Be Like a Bluebell

I took this photo because this is the first bluebell I’ve seen this year (a couple of weeks ago – I’ve since seen loads more). I thought I might use it in a blog post about hope or my relief that spring is easing my symptoms a little, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised how perfectly the picture demonstrates something else…

Bluebell
Bluebells are experts at showcasing themselves.

The contrast between their purple flowers (let’s face it – they are more purple than blue!) and green leaves makes them stand out. In the case of this particular bluebell, the surrounding plants are green and it stands out all the more. The colours complement each other and the spread of foliage acts as a backdrop. While a carpet of bluebells is spectacular, one alone can be stunning.

Bluebells also enhance each other, instead of competing, which is why the carpet effect is so spectacular. Being surrounded by other bluebells doesn’t detract from the beauty of a single one, but their beauty is multiplied through togetherness.

I think humans can learn a lot from bluebells.

We need to find ways to showcase ourselves and each other, working together instead of buying into a zero-sum philosophy which dictates that there must be winners and losers. A lot can be gained from a simple change in perspective: instead of criticising everyone and pointing out flaws, what if we actively look for things to praise?

Human brains love problem solving. As soon as you make a statement, your brain looks for evidence to support that statement. If you think “I am unlucky”, you can find dozens of examples as evidence. Likewise, if you think “I am lucky”, you will find dozens of examples. Neither is “true” because luck is a matter of perspective. This is why breaking out of negative thinking patterns is so difficult – your brain follows the well-trodden path and seeks evidence to convince you it’s the only path.

Taking a different approach doesn’t come easily, but it’s worth the effort. Seeking positives is empowering – both of yourself and others. When you start focusing on people’s strengths, including your own, opportunities come into view.

I have been trying to focus on my strengths recently, but it’s difficult. Not because I have none (though I certainly believe this at times, that’s just a symptom of my mental illness), but because our society seems so determined to knock people down. There is a constant stream of negativity from the media, social media, the general public, etc.

An article in the current issue of Mslexia, a writing magazine I otherwise love, the lead feature is about the financial difficulties writers face, especially in old age. It brings out the old “don’t give up the day job” advice, which is great for people without mental health problems who have a day job, but demoralising for those of us who are unable to work in the jobs most readily available, which all seem to involve a high degree of interaction with the public (not great for people with social anxiety). While the article goes on to explore a few solutions, I think it would have been much more interesting (and relevant) if it had taken a different approach: how can writers use their skills to earn a living and provide for their future?

I have discovered something interesting from my reading and talking to people: those who advise me to focus on my strengths and what I enjoy are happier and more successful.

I should clarify that I mean happy and successful according to their own terms. Many of us, believe it or not, don’t aspire to be millionaires. Sure, it would be nice, but money just isn’t a priority. If I could earn a living doing the work I love (which doesn’t mean loving every minute or every aspect of it, but loving it overall), I would be satisfied. I don’t need expensive holidays and designer shoes to make me happy (though both are appreciated!); I want to write and help people with mental health problems. Meanwhile, I’m trying to fight through the pessimism and find ways to help me achieve what I want.

I’m trying to focus my attention on what is helpful, instead of being demoralised by negative diatribes which assume everyone is physically and mentally capable of following the conventional path. I keep reminding myself to be like a bluebell, to show myself to my best advantage.

It’s also worth noting that while bluebells showcase themselves, they are not showy. They are modest flowers and all the more beautiful because of it. They don’t need to showboat, boast and seek attention. They quietly do their own thing and let their beauty shine for those who take the time to look. I think we can all learn a lot from bluebells.

How To Find Value In Your Life

When you have mental health problems, there are times when it feels like your life has no value whatsoever.

Negative thoughts undermine you every time you think of something in your life which might be worth something, anything. You convince yourself that anything you have achieved is meaningless. When you consider things you might do, your negative mindset dismisses them as either worthless or unachievable.

This post is a tool which can hopefully remind you that:

1. There are aspects of your life which are valuable, to both you and other people

2. You can incorporate more valuable activities into your life if you wish

If you are experiencing a bad episode of mental illness, your mind will probably rail against every suggestion and come up with excuses for not acknowledging the value in your life. Try not to be discouraged and recognise it as a symptom of your mental health problems, not a reflection of you as a person.

