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.

Taking Control

I’m currently recovering from a terrible episode of gallstones pain — well, it was a few of my worst episodes strung together over a few days and the first really bad episodes I have had since February, so a shock to the system. To clarify what I mean by “bad”, it involves me writhing on the floor in agony. The day after the last bad episode, my pain was still intense enough that I couldn’t bear to move unless it was absolutely essential. However, the most frustrating part of the experience was that it’s my own fault.

Sunrise

Okay, I didn’t ask to have gallstones and it’s not my fault that the current NHS waiting lists are ridiculous, thanks to the government penalising consultants for working overtime, so I haven’t had my gallbladder out. Maybe I wouldn’t have developed gallstones if I had stayed a healthy weight all my life, but overeating was how I dealt with my mental illnesses and one of the few coping strategies which was accessible to me during the years when I was scared of leaving the house alone. However, my recent painful episode could have been avoided if I had paid more attention to what was happening.

Since mid-May, I have relaxed my diet. I still want to lose another 20-30lbs, but a few other things took priority and stress took over during the final 2 months of my temporary job. I wasn’t eating a huge amount, but I was eating crap: more refined sugar and processed foods, fewer vegetables. I should have listened to my body as my gallstones became “noisier” but I pushed on, focusing on work and eating junk to deal with the stress (old habits die hard). 

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago and I realised that not only was I experiencing the worst episodes of gallstones pain I’ve had in a while, but my mood had plummeted. I needed to take control of my health.

I also had a minor epiphany: when my gallstones pain and mental health were better than they had been in ages, in March and April, I had been following a diet which limited processed foods and cut out sugar. I was also eating a lot less wheat. Feeling desperate, I decided to go back to basics and cut out junk food, processed food, wheat and refined sugar as much as I could. The worst that could happen, I figured, was that it would make no difference to the pain and I would get better nutrition.

Thankfully, my change of diet was very effective. Within 4 days, I felt well enough to return to kettlebells class (taking it easy). Within a week, I was no longer taking painkillers. After 10 days, I no longer needed to constantly use heat pads and lavender oil to reduce the pain. In addition, my mood improved — which could be due to the psychological effects of feeling a little more in control, as well as the change in nutrition. Nothing miraculous has happened, but I’m back to baseline gallstone pain levels and my depression has eased enough for me to feel a little more human.

In addition to diet, I think my experience was impacted by other factors. When my temporary job ended in July and I found out I had passed my Open University modules, there was an easing of pressure. I was no longer pushing myself to keep going through pain, stress, anxiety and depression at any cost. I could stop. But when I stopped, I felt drained — especially emotionally. I’m pleased to have completed my work project and OU modules, but neither went according to plan and I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to maximise my opportunities or enjoy them a little more. Now I could stop, I had to process all of these emotions.

Needing a lot of recovery time is something I have learnt to accept in theory, but it’s frustrating. It typically takes me a few days to recuperate from a day out, which most people find relaxing in itself, so I suppose I should have expected a period of lethargy when the challenges of studying and working drew to a close. Trouble is, I want to keep going! I feel as if I have wasted most of my life because mental illness has had such disabling effects over the years, so I think I should push on as much as possible when I feel able to do more. Perhaps the gallstones pain was a blessing, because it has reminded me to put my health (physical and mental) first and foremost.

So what does taking control mean for me?

Prioritising self-care is essential. I’m sticking with my dietary changes, since I feel so much better in such a short time, and I want to improve my fitness. Yesterday, I had a run on the treadmill for the first time in 3/4 weeks and realised how much I have missed its mood-boosting effects, so I want to work on running farther at my new, faster pace (I have been working on speed this year, after focusing on distance for last year’s half marathon). Taking the time to practice yoga and meditation is also a habit I want to establish over the summer.

The other side of self-care is about putting myself in a better position to achieve my goals. I’m not entirely sure what that will involve, because the first step is to reflect on my progress and decide what’s important to me right now. A summer reset, if you like, before I start my next OU modules in October. 

Paradoxically, a huge part of taking control is accepting that I can’t control everything. As the mental health literature reiterates, you can’t control what happens to you — but you can control your response. I had hoped this year would propel me towards a better future, but instead of feeling confident about building on my knowledge, skills and experiences, I feel beaten up. I hope that taking plenty of time to rest and work on my health over the next month will help me feel stronger.

