

I’m glad that mental health issues are getting more attention in the media, but concerned that the average person will see/hear these reports and assume the government is addressing the problems effectively. This isn’t true in my experience, nor the experiences of various people I have met or heard about.

There are still massive problems at every stage, from raising awareness of mental health problems to providing treatment and practical support. These problems range from appropriate help being unavailable to people with mental health problems being patronised by the professionals who are supposed to support them.

There needs to be a complete overhaul in the way mental health is treated. Tackling a few peripheral aspects is not enough.