Is it you or the environment? Reflections from #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek

This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week. The theme has been nature. It feels like the perfect theme, particularly since so many of us have connected with the outdoors in the pandemic. There have been great examples all week about the steps we can take as individuals to support our mental health, but it’s got me thinking about the role played by our personal environment on our wellbeing. By personal environment I mean our families, our friends, where we work.

In terms of raising awareness, this week has worked! All week my social media feeds have been full of people engaging with nature. I’ve seen them take mindful walks, spend the night in tents, work in the garden. It’s been great. Every picture has been of someone smiling. The stories being shared signal the powerful benefits of engaging in the outdoors and have been motivating and I’m sure I’ve spent more time noticing the growth in my garden as a direct result.

Another benefit of this week, one of the ongoing goals of the Mental Health Foundation, is the removal of stigma associated with mental health. Just search on #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek and you’ll find plenty of posts, from the incredibly personal to the objectively informative. There’s no doubt, we’re much happier talking about it than we were.

In all the posts I’ve seen, I’ve been struck by the way the responsibility is placed on each of us to take care of our own mental health. Of course, as adults we are responsible for ourselves. We have to take ownership of our behaviour and make sure we act in our best interests. For example, I know I hide in work. I turn to it when I am at my most stressed and can actually feel myself relaxing as I concentrate on what’s on my computer screen. It’s a short-term fix but in the longer term it leaves me feeling isolated and ultimately exhausted. If I want a more sustainable and healthy solution, I need to stop hiding and address what’s causing the stress in the first place. The only person who can do that is me. It’s definitely my responsibility. But what if the environment I am living in resists? What if it doesn’t want to let me?

I often hear people described as over-analytical, over-emotional, too demanding. Perhaps it’s saddest when the people being described are children and it’s the adults around them calling them a problem child and wondering what’s wrong with them. For me the truth lies in a mismatch between the individual and their environment. By environment I mean the others in the family, workplace or friendship group, essentially the people describing them as too much. It’s not that they’re over-emotional or too demanding. Instead, it’s that the people describing them are not okay with what they feel is being asked of them. The person could have a perfectly average amount of emotionality but someone who has no history of connecting with their own emotions will experience it as too much and describe the other as over-emotional. The impact on the individual being described can be profound and long-lasting.

Engaging with nature boosts our mental wellbeing. Taking a walk at lunchtime and really noticing the feel of the breeze, the colours and the sounds can be incredibly rejuvenating. Perhaps most importantly, it can give us enough space to notice what’s going on in our world and its impact on our sense of wellbeing. It gives us the resources to ask some important questions. Is the environment I live in nurturing? Is it okay to unapologetically be myself? I don’t mean we can ignore everyone around us and that there must be no pressure or stress. We do need to notice others and the environment can be challenging. I definitely appreciate being pushed, but not if it’s unremitting, if what I need is completely ignored. And certainly not if I feel I’m missed or about to be attacked, however subtle the attack might be.

#MentalHealthAwarenessWeek has presented plenty of ideas and information about how to boost our own wellbeing. The theme this year might be nature but reflecting on our own environment might be the most important thing we can do to improve our wellbeing. My final thought is to reflect on the environment I create for others. What is my role in creating their environment and do I help to create one that supports and encourages them to be who they really are?

What’s blocking your self-care this bank holiday?

It seems appropriate to put self care front and centre at the beginning of a bank holiday weekend.

Judging by the comments on social media, most people argue self-care should be a priority. I don’t see anyone say otherwise. Yet people still feel stressed, experience burnout, suffer depression and anxiety. Some struggle to concentrate and feel angry and exhausted. What’s going on? If self-care is the panacea, why is it so difficult to put it first?

I certainly haven’t got it cracked. It’s a work in progress and probably always will be, but it’s worth it. The important relationships in my life are better. The underlying feeling of being taken for granted and the associated resentment has dissipated, and the regular bouts of rage are history. But it’s not easy.

What’s changed? Perhaps the most important step has been to understand my role. I have been the person neglecting me. I might have felt I had no choice. I might have felt under intense pressure to work hard or take care of everyone, but there were different choices. Of course, there would have been consequences to those choices. Relationships and my career, for example, would have been different. But as soon as I really accepted, I was making a choice, alternatives became possible.

Real self care is about putting yourself first. That sounds selfish … and we all know it’s not okay to be selfish. Selfishness implies a total disregard for other people. It implies doing something at the cost of someone else. For example, someone has a deadline of 5pm and they need help to meet it. It’s 4pm now, there is about another two hours of work to do and they ask for your help. You help. The job is done in time and they’re finished at 5pm. That’s when you start on your work that was displaced, making you late. Is it selfish or self-care to say no? It depends, I hear you say. You’re probably right but my point is if something is not okay for you, it’s okay to say no. It’s not your job to make things okay for everyone else at a cost to yourself.

