I had a few sessions with an ADHD coach about 2 years ago, and one of the things that stood out for me in one of our first sessions was when we were in the middle of our session, and my kids came rushing into the lounge and climbed all over me to greet me when they got home from school. I immediately apologised for the interruption and in response, the coach said to me, “Don’t apologise. Be grateful that you have children who can interrupt you to show you love”. That, as they say, was a watershed moment for me.
As a person who struggles with clinical depression, remembering what I am grateful for in this life is helpful, having a list of things I’m grateful for that I can refer to when I’m really low is mental health first aid for me. My gratitude log (which is what I call it in my bullet journal) is a list of things in my life that I’m grateful for, but also reminders about me as a person and what I like about myself and that I’m grateful for.
According to Psychology Today, the 7 scientifically proven benefits of gratitude are:
Although I can see the surface level benefits for myself, I have wondered what is the psychology behind gratitude, is there any scientific benefit to it? Because it can feel really pointless, or fake, if you cannot see the value in it.
Having gratitude helps build connection and relationships.
Acknowledging someone’s contribution to your life, even if it’s something small, like holding a door open, makes an acquaintance desire to seek an ongoing relationship. So being thankful can help you make friends (it really is a magic word)
Gratitude improves physical health.
Grateful people are less likely to experience health challenges and are more likely to take care of themselves (which is probably why they are less likely to experience health difficulties). That’s reason enough for me, I’m grateful that I am able to participate in sports like triathlon, because I don’t get bored, and it’s always a challenge for me.
Gratitude improves psychological health
Being grateful can reduce the experience of emotions like envy, resentment and regret as it’s been known to reduce depression. It makes sense because if you are looking at your own life and what is great in your life, it’s very hard to be jealous of what others have because maybe they make more money, but they don’t have a family, for example. Also, it’s very hard to feel regret if you are grateful for the life you have experienced, instead of longing for a life you don’t have.
Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression
Grateful people are more likely to behave in a prosocial manner (also going to win you some friends). In the studies where they have measured gratitude, they found that grateful people are more likely to behave more kindly even when others aren’t showing the same type of behaviour. And I guess, if you start your day being thankful for life’s small mercies, it only matters what you do, and not how others choose to live?
Grateful people sleep better
People who write in gratitude journal before bed have found to experience better and longer sleep. I may have to try this one out, because I sometimes forget what sleep feels like. I don’t know when last I woke up well-rested, so on some days, I need to end my day with gratitude.
Gratitude improves self-esteem
Gratitude has been known to reduce social comparisons, which in tern, helps build self-esteem, because the focus goes from envying someone else’s life, to appreciating your own life, and being able to appreciate other people’s accomplishments, without feeling resentment.
Gratitude increases mental strength
Grateful people have been found to be more resilient in the face of trauma. The basis of this is that being able to recognize what you have to be thankful in your life helps you to build resilience for those moments when you are struggling with a really challenging situation.
The key message I have taken out of all the reading I have been doing on gratitude and self-love, is the renewed focus on yourself, and teaching yourself to appreciate who you are and what you have achieved, what you have in this life. It’s something small, you can do it when you wake up.
I challenge you, for at least 30 days, to write down one thing that you are grateful for each day. Find those things in your life that will remind you why you should love yourself.
Self-injury or self-harm, or cutting, is such a complex topic to discuss. It’s confusing if you don’t engage in it but you find out that your friends, or children, or loved ones engage in the act. Is it a suicide attempt? Is it attention seeking? Are they trying to follow some trend from social media? Why would anyone want to harm themselves?
And the simple answer is that self-harm is a way of releasing overwhelming emotion or a way of feeling something in the absence of emotion.
What is self-harm?
In moments of deep distress or emotional pain, some people engage in an act of self-injury. The type of act varies, and it can be cutting themselves, scratching at skin, burning skin, preventing an old injury from healing, hitting themselves against walls, pulling hair, getting into fights knowing they’ll get hurt, or any manner of causing harm to themselves. Any act, in fact that causes some sort of physical harm, it can even include the misuse of alcohol and drugs and unsafe sexual behaviour, or overeating and undereating.
Self-injury isn’t in and of itself a mental illness, but it is usually a behaviour resulting from depression, anxiety, or trauma, which would need professional help. And because there is a lot of shame and guilt and embarrassment in the act of self-injury, the person might not be able to open up at all about the behaviour out of fear of judgement or angering or disappointing family and friends, but in fact they may need to so that they can get the help they need.
Why do people self-harm?
One of the most common reasons for engaging in self-injury is deal with difficult emotions like guilt, self-hatred or emptiness. Related to this, people engage in self-harm to express feelings that cannot be put into words or to release pain or tension.
Sometimes, this is an act to feel something, anything, when the person is struggling with emotional numbness, or is feeling derealization (which is a feeling disconnected from the world), or feelings of dissociation (feeling disconnected from themself).
Other reasons are for a person to distract themselves from challenging life circumstances, or to prevent themselves from doing something that is more damaging. It’s also a way for them to feel in control of out-of-control life circumstances. Another reason can be a way for people to punish themselves.
