[TW] Mental Health Awareness Week: Why the Stigma Needs to STOP.

Although conversations on mental health have been opening up and society has come along in its treatment of those with mental illness, there is still a long way to go in making meaningful change and breaking down the stigma attached to the topic.

Now, for this post, I am not going to give you a generic overview of stigma and how it’s damaging; instead, I’ve decided to make it personal. This was a really difficult post to write, as I talk about some dark and difficult areas of my illness that I don’t ever really talk about, and it ended up being quite triggering for me, especially as I have struggled quite badly with my mental health this week. But nonetheless, it is personal stories and opening up about the more difficult periods that help in the fight for mental health to be taken more seriously and for the stigma to end.

So what will now follow are specific times in my life, spanning from my childhood up until now, where I can now recognise I showed signs of mental ill health or was struggling. Each of these times, stigma ended up clouding my judgement of what was happening, so that it either stopped me from sharing my thoughts/feelings completely, or became the barrier to me seeking help.

 

Growing up, my daddy worked as a chauffeur, driving company clients around, often to and from airports at pretty unsociable hours. And this made me anxious. Really anxious. I kept picturing him ending up in a car crash, the police arriving at our doorstep informing us that he didn’t survive. Any new stories of crashes I heard on the radio would fill me with this overwhelming sense of dread, as I convinced myself over and over that he was definitely involved and again. I would even have really vivid and distressing nightmares. The worst one I remember was of my daddy being decapitated, as he ended up driving under a lorry, scraping the top of his car clean off. I would wake up in a panic every time, hyperventilating and in tears. I worked myself up into panics every time my mum was late home from picking my siblings up from school too. I automatically assumed the worst and would pace through the living room and dining room, heart hammering, breath quickening, just waiting for the phone call or knock at the door. I would only settle when I finally saw the car pulling into the drive. I obsessively worried about these things, so much and so often, I became consumed by the thought that I was going to lose my family in horrible accidents. But I kept all this to myself, because I was even more worried about the reaction this would get. I felt like I would be ridiculed for even thinking such exaggeration and nonsense, that it would be brushed off as silliness and over imagination, that people would think I was a complete whack job. I was so afraid of having my feelings dismissed, being laughed at and labelled a drama queen that I decided to just keep quiet about it all.

 

After the 9/11 and July 7 terrorist attacks, my mind was again running at a million miles a minute. I kept over-worrying about me and my loved ones being caught up in an attack. I kept picturing planes exploding above our heads, the debris picking us off one by one. Anytime I was on public transport, I panicked, thinking at any moment now, a bomb was going to go off. I would imagine scenarios where planes flew into my school, our village was bombed and terrorists stormed our house and took my family hostage. I still to this day, have panic attacks about terrorism. I was caught one evening, after a particularly overwhelming episode, crying in the bathroom (it was the only place for privacy in the house; I’m one of four and shared a room with my two sisters). When I opened up about what I was so worked up about, I was told I was being ridiculous and silly. Yes, they were probably right; Lower Beeding, a small village in the middle of nowhere, isn’t exactly a hot target for terrorist attacks, but you try reasoning with an over-anxious mind! I was just left feeling really embarrassed and like a bit of an idiot. I never dared express my worries after that.

 

My Grandad passed away when I was 10 years old and it was all pretty sudden. We’d always been close to my grandparents, so it hit me pretty hard and if I’m honest, even now, I don’t think I’ve fully dealt with it. A couple of months later, I had been thinking about him and was on my bed, sobbing pretty uncontrollably. When asked what the matter was, I was then confronted with ‘Really? You’re still getting upset about that?’. When I became upset in school on the first anniversary, I was told that I needed to get over it, it happened ages ago and anytime I felt myself welling up, it was met with ‘oh god, not again’. I was basically being told to man up and shut up; I was being too emotional, too sensitive. So I just bottled my feelings up. And when it came to 2015 and my Grandma was diagnosed with and subsequently passed away from cancer completely out of the blue, I never let on to anyone just how much I struggled to cope. I desperately needed help both throughout this period and the years after, but I said nothing. I feared people would think I was being weak yet again and I knew I couldn’t handle being shut down this time around.

 

During my adolescence, I experienced terrible lows and spells of anger and irritability. I would explode over the littlest things and end up dissolving into a flood of tears. It was all just written off though. I was a sensitive person. I was just a typical teenager going through puberty. Or it was joked about: ‘it’s clearly someone’s time of the month!’ So I always thought my mood swings were normal- clearly just part and parcel of being an overly sensitive woman!

 

This last part is the most difficult for me to talk about, as I still don’t feel completely ready to fully open up about it in detail. It’s important that I mention it briefly here though, so that I can properly explain my point.

I was bullied quite a bit during my school years, which affected my mood, my self-esteem, my self-confidence, my self-worth and I started thinking the same, and much worse, about myself. There just didn’t seem to be any escape from noise, not in school or in my own head, and I couldn’t take it anymore. These self-derogatory thoughts became so overwhelming that I decided I’d had enough and made an attempt on my own life. This happened on more than one occasion. I didn’t tell anyone.

