Taking It In Your Stride

“Just take it in your stride.” Good advice, right? Nobody wants to be derailed by obstacles and challenges. However, those of us who have mental health problems can find it difficult (often impossible) to take things in our stride.

Even small and/or anticipated problems can knock us off course. Setbacks seem to confirm the negative beliefs we hold or have held about ourselves:

“I am a failure and always will be.”

“I’m not good enough.”

“I can’t cope.”

We feel people are judging us for making mistakes or not being able to cope with our problems. Our thoughts can spiral out of control, so that a tiny setback leads us to think our entire lives are catastrophes.

 

So how can you help someone gain perspective?

First of all, please don’t contradict what they are saying. You may think you are showing the person concerned that they don’t need to worry, but minimising and dismissing other people’s problems is unhelpful and potentially harmful. They are already judging themselves for not being able to take the situation in their stride; suggesting their problems are unimportant and they are therefore overreacting piles on more judgment. It may not be your intention to belittle them, but that’s how your words can be perceived.

By not being sensitive to how the person in question feels, you imply that their emotional reaction is the problem. This can be easily translated as “I am the problem”, thus confirming their negative beliefs and leaving them feeling worse.

Instead, try a more compassionate and productive approach:

1. Acknowledge how they feel. They are entitled to their emotions and none of us can control our emotional reactions, though we can learn to control how we express our feelings, emotions and thoughts. Don’t start giving advice straightaway — listen.

2. Try to understand their perspective. Keep listening. Ask questions to clarify how they feel. Try to connect and empathise, so that you can learn why they believe the problem, challenge or setback is a disaster.

3. Support them. Let them know you will help in any way you can and reassure them that they can improve the situation. If they ask for advice, give it, but don’t dictate what you think they should do. Ask them questions which help them consider their options and plan their own course of action — if they feel able to take action.

 

Check your language.

An issue I have encountered a lot when talking about my problems is people dismissing my concerns, often implying that because my life has improved since my worst periods of depression and anxiety, my current situation shouldn’t bother me. I’m sure most people don’t intend to make me feel worse, but many phrases which are supposed to be reassuring can have darker implications.

For example, “look how far you’ve come” can be motivating if someone is in a positive frame of mind, but can also be interpreted as “you should be grateful for the improvements in your life and not expect more.” I find it especially patronising when spoken by people who have led relatively “normal” lives, usually when they try to tell me that my current situation is better than I think — as though I have no right to be frustrated about my mental health, financial situation and living with my parents.

Other phrases which people think are motivating or reassuring, but actually leave a lot of us feeling worse, include:

“There are plenty of people worse off than you.” True, but there are many people better off than me — including the people who like to “remind” me that things could be worse.

“Things will change soon.” Maybe, but often nothing significant seems to change for years on end.

.”You’re lucky to have X.” Again, braodly true, but when X is my dog or parents who haven’t chucked me out on the street, it feels like whoever says this is scraping the barrel.

Before you try to reassure someone, consider:

1. Are they in the right frame of mind to hear this without misinterpreting it? Often, people just want to be heard. They aren’t expecting you to solve their problems or give them a pep talk. They may want to vent or express their emotions without being told they should feel differently.

2. Would hearing this actually help them? In most cases, especially when emotions are high, the answer is no. When I’m depressed, the most inspiring stories can make me feel worse because I feel so pathetic and unable to change.

 

What can you do if you can’t take things in your stride?

Try to stay afloat. Practice self-care and do what you can to stop things getting worse.

If you can, that is. Sometimes problems and setbacks can make us feel as though we are drowning and we can’t stop struggling. Instead of letting go and hoping we rise to the surface, we try to cling to things in desperation — though clinging to them will keep us trapped underwater for longer. We cling to unhealthy relationships, harmful habits and negative beliefs. We can keep clinging, or we can let go and accept our current situation.

Acceptance is bloody hard, but it’s the only way we can stay afloat. And unless we learn to stay afloat first, our attempts to swim against the tide and change our lives will keep sucking us under. It’s a lesson I’m learning over and over.

Berating yourself (and the world in general) gets you nowhere, because you get sucked down into the same old negative thought patterns. Practicing self-care and self-love lead to acceptance. Unfortunately, as the word “practice” suggests, it’s difficult to learn to love and care for yourself, so you need to pay attention and take active steps on a regular basis.

If you feel unable to cope, please seek help and support. Your GP is a good first port of call, but there are also various helplines, therapists and counsellors. Talking to a trusted friend or family member and asking them to help you access appropriate sources of support is a good idea.

 

Long term strategy.

When you have chronic mental health issues, feeling blown off course by life events which others seem to take in their stride is a frequent occurrence. I think the trick is to recognise when you need to stop swimming and float for a while.

Doing this can feel like you are taking a step backwards, but it actually prevents you from losing progress.

Constantly swimming against the tide is exhausting, so we all need a break sometimes. If you are experiencing mental health problems, you may need more breaks than other people — perhaps more than you would like — but it’s essential to float when you need to float. In fact, it’s the best strategy for your long term success and fulfilment.

Self-care helps you to swim further in the long run 🙂

Making Yourself Happy

My favourite mug (pictured) tells me to “do more of what makes you happy.” I bought it because I thought it would serve as a positive daily reminder, but the more I think about the phrase, the more I believe it’s a good philosophy for life.

Lilac mug

Doing more of what makes me happy fits with a couple of simple concepts I keep coming across:

1. Self-love and compassion get you further than self-reproach and punishment.

2. It’s up to you to make yourself happy — nobody else.

Society tries to tell us otherwise. We are told that the only way to achieve goals is to embark upon a gruelling regime, denying ourselves all pleasure until we attain whatever we want. We are expected to believe that the perfect partner will magically solve all our problems and make us happy. Yet what society tells us doesn’t work very often — and when it does, it involves making things more difficult and less fun than they need to be.

 

Treating yourself with love and respect

Self-punishment is counterproductive. It’s a lesson I have learnt many, many times over the years, but it’s a hard habit to break. Admonishing myself for failing to do something is the best way to ensure I continue to procrastinate.