Whatever the reason for a person wanting to harm themselves, we need to validate these feelings, and learn what is the reason for self-injury, and understand what is causing them to engage in this behaviour. Ultimately whether it is to feel control, to communicate emotion, to punish or to feel something, we need to help them feel seen, and understood. It’s important for them to have someone they can turn to because then next time, maybe they won’t need to engage in self-harm to release the pain, maybe they can speak to someone to address what is at the core of the need to hurt themselves, or to get professional help.
There are a number of difficult experiences that can result in a person using self-injury to manage their emotional distress. For example, work or school pressures, bullying, low self-esteem, financial difficulties, abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), bereavement, homophobia or transphobia, relationship difficulties, loss of a job, stress etc.
Myth: It’s attention-seeking
Fact: While the area of self-injury may be visible to others, the act itself causes a lot of shame and embarrassment, so no it’s not attention-seeking. No one who engages in self-harm actually wants you to notice. That being said, what I have come to realise in my therapeutic journey, is that yes, maybe the person is “seeking attention”, but not in the negative connotated way we understand. When someone engages in self-harm, there is trauma there, or some kind of emotional distress, and maybe they don’t have the words to say I need help, and this act is all they can do to say, please see that I am hurting and in need of help.
Myth: They want to kill themselves
Fact: Usually the injury is too minor to actually cause any mortal harm, and the reason for self-injury is to release emotional pain, or address emotional numbing, or punishment, not a desire for suicide. Although that being said, it is important to note that this act is usually related to trauma, or depression, or anxiety, or other mental illneses, and the person could be experiencing serious emotional hurt that they may be suicidal, but the act of self-injury itself is not necessarily a suicide attempt.
Myth: They are crazy or dangerous
Fact: Not crazy, but yes, most likely suffering with a mental illness like depression or anxiety. Anyone engaging in self-injury is hurting more than anything, and struggling with life, or some kind of difficulty.
Myth: The wounds are not bad therefore it’s not that bad
Fact: Engaging in an act of purposefully hurting yourself is bad enough, whether or not that is a surface wound, or an injury that requires stitches. Most people who engage in self-injury will need to learn a healthier coping mechanism to deal with emotional overwhelm.
What to do if someone I know is self-harming
Deal with your own emotions first – you need to acknowledge your feelings which might include anger or disgust before you address the act of self-harm. There is a lot of guilt and shame surrounding self-harm, and the emotions related to why the person would self-harm, so do not approach them if you are feeling anger or disgust
Learn about the problem – it’s confusing and mysterious. So find out everything you can about self-harm before you speak to them. It will also help you deal with any feelings of discomfort if you have an understanding of self-injury
Don’t judge – try and avoid any type of judgment or criticism. This type of reaction will only make the situation worse, and create more guilt and shame which will start the self-injury cycle all over again.
Offer support, not ultimatums – If you want to help, be available as a person who is willing to listen to the persons’ problems, and who is willing to help them find solutions to their emotional distress. Express concern about what they are doing, but offer to help. And make sure that they know you are available whenever they need to talk. Self-harm can be a lonely and isolated road, and anyone would want to know that they have someone there for them
Encourage communication – Encourage them to express their feelings, that you are offering a safe space for them to share how they are feeling, so that they do not have to use self-injury to release those emotions.
Remember that self-harm is usually part of a larger condition, relating to the emotional distress, and it is a coping mechanism for extreme emotional distress, or feelings of emotional numbness. So, if you know someone who is engaging in self-injury, try and encourage them to seek professional help, and at the very least, offer them a safe space to talk about how the feel.
They need to be seen, and heard, not judged and hated.
No matter the circumstances, as long as we have hope, we can survive them. And that is the most difficult thing that I have found during 2020, is that I had no plans, no certainty, nothing to look forward to, and all I was left with were feelings of hopelessness.
But coming into 2021, which is feeling a lot like 2020, the sequel, I needed a mind shift. I needed to find hope in hopeless situations. The pandemic is causing us to do some serious soul searching, it’s taking away the things that make us human, like our connections with other humans, our freedom to roam and explore our worlds.
I have decided that this year, I will try and focus on the silver linings. One thing that the pandemic has given me is the blessing of family time. As a working mom, I very rarely spend a lot of time with my children outside of the weekend, but I was lucky enough to have time with them at home. We were able to do yoga routines, and artwork together, and jump on the trampoline. I have been grateful to be able to watch them grow up and learn, and change as the year wore on.
I have also been granted more time to incorporate more reflective activities into my day. Last year, I started morning pages, which has been a great way to start my day, through journaling. It’s like clearing out my thoughts so that I can focus, and be mindful of the day ahead.
Because of the isolation, and uncertainty of the pandemic, I have suffered quite badly with anxiety and depression, but the silver lining here is that I have more time to practice yoga, and spend more time in meditation, which I wouldn’t be able to do if I was working from the office. And I’ve managed to incorporate these activities into my day so that I do at least 5 minutes of yoga and 5 minutes of meditation every day, and these have aided in me being more mindful and remaining in the present.
Activities that really help me out when I feel numb and withdrawn from the world are reading and writing. Writing, particularly, because it’s such a big part of who I am, and because I feel so passionately about writing, and because I feel energized once I have spent some time writing. I have had more time during my day because I am not commuting as much, I have been able to carve out time to write more.
Because I do not need to wake up as early to get to gym, to get home in time for the school run to get to work in time, I have more time in the evenings, and have been able to spend more time reading. Admittedly, when my depression is really bad, I struggle with this, but my workaround for this is to either use audiobooks, or alternatively choose books that I am able to get lost in quite easily.
