Mental Health

Thank You, “Time to Change”

Yesterday, I read the sad news that the Time To Change campaign will be coming to an end in England in March next year, as the Government has confirmed it will no longer be in a position to provide funding. Time To Change has been working for 15 years to improve attitudes around mental health, with activity such as Time to Talk Day, and their most recent impact report suggested an improvement in the attitudes of more than 5 million people since the campaign began.

Time to Talk Day a few years ago was the first time I ever wrote openly about the mental health difficulties I’d been experiencing, in a long since deleted blog post on a blog that never really got going. It was Time to Change that inspired me to run my first ever 10k (medal proudly displayed in the photo above!) for Rethink Mental Illness, who set up the campaign along with Mind. Time to Change had a huge part to play in helping me start to feel comfortable talking about mental health and, most importantly at the time, they helped me to realise that the way I was feeling wasn’t “weird”. In fact, I became so comfortable talking that I let Cosmopolitan interview me about my mental health in 2017 (link here), and I’ve continued to talk about it pretty regularly ever since.

I suppose it could be tempting to think that the work of campaigns like this in England is done. Personally, I hear discussions or read articles around mental health on an almost daily basis. Support is promoted at work (particularly this year), I talk about it with friends, I read others sharing their stories and mental health “ups and downs” online. But I’m also aware that I’m right in the middle of a bit of a bubble – that classic online echo-chamber – when it comes to these issues. I share (some may say over-share) my experiences, and I appreciate others who do the same – so those are the people I pay attention to. I surround myself with people who care about mental health and about normalising the conversation, and so for me, the conversation has become just that – entirely normal.

But my very small circle of mental health advocates is far from being representative of every section of society. So while my “world” has moved on over the last 15 years of this campaign, I can’t assume that the world has moved on for everyone. I still remember clearly the way life felt before I realised that other people understood, and before I even really understood that the stuff going on in my head was anxiety (initially mixed in with depression, just for good measure). I remember calling in sick to work and hiding in bed, convinced that I was a complete weirdo, that I was just incapable of dealing with life and just desperately wanting to be “like everyone else”. The most important thing I remember, is that once I realised I could talk about it, and that other people felt the same, it all just seemed so much more manageable. That’s why it’s so important for these conversations to carry on – so that all the people still stuck where I was then, can get to where I am now.

That last paragraph was all a bit bleak so let me continue on a brighter note. Without campaigns like Time to Change I am convinced I wouldn’t have reached the stage I did with this “talking” stuff, as quickly as I did. Reading their regular posts online, where they’ve shared endless stories from all kinds of people with all kinds of experiences, really did help. So that’s the main reason for this quick lunchtime blog – to say thank you to a campaign that really has made a difference to my own little world.

And now…I continue to talk. My regular rambles about “thoughts” and “feelings” may be a bit over-sharey for some people, and that’s okay – at age 36, I have finally accepted that I will never be everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve found my own little community of talkers and over-sharers, and friends who appreciate my ramblings (well…plus a few who just switch off from it but love me anyway). So to all my fellow “talkers” out there, let’s just make sure we don’t get complacent, and that we keep pushing this conversation. Let’s really try our best to continue the amazing progress that Time to Change has spent the last 15 years achieving.

Mental Health

“Mental Health for All”

It’s #worldmentalhealthday, and the above is the theme set for this year by the World Federation for Mental Health. So I’m sitting with my morning coffee contemplating what action I can take to help achieve this.

I am now reliably in the habit of taking action for my own mental health – a quiet, slow morning coffee before work every day to kick my brain into “calm and capable” mode. Regular exercise to help manage my anxiety levels. But what can I do to help with everyone’s mental health? I can’t claim to be passionate about mental health awareness and support while sitting back thinking of no-one but myself, so I’ve decided to set a few goals for the next few months.

Prompted by the approach of #wmhd2020, I’ve started trying to access Mental Health First Aider training again through work, as I was sadly away the last time this was offered. If this route fails, I’ll explore other options. Yes, I have some experience of mental health difficulties myself, but that doesn’t mean I can be complacent and think that I know the best way to support others. As a friend, a family member, a colleague and a manager, I want to make sure I’m in the best position to handle a conversation about mental health in the right way.

I suppose signing up to a (now cancelled) half marathon to raise money for Mind was also a step in the right direction. Although the motivation was slightly selfish, since running helps my own mental health. My training to run a “virtual” half has not really gone to plan, but at some stage during October I will plod my way through that 13.1 miles anyway, and raise a few pounds to help Mind continue providing advice and campaigning for better mental health support. You can donate here, if you like!