Self-care also gets confused with self-indulgence. Self-indulgence is the gratification of whims. It can be excessive and disproportionate and of course it can be wonderful in moderation. I absolutely love an indulgent session in a spa, having a massage, a manicure and a pedicure. I love ice cream. It’s my all-time favourite food. Sometimes all I want is to sit down and have a big bowl in front of a movie. Is a spa day or a big bowl of ice cream self-indulgent or self-care? It seems to me there is a continuum and where we sit on it is, perhaps, a good indicator of the value we place on self-care.

“I’m fine” is perhaps the biggest obstacle for me. I have some sort of inner narrative that tells me I can survive whatever comes my way. Looking at it one way, it suggests real resilience and the truth is I do generally cope without making much overt fuss. That is until I hit the buffers and explode or melt down. My blind determination to survive whatever comes my way, then proves to be incredibly destructive. Those close to me move away and I’m left feeling exhausted, unnoticed, resentful and alone. It’s not fulfilling or uplifting. For me, admitting I’m not okay is scary. It’s been a long process to find a way to say I’m not fine. Perhaps the biggest shift has been finding people I feel safe enough with to share the truth of my experience. It has given me space to, slowly but surely, prioritise my self-care.

Self-care is a way of being in day-to-day life whereby you understand and accept your physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual needs and act in a way that will get those needs met. I emphasise needs because that’s what it’s about – needs, not wants, wishes or desires. Prioritise it and self-care will boost your well-being, true resilience, the quality of your relationships and your physical and mental health. It’s no wonder we all advocate it so much.

If you want to focus on your self-care, here are a few steps you can take to get started.

Engage in self-compassion. You’re bound to get it wrong – you’re human afterall, so be gentle and kind to yourself.
Put a good night’s sleep at the top of your agenda. Begin by getting into a routine. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, with space in between for seven or eight hours.
Eat a balanced diet. I’m not talking about anything extreme, just one that includes fruit and veg. Remember the self-compassion!
Move more. We all know exercise is good for us, but if you’re anything like me an exercise class or going to the gym might not be the solution. Instead, walk a little further. Stand up and move around regularly.
Go outside. It can reduce stress, lower your blood pressure, and improve concentration, your energy and even your pain thresholds.
Say no. It’s not easy but saying no to others when you need to really matters.?

The joy and the horror of mistakes

I made a mistake recently. It was pretty bad.

I know the mantra … a mistake is simply an opportunity to learn. I broadly agree with the philosophy and encourage others to see it this way but as is so often the case, it’s easier said than done.

Like everyone else on the planet, I’ve made plenty of mistakes over the years and I’ve said to myself, even out loud, it’s okay. Adapt, adjust and it won’t happen again. The truth, though, is my stomach has always churned. I’ve had a sense of impending catastrophe and a brutal internal dialogue has kicked in. Engaging with an opportunity to learn with all that going on in my brain is almost impossible. There are plenty of reasons for the sense of disaster and destructive internal dialogue. Some are obvious and others are tucked away under layers of defences. Either way, I’ve worked hard to address them.

Back to this mistake. I might not have attacked myself quite so obviously, but a part of me definitely wanted to tell everyone about it – I’m blogging about it now after all! I suspect my desire to explain every tiny detail is really a form self-punishment so I’m going to refrain from doing that. At the same time my brain kept spotting extenuating circumstances. I had lots of work on, which means there are plenty of conflicting demands. I was feeling stressed because I was developing a new project that really mattered to me! To cap it all, circumstances beyond my control, including the weather, meant I was under more pressure that day. Perhaps, with all that in mind, I should simply forgive myself and move on. But that feels too simple. It feels like ducking responsibility.

A few years ago, I remember driving in Coventry listening to a podcast. What I heard made such an impact I can picture the exact moment, as I pulled off at the traffic lights, that I heard the words. The speaker said every psychotherapist will make mistakes. Anyone who thinks they won’t is kidding themselves and probably lacks the necessary self-reflection. But a good therapist will forgive themselves and so give themselves the space to learn.

The podcast made such an impact because it felt like I was suddenly being released from a deep-seated process of shame. There’s no need to savage myself for making a mistake, however big it is. It was a mistake after all and I’m human, so I’m bound to make plenty of them! The important point is to reflect and learn. Allowed out from under the threat of a brutal retribution I can acknowledge my responsibility and give myself the space to reflect and reach a deeper understanding of what happened and why. Who knows what I’ll learn in the process!

At the heart of this reflexive process is a real sense of psychological safety. By this I mean I need to feel I’ll be okay during and at the end of the process, that it’ll okay to be me. If I don’t feel safe my defences kick in and, it might sound weird, but the brutal savaging I have traditionally given myself is one of those defences. I have a go at myself before anyone else can! So, to reflect on and learn from my mistake, I take it somewhere I feel completely safe. That’s with people who know and accept me as I am, the whole me. They have no condemnatory judgement, just acceptance, understanding, compassion and insight. It’s there I feel secure enough to be curious about what happened and my contribution. With compassion for myself, any others who’ve played a part and those impacted, I can reflect fully and recognise and accept the lessons there are to learn.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash?

Notice and Acknowledge on Blue Monday

Today, Monday 18 January, is Blue Monday. In a normal year the cold and wet weather, dark nights and credit card bills landing on the door mat take a toll. This year we’re contending with the lockdown too! Feeling ‘blue’ is a perfectly healthy response.