We tend to assume that when we don’t live up to our own expectations, the answer is to get tougher: demand we work harder, faster and longer. Sometimes it works and we complete tasks we have been putting off, but this progress comes at a cost to our mental (and often physical) health. Worse, we start believing that this type of intense work under the threat of punishment is the only way we can achieve anything.

The true antidote to procrastination, anxiety, depression and most other problems is self-care . All of the bad things in my life are not the result of a lack of self-discipline, although they may appear so, but the consequences of self-punishment.

Even when other people have abused and bullied me, I piled on the punishment by believing it must be my fault. I must somehow deserve to be treated badly. Instead of seeking support, I alternated between harming myself — physically and psychologically — and seeking comfort in unhealthy habits which caused me more harm in the long term, including overeating and getting into debt through impulsive spending.

This kind of behaviour creates a vicious cycle. You berate yourself all the more because you have created new problems, such as debt and obesity. Other people also see these problems as a reason to insult and criticise you, pointing out that you and your life are a mess. You punish yourself more, which makes the problems worse.

It’s vital to realise there is another option — one which empowers you to solve your problems. To love, respect and support yourself.

I resisted this for a long time. When we say people “love themselves” it’s usually meant as a criticism — we think they are arrogant, conceited and/or selfish. Yet these traits actually indicate insecurity, not self-love. People either hide behind a mask of arrogance or build their sense of self-esteem upon a shaky foundation, like their looks or career. They don’t love themselves — they love the idea of themselves they want to project.

You can tell when people truly love themselves because they have a quiet confidence. They have no desire to show off or to belittle other people. They know they are not perfect — and that’s okay. While their self-esteem doesn’t depend upon their work or social life, they enjoy success in these areas because loving, respecting and supporting themselves is key to achieving their goals.

I’m learning to treat myself this way; it’s a work in progress and I still get bad days when I succumb to the old self-punishment routine, but I have made small changes. I think I’m more productive and I certainly feel better most days.

 

Stop waiting for a panacea

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing a single thing can be the solution to all of your problems. Meeting your soulmate, winning the lottery, losing weight, a lucky break… If only you could have this single thing, everything else would fall into place. But life doesn’t work like that. Even if you woke up tomorrow with all of the things I have mentioned, plus a bunch more, you will still have problems.

I’m not saying that those things wouldn’t help to some degree: lacking emotional support and money is tough. Being overweight and unemployed exacerbates problems. Problems also tend to proliferate,  especially if you have mental health issues. But if you focus on your problems, solving the major ones won’t help as much as changing your mindset.

Choosing not to focus on your problems is incredibly hard, but it’s possible.

Again, I’m a novice in changing my attitude, but I have already noticed positive effects. When you focus on your problems, it creates a tunnel vision which blinds you to potential solutions. It also blinds you to the good things in your life, so you believe your life is 100% negative. Because you are focused on your problems, they often get worse as you remain passive instead of taking action towards finding solutions.

Debt is a vivid example of how problems can spiral out of control when you don’t take action. If you continue the behaviour which caused the debt, your debt will get bigger. If you struggle to pay the minimum payments, your debt will get bigger as you aren’t covering the interest. If you do nothing at all, you incur penalties and your debt not only gets bigger, but can lead to legal proceedings.

Many of us have struggled with debt and a common reaction is to ignore it — except you can’t really ignore it, so you worry incessantly as you continue to overspend and struggle to afford minimum payments. You avoid taking the most basic steps towards tackling your debt, such as seeing what help and support is available (I recommend www.moneysavingexpert.com, which has loads of advice and supportive forums you can use anonymously). You are convinced you cannot solve the problem, so you don’t even try to create a plan.

This is a typical reaction to a lot of problems, from relationship issues to changing careers. We hope for a panacea to arrive as we watch our problems get worse. Perhaps you buy a few lottery tickets and then feel dismayed when you don’t win the jackpot, which is a way of fooling yourself that you’re taking action when you’re not doing anything productive. Waiting achieves nothing and makes us feel powerless.

You have to make yourself happy. 

Check your reaction to the above statement. Did you scoff? Did you accept the truth of it, but feel sad because you don’t think you can make yourself happy? Were you angry, because you were hoping for a different solution?

For most of my adult life, I would have reacted to that statement with anger, frustration, sadness and disappointment. I didn’t believe I could make myself happy. If anything could make me happy, I expected it to be money. Or perhaps an intensive therapy programme which would cost a lot of money.

If my beliefs were true, there would be no unhappy people earning more than £20,000 a year. Everyone lucky enough to own their own home would be happy. People with zero debt would be deliriously happy. Yet that’s not true.

You can do the same for all of these so-called solutions, because I’m yet to find one which can’t be disproved. There are plenty of people in relationships who are unhappy, even when they and their partner love each other and want to stay together for life. People with incredible bodies can be unhappy. Ditto those who have their dream jobs, travel regularly and are gorgeous.

First and foremost, you have to change your mindset. The good news is  changing your thought patterns is free and accessible to all. The bad news? It’s bloody hard and easy to give up, returning to your old beliefs that a million pounds and film star partner are the only solutions to your problems.

 

Choose to see the amazing aspects

Yes, changing your mindset is difficult, but it’s also amazingly wonderful. Anyone can learn ro do it, for a start. You don’t need to spend any money (though a few books can keep you motivated) and you can start right now. There are loads of strategies for changing your mindset, including simply listing the things you are grateful to have in your life. Do some googling and see what speaks to you (after you finish reading this, obviously!).

I suspect some people would prefer a different solution. If I had told you that the key to solving your problems, or at least learning to live with them, is a magic gemstone you can only buy in the Himalayas at sunrise on the third full moon of the year and it costs half a million pounds, you would have lots of excuses for not doing anything. “I don’t have the money, I can’t get the time off work, I’m afraid of flying, I don’t know the language…” You could do nothing and feel justified.

The only excuse for not trying to change your mindset is the difficulty factor. But refusing to change your mindset is more difficult in the long term.