Every life has value. Even people who have done terrible things have aspects of their life which are valuable, which have affected others in a positive way. It doesn’t mean the valuable parts of their lives atone for the crimes and atrocities they have committed, but it means that everyone has the power to choose to cultivate those parts of their lives which are most valuable. If everyone focused on the value in their lives and other people’s lives, the world would be a kinder, more compassionate place.

There are many ways in which people find value in their lives. Here is a brief outline of 4 key areas:

 

1. Creativity

Creating anything is valuable, especially if it comes from the heart. Creativity can take many different forms, from making practical objects like furniture and tools to producing lighthearted sketch shows which entertain people. The intended effects of what you create can be likewise various: you may write an essay to challenge political thought, take a photograph to evoke emotion or cook dinner so your family can enjoy a tasty, satisfying meal. All of these effects are valuable, adding meaning and pleasure to people’s lives.

You should celebrate improving and developing your skills, of course, but it’s best to focus on expressing yourself — not on judging or criticising the results. Take pleasure in what you create.

You probably already do creative activities in your life, even if you don’t consider them as “proper” creative activities. People often dismiss things they find easy or have done for a long time. They might disregard drawing, for example, as just doodling. They might knit or sew, but think of these things as practical means to an end, rather than a creative pursuit. Think about how you are creative in your life — perhaps you style your hair or apply makeup in a certain way, grow herbs on a windowsill or make greetings cards for friends.

What you create doesn’t have to be professional standard to be valuable. Remember, the value is in the process more than the outcome. Consider how it makes you feel, as well as how your creativity makes other people feel. Being creative can help cultivate a sense of wellbeing, especially as it makes you feel useful. By their definition, all creative activities leave you with something to show for your time, which is a reminder that your time itself is valuable.

 

2. Relationships

Your life is valuable to everyone with whom you have a personal relationship. The problem with the word “relationship” is that it has become synonymous with “romantic relationship” so can make those of us who are single, or people in dissatisfactory romantic relationships, feel our lives have no value when people talk about the importance of relationships. Consider your relationships in a more inclusive sense: family relationships, friendships, relationships with colleagues and acquaintances, etc. You touch people’s lives in a variety of ways.

Think about how the people in your life have given you value: they might have given you different kinds of support or just made you laugh during a tough day. Think about what you have done for them — even if you feel like a burden most of the time, there are always little things which you have done for others. 

Remember that pets count, too. My relationship with my dog provides me with a lot of value, because I can’t deny that he loves me. During a bad episode, I can argue ad nauseum that my friends and family don’t really care and would be better off without me (though I know that’s not really true), but my dog demonstrates every day that he is besotted with me. I’m the most important person in his life and he would be devastated if I died. Sure, I think that’s pretty damned pathetic when my mental health problems are bad, but it’s better than nothing — it’s something to cling on to.

Trouble is, we tend to dismiss relationships which don’t fit our vision of perfect relationships: if they aren’t wonderful 100% of the time, we don’t think of them as valuable when we’re feeling low. The reality is that no relationship fits the Hollywood versions we have been sold. You might wish your life resembled your favourite film or sitcom, but the fact that it isn’t similar doesn’t mean your relationships are less valuable.

Think about all the connections you have, to people you know well and those you see only occasionally. Your life has value because it impacts so many people, even in small ways.

 

3. Contribution

We can contribute to other people’s lives in a variety of ways, all of which are valuable. It follows on from relationships, because simply providing love and companionship is a great way to contribute to others. Acts of kindness (whether random or not) can also make a big difference. It can be challenging to find ways to demonstrate kindness when you have mental health problems, but it’s still possible — buying a friend a small surprise gift or baking a cake, for instance, are great ways of brightening someone’s day.

Donating to charity is also a fabulous way of contributing to society. You can donate money, items or time. You can adapt your contribution to suit your current circumstances, so you can do more as your mental health improves and hold back during bad episodes. Most organisations are grateful for anything you can give and will understand that you need to prioritise your health.

Volunteering can be especially rewarding when it concerns an issue which is important to you. I recently started volunteering for The Project, which is a local organisation which supports young people with mental health problems and their families. I have volunteered for other organisations and found the work valuable, but striving to help young people who are in similar situations to ones I have experienced is more meaningful. I hope I can help to spare them some of the pain I went through, long before The Project existed, which gives my life a greater sense of purpose and value.

 

4. Goals

Pursuing goals can be a great source of value and meaning — as long as you reasons for selecting your goals are your own. Doing something because you think you should or because lots of other people do it isn’t as valuable. I have recently been reminded to focus on my personal reasons for undertaking my Machu Picchu charity challenge, which had fallen by the wayside as I freaked out about fundraising and not measuring up to other people’s expectations. We all have to run our own race. It doesn’t matter what other people are doing, not least because they haven’t faced the same challenges as we have, so the real value comes from focusing on doing our best for our own reasons.