Whatever happens, I will try to remind myself I am making progress — even when it feels so slow that it might not count. I spent too long living life on pause when my mental health was at its worst, so I’m not going to let the gallstones do the same.

The Work of Wellness

I recently read a book called How to Come Alive Again by Beth McColl, which has led to me thinking a lot about a subject which doesn’t get discussed often enough: the work involved in managing chronic mental illness. One of the book’s strengths is its acknowledgement that readers will have varying levels of functionality and these may fluctuate a lot, even over short periods of time, yet everyone has to work hard to try and maintain or improve their mental health. Some days, this means challenging ourselves and flying through a list of tasks. Other days, it means forcing ourselves to do basic tasks like drinking some water or getting out of bed. It’s all work.

A lot of people take this work for granted. If you haven’t spent years struggling with your mental health, it may be difficult to believe that simple activities are hard work for some of us. You may not understand how taking a shower can sometimes seem like a gargantuan challenge. You might wonder why people who have mental illnesses can’t just “pull themselves together” and carry on like a “normal” person (a viewpoint I have, unfortunately, encountered many times). But doing these things can be hard work. Mental health problems can drain us of energy, motivation, self-belief and a thousand other things which would enable us to cope better. Things which many people don’t need to consider when tackling mundane tasks.

Working on yourself

Managing one’s mental health also involves extra work, such as addressing complex issues and engaging in activities which have a positive neurological and/or psychological effect. Last week, some counsellors of my acquaintance were talking about their work and mentioned that many clients expect counsellors to fix their lives for them. Instead of embarking on counselling to work on their issues, they seek a quick fix. As one of the counsellors said, “I can’t fix their lives for them. I’m not magic.”

I was fascinated by this conversation, because I have received counselling at different points in my life and had never approached it as a quick fix. In fact, the NHS counselling I have received in the past is often criticised for being too brief to be effective in the long term: six sessions, the first of which is an introduction rather than a proper session. I went through two or three rounds of this with different counsellors and it was a sticking-plaster solution which helped me feel slightly better for a few weeks, only to deteriorate when I encountered more challenges. I had been given neither the support nor the skills to negotiate life as someone who has mental health problems. This started to change when I was given a year of drama therapy, which enabled me to work through a lot of personal issues.

I have also received longer-term counselling (around nine or ten months) from a local charity in more recent years and I was grateful to be given the opportunity to learn coping skills, including how to be more supportive of myself. The counselling itself was hard work, but putting what I have learnt into practice is an ongoing slog. I need to learn to be more accountable to myself now I don’t have anyone to check I’ve done my “homework” each week. Learning not to judge and criticise myself is also a constant challenge—I worry I’m not pushing myself enough and accuse myself of being lazy, even when I know I’m doing my best.

Tailoring your work to fit you

The work I do to manage my mental health is very personal—not so much private, but adapted to my own needs and preferences—and probably looks different to what many other people do. It has been a long process of trial and error which is still ongoing. I have also changed my approach at different points in my life, depending on what is most effective at any specific time.

The biggest difference in my approach over the past eight years is the prominence of exercise in managing my mental health. I started walking on a treadmill, because I was too scared to walk outside alone. My intention was to get a little fitter, because I had been very inactive for a couple of years and my lack of fitness was beginning to scare me. I had no idea it would lead to the decision to replace medication with exercise and if I had started getting fit with that intention, I probably would have been disappointed because it took around four years to reach the point where I could consider reducing my antidepressants.

Medication is another thing people consider a “quick fix” yet, like counsellors, antidepressants are not magic. They rarely work instantly—it can take several weeks to see an improvement, which is normal—and it may take some experimentation to find a variety and dosage which works for you. However, even when I found antidepressants which helped me, I didn’t experience the complete turnaround in mood expected by some people: they simply took the edge off my depression, which meant I could do more basic self-care tasks and work on improving my mental health.

All of these things seem so ordered when I write about them: counselling, medication, exercise and other coping strategies all organised into discrete boxes, all tracking a linear progression from “worse” to “better”. The reality is very different. My symptoms fluctuate a lot and the treatments I have used have been both effective and ineffective at different times.