After my Grandma passed away in 2015, I really, really struggled. We were really close and her death hit me really hard. I didn’t know how to cope or work through losing her, especially in the way we did and with how quickly it all happened. One of the ways I tried to deal with it, was to drink myself into a stupor. I went and got absolutely smashed every weekend, in an attempt to numb the pain and forget about it all for a while. The problem with this though, was that I never wanted to go home, because I never wanted the night to end, because then the day would come around and I would be hit with the reality all over again. When we eventually got home, I would always get very emotional and into an argument with my ex-partner. As I was already feeling extremely depressed on a daily basis, these arguments tipped me over the edge every time, as they left me feeling so isolated and alone. I felt so low about myself and so low about life, I couldn’t take feeling this way all the time anymore, so I took an overdose. I did this after five separate nights out. I didn’t tell anyone; my ex-partner was the only one who knew.

I never opened up about any of these attempts to anyone when they happened and I didn’t even try to seek any help. I brushed them off and justified them every time: I was just having a bad day, I was really emotional, I’m just going through a tough time right now, I was really drunk. I knew it wasn’t normal behaviour, but yet I still didn’t reach out. Why? ‘Suicide is the coward’s way out’, ‘Suicide is selfish’, ‘Suicide is just a way of attention-seeking’. I didn’t say anything because I was scared. I was scared of the reaction from my friends and family. Scared that they would be angry with me. Scared I would be judged as weak, selfish and attention-seeking. So I never reached out or sought help once, even though I had actually taken steps to end my own life.

 

Because of stigma, I felt like admitting I needed help, was admitting I was weak and a failure. This is why it took me years to just acknowledge that I was struggling with my mental health. Even after accepting this, it still took me months to pluck up the courage to seek professional help. I was worried the doctor wouldn’t take me seriously and would simply dismiss my thoughts and feelings, as had happened so often in the past. I was then worried about having to tell people. Those who are mentally ill are so often portrayed as mad, crazy, dangerous, psycho, I was so worried that was how my friends and family would think of me. I was worried they would end up treating me differently, seeing me as weak, fragile and unstable.

 

Although I have been really lucky and had really positive, supportive reactions from friends, family and medical professionals since being and open about my mental health, I know that this might not always be the case with everyone I meet. For example, I am currently not able to work due to my mental illness and have been out of work since being diagnosed last August. So when it finally comes round to applying for jobs, there will be a pretty massive gap in my employment history. If I’d gone away on a gap year, there wouldn’t be a problem, but taking a mental health break seems to be a red flag for employers. If I am honest with them about my mental illness, will the stigma attached to it affect my chances of a successful interview?

 

Stigma stopped me from seeking the help I clearly desperately needed and played a part in almost ending my life on several occasions. The worst part though, is that I am not alone in feeling like this. Many, if not all, of those who have experienced a mental illness, have gone through a similar thing. And there are probably still people out there, who are yet to be diagnosed, because the fear of stigmatisation is preventing them from reaching out for support.

Stigma is not only risking people’s mental wellbeing, it’s putting their lives at risk too. And this needs to stop. Now.

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Mental Health Awareness Week: Supporting Someone with Mental Illness

 

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Picture taken from promises.com.sg/can-help-person-love/

 

A solid and reliable support network is vital in helping someone with a mental illness to cope and eventually recover, but being a source of support for them is really tough. It is difficult to know what to do or what to say to them, because half the time, they don’t even know what they need themselves! The type of support does vary from person to person, but here are some things that everyone can do, to help support someone on their mental health journey:

 

Educate yourself. This is probably the most important thing you can do; how do you know how to support that person, if you don’t even know what is it they’re dealing with on a daily basis? By learning about their illness, you can begin to understand and empathise more about their struggles, learn the symptoms to keep an eye out for and detect more easily when they are struggling, so you can step in to help quicker. Mind is a mental health charity and has a whole section on their website with information on the different types of mental health problems. For each illness, they explain what the illness is, its causes, treatment and even gives guidance for family and friends. These resources give a general overview of each condition, but everyone experiences a mental illness differently. So if your friend or loved one is willing to talk about theirs, I personally believe that asking them to explain their personal situation to you, is the best way to learn about their illness, as you know specifically what it is that they are going through.

Find out what support they need. As I’ve said, everyone will have different experiences on their mental health journey, so even with support, it is not ‘one size fits all’; what will help for one person, may have the opposite effect for another. So the best thing you can do is to ask your friend or loved one what helps them. Now, we don’t even have all the answers when it comes to our mental illness, so the person may not actually know themselves what it is they need or what help they want. I’m always learning more about my mental health, what helps and what doesn’t, every day of my own personal journey, and I’m always finding that what worked one day, doesn’t necessarily work all the time. In this situation, you just need to be understanding and patient. We know it’s frustrating, we get unbelievably frustrated by this too! But by keep checking in with them and asking them what they need in that moment instead of just guessing, makes them feel more in control of their mental illness and lets them know that you really are there to help them.

