Mental health 101

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, as a counsellor  with over 12 years experience of working in mental health and social care, it is that mental health is a very difficult subject. The stigma in society is still very noticeable and people who suffer with mental health conditions don’t always receive the same understanding and recognition as people who suffer from physical ailments. Old values and misconceptions still underpin individual’s as well as the media’s understanding, which casts an even greater shadow on those who are struggling with their mental health every day.

The truth is that mental health is a spectrum. We all have mental health and like our physical health, it ranges from great to not so great. It can also be fluctuating and confusing. While there definitely are some hereditary and circumstantial factors involved, mental health conditions can affect anyone. 1 in 4 people in Britain experience some kind of mental health condition in any one year.

Many people are reluctant to seek help, as they are afraid of ending up in “the system”, being diagnosed and given an unhelpful label or end up on medication, which can be addictive and difficult to come off.

However, there are other ways to manage mental health. There is no one size fits all and usually people find a combination of things can help support them in their recovery:

  • Talk about your feelingsMost people have unprocessed feelings and experiences from the past. These feelings can be incredibly painful and our instinct is to try to avoid them. However, these painful feelings are unlikely to go away until they have been expressed and processed. Talking about them with a professional or a friend can help you come to terms with your past, recognise how you have been shaped by it and find the best ways to support yourself now.
  • Look after yourself. We all know by now that our bodies and minds are a connected, complicated system. In order to experience optimal health we need to look after ourselves on every level. This includes obvious things like diet, exercise, sleep and managing stress levels as well as more intangible things like hobbies, daily habits and connections with others. I have worked with people who have created their own unique treatments plans, which included things like getting a cat, joining a hill-walking group, taking particular supplements, wearing bright coloured clothes, swimming in the sea, travelling to other countries, taking a nap every day, volunteering, avoiding loud places and doing stand up comedy. Only you can work out what is best for you.
  • Change your inner dialogue. Your inner dialogue is how you talk to yourself. Most of us have a habit of criticising and talking down to ourselves in a way we would never dream of doing to anyone else. This inner critic is a bit like a bully who is constantly putting us down and undermining our efforts. Part of my work with individuals is about challenging this critical voice and finding a more supportive and loving one. Unsurprisingly this has a major impact on a persons self-esteem, confidence and mood.
  • Distract yourself. Sometimes living with a mental health condition can feel like being a prisoner of your own thoughts. Ruminating about the past or dreading the future doesn’t help and sometimes it can paralyse you in the moment. In these moments, however difficult it seems, it is important to just do something, anything to break out of the cycle of thinking. Put your shoes on and get out for a walk, pick up the phone and call a friend or watch a funny program on TV. Whatever you do, give your mind a rest so that you can gain some perspective and return to your problems with a fresh view.

If you would like some support with your mental health, please contact me for a confidential counselling appointment.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the collective term used to describe those moments where we slow down enough to notice what is going on. It is switching from autopilot to awareness, from stress to calm, from passively being swept along to actively creating our lives.

As a society we are increasingly busy and more and more health professionals are recognising the negative effects of this stress on our bodies. When we are busy, stressed and on the go, we are constantly flooding our systems with stress hormones. These hormones change the way our bodies operate long-term and can cause many health conditions, such as IBS, chronic fatigue, depression and anxiety. The increase of many of these conditions are putting a strain on the national health service. The evidence is stacking up and there is a clear message here: we were not meant to live like this.

If stress and “busy-ness” are the ailments of our time – mindfulness is the cure. There are many myths and misconceptions about mindfulness that might put people off, but the truth is that it can be practised by anyone, anywhere. It doesn’t require any kind of equipment, beliefs or skills. All you need to learn is how to slow down your thoughts and pay attention to the present moment.

There are two kinds of practice: active and passive. Active practice is when you deliberately sit down, switch your phone off and decide to do nothing for a number of minutes. It could be for as little as 5 minutes, or maybe 20 minutes or an hour if you have more time. You could focus on your breath, watch the steam rising from your cup of tea or listen to a guided mediation, whatever you like.

Passive practice is when you become mindful in everyday life. Everyone has had moments like this, when you suddenly feel alive, aware of your surroundings and inner feelings. This can often be triggered by being in a beautiful place in nature, or in a heightened emotional state, for example when falling in love or even during extreme distress. These moments can be accidental at first, but the more we practice mindfulness actively, the more we have the ability to choose to be mindful in our every day lives.