All of the improvements I have made in my life have been difficult. The first time I forced myself to go outside alone, after years of anxiety preventing me from doing so, I was extremely uncomfortable. I wanted to turn around and run back inside. So why didn’t I? Because I knew that staying inside for the rest of my life would be more difficult than forcing myself to go outside for the first time.

You face the same decision. Changing your mindset is hard, but not as hard as continuing to struggle.

 

Doing more of what makes you happy will change your mindset

You may resist this concept, too. You may believe it advocates a life of mindless hedonism, indulging in unhealthy habits which harm you and people around you. Except those things don’t make anyone truly happy.

Happiness is not a quick buzz from drugs, alcohol or junk food. It’s a long term effect of living a satisfying, meaningful life. 

The things which make you happy are meaningful experiences: spending time with loved ones, reconnecting with your passions, contributing to your community, working towards personal goals. You can regonise them by the afterglow they produce. For example, playing video games keeps me entertained for a while, but serves mostly as a distraction. In contrast, reading gives me pleasure while I’m doing it and afterwards, when I think about what I have read. A meal with friends makes you happier than scoffing junk food alone, even if you eat the same amount.

You may be surprised by what makes you happy — and what doesn’t. Tackling challenges makes me happy, even if I don’t appreciate it at the time. Exercise makes me happy, because it has strong neurochemical and psychological effects. Baking makes me happier than eating what I bake. Watching my favourite television programmes keeps me happy for an hour or two, but the effect wears off if I watch for longer.

I’m adopting this philosophy in the spirit of experimentation. So far, my mood has improved and I think I’m less anxious. I hope it will help me to be more productive and to find creative solutions to my problems in the long term. If nothing else, it has reminded me that my old regime of self-punishment resulted in mental illness and other problems. Self-care isn’t a luxury: it’s a necessity.

Try doing more of what makes you happy — and let me know what happens!

Limboland

I haven’t posted an update on what’s happening in my life recently, for a simple reason: nothing much has been happening. I don’t want to bore everyone, but I also realise that if I want to talk about my mental health problems in an honest and open fashion, I have to include the times when I feel stuck in limbo.

My mental health has been pretty stable for over a month, which is good in many ways — but it also means I don’t feel it’s improving. It’s a frustrating situation, because I feel well enough that I want to change things but not well enough to make drastic changes. All I can do is take small steps and hope my mood improves when spring finally arrives.

It feels as though everyone else is surging forward in life and I’m stuck.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m grateful that my mental illness is better than it was before Christmas and know from experience that I could be feeling far worse, but my day-to-day life is 90% struggle and I’m sick of it. I feel like I’m working hard to improve my life, but not getting the results I want.

I’m trying to focus on the things I can work on right now: writing more, doing my OU course and improving my fitness. However, the usual worries about finding paid work and not having enough money replay in the back of my mind on a constant loop. It’s stressful and bloody boring.

I think I’m getting better at self-care though, which is something positive. In particular, forcing myself to be active helps a lot — I was too subdued to walk the dog on Saturday and it sent my mood into a downward spiral. When I make myself go for walks, I usually feel better for it. As well as having a neurochemical effect, doing exercise gives me a psychological boost: I feel like I have done something worthwhile. In my own small way, I have achieved something.

I think I just have to accept how I feel, though I wish things were different.

I can manage my mental health, but I can’t fully control it. All I can do is keep going and hope things improve.

Reconnecting with Goals

February is a great time to reconnect with your goals, because the “new year, new you” hype is subsiding and you can gauge which of your New Year Resolutions are actually important to you. You have over a month’s feedback on how you have approached your goals. You might have made huge progress on some, while others have fallen by the wayside — and now is the time to figure out why.

Stepping stones

How do your goals make you feel?

Are you excited by them? Scared of them? Frustrated that you haven’t made more progress? Feeling any emotion at all is a good sign, because it means you care about the goal. It’s not something you have chosen arbitrarily.

Examine these emotions. Ask yourself why you are feeling each particular emotion. Sometimes this will be straightforward: you might be excited by your goal to start a particular course because it’s something you have wanted to do for a long time and you are passionate about te subject. Sometimes you will have to pick apart the thoughts and beliefs you hold about a particular goal to figure out why you are feeling an emotion.

Here is an example of a more complex process of unpacking an emotion: you feel angry about your goal to lose weight. You want to lose weight to be healthier and aren’t feeling pressured by anyone else, so why are you angry? What does the goal say about you? It says you are carrying excess weight (in your opinion), so what beliefs do you hold about this excess weight? You might think it means you have been lazy or greedy. You used to be slim and fit, but you have let yourself down. You are angry because you gained weight and now you have to make an effort to lose it.

If you are experiencing negative emotions in relation to your goals, see if you can reframe your feelings. Anger, in the above example, could be channelled into determination if you make an effort to be more compassionate towards yourself and stop focusing on the weight gain. Fear is often mixed with excitement — they share a lot of symptoms, like an increased heartbeat and feeling jittery — so practice telling yourself you are excited when you feel scared. It’s a different way of interpreting the uncertainty of what will happen when you work towards your goal.

 

Why did you choose your goals?

It’s easy to set goals which don’t really matter to you. We all get influenced by the people in our lives and society in general. We convince ourselves that achieving a particular goal will make us happy, because that’s how it’s sold to us.

Think about why you selected your goals. Are you hoping it will have potential side effects, such as making you more confident or assertive? If so, why not choose a goal to work on these side effects? It would give you a greater chance of success. Focus on guaranteed results (or as close as you can get): losing weight might or might not improve your confidence, but it will make you healthier if you choose an appropriate target and methods. Finishing writing your novel probably won’t result in a fantasy publishing deal, but it will help you develop your craft and increase your chances of success.

Having a clear vision for why you chose each goal will help you to stay on track when your motivation slips. If it’s someone else’s vision or a vision you know is a lie, it ain’t going to work.

 

Recommit, adapt, sideline or drop.