I emphasise this point because reading about other people’s mental health can create false impressions, especially since many of us can’t write about our experiences during the worst times so write with the benefit of hindsight. These paltry lines of writing represent over fifteen years of struggle following my diagnosis of anxiety and depression; especially during the eight years before I was diagnosed with BPD (borderline personality disorder) and could finally make sense of the symptoms which didn’t fit with anxiety and depression. I don’t think I could ever fully convey my experience and while I can make sense of chunks in retrospect, other aspects I will never understand.

It might be tempting to take some things out of context and to make assumptions about the decisions I have made about managing my mental health. For example, many people assume I disagree with anyone using medication because I have stopped using it myself, whereas I actually credit antidepressants with keeping me alive. Without medication, I would not have been able to access therapy and counselling. I would not have started exercising. I would not have been able to do a large proportion of the work I need to do on a regular basis in order to maintain and (hopefully) improve my mental health.

So, what does this work involve?

My current mental health management plan prioritises exercise: strength-based gym classes and dog walking constitute its core, but I add running and yoga when I feel able. Exercise has a strong impact on my hormones and neurochemicals, which is why I have found it effective as a direct replacement for antidepressants (though not without its drawbacks). I also find it very powerful psychologically, as feeling strong and fit helps me feel more prepared for life’s challenges and I gain a sense of achievement from every workout.  Focusing on strength and fitness means I approach exercise with a healthy attitude—it’s not merely a way to control my weight through burning calories and I know that over-exercising would risk injury without providing extra benefits for my mental health. My exercise plan also gives my life structure, but without forcing me into a strict routine which I would be unable to follow when my symptoms fluctuate.

Regular exercising makes it easier to practice self-care, as it means I have to shower often. Basic hygiene may seem simple and non-negotiable if you have never had depression, but showering less often is one of the key signs I’m relapsing. Ditto with changing bedsheets and wearing clean clothes. This might manifest in subtle ways—leaving it a few days between showers but making the effort when you need to go out or be around people—and may never progress beyond this point, but it can get worse. Sometimes it can feel pointless to make the effort to shower, because your illness prevents you from leaving the house. I have been in this position and yes, I might have felt better if I had showered more often, but I was in a lot of emotional pain and had no energy. Nowadays, self-care tasks piggyback on my exercise routine: I shower more, so I change my sheets more and wear clean clothes more often. It also helps me sleep better, which further improves my mental health.

A lot of the work I do to get/stay well comes under the umbrella of “stress/anxiety management”, which is my way of describing a variety of techniques I use to varying degrees. Goal-setting and planning are key strategies for me, because they help me to focus and stay vaguely motivated. I use breathing exercises when I feel particularly anxious, including 7-11 breathing (inhale as you count to 7, exhale for 11) and box breathing (in for a count of 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, pause for 4 and repeat as needed). Venting my current stresses on paper also helps me feel better, especially if I can identify action points which could reduce or solve the problem, and I sometimes use a few CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) techniques I have learnt over the years.

None of this work is easy, especially when my symptoms worsen, but there are some areas with which I struggle a lot. Nutrition is difficult because I’m prone to emotional eating and often grab food which is convenient rather than healthy. My diet is generally healthier than at any other point in my life, but I sometimes slip into unhealthy habits—a situation which is not helped by my gallstones symptoms. Perhaps I will be able to prioritise nutrition in future and do stuff like meal prep and batch cooking every week, rather than intermittently, but it’s not something I’m rocking at present and that’s okay—I try to do what I can and I may fall short of my goals, but I’m doing my best.

Considering the macros along with the micros

Most of the work I have detailed is done at the “micro” level: small tasks performed on a daily or weekly basis. This type of work is what fills most of my days. When things are going well, it helps me feel in control and gives me the ability to enjoy my life. Doing the “micro” work also puts me in a better position to handle the “macro” work.

The “macro” work is the big picture: what I want out of life, my long-term goals and mental health management from a higher perspective. Again, this work is very personal. My priorities are my writing career, inspiring other people with mental health issues to chase their dreams, owning my own home (which seems impossible) and having fun along the way. Your priorities may look very different. My current priorities are different to the ones I have had in the past and will have in the future—they are subject to change, but they emerged from my values and I use them to guide me.