Be present. There have been a few times when someone has asked me how I’m doing, but while I’m still answering them, they’ve started to look around the room, look at their phone or start talking over me. I know it’s easy to get distracted- I’m guilty of this too- but it is really important that if you’re going to have a chat with them about how they’re doing, you need to stay present and really listen to what they’re saying. When you start looking at other things, it feels like you’re looking for something better to focus on, like we’re boring you, like you don’t actually care about what we have to say, and as our self-esteem and confidence is already on the floor, this just damages it even more. It takes a lot to open up about mental illness. I still really struggle to talk during the bad days, so when I do and it goes badly, it really knocks my confidence, causes me to revert back into myself and makes me never want to open up again. Also, there might end up being a few pauses where they’re trying to find the right words or, like me, even just struggling to talk about it full stop. If this happens, don’t jump in straight away; you need to allow them the time to talk about things at their own pace.

Keep in touch. This is really basic, but can be so powerful. A simple text message, just to check in on them, can go a really long way, especially if that person has started to withdraw. Our mental illness lies to us all the time and basically tries to turn us against those close to us; it has more power if it makes us feel isolated and alone. But by keeping in touch, it just gives them a little reminder that you are actually still there for them and are thinking of them. Going a step further and sending them empowering messages can also help to boost their confidence, self-worth and mood. Reminding them of their strengths, their skills, how capable they are to get through this, how strong they are, how amazing they are doing, how far they’ve come…just hearing that you believe in them can be so powerful in cutting through the self-derogatory noise in their head. Reminding them of what they mean to you encourages them to keep battling through the dark times, as it makes them aware that there actually are people who truly care about them. Also, please keep inviting them to things. In the age of social media, this is even more important. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone onto Facebook or Instagram and got really upset, because I’ve seen my friends are out, but I never got an invite. It’s even more ridiculous because I know I would have declined their offer, but it still would have been nice to have been invited. We know we are flaky and we know there’s certain events that we will definitely say no to; we know you know this too (this is all starting to get a bit Phoebe vs Monica in Friends now!). But inviting them along will make them feel included, like you still see them as part of the friendship group and stops them from feeling even more isolated.

Accept that you can’t fix them. We know you mean well and your intentions are good, but you can’t magically ‘fix’ us. You want to help your friend or loved one to be better so badly, that you end up trying to solve all their problems and come across as though you have all these quick and easy answers. In your eagerness, you might even end up saying the completely wrong thing as well, making matters worse for them. If I had a pound for every time someone has said to me ‘well, just don’t think like that, think more positively’ or ‘just think happy thoughts’, I would be living on my own island right now. If this actually worked, we’d all be bloody cured. It is also really unhelpful to be telling them what they should or should not be doing to make them feel better. Someone else you know might have been able to do more chores or get out the house every day, and this might have aided their recovery. But that isn’t the case for everyone. Some days, it’s a massive hurdle to just get out of bed, so putting pressure on them to do more could end up being more detrimental to their mental wellbeing. There is no quick fix to make your friend or loved one better and comments like those above, are harmful. Personally, it makes me feel as though my friend/relative just does not understand what I’m going through at all, which then puts up even more of a barrier. Just being there for and listening to them, without judgement, speaks absolute volumes and will mean the world to them. Recovering from a mental illness is a long and bumpy road; we just need your help in staying on track.

Remind them of the importance of self-care. Self-care feels pretty icky to most people, but for those with mental illness, it completely contradicts all the thoughts and feelings we have about ourselves daily, which is why it often ends up falling by the wayside. When I hit a rough patch, even the basics like bathing, cleaning my teeth or washing my hair, go out the window. I feel so low about life and about myself, I just think ‘what’s the point in doing anything?’. If you know they’re struggling, they’ve been taking on too much and they haven’t been looking after themselves properly, remind them to take some time out for themselves. You could send them a quick message and prompt them to watch their favourite TV show or film, read a book or take a long, relaxing bath. You pop round and make them a nice, hot cuppa or offer to help with chores, so they can take a break. You could take them out for a country walk (you can leave the lead at home though) or plan a fun, chilled day out. Self-care is different for everyone, so absolutely anything goes, just as long as it is something that makes them happy, that they enjoy and that nourishes and recharges them.

Just ‘be’ with them. This is a difficult one for me to explain, so try and bear with me. Living with a mental illness is exhausting. I find socialising really draining, as I’m constantly trying to concentrate on and contribute to the conversation, while my head is so full of noise. Even though I actually want to be spending time with friends and family, I end up just shutting myself away, simply because I don’t have the energy to even keep up with a chat. At these times, I just need the company, for someone to just sit and ‘be’ with me. So if your friend wants to meet up, but doesn’t have the energy to properly socialise, invite them round or go round theirs for a film night, take them for a drive or sit and watch TV with them instead. You might be sat in silence the whole time, as they really might not be up to talking about anything, but they will really appreciate the fact you are there.

Allow them to feel how they feel. There are times when I have a full on, emotional meltdown, but when someone asks me what the matter is, I have absolutely no clue what I’m crying about (this is more of a regular occurrence these days than I care to admit). This is unfortunately part and parcel of mental ill health; we get emotional and sometimes for the life of us, can’t fathom out why, we just are. The best thing you can do for your friend or loved one in this situation, is to simply let them feel how they feel. If they feel like crying, then let them cry. Telling them ‘don’t cry’ or ‘there’s no need to cry’, just invalidates their feelings and can make them feel embarrassed or ashamed of how they’re feeling. Instead, just sit with them, offer them a hug and tell them it’s ok for them to cry, to not be ok and to feel this way, and that you will be there to help them through it.

