Accumulating Expertise

Living with long term mental health problems involves a lot of trial and error. While some treatments and strategies have a high success rate in general, the only way to find out what works for you is experimentation – repeated experimentation. Strategies can vary in their effectiveness, both across time and in different situations. Some treatments are more difficult to access than others, such as talking therapies, which can be all but impossible to secure over long periods of time unless you can afford to pay for a private therapist or counsellor. Sometimes life gets in the way of your ability to implement strategies. During particularly bad episodes, nothing seems to work.

 

Capturing Information

One of the most challenging aspects of mental health is its pervasiveness. It affects every area of your life: career, finance, relationships, fitness, etc. – all of which also affect your mental health. Combined with fluctuations in symptoms, these factors make it difficult to assess the effectiveness of the various treatments and strategies you use to manage your mental health. Pinpointing correlations is difficult, let alone determining potential causes and effects.

Recording information about your symptoms, treatments and coping strategies presents more challenges. When you are experiencing a bad episode, symptoms saturate your everyday life and making notes is the last thing on your mind. When you feel relatively well, recording information seems like an unnecessary hassle. Achieving any level of consistency is improbable.

There are also benefits and disadvantages to different types of record keeping. Writing in a journal is my preferred method, because it helps me to process my thoughts and feelings. It captures a lot of rich, complex information and gives me insights into my mental health which would not otherwise be recorded. However, using a journal takes time to write and more time to review. Since the information is purely qualitative, it can be difficult to measure progress or decline.

Another popular method of tracking mental health is using a system which asks you to rate your mood and/or other symptoms at regular intervals. You can do this through using an app or one of the questionnaires used by mental health professionals, such as the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale. Bear in mind that when an assessment tool is designed to be used by professionals, it may not be user-friendly or suitable for self-assessment. If you would like to try the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale, the NHS has a handy guide for using it to assess yourself: http://www.nhs.uk/Tools/Documents/Wellbeing%20self-assessment.htm

The main drawback of using a quantitative rating or tracking system is that the information captured is reductive. It tells you nothing about the context of your symptoms, unless you make additional notes. These systems are best used in combination with qualitative information – at the very least, noting which treatments/strategies you are using and any major contextual factors, like whether you have been having family problems or have an important deadline looming. However, it provides measurements which you can evaluate over time to spot patterns and determine which treatments/strategies work for you.

Full disclosure: I think tracking your mental health with quantitative methods is a great idea in theory, but it hasn’t worked for me in practice. I used an app called Moodtrack for a while and it was useful – when I remembered and felt able to use it. It allows you to make notes when you assess your mood, so you can record other symptoms, any activities in which you are engaged, external influences, current preoccupations… anything which you think might have an impact on your mental health. The information is easy to review, but doesn’t give me the same insights as journaling. Neither does tracking my mood and symptoms improve my mood in the short term, whereas using a journal makes me immediately feel better.

 

Research and Development

Finding the strategies which work for you involves a vital first step: being aware of potential strategies. You can learn about what works for other people from a variety of sources, including books, forums, blogs, social media and chatting – just beware of people who portray a certain treatment or strategy as a miracle cure. Most people find they have to use a variety of treatments and strategies to manage their mental health, although one or two strategies may be at the core of their approach.

Try to keep an open mind when considering strategies; often, activities which seem insignificant or a little strange can have a big impact. For example, meditation is frequently dismissed as being too hippy-dippy or a waste of time, but scientific studies and anecdotal evidence testify to its efficacy. You may not realise the value of a strategy until you stop doing it, which is what happened when I failed to use my SAD lamp regularly last winter. It’s fine to give up on strategies if they are too time-consuming or otherwise impractical, but commit to giving them a fair shot first.

Choose one or two strategies at a time: trying to incorporate too many at once is tricky, puts you under too much pressure and makes it difficult to tell which strategies (if any) are having a positive effect. Start with the ones which you think might make the most difference to you, or which are easiest for you to implement. Activities which don’t need any special equipment, like walking and meditation, are good starting points. Strategies which can be done inside your home also tend to be more accessible, like mindfulness colouring and yoga.