But I’m still lacking a good answer on how to help make mental health support more accessible for everyone. This year, I finally decided to invest some money in therapy to tackle a handful of long-unresolved issues. But it really is exactly that – a sizeable financial investment. One that was absolutely out of the question for a long time, and that even now I’m stretching myself to afford. What if I needed help urgently, and couldn’t pay? Would there be the right support available, in the right area, at the right time? I suspect the answer isn’t always a positive one.

I don’t make policies or allocate budgets, so I suppose the one thing I can do is to make time to learn more. I’ve heard many times that there isn’t enough accessible support out there, but I probably don’t understand exactly where the gaps are and what needs to change. What campaigns can I get involved with? How can I volunteer some time? Can I help share the resources that are out there, so that more people come across them?

So I guess that last point is more a set of questions than a goal. Maybe the goal for now is to use today to explore some of the huge amount of information being shared online, and plan some next steps from there. And my challenge to anyone who has made it to the end of this brain-dump is to take just 10 minutes out of your day, to consider what action you can take for your own mental health, or that of others.

Mental Health

Quiet

Quiet…is a thing I’m trying to get better at lately. I’m really trying to find some time each day to be completely “still” (mentally, at least) – maybe relaxing by reading or cross-stitching, maybe going for a slow walk outside with no music or podcast in my ears, or maybe just lying on my yoga mat and breathing.

For a relative introvert, quiet is not actually thing I’m particularly good at. I’ve joined a new Yin Yoga class lately – specifically, “Yin Yoga for Happiness”. It’s a lovely, sleepy, peaceful early morning half hour where the instructor guides us through some positive ways of thinking to set us up for the day ahead, and yet about every 2 minutes I have to remind myself to stop pondering my to do list for the day and just focus on the class. My current goal for 2020 is to make it to a full 10 minutes on the mat without wondering what I should make for breakfast or whether I’ve got any meetings to prepare for.

Anyway, sometimes quiet is hard. Quiet means sitting with all of your own thoughts and feelings instead of distracting yourself from them. Daily life may still be on the slow side, but the outside is changing constantly, even more now than ever, and that part of my brain that just wants to cling onto something and stay still for a while is spending a lot of time shouting at me! Sitting and listening to those thoughts means dealing with worry about the future, and sadness that some things from my past have changed. It means acknowledging that I can’t control everything, and accepting that life can’t necessarily be exactly where I want it to be right this second, even if I try really hard to make it happen!

With that said (I promise this is going somewhere more positive than that last paragraph!), if I don’t sit and work through these kinds of thoughts, they won’t go away. That tiny, panicked version of myself that’s sitting in my head yelling might quieten down for a while if I go running, or bake a cake, or clean my flat, or phone someone for a chat; but she’ll soon pop back up again the moment there’s nothing to keep me busy. This is why quiet is necessary.

Quiet is necessary to let all of the thoughts I mentioned above – all the slightly miserable-sounding worrying and sadness and acceptance – just stay there for a while, and to give them some attention. It’s not always very comfortable or enjoyable, but allowing them some time is the only way I can work my way through them, re-frame them and find the positive stuff hidden amongst them.

“Can’t find a new place to live? Well I guess I’ll just enjoy some unexpected bonus time living alone!”

“Lost touch with some people? We all just have other wonderful things going on in our lives, keeping us busy.”

“Outside world scary? Well, let’s face it, I’ve always quite liked staying home anyway so let’s embrace some lazy nights in!”

So this is why I’ll keep practising being quiet, even though I’m bad at it. Because for me, being constantly busy is basically the mental equivalent of putting my hands over my ears and running away. Which probably isn’t the best way to do life…at least, it isn’t for me!

Xxx

Mental Health

Where have I been?

Hello! I nearly didn’t write a blog post this morning, and I’m writing this sentence still unsure of whether I’m actually going to hit the “Publish” button when I get to the end. I wanted the next thing I wrote to be really happy and positive and, honestly, I haven’t felt very happy or positive for most of the last couple of weeks. But this is supposed to be a personal blog, and a way to regularly practice my writing, and I suppose that means just ploughing on and writing about the bad stuff as well as the good.

The last couple of weeks I have been quite low, by which I don’t really mean sad or grumpy or miserable, I just mean nothing-y. Sometimes, that’s harder to deal with – if I feel angry or sad, I can just stomp around my flat a bit or have a really good cry. But what do you do when you just don’t really feel anything much at all? The answer is usually a lot of sitting around staring into space, half-watching TV while the hours tick by.