Establish boundaries. This is important for both parties involved, as it sets what support your friend or loved one can expect from you, while ensuring your own mental and physical wellbeing at the same time. If you are offering your support to them, you need to be clear and honest about what you can and cannot do, and also when you are able to commit to this. Don’t say to them ‘you know you can call or text me at any time’ or ‘if you ever need anything, you know where I am’, if you don’t sincerely mean it. When they do take you up this offer and you’re not there for them, it can then stop them from reaching out for help in future. On the flip side of this, it is also really important for you that these boundaries are in place, so that you don’t burn yourself out. You are only human, you cannot support your friend or loved one with everything or all the time and you shouldn’t be expected to either. It is just as important to take some time out to look after yourself too. By letting them know your limits, they will be clear about what they can expect from you and vice versa.

 

However you choose to give your support, just know that it truly is a gift to those suffering from mental ill health, and could even be a lifeline for them. The important thing is that you are showing you will always be there for them and that you will always care about them. You are not going to get it right every time, but your support doesn’t have to be perfect for it to make a difference; your friend or loved one will just appreciate the fact that you are making an effort to help them. They might not be able to tell you at the time how amazing and wonderful you are for even just sticking around, but they are and always will be so grateful that you have.

 

Although I am posting this as part of my mini-series for MHAW, these ideas aren’t only for use during the campaign. Mental illness is something we have to live with every minute of every day; we will need your support throughout our journey to recovery, not just this week.

 

As a final note, I want to take this opportunity to thank my amazing support network, because if I didn’t have all you wonderful people in my corner, I certainly would not still be here today. You all give me the strength, courage and determination to keep fighting through the black days and I cannot fully express how much I appreciate all the support from each and every one of you.

Mental Health Awareness Week: Coping with Stress

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The theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2018 is coping with stress, so I thought what better way to kick off this mini-series, than by discussing this year’s main focus.

Everyone will have experienced some degree of stress at some point in their life- it is, unfortunately, inevitable and unavoidable. Stress is the feeling of being under abnormal pressure, in reaction to a real or a perceived threat, known as a stressor. These stressors could be financial worries, moving house, increased workload, bereavement, illness…the list goes on! When our brain detects one of these stressors, our stress response is triggered. This is our evolutionary survival strategy, which gave our ancestors the ability to either stand and fight or run away when they encountered danger. The stress response is the same today, as it was back then, but the problem is, that these days, stress is more a result of our way of life and less to do with physical threats. And, unfortunately, our brain can’t distinguish between physical and emotional stressors, so the physiological response is the same for both.

While a moderate amount of life stress can actually help us to perform better under challenging circumstances, it becomes a problem when these stressors occur more frequently or start piling up on top of one another, as we are repeatedly triggering this stress response on a daily basis. This results in chronic stress which end up taking its toll on both our physical and mental wellbeing. It leaves us feeling overwhelmed, overloaded and unable to cope and even puts us at a higher risk for developing a mental illness.

I, for one, am a massive stress head. I literally stress about absolutely bloody everything! It is ridiculous how much I stress. I stress about how stressed I am. And when I’m not stressed, I even stress about that, BECAUSE OF COURSE THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING TO STRESS ABOUT! So I thought I’d take the stress test over on the Mental Health Foundation’s website, to see where I fell on their stress gauge (you can take this test here). The highest stress result you can reach is 40, and this might come as a shock to you, but I ended up scoring 36- pretty fucking high. (Probably worth me taking their suggested mindfulness course…)

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But I am not alone. The Mental Health Foundation undertook a study of stress levels in the UK and over this past year, they found that a staggering 74% of people have felt so stressed, they feel overwhelmed or unable to cope. That’s nearly three out of every four people in the UK at risk! This is a really worrying statistic, especially when you consider that one in four already experience a mental health problem each year.

But how can we support our mental health, to help us cope better with life stresses and stop us from becoming too overwhelmed and burning out?

Well, these used to be my go-to ways of dealing with my problems, worries and stress, aka, the worst possible coping mechanisms imaginable (don’t know what I was thinking, they definitely didn’t work). I would go out every weekend and get absolutely wasted, as a way to de-stress and forget about my problems. I would overeat on chocolate, biscuits, cake, sweets…anything and everything unhealthy, to try and make me feel better. Or if I was too stressed out and worried, I felt I didn’t even have the time to stop and eat. And who has time to sleep, when you’ve got so much to do and worry about!? There were also days when personal hygiene went out the window. I barely ever exercised. I stopped doing all the things that made me happy. Basically, anything I felt wasn’t a necessity, I simply did not have the time for and so, it was scratched from my routine. Also, when I experience emotional stresses- like when my Grandma passed away, when I felt really homesick and lonely on my year abroad, when I hit problems in my relationship- I bottle up my feelings, as I have never known how to deal with them, and repress them deeply into the darkest corners of my subconscious. I thought that by doing this, I could lock the stress of it away in a little box in my mind, forget about it and move on with life.

