Mustering Enthusiasm

A few weeks ago, I reached the point where I was sick of feeling lethargic and unmotivated. I felt I was achieving nothing and realised I was missing the one thing which keeps me going, even when I’m struggling with my mental health: enthusiasm.

Parachuting

When I’m at my best, I am full of enthusiasm. It drives other attributes which define who I am at my best, including creativity, determination and curiosity. Unfortunately, a lot of those attributes seem to have slipped away this year.

Struggling

I have debated over whether to blog about this, because I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me or see it as a plea for attention. One of the risks of speaking up about your mental health problems, especially if you have borderline personality disorder, is getting stuck in a Catch 22 situation: you need to be honest and open about your experiences in order to help people understand, yet being open and honest exposes you to accusations of attention seeking and manipulation.

Part of me feels it’s “wrong” to discuss the negative aspects of my illnesses because I’m coping better than many other people. I’m coping better than I did in the past. However, “coping better” still involves numerous days of feeling suicidal. My self-harming and panic attacks have both increased this year. Often, it doesn’t feel like I’m coping at all.

There are a few obvious reasons for this decline in my mental health. I’m dealing with chronic pain from gallstones and sometimes it feels as if this alone has stolen huge chunks of my life. It stops me from fully enjoying fun activities and spending time with friends. I’m also reluctant to book tickets for events I would like to attend, because if my gallstones are playing up it will be a nightmare or if I have a bad episode, I would have to cancel anyway and lose money. In addition, gallstones symptoms interrupt my exercise routine, which is my main mental health management strategy. Missing a couple of workouts might not sound like a big deal to most people, but it’s akin to skipping antidepressants several days in a row – not advisable and potentially dangerous. My mental health gets worse when I’m less active, which means it’s harder to either get back to exercising or use other healthy coping strategies.

The surge in some of my symptoms is partly due to challenging myself in ways to which I’m not accustomed (understatement!). I completed an 8 month temporary job for a local youth mental health organisation which involved situations I find very difficult due to anxiety. While I’m proud to have stuck at it, there were many times when I thought they had made a mistake in hiring me and I felt I wasn’t good enough. I had hoped it would be a confidence-building challenge which could encourage me to seek more opportunities, but it led to a lot of self-doubt instead.

Finally, my Open University degree is going well, but while I’m pleased with my module results for the 2018/19 academic year, I wish I had been less stressed and more able to enjoy the process. Which is why, as my next modules are about to start, I want to recapture my enthusiasm.

Searching for motivation

Once I identified enthusiasm as something which would be beneficial, I turned to Google and typed “How to be more enthusiastic.” The search resulted in a lot of websites which churned out the same advice (this one is good but typical). As with a lot of wellbeing and self-improvement advice, some of it was very obvious but difficult to actually implement, especially if you have mental health problems. I know it’s important to sleep and eat well, for example, but depression and anxiety messes with both my sleeping and eating patterns.

However, one of the obvious options is exercise and I realised the importance of increasing my physical activity before my mood plummets further and makes it all but impossible. Exercise also helps me sleep better. Goal 1 of Project Enthusiasm was born: move more.

Moving more is easy in theory, but harder in practice. I was already sticking to my gym classes and walking the dogs at least 2 miles a day, but this isn’t enough to improve my mental health beyond the basic “get out of bed but zone out in from of the TV most of the day” level. To get the full benefits of exercise, I need to run at least 2/3 times a week. Running works for me in a way which other types of exercise simply don’t – I can slip into a kind of mindful meditation once I get into the rhythm of a run and focus on nothing but my current experience. Being free from the constant negative self-talk is a relief in itself, but then the serotonin increases after 15 minutes or so and I notice a shift in my mood.

So I have gotten back to running over the past couple of weeks and it’s working. No miracles have been wrought, but I’m a little less depressed and a little more motivated. Some of the runs have been very hard, but I force myself to start and each time I want to stop, I tell myself to try and run for 1 more minute. Often, this is every minute of the run. I have run slower than planned some sessions, but I have hit my mileage targets and these small achievements give me some confidence.