This year, I want to spend more time on creative pursuits, like writing, and photography, and also to just be in the moment with my kids so more dance parties, and more playtime. And this year, instead of being so isolated, I want to reach out to my friends, because even when I do not feel like surrounding myself with people, I always feel better afterwards.
No matter what you need to do to find your hope in what may seem like a hopeless situation, I encourage you to do it. it doesn’t have to be big. Some days, all it is is getting out of bed, or cooking a meal. Other days, it’s running 5km, or finishing the book you’re reading.
I’m going to be honest. I have always loved Christmas. Looking back on my childhood, I remember the magic of Christmas. From attending Noddy parties, and getting my first gift of the year from Father Christmas, and the fairy whom we have to help turn on the lights once the Golliwogs have switched them off. And then the search for the Christmas tree, and then decorating it, including using cotton wool to make snow. And when I was a little older, being able to write letters to Father Christmas to ask for what I wanted. Christmas movies. It really was a magical time.
But what I didn’t see was the challenging family dynamics that was underlying every Christmas lunch. My parents and aunts and uncles were all divorced, so it is a logistical nightmare to plan for the adults, because which year do the kids go to which parents. I very rarely saw my father’s side of the family, which looking back is a challenging dynamic in its own. His brother would also visit every year, and my ma refused to acknowledge his presence, a tension I felt then, but only understood once I was old enough. I rarely saw my sister for an extended period of time, which I only understand now was because she’s not a fan of Christmas, because of these difficult dynamics.
And as an adult, once the magic was gone, it really was gone. I have some difficult Christmases that I look back on, some where I’ve spent the afternoon crying, or where I spent the day angry with something my father did. Or the year where I just felt really bad for my niece because she bore the brunt of the difficulties my brother and father were experiencing. Christmas is not magical. It takes all those family dynamics we avoid for most of the year, and then amplifies it on that one day in the year where we are forced to spend hours together and share a meal.
Christmas is hard as an adult. We stress about having the perfect Christmas lunch, and buying the perfect gifts for everyone we love, and making sure we look good for that one day. The expense for that one day is astronomical, and doesn’t make sense, but we do it every year.
Christmas is a trigger for many people. It’s a time of severe loneliness for many people, where they are reminded of how lonely they are. It’s a time when we also remember the people we are not seeing because they are no longer with us.
But when we strip it all away, the real magic of Christmas lies in who we spend it with, and making sure that we spend our time with people who uplift us. And that we don’t feel obligated to see family that do not make us feel good about ourselves. We need to hold that boundary, and not allow an expectation of Christmas time being a family holiday, if our families only bring bad feelings. And acknowledge that it is ok to spend Christmas by yourself, and treat yourself to a special day. Eat a special meal, pamper yourself.
However you spend Christmas and the festive season, whether it’s with others or by yourself, but make sure at the end of the day you are doing things that uplift you and make feel good. This year, the best gift you can give yourself is self-care.
Look after yourself, and we’ll chat again in 2021.
The other day my son told me that they can’t cry because they are not babies any more, and I leapt at the opportunity to tell him that it’s always ok to cry. If you are feeling hurt, or sad, or angry, or even happy. It’s always ok to cry. I went on to say that even I cry, and his dad cries. Everybody cries.
I’ve alluded to it before, how we are socialized differently, and how little boys are taught that it’s not ok to cry, or get hurt. And as men grow older, they are taught that it’s not ok to feel big emotions. No one wants to be accused of being hysterical (a word which has its origins in the anatomy of a woman – the Greek word for uterus). Historically, for a man to do anything like a woman is bad, don’t run like a girl, or throw like a girl, or cry like a girl.
But when it comes to mental health, the rate of suicide amongst men is double the rate it is amongst women, however, the rate of depression diagnosis amongst men is half the rate it is amongst women. Surely, there is something wrong here?
If so many men are in such despair that the only way they see out is to end their lives, why are there not more male diagnosis of depression, of feeling empty? If we could treat more men for depression, then we could reduce the rate of suicide amongst men.
But to do this, we need to change our view of mental health amongst men. Seeking help in the form of therapy or other methods of mental health treatment should not be seen as something only women do. Men need to know about the benefits of talk therapy, and share it with their friends. Men need to learn the symptoms of mental illness, so that they can recognize it in themselves, but also in their friends.
There was a great campaign in the UK on bar coasters, where it asked questions like, “are you feeling a lot more angrier than usual?”; “do you not enjoy the things you used to enjoy?”; “are you feeling like you don’t fit in with your friends?”. These are the type of questions men should be asking themselves.
Depression isn’t only about sadness, and feeling weak, and something that only women experience. Depression is also increased anger and irritation. Feeling nothing. Decreased motivation. Just feeling off. Feeling like you don’t want to be with your friends, or that something is just different when you’re with them.
We need to teach men that it’s ok to not be ok. That it’s ok to cry. That it’s ok to ask for help. And to seek professional help.
The societal expectations of men are to be the heroes, the ones who stay strong for their families. But struggling with a mental illness leaves you feeling weak. And unable to take care of yourself, let alone your family. And because they’ve been raised to not talk about these feelings, and these fears of not living up to these societal expectations, all of these feelings are repressed and turned inwards. They may come out as anger or irritation, or the utter despair that leads to suicide.