None of these worked out well for me AT ALL. I had basically made more room in my life for the things that stressed me, which, in turn, gave the stress more control over my body and mind. I took on too much, kept up too fast a pace and didn’t learn to deal with my problems, so eventually, I completely burnt myself out. Stress really took its toll on my mental health and by not dealing with things properly or sooner, my mental state deteriorated to the point where I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

These days, with the weight of this mental illness on my shoulders, any stressful circumstance seems to hit me ten times harder and sets off a ripple effect throughout my mind and body. Although I am very much still a work in progress, I have been working hard at recognising when I am overwhelmed, pressing pause and putting into practice one of the alternative techniques I have read about, to be able to deal with the stressor better and limit the increased repercussions on my wellbeing. By using books on anxiety and information from the websites of mental health charities, I have been able to develop a self-help toolkit of better, healthier ways to cope with stress.

Be assertive. I still struggle with this one at times as I am an incessant people pleaser, but I’m beginning to learn that it’s ok to say no sometimes. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve ended up with a jam-packed schedule, all because I can’t say no to people. I’ve ended up doing things I don’t enjoy, going to places that make me uncomfortable, spending time with negative influences and this has put an insane amount of pressure on me in the past. I now try to pick what I want to and feel comfortable with going to only, to try and lower my stress levels and make sure I’m not taking on too much in one go.

Be present. A lot of my time is spent worrying and overthinking about the past and the future. I can spend hours ruminating at a time; I start off thinking about one little thing and before I know it, I’ve snowballed and my head is full of worries, stressing me out. But now, when I notice this is happening, I ground myself in the present, by focusing on my surroundings. I start with five things I can see and I tend to include touch in this as well. Then two or three things I can hear. If I can smell and taste anything, then I will do these two senses too, but these ones prove to be more difficult. As I go through, I don’t just list them off, I have to describe them in detail. So if I can see a table, what colour? What material? Is it big or small? What type of table? Are there any marks? Anytime my mind starts stressing again, I bring my attention back to my surroundings. I do still struggle to notice when I’m overthinking too much and to implement the technique before it’s too late, but I know this will come easier, the more I practise.

Breathe. This is such a simple technique, but it is so effective. I have recently started to use public transport again and this is something I find really stressful. I have ended up having quite a few panic attacks on buses in the past, so it has become a bit of a learnt behaviour pattern. But if I start getting too panicked, I close my eyes and focus my attention on my breathing. I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth, noticing the sensations in my chest, until I have established a steady rhythm. Then I start to count the breaths. One breath = one inhale and exhale. I do this up to ten, and then if I still feel stressed, I start counting again. Then I just keep repeating until I’m feeling calmer. Your brain can’t focus on both your breathing and your thoughts at the same time, so this is a great way of clearing and calming the mind.

Ask for help. When I go through stressful periods, I still tend to shut myself away from the world, as I don’t want to burden my friends and family with my problems. I am trying more and more though, to reach out to my support network and ask for help when things all start getting a bit too much. In the past, my friends have helped me solve problems, offered to physically help me with all or parts of a task to lighten my load and helped to put things in perspective. As they say, a problem shared is a problem halved! If you don’t feel like you have anyone close you can talk to though, charitable organisations such as the Samaritans have a free helpline, which offers support around the clock. There is always help out there.

Write it down. Writing has become a sort of therapy for me, as I’m not the best at talking things through. I began blogging at the end of last year, as a way to get things off my chest and have recently purchased a bundle of notebooks (I bloody love stationery!), so I can start journaling. One is for my morning pages, which is just a way of me clearing out my mind, onto the page, ready for the day ahead. Another is for my actual journal, where I document events, thoughts and feelings from the day, so that I can track any patterns in relation to my mood. The last one, however, is for as when I need. If my head starts getting too loud and I’m stressing about too much, I open this notebook and write down everything that I am worrying about. I place them in order of priority and starting with the most important, I list all the possible solutions I can think of and then circle the one I think is best. By doing this, I have taken the worries out of my head, made sense of the noise and sorted through the problems one by one, thus rationalising my stressors.

Exercise. Whenever I get stressed, I feel really hyper-aware and pretty amped up. This is because our body is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, giving us a burst of energy to be able to deal with the situation; the fight or flight response is activated. However, my stress triggers aren’t physical, so these hormones don’t end up being utilised. Exercise is a great alternative to make use of these stress hormones and relax your body and mind. It doesn’t even need to be strenuous exercise; a brisk walk around the block can get you back into a calmer state.

Make time for you. Self-care is so important, but it’s always the first thing to go when I feel stressed. I’m making sure though, that I make the time for at least one thing each day that makes me happy, feel nourished and relaxes me. Self-care looks completely different for everyone, but these are just some of the things I do, to look after myself: I really enjoy getting lost in a good book; I feel super relaxed after a nice, long, hot bath; I feel nourished after I meditate; I am happier when I’m surrounded by nature and especially when I take a walk along the coast. Whatever it might be for you, just make sure you schedule in some ‘me-time’ everyday, to restore your settings and recharge your battery.

Be grateful. I was really dubious when I read about this, but it actually has helped me to focus less on the stresses in my life. Every evening before bed, I write down three things that I am grateful for and at least one positive that has happened that day. This helps to pull my attention away from any negative thoughts and feelings and instead shines a light on things that have gone or are going right for me. By making a note of these as well, I am then also able to look back at all the positivity in my life when I hit another stressful period, which helps to put those new stressors in perspective.

