Mental Health Awareness Week 2020

Like all of you, I have been working from home, trying to educate the kids whilst working with clients, admin and writing my progression for my thesis- COVID-19 has kindly set me back a bit, like I am sure it has many of you! So, this blog is going to be short and concise… unless I end up waffling!

This week marks an incredibly unusual Mental Health Awareness week for us all, with everyone coping in the best ways that they can. The theme for this year is ‘Kindness’, but I would ask you “what do you think about when I say ‘kindness’?” I am sure most of you will think about being kind to others. However, particularly during these stressful times, what about showing kindness to yourself? Have you thought about that?

Most of us have an abundance of compassion for our friends, family and even strangers, but what about compassion for ourselves? When do we think about being compassionate towards ourselves? When are we actually compassionate towards ourselves? What do you think being compassionate towards yourself is? What should it consist of?

Being compassionate towards yourself is difficult- our brains are hard-wired to assess for danger at all times, and goodness knows we are in a dangerous situation right now, with COVID-19 causing concerns globally. Jobs, health, schooling and friendships feel like they are all at risk, and some may well be. Now is a really good time to start to be more compassionate towards yourself.

Being kind can consist of many things- volunteering, helping a friend, a random act of kindness or making a cup of tea for yourself because you have had a hard day. I guess I am thinking about the home-schooling parents here- wow, what a term, eh?? Congratulations for getting through it- it has been tough!

Helping others gives us an amazing sense of satisfaction and happiness, but it can be difficult to volunteer or help out whilst this current pandemic is happening. We do, however, have the internet to help! We can virtually check-in with people and see how our friends and family are. We could skill-share online- I could teach you yoga if you teach me knitting? Given that most of us are actually stuck home and cannot get out to help others, it feels to me that right now is a really good time to practice your kindness towards yourself.

When something goes wrong, or doesn’t turn out as you would have liked or expected, what happens next? What words go through your head? Are they kind words? Are they words you would use to a friend in the same situation? 

We use our Internal defensive behaviours to keep the self from experiencing difficult internal situations or emotions and can include dissociation, substance misuse, harming oneself, and constantly reminding oneself of one’s faults, flaws, and weaknesses.

External defensive behaviours are intended to help the individual avoid harm from others, and include blaming the self, silencing the self, being submissive and non-assertive, distrusting others, and keeping others at a distance (Gilbert & Procter, 2006)

So, If my friend failed their driving test, am I going to commiserate with them and support them or am I going to tell them that it isn’t surprising as they fail at everything and are totally useless? NO!!! So, if I failed my driving test, why do I have those thoughts about myself? This is what I mean about being compassionate towards yourself- ok, I failed the test, but it isn’t the end of the world. I can take the test again; I can take more lessons and I can get better. Everyone fails something at some point in their lives. 

Part of compassion is about being realistic- who are you comparing yourself to? There isn’t really much point in me comparing myself to Taylor Swift, is there? I am not under 30, a pop star or a millionaire, so the comparison isn’t fair to me. Even if my brain thinks it is!

Kindness starts with being kind to yourself, so it is just as import to recognise when you have given enough of yourself- feeling tired, overwhelmed or frustrated are really good signs that it’s time to be kind to yourself. Don’t overdo things- so many people in this pandemic situation have decided to learn things or bake things. If you don’t feel like learning something, just because others have, doesn’t mean you have to. Back to comparing again, aren’t we? Their situation will be different to yours, so maybe they have more time and energy to actually do new and different things. It is ok to have not learnt French, the guitar or how to make the perfect sourdough bread before we all go back to work, you know.

For support:

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk

https://youngminds.org.uk

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/

https://www.compassionatemind.co.uk

Reference:

Gilbert, P., & Procter, S. (2006). Compassionate Mind Training for People with High Shame and Self-Criticism: Overview and Pilot Study of a Group Therapy Approach. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 13, 353–379.

Peace in Your Time.

Hello Everyone, I hope you are keeping yourselves as safe and well as possible in these difficult times. As you all know, we are living through unprecedented times which can be scary and anxiety-provoking for everyone.

According to The Economist (unfortunately, a subscription is needed for this article), one-fifth of the world is currently under quarantine or lockdown. We are all in the same position, regardless of who we are and where we live. However, for some of us, this scenario has a lot more riding on it than for others. After all, the wealthy can afford to self-isolate without worrying about buying food or losing their homes and jobs.