Men learn early on, that it’s not ok to be introspective, to journal to dissect your thoughts, so why would talk therapy work? Women spend hours talking to their friends to solve problems and to discuss their lives “ad nauseum”. But for men, when there is a problem, they are taught that they need to man up, and punch things and fight. But the fact is, you cannot punch your mental illness.
We need to challenge the toxic masculinity that says we need to mock our friends for seeing a therapist, or for expressing emotions. Because that is what is causing the underrepresentation of male mental illness. Men are not doing well, and don’t want to express it to anyone for fear of being judged, or accused of “acting like a woman”.
We need to raise our boys to teach them that it’s ok to cry, no matter what age they are. It’s ok to feel sad, but it’s also ok to feel lonely, to feel empty. But most importantly, we need to teach them that when life is too much, we should seek help, from our family, our friends, or professional help if that’s what we need.
The one thing that I’m sure we have all discovered is the importance of dealing with adversity. We are living in challenging times, aside from the difficulties of just living a normal life, of going to school and work, and shopping, having to sanitize, and always wearing a mask when you’re around other people. Also, the loss of income that has resulted from lockdowns and quarantines. Not being able to see or hug loved ones.
One thing that cannot be overlooked, is that the pandemic, despite the challenges and difficulties it has presented, but there are also lessons we have learnt in building resilience, and also some practices, that we can draw from this. One key thing in overcoming adversity is building resistance.
Write it out
One thing that trauma or adverse experiences create in us, is the need to ruminate on negative thoughts and feelings. And when we are in a space of negativity, all we think about is that negative thought, and we allow it to grow. But if we are to build resilience to be able to overcome situations that we cannot control, we need to change the narrative when it comes to ruminating on negative thoughts. When you feel that wave of negative emotions, sit with the feeling, it’s also not good to pretend that we don’t feel bad things. And then write down how you are feeling. And then spin it into a positive.
2. Face your fears
Slowly expose yourself to the things that you are fearful of. For example, I am so fearful of shopping right now. The environment in the shops is somber, and the fact that we are all wearing masks, and there are rules for shopping, and the need to sanitize, and I do not feel safe around other people. They are all a potential source of Corona, and are therefore scary to me. So for me, initially, I just did a quick top up grocery shop, in and out, and I was done. Then after a few of these type of trips, I went to clothing stores, but I wanted something specific, so I went straight to that item, and then left just as quickly. And eventually I graduated, to browsing in book stores, and buying takeaway coffees.
3. Practise self-compassion
Be conscious of your feelings. Feel what you are feeling, without judgement. Describe the feeling to yourself, and where you feel it in your body. Don’t repress your feelings, like we so quickly do, because “feelings are bad”. “Being emotional is bad.” Give yourself the time to feel your feelings, and acknowledge them.
Also, remember that you are not alone. That everyone in the world experiences big emotions. There is nothing wrong with feeling big feelings. And for not wanting to do anything. And to just want to cry. And to want to lie in bed all day. To feel deep anger and rage. To feel paralysed by overwhelm. Emotions are ok. And we all go through it.
And be kind to yourself. We are experiencing an incredibly difficult time right now, so it’s time to give yourself a break. And be compassionate with yourself and how you feel, and what you are going through. It’s ok.
I’ve said it before, and it will come up again and again. Meditation has been scientifically proven to improve mood. It’s one of the best ways to remain mindful. Because for 5-10 minutes a day, you can just focus on your body, and your breathing, and truly be in the moment, and allow yourself to think about things, but then also to let those thoughts go. The easiest way to meditate, is to do a bodyscan, and focus on your breathing. Being in the moment, focusing on your body, and just breathing for a moment will help to improve your mood, and increase your calm.
5. Even bad has a bit of good in it
Spend some time appreciating the paradox of a traumatic event in world history like a pandemic. Even though we have lost certain freedoms we enjoyed, we have gained time at home with our family that we rarely get to experience. And even though we may feel vulnerable because of fears around contracting COVID, or losing family members or friends to Corona, we are ultimately developing strength that we didn’t know we had. We are playing multiple roles in our families, as parents, partners, teachers. Being forced away from our family members gives us strength to be on our own.
This pandemic is forcing us to relook our lives. We need to try and build resilience through dealing with our emotions, meditating, being self-compassionate and living out our new normal. We have been given the opportunity to review our lives and asses what we truly need, and when this is all over, what we are going to return to. We are living in tough times, and I encourage you to try and build resilience. It’s all we can do.
The global pandemic has us all a little fearful, and paranoid, and stressed and anxious. And as someone for whom this is a daily experience, I thought I would share some ideas for maintaining mental health during these very uncertain times. Partly from my own experience, and partly from the advice from my psychologist:
Routine routine routine
It may sound boring, but one of the best things that has worked for me, has been maintaining a routine, albeit very different from my pre-global pandemic life. During these uncertain times, there is not much that we can control, but how we structure our days is something we can (relatively) control. Having that structure lessens my anxiety because I know what is coming. There is a lot to be said for having a plan. And look, it doesn’t always look the same, but if we have this plan, and try and stick to it, it gives us one less bit of uncertainty in our lives. And a small semblance of peace.