Setting goals and working towards them cultivates a sense of purpose. It reminds us that we are moving and making progress, even when we feel like we are stagnating. 

We may also inspire others by pursuing our goals, which adds value to their lives as well as our own. You may have noted that I have said “pursuing goals” instead of “achieving goals” throughout this section: the achieving doesn’t matter as much as the pursuing. Striving towards goals gives your life meaning, regardless of the outcome. The results simply don’t matter as much as the pursuit, because it’s the work and preparation which provides value.

Your goals can be anything, as long as they stretch you a little and aren’t so overwhelming that you give up. They don’t need to be grand or important — you don’t even need to tell anyone else about them, though the support can help. For several years, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to read Ulysses by James Joyce. It gave me something to work towards during some very difficult times and I enjoyed pursuing the goal, though it probably sounds silly to other people. You know what you like, so pick goals which you will enjoy working towards.

 

Make a list of what gives your life value — right now.

If you are feeling low, doing this can remind you of how much you have in your life. If you are feeling good, keep the list to look at during bad episodes and/or think of ways you could add more value to your life.

Just remember that your life does have value, meaning and purpose — even when it feels otherwise.

 

 

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!

 

 

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!

How to Set Goals on Your Terms

Everyone seems to be talking about New Year’s Resolutions at the beginning of the year, whether they are setting their own or mocking other people for making them. The same stuff gets churned out year after year, as if achieving goals can be addressed with a one-size-fits-all mentality – yet year after year, most people fail to achieve their goals.

I believe the most effective approach is a personal one. Instead of listening to whatever guru is currently on television, turn to the premier expert on you: yourself.

 

  1. Figure out what YOU want

A lot of noise gets created by the media, social media, advertising, your family and friends, etc. We are bombarded with a lot of messages about what we “should” want: a thin body, a romantic relationship, children, a big house, a fancy car, designer clothes, luxury holidays… These things are sold as solutions to our problems and all too often, we accept that at face value because it’s easy and seems to work for everyone else.

You need to step back and question these assumptions. Why do you want any of the above? How would it change your life? How would it make you feel? Might there be different effects to the ones shown in glossy magazine images?

Pinpoint what you ultimately want, rather than thinking a certain goal equates to happiness. If you would like a new relationship, for example, how would you like to feel in that relationship? Supported, cherished, secure? Consider whether other things could be more effective in helping you achieve those feelings. I’m not saying you shouldn’t want a relationship or anything else listed above; I’m saying you need to work out why you want it and keep an open mind as to how you might achieve that why.

If questioning yourself doesn’t change your mind, that’s great! It means you want to achieve your goal for the right reasons and have clarified the specifics. For instance, if companionship is a priority for you in a relationship, you may not want to pursue a relationship with someone who works away for months at a time. You have a clearer vision.

However, if you have changed your mind about what you want, that’s great too! Don’t be afraid to search away from the beaten track. Who cares if other people don’t understand why you are choosing a specific goal? As long as it makes you happy, it’s all that matters. Besides, quirkier goals are usually more fun!

 

  1. Do your research

Has anyone achieved your goal? For most goals, the answer is yes. Seek these people out, online and real life. Find out how they succeeded and what they wish had happened in a different way. Ask for advice. Gather all the information you can at first, then select what is most relevant to you and your situation.

If your goal has never been achieved by anyone (gold star for you!), research people who have achieved similar goals. In fact, a lot of information and inspiration can be gleaned from reading about successes which appear different to what you want to achieve. Whatever your goal, factors like determination and confidence are bound to be issues.

It can help to divide your research into practical aspects and mental/emotional considerations. While there may be overlapping, it is helpful to organise your material this way because practicalities and mental/emotional concerns require different approaches. Further subdivisions can also be useful, as tackling your goal in smaller chunks makes it more manageable.

 

  1. Play to your strengths

What works best for you? What are your skills? Which of your personality traits can be characterised as strengths? How have you achieved goals in the past?

All of these things can help you tailor how you approach your goal to your own needs and idiosyncrasies. For example, if you struggle to get up in the morning, perhaps early runs aren’t the best strategy for you to get fit – exercising later in the day would suit you better and make you more likely to stick with your goal. The idea is to incorporate your goal into your life as seamlessly as possible – it doesn’t mean achieving your goal will be easy, but it will make things a little easier and increase the chances of achieving your goal.