In the USA, 6.6 million people filed for unemployment benefits for the week ending 28th March ALONE, which is double the week before, according to the BBC. This is a horrendous situation to be in and very frightening for people who are already struggling. In the UK, we are incredibly lucky to have a (reasonably) easily accessible benefits system and the NHS to support us- things we often take for granted.

There are some parallels between living in quarantine and living in a war zone; we live with a palpable sense of danger, even just going to the shop, and we have essentially lost our freedom, albeit for an excellent reason. There are also some suggestions within psychology that the impact of quarantine can lead to PTSD symptoms for some people. So, we need to acknowledge our mental health because we are ALL susceptible to struggle.

We know that at least 1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health difficulty in their life-time, I wonder if the COVID-19 pandemic may well increase this. Our fantastic vital key workers and all frontline staff are striving and risking their lives daily; I can only imagine how scary this can be.

Due to our circumstances, we will be in quarantine until at least June 16th. Having been stuck in a 6×6 ft room in Great Ormond Street during our sons Bone Marrow Transplant (shout out to all the staff on the BMT wards there, especially Robin ward- thank you for working so hard and supporting everyone during what is a scary and unknown time!), we have ‘done’ quarantine before, so have some experience. The difference this time is that we are not the only ones who are quarantined- I don’t know if that makes this easier or not?

Some of the things that we did during our quarantine were dance, yes, dance! Just getting up and moving and having a giggle can break the tension and give you a reprieve from your current situation. I am not a good dancer, but that is half the point! To have some fun, do something different and to not be so serious. With what is going on around us, we need to have a break sometimes!

We watched movies- Sharknado was out at the time, and my word, did we laugh! Cleaning- even in our little room, with our one-year-old son, we turned cleaning into a game! Who could finish first, the floor is lava when mopping… just trying to be a little creative? Keeping in touch with our friends and family via Facetime/Skype/Whatsapp- I cannot stress how much this saved us! I missed my other kids and mum and dad at home, so seeing their faces every day, listening to their days and hearing their problems gave me a break from our own. We were even given paints by the Rainbow Trust charity, which brightened up our day no end.

We are now at home for this quarantine, and luckily, we have access to more things to keep us occupied! I’m not going to pretend the last three weeks have been easy for us as a family- I am working online with clients, the entire family is home and, we are all trying to share laptops and broadband bandwidth- it’s not easy when two of us are trying to Skype! Yesterday I also finished my taught element of my Professional Doctorate in Counselling Psychology (just the thesis left now), and the relief is unreal- one less thing to worry about in some quite dark times.

It is so important to practice your self-care still- what makes you happy? Do you have any strengths you can on which you could focus? We all have strengths, but do you know what yours are? Here is a website (if you like surveys and don’t mind registering!) that can help you find yours. By focusing on your strengths, and practising them daily, we start to get a better sense of wellbeing. Why? Well, if we are focusing on the things we do well, and we enjoy, we get positive feedback from this, which can make us do more positive things. Can you see the pattern? The thing is, we have to practice these strengths, which is something we often forget to do. When I took the test and found out my strengths, they were pretty obvious, but I would not have thought about them otherwise; our positives seem to be something we just take for granted, while we focus, and sometimes hyper-focus, on our negative areas!

So, if one of my strengths is to be kind, if I make my family a cake, I am going to get a sense of happiness and wellbeing from their positive reactions. I cannot stress how much we need to practice these! Some things we do, like breathing, we don’t think about and are just second nature, negative thought popping into our heads and things we don’t practice, but they still happen- why? Because our brains are developed to look for danger, so we keep a firm hold of those negatives and bring them out whenever we feel threatened.

Now, I am going to demonstrate an exercise so you can see what I am talking about and learn, if you want to, how to relax and calm yourself and feel just a little bit better. Imagine focusing on your positives. Get comfortable, sitting or lying down, preferably somewhere quiet, possibly tricky if your entire family are home! However, you can do this with your kids and partners- breathing and focusing can be beneficial for everyone.

Close your eyes, take some deep breaths in and out, relax your body. Feel your body touching the chair or bed, feel the rise of your chest and belly as you breath. You will have thoughts going through your mind, that is absolutely fine and will happen, even if you try not to! Picture yourself doing an affirmative act- just because we are in quarantine, doesn’t mean you have to limit your imagination to quarantine and your own home!

