15 Years of Mental Health Awareness Week #MHAW15

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As this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week draws to a close, I thought I’d take a quick look back at the topics that have been covered over the last 15 years.  The run down:

2000 – Stigma

2001 – Friendship

2002 – Personal Experience

2003 – Work/Life Balance

2004 – Beating Low Mood

2005 – Exercise

2006 – Alcohol

2007 – Friendship

2008 – Anger

2009 – Fear & Anxiety

2010 – Loneliness

2011 – Sleep

2012 – ‘Let’s Get Physical’

2013 – ‘Doing Good Does You Good’

2014 – Anxiety Awareness

2015 – Mindfulness

I hope you’ve enjoyed getting involved with MHAW15 and have taken the opportunity to learn and explore the benefits of mindfulness.  That’s a lot of great  topics…what will 2016 have in store, I wonder?

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What Mindfulness Means #MHAW15

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“People suffer because they are caught in their views. As soon as we release those views, we are free and we don’t suffer anymore.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

So Mental Health Awareness Week is focusing on mindfulness this year – what is mindfulness?

Maybe you think mindfulness means to simply concentrate on your breathing. You may have even heard that it’s focusing on sensations? Or involves sitting cross legged on the floor? It could be all of those things but is also so much more.

From The Mental Health Foundation:
Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment, without getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future.Mindfulness can be practiced standing, sitting and walking. It can be practiced both indoors and out; at home, in schools, at work or simply out and about. You can practice mindfulness for 5 minutes or 5 hours – that’s the great thing about mindfulness, you can tailor it to suit your own needs.

From Gunaratana, B.H. (1996). Mindfulness in plain English:
Mindfulness allows you to recognize that your mind is wandering, that your anxiety is overwhelming, or that the pain in your back is uncomfortable. Rather than becoming fused, or caught up in those experiences, mindfulness allows you to notice them. In this way, mindfulness constantly brings your mind back to the present moment, free from your internal dialogue and judgment of the “goodness” or “badness” or any of your thoughts, emotions, or sensations. It is pure awareness.

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Mindfulness for #MHAW15

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Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness isn’t about emptying your mind of thoughts or “zoning out”, it’s about paying attention to the present moment, without getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future.

What you may be surprised to hear is that you have probably been mindful at some point in your life and didn’t even know it… Have you gone for a long walk, breathing in the crisp, fresh air and then suddenly realised that four hours have passed? Have you listened so intently to a song that for a moment, you weren’t thinking about anything but how beautiful the melody was? That’s mindfulness.

See, it’s simple.  More on mindfulness soon, but for now, a little something both apt and cute…

#MHAW15

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and I’ll be supporting the campaign and sharing posts all week! This year, it’s all about mindfulness.

Some interesting stats to kick the week off:

Good mental health needs to be everybody’s priority – there’s no health without mental health!
What are you doing this week to raise awareness?

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Unstuck – A Quote on the Wall that Spoke to Me

I discovered a cute little coffee shop today and on the wall was this:

There was once a man who’d become unstuck in the world – and he travelled around like a leaf in the wind until he reached the place where he started out.  His car, his job, his phone, his shoes – everything was right where he left it.  Nothing had changed and yet he felt excited to have arrived here – as if this were the place he’d been going all along.

~ Taylor Steele ~

Please Don’t Judge me at my Worst

I’m not the person people think. And it’s hard knowing that what people see is not the me I want to be; the me I am beneath the struggle.

At work, they’ve never known me not depressed. Day in, day out, they’ve seen this weak, pathetic creature struggle through. Depression crushes my creativity and motivation. Anxiety paralyses my being and smothers my voice. They tell me I’m doing ok. Just ok. I know I could be so much more.

The shame and the overwhelm of parasitic depression take over so easily. And although it feels the illness is written all over me like a rash, most don’t notice.

Last week I had an interview for a new role within my organisation. I desperately wanted to do well as this was my chance to get out of a frustrating job I hate and move on to something more me. I received some lovely feedback today; apparently I ‘blew them away’!