Keeping sight of the “macro” work can be extremely difficult when you have mental health problems. When you are struggling to get through each day, you can’t think about long-term goals. Yet, there’s a paradox: keeping my long-term goals in sight reminds me why it’s worth struggling through the days, why it’s important to keep working on self-care and the other “micro” work which helps me feel better. It gives my everyday life a sense of purpose.

I have learnt to revisit my “macro” work on a regular basis (at least once a month) for this reason. It makes my life meaningful and it makes the small steps I take each day meaningful. Do I get frustrated when I seem no closer to achieving my long-term goals and pushing through my daily wellness work feels like a massive challenge? Of course! I’m human. I wish I didn’t have to deal with mental illness every single day of my life, but it’s the material I’ve been given and I have to mould it as best I can. Considering the “macro” work also reminds me to check for progress, no matter how small, which I might overlook. For example, submitting a short story or making an extra debt repayment. My progress may be slow and excruciating, but it’s still progress.

You control your own work

Nobody can tell you what to prioritise in order to manage your mental health—trial and error is the only way to find out what works for you. It’s annoying when we would all prefer a quick fix, but it’s the nature of mental illness. Just in case you need me to point out the obvious, this also means you can’t dictate what other people should be doing to improve their mental health. You don’t know their struggles. It might be easy to judge from afar and when we find something which works for us it’s tempting to evangelise, but we don’t know what will help other people. You don’t get to decide what treatments and coping strategies someone else tries—they do.

You get to decide what you try and how to determine whether it’s effective. For instance, you may find something which helps you, but is too difficult to implement or access on a regular basis. You need to consider the costs and benefits of different types of work. Some of my current strategies would not have worked for me at other points in my life. For example, I tried to exercise at many different times, but struggled to create a routine—I could only establish some structure when I was well enough to attend gym classes. I still get anxious when I go to gym classes, but the benefits are worth this cost and if that changes, I would have to reconsider my situation. Likewise, the CBT techniques I find helpful nowadays were introduced to me in my NHS counselling sessions and didn’t help at the time. It’s important to keep trying new—and old—things to find out what works for you and your lifestyle right now.

I am not magic. I have to put a lot of work into managing my mental health and trying to get well. Sometimes I make progress, but other times I seem to regress and wonder why I bother making the effort. However, I’m learning that when I keep trying to do the work of wellness, moments of magic come into my life. Half an hour of feeling enthusiastic and joyous, rather than anxious, when I’m chatting with a friend. A moment of gratitude when a butterfly crosses my path. Three solid hours of working on a project which could turn into something. These fleeting moments might seem insignificant, but there have been times when I experienced nothing good or positive for weeks on end. Nowadays, if I remember to look, most days contain a little magic.

Pushing Upwards

I have spent four months in”maintenance mode” and I’m sick of it. While it was necessary to cope with the pain of my gallstones, especially for the three months when I didn’t know what was wrong, I felt as if my life was on hold and my mental health was suffering. The gallstones seem to have calmed down: I still have the baseline pain and constant nausea, but I’m learning to handle it and the really bad episodes have become less frequent. Combined with the frustration of feeling stuck, I decided it’s time to refocus on my goals.

Top of my list is getting back to losing weight. It feels strange to admit, because I struggled with an eating disorder for many years, but the past few months have taught me that health is valuable and shouldn’t be taken for granted. I already knew that, but life has a way of re-teaching the lessons we need to learn and in this instance, the lesson was about physical health. I want to lose weight primarily to reduce my risk of heart disease and diabetes. My dad has both of these conditions and recently had a heart attack and double bypass. I don’t want that to be in my future, so I’m trying to avoid it by taking control of the factors I can influence: being a healthy weight, staying fit and eating well.

Exercising is also a priority, mainly because it’s the most effective way of managing my mental health. My doctor has encouraged me to stay as active as I can, because it will help me recover faster when I have surgery to remove my gallbladder. Knowing I can exercise without causing damage is a huge relief, especially after exercising caution when I didn’t know what was wrong, and I feel better when I exercise more often. My anxiety is easier to control and I feel less depressed. I also feel better physically, in a way which is hard to describe: generally fitter and stronger. Like I can handle anything that comes my way.