Anything you can do to make it easier to try certain strategies is a great idea. This could mean exercising with a friend for support, joining a class to keep motivated or setting reminders on your phone for self-care activities. Think about what you need. What are your particular preferences and obstacles? Selecting strategies which you believe you will enjoy is a good way to ensure you keep doing them long enough to assess their effects. Think about how you can increase the enjoyment factor of specific strategies, such as listening to your favourite music when you run.

Keep reading about mental health, but remember that you can find strategies which can help you to manage your mental health in other fields. For example, I find that decluttering lifts my mood and helps reduce my anxiety. I also feel better when I watch films, read and study. You may discover that different strategies work at different time, so have another shot at strategies which previously haven’t worked for you to see if anything has changed. This was the case for me with running: I tried it in my late teens and hated it, but now use it (along with other types of exercise) as one of my core strategies.

 

Expectations and Judgments

Mental health problems can be unpredictable. Everything can be going well and then, without warning, your symptoms worsen and your mental health plummets. It isn’t fair and you think there must be a logical reason for the decline, so you blame yourself. Maybe you didn’t implement your strategies as well as you could have, or you think you should have done more. You expected your mental health to improve or remain constant, but it didn’t – so you judge yourself for failing to live up to your expectations.

In an ideal world, you would be full of self-compassion and never judge yourself, expecting nothing and accepting everything with gratitude. That obviously isn’t going to work in real life: it is normal and natural to feel frustrated, angry and disappointed when your mental health dips. We grow up with the myth that if we work hard, we will be rewarded. We don’t like to be reminded that this isn’t always true, especially when we are the ones disproving the myth. Mental illness sucks precisely because you can everything to the best of your ability, incorporating coping strategies and seeking treatment when needed, only to slide into another awful episode.

I haven’t found a solution which enables me to control my expectations and stop judging myself – but I’m better than I used to be. You have to keep reminding yourself that you are not to blame for your mental illness. You have to try to enjoy the relatively good episodes and appreciate them. Most of all, you have to keep hoping you will get the balance right.

 

Achieving Balance

Managing long term mental health conditions is a balancing act. There will be times when you wobble and times when you topple over; the trick is learning how to regain balance. Picking yourself up after a bad episode is horrible. It feels like all your hard work has been erased and you are back to square one. But this is never true.

Every time a bad episode knocks you off balance, you learn something. It can take a long time to realise what you have learnt, but it is true. Every time you dust yourself off and manage your mental health well enough to see infinitesimal improvements in your symptoms, you learn something. Maybe you learn that you are stronger and more resilient than you believe. Or perhaps you find support in unexpected places, from new friends or acquaintances who have always been at the periphery of your life but now step up to help. You might learn about which values contribute to your wellbeing, finding hope in creativity, generosity or nurturing.

I think experiencing long term mental health issues is a process of learning. You are accumulating expertise about yourself and your particular mental health problems. You learn about what feeling mentally well means for you and which strategies help you get there. You learn to notice when your symptoms worsen and you need to increase self-care activities. You learn when to ask for help and what help you need.

You learn a lot about other people, too. You learn that some people are insensitive bastards who spread negativity wherever they go. You learn that others are ignorant and have no idea what impact their words and behaviour have on vulnerable people. You learn that some people are spiteful and will use your mental illness as an excuse to bully and abuse you.

However, you also learn that a lot of people are kind and caring. There are people who dedicate huge amounts of their time to helping you, both in official capacities and through friendship. You learn that your true friends will listen without dismissing your problems or telling you about people who are worse off. You learn who you can rely on for support during the darkest times, when you can’t even trust yourself.

Most of all, you learn a great deal about yourself when you experience mental health problems. It forces you to examine your life and what you would like it to be. You learn that you can cope with more than you thought possible. You learn about true strength, courage and confidence, which are not about presenting yourself as imperturbable and indestructible, but are about following your own path even when you feel like giving up.