Our minds are overwhelmed with work, the Corona statistics, home schooling, staying fit and healthy, but also wanting to eat everything in sight (which is rarely a carrot stick), concerns about the health of our family, the general paranoia of not being able to touch anything before you’ve washed your hands and sterilized.
Spending some mindful time doing yoga or meditation will do wonders for your mental health. The key objectives of the yoga or meditation is to spend some time focusing on your body, and allowing thoughts in and then letting them go. These types of mindfulness activities, allow us to clear our heads, by making us focus on our breathing and body position. An easy meditation you can do for a few minutes a day, is body scanning: start at your head, feel its position in space, tense and release your face/jaw, and then continue to tense and release as you move down your body, from your shoulders, arms, chest, abs, legs, to your feet.
Spending time focused on something other than the thoughts running through your head will give you a space to think more clearly, and help with that feeling of overwhelm. Meditation has been scientifically proven to calm anxiety, so I definitely recommend spending some time out of your head.
3. Self Care
Ok, so right now, we’re able to go to meetings in our pajamas and slippers and no one would know. My advice here is to get dressed for work. And yes, for most of the week you will wear your apocalypse gear (stretchy pants /workout gear/ day pajamas), but try at least 2 days in the week to dress up for work, do your hair and make-up, wear shoes you can go outside in. Getting up and getting dressed is sometimes one of the easiest ways to alleviate anxious feelings. Look good, even if you aren’t feeling great. It helps, in a weird way, but it does.
Include some selfcare activities into your day. Selfcare isn’t always big activities like sitting in your bath, with a face mask, reading a magazine, with a glass of bubbly. It can be something as small as rolling your shoulders a few times at your desk to relax your body if you are feeling tense. Spend a few seconds deep breathing to calm down. Looking at a photo of your family. Micro selfcare is about anything, no matter how small, that is going to aid your feelings of anxiety or uncertainty.
So before the global pandemic, I had fitness goals, which have subsequently been put on pause. But nonetheless, exercise gives me energy. And in the moments when I’ve felt awful, lethargic, and demotivated, doing some form of exercise gives me those endorphins and energy to get me through the day. It doesn’t have to be a lot, I am currently doing about 15 minutes of basic functional fitness, using my body weight and things I have around the house, like chairs, and my children’s board books.
You don’t need to come out of this global pandemic fit enough to complete an Ironman, but doing a few minutes of exercise a day, will definitely help with the stress, anxiety, paranoia, loneliness, and general overwhelem.
5. Limit social media and news coverage
Social media is like a lifeline to the outside world, and if we stop, what are we going to do with our time? And if we stop scrolling, where are we going to see all those Corona memes? All true. But being on social media, and reading the worldwide corona stats daily will function to make you more paranoid, and feeling less than you are. Seeing all these super moms out there with perfect home school routines, and time to make their own playdough and paint, and making nutritious meals and snacks for their children, while your child ate cereal and a chicken nugget for supper while watching his 100th episode of Paw Patrol, is bound to make you feel like a failure. Not something you need right now. Also, try and limit your intake of news on Corona. We need to know what is happening in the world right now, but try to not go down a Corona media black hole, it’s just not healthy. Another tip, is to read/watch serious news in the mornings/early afternoon, going to sleep with those hard hitting news stories, can cause undue stress, and impact your sleep.
But stay on social media, we need those memes. Humour is so valuable in a time of crisis. So keep reading and sharing, but try and limit the time you spend there, to protect your mental health.
6. Video calls
Video calls is an awesome way to keep your distance, while staying connected. I’ve been able to stay in touch with my family and friends, and my kids are able to show them their toys and art that they’ve made. My kids have used Zoom for classes with their teachers, and parties with their friends.
Also, I happened to celebrate my birthday a few weeks ago, and we took to Zoom to party. We shared drinks, danced to music, it was one of the best birthdays I’ve had. I don’t know when last I’d laughed like that, since social distancing. It helped me to feel close to family and friends… healthily.
When you’re feeling lonely, video call a friend or family member or five. That’s one of the most difficult things we are going to experience during a pandemic that requires us to stay away from people. And we humans are social beings. Even us introverts. We all need our people time. So reach out when you need to.
For me, one of my favourite things to do is to sit with a good book, or spend some time writing creatively. These type of activities have come in handy while I’m staying home. A few suggestions are reading, colouring in, knitting, painting, playing with playdough, sewing, drawing etc. Activites that will allow you to sit quietly for an hour or two. These type of activities are also mindful activities that enable you do move outside of your mind, and focus on doing something practical.
Another suggestion here, is to dance. It may not be a calm activity, but who feels stressed after having a dance party in your lounge? (knowing that you can literally dance like no one is watching). So move that coffee table out of the way, put on your favourite tunes, and dance it out.
8. Writing – even if you don’t normally
Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, it is really helpful to journal right now. We are all overwhelmed by what is happening around us, stress about the “new normal”, fear for ourselves and our families, having to fill multiple roles, and feeling lonely and distant from our friends and families. And it is so useful to get those thoughts down on paper. If you are lying awake at night, get out that journal and write down the thoughts that are keeping you awake. It may start out as a grocery list, but then evolve, like “buy tomatoes. Replace remote batteries. Why does my life suck right now? Is it because my dad never showed me enough affection?”