Refer to your research: have other people used strategies which might work well for you? How have people with similar lifestyles or personalities achieved their goals? Are there any deal-breakers which you will need to fulfil in order to avoid failure?

 

  1. Define what success means to you

How will you know when you have achieved your goal? The answer is obvious for some goals, like running a marathon, but can be open to interpretation with other goals. For example, if your goal is to lose weight, what indicates success? A certain number on the scales? A clothing size? Define what you want.

If your goal is more difficult to measure, you may need to create your own subjective scale. For instance, if you want to simply be happier, how will you know? Our moods fluctuate and memories of emotional states are unreliable. Perhaps you could measure your happiness by the number of times you have had fun over a week. Or you could use a scale of one to ten to rate your level of satisfaction with different areas of your life.

It’s up to you how you define and measure your goal – just choose a mechanism which works for you.

 

  1. Don’t be afraid to experiment and re-evaluate

Finding what works for you is reliant on trial and error. Don’t waste time playing it safe – if a strategy intrigues you, try it out as an experiment for a certain period of time. You have nothing to lose by trying something different for a week or two, but you could gain a lot if the strategy works well.

A word of caution: the time period of your experimentations depends on your goal and the new strategy you are trying out. Changing your diet for 3 days, for example, is not helpful in finding out whether it can sustain long-term weight loss. On the other hand, it may be long enough to establish that a new sleep routine works for you. Don’t give up your experiments too early – unless they are having a significant detrimental effect.

Make notes on what you try and the results. It’s useful to be able to refer back to them weeks or months later, when you might be facing a plateau in reaching your goal and need to assess why previous strategies you have used did or didn’t work. Keeping a record of your experimentations also helps capture ideas on what you could try in future – sometimes strategies which didn’t work at the beginning of the year can be ideal later on.

 

  1. Track your progress

A major reason for defining your goal and how to measure your success is so that you can record your progress. This helps keep you motivated and accountable. It stops you from carrying on regardless of whether your efforts are producing results.

Decide how often you want to track your progress. Weekly check-ins work well, because they keep your goal at the forefront of you mind, but fortnightly or monthly records might be more appropriate – it depends on your goal. Use a timescale which suits you, as long as you track your progress regularly.

Use a method of recording your progress which suits you. A gorgeous notebook might motivate you to take the time to detail your success, or using a smartphone app might provide a hassle-free and convenient way to track progress. Whatever method you use, keeping it simple will probably help you stick at it.

 

  1. Keep going!

I know I’m pointing out the obvious, but people often overlook the fact that most success is due to consistency. Hard work and determination go a long way. There are no shortcuts to achieving any goal that’s worth achieving – otherwise everyone would be doing it easily.

Sure, factors like luck can play a part, but even if you get a lucky break, you need to be ready for it. You need to have done the grunt work behind the scenes so that when a record producer asks to hear your demo tape, you can place a professional quality showcase of your talents straight into his hands. Some people might get quite far on charm and no substance, but they are rare and would go much further if they backed it up with other skills.

If you quit, the only person you are hurting is you. The world doesn’t care that you could have been the next great scientific genius or whatever – they will only care if you stick with your goal and produce great work.

Everyone has potential – but realising that potential is rare.

Choose to be one of the few who reach their potential, or at least a good percentage of their potential. Strive towards your goals and when you get knocked back, keep going. You can do it.

 

 

 

 

 

New Year, New Me? No, Thanks.

 

It’s two days into the New Year and I’m sick of seeing adverts inviting me to become “a new you” or to start “your new life.” I like setting goals, whether New Year’s resolutions or otherwise, but I hate this emphasis on The New You. Using this language doesn’t evoke transformation – it implies obliteration.

The message is “you need to change every aspect of your being and become someone else.” This is not empowering: it’s impossible. If you aim to become this mythical New You, you are setting yourself up for failure. What a great way to start the year!

 

Value who you are.

You don’t need to become a New You. No matter how unhappy you are with your life right now, your core being is not the problem. There is nothing inherently wrong with you that needs to be eradicated.

Erasing yourself is not the answer; valuing yourself is the answer.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, but nothing really changes until you learn that you are valuable, useful and worthwhile. Until you decide that you are valuable enough to deserve everything you want, it’s extremely difficult to get anything you want. If you manage to succeed, you will find that the effects aren’t what you’d hope – winning a prize won’t make you value your own achievements.