Accumulating expertise in your own life is hard work and difficult, but brings many rewards. It helps you deal with the bad times, but also helps you seize opportunities during the good times. It helps you to recognise your vulnerability as strength and develop empathy for others. It helps you to live your life.

Changing Tides

It’s the end of summer and everything feels distinctly autumnal. I’m particularly sensitive to this feeling because my mental health usually dips over the winter months, plus there are a couple of major beginnings and endings on the horizon.

Seascape

An Ending

I’m approaching the “end” of my current novel. I have been rewriting it for several months and hope to have it in decent shape within a month. Of course, the “end” will hopefully be the beginning, if I’m fortunate enough to attract an agent. If I’m even luckier and get a publishing deal, there will be a lot of extra work ahead, including more rewriting and editing.

Yet completing the novel means letting go. It means exposing it to readers — potential agents, publishers, competition judges, editors, perhaps people who decide to buy the book (if it gets published). I will have to send it out into the world.

My main concern isn’t receiving criticism of my writing: I’m used to criticism and rejections, which are inevitable for every writer. In fact, I prefer getting constructive criticism rather than a vague “not for us” rejection. I like to know how my writing comes across; how I can improve. I want to get better at writing and critiques are essential if I am to improve.

I suppose I’m worried that the novel might have no potential. That I’m wasting my time trying to write novels. There might be a fear of moving on to the next and trying to apply the lessons I have learnt. What if I can’t improve? What if I never write a publishable novel?

Perhaps the real problem is the uncertainty. If a time traveller from 2020 (or beyond) told me my current novel was terrible and never published, I would just shrug and move on. I would consider it a time-consuming but worthwhile exercise, helping me to learn my craft — like my last attempt at writing a novel. If the time traveller told me it got published and was reasonably well received, I would be ecstatic. I don’t like not knowing.

Ending a major phase of any project makes me feel reflective. I question my goals and achievements. I fence with self-doubt. I worry that I won’t complete the next phase, that things will go wrong or that I’m just not good enough. Mental illness takes these normal feelings and blends them with my symptoms, creating a lot of turmoil. It can be intense, but I can ride it out.

 

 

A Beginning.

I will start my Psychology BSc with the Open University in October. I’m excited, but also nervous — which I suppose is normal. It’s a big commitment, since studying will form a large proportion of my life for the next 5 years, but it’s also incredibly important to me.

I wouldn’t be so nervous if I didn’t care. I’m worried that my mental health will affect my studies because I want to learn as much as I can. I don’t want to put my studies on hold or scrape through by the skin of my teeth. I want to be able to engage with the material and complete assignments to the best of my ability.

I’m especially wary because of past experience. When I did my Film Studies BA, a decline in my mental health in the final year (not helped by also being diagnosed with a serious eye condition which could lead to blindness) meant my grades dropped by 10%. I went from being on course for a 1:1 from the first semester, earning a Dean’s Commendation in my second year, to getting a good-but-disappointing 2:1. I know I should be proud to have done so well when facing tough challenges, but it’s frustrating when my mental health prevents me from doing my best.

I appreciate the irony of worrying about my mental health affecting my degree, when my experience of mental illness has motivated my decision to study Psychology. I’m fed up with repeating the same patterns, battling and working like mad only to fall short in the end. Yes, I do the best I can in my particular circumstances, but that’s not very reassuring when I know I’m capable of more.

I hope studying Psychology will be a fresh start. My mental health is better (in general) than it has been for a long time and I have good coping strategies. Grades and results aren’t as important to me nowadays — instead of setting out to prove something to myself (and/or others who doubt me), I want to use what I learn to help myself and others.

 

Adjusting

I want to change my life, which involves a large degree of uncertainty and a lot of learning to cope with the effects. The changing seasons emphasise how life follows cycles; how natural it is to change direction and evolve. However, accepting — even embracing — the inevitability of change doesn’t make it easy.

When you have mental health issues, it feels like your whole life is filtered through them — determined by them, at the worst points. It’s annoying and frustrating. It can make you feel sad, angry, hopeless. I often wish I had never experienced mental illness.

