Sunshine and Optimism

I love summer — and the effect it has on my mood. The sun has a physiological impact, making your brain produce more serotonin and regulating melatonin levels. This means you feel better and your sleep patterns improve. In addition, sunlight boosts vitamin D levels and vitamin D deficiencies  are strongly associated with depression. Try this article if you would like more information on the benefits of sunshine (and enjoying them safely) — it’s long, but fascinating.

Sunset
I love it when 9:30pm looks like this.

Summer also has a psychological effect.

I have a theory that good weather encourages mindfulness; especially in the UK, where we have to make the most of the sunshine while it lasts! Warm weather and long hours of daylight also make it easier to get outside and participate in activities which improve my mood.

Instead of watching TV or aimlessly browsing the internet, I read or scribble in my writing journal. Or just hang out with my dog. I can enjoy walking either early in the day or late in the evening, rather than rushing to get out while it’s still light and not raining too much. I spend more time meditating and practicing mindfulness.

Perhaps it’s better because it’s fleeting.

Would I enjoy summer so much if it lasted longer? I’m not sure. Perhaps I embrace it so wholeheartedly because I know it will pass too quickly. If we had warm, dry weather for most of the year, would I make such an effort to take advantage of it and participate in activities which benefit my mental health?

Maybe it would be easier to keep doing those activities. To keep getting outside and exercising or reading. Or maybe I would stay inside, watching TV because I know the sun will still be shining in a week, a month, a few months.

But why overthink it, when you can enjoy it?

The bottom line is that summer improves my mental health and helps me feel better. I intend to use the benefits to make improvements to my life and mental health while I can.

Reawakening

Spring helps me feel better. The warmer weather and increased hours of daylight encourage me to do things which benefit my mental health, like exercising and spending time outside. Sunlight also has an effect on your hormones, which helps you to sleep better and improves your mood — great for people like me, who struggle with depression and insomnia.

Many of the benefits are psychological.

Spring is a time of hope and reminds you that nature follows cycles. Just as trees and flowers burst back into life, there is a possibility of emerging from mental illness. This emergence may be a complete recovery or, as is more likely in my own experience, a period of relative wellness during which I still battle mental health problems, but can work towards my goals.

For me, mental illness follows these unpredictable cycles. Sometimes I can anticipate shifts in the cycle — such as expecting to feel generally better in the summer months — but often, my symptoms change in ways which have little rhyme or reason.

Dealing with unpredictability is difficult, but learning to roll with it is easier and better in the long run than railing against it.

Mental illness is unfair. Part of the reason why stigma surrounding mental health is so prevalent is that people don’t like to admit that mental illness can be random. They prefer to think it affects only a certain type of person or is consciously caused by sufferers. If you are nentally well, it’s probably more pleasant to believe mental illness only happens to weak people and therefore can’t happen to you. The truth, that mental illness can affect anyone at any time, is difficult to accept.

In fact, the truth is difficult to accept even when you experience mental health problems. I would LOVE to blame my mental illness on something specific I have done, because it would answer the persistent “why me?” question and means I could do something to fix it once and for all. The truth is trickier: I can adopt strategies to actively manage my mental illness, but I can’t control everything.

Sometimes you can do everything “right” and still experience a decline in mental health.

This happened to me at the end of last year. I was exercising regularly, eating healthily, socialising more and going to bed at a reasonable time every night. I was working and volunteering. I had goals. I was practically the poster child for self-managing mental illness, having stopped taking antidepressants in September. Yet my mental health got worse.

There was a clear catalyst, in the form of successive winter viruses which prevented me from doing a lot of my self-care tasks, but the sudden downward spiral in my mental health was unexpected and couldn’t be sufficiently explained by my physical illness. As I’m emerging from this episode, I’m learning to accept it as part of the cycle of my mental illness. I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t deserve to get worse — just as I didn’t deserve to get mentally ill in the first place. But it happened.

My instinct is to bemoan the fact that it happened, but it’s unhelpful. It means I focus too much on the negative aspects of my life and prevents me from making progress. Instead, I need to look forward.

 

 

Looking forward means acknowledging the past, working through it while focusing on the future.

One of the reasons I love history is how much it teaches us about the present. We can learn from both the similarities and the differences between the past and present. I have been doing this in counselling over the past couple of months, learning to recognise the patterns I have followed (often without realising) so I can break them. Finding the causes of certain patterns can be helpful, but it’s not necessary — the pattern can be broken without a full understanding of how it developed — simply noticing the pattern is the important part.