Limit caffeine. I have had to cut way back on my caffeine intake, as it aggravates my anxiety, but if I am feeling particularly nervy, I won’t drink it at all. Caffeine is a stimulant and adding this to the excessive amounts of stress hormones already in my system, will only serve to heighten my already anxious state. I really struggled with this at first as I bloody love tea, but I have now managed to limit myself to one cup of normal tea first thing in the morning, before I switch over to either a decaf or herbal option, for the rest of the day.

Get a good night’s sleep. My sleep has improved drastically in recent weeks (more to do with my new meds, but at least I’m getting 8+ hours), but before this, I really struggled with my sleep. It would take me ages to finally nod off and even then, I always had a restless and fitful night’s sleep. I’ve worked really hard over the years to improve my sleep pattern and quality, by establishing a bedtime routine using sleep hygiene: I have a bath in the evening; I drink chamomile tea: I write in my journals to clear my mind of any thoughts or worries; I stop using electronics an hour before my bedtime; I read a book which helps my mind wind down and tire my eyes; I try to fit in a guided sleep meditation, as this relaxes my whole body and helps me to drift off peacefully. Your routine can use anything that relaxes your body and calms your mind, as this will be different for everybody. The key to cracking this though, is consistency- you need to keep it up and make sure to be in bed by roughly the same time each night, so that your brain gets used to a predictable bedtime routine.

So there you have it! Just some of the ways I now try to manage my stress levels, to cope better with those lemon pelting days. Are there any other stress-busting tips you would add to this list? What activities or techniques help you to relax most? Be sure to add them in a comment below for others to check out- they might find them just as useful!

Mental Health Awareness Week

MHAW

Happy Mental Health Awareness Week everyone!

I am well aware I am a day late to the party, but I have been really struggling to sit and concentrate long enough to write and edit any decent content. I have been panicking that I wouldn’t actually have anything to share with you, but as a mental health blogger, I felt it would be pretty poor on my part if I didn’t get involved in the campaign and use my platform to help raise more awareness this week, so I’ve powered on through and now have a few posts that are almost ready to upload.

If you follow my blog, you’ll be aware that I have struggled with my mental health over the past few years and this culminated in me being diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression last August. I also have many close family and friends who suffer from mental ill health, so raising awareness and increasing understanding of mental illness is something that is really important to me.

So over the course of this week, I will be using my own personal experiences, to talk about some of the important topics on the subject of mental illness. Some of the areas I will be touching upon are: this year’s theme of stress, ways to support someone with a mental illness and why the stigma needs to stop. I will also share my list of recommended resources, as well as a final important message to take away from the week’s campaign.

It is going to be a crazy busy week on here and the most content I have uploaded in a week since I started this blog. I am only scratching the surface with the posts I’ll be sharing this week, but by talking openly and honestly about these matters through my own personal mental health journey, I hope it can encourage others to share their stories, give those struggling the courage to seek help and most importantly, add my voice to the ever-growing crowd, raising more awareness and better understanding of mental ill health.

Every voice counts in the fight to raise awareness, increase understanding and make positive changes towards attitudes and policies surrounding mental illness. So make sure you get involved this week and start opening up the conversation on mental health. Discuss your thoughts in the comments section under each post and be sure to get sharing on social media as well! Let’s make some noise!

 

Counselling Reflection #1

I really don’t know what to make of that session at all. I don’t even know where to start with explaining how I feel about it.

I’d been feeling super anxious all morning about this appointment, to the point where I had the overwhelming urge to just cancel and hide under my duvet for the rest of the day. Just the thought of sitting, talking to a stranger about my thoughts, feelings and problems, makes me feel beyond uncomfortable, so actually physically going and doing just that…I wasn’t sure I could cope with it; I could not do that. But (un)fortunately for me, my mum was taking me there and staying with me until I had finished, so she was dragging me there whether I liked it or not.

We arrived at the surgery in good time (my anxiety has been good for making me more punctual), so I only had 10 minutes to wait until my appointment time. Expect that I actually had to sit in the waiting area for 40 minutes, as he ran over by half an hour. This is one thing I am really not good at coping with. I struggle when there are delays and I have to hang around waiting; I just want to get in, get the thing done and go home. Luckily my mum was there with me, with helped to keep me slightly calmer than if I’d be by myself, but as I was already in a highly anxious state, this really didn’t help matters.

Now, since being back from the session, my head has been very much all over the place, so I will try my best to explain clearly, but my thoughts might end up being a bit jumbled- just bear with me.

The main point of this session was basically for him to get a sort of timeline of events, thoughts and feelings that lead to me seeking help and being diagnosed, so he could get a better picture of the background of my illness. So, for what felt like the thousandth time, I went back through and explained each event that had happened, step by step, and then he asked me some pre-prepared questions about some of my thoughts and feelings more recently. This was all pretty straightforward and I actually managed to keep my composure throughout and not burst into tears on him -think this might be the first time, so I’m counting that as a win! But he kept jumping back and forth and jumbling things up, which really caused me some confusion, as I struggle to remember things at the best of times. He kept going back to parts we’d already moved well on from, to ask more questions and clarify details. He also got really hung up on the time I spent in France, and not on the difficulties I had and how they contributed to my condition, but talking about the culture, the people and the places he’s visited there. It felt like half the time he was just chatting to me about his holidays!