Anyway, I’m not writing this to have a grumble. I’ve been here before, I’ll be here again and soon I’ll feel better, because eventually I always do! I’m writing it because I think just the general monotony of the last few months has got on top of me a bit. Somewhere along the way of focusing on acceptance and adapting to life as it is for now, I’ve just lost sight of myself a bit, and of the things that make me feel like “me”. And if I feel this way, I can’t be the only one.

Here are some of the many things that make me feel like “me”: running, baking, cooking, attempting craft projects, reading, writing, listening to music, yoga, walking while listening to a podcast, spending time with close friends. Yours might be similar to mine, or might be entirely different, but I imagine if you sat down and thought about it you’d come up with a fairly long list. I’ve done less of these things over the last few weeks, and then reached a point where I didn’t really know how to re-start, and that’s where that “nothing-y” feeling begins to set in.

It doesn’t help that I’ve annoyingly fallen foul of some of those external pressures that I’ve been telling everyone else to ignore. Like wondering why exactly it is that I’ve got all this “spare time” on my hands and yet haven’t become super fit, read a book a week or finished 50 different craft projects since March. The problem is, feeling that way doesn’t spark motivation, it just sparks fear of failure:

“What if I try to run 10k and only manage 4k – won’t that make me feel even worse? Maybe I’ll just stay home and sit on the sofa instead – can’t fail at that!”

Anyway, having talked through this nothing-y-ness (how many made-up words can I include in this post?) with a couple of people, the conclusion I have drawn is that I need to start feeling like “me” again, and that means starting small, with no huge expectations. Getting my trainers on and running/walking alternate kilometres. Cooking one dinner from scratch in a week. Setting aside half an hour on a Sunday to work on my cross-stitch, even if that’s all I do. Yesterday I baked cookies that took 10 minutes to throw together and 15 minutes to bake – it wasn’t one of my usual 2-hour baking missions, but it was something, and it gave me that sense of achievement that makes baking a thing that I love.

So I guess that’s really what I wanted to share this morning – if you’ve lost some of your motivation and sense of self lately, maybe find 15 minutes do something really simple that you’d normally enjoy, and see where you can get to from there. Be as kind and patient with yourself as you would be with a friend, and just try starting somewhere.

xx

Mental Health

Reflecting on Mental Health Awareness Week

“Finding time to be kind”

This week was Mental Health Awareness Week, with this year’s chosen theme being “kindness”, and it’s taken me all the way until Sunday to write anything on here about it. Which is odd, considering I usually have a fair bit to say about mental health.

I suppose with the news still being very much covid-dominated, on top of a very big week at work, I haven’t felt I’ve had the time to reflect and get any thoughts together. I posted on Instagram earlier this week about being kinder to ourselves by slowing down a bit, but have struggled to write anything about kindness to others. And now I’m starting to think that this apparent lack of time to consider kindness is something we need to look at in both cases.

There are so many different ways to be kind to others – doing something thoughtful for a friend, stopping for a proper chat when you bump into someone you know, getting in touch with someone you haven’t seen in a while to say hi. As someone who likes to see the good in people, I think a certain amount of kindness comes naturally to most of us – but, being honest, how many of us slip up sometimes because we’re “too busy”?

I don’t mind being open about my many flaws and admitting that I have, during busy times, done all of the following things:

  • Promised to make plans with a friend “soon”, then realised 6 weeks later that I still haven’t text them
  • Complained about getting stuck chatting to a neighbour because it’s made me late getting somewhere
  • Pretended not to see someone I know, because I don’t have time to stop
  • Forgotten to send a birthday card because “time has flown and I didn’t notice what date it was”
  • Allowed a friend to do all the planning for our next meet up because I feel too busy to give it any thought (admittedly, on this one, I also get anxious that my own ideas will be rubbish – but that’s a whole other story for another day!)

I wrote in last week’s blog about how life has been slower lately – certainly not for the best reasons, but we are where we are. During this time of no commute and nowhere to go except the supermarket, I’ve had far more text and phone conversations with friends and family, stopped to chat to my next door neighbour when we’ve run into each other (from opposite sides of our shared landing, obviously), and just generally noticed the people around me a lot more. I haven’t been lucky enough to bump into many friends while out for walks (possibly for the best as resisting the urge to hug is painful!), but I’ve exchanged smiles and hellos with a whole bunch of people I don’t know instead of my usual “head down, earphones in” approach.