But… without experiencing mental health problems, I doubt I would have tried to write a novel or studied the subjects I’m truly passionate about at university. I often feel like I’m not living a full life, because mental illness prevents me from doing so many “normal” things, yet many perfectly healthy people lead half-lives and don’t follow their dreams. They limit themselves and don’t set goals or take risks. If I didn’t have mental health issues, I think I may have been one of those people.

 

 

What If You Don’t Have a Dream?

Last week, someone called James left an interesting comment on my post You Need to Chase Your Dreams, asking what if you don’t have any dreams? I wrote an extensive reply, which you can read by scrolling down to the comments section at the bottom of the post, but the question lingered in my mind. What if you don’t have any dreams?

Apple blossom and sky

This post is inspired by James’s comment and the thoughts his question generated. I hope you find it helpful.

1. Check your definition of “dream”.

I use the word “dream” when I talk about my most significant goals in life. These goals aren’t necessarily “big” or extraordinary. Some of them are very mundane — to the extent that other people take them for granted, considering them all but inevitable. For me, these types of dreams include living independently. For others, they encompass marriage, children, a steady job, etc.

The significance of your dreams might not be apparent to other people; that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you prioritise what you most want from life, whatever that happens to be.

 

2. Consider the impact of your mental health at any given time.

My dreams take a backseat during particularly bad episodes of mental illness — to the extent that they almost don’t exist. If this is the case for you, focus on anything you can do right now: big life dreams can wait until you can manage your mental health better. Sometimes coping with mental illness is just about trying to get through the day.

However, don’t let your mental health become an excuse for not following your dreams. I know my mental health will be a huge factor in whether or not I can achieve some of my dreams, but I also know I can’t let “what ifs” stop me trying to achieve them. My philosophy is to do what I can, when I can .

 

3. Don’t limit yourself.

Consider the impossible. Seriously. What would you do if there were no limits? How would you spend your days?

When you come up with answers, figure out how you might achieve them — or something similar. You might want to win the lottery so you can spend all day reading or gardening or taking pictures of trains. Okay, winning the lottery is out of your control (once you buy a ticket, anyway), but can you find ways to include more of your favourite activities in your life right now? Are there career paths you can follow so you can earn a living doing what you love? Can you create your own career path?

The creativity and problem-solving involved in chasing your dreams is all part of the fun. It’s a valuable learning process and in addition to preparing for the realisation of your dreams, brings a lot of satisfaction and pleasure in itself. And the crazier your dream, the more complex — and fun — this process will be!

 

4. It’s okay to be content with your life as it is.

If you are happy, there is no need to seek out experiences and achievements you don’t want. We don’t have to spend our time setting goals and chasing dreams. I personally like setting and achieving goals, but acknowledge that not everyone is like me. If there is nothing you want to change about your life, that’s truly wonderful — enjoy it.

 

5. Consider ways to add value to your life and other peoples’ lives.

If you have no other dreams, make this your goal — whether on a small scale or a big one. Perform small acts of kindness, volunteer for chairty, participate in a fundraising challenge. Make the world a better place.

Living Option B

It’s inevitable that our plans go awry sooner or later, but for some of us the changes are so dramatic they throw our life off course.

Machu Picchu
My Option B looks like this. Sometimes.

This week, I read a book called Option B, which is co-written by Sheryl Sandberg. Sheryl is one of the world’s most prominent businesswomen and COO of Facebook. In 2015, her life was turned upside down when her husband, Dave, died suddenly at the age of 47. Option B is about how Sheryl learned to cope. Her cowriter, Adam Grant, is an author and academic with a PhD in organisational psychology. The book combines personal experience with psychological research and suggestions for how social and political changes could support people in difficult situations.

While bereavement is the book’s focal point, it addresses a range of issues and its lessons can be applied to a range of traumatic experiences. I found a lot of ideas to help me manage my mental health and the issues surrounding long term mental illness, but the main message I got from the book is: how do I kick the shit out of Option B?

The concept is simple: Option A would have been wonderful, but it’s not what happened. You are stuck with Option B, so how do you make the best of it?