From the time I went in to the time we finished, I just wanted to get up and leave. I didn’t feel like I was particularly gaining anything from being there and in actual fact, I feel worse for going through it. I’ve come home feeling pretty deflated about it all and I have this horrible, uncomfortable feeling sitting in my chest and stomach, which has been there since this morning. I’ve done nothing but cry since I got back and my head is in such a mess, I just can’t seem to settle now. I don’t know if the aversion I’m feeling is towards counselling in general or because of the therapist I had. I just don’t feel as though we clicked at all and it was a struggle to open up and talk to him properly. The whole experience just felt really icky, but I can’t seem to put my finger the exact reason why.

I have another session booked in with him for next Monday, so I guess I’ll just give it another go and see if things improve from this time. I’m just feeling a bit confused about it all and unsure of what to do now, as I don’t have any proper previous experience of therapy to compare this to. How long are you supposed to wait before you re-evaluate and try a different route or therapist? How many sessions do you need to know if the therapist is the right fit for you, or if counselling full stop is? Is this a ‘normal’ reaction to have after your first session? I have more anxiety and more questions after leaving the appointment, than I did to start with!

It seems only time will tell, so hopefully things will start to improve. I’d love to hear any advice you can give me or your own experiences of starting therapy, so please do leave a comment below!

Pre-Therapy Jitters

So I finally have my first counselling appointment tomorrow! And boy, has it been a long road to finally get just this initial meeting…

When I was diagnosed back at the end of August last year, I was referred to the Primary Counselling Service at my old GP surgery back in Cardiff. However, the waiting list was so long, I had to wait 7 months and had to chase the referral up three times, before I was even booked in for a preliminary assessment. It was great news, even if I was feeling pretty nervous about it, as I was finally getting the help I desperately needed at this point.

The appointment was due to take place on 2nd March this year, but by the end of February, things had all taken a turn for the worse with my mental health and in my personal life too, and at that point, I had made the decision to move back home with my parents. I still attended the session to discuss my options and see if there was a chance that I could just transfer the counselling to my GP in West Sussex, but this wasn’t possible and I instead had to go back through the system with my new GP surgery. This really knocked me, as it had already taken so long to get anywhere with the service in Cardiff and I felt desperate to start getting more help and support; I really couldn’t wait another 7 months!

So after moving back home, one of the first things I did, was to register back at the doctor’s surgery, book an appointment and get my new GP to refer me to their counselling service, hoping the whole time the process could be sped up. Their first available appointment wasn’t until the beginning of April and although I conceded and booked myself in for it, I became so low, I had to call for an emergency appointment towards the end of March, as it just became too long a wait. I was given details to self-refer to the ‘Time to Talk’ team and after filling in their online form, I received a questionnaire through the post to complete prior to my telephone assessment on 18th April. I was feeling really optimistic and very relieved, as it seemed I wouldn’t have to wait too much longer to be seen by a professional; the process was much quicker this time around.

Then came the actual appointment. The call started with her asking for my details, before we moved on to my answers from the questionnaire. The first section was the PHQ-9 (‘over the last 2 weeks, how often have you been bothered by any of the following problems?’), so I just had to relay the number I had circled for each statement. All was going well, until I reached the final statement: ‘Thoughts that you would be better off dead or of hurting yourself in some way’. For this, I had circled 1- ‘several days’. At this point, due to the nature of my thoughts and the fact I couldn’t say with certainty I wouldn’t act on them, she stopped the assessment and went off to speak with her supervisor. When she came back, she told that she would not be continuing with this session, as there was no telling if something further on in the assessment would trigger me and she could not guarantee my safety. She told me she would be contacting my GP to inform them of the situation and that I should book an emergency appointment to get an ATS assessment and to put a safety plan in place for me.

When the call ended, I was in full on panic mode. I could tell the woman was pretty worried about my safety and she made me feel as though I was a danger to myself. I told my mum everything and then was straight back on the phone to the surgery. They gave me an appointment for 4pm that day, before hurriedly calling me back, telling me that they had moved things around and I would now be seen as soon as possible. Panic attack had fully set in at this point. My mind was racing; my whole body was shaking.

When I arrived at the surgery, I was taken into the GP’s office pretty much straight away. She was so lovely and managed to calm me down somewhat, before I explained the morning’s mayhem. She then wanted to know more on the background of my case, so I walked her briefly through everything that had happened since my diagnosis, right up to my current living situation, the things I was doing on a daily basis and the support I now had back home. Having questioned me fully and gained a proper insight into my current circumstances, she assured me that she did not believe I was a risk to myself and I had enough support around me to ensure I would not be able to act upon any of the thoughts I had had; I was in a safe environment. Once she was satisfied with this, we discussed my next steps. The ‘Time to Talk’ team was likely to simply bounce me back to the GP again, so instead she referred me to ‘Springvale’, which is part of the Sussex Partnership NHS service.