All of which makes me reflect on my “normal”, busier life and wonder…why was I always in such a rush that I couldn’t spare 5 minutes for a chat? Why was my head so busy with thoughts that I couldn’t remember to send someone a text or take half an hour to plan an evening out? Is it really necessary to be in that much of a rush all of the time – or do we just allow ourselves to get sucked into this way of living where we wear being really busy as a badge of honour. Why don’t we take the time to just slow down a bit more often, and focus on the things that matter – like remembering to send a birthday card to that friend who’s stuck around for 25 years, even though you only remember to text them about every 6 months.

Obviously, kindness to ourselves remains important too and I’m not saying that we should beat ourselves up those times that we are just genuinely having a hectic week, and disappear into our own heads for a bit. We’re only human and there is only so much time in a day. I just think that sometimes life can be so full of plans and events and shiny new things that catch our attention, that we lose track of the important stuff – like connecting with others, and giving proper time and attention to the people that we care about.

So, I suppose my aim going forward is to turn my focus outwards a bit more, and spend a bit less time convincing myself that I’m “just so busy all the time”.

Have a lovely bank holiday all, and try to spare 2 minutes to send a text (or even just a cat video) to one of your favourite people.

xx

Mental Health

Let’s talk about…Anxiety & Uncertainty

“Working From Kitchen”

I had planned to keep my first “proper” post fairly lighthearted so as not to scare you all away from the outset. But I guess the whole point of a personal blog is to write about the stuff that’s going on for me right now, so instead of some running chat or my top 10 favourite porridge toppings (don’t worry, those will come!) we’re jumping straight in and talking about anxiety. More specifically, a weird feeling that has crept up on me this week of being afraid of lockdown ending.

I mean, I’m not entirely sure I even know where to start with this one, and my initial reaction was “what is wrong with you?!” But I suspect I’m not the only one feeling this way, and I think there are some good lessons to be learned here, so bear with me…

Let me start by saying that I definitely don’t want to spend the rest of my life in lockdown. Of course I don’t want us all to be dealing with this terrible virus situation forever. I want to visit my family, and sit in someone’s garden, and drink beer in the sunshine. I want to give my running buddy a huge hug and then chat our way round 10 miles on a Saturday morning. I want to go flat hunting and finally move in with my boyfriend.

But on the flipside – I know how to do this weird version of life that we’re currently doing. The first week was stressful, but then I gradually found a routine. I joined some online fitness classes, figured out the best time of day to get outdoors without dodging a thousand other people, found a way to structure my workload, and set aside time to bake and read. I get out my journal on a Sunday and make a rough timetable for my week (which I don’t rigorously stick to – more on that later!), but the point is that I pretty much know how my week will look.

So when rumblings started in the news about restrictions changing, my all-time number one source of anxiety made an appearance – uncertainty. As you can probably tell already, I am a planner. I invariably sleep better at night if I know I’ve organised my life and thoughts a little bit. I wouldn’t say I’m resistant to change, but I do like to know when and how it’s going to happen. Unfortunately, life in the outside world just isn’t as “plannable” as life at home, and now I need to get my head around that all over again.

It took me a long time to realise that trying to manage anxiety by planning every day in detail is never going to be a success. Lockdown life has allowed me to fall into that trap a little bit, and now I need to dig myself back out. Fortunately, I have some strategies to hand to help me do this, so I thought I’d share them in case they help anyone else:

  • Don’t think in “what-ifs”. If you find your mind going down that route, try to shift your focus and concentrate on what is happening in your life right now, today, this very second.
  • If the endless media speculation is stressing you out, avoid it. While I wouldn’t advocate getting all your news from social media, I’m finding the daily bullet-point summaries from Simple Politics really helpful when I can’t handle anything more.
  • If you must plan, keep it light. Plan your dinner so you know what ingredients to take out of the freezer, note down a couple of to-do list items. Plan just enough to have something to reach for if you’re struggling to focus, but without falling into the trap of thinking you can control every minute of your day.

In a recent episode of my favourite podcast – How To Fail with Elizabeth Day – Mo Gawdat was asked for his tips on dealing with the current uncertainty we are all facing. His response?

“Since when did you ever have certainty?”

I found this so helpful I’ve actually stuck it on a post-it note on my bedroom wall. Ultimately, I think the best way for me personally to become less anxious is by realising that the course of my life can’t really be “planned”, and by focusing my time and energy more on the here and now.

Thanks for reading 🙂 xx