For me, my Option A would have been a life unaffected by mental illness. Unlike many people, I never really lived this option for any period of time because my mental health problems began when I was a teenager. I have never held a job which wasn’t affected by my mental health. I have never lived independently. I have never met my friends in a pub without fighting anxiety. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself; I know it’s neither attractive nor helpful, but I wish I had gotten to live Option A.

But I got stuck with Option B: long term anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder.

There are two broad options when you are living Option B. You can bemoan the fact that Option A is lost to you and waste your life wishing it were different. Or you can find ways to cope with Option B. Find moments of joy, even if lasting happiness seems impossible. Achieve goals, though simple tasks may seem impossible.

Strange as it sounds, I’m not sure I would have achieved many of my life goals if I weren’t stuck with Option B. I don’t think I would have done a Creative Writing MA or trekked to Machu Picchu. If life had been comfortable for me, I wouldn’t have found the motivation to stretch myself. If I had enjoyed the mundane success of a steady job and “normal” life, I doubt I would have found the courage to face failure in order to fulfil my biggest dreams.

Living Option B often means regarding things from a different perspective.

In the past, I have fallen into the habit of thinking “What can I do? I can’t even walk into a shop on my own.” I set myself up for failure and paralysed my progress by approaching the problem from a position of weakness. I answered my question with what seemed like the only choice: I can’t do anything. I struggle with normal things, let alone “proper” goals.

A more empowering perspective is to think “This is what I want to do – how could I do it?” This is how I try to approach my big goals, the dreams I really want to chase. It engages the part of your brain which wants to solve problems, because it presents a specific dilemma.

Disclaimer: being able to come up with options doesn’t mean any of them are easier. In fact, many are extremely difficult to follow – even when you know they are the best options. However, simply being aware of options is a huge step forward.

When you feel paralysed by anxiety (or any illness, situation or emotion), you are stuck in your current circumstances and can’t see a way out. Thinking about what you want and following potential paths to achieving your goals lets a little light in; it may not throw open a door straight in front of you, but it creates a chink of light which demarcates an exit. You can use that light to negotiate your way out, even if you have to overcome many obstacles to do so.

More Option Bs will keep cropping up.

Even when you are already living Option B, life can toss more shit your way. Problems can often cause other problems, such as long term illness resulting in debt because it limits your ability to earn. Sometimes your situation seems to be improving, then it takes a nosedive. None of this is inevitable, but it happens a lot.

Maintaining a positive attitude when living Option B is bloody difficult, but it makes your life a lot easier.

The book discusses ways to challenge thoughts which are personal, pervasive and permanent. This is based on the work of Martin Seligman, pioneer of positive psychology and a hero of mine. He discovered that people are less able to overcome adversity when they blame themselves (personal), believe everything in their lives will be negatively influenced (pervasive) and believe the results will last forever (permanent). It’s easy to get trapped into this way of thinking, even when you can acknowledge that it’s not helpful.

I’m guilty of being aware of these patterns of thinking, but not being consistent enough in challenging them. I know the theory, but struggle to apply it in practice. The problem with living Option B is that there is a huge source of adversity which does seem personal, pervasive and permanent. Mental illness, in particular, feels like it’s your fault/is punishing you personally, can affect all areas of your life and feels permanent when you have experienced it for many years. How can you challenge something so monolithic?

The answer appears to be: by chipping away at it. The obvious starting point is that nobody is to blame for their mental illness. Sure, maybe certain behaviours, thoughts and coping strategies contribute to the development and progression of mental illness, but nobody chooses it. We all do our best as we battle through and sometimes our ways of coping aren’t the best options, but seem to be the only or easiest options to which we have access at the time. Besides, sometimes people can do everything “right” and still become mentally ill.

We can chip away at pervasiveness and permanence by considering the fluctuations of mental illness. I have bad days, for sure, but I also have good days. My mental health also affects my life in different ways at different times: when my depression recedes, I often find more energy and motivation to exercise or work on my writing. When my anxiety improves, I can get out more, be more sociable and submit more of my work. Again, this chipping away might not seem like much progress, but it’s the chink of light which lets you know there is hope.