Use the information you gathered from asking yourself the above questions to decide whether to keep pursuing your goals. There is no shame in dropping goals if they are not what you want. It’s fine to sideline goals which you would like to tackle in future, but can’t or don’t want to prioritise now. Adapting goals isn’t cheating; it’s about refining them so they resemble what you want and how you want to approach them.

Rewrite your goals, even if you haven’t changed them, and recommit to working towards them. Reconnect with your whys. Visualise both working towards and achieving your goals. Be motivated by them. Imagine how you will feel when you achieve your goals.

Don’t judge your goals. So what if they might seem too big or too small to other people? These are your goals and they should be all about you,.

A goal is simply something you want. It can be exotic or mundane. Easy or difficult. Safe or adventurous. Try not to care about what other people think (I know, easier said than done…) and remember, you don’t need to share your goals with anyone who might be unsupportive. You are changing your life — you’re the person who gets the final say on what you want.

 

Sort out your steps.

You don’t need to plan every stage of working towards your goal, but it helps. If nothing else, have a broad idea of the route. There will be inevitable detours and obstacles, but mapping the terrain will help you stay on track.

The most important thing is to plan your first steps. Make them small and easy, so you can cut through your excuses. If you need money to achieve your goal, your first step could be arranging a few extra hours at work or cutting a couple of nonessentials from your budget. Once you complete the first few steps, figure out the next few.

Take action and keep taking action. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

When you feel demotivated, remind yourself of your whys and keep taking action. Even if it feels pointless. Keep moving. You might not feel like you are making progress, but simply working towards your goal is an achievement in itself. There will be setbacks and times when you feel like you haven’t made progress for weeks or months. You will get angry, frustrated and disappointed from time to time. No matter — just keep breaking down your goal into tiny steps and don’t stop.

 

Cut through your own bullshit.

We are brilliant at lying to ourselves. We say we are working towards our goals when we haven’t made progress in ages. We tell ourselves we haven’t achieved our goals because we lack money, time or good mental health. We give up on goals because believing they are too hard is easier than giving them a fair shot.

Be aware of your favourite excuses and be ready to knock them down whenever they crop up. If your goals have fallen to the wayside, be honest with yourself as to why that is. Have your priorities changed? Are you scared of failure or success? Have you psyched yourself out because your goal seems too complicated?

Stop kidding yourself. If you think you need more time/money/better health to achieve your goal, incorporate those mini-goals into your ultimate goal. Or figure out a way to achieve your goal without getting those things. Seriously. There are millions of examples of people who have achieved goals without having access to resources we view as necessary. Why shouldn’t you do the same?

If you no longer want to pursue your goal — and you’re being honest with yourself about it — have the courage to admit it. Don’t keep saying you want it when you have generated more excuses than action steps. You are allowed to stop, even if you have invested a lot of time, money and energy. Even if other people have sacrificed a lot. Spending more time, money and energy on a goal you no longer want to achieve is pointless, more likely to lead to failure and soul-destroying.

Bullshitting yourself uses up a lot of energy, so save that energy for the stuff you really want to do.

 

Choose your own path.

Setting and working towards goals is a personal endeavour. That’s why it’s important to connect with your goals and stay connected. If your heart isn’t in it, don’t waste your time — choose to do something you will actually enjoy and find fulfilling.

If you are choosing to abandon your New Year Resolutions now it’s February, examine why. Have you honestly stopped wanting to achieve your goals in the past five weeks? Did you choose a goal based on what you thought you should want? Or are you trying to convince yourself you don’t really want to achieve your goals because they involve a lot of hard work and potential failure?

Everyone is scared of failure, even those of us who try to embrace it. I know it’s a cliché to say the only sure way to fail is to never try, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Another cliché that’s true: we tend to regret the stuff we never tried, not the stuff we tried and failed to do. I try to celebrate failure nowadays, because it’s a sign that I’m trying to change my life — after years of being resigned to misery and despair, it’s refreshing.

So set forth and follow your own path, because you can’t live your life in the constant maelstrom of paying more attention to other people’s opinions and judgements than your own goals and desires. And have you noticed that people who ridicule failure the most, tend to be those who are too scared to work towards significant goals?

Turning Points

I have been thinking about turning points a lot lately — blame the new year! Everyone seems to be talking about their goals or how they have already broken their resolutions. I like talking about goals and how to achieve them, but so much of the discussion is polarising: people tend to be either super-motivated, insisting we can all transform our lives in a millisecond, or pessimistic and resigned to never being able to change. It’s frustrating, because the healthiest attitude, especially for those of us with mental health issues, falls between these black and white views.

Signpost

Turning points are decisions.

Whether you are trying to change your life or your day, getting the desired outcome starts with making a decision. The decision doesn’t guarantee a certain consequence, but it does mean there is a chance of success. It’s more effective than waiting for things to change on their own.

For example, if you are having a bad day and feeling more depressed than usual, you have a choice. You can wait and see how the day plays out, whether something will happen to improve your mood. Or you can decide to do something which might improve your mood.

What you do will vary, depending on your current abilities and access to activities. You might feel better if you could jet off to somewhere sunny, but that isn’t an option for most people — even if you have the money, work and other commitments get in the way. Going for a walk is one of my go-to options, but sometimes anxiety prevents me from going out. Watching a favourite film or TV programme is a good option for accessibility — though others include reading, listening to music and baking.

You might feel no better after trying to change things, but the point is you tried — you took action instead of passively waiting and reacting to anything which happens.

 

How to create a turning point.

1. Decide what you want. What are your current goals? This could be something you have always wanted to do in life or simply changing the course of this week. It doesn’t matter — as long as it’s something you want.

2. Brainstorm ways to achieve what you want. Include everything which comes to mind, even if it seems stupid. If you get stuck, research ways other people have achieved similar goals.

3. Evaluate your options. Are they healthy? Realistic? Accessible? What would you need to fulfil each course of action? Don’t dismiss something just because it will be difficult, especially if it’s something you really want, but be aware of potential pitfalls.