Fast forward to Friday just gone, when I received a call from one of their team members, asking if I was available to meet with them at my doctor’s surgery on Monday and now, I officially have my first proper counselling appointment at midday tomorrow.

I have been really relieved, knowing that I will finally now be getting the professional help I’ve been waiting 9 months for, but at the same time I could not be more anxious about tomorrow’s session. It’s the anxiety of not knowing what to expect, not knowing who I’ll be meeting, not knowing what they will ask me. I have that feeling, like when you’ve waited for something for so long, and then when you finally get it, you’re not actually really sure if it’s what you wanted at all. I have never been great at talking about my feelings and the only other time I have had counselling was a complete disaster (I said very little, burst into tears and after one session, I never went back). I know this will be good for me, or more I hope this will be good for me, it’s just getting over this initial fear of therapy, pushing through the anxiety to get the help I need. And knowing that to make the most out of it, I need to go into this with an open mind, be as honest as I can and engage with it fully. And that terrifies me. I just hope that this will be a turning point in my recovery and that the wait will have been worth it.

I’m trying not to pin all my hopes on this working though, in case talking therapy just isn’t the right route for me. As I say, I am so unbelievably bad at opening up, this could be a complete waste of everyone’s time. But even if I’m not able to talk through my feelings or the events that have triggered my anxiety and depression, I hope I can at least gain some strategies and techniques to better cope with my illness and that these will aid my recovery. Fingers crossed!

 

Have you tried counselling/therapy? Did it work for you? What have you learnt from your sessions? Is there anything you wish you had known before you started? As always, let me know in the comments below!

A Little Kindness and Compassion Goes a Long Way

Feeling in one of my brighter moods over the weekend, I booked an appointment to get my eyebrows waxed for today and planned a morning jaunt out in town, including popping in to my get my haircut on top (the place I go, you can’t book an appointment; you just rock up anytime and wait to be seen by the next free hairdresser).  I decided I would get the bus in as well, to get myself used to using public transport again and had set out to do all of this, all by myself.

I was definitely over-ambitious. Woken up this morning by 10 consecutive alarms (I don’t normally set an alarm at the moment, but if I need to, it takes a whole army of them to bring me back to the world of the living), I initially was feeling pretty good; VERY sleepy, but pretty good. Until I remembered why I’d set the alarms and panic began to set in BIG TIME.

‘What have I done!?’ ‘Why on earth did I ever think I could do this much in one go?’ ‘I can’t do this!’ ‘I’m going to have to chat to the hairdresser!’ ‘There will obviously definitely be a massive queue and I’ll have to hang around forever to be seen. I can’t cope with that!’ ‘Then I’ll have to chat with the beautician!’ ‘Oh god! Then there’s all the shop assistants!’ ‘What if people try to socialise with me in the shops as well?’ ‘What do I say to them!?’ ‘Oh my God, this is going to be horrific.’ ‘I’m going to have a panic attack. While I’m out. Alone.’ ‘Oh God, I’m panicking now!’ ‘This will be a complete disaster.’ ‘I definitely can’t do this.’ ‘I’m such an idiot.’ ‘I’ve got to cancel.’ ‘For fuck’s sake, Sophie.’ ‘Why have you always got to be like this?’

So, in my state of peak anxiety, I emailed the salon (I really don’t cope well with phone calls) and let them know I was going to have to cancel my appointment for this morning. I explained to them that I suffer from anxiety and depression and was having a bit of a bad morning, having worked myself up into a panic about my plans.

‘Why did you have to go into detail about why you were cancelling the appointment?’, I hear you ask. Well, I am an incessant people pleaser and really do not like it when people don’t like me or are annoyed at me, even people I don’t even know, so I felt I needed to explain that I hadn’t just changed my mind on a whim, there was a genuine reason for having to cancel.

Now, I was outside of the cancellation period (you have to give at least 24 hours’ notice to be able to cancel an appointment without being charged), so as per their cancellation policy, I was expecting to have to pay 50% of the original appointment charge. But instead, I was surprised with this lovely email from the beautician who was due to carry out my treatment:

 

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My response from Transformations Beauty Group in Horsham, West Sussex

I try to be as honest and open as I can be about my condition now, as I know there is nothing to be ashamed about and being so closed about it is the reason I am in this position now. It’s always a risk though, as there is still so much stigma surrounding the subject of mental health that you just never know how people or companies are going to react. So I really wanted to share this positive response with you all, as it really made my day.

 

Having such a lovely, compassionate response from this salon has really helped to make me feel better about my meltdown earlier. When I panic and have to cancel plans, I berate myself relentlessly for letting people down; I don’t treat myself with any kindness at all. In showing me the compassion that I can’t show myself, it helps teach me how I should actually act towards my own mind and even slightly helps to shift my own thoughts, to make me be a bit easier on myself. It has made me feel a lot less anxious about rebooking and attending my future appointment as well, knowing that the staff are so helpful and caring in these situations. It really does make all the difference to me that they were so understanding about my illness and haven’t penalised me because of it, allowing me to reschedule instead of just charging me for the inconvenience.

So thank you Transformations Beauty Group and especially Hang for being so lovely and empathetic! If everyone responded in this same way to mental health issues, the world would be a much better place.