If you have tried mindfulness and feel like it’s just too difficult, you’re probably doing it right! When you start to become aware of your mind and its activity it can be discouraging, as it seems impossible to switch off even for a moment. This is mindfulness. It is not about switching off, it is about noticing. Noticing the (often pointless) activity of the mind, as well as our attitudes towards it. That’s all there is to it.

For something so simple, it can be very difficult to do. If you are keen to try mindfulness, here are some tips to support you as you get you started:

  • Build a routine. Decide when and where you are going to practice, put it in your diary and set an alarm on your phone. The busy mind will resist your efforts at first and might come up with all kinds of reasons why you can’t do it, or why you should do it later. In the beginning it might help to attend a class and practice with other people. Having a structured session to go to makes it easier to commit and stick to it.
  • Find a practice that suits you. Because we’re all different, we all have a natural suitability for different practices. In my classes I introduce different styles and techniques, to help you find the one(s) that work for you. If you are a visual person, you might prefer a visualisation mediation. If you are more auditory or musical, you might like to listen to natural sounds or music. If you are a “doer” you might prefer something physical, like a walking meditation. When you find a practice that you like, stick to it. Don’t try to force yourself to do a practice that doesn’t suit your personality, it is difficult enough as it is.
  • Don’t be hard on yourself. Remember that it is a practice. Just do what you can, stick with it and be patient. Start small and gradually build up. It can help to keep a journal to record your progress. Making a note of which practices you’ve tried and how it made you feel can motivate you to keep going, even when you feel like you can’t be bothered.

 

Please contact me for further information about classes and booking

On being a mum

When they say it’s the hardest job in the world they aren’t joking! Raising children is the equivalent of having 2.5 jobs. It is physically demanding, mentally draining, emotionally exhausting and if you’re doing it right, it comes with unbelievable amounts of worry and guilt.

With maternal mental health awareness week coming up I wanted to share some of the strategies for coping that I teach in my workshops:

  • Take care of yourself! This is the first and most important thing. I’m sure you’ve heard the old “put your own oxygen mask on first” analogy, but it really is so important. Because being a parent is such brutally hard work, you need to be in tip top shape to be in with a chance of getting through it. What you eat, how you move, sleep, relax, what you wear and put on your skin all add up to how well you look after yourself. On my day workshops we spend time going through each of these areas to see where we can improve. Because we are all different there is no one answer, but we all need to find the right balance for ourselves.
  • Talk to someone. Whether it is a friend, relative or fellow mum at the play park, it is so important to share how you are feeling if things are getting on top of you. Sometimes even just exchanging a sigh and an eye roll with a fellow parent can help you feel less alone in the struggle. The only thing worse than going through a tough time is going through it alone. If your mood is very low and you are struggling with day to day life, it is important to talk to a professional. Your GP, midwife or health visitor can all help, as can a professional counsellor. Obviously postnatal depression is a medical condition, caused by physiological changes and chemical imbalances in the brain, but I also think that a lot of what gets diagnosed as postnatal depression are natural feelings of loss and isolation as new (and not so new) mothers are trying to adjust to their intense and overwhelming reality. Talking about it is the only way to make sense of your feelings and find the right solutions for you.
  • Don’t try to be perfect. Having high standards and expectations of yourself as a parent is ultimately a good thing – it means you care and want what’s best for your child(ren). But perfection is an impossible goal and striving for it will only make you miserable. Learn to embrace “good enough” by recognising the good things you do. Keeping a daily journal can help you focus on all the positives instead of beating yourself up over any perceived failings.
  • Change your self talk. Think about how you would speak to a mum friend who was having a difficult time, then extend that same kindness to yourself. We are usually our own worst critic and this technique can help change your inner dialogue to a more positive and supportive one.
  • Have fun. Try to think of ways you can have some fun every day, with and without your child(ren). This can give you a break from the seriousness and help lift your mood. Play a silly game, watch a funny program or read one of the many mum-blogs to get a laugh and release some of those feel-good hormones.

 

If you want to know more about my Nourish Day Workshops for mums or individual counselling sessions, please get in touch.

Motivate yourself!

This afternoon, after a very long week and a particularly difficult day, I got home totally exhausted. Feeling sorry for myself and utterly drained all I wanted to do was slump on the sofa.