4. Pick a course of action. Decide what to do and consider the steps involved. Your course of action may be single, consisting of a single step, or it could be complex. Again, research any aspects of your plan which you don’t know how to go about — fill in the blanks.

5. Take the first step. This is your turning point. No matter how small it seems, it could make a difference to you. Whatever the outcome, be proud of yourself.

 

Keep creating new turning points.

Improving your situation in the long term involves consistency and persistence. Success is more likely if you stick to your course of action and keep going. However, there will be setbacks and pitfalls. You will mess up. You will stray from the path you have chosen.

If this happens, don’t beat yourself up; just create a new turning point. No matter how many times you fail or let yourself down, you can always decide to change. Point yourself in the right direction, take the first step and don’t turn back.

Self-Caring

I find winter very difficult, so I was fascinated to read an article by Hannah Davies in the February issue of Psychologies magazine in which she discusses her mission to learn to love January. She says that January has now overtaken May as her favourite month, I don’t think I will ever love January more than spring or summer, but I do think it’s a great idea to appreciate the good things about winter. And yes, they are there — if you look hard enough!

Winter tree

One of the things Davies mentions in her article is the intricacy of bare tree branches. That image stuck with me, so when I walked up the lane to my favourite tree yesterday, I took this photo. She’s right — there is a lot of beauty in the stark patterns created by the branches and I have never taken the time to appreciate it before now.

Finding beauty in each day is also a great way to practice mindfulness. It’s difficult to seek out the little details when your mind is full of chatter.

Thinking about finding the beauty in every day, even in winter, made me think about self-care. I recently read The Self-Care Project by Jayne Hardy, which is a very good book with loads of practical information and exercises to work through. Jayne Hardy created The Blurt Foundation and I received the book in December’s Buddybox (which is a great way to practice self-care and support The Blurt Foundation). One of its messages has stuck with me: what does self-care mean for me, right now?

So, what does self-care mean for me at this moment?

It means working towards my goals, but also finding pleasure in the here and now. Appreciating the fact that I walk my dog on my own most days, which I simply wasn’t able to do 2 years ago. Enjoying reading ghost stories when I’m snuggled up in bed. Managing my mental health through exercise. Choosing to eat soup and porridge instead of crisps and cake for meals. And yes, looking forward to the longer, lighter days of spring!

 

Upgrading, Not Transforming

Happy new year! I’m sorry I haven’t blogged for ages. My depression got worse before Christmas and once I was feeling better, I had a lot of work and studying with which I needed to catch up. It’s been difficult, but the worst is over and I feel better for the days getting (gradually) longer and lighter.

I find it interesting that everyone seems to be divided at the start of a new year: they either buy into the “new year, new you” thing or rail against it. Personally, I believe both approaches have their benefits and a moderate approach is best. You are perfectly good as you are and self-acceptance is important, but there is a lot of value in setting and working towards goals.

I have a list of things I would like to achieve this year, but I’m also trying to appreciate my life as it is.

I have a lot of things to be grateful for, not least of which is having the opportunity to achieve (what I considered to be) a major life goal last year. I also feel I belong in my own life more, which is hard to explain. I suppose it’s about feeling as though I am doing meaningful things and contributing to the world in my own small way.

 

My approach: upgrading

I have been frustrated in the past (the recent past, too) that achieving a big goal hasn’t totally transformed my life. I know it was unrealistic to have those expectations, but I’m human and I tend to think “I would be so much happier and more successful if only I could do X.” I *think* I have finally learnt that while certain accomplishments or experiences may change my life, this is most likely to happen gradually rather than overnight.

Take trekking to Machu Picchu, for instance. I didn’t quite believe I could do it, right up to the point that I arrived at the Sun Gate, but I had all these assumptions about what it would mean if I did reach my goal. I thought I would be fearless, confident, unstoppable. I thought I would be able to change my life within weeks of returning home. I thought it would change me.

And it has changed me, but not as much or as quickly as I had hoped. I am more confident, although I still struggle at certain and in certain situations. I know I’m capable of committing to a huge goal and achieving it. Even of 99% of what I attempt results in failure, I know success is possible.

I alluded to the biggest change in my life in the openings paragraph of this post — my trek inspired me to embark on a Psychology BSc with the Open University. I have no idea what impact it will have on my life, but I know it’s a step in the right direction. I will probably be able to join the dots only in hindsight, several years or more down the line. All I know is that studying is the right thing for me to do for now and it will provide me with more opportunities.

I have decided to view changes like my Psychology course as upgrades. They haven’t transformed my life, but they have set me on a path which may lead to transformation.

I have also decided to view my goals for 2018 as upgrades. Achieving all of my goals may not change my life a great deal, certainly not on a daily basis, but my life will improve. I hope to end this year fitter, healthier and with better finances. I probably won’t be able to solve the major problems in my life (poor mental health, a lot of debt, living with my parents), but I can make improvements.

 

Focusing on the process

A major lesson which life has taught me over and over again is that I can’t control the results of anything — I can only control what I do. I find this easier to accept in some areas of my life more than others.

Submitting short stories, for example. I know I can’t control whether my story will win a prize or get published; all I can to is submit it to the competition or literary journal. However, I got very frustrated when obstacles threatened my Machu Picchu trek. It was annoying, being on a once-in-a-lifetime challenge and struggling with altitude sickness, panic attacks and a throat infection. It wasn’t fair. But every time I started thinking about the unfairness, I had a panic attack. This made my situation worse. The only way I could make progress was to focus on the process, putting one foot in front of the other without thinking about how hard it was or how much further I had to go.

So my goals for 2018 are all about focusing on the process. I won’t bore you by listing them, but suffice to say that they are all within my control and achieving them should be possible as long as I focus on execution and not results.

Getting caught up in results often harms execution. For instance, if your goal is to lose weight and you have a specific time frame in mind, it can be demotivating when you have a disappointing week. You convince yourself you’re off track, even if you have been following your eating and exercise plan. You might wonder why you bother and get sucked into a downward spiral, comfort eating so much that you jeopardise the next week’s weight loss. Chances are your disappointing weigh-in was down to normal weight fluctuation, but focusing on it and losing sight of the process can turn a blip into an abandoned goal.