So I’m striving to create new, healthy patterns which promote good mental health. Yet I must acknowledge that it might not be enough. I could experience another episode of worse mental health despite developing these patterns.

Because there are no guarantees with mental health, it is vital to do whatever you can, when you can. Work with the cycles of your mental illness, striving towards your goals when you feel relatively well and allowing yourself respite during worse episodes.

Spring is a reawakening for me and heralds, I hope, a period of better mental health. However, if my health declines in future, I hope I can apply what I have learnt. I wish I didn’t suffer from mental illness, but I don’t want to waste time wishing things were different — I want to learn from my experiences and use them to help others. I want to look forward.

 

This Too Shall Pass

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7 Ways to Deal with Anxiety When You Are Getting Out More

Recovering from anxiety enough to get out more and do more activities presents a paradox: you feel more anxious when you are pushing yourself to do something different. It is tempting to give up and go home. However, the only way to move past anxiety is to face it head on. These tips and techniques are for anyone who is trying to push his/her boundaries, but finds anxiety gets in the way.

1. Control your breathing — before you get too anxious

There are lots of breathing exercises which are said to help anxiety, so it’s worth experimenting to find out which work best for you. In my experience, the main criterion for choosing a particular technique is convenience. Most of the breathing exercises I have come across are effective, but what makes a difference for me is finding one I can do easily. I like counting breaths because it’s easy to remember what to do and I can do it without anyone else being able to tell what I’m doing. My favourite is 7-7-11 breathing: in for 7 counts, hold for 7 and exhale for 11.

The key to using breathing exercises effectively is to practice them when you are not feeling anxious. Start doing them when you are at home and feeling comfortable. Practice until it feels natural. Don’t wait to try a breathing exercise until you are freaking out — it’s bound to feel weird when you have never done it before.

When you are accustomed to using a particular technique, you can use it when you feel anxious. The trick is to start controlling your breathing as soon as you begin to feel anxious. Don’t wait until you are heading for a full-on panic attack: do your preferred breathing exercise  when you are a bit jittery and it can prevent your anxiety from escalating.

2. Leave the room

If your anxiety is getting worse despite your best efforts, exit the situation. Go to the toilet or out for some fresh air. Give yourself time and space to calm down.

Most of the time, nobody will notice your absences. If they do and you are uncomfortable with explaining that you feel anxious, just say you needed to cool off or have a bit of a headache. Don’t make a big deal out of it and no one else will.

Actually, a lot of people regularly leave social situations for a break — and for a variety of reasons. Some just need to be alone for a while and away from the noise. It’s fine; it’s normal.

3. Tell people you feel anxious

I have had a lot of success with this trick, partly because it means I no longer worry about whether everyone can tell I’m anxious. How much you say is up to you — I have previously explained that I have bad anxiety, but nowadays I’m more likely to say I feel a bit nervous. It’s up to you. Most people will be understanding (and even those who can’t empathise won’t berate you) and help to put you at ease.

If you are in a situation where elaborating on your anxiety can help, do so. It’s okay to say ‘when I get anxious I hate being fussed over, so don’t be offended if I need to be alone.’ In fact, it pre-empts issues which may arise. I recently had to explain to my gym instructor that when I get out of breath my anxiety can kick in, so when I stop exercising to control my breath I’m not having an asthma attack or anything. The result: I feel less self-conscious when I need to take a break and my gym instructor knows I don’t require medical attention.

4. Take a friend along with you

There is no shame with having someone there for moral support. I do modern jive classes with a friend — something I would probably have never gotten around to by myself. Friends like to help and will be flattered to be asked. Taking  a friend for the first couple of times you go somewhere new can help you to feel confident enough to go alone in future, so it doesn’t need to be a big commitment for them — you can use them as a stepping stone.

Give your friend guidelines before they accompany you — do you expect them to sit beside you all night or would you prefer to spend a proportion of the time building your solo social skills? Would you be pleased or terrified if they introduced you to people? Do you prefer your friend to order from the bar rather than get tongue tied yourself? Often, a close friend will naturally know how you wish to proceed, but discussing guidelines can help you to feel more at ease and lets your friend know if you plan to experiment with pushing your boundaries.

