So here I am, very aware that I promised myself I’d write a blog a week, starting off with the five basics to address in times of depression. And it’s been almost a month since I posted the last one! A very good parallel for what so often happens with our good intentions concerning exercise. We all know that we benefit both physically and emotionally from exercising and often are full of plans of action. We start off with high expectations of working towards running that half-marathon or going to the gym at least three times a week. And then the realities of life kick in…
Exercise can be hard work. Sometimes it hurts and we feel disappointed in ourselves for not being able to do it in the way we want to. Everyone else can look slimer, faster, like they’re having fun. And then there’s the rest of life to contend with too; the rainy days, too much work, the lure of the sofa.
In light of how hard it can be to take care of ourselves physically, what helps? Firstly, finding some type of physical exertion that you enjoy! If you actually want to do it, it will happen. Secondly, as always, being kind to ourselves. Revising those unrealistic expectations. Giving ourselves praise and encouragement. Finding others to join in with, to help motivate us and keep us going. Letting ourselves feel the benefits: in the moment, the pleasure of our bodies working well and the relaxation and relief of having to concentrate on only one thing, that exercise. Exercising can be a great way of making ourselves be mindful and taking us away of feelings of depression and anxiety.
When it comes to caring for ourselves through what we eat, although it sounds quite simple, it can prove to be very complicated indeed! Not only do we receive so much advice about what is healthy and what it not, we also have to contend with the messages we received growing-up about food (food as nourishment, pleasure, reward, punishment, power – the meanings we give to food can seem endless and relentless). If we struggle with using alcohol in a healthy enough, controlled way, we always have the option of dealing with the struggle through abstinence. But that’s not an option with food – not unless we descended into the full-blown misery of anorexia and its very real death risk.
So how do we start to understand, explore and begin to feel in control around food? How do we care for ourselves through what we eat? How do we stop using food to mask, surpress or express our feelings? I believe the place to start is wherever we find ourselves; whatever is worrying or shaming us, where the emotional impact lies. And to start with gentleness, understanding, kind attention. Food is hugely emotive for most of us. As we begin to explore and experience its particular meanings and feelings for each of us, we take the vital step towards allowing ourselves the possibility of doing things differently, of making choices that suit us better right now.
When we’re suffering from mental anguish – be it depression, anxiety, grief or any other type of emotional pain – it can feel totally overwhelming. Concentrating, or even being aware, of anything or anyone else is hard; sometimes impossible. And being aware of the impact that this suffering is having on our ability to take care of ourselves can also be limited or non-existant.
At times like this, I believe there is great value in getting back to basics. By basics, I mean the fundamentals of our everyday existence, the cornerstones of self-care. These are diet, exercise, sleep, meaningful activity and social interaction. Our mental turmoil may impact on all of these or hit us particularly in one sphere or other.
These five basics also give us somewhere to start: somewhere to begin trying to take care of ourselves in a truly difficult, testing time. By becoming aware of what is really hard for us, what comes more easily, what we can and can’t do or allow ourselves, we start understanding more about ourselves, our history, our processes and relationships.
So, over the next five weeks, I am going to explore in turn all these basics, in the hope that it sheds some light on things that appear as if they should be easy and even automatic but are, at times, areas where we compound our suffering and miss opportunities to help ourselves feel better.
Dealing with the school holidays can be very stressful. We’re thrown out of our normal routine, as are our children, and, as parents, expected to sort out both their day-to-day lives and our own. If we’re working it can be even harder, what with juggling childcare and our children’s wants and needs. On top of all that we may very well actually want to enjoy the time we do have off! I believe the key to getting all of these sometimes conflicting pressures and pleasures in balance is to work on not expecting too much of ourselves. Even if we look forward to holidays a great deal, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be the best time ever! If we try to experience the moment by moment reality of whatever it is we are doing, we set a good example for our children as well as allowing ourselves the best chance of not getting caught up in expectations and guilt.
Mindfulness is a way of looking at and interacting with the world and your experience of it that relies on paying attention to what is happening for you, moment by moment, here and now. This might mean becoming aware of your environment – the details of your surroundings, the colours, shapes, smells, textures – or your body, your breathing and all the other sensations occuring. Mindfulness encourages us to be observers of ourselves, not passing judgement on what is occuring, but accepting it, allowing it to express itself and move on. In my experience developing this mindset and the techniques that go with it can be very beneficial to all suffering from emotional issues and upset. It complements talking therapies by making us better able to understand our experience and by allowing us to step back from painful cycles of anxious and depressive thoughts and feelings.