But instead I grabbed my trainers, some Swedish hip hop and went for a run (by run I mean slow 5k jog – just to be clear). After only 2 songs my phone died and then it was just me, alone with my own thoughts, listening to sound of my breath and the songs of the birds, feeling my steps on the path. Mindfulness in action!

Needless to say, now I feel epic!

So, why am I sharing this? It’s not to be smug (even though I obviously am a little bit). It’s to motivate my future self. If you are someone who exercises regularly, you probably know the magic, mood-boosting qualities of those endorphins. But if, like me, you sometimes struggle to make that life affirming choice and end up giving in to old habits, this is a brilliant motivational tool for you:

Write a note from your post-workout self to your pre-workout self, detailing just how great you feel after your session. Be clear, be specific, make it vivid. Write about how alive you feel with all those endorphins flooding your system, how proud you are of your achievement, how much you’ve enjoyed yourself, or whatever you feel. Take a picture if you like, to capture that feeling. Then place it somewhere where you can see it the next time you are trying to make yourself stick to your fitness goals. Take it from yourself – you are going to feel so much better when you make that effort.

Try it – it works!

If you could do with some more support and motivation to create a healthier lifestyle, contact me to book some private counselling sessions.

Wedding stress SOS

With wedding season upon us I thought I’d take the time to address this very common issue. When you ask someone how they are feeling in the run up to their wedding, “stressed” is probably one of the most common answers.

Popular culture often belittles the feelings of brides with unhelpful stereotypes but the truth is that getting married is on the top ten list of stressful life events, along with losing a loved one, moving house and changing jobs.

So why is it that brides (and grooms) get so stressed about their big day?

First of all, have you ever planned a dinner party, a weekend away or a holiday for more than one person? Then you know the pressure of trying to get it right for everyone. So, imagine planning a dinner party for around 100+ people! Some or all of them might need to travel and stay overnight at the venue or nearby. Some of them might have dietary requirements, mobility issues, children who need entertained and with the complexities of modern families, some guests may need to be seated at separate tables.

Then add to this the fact that you, as the person who is getting married, are entering in to a legal agreement with your partner. This is a huge step and life decision, not to be taken lightly. However much you love your partner and no matter how sure you are that marriage is the right thing for you, it is normal to have some thoughts like “what if…”

Also, (and this is a big one!) there is a very public element to the wedding ceremony itself, which most people are not used to. I mean, how often do you stand up in front of all your family and friends and speak about your innermost feelings for all to hear? How often do you walk into a room where everyone stops, stands up and watches you as you enter? Add to that the expectation for brides to glow and be the most stunningly beautiful they have ever been in their life… No pressure then!

As a wedding celebrant I often work with people who are overcome with stress about their big day. This makes me sad, as it is supposed to be one of the happiest days in your life. And of course it will be, if you let it.

So what can you do to  reduce the stress and calm those wedding nerves? Here are some ideas that I use to help couples:

  • Remember that it’s about YOU! Don’t let your fear of what other people will think stress you out and lose sight of the true purpose of your wedding – to make a commitment to the one you love in a way that feels right for you. I help couples create their own ceremony exactly as they want it, using any words or traditions that are important to them, whilst still honouring family members traditions.
  • Remember that everyone at your wedding is there because they love and support you. They are not there to nitpick about what flowers you have chosen. They are there because they want to share your happiness and support your life decision.
  • Plan, plan, plan! It may seem time consuming, but planning out every detail will help you feel calm and make sure things run smoothly on the day. When I help people create their ceremony i write it out for them to edit until they are completely happy. They can then read it as many times as they like, so that they are familiar with what will happen on the day. This also applies to anyone who is contributing to the ceremony, like a family member doing a reading or the best man bringing the rings. It also helps to plan out who is going to bring what to the venue, when and where everyone will be before, during and after the ceremony. Being prepared will help you feel in control.
  • Consider learning some mindfulness stress reduction techniques that you can use in the lead up to your wedding. Some simple breathing exercises and visualisations can help you mentally prepare for the day and keep stress at bay. It is also invaluable for the last few minutes before entering the wedding ceremony, when even the most laid back of brides usually get butterflies! I offer a mindfulness for brides workshop, teaching a variety or techniques that you can practice at home. I also offer a special relaxation session before the wedding, for  my brides and bridal parties, to ensure everyone is calm when walking down the isle.

 

Please contact me for further information and bookings