Note: I would never run through pain. When I tell myself to push through, it’s pushing through discomfort and while some of this discomfort is physical, it’s mostly mental. It’s a cliché to say people rarely regret a run (or different workout), but it’s true for me: I gain a sense of achievement from sticking to my plan and as someone who spent 20 years not being able to run far, I get a kick out of knowing I can keep going for a certain distance.

Reconnecting

The other strategy for mustering enthusiasm which resonated with me is to explore whatever you find interesting. To cultivate a sense of curiosity. For me, studying psychology and writing fiction are important, yet I have been feeling disconnected from both of them. Finishing last year’s psychology modules was so stressful that I lost touch with my love of learning the subject; completing the assignments was a bigger priority than exploring topics. Writing got pushed aside as my health problems ate up bigger chunks of my time, although perhaps I’m also experiencing a lingering disappointment or grief over my last novel attempt not working out as I had hoped.

Reading is the most accessible inroad (for me) to reconnecting with both fiction and psychology, so I made it more of a priority. I cut down on watching TV and forced myself to pick up a book, despite my mental health affecting my concentration. As with exercising, I felt a sense of “use it or lose it” because while I love reading and learning, I was unable to read when my mental illness was at its worst. I feel guilty for saying this, since I’m a writer, but when you’re depressed and anxious, it’s far easier to switch on the TV or play games than to read – even while you are able to do so. However, once I started reading more (in both frequency of reading sessions and duration), it became easier to concentrate.

I chose to focus on reading because I didn’t want to pressure myself to write a certain number of words, but I’m easing back into writing mote. Again, nothing miraculous has occurred and I haven’t completed a novel in two weeks, but I’m a little more productive. Immersing myself in stories has brought some inspiration.

Similarly, getting a head start on my OU module materials has reminded me of why I decided to do a Psychology BSc. The subject is fascinating and I want to apply my knowledge to my own life, as well as (hopefully) using it to help others in the future. My career plans are still fuzzy, but I would like to improve people’s understanding of mental health and empower people who have mental health problems to achieve their own goals. I guess I’m reconnecting with my sense of purpose.

Progress

I’m two and a half weeks into Project Enthusiasm and I say this tentatively, but…there have been definite improvements. While I will probably never be the type of person who bounces out of bed excited to see what the day brings, I’m trying to act in more enthusiastic ways. For the most part, this means forcing myself to start a run or a book chapter – once I get going, momentum (or stubbornness!) usually gets me through. My mood isn’t fantastic, but I feel less wretched and excited to get stuck into the new academic year. I even found the motivation to blog!

I’m also trying to emphasise the positive aspects of my life, because it hasn’t been all doom and gloom this year. The best change is the fact that I’m typing this while sitting on my new bed, in my new, bigger bedroom – one of many advantages caused by my brother moving out! I feel very lucky to be studying psychology and despite the ridiculous bloating (thanks to my gallstones), I’m maintaining a weight which is the closest I’ve been to a healthy BMI for many years. Sure, I wish things were better, but at least I feel like I’m heading in the right direction.

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!

Week 1 of Using an SAD Lamp

I mentioned in my previous post that I have recently bought a Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) lamp and I thought I would give you a short update. My first impressions of using the lamp are very positive. I have noticed for many years that my depression seemed to get worse in the autumn; the fun and festivity of Christmas is all that gets me through the winter months. The limited sunlight at this time of year has a similar effect on many people, some of whom don’t experience depression at any other type of the year. SAD lamps emit a light similar to sunlight — and without UV light, so there are no harmful effects.

An SAD lamp is not a miracle cure. You will not instantly feel sunny and ready to take on the world. However, it can take the edge off your low mood and a lot of people describe feeling as though a light has been switched back on in their minds: they experience a gleam of hope after a period of having no hope. I have experienced a modest effect of this kind. I have more motivation now, so I am able to do simple things which were difficult a week ago. Today, for example, I used my exercise bike — which has a knock-on effect, further improving my mood.

The verdict so far:

I feel happier and more hopeful. My mood is still low, but I am more equipped to cope. So far, it’s £30 well spent!