Maybe picture yourself helping your friends, doing a good deed for another, getting your work done and being praised, driving your car on a sunny day- yes, driving is one of your strengths (if you can drive), your strengths are what you make them and want them to be! Focus on what it feels like, the positive glow that surrounds you. What is your face like? Is it soft and smiling? What does that feel like? What about your voice? Soft, quiet and calming or irritated and loud? What is it like around you? Are there people? If you have done a positive deed, what do they look like and how are they talking to you? Smiling and happy? Stay with this and focus on the smiles, warmth and positivity surrounding you.

Now. When you are ready, open your eyes.

How do you feel? A little better? A little calmer? Ok, this might not last forever; you know, when your boss calls 10 minutes later or your toddler starts crying because you gave them the apple they asked for. But! We can always do it again- as many times as we like. We can practise this during the day, especially when we are feeling positive. Be compassionate and kind to yourself; if you are struggling with thinking of your strengths, go smaller! Positives can be things like making a cup of tea for your partner or cooking dinner for your family; these are choices we have, and when we make them, we are showing our compassionate side and how we care for others, and how others care for us. On our bad days, I tell my clients that even getting out of bed, having a cup of tea or brushing your teeth is actually an amazing achievement! Acknowledge that- times are tough, and we need to be gentle with ourselves.

What about if we get our brain stuck in a rut and just can’t get away from those negative thoughts or worry and panic? 

  • Firstly, the thing you are worried about- how likely is it to happen? What is the reality of your worry?
  • Secondly, what is the best-case scenario around your worry? What is the worst-case scenario? Generally, our expectations are not met with reality; it usually isn’t the worst or best case, but somewhere in the middle. Make a plan- best case scenario plan and worst-case scenario. Either way, you now have a plan and are prepared for whatever comes your way.
  • Finally- remember, you are a capable, smart person; you have got this far in life, so you have a lot of strengths and skills that you can utilise. Remember that a lot of these worries may just be that. Worries. Worries and thoughts can’t actually hurt you! 

Another thing you can do is to create a safe space for yourself: Make sure you are comfortable and close your eyes. Breath in and out comfortably and relax. In your mind, picture somewhere that is calm and peaceful, or somewhere you feel safe. Imagine what it feels like to be there. Is it warm or cold? Bright or dark? Busy or quiet? Are you on your own and if not, who are you with? Explore where you would like your safe place to be and when you need to relax or calm yourself (before a test? Job interview?) you can close your eyes and take yourself off, coming back peaceful and relaxed. 

I share this with clients all the time, but my safe space is a beach or a pool in a sunny climate. Laying by the pool, feeling the sun on your skin is incredibly relaxing, especially when you can also hear the gentle lapping of the waves in the pool or the sea. So, I take myself to this place when I want to be calm; I can do it for as long or as little as I like, and when I open my eyes, I always feel more grounded and peaceful.

Now, you may be thinking “But, my worry is a big problem!” Is it? What tells you that? Do you know the difference between a worry and a problem? Worry tends to be something that has happened in the past or something we think may occur in the future. Worry doesn’t have a fix to it, which makes it different from a problem. A problem can be resolved and has a solution to it. We may not be able to solve our problem at this moment in time but knowing that there is a solution can be very helpful and stop us worrying!

These are challenging times for everyone involved, try not to put pressure on yourself to do that new hobby or get that extra work done; yes, it can help us to feel better, but if we are trying to achieve the impossible, how is that going to make us feel? Pretty negative! We often compare ourselves to people- that’s natural, I guess, we are only human after all! But! Do you compare like for like? Or are you comparing yourself to someone who has more money, a bigger house, fewer pressures than you? Social media shows us the differences between our lives, and we can quite often be left feeling inadequate because of what our friends/family/celebrities post. Remember! People only post the good and the bad- it’s not considered ‘newsworthy’ if your day was just a normal one. But the reality is that we all have dull days and ‘normal’ days; in fact, we have more of them that we have amazing ones or hideous ones. Try to remember this.

Goodness, that’s a lot to remember to do, isn’t it? Looking after your mental health takes utilising some skills, time and effort; who would have thought that? Do you go to the gym? Exercise classes? Go for a run? Swim? Play hockey? All of this takes time and effort, doesn’t it, to keep your body in shape, so why do we think of our brain and mental health being any different?

If you were asked to run a marathon right now, you would try (maybe?!), and you would be out of breath, achy and sore; you would then take time out and rest, wouldn’t you? Well, we are in the middle of a pandemic, which is scary; surely, we need to take that time out to rest and look after our mental health too?

I hope you all keep yourselves safe and well- practice social distancing, stay in if you don’t need to go out. Remember, you may be ok if you get COVID-19, but there are some extremely vulnerable people out there who will not be if they contract the virus.