Hey, who knows, maybe you’ll find a hidden talent you didn’t know you had.
9. Sleep and wake times and meals
One thing that has become so easy is eating all day, but then also staying up all night because we’re binge watching Netflix, and then we wake up late. My advice here is to try and maintain the same bed time and wake up time. It won’t necessarily be the same as before, but it will relate to that routine you have set up for yourself. It sounds simple, but once again, something that you can control during a time when there is so much that is out of our control.
Closely linked to this is sticking to meal times. And yes, we are snacking an inordinate amount, but we need to ensure that we have our regular meals. If this is out of control , it can negatively impact your mental health. One thing I try and focus on, as a sufferer of anxiety, is to limit my coffee and sugar intake, and to ensure that I have regular meal times and snack times.
10. Time outside (Vitamin D)
Finally, spend some time outside, in the sun. We need to make sure that we get our vitamin D. Maybe have your lunch outside, or when you are journaling, do that outside in the sun. Also, something simple that you can do for your general physical health that will aid your mental health.
There is not much that we can control right now, so try focusing on what you can control.
When my good friend passed away last year, something struck me, related to my mental health journey. Whenever any of my colleagues, and family have approached me to express their condolences, and support, my response was, “I feel sad, because I miss her, but I’m glad she is no longer suffering.”
And that is what I realized the day after she passed. I’d been feeling sad. And I’ve been able to acknowledge that. And as I was walking into the office on that Monday, I was thinking about it. People will often say, “I feel so depressed…” but what you’re actually feeling is sadness. And while yes, I was going through a depressive episode at the same time, but, regarding my friend’s passing, I felt sad. And I was able to differentiate between the two emotions.
And while that may seem so minor, for someone who struggles to express emotion because for her entire life she was told that nice girls don’t get angry, and good girls don’t feel bad emotions, it’s a massive step to tease out sadness from depression. To be able to say that yes, I am depressed, but what depression feels like is a weight on my body, resulting in me not being able to get out of bed, or wash my hair, or eat. Whereas sadness, is a feeling of sorrow, of wanting to be around my friend, or wishing to hear her jokes, or spend time dancing with her, or looking at old photos, and realizing we will never have another photo together, nor share a birthday together again. It’s a feeling of longing.
Yes, this is a small win, but if this is you, give yourself a pat on the back. A lot of us have grown up being told things like, “Do not throw a temper tantrum” (when you did not have enough words to express your anger as a toddler), or “Oh come on, it’s just high school, it will be over soon” (when something made you sad as a teenager). And of course, “Nice girls don’t get angry” and “You would be much prettier if you smiled”. Let’s not forget, “Man up” and “Boys don’t cry”.
We’ve been taught, especially as women, that we always need to be happy, and that nice girls don’t get angry, so we never learn how to express anger in an appropriate way. And boys are taught that you need to man up, and that the best way to resolve a conflict is to fight it out, so they never learn the appropriate way to express anger either. And the same goes for other emotions. “Boys don’t cry”, but also, women shouldn’t be “too emotional”. How do I know what too emotional is? If I never learnt what the correct amount of emotion to express is?
And then as adults, we don’t even understand what is going on in our bodies when we feel emotion. And we have to re-learn how emotions feel, and how to express them, and the words for the different emotions, and also, how emotions feel in our bodies.
Last year, I learnt about expressing different emotions, and how to differentiate them from thoughts. So I may be mentally exhausted from working too hard, so it feels like tired, but instead of taking a nap, maybe I need to watch a silly show on TV to rest my brain. Or, know that I think that you your actions are unfair, but the emotion I am feeling is rejection.
The next step that I’m currently learning, is how my emotions feel in my body. We feel anger long before it erupts in shouting, for example. I have acknowledged that my anxiety is in my gut, and in the tension in my jaw and in my shoulders. But what I am learning is to pick up on the building of the anxiety before it’s a full-blown panic attack and then I have to take a lot more drastic measures to return to normal functioning, rather than picking it up while it’s still manageable. And maybe all I need to do is roll my shoulders or breathe deeply three times.
Another example, is knowing that when your partner starts making a statement that is a trigger for you and before he’s completed the sentence, your stomach is already in knots, and reading that feeling in your body, and being able to say to yourself that you are feeling anger, and frustration. So that instead of responding in anger, you respond by expressing the emotion that you are feeling, and stating that you cannot respond to the content of what he is saying, until you have a moment to calm down and think rationally again.
What’s also important to know, is that we don’t just experience emotions in our heads. Emotions are felt throughout our bodies, and we can pick up the signs in our bodies first sometimes. A small tingling in your fingertips, to suggest that you don’t feel comfortable somewhere. Before it becomes panic in your mind, and a sinking sensation in your gut, before you are in full-blown fight or flight mode. So start paying attention to your body, it’s more intone than you think. And it alerts you to your emotional state before you recognize the emotion.
It’s so important to be able to express emotions, and that means being able to name them, and to know the difference between sadness, and anger. And to know that expressing emotion is not bad, if done correctly. What we’ve convoluted, as a society, is expressing emotion with how that emotion is expressed. And that is where the problem lies.
It’s acknowledging that your partner, for example, is allowed to be angry with you for something you said or did, but not allowing them to degrade you, or violate you because of their anger. And then for you to depersonalize the anger, by saying to yourself that they are angry with something you did as it upsets them, and it has nothing to do with who you are as a person. It’s feeling anger yourself, but not allowing the anger to forever colour your feelings towards another person.