Well, the unconfident, uncomfortable version of me they expected stayed at home that day. That is, the person they thought was me and why would they think I was anything else? It saddens me that being trapped in my current role (one I believe has maintained my depression) has prevented me from showing my potential.

I am stronger than people know. I have achieved things people wouldn’t think possible. That’s because people are judging me on what they see and for a long time, that has been a person who is ill and not at their best. Put me in a job I enjoy and when I get to a happier place, I’ll show you what I can do! When I do amazing things, feel free to judge me at my best.

Understanding Emotion

I used to feel I had no control over my emotions. Overcome by the strength of feeling, unstoppable tears would roll down my face. At other times, paralysed by fear, I was returned to a helpless, childlike state.

As human beings we like to rationalise our thoughts and to base our actions on reason. For those plagued by anxiety and depression, one of the most distressing and confusing parts can be feeling that you are not in control of your own thinking. Expression of strong emotion can also be frowned upon culturally. Social norms have taught us that crying in public is weak and that getting angry is wrong. Being overly ‘emotional’ is seen as a negative characteristic.

Feeling shame over my childish, emotional outbursts, I began to ask some questions. Could my emotional overreactions be helped? How had emotion taken over my entire thinking? With my therapist, I began to explore the fundamentals of emotion and to see it less as something I needed to control but more as something with a useful purpose.

To understand emotion, we need to look at its origins. I remember my therapist asking me to name what I thought were our ‘basic emotions’. Fundamental, animalistic reactions; try it now.

* * *

Most people start with happy and sad. Some will also think of fear and anger. The others are a little less obvious. There is some variation in which emotions are included in the core list but most commonly, 6 basic emotions are acknowledged:

basic emotions

My therapist asked if I noticed anything about these emotions; I stated that only one seemed to be positive. However, from an evolutionary perspective, each of these emotions is key to survival. Whilst happiness acts as a reward system for activities that keep us alive (eating, reproducing), fear protects us from danger and disgust keeps us away from things that could make us ill (like rotten food). Pretty useful stuff. Still think emotion is bad?

We share these emotions with our mammalian cousins. Each is also linked with a distinctive and universal facial expression, suggesting fundamental and biological differentiation that is more than just linguistic labels.

* * *

So, specific triggers cause specific emotional responses for a purpose. If this is the case, how can emotions become so all over the place? Well, life was simpler back in the jungle and the brain (or should I say brains) is a complex thing.

Brains, plural; three in total, closely linked but distinct. It’s over-simplistic to think of the brain as one organ. As we evolved, more sophisticated structures were built around those already there.

brainConnected directly to the spinal cord at the brain stem is our most primitive, ‘Reptilian’ brain. This subconscious brain is responsible for our survival and instincts. It keeps us breathing, our hearts beating and triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response when faced with a threat. Some situations trigger a reptilian response – it’s quick and it’s powerful. It has to be, the point is to keep us alive! The reptile is an aggressive, dominant beast that attacks fast and is unable to consider consequences. Never fight a crocodile.

The next oldest brain is the Limbic System or ‘Mammalian’ brain. It regulates emotion, memory and learning. It probably evolved to provide balance to the reptilian brain and to further success. Without it, we would still behave territorially and ritualistically, never learning from our mistakes. Associating emotion with events makes them memorable, meaning that mammals can quickly learn to repeat actions that are pleasurable or successful and to avoid things that caused pain, sadness or fear. This part of the brain may be influencing your behaviour more than you would like to think; people tend to act on feelings over logic. The chimp within us is difficult to overpower.

The newest part of the brain, the Neocortex, is the ‘thinking’ brain. It is responsible for higher level processes including language, logic and reasoning and creativity.