I’m slowly beginning to piece my life back together and have begun challenging myself a little… One of my mini-goals for this year is to be more confident when driving and I recently drove on my own for the first time in approximately two years. It feels strange to admit, because I passed my test nearly nine and a half years ago, but driving became a source of anxiety for me and it was easier to avoid it than to suffer. And that’s okay. I may feel a bit ridiculous for being unable to drive for such a long period, but I think it’s something I needed to do.

The past four months have been a reminder to take care of myself and switch to “maintenance mode” when I need to, but they have also taught me not to let problems stand in my way. It might be a while before my gallstones get sorted out, so it’s another burden I have to carry, but I’m pretty damn strong. I can take the weight and keep pushing onwards and upwards.

Leaping Forward

A year ago today, I started a 4 day trek to Machu Picchu. It was the biggest and most difficult challenge I have voluntarily undertaken, but also one of the best. While it didn’t immediately transform my life, as I had hoped, it has changed me in ways I’m just beginning to realise. The greatest effect is cutting through my excuses. I completed a major life goal, despite struggling with my mental health. Why shouldn’t I achieve more goals?

Parachuting
Photo credit: my dad, Darryl Jones.

In this spirit. I set myself a lot of goals this year. Some are boring and mundane (adding to savings, submitting more short stories), but a few are more exciting. One of them was to complete a tandem skydive from 15,000 feet.

As you can probably guess from the photo, I did the skydive yesterday — which happened to be my birthday. 

Last year, I spent my birthday doing an acclimatisation trek in Peru and being serenaded in a restaurant with the world’s longest version of Happy Birthday. I was surrounded by a wonderful group of people who have become my friends, but I was thousands of miles from home and had woken up very early, sobbing because I was scared I was making a huge mistake. I was worried I wasn’t capable of achieving any of my dreams, including walking miles up very high mountains.

My birthday this year was very different: I was at home and spent the day with my parents. However, I also wanted it to be as memorable as last year, so I scheduled the skydive and hoped for good weather.

Although the skydive was on a much smaller scale than Machu Picchu, it involved a lot of preparation. My first task was to get under the 210lb weight limit (the website says you can jump if you are heavier, but you have to tell them in advance and pay a surplus, so I wanted to avoid that), which was a big commitment since I started the year at 244lbs. I weighed in at 201.5lb yesterday morning and a few pounds heavier in my clothes and trainers when I got to the airfield, which was a relief!

I also needed to have my doctor sign a medical form to state that I was allowed to jump, because I have received treatment for mental health problems within the past 2 years and have a history of self-harm. I had an appointment a couple of weeks ago and my GP declared that I was at no extra risk compared to any fit, healthy person.

I understand the reasons for needing my GP to sign the form, but it feels disempowering to be told that I can’t sign my own medical form. I know my own mind very well precisely because I have mental health issues. Managing my mental health effectively involves monitoring my mood and motivation for doing certain activities. Far from being a form of self-harm or method to boost fragile self-esteem, the skydive was my way of celebrating my achievements and rewarding myself for getting through the almost constant struggles.

Because I still struggle. Every small achievement, from walking the dog on my own to completing an assignment, involves facing my anxiety, depression and BPD and managing my current symptoms. 

My symptoms are less apparent to other people nowadays; partly because they have lessened in intensity, but mostly because I am much better at managing them. I was anxious yesterday, for example, but didn’t appear more nervous than anyone about to be hurled out of a plane for the first time. I was focusing on controlling my breathing and being mindful, rather than listening to my worries and letting them escalate — though, truth be told, my anxiety disorder is concentrated on the possibility of humiliation rather than harm or death, so I was more worried about doing the wrong thing or puking!

Tandem skydive
Photo credit: my instructor at Skydive Buzz

In addition to being a celebration and reward, skydiving was also a reminder that I need to take chances in order to experience fun and excitement. I need to leap forward, despite being anxious and having other obstacles in my way. I may never “recover” from my mental health problems, but I can manage them alongside achieving goals and chasing my dreams.

I think the main difference between my life now and the episodes during which I was trapped by my mental illness, is that my fears have shifted. I am more afraid of not trying to achieve my goals than the potential for humiliation. I’m more scared of spending the rest of my life confined to the house than chasing my dreams. I’m still fearful of failure and rejection, but my greatest fear is living without trying to create a better life for myself.

Which is another change: I believe I’m worth the effort.