All feelings are ok. It’s what we do with them that matters.
The emotions wheel (useful for identifying emotions):
Even though it’s 2020, mental illness is still very misunderstood. Everyone who has low self esteem or feels nervous, has anxiety. Everyone who feels sad sometimes has depression. Everyone who is obsessed with having a neat desk is OCD. And everyone who cannot focus has ADHD. And not all thin women are anorexic.
But to actually suffer with mental illness is not as romantic as movies would have you believe. Every day is hard. Because every day, you are trying to function like a “normal” human being. And people assume that everyone with a mental illness has to look the same way. And that incredibly confident CEO could never suffer with bipolar, right? Although this is not a post about the difficulties of being on the mental illness spectrum. This is about those symptoms that we don’t talk about.
Laziness. Well, actually, perceived laziness. Sometimes people who suffer with mental illness struggle to complete tasks. And while you are motivated to complete tasks, you actually physically cannot for a number of reasons. Fear of failure. Perfectionism. Lack of motivation. Inability to concentrate. Sure, not all laziness is as a result of mental illness, but we need to start digging a little deeper when someone seems to be lazy and unproductive. It isn’t always as a result of lack of effort or desire.
Unemployment. Even though many companies will have mental health and wellness policies these days, and mental illness is starting to have its time in the sun, like wearing green on mental health day in October, when someone is actually suffering, and it’s affecting their work, it’s chalked up to poor performance. Especially in big corporate companies, poor performance is very rarely connected to mental illness. And a lot of the time, if we can give people the support and time to heal from mental illness, as we do with physical illness, we’ll improve productivity in our organisations.
Divorce/Singleness. Mental illness affects relationships. For many years, I suffered with undiagnosed anxiety, and a lot of disagreements between my husband and I were fueled by my negative outlook. I’d always been an optimistic person, and here was one of the closest people to me, telling me that he couldn’t handle my negativity. Now that we know about my anxiety and how it manifests, we are able to manage symptoms, and he is better able to understand me. But for many people, who suffer with mental illness, they struggle to maintain relationships, with romantic partners, but also friendships. We spend a lot of time in a vicious cycle of wanting to be social, but not having the energy to be social as a result of spending all day fighting mental illness to be perceived as a normal/likeable/successful individual.
Unidentified physical illness. I have a number of friends and acquaintances who have experienced random physical conditions like carpel tunnel, bowel and bladder issues, and other conditions. And most of these are directly related to their mental illness. Now, don’t get me wrong. Not all physical illness are manifestations of mental illness, and even if they are as a result of physical illness, they are serious, and need to be treated as such. But what needs to be done is treat the mental illness and not just ignore it, because, if we do, the physical illness will continue. Also, some physical conditions are caused by the excess of cortisol in our systems as a result of anxiety for example. We need to start viewing the body holistically. The brain is an organ just like the heart or lungs or liver. And it can get sick just like those other organs.
Lack of confidence. I mention this separately, because a lot of people experience the symptoms of a mental illness, but with people who do not understand, they attribute these symptoms to be part of that person’s character. So we get labelled as aloof, or lazy, negative, aggressive. And if the person feels that this is not true to their character, there is the potential to feel unconfident and insecure in who you are. And if people don’t like you because of symptoms like your negativity, or perceived self-absorption, it can leave you wondering, what is so wrong with me? And then lack of confidence in abilities, because you can never do anything right because of unproductivity as a result of depression for example. Or not doing well at school or work, and wondering what it is about you that is making you so incapable of success, when it could possibly be ADHD that is affecting your work, as an example.
Failure. It goes without saying considering all the above, that people who suffer with mental illness suffer a lot from failure. Perceived failure sometimes as a result of impossible standards. Actual failure as a result of lack of productivity, or poor motivation, absenteeism, missed dealines etc. And that is the challenge, to separate the symptoms from character, and understanding yourself, to know where your symptoms are making you fall short, and what you can manage, and what you can change.
Ultimately, mental illness is an invisible illness, no one knows how much you’re suffering from the outside. They cannot read your thoughts, nor can they see the related emotional stress, or the physical tax mental illness takes on your body. But also, it is not clear how this invisible illness, which a lot of people don’t really understand, and cannot conceive of how it impacts your life, has these other impacts on your life, causing that vicious cycle of having mental illness, struggling, having it impact your life negatively, and thereby creating difficult life experiences which would impact anyone’s emotional stability, let alone someone who is already suffering.
Mental illness is complex. And while having a diagnosis can be liberating, operating in a world that doesn’t understand you and what that diagnosis means is difficult. And then the result of this lack of understanding is these “invisible symptoms” that do not appear on the DSM.
I am very open about my illnesses, and symptoms, and how they impact my life. And my husband has now gained more understanding so he has a better grasp of how my anxiety impacts both me, and our relationship. I have also joined a group at work to support sufferers and carers of mental illness, and my main objective of joining this group is to spread the awareness and understanding of mental illness, and how it impacts the working life of employees. The only way to counter these invisible symptoms that I’ve mentioned here is through knowledge, if you ask me. To have knowledge of ourselves, and our mental illness, but then also for non-sufferers, or carers to have the information to develop their understanding.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the Kubler-Ross model of Grief:
Denial and isolation
These stages are not linear and not everyone goes through
all the stages. It is, however, a useful model, especially if the emotions you
are experiencing during your period of grief are confusing. And grief is confusing
and difficult, and it helps to understand that where you are right now, is not
where you will be forever.