I like to think of ‘inappropriate’ displays of emotion (like aggressive or tearful outbursts and avoidant or impulsive behaviours) as a disagreement between our three brains. Our thinking brain is easily overpowered by the brains beneath it. It can think clever things but is a slow running computer in comparison to emotion and instinct. So when faced with danger we rely on impulse to survive. Assisted by learning and memory we can react quickly in a reflex-like manner. During times of perceived threat, your neocortex practically shuts down, meaning that you react automatically. This could save your life. It could also leave you a slave to emotion.

You can see even from this brief explanation how emotion can go wrong. When we feel anxious, the reptilian brain is highly activated and the limbic brain backs up its response with emotion, perhaps linking in memories or creating new ones. The problem is where this anxiety response is out of proportion. Our neocortex has the ability to think logically around the problem and to assess the threat and weigh up options. Unfortunately, when we are really anxious, our thinking brain is impaired and it becomes difficult for it to calm the powerful animal within. Anxiety symptoms may develop and with chronic activation, these may lead into depression.

Our more primitive brains, especially the emotional one, may be naturally more powerful than our thinking brain, but we are still responsible for them. We do have some control over our emotions and we can learn to see threats differently and therefore to change our reactions. I consider an important aspect of any good therapy to be the strengthening of the neocortex. The more we recognise feelings for what they are, the less influence the emotional brain will have over us and the stronger our thinking brain (and ourselves) can become.

In the words of my therapist:

‘It’s not meant to be easy, it’s wonderful evolution!’

Images: heartfulness.be & managementmania.com

Strong Tears

Apologies for not posting for a while – I’ve had a rough couple of weeks but must get back to writing regularly, not least because it helps me cope.  Blogging is a wonderful thing!

I’d been doing ok but almost without warning the tears started to flow again.  I’ve cried every day for the last week and it’s mostly been triggered by one particularly awkward colleague. His behaviour is making me feel terrible to the extent where I feel anxious even just being in the same room.  The rude comments and highlighting my every minor error to the whole room and to my line manager is bad enough but even more belittling is his refusal to make eye contact and being blanked completely.  It’s impossible to work under someone who won’t communicate with you.

This has been going on for a whole year. Nor has it gone unnoticed.  I have brought it to the attention of senior managers on several occasions and nothing has happened.  Worst of all, I was made to feel it was my fault!

I’ve been told I’m overreacting and that I’m just being oversensitive because I’m depressed.  I’ve been told it’s a personality clash and to practice my communication skills.  I’ve been told to develop a thicker skin and brush things off.  Well I appreciate I can react emotionally where others may be able to keep their composure but I can’t really help being sensitive.  I’ve worked on my assertiveness and had months of therapy but at work things are as bad as ever.  Maybe that’s because I can’t change the behaviour of another person!  I’m realising now that I’m not to blame.  This person’s behaviour towards me is making me feel truly awful.  Whether intentionally or not, if it’s making me feel this inadequate then it’s wrong.

Now I’ve come to this realisation, I’m noticing a shift in my regular outpourings of emotion which I hope could be the start of something positive.  Before, my tears demonstrated my helpless, hopeless state of mind and being.  It was pure despair and self hatred.  The latest tears are tinged with anger and frustration.  They’re not leaving me feeling vulnerable but perhaps a little empowered.  Is a glimmer of self esteem starting to shine through?

Finally it’s clear in my head that this is not my fault.  I don’t go to work to be spoken to like this. I don’t deserve this treatment.  Moreover, I can’t go on putting up with it.  Things have to change and if they don’t, I owe it to myself to leave.

I will not stand for being bullied anymore and I will not stay in a job that makes me this unhappy.  I respect myself.

Thoughts on Finishing Therapy

giving up perfect

I feel the urge to micro-plan everything I’m going to do to keep on track in infinite detail.  The thought of  going it alone is daunting and that way, surely, I’ll minimise the chance of failure.

This need to do everything and to do it well is typical of the very thought and behaviour patterns I am trying to change – I recognise this now.  My constant quest for perfection has so far done little but leave me overwhelmed by life, fearing failure and feeling grossly inadequate.  It may have served me well in my studies but not in life.