I used to hate myself and thought I deserved nothing, but that has gradually changed over the past 10 years and the change has accelerated since I trekked to Machu Picchu. It started with asking for help when I needed it and investing in myself, going to university after thinking I had “missed out” on the opportunity. Then I realised I could contribute to the world, through volunteering and using my skills to help local charities/organisations. Most of all, I gave myself permission to dream again, to consider the possibility of a different life.

Along the way, I have met more people who believe in me. I have had small successes which confirm that I’m worthy of support and investment, contribute a lot and can achieve things I once considered impossible for me. 

Sure, my life looks very different to how I expected and what I would have chosen, but you work with what you’ve got. I still struggle, but the truly awesome days I enjoy make the weeks and months of struggles less important than the triumphs. When I look back on my Machu Picchu trek, I don’t dwell on the panic attacks, throat infection, rain and altitude sickness: I remember arriving at the Sun Gate with my fellow trekkers, achieving our goal.

Changing Set Points

I have been finding things difficult lately, which feels strange to admit because my life is, in general, better than it has been for years. While I still have bad days (and some really awful days), my typical daily mood has been turned up a few notches.

Apple blossom and sky

This means I can (usually) practice basic self-care without huge effort, such as going for a walk and cooking healthy meals instead of grabbing junk food. Other tasks are harder to accomplish, like finding the confidence to submit my short stories and attending appointments on my own. It seems my “set point” of mood and ability has increased.

An improved set point is, of course, a Good Thing. I have no idea whether I will ever recover completely from my mental illnesses, but this improvement is an encouraging sign. It gives me hope.

Life is also easier to bear, because my bad days are less intense than they were at the end of last year. Feeling lethargic, unmotivated and low in mood isn’t great, but it’s preferable to being suicidal and self-harming on a daily basis. It might take a huge effort to get out of bed, but I can do it. That’s progress.

But there is a darker side to an increased set point and the hope it brings: I feel more pressure to do better.

Acknowledging Progress

A conversation I had last week highlighted this issue. I was asked if I had had a good week and I replied that it was neither good nor bad. Nothing terrible had happened, but nothing particularly good had occurred. I felt as if I hadn’t achieved anything. I was then asked about my week in more detail. I can’t remember my precise response,but it was something along the lines of “oh yeah, I walked the dog and went to gym classes, did some writing, studied… the usual.”

“The usual.”

Not so long ago, these things were not “usual” for me. Even a year ago, I was not going to gym classes or studying. Longer ago, I couldn’t walk the dog (let alone on my own!) or sustain any kind of regular writing practice. I realised that I wasn’t giving myself credit for how far I have come and that I expect more of myself.

Expecting more of yourself can be empowering. It has motivated me to challenge myself. The possibility that I can manage my mental health well enough to prevent it from limiting my life encourages me to dream, to plan, to take action.

On the other hand, expecting more of yourself can bring disappointment. Failure is inevitable in life, but raising your hopes enough to expect the odd success can make constant failure harder to handle. In many ways, it was easier when I expected nothing good to happen to me.

Accepting The Positive

Perhaps the problem is a disconnect between accepting myself as I am and wanting more for myself. Maybe, on some level, I still consider those things a paradox. It’s a kind of superstition: if I accept myself as is, I might be jinxing the possibility of a better life.

Paradox or not, in my experience, acceptance is usually necessary before I can change things for the better. When you are fighting against your current situation, it’s difficult to achieve anything. Once you accept where you are, you can create a map and move forward.

I tend to think of acceptance as admitting and owning the negative aspects of my life. A lot of the work I did in counselling last year was about accepting my mental health issues, plus the problems that have been directly or indirectly caused by them (finances, work, relying on my parents, etc). I might not like having mental health problems, or the effects, but I need to accept them as part of my life.

However, thinking about my recent weeks has made me wonder whether I am making enough effort to accept the positive aspects of my life. I suppose my default is to think of my achievements and successes as anomalies; brief, glorious moments rising out of the dross of my everyday life. I rarely acknowledge them, especially if I consider them to be small and insignificant.

Yet the small things are important. Vital, in fact.