Having a baby brings with it huge changes to almost all aspects of life for the new parents. And, as it is a change that is usually chosen or sought, it can be doubly hard to admit that some of the changes can leave us feeling lonely, exhausted, overwhelmed, bored and miserable. An important first step towards embracing parenthood is letting go of the notion that it’s going to be all good. Letting ourselves accept and deal with the difficult feelings it will bring, along with the great pleasures and excitement, will help to minimise or avoid our tendancy to beat ourselves up for not feeling the way we imagine we should.
Supporting someone who is self-harming can feel hugely challenging. You will find yourself coming up against your own feelings – anxiety, disgust, helplesness, anger, wanting to withdraw, just to name a few! So it will be important to focus on the person who is suffering and to recognise the self-harm is a product of this suffering (a visible sign of their distress). Initially, make sure they are physically as safe as possible by either getting them the medical care they may need or making sure the cut or burn is clean and bandaged if needed. Then, just try to support that person with your love and understanding: ask them what would help right now? What might have helped them before they felt they had to self-harm? Above all, recognise that you can’t solve whatever is causing them to act in this way. You can encourage them to find the help they need and you can be there for them. But, however much you care, you can’t solve it for them or stop them from self-harming.
As we approach the end of the year, we often find ourselves thinking about the coming new year and how we want it to be different from the one passing. If you have been struggling with your feelings, your relationships, your life, I bet you’ve been doing a lot of that struggling on your own; caught up in your emotions, thoughts, inner turmoil and feeling unable to really share it with others. You probably worry about how it would impact on them, what they’ll think about you. But dealing with all that on your own is a lonely business: we can’t see our way through our emotional problems without outside help. So choose to do something positive for yourself in the coming new year. Seek some help and don’t suffer alone.
I’ve was asked to write a blog about common relationship problems by a counselling website I advertise on. It suggested ‘sexual problems’, ‘infidelity’, ‘money concerns’, ‘work/life balance’ as some of these frequent problems. I started thinking about what I hear to be ‘common relationship problems’; and all those certainly fit the bill! However, what strikes me about all of them (and the vast majority of what I hear that upsets and angers people about their partners) is that the other person isn’t acknowledging or acting on what it is they think they need from their significant other. Whether this is more sex, different sex, anxiety about money or frustration about who does what around the house and with the children. So often we can be too hung up on our own agendas (such as still smarting from previous hurts or seeing in others painful relationships from the past) to be able to really listen to and accept what it is that our partners need from us – or to be able to tell them what it is we need from them. Putting ourselves into their shoes can feel risky; we might end up seeing ourselves in a less than favourable light. But if we can’t do that, what hope do we have of expecting the same for ourselves? And what hope do we have of dealing with all that life throws at us – be that sexual problems, infidelity, money concerns or work/life balance?
I am amazed sometimes by how we can cause our own suffering with ‘what if’ thinking. So often I catch myself in negative thoughts, ‘catastrophic’ thinking. Research has shown that 60-70% of mental chatter is negative. So what can we do about all these doom-and-glooom scenarios? First, notice how they make you feel. Anxious? Overwhelmed? Frightened? Second, it is important to entertain the idea that these thoughts are no less true than imagining a good outcome. Third, to turn these thoughts in a better direction, you can use three quick statements to help calm youself and move on. They are:
1. ‘It’s not happening now.’ Yes, it is possible that a catastrophe could occur in the future, but it’s not happening now. This phrase may help you see that at this moment you are safe.
2. ‘Whatever happens, I can cope.’ This statement reminds you of your own inner resources and gives you the determination to meet the challenges of life.
3. ‘I am causing my own suffering. Could I stop?’ The question, ‘Could I stop?’ helps you see you have a choice.
Of course, if there is a truly a catastrophe headed your way, such as a hurricane, a death or a divorce, the best thing to ask yourself is, ‘How could I best prepare for this event?’ Action steps relieve anxiety.
If you are causing your own suffering with ‘what ifs’, acknowledge those thoughts, tell yourself one of the comforting phrases above and move on. When you find your thoughts returning to your favourite catastrophic fantasies, don’t get discouraged. Changing mental habits is hard and relapses are part of the process. In fact, curbing catastrophizing is a project that can take a lifetime. Still, better self-talk will help you get through the ‘what ifs’ faster. Then you can focus your thoughts on what really matters to you.