Losing weight is a common example: when you don’t value yourself, you decide that your life would be perfect if only you were thinner (because you will be more confident, powerful, etc.) and you throw yourself into a punishing regime. Often, you will fail to lose a significant amount of weight because your regime is unrealistic. When a month of starvation results in misery, no energy and just a few measly pounds lost, you give up and believe you are destined to be a failure.

On the other hand, if you hate yourself enough to stick it out and reach your goal, there is a surprise in store: you realise that nothing much has changed. You have some new clothes and a temporary confidence boost (it’s alarming how quickly the confidence wears off after you lose weight), but the same life. The same you.

You react to this problem of the same you in the same way – you find a different aspect of your life to blame for your unhappiness and set out on the same path of punishment and self-sabotage. The self-sabotage can crop up at any time, whether it’s a week into your attempted transformation or months after meeting your goal. You will find yourself adopting unhealthy habits which build more obstacles between you and the mythical New You you are trying to become.

As you probably realise, I have been through this on many occasions. When I was 18, I lost 60lb and thought my life would magically become a life I wanted to live. It didn’t, because I hated myself and hadn’t tackled the underlying problems, which included zero self-esteem and clinical depression.

It was an awful shock to reach the milestone I had been striving towards, only to realise that nothing had changed apart from my dress size and the assumptions ignorant people make based on one’s dress size. I wasn’t even much healthier than when I was overweight, because my weight loss tactic was eating very small amounts of junk food. My mental health problems worsened and I regained all of the weight, plus a lot extra, within a few years.

There are no short cuts or workarounds: you need to start with valuing yourself. So forget all ideas of becoming a New You – aim to be the same you, but better.

 

Use your goals to become closer to your true self.

Forget creating a New You from scratch – instead, focus on getting closer to who you really are. Think about what you want, not what the media, advertising and other people tell you to want. What would you like to do more? What would you prefer to do less? Move towards the things which are working in your life and away from the things which aren’t.

Don’t fall into the trap of doing what everyone seems to be telling you to do at this time of year. Even if you want to lose weight (I do – healthily and permanently, this time), it doesn’t mean you have to join one of the slimming clubs advertised on TV and join a gym. You can find the methods which work best for you, without paying undue attention to all the crap flying about.

If it helps, take time to consider what you want – many people seem to have the attitude that New Year’s resolutions involve throwing yourself in the deep end, but that is not the only option. You have time to research, make small adjustments, experiment, etc. and still achieve your goals by the end of the year.

Embrace who you are and what works best for you.

If diving in at the deep end is the most successful strategy for you personally, go for it. If you are more likely to reach your goals by making slow and steady progress, do so. I suspect most of us flourish from a combination of big and small changes at different times – but remember that the ultimate change, the mythical New You, is impossible.

 

Become a better version of you.

Instead of chasing the mythical New You, work on becoming a better version of who you already are. Because you are pretty awesome. Seriously. Everyone has admirable personality traits, talents and skills; make a list of your own if you need reminding.

Consider how you can focus on these strengths and use them to make changes in your life.

Achieving goals involves working out how to incorporate them into your current life. Your life may change as you progress towards achieving goals, but you will always have this starting point. You need to create a path leading from here and now to the life you want. It goes back to learning to value yourself – you also need to value your life as it is right now, even if you don’t like it very much. You can’t exchange it for a new one.

I’m not saying you should dream small – far from it! – but you need to figure out how to get from your current life to your dream life.

Stop thinking of yourself and your current life as things you are stuck with, but don’t buy into the fantasy of a blank canvas either. Instead, consider your current situation and your core being as materials which you can sculpt. You can’t change the molecular structure of these materials, but you can shape them into something beautiful.

I realise now that I don’t want a blank canvas. I’m enjoying sculpting my life. The materials are more interesting, problematic as they may be, and the flaws have their own beauty. I’m learning to chisel away the negative stuff and to polish the best material so that it shines.

Use the materials you already have and value their colours, shapes and textures. Say “no, thanks” to the mythical New You advertisers are trying to sell.

 

My Biggest Challenge Yet

Today is a big day for me: in precisely 6 months, I will be leaving for Peru, where I will complete a charity trek to Machu Picchu. It’s something I have wanted to do for many years, so when I was feeling frustrated and bored with life back in the summer and received an email from Amnesty International about a planned trip, I enrolled with little hesitation. I consider it a chance to challenge myself, to raise money and awareness for human rights and to show everyone that mental illness needn’t stop you achieving your dreams.