During my worst episodes, I couldn’t enjoy the very activities I now consider “small”. I didn’t read much, because I couldn’t concentrate. Ditto watching films. If someone did something nice for me, or even if the weather was good, I would get upset because I believed I didn’t deserve anything good. Back then, if you had told me that I would be where I am now, I would have scoffed because it seemed impossible.

I need to be more mindful about the good things in my life right now, as well as being hopeful that I can achieve things I currently think of as impossible. A few years ago, I would never have dismissed the past few weeks as “neither good nor bad” — I would have considered them to be fabulous, amazing, wonderful! Instead of letting my new set point skew my reality, making me dismissive of the positive aspects of my life, I should celebrate reaching this new version of “normal”.

Maybe this is how recovery will work for me, increasing my set point until mental illness is no longer a controlling shareholder in my life.

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.

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!

Winterproofing

I tend to think of the clocks going back as a negative event: winter has always been a difficult time for me, bringing both physical illnesses and a decline in mental health. The past two winters have been particularly awful. Last winter, I was ill for nearly four months solid, with the flu, throat/chest infections and other viruses wreaking havoc. I couldn’t use the coping strategies I had put in place, as even the easiest took too much effort. My depression and anxiety got worse.

Sunrise

This year, I hope things will be different — but last winter has taught me that you can do almost everything “right” and still succumb to illness. 

There has been one benefit to the clocks going back that I haven’t appreciated/experienced in past years: the lighter mornings. Since I get up at 5am nowadays and take the dogs out around 6:10am, the change is obvious. We could walk up the lane again this morning, after being forced to take a different route (with streetlights) for the past few weeks. As you can see in the photo, the sunrise was glorious.

Prioritising Self-Care

While I can’t control everything, I am making sure I stick to my coping strategies and self-care activities. In particular, I am being strict about using my SAD lamp and exercising. I know it probably seems ridiculous to people who don’t understand how important these activities are in managing my mental health, but it’s necessary.

Sure, I feel like I’m being awkward when I tell my friends I can’t go out on the evenings I have gym classes, but I don’t want to risk damaging my mental health. My routine, combined with the physical exercise, helps me stay healthy. When I feel guilty for being so selfish, I remind myself that when I got ill last winter, I couldn’t socialise for weeks — being unavailable a few evenings a week is preferable to being unavailable throughout the winter months.

I’m also being stricter with strategies which I should implement more regularly/frequently than I do at present. Wanting to avoid a repeat of last winter is a great motivator! I’m trying to eat healthy meals, even if I eat junk as well, and making an effort to meditate. I know I could do better, but stressing out about not doing better is counterproductive…

Finding Pleasure in Winter

I have being trying to focus on my strengths and the positive aspects of my life recently, so I’m trying to take the same approach to winter. It can be difficult to appreciate the pleasurable side of the cold, wet and dark months, but it’s not impossible.

Winter creates the perfect atmosphere for reading ghost stories, which I enjoy. It’s also a good backdrop for hot chocolate, warm puddings and spicy curries. Brussels sprouts are in season, which I adore (seriously) and I can watch films or read without feeling I should be outside, enjoying the sunshine.

I like a lot of things about Christmas, too — though it can bring its own challenges. Seeing Christmas lights when walking the dogs, buying presents and listening to cheesy Christmas songs are all fun. It marks the winter solstice, so brings hope that spring will come. The days will get longer again and it feels like I’m progressing with the changing seasons — in theory, anyway! In the meantime, it’s back to ghost stories and hot chocolate.

Facing Down the Fear

I’m terrified of getting ill again. I dread feeling like I did last winter. However, worrying and getting stressed will only increase the likelihood of getting ill.

Instead, I’m attempting a more pragmatic approach. I will do everything I reasonably can to avoid getting ill (hence I got a flu shot last week, for the first time!), but I can’t beat myself up if I get ill. Whatever will be, will be.

It’s the same old story, really: there is no point in worrying about stuff which might or might not happen. Of course, knowledge and practice are different things — especially when you have anxiety…

I refuse to fixate on whether or not I will get ill. In fact, I accept that I probably will get a few viruses and colds. I accept that my depression will become more difficult to manage. But I can focus on what I’m able to do and put contingency plans in place.

Coping with winter is difficult, but I’m not completely powerless. I can choose to accept the possibility of illness while doing my best to keep it at bay. It’s my best chance of staying mentally and physically healthy.