Focusing on the process doesn’t mean you ignore the results: it’s about giving the process a fair shot before you change or abandon it. 

The type of results for which you are aiming also bear consideration. How much are they within your control? Weight loss, for example, is within the control of most of us. While you may have medical conditions which make it harder to lose weight, it’s possible for most people (with some exceptions; I’m not denying that). You may have to tackle psychological issues and/or physical problems along the way, but you can do it. Other results are almost completely outside your control: winning a Nobel Prize or getting married to a celebrity you fancy, for example. These are not good goals, because you will be setting yourself up for disappointment (again, with a few exceptions).

 

Prioritising a healthy attitude

The biggest problem for me is that working towards goals can trigger my mental health problems. Facing a setback can exacerbate my depression and/or anxiety. I can quickly convince myself that I’m doomed to failure and might as well give up.

Conversely, working towards goals also has a positive impact on my mental health. It gives my life meaning and purpose. It bolsters my self-esteem and helps me develop resilience. 

Bearing this in mind, I have to be careful about how I approach goals. I need to keep a sense of perspective and remind myself of the progress I have already made, both towards a particular goal and in other areas of my life. I know my red flags — becoming obsessed about a goal, letting a goal affect my mood — so when my attitude is becoming unhealthy, I can stop and remind myself of what is most important in my life, i.e. maintaining the optimal level of mental health I can at any time.

I like using charts to measure my progress, especially those that focus on the process. For example, ticking or colouring in a box every time I go for a run or put £5 in my savings account. Having a visual representation of my progress helps me to keep perspective. Plus there’s something really satisfying about ticking or colouring a box!

 

Will you join me?

I believe setting goals is a (note: not the) key to a healthy and fulfilling life. I get sick of all the “new year, new you” stuff, especially when I see adverts claiming that losing weight will have magical effects on your life (I lost a lot of weight in the past and it didn’t make me happier or more successful and though I was physically healthier, my mental health was worse). However, I also know that almost everything I like about my life has been created through setting goals. Even when I haven’t achieved a goal, I have learnt from the process and often made progress.

So I encourage you to set healthy, exciting goals which will lead you closer to your ideal life.You might want to change your life completely, but change starts with improving the areas of your life which matter most to you. These small improvements snowball over time and lead to you doing things you never believed possible.

Go for it. You can make your life a little better. You might transform your life this year, but you might not — and that’s okay. Good luck!

Write-Off Weeks

Last week was a struggle. Why? Because my anxiety and depression were worse than “usual” (which gets redefined regularly, depending on the variety and severity of symptoms I experience over a several weeks or so). That’s it. Nothing bad happened. I just felt worse.

A lot of people find this hard to accept: how can someone feel significantly worse for no apparent reason? I find it hard to accept, though experience teaches me again and again that it happens.

I have given up trying to analyse every fluctuation in my mood, because often there is no reason for changes in my symptoms. Even when I can pinpoint potential reasons, I can’t be certain whether they are causes or correlations — sometimes “reasons” are present but don’t affect my mental health. Winter, of course, presents its own litany of potential reasons — cold, wet, dark… Yet my mood isn’t always constant throughout winter.

I’m trying to be more compassionate towards myself and practice self-care, so I didn’t pressure myself as much as I have in the past. I gave myself permission to do whatever I could, even if that meant I did nothing. I focused on my priorities, but didn’t have the energy to fulfil all of them. In fact, the week was pretty much a write-off.

I feel guilty for neglecting my work, studies and volunteering, but part of me realises I could have done nothing more. Actually, I managed to go to all of my gym classes and walk the dog on my own, despite the heightened anxiety, which means the week was more of a success than it felt at the time. I tend to be strict when it comes to exercise, because it’s one of the main ways I manage my mental health. Skipping a session leads to more depression and anxiety; it also makes the next session much harder to do, creating a downward spiral.

I’m focusing on combining self-compassion with being strict about completing activities which help me to manage my mental health in the run up to Christmas. Christmas is difficult for me, but I also love it. I like the sense of togetherness and celebrating the days getting (gradually) lighter again. I like making time to watch films and bake. I love Brussels sprouts, cinnamon and tinsel. I enjoy buying presents and seeing colourful lights everywhere.

Yet some aspects of Christmas aren’t easy to deal with. I get frustrated when I make an effort and other people can’t be bothered, despite being far more able than me. It’s not a fun time to be single either, though at least I don’t have to deal with someone else’s family as well as my own! I shall be referring to my Christmas Survival Guide (and Part Two and Part Three) to help me through.

I have been feeling better since Friday, so I wonder if getting November out of the way has helped. November is the worst month of the year, in my opinion, so it’s always hard to cope. My plan is to concentrate on the things I like about this time of year and look forward to 2018.

I’m also in a reflective mood, brough on by the combination of the end of the year and my final counselling session on Friday. I have achieved a lot this year, but it hasn’t made a great deal of difference to my daily life. I’m still earning next to nothing and relying on working tax credits. I still have an enormous amount of debt. I’m still stuck living with my parents. I still have mental health problems which convince me I’m worthless and better off dead.

Yet trekking to Machu Picchu and being an integral part of a crowdfunding campaign which raised £15,070 for The Project have given me touchstones. I have achieved significant things this year and nobody can take them away from me — not even my mental illness. 

I may not have transformed my life, but I have completed a long-held life goal and made a difference. I have inspired at least one other person to chase her dreams — despite also struggling with mental illness. I may not feel confident a lot of the time, but I think my self-esteem has improved and I’m more willing to take on challenges.

I need to remind myself that while some weeks, or even months, will be write-offs, it doesn’t mean my life as a whole is a write-off.

Losing Spoons

The past couple of weeks have been difficult for me, mainly because I have been losing spoons.