Take a brief look around and all the advice seems to focus on how to stop feeling like this. The message I hear is ‘Do the right thing properly you won’t fee blue’. ‘Feeling fed up or low is not okay.’ So, I must be getting it wrong. If I exercised more, ate better, set clear goals, meditated properly, de-cluttered my life, got through the books on my reading list, practised yoga every morning … the list is endless … I would feel on top of the world.

But the problem is the weather is still wet and cold and it’s hard work getting up and out to walk my dog in dark when I know we’ll both come back caked in mud. It got even worse last week. Walking through a very boggy patch I increasingly became aware my foot was squelching. Yet another pair of wellingtons is leaking! Is there anyone who can get a pair to last longer than 6 months! A new pair of wellies is another cost to add to the two credit card bills that have landed – and there’s no doubt I did get a little carried away buying Christmas decorations this year.

I’m lying to myself if I pretend all this doesn’t matter or that it’s emotional impact can be counter-balanced with some positive thinking or by saying ‘pull yourself together and get on with it’. Trying to convince myself there is a quick fix just denies the reality of my experience.

Acknowledging, accepting and allowing myself to feel stressed and irritated on and off this last week has had a remarkable effect. I’ve started to feel better!

There’s no shame in feeling down. It’s not a sign of weakness, or an indicator you can’t cope. Taking some time out to notice and experience these feelings isn’t wallowing. It’s just accepting my human condition.

People often tell me that they’re frightened if they engage with the feelings, it will never end. They imagine if they allow themselves to feel low, they will spiral down, feeling lower and lower until there is no way back. But the reality is emotions come in waves. They may feel intense, but they always pass and there’s calmness in their wake.

So, my advice today, for Blue Monday, is notice and acknowledge how you feel, with no self criticism or condemnation and certainly no ‘lectures’ about what you should be doing to make everything perfect. You might be surprised how far you can go with a little acceptance.

Photo by Drew Murphy on Unsplash

Slow down and savour

Here we are in another lockdown. Even though most of us were expecting it, it still felt pretty sudden when it came. 2020 may have taught us flexibility and adaptability, but 2021 is already taking it to a whole new level.

This time it’s not a new experience. We know what to expect. We were already living with significant restrictions in my area, so slotting back into the routine of last March and April was easy enough. In fact, I barely stopped to catch my breath. I simply made the necessary changes and cracked on. It might sound like I’m adjusting well and on one level I really am. I’m not anxious and I’m able to offer stability and containment to people around me. There is another way to view my response though. Have I taken a moment to register how I feel about what’s happening? Am I reflecting on what is lost to me during this lockdown? Have I noticed the impact on the relationships that matter most to me? The answer is no.

I know why I’m like this. Pushing on, come what may, means I don’t run the risk of encountering myself. If I don’t have to engage with my own experience. I can steer clear of what I feel. It’s one of many effective, unconscious defensive strategies I developed years and years ago to insulate me from painful experiences. It has side effects, though. One of the biggest is the disconnect with my day-to-day experience and while there are things I might want to dodge, there are plenty I want to acknowledge and savour. Making this process conscious gives me choice.

I’m not big on New Year’s Resolutions but spotting how I have been in the first couple of weeks of 2021, perhaps this year I’ll encourage myself to slow down and savour.

Savouring is all about stepping outside an experience to take a moment and really notice and appreciate it. For example, I can walk my dog, Minty, listening to a podcast with half my mind and going over the jobs for the day with the other half or I can focus my attention on Minty and the surroundings. I can notice how much he’s loving the space and freedom. I can listen to the birds and feel the cold on my cheeks. Sitting here now as I write this, I know which option sounds the most rewarding!

Yesterday morning’s walk was freezing cold, foggy and brilliant. With very little effort I took the savouring further and really amplified the experience. I gave Minty a big smile and hug every time he came back for a treat. I acknowledged how lucky I was to be in that space in that moment. I told my family about it later, not forgetting to mention my frozen hair. I took a selfie and pictures of Minty to remind myself later what a fantastic morning it was. I definitely didn’t tell myself to appreciate it now because it would be over soon and there isn’t another morning like that one in the forecast. I didn’t wish for the ground to be softer or easier to walk on or engage in any other thought process that would stop the savouring.

Savouring isn’t just about particular events or occasions like a dog walk.  If I really slow down, I can make it part of my every day. For example, I make lots of cups and tea and coffee during the working day. I always drink them at my desk and rarely get through much more than about a third of a mug. I can change this. I can cut down the number of drinks I make to one or two but turning each one into an opportunity to savour, really tasting and appreciating the drink and the moment.

Why do I care so much about slowing down and savouring? It’s been proven to boost happiness.  It stops us from missing the moment completely or simply taking it for granted.

Tomorrow I’m going to give myself permission to really savour the morning dog walk. I think I’ll get myself a really delicious treat too, perhaps a small tub of a creamy ice cream. Later in the day I can eat it slowly, one fully appreciated mouthful at a time!