Peru Challenge

The trek is rated “tough” and is challenging for anyone, but there are some factors which make it extremely challenging for me:

1. My mental health problems

I find it difficult to be around people I don’t know, so anxiety will be an issue for me – at first, anyway. In my experience, the anticipation is worse than actually meeting new people and spending time with strangers, so it will probably be more of a challenge during my preparation. I’m not sure whether this is an advantage or a disadvantage! Either way, it’s just something I have to deal with.

Anxiety also makes it difficult to organise fundraising events, especially as it is unpredictable. It means that funding my trip through sponsorship was never going to be an option, since the pressure of a high sponsorship target combined with the need to arrange lots of events to meet that target would be detrimental to my health. As it is, I feel stressed about whether I will be able to raise the modest target I have in mind.

2. I am fat and unfit

When I say fat, I mean obese – not just a few pounds overweight. This means that I will have to lose as much weight as I can before the trip (and to lose it healthily, unlike when I have lost weight in the past), as well as building up my fitness. I’m already making progress: I have lost 25lbs, despite the struggles of coming off antidepressants causing a resurgence in comfort eating. I joined the gym nearly 3 months ago, doing one BodyPump class and two kettlebell classes per week, which is improving my core strength. In addition, I have been walking (a lot) more in order to increase my cardiovascular fitness and endurance.

Although it’s hard to stay motivated, especially now that winter is setting in, I can’t wait to feel really fit and strong again. When I consider that 5 years ago when I graduated from university, I was a size 26, it seems unbelievable. I’m now a size 18 and much fitter and healthier – physically and mentally. I’m trying to use this success to spur me on as I lose more weight and get even fitter.

3. I have no money

As I already mentioned, funding my trip entirely through sponsorship wasn’t an option because of my anxiety, so that means I have to find the remaining £2,000 left to pay after the deposit. Plus spending money. And I will have to buy some clothing and equipment, despite those items constituting the majority of my Xmas presents this year. It’s expensive and I earn very little. I also have existing debt.

I might be mad, but this is the challenge of a lifetime and it feels important for me to do it now, when I have no ties and as I’m facing a pivotal point in my life, managing my mental health without medication for the first time in years. Even if I end up putting extra money on my credit card, I believe the trip will be worth it: I need to prove to myself that I am capable of doing something amazing.

So why I am putting myself through all this?

In all honesty, I don’t know. It’s just something I have to do. My intuition tells me that I need to complete this challenge.

I’m sorry if that sounds vague and odd, but it’s the truth. I can give you lots of other good reasons for participating in this trek, but none of them is my core reason. Here they are anyway:

  • To raise money and awareness for human rights issues. I have supported Amnesty International for years and was saddened to have to give up my monthly donation when my finances took a nosedive a few years ago. I’m especially passionate about freedom of speech and gender equality, but there are many more issues which are important to me. Human rights often get misrepresented in the media, but it is essential to protect them. I’m lucky to live in a country where I can access education and medical care – this isn’t the case for a lot of people in the world, especially girls and women. Completing this challenge is my way of speaking out for those who do not have a voice.
  • To show everyone that mental illness need not obliterate your life. I despaired of ever being able to do anything valuable, meaningful or fun for years because I couldn’t imagine a life where mental illness didn’t control me. The balance is shifting and I have been able to achieve some of my goals as my mental health becomes more manageable, so I want to give hope to people who are in situations similar to the ones I have been in. I want to encourage others with mental health issues to pursue their goals.
  • To motivate myself to become fitter and healthier. Having a specific reason to exercise and eat healthily makes it easier to go to the gym when I would rather stay inside and watch television. It’s helping me transition to a healthier lifestyle. It might seem extreme, but experience has taught me that I perform better when I’m aiming for a massive goal, otherwise it’s difficult to stay motivated and I tend to give up. Giving up is definitely out of the question when I have invested so much effort already and there are people sponsoring me – I would sooner die trying!
  • To see Machu Picchu and Peru. I have wanted to visit Machu Picchu since I learnt of its existence. I have no idea why, but I feel a connection to it that I don’t feel for other world heritage sites. I’m interested in history and other cultures in general, so relish the opportunity to see Peru. It looks beautiful and will be an entirely new terrain for me. I have never left Western Europe, so it will also be my first long haul flight and I’m secretly hoping to meet some of Paddington Bear’s relatives.
  • To inspire confidence in myself. Trekking to Machu Picchu is the trip of a lifetime, but there are many other things I would like to do with my life. I’m hoping that this challenge will help me prove to myself that I can achieve my goals.