The Spoon Theory is an analogy which helps explain how long term illnesses or conditions can deplete one’s limited energy. It was created by Christine Miserandino, who explains it here. I have previously written about my interpretation of Spoon Theory here and here. The basic concept is that everyone has a limited number of spoons, or units of energy, and when your spoons are limited by an illness or condition, you need to be very selective about how you spend them.

Spoons aren’t guaranteed.

The number of spoons available to you on any given day can vary — sometimes a lot. For example, on a good day I might have 25 spoons whereas I might have only 10 on a bad day. Most days, I average 15-20. The problem is, I don’t know how many spoons I will get in the future. This make planning problematic…

It’s a bit like getting paid a daily wage and never knowing how much you will receive. The amount sometimes bears a resemblance to your actions, i.e. the “work” you do, but there often seems to be no correlation. All you can do is invest, save and spend your spoons wisely — or rather, in what you hope is a wise way!

My current issue is that the number of spoons available to me, on average, have dropped over the past couple of weeks.

I partly expected this, because I attended two very important but anxiety-inducing social events a couple of weeks ago. As I have explained before, even when social occasions have been pleasant and enjoyable, it takes me a few days to recover.

However, the effect has been more dramatic than I anticipated. I think I may be fighting off a cold-type virus, as I have been tired and achy recently and sometimes my throat is scratchy. My mood has dipped too, as it is wont to do at this time of year, so my depression is absorbing more of my energy and motivation.

Accepting low spoon levels.

Having fewer spoons sucks, especially as I had been getting into a good routine with my writing, Open University course and volunteer work. Unfortunately, getting upset about the situation just uses up more spoons! It’s frustrating, because I feel like there should be a reason for losing spoons — perhaps I did something wrong or neglected some of the activities which give me more energy — but I can’t find one. It’s part and parcel of experiencing long term mental health problems.

The most annoying aspect of having few spoons to spend is being forced to narrow my priorities further than usual.

Having little energy means I have had to neglect very important parts of my life, because I need to prioritise my mental health first and foremost, followed by my work. I have no other option. I hate having to do it, but I can’t spend spoons which aren’t available to me.

It’s hard not to feel anxious about this state of affairs. I feel guilty for havig to cut back on my volunteer work and not seeing my friends very often. However, anxiety costs more spoons so I’m trying to avoid stressing out about the situation, since I have very little control over it (though that’s easier said than done!).

Moving through the mist.

All I can do is keep moving, even when my way is obscured. Giving in to frustration is detrimental — it won’t help myself or the people I think I’m letting down. I also try to remind myself that I’m not as depressed and anxious as I have been in the past: I may have fewer spoons, but at least I have spoons.

I will make an effort to acknowledge and appreciate what I am managing to do, though I wish I could do more. I submitted my first Open University assignment today, after neglecting it for the past few weeks. I wish I had been able to prepare it over a longer period of time, instead of writing it over the few days before it was due, but I’m glad I got it done.

I hope to get more spoons again soon, but I’m coping with the number I’m getting — which I suppose is good.

Self-Care: Simple and Complex

Self-care is a popular topic — and for good reason — but it tends to be oversimplified. 90% of the posts about self-care I see on social media don’t mention any of the issues involved. Lists of “100 acts of self-care”  make good clickbait and seem fun to share, but for many of us with mental health issues, they are intimidating and patronising.

All too often, self-care is promoted as a simple solution to mental health problems. The tasks advocated seem easy — to people whose mental health is relatively good — so we are told there is no excuse for not doing them. It’s rarely acknowledged that these “simple” tasks are almost impossible during bad episodes of mental illness.

There are exceptions to this glib approach to self-care, usually in social media posts and other materials produced by mental health organisations. The Blurt Foundation is particularly good at promoting self-care whilst addressing how difficult it can be and has a good self-care section on its website. However, many people and organisations have a lot to learn about how to present self-care in ways which are relevant to everybody.

Since it’s self-care week, I thought I would take the opportunity to discuss why self-care is more complex than it appears — especially for people, like me, who experience long term mental health issues.

 

There are different types of self-care — which vary in accessibility.

A major problem with any list of self-care activities is that a proportion of them will be difficult for many people to access or complete. When you see “20 easy ways to practice self-care” as a heading, bear in mind that none of them is easy for people experiencing mental illness and many will be impossible for people whose symptoms are moderate to severe. The ability to perform these tasks may also vary over the course of time — even from one hour to the next.

During the worst episodes of my mental illnesses, I was unable to do many of the “simple” self-care activities which people recommend most frequently: preparing a healthy meal, writing in my journal, seeing friends, going for a walk… In fact, the only act of self-care I was able to complete most days was getting out of bed. Usually because I needed to let the dog out.

You can try to practice self-care during relatively bad episodes of mental illness, but it’s important to select tasks which are appropriate for your current symptoms and situation. Getting dressed, taking a shower and making yourself a cup of tea are all acts of self-care which can make a difference to how you feel. They may seem ridiculously easy to someone who hasn’t experienced severe mental illness,but are very difficult when you are at your lowest ebb.

Tailoring your self-care plans to your current symptoms means they won’t always make sense to other people. For example, when my anxiety is bad but my depression is relatively good, I can do “difficult” tasks at home (cooking complex recipes, introspective exercises, running on the treadmill) but struggle to do anything outside, even a task which I have done many times before (walking the dog, going to the supermarket). You don’t need to explain yourself, but make sure you don’t judge yourself when other people express the assumptions and judgments they make about you. Mental illness isn’t logical.

Some of the activities depicted as self-care are so fraught with issues for people with mental health problems that they can leave you feeling worse. Anything which involves unfamiliar situations/environments/people, for example, is incredibly stressful for me. Getting a massage is not an act of self-care for me; it’s a situation which provokes anxiety when I think about the possibility! Going out for afternoon tea is a treat, but I don’t consider it self-care — allowing myself to be quiet and inactive for a few days afterwards to recover, however, is self-care.

Varying definitions of self-care are inevitable, especially when people have different mental health issues and different symptoms. For this reason, it’s important to define what self-care means for you. It’s also helpful to have different self-care strategies in place for different times/situations, depending on your mental health.