“You don’t get over it, you get through it. It doesn’t get better, it gets different”
Grieving the dead
I recently lost a friend. She was young, and while she was
sick for a while, when she did eventually leave this earth, it was still a
shock. I felt this incredible sadness and questioning, of why her, why now? I
had never lost a friend before, and I didn’t know what to do with my feelings of
When she passed away, what happened was that the feeling of
loss that I experienced for everyone I’ve ever lost, came rushing back. It was
like I was losing them all over again. My grandmothers, my father-in-law, my
uncle, my cousin. I was grieving for about 6 people all at once. I thought I’d
moved on and found a way to manage the grief of losing them.
But what I’ve realized is that that is not how grief works.
When it comes to grief, you will always feel a sadness and loneliness for the
person that you’ve lost. And the only thing that changes over time, is that you
build a different life from the one you imagined. Life doesn’t get better, it
gets different. You learn to manage the feelings of loss whenever you think of
Grief comes in waves, and even if you’ve reached a stage of acceptance,
you’ll hear a song on the radio that reminds you of that person, and find yourself
crying in your car 5 years after your loved on passed on. It doesn’t mean that
you’ve regressed, or that you haven’t really accepted the loss. It just means
you loved them, and you miss them. And that is ok.
Even though I’d lost my grandmother in 2009, when I got
married in 2013, I felt a sense of sadness on the day, when I thought about how
much fun I would be having with her on the dance floor. That is grief. It gets
you in those moments when you least expect it. And that feeling of loss hits
you almost like it did the moment you realized they would no longer be a part
of your life.
And that is ok. A quote I read recently said that it’s not the passage of time that is healing, but what you are doing in that time that heals. So grieve your loved ones, miss them, but also, live the life your dreams. It doesn’t mean that you’re “over them” or that you’ve forgotten them. So mourn, cry, do whatever you need to do. But also get up, and live your life.
Grieving the living
Sometimes, we go through certain experiences which necessitate that we need to separate ourselves from someone who is still alive, because it is too harmful to be in their company. This could be due to trauma, harmful relationships, dangerous relationships, many different things. But you need to be apart from them.
You need to go through the grieving process, and acknowledge
that that person is no longer in your life. And you need to feel sadness, and
loss, and eventually get to acceptance in the Kubler-Ross model, just like you
would if that person had passed on.
And it’s ok. Even if it’s a parent. Society may tell you
that you cannot cut yourself off from family, or that you cannot be estranged
from your mother because she gave birth to you. But what if the woman who gave
birth to you has done nothing but harm you since giving birth to you?
You need to assess which option is healthier for you
physically, emotionally, psychologically: to have them in your life, or to be
estranged from them. You need to accept that some people are too broken to
change, and then you will need to grieve the loss of them in your life.
Sometimes, someone close to you may suffer illness, or
disability and they change in ways that you cannot reconcile. You will need to
mourn the loss of who they were before, or what they were able to do or to be. And
then come to a place of acceptance for who they are now, and how your life
together may change.
But just like grieving the dead, grieve this person, or
people, and go through the motions of mourning and loss, and then live your
life, in a way that makes you happy. Do the things you need to do, to be able
to heal in the way that you need to.
Sometimes, we grieve things like loss of a career, loss of a family home, loss of a limb or loss of a marriage. And you have to go through the same process. In the same way as when you lose a person, and it changes you forever, losing intangible things can have the same effect.
And in the same way, go through the Kubler-Ross stages of
Grief, because your life has changed. And you need to acknowledge how it is
impacting your emotional state. And to get to a place of acceptance, of your
new life, and how it is different.
And just as you would focus on living your life without a
person in your life, and how different your life is without them, when you are
mourning something intangible, you need to focus on living your different life,
whether it is with a new career, or new place, or new way of being.
Sometimes, women who have children feel a sense of loss for
their pre-children life. And you may feel guilty, but it’s really ok. Mourn
your old life though, go through the Kubler-Ross stages so that you can get to
a place of acceptance. What is important is to remember is to accept your new
life, and then also focus on living your new life as a mom. Even though it is
hard, and different and everything changes: your body, your friendships, your
Just like when we are mourning people, we need to remember
that, you stop and mourn, and then you need to live your new life. In this new
way. It’s important for your healing and sense of self.
* * *
The thing about grief though. It’s never over. Because you
never stop loving. It comes over you in waves. A person could be gone for years
and then you smell their perfume, hear their favourite song, see an old photo,
and it all comes rushing back. The memories, the sadness.
What grief has taught me though, is to live my life. That life is short. And that tomorrow is never promised. And while these may sound like clichés, truly living a life of meaning is not that easy, but every day I endeavour to try.
“Grief, after the initial shock of loss, comes the waves… When you’re driving alone in your car, while you’re doing the dishes, while you’re getting ready for work… all of a sudden it hits you – how so very much you miss someone, and your breath catches, and your tears flow, and the sadness is so great that it’s physically painful” – a part of me is missing | The Mighty