Throughout the process of seeking help I have hungrily devoured every morsel of information presented by my therapists, keen to know everything, desperate to fix all my problems all at once.  That approach never really worked.  Understanding the principles came fairly easily to me.  The theory of thought challenging was simple – take a negative thought, identify the thinking style, come up with a more positive alternative.  I could do it but I didn’t believe it.

I tried to practice the techniques but they never became automatic. I worked through all the steps and did everything I was told but never felt much better.  Why was it so difficult?  Why couldn’t I do it?  Yet another failure.

This time it’s been a bit different – more of an exploration.  I began to understand my thinking and how it’s been doing me no favours and I realised how core beliefs around never being good enough had sabotaged previous talking therapy.  I’d felt I shouldn’t need help in the first place, so no success was ever enough for me to give myself credit.  Wanting to get well, I collected many useful resources but one of my biggest mistakes was trying to use all of it at once.  And trying to do too much is a big stress-inducing no, especially when depressed. It generally results in not doing anything very well which, in my case, generally makes me feel even more of a failure.

To be successful, any form of therapy needs to be meaningful and relevant to the individual.  You can read the books and do the homework as long as you like but until you discover an idea you really connect with and begin to implement it regularly it’s unlikely much will change.

There may be a lot to be said for ‘doing one thing and doing it well’.  My advice would be to take away your ‘key messages’ and focus on what works best.  Don’t overwhelm yourself – it’s supposed to help not add pressure!

I have to admit that I’m more than a little worried about my sessions coming to an end.  I don’t want to lose my weekly offload and I’ve really valued having someone to talk to openly in a world that can feel so lonely and judgemental.  The mind is vast and it seems that the thoughts in mine could be explored for an eternity!  But I know I can’t cling on forever.  It’s time I found some confidence in my ability to cope.  The person who can help me most now is me.

Overcoming depression is an ongoing process.   I don’t need to fix everything right now.  Problems are a normal part of life so aiming  at perfection is a losing battle. One big change – I no longer have to be perfect.  Just being ok is enough.

It’s a bit of an alien concept but I’ll be keeping my plan as simple as possible.

A Word that ‘SHOULD’ be Banned

Life is often lived according to expectations.  Whether cultural, parental or self-imposed, expectations lead us to place demands on ourselves.

Undoubtedly, living by strongly held beliefs about what we ought to be doing and should be like can be a powerful motivator for success but when expectations become unrealistic, or are incongruous with our true desires, feelings of failure and distress can arise.  From my personal experience with depression, I have come to realise that the demands I place on myself through feeling that I should be doing this or that can be very detrimental to my mental health.

The dreaded ‘shoulds’ plague us perfectionist personality types.  Recently, I have been trying to examine my motivations in life and have made a discovery; most of what I do is guided by the expectations of others (or more accurately, what I think others expect of me).  For a while I have felt trapped in my job.  Why do I keep dragging myself in and slaving away day after day? Because I should be able to cope.  Because I shouldn’t let it get me down.  Because I don’t want to disappoint my parents and because I should try to impress my managers.

Walking away is not something I expect of myself and so I have kept on trying to do what I think I should be doing despite the stress that entails.  What if we stopped caring about others’ expectations and threw out our own?  Imagine the freedom – freedom to just be and to expect nothing but the unexpected.

Noticing the shoulds can be the first step to lowering expectations of perfection and being just a little kinder to yourself.  After a few set backs, I have noticed them creeping in.  I’ve caught myself thinking that ‘I should be able to cope better’. I constantly feel that I ‘should be doing better’ and ‘should be working harder’ but now recognise that what I used to see as driving forces more often lead to feelings of failure.

Ban the word ‘should’ from your vocabulary, it creates nothing but unnecessary pressure.  If something is causing unhappiness you have options. You may feel that you should but is it what’s best for you?  Let your motivation come from the heart not anyone else and be realistic with your expectations for yourself; we are none of us perfect.