The countdown begins…

I will probably mention this challenge a lot over the coming months, since it will take over a large chunk of my time and will hopefully turn out to be a pivotal point in my life. I’m very nervous and excited. Sometimes it doesn’t feel “real” because it’s not the kind of thing that people like me do, according to popular opinion – except that popular opinion is wrong, because I am doing it! I will do my damnedest to ensure that I am well-prepared, raise a substantial amount for charity and complete the challenge successfully.

 

If you would like to sponsor me, I will be very grateful for every penny you can spare – all of which goes straight to charity, since I am self-funding. Here is my JustGiving page so that you can donate with the utmost convenience and security: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/HayleyNJones

You can read all the details (and see what I’m getting myself into) here: https://www.charitychallenge.com/expedition/itinerary/2468/Amnesty-International-trek-to-Machu-Picchu

If you would like to find out more about Amnesty International and the amazing work they do, please visit the website: https://www.amnesty.org.uk/

Getting my Mojo Back

The past month or so has been difficult. In addition to the stress of coming off antidepressants, which I didn’t expect to be so stressful, several minor events threw me off course. I couldn’t even turn to exercise, which I have been using to manage my mental health, because I injured my hip. My mood was affected and at times, it felt like the world was conspiring against me.

However, this week is a lot better. My hip has recovered enough for me to return to gym classes, so that has boosted my mood and put me back on track working towards my fitness goals. I think using the SAD lamp has helped a lot, too. It’s the kind of thing I don’t notice doing good until I do less of it and experience a corresponding drop in mood. My fiction writing is also going well and I’m doing some volunteer work again, both of which help me feel more purposeful.

I have realised that getting my mojo back isn’t about a dramatic change or a magical transformation. It is simply the accumulation of small actions.

Like Austin Powers, I had my mojo all along. I just need to access it through concentrating on self-care. I have to keep doing the things which help me manage my mental health, even when — no, especially when — I don’t feel like doing them. These actions may be small, but they still take a lot of effort when depression and anxiety set in. They may be small, but they are significant.

My self-care actions, in addition to the ones already mentioned, include:

• Getting outside, especially in woodland

• Spending time with my dog and cat

• Eating reguarly and as healthily as I can

• Reading novels and short stories

• Watching The Big Bang Theory

• Mindfulness meditation

• Scribbling down my feelings

• Watching tennis (and Andy Murray reaching number 1 helps!)

• Texting friends/seeing friends

The result of getting my mojo back is that I feel more motivated and have more energy. There is room for improvement, but compared to how I felt recently, it’s brilliant! 

Again, this experience demonstrates the power of small actions when they accumulate. I find that very encouraging — not just in terms of mental health, but also how the principle can be applied to other aspects of life. You might not feel like you can do much to change things, but you can do something small. Keep taking small actions and you could change the world.

Learning to Be Well

Here are the 5 most important lessons I have learnt in the 6 weeks since I stopped taking antidepressants. I hope they might help people in similar situations, or help their families and friends to understand what they are experiencing.

1. There is no sudden shift from “mentally ill” to “mentally well.”

It’s easy to assume that being well enough to come off medication means you should be able to make other changes quickly and effectively, but you will probably find that life doesn’t look very different when you stop taking antidepressants. There will still be struggles and changes take time.

You can continue to take steps in the right direction, but bear in mind that these need to be steps — not giant leaps. Managing your expectations and being realistic helps you move forward while being compassionate towards yourself. Placing yourself under pressure to transform your life in a short period is neither practical nor fair.

2. A change in mood is not a relapse.

Life is full of ups and downs: we all know this, yet there is a tendency when you have mental health problems to think that normal fluctuations in mood signify a relapse. I have discovered that this intensifies when you stop taking medication. You wonder whether a natural reaction to an event, such as disappointment, is actually a symptom of your mental health deteriorating.

Be prepared for this reaction. Find a more accurate way of monitoring your mental health than listening to the stream of your thoughts. Simply recording your mood and other symptoms at regular times can establish a more objective picture. If you genuinely feel your symptoms are getting worse, discuss it with your doctor and/or other mental health professionals.