5. Try essential oils — or perfume

Having some lavender oil on a tissue available takes the edge off my anxiety. Apart from its relaxing properties, focusing on a sense which often gets overlooked (unlike sight and hearing) helps me to be more mindful. It forces me to get out of my head, however briefly.

Wearing perfume I love helps me feel more confident and less anxious. I have no idea whether my favourite scents have any relaxation properties and it doesn’t matter: it helps me stay grounded and reminds me of all the great times I have had when wearing that particular perfume. It’s a subtle trick, too — it took me years to realise that my perfume helps me feel less anxious!

6. Focus on other people, not your anxious thoughts

Watch other peoole, listen to them, pay attention. As long as you are doing this, you aren’t worrying about yourself. As soon as you are in a new situation, look for people you can focus on without drawing attention or seeming odd. In classes, this is obviously the teacher/instructor. People dancing, singing karaoke or otherwise performing are great to watch, too. If there are several people between whom you can divide your attention, that’s even better.

Truth is, unless you are extremely creepy and obvious, people tend not to notice being watched. Most of them are too busy chatting, having fun or worrying about themselves. The advanced version of this (which I’m trying to work towards) is to engage in conversation and really listen to other people. Find out three interesting things about each person you meet. Keep a list (mental or literal) of fun questions and conversation starters. Just keep your attention on others, not your mental chatter.

7. Have an escape plan

If all else fails, what will you do? Knowing how you would leave a situation helps you to feel more confident and secure — regardless of whether you put the plan into action. Who could you call to pick you up? Where could you walk to? Have you got money available in case you need to take a taxi?

Even noting the exits can help — when I know the location of the nearest door, I can visualise walking out of the room and it emphasises the fact that I have options. I don’t have to succumb to anxiety, because I know I can walk away if it all gets too much.

Leaving earlier than planned isn’t ideal, but don’t berate yourself if it’s necessary. Tackling anxiety isn’t easy and you deserve credit for getting outside your comfort zone. Leaving an unfamiliar situation isn’t failure — it’s a successful attempt to expand your boundaries and when you keep expanding your boundaries, your anxiety gets easier to control.

 

 

Tracking The Maelstrom

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reads to Rewrite Your Life 5: Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn is a comprehensive guide to living more mindfully and making space in your life for meditation. It’s great for beginners, but is also valuable for those who are more experienced in mindfulness meditation. It’s simply written, without being condescending or over-explaining. I don’t use the book every time I meditate, but I return to it time after time for inspiration, clarification or guidance.

Mindfulness meditation is about being in the moment, as opposed to thinking about what you need to do or what has already happened. You might be so caught up in your thoughts that you don’t realise you’re doing it, which is why certain thought patterns are hard to stop and breaking them is an essential strategy for achieving good mental health. Mindfulness teaches you to be aware of your thoughts without getting trapped inside of them.

There are a huge variety of meditations and I am yet to try every single one, but those I have tried are all useful and I have several favourites. Wherever You Go is more of a reference book than your typical self-help guide, despite being easy and enjoyable to read. Because it is centred on practising mindfulness meditation, you will often find yourself impelled to stop reading and start meditating – which is no bad thing!

Since I began making an effort to be more mindful, I find it easier to stop letting negative thoughts run amok and control me. I am, in general, calmer and happier. I have also found that mindfulness helps me to employ other strategies to improve my mental health; I benefit more from using the CBT techniques I learnt in counselling and can use self-care skills more effectively. It’s a pretty powerful weapon to have in your arsenal because mindfulness influences every part of your life.

If you are interested in dabbling in mindfulness meditation, this book is an excellent starting point. It will guide you through your first attempts, when it feels impossible to get past the chatter of your mind, and help you to live more mindfully. Mindfulness is a practice: there is no stopping point where you have reached the pinnacle of mindfulness. Wherever You Go is not the kind of book you grow out of or move past – think of it as a lifelong companion in your endeavours.

 

About the Reads to Rewrite Your Life series

This series discusses books which have helped to change my perspective on life. Many will be self-help guides, some will be classics and others will be a little different… I aim to provide an eclectic mix to inspire everyone, regardless of whether or not you have mental health issues.

  1. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway – Susan Jeffers
  2. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking – Susan Cain
  3. The How of Happiness – Sonja Lyubomirsky
  4. The Art of Non Conformity – Chris Guillebeau
  5. Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn
  6. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  7. Undoing Depression – Richard O’Connor