 

Sometimes self-care means not doing something.

Giving yourself permission to opt out of events and activities which could cause you distress and/or make your symptoms worse is a form of self-care. It’s a way of protecting yourself. Putting your needs first is not selfish — it’s necessary. Some people may accuse you of causing problems, but taking care of yourself is your main responsibility.

I feel guilty for refusing invitations, but I know the consequences if I go along with something which causes me more stress and anxiety than it’s worth. The people who really care about you will try to understand. They will see that you’re not being difficult for the sake of it and while they may be disappointed by your decision, they won’t hold it against you.

Another aspect of self-care is not getting caught up in other people’s emotions and judgments. If you explain the situation clearly and they take offence or accuse you of being selfish and manipulative, it’s their problem — not yours. Set boundaries in place and refuse to be drawn in. Stand firm on what’s right for you — it won’t be easy, but it’s easier than dealing with the consequences of not protecting yourself.

A note to anyone reading this who doesn’t understand why someone with mental health problems would refuse an invitation: events and activities which seem pleasurable to you can provoke a lot of anxiety and negative emotions. You may believe a party means only a few hours of discomfort for someone with anxiety, for example, but this is not the case. Instead, it means days (sometimes weeks) of anxiety beforehand, which may cause unpleasant symptoms like indigestion, diarrhoea and tension headaches. The “few hours of discomfort” actually feel like torture to someone with anxiety. When the part is over for you, it’s not over for someone with anxiety — they are left exhausted for at least a week and often ruminate on every little detail, worrying that people thought they were rude because they were too nervous to speak or that they embarrassed themselves in a million different ways. When someone with mental health problems refuses an invitation, please don’t try to guilt trip them into changing their minds — accept that they know what’s best for them and try to empathise.

A paradox in self-care is that sometimes not performing an act of self-care is self-care. This means recognising when a certain activity won’t deliver the benefits you hope, for example, forcing yourself to do a vigorous workout when you are already tired. Give yourself permission to do what you most need right now, even if that’s lying on the couch for a while.

 

 

Self-care doesn’t negate the need for help and support from others.

Self-care is not a substitute for mental health treatments and services, though it can form an important element of mental health management. It complements treatments like medication and talking therapies, which in turn can make it easier to practice self-care. While self-care is about taking care of yourself, it doesn’t mean you should struggle alone instead of getting help from other people.

Self-care is often presented as taking responsibility for yourself, but it’s seldom acknowledged that being able to take responsibility for yourself is a privileged position. You need to be well enough to practice self-care. Most people who experience mental illness need support from other people, in both personal and professional capacities — which should not be a source of shame.

Unfortunately, the language used in many social media posts, blogs and articles about self-care is careless. It implies that people who are unable to practice self-care are unworthy of help from other sources. Some people write about self-care as if it is “the answer” to our mental health crisis, which is untrue and potentially harmful.

Self-care is not a substitute for treatment or support. It’s a habit which we should all try to develop, whether or not we have experienced mental illness, without judging those who are unable to practice self-care. It can help us to achieve and maintain good mental health, but is not the only way to manage mental health.

 

Self-care needs to be practiced with self-compassion.

It’s not about creating a to-do list of tasks you “should” be doing, which often makes you feel worse. Don’t berate yourself for not being able to do certain tasks. Don’t feel guilty if a day, a week or a month passes without you being able to practice self-care. Do what you can, when you can.

Self-care starts with self-compassion and vice versa. When you believe you deserve compassion, you are motivated to practice self-care. When you practice self-care, you realise you deserve compassion.

Self-care is effective because it engenders self-compassion, leading to a positive spiral which changes how you feel about yourself. I realised this a few years ago, when I started making the effort to apply body lotion every week. My main motivation was getting rid of the dry skin on my knees, shins and elbows, but after several weeks I noticed it was beginning to change how I felt about myself and my body. It forced me to connect with my body, which I had always regarded with disgust, and taking time to do something for myself was powerful — it raised the possibility that myself and my body were worthy of time and effort.  A simple task shifted my mindset.

 

Self-care is not part of a reward/punishment system.

Self-care is not something you need to earn the right to practice: everyone deserves it. It’s not a reward for acting or feeling a certain way, or for doing something specific.  Conversely, it’s not a way of punishing yourself for not doing, thinking or feeling something different.

It’s about accepting yourself as you are, right now, and doing something to improve your mood, health or wellbeing. You don’t need to earn self-care or ask permission. You don’t need to tell anyone about it or keep it hidden. 

Neither is self-care a way to cancel out unhealthy or self-sabotaging behaviours. It’s not a column on a balance sheet, giving you permission to punish yourself as long as you counterbalance it with self-care. It’s not an excuse for not tackling unhealthy and harmful habits. It’s separate from your mental health issues and symptoms, although it influences your mental health in positive ways.

 

Check your self-care expectations.

Self-care is important and can have a big impact on your mental health and wellbeing, but it’s not a miracle cure. The effect is gradual and accumulates over time, especially as practicing self-care becomes a habit. It might make you feel better immediately, but it might not.

I find the best policy (for me) is to approach self-care with hope, but not expectation. I know there are possible benefits to any given act of self-care, but I don’t take them for granted. Most of the time, there are immediate benefits — often the satisfaction of completing a task! — but these are bonuses.

The long-term impact of self-care is also unpredictable and not guaranteed. Some of my self-care activities have produced positive results after months (or more) of seeming to have no impact; others have been effective after a short time. Many activities appear to be pointless until I stop doing them, at which point I notice my mood drops and other symptoms worsen.

I always find myself repeating that managing mental health involves a lot of trial and error, but it’s especially true for self-care. What works for you is often surprising. Something frivolous, like painting your nails, can have a bigger impact than it seems to merit. Other activities, like eating healthily, take so long to have an impact that it’s easy to get demotivated and give up. I think approaching self-care with the spirit of curiosity and experimentation is helpful.

The most powerful aspect of self-care is the act itself: by performing self-care you are telling yourself that you matter, you are valuable, you are worth the effort. And you are right!