3. Self-care is more important when you feel all right.

Self-care is about prevention as well as treatment; I am learning that the former is essential. It’s tricky to keep up self-care routines when you feel well. You start thinking your time might be better spent doing other things. Unfortunately, you might not realise that this is a fallacy until your mental health suffers.

You need to be strict with yourself and do what you need to do every day. This varies from person to person, but for me they include mindfulness meditation, some form of exercise and using a SAD lamp during darker months. Prioritise your mental health, even when it’s tempting to do something else.

4. Don’t let yourself get sidetracked by setbacks.

There will be very difficult times and you will face challenges you didn’t anticipate. For example, I have injured my hip and have been taking a break from exercise, which is difficult because being active is an integral part of my mental health management. The only option is to work around setbacks. In my case, I am focusing on using other strategies to boost my mood until I can return to exercise.

Setbacks are frustrating, for sure, but don’t let them become excuses for not looking after yourself. If you are struggling a lot, remember that there is no shame in taking medication again. Try to show yourself compassion and think of alternative solutions for your problems. Don’t let setbacks dictate your life — figure out how to deal with them and move on.

5. Find other things to focus on.

Rather than obsessing about your health, focus on other things — your relationships, work, passions. Get back to an old interest or try out some new hobbies. Learn something new. Set some goals which aren’t directly related to your mental health.

Activities which induce a sense of flow are ideal — your mind is focused on what you are doing, so there is no opportunity for negative thoughts to arise. Different activities work for different people, but most involve using a skill which challenges you without being so challenging that it causes negative feelings. For me, writing and drawing are most likely to induce flow.

However, activities which don’t necessarily induce flow can also provide a healthy distraction. I love film and literature, for example, so I get lost inside the stories. I also enjoy modern jive, although my skill level is too poor to induce flow — even when I get frustrated at my lack of coordination, rhythm and balance, it’s a break from my usual anxieties. Walking the dog involves little skill, but provides me with a lot of pleasure. Seek pleasures in your life — as long as it’s not self-destructive or damaging to others, these pleasures can help you get more out of life.

I want to manage my mental health so that I can live a full, satisfying life and this can only happen through paying attention to the things with which I want to fill my life. Filling your life with small pleasures can help you through the challenging times. Finding and fuelling your passions can help you learn to be well.

Accentuating The Positive

I recently read a very interesting book, Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression by Miriam Akhtar, which has helped me to manage my mental health. I was already a fan of positive psychology, but hadn’t read anything which applied the approach to mental illness. The standard line given in books on positive psychology is that whereas most psychology focuses on what’s wrong, positive psychology concentrates on what people can do to feel good — rather than fixing problems, it circumvents them to find solutions.

I personally believe that there are benefits to either approach when treating mental health problems: there is no need to choose one and no reason why they cannot be used simultaneously. While this book focuses on depression, the strategies it suggests can also be used to manage other mental health problems — in my case, I find them useful for anxiety and borderline personality disorder. Another advantage of using this book is that it explains the theory behind everything without being dry or too academic. It’s suitable for any level of knowledge regarding positive psychology; whether you have never heard of it or if you are familiar with the subject, the advice is pertinent and never patronising.

As always, I would never recommend altering your course of treatment without consulting your doctor or another mental health professional, but an advantage of these strategies is that the chance of them causing harm is minimal — the majority will be ineffective at worst. If you are unsure about whether a particular technique might have adverse effects, discuss it with a mental health professional first. I will also caution that there is a lot of trial and error involved in implementing the strategies effectively, although it is definitely worth persevering, so don’t be discouraged if some of them don’t seem to work for you straightaway.

So what are the strategies? They are divided into broad chapters which examine each topic in detail: savouring, gratitude, mindfulness meditation, learning optimism, developing resilience, connecting with others, vitality and focusing on your strengths. There are several techniques desrcibed for each strategy, as well as advice on how to apply them and details on how they can boost your mood. There are also recommendations on which other strategies to try if one resonates with you.

I love how practical Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression is — the focus is on applying the theory to your life and counteracting the effects of depression. It demonstrates how small changes can spiral into big improvements and left me feeling empowered. I think it’s particularly helpful for people like myself, who are learning how to manage their mental health and need reminders of how we can help ourselves on the more challenging days. I also like the optimism of positive psychology; I have spent many years trying to fix my problems and the shift in focus to how I can feel better despite my problems is refreshing. Of course, that’s not to say that I won’t continue trying to solve my problems in addition to using these strategies, but sometimes it’s easier and more effective to look at what’s going right in life and how we can create more of those things.