Acknowledging that you are living Option B can be refreshing.

It takes the pressure off. You realise comparing your Option B to other people’s Option A is futile. You aren’t constantly chasing after Option A, once you acknowledge that Option A is no longer available. Instead, you can focus on turning Option B into a happy, successful and fulfilling life.

I can’t turn back time and prevent my mental illness. I can’t magically transform myself into someone who managed to move out of her parents’ house in her early 20s and has held down a full time job for 10 years. But I can work on building a satisfying career which will hopefully enable me to earn a living one day. I can strive to achieve my goals and find moments of joy amongst the pain and despair of mental illness. I can learn coping strategies and manage my mental illness so that it causes me less pain and despair. I can chase my dreams and try to inspire other people to see the hope in their lives.

And that, my friends, is what I think the book means when it mentions kicking the shit out of Option B!

A Big Jump Forward

The other week, I said something in a counselling session that I’ve been thinking about a lot since I said it: “I feel like I have to take a jump off a cliff just to move forward one single step.”
Explore, dream, discover

I’m not sure whether needing to do something “big” in order to make any progress is a good thing. It puts me under a lot of pressure and “big” things are often expensive. However, when the other option is to stay stuck, being able to take that jump off a cliff is vital.

 

Jumping off a cliff requires a lot of motivation and a huge potential reward.

It’s a dangerous situation and failure can be catastrophic. If I hit the metaphorical rocks, my mental health would probably be affected in a very negative way. The same goes for smaller risks, which is why I often find it easier to take bigger risks — when the reward is small, it’s not worth putting my mental health on the line.

I know this is hard for people to get their heads around and I don’t claim to fully understand why I think like this, but I do. If I’m going to take any risk, there needs to be a good reason — preferably several reasons. There needs to be the possibility of achieving a massive goal and/or improving my life significantly. Usually, there also needs to be a push as well as a pull: the idea of never taking this particular risk is worse than trying and failing.

 

Logically, this means that failure doesn’t matter.

If the absolute worst option is to never take the risk, to never try to achieve the goal, then failure is the lesser of two evils. Following the argument through, it also means I shouldn’t be afraid of failure because it’s not the worst outcome.

For me, this is not the case: emotion overpowers logic.

I’m terrified of failure. I’m scared of not living up to my expectations and of disappointing other people. But my biggest fear is never trying to achieve anything worthwhile; giving up on my dreams and settling for a life which will never be fulfilling.

 

I’m hoping my Machu Picchu trek will be a success, but I think I’m beginning to appreciate the fact that I’m trying to achieve an important goal.

Note that I cannot (yet) feel proud of myself — but this acknowledgement is improvement! I talked about letting go of the fantasies surrounding my Machu Picchu challenge in my last post, and of being disappointed not to live up to these fantasies, but I guess they don’t matter as much as my trying to achieve them. I would love it if everything had gone my way, but it didn’t and instead of giving up, I’m still giving it my best shot.

Sidenote: I will be within £180 of my £1000 fundraising goal when I add pledged donations, so this is one fantasy which might come to fruition. If you would like to sponsor me to show your support for my challenge and human rights, please visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/HayleyNJones You can do so anonymously and/or without publicising the amount. Every pound is appreciated. It would mean a lot to me personally to hit my original target and will help Amnesty International do more of their amazing work.

I can make more sense of my situation when I consider my reactions to a hypothetical third party: I would have more respect for someone who says “I tried to trek to Machu Picchu, but it didn’t work out and I failed” than someone who says “I always wanted to trek to Machu Picchu, but never tried.”

As much as I want to be able to say “I did it!” I would rather be the former hypothetical person than the latter. Anyone can have dreams and goals, but working towards them is what matters — ask any writer who has encountered someone who says “I always wanted to write a novel” and is expected to sympathise!

 

So here’s my big jump…

I fly to Peru tomorrow. I hope I land in open ocean, rather than on the rocks, but I’m glad I’m jumping — whatever happens.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.