gardening for your mental health

Getting old and green: gardening for your mental health

Call me pessimistic, but I think I might be crap at gardening.

Sad, but it’s true. Under my watch, a once-fragrant lavender plant (overwatered) has wilted and died, a grey crumbling rot creeping slowly from its root. My beloved TV-side Chinese Evergreen did not survive a weeklong sojourn in Spain. My mint succumbed to white fly.

I quite literally just forgot to water the coriander. Although I’m not that mad about that. Coriander tastes shit.

But, unlike most things I’m terrible at, I have no desire to sack off gardening all together and call in the plastic pot plants. Because I don’t just garden to make my balcony look instagrammable as fuck – I garden because the simple presence of green, growing things in my home does wonders for my sanity.

I garden because the sight of green leaves sends calmness rippling through me, like the breeze through my newly installed Bamboo plant.

(I’ve read they’re pretty hardy. We’ll see.)

Maybe I’m just getting old, because I certainly never had the urge to garden as a teenager. But now I can’t pass a garden centre without wanting to potter – and that’s find and dandy with me.

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Gardening for your mental health: why we should all be doing it (even if it’s just a houseplant)

A lot of mental health tips revolve around doing things that take energy, like exercise – and we all know that’s easier said than done when you’re in a bad place.

So, here’s a mental health tip that requires minimal effort, money and time: buy a house plant, stick it by your telly, pop it by your bed. Enjoy the strange and tiny positive energy of welcoming a living thing into your home. This (obviously) isn’t really even gardening, so anybody can have a crack.

Don’t believe me? Let’s throw some science at my theory: ‘Patients in hospital rooms with plants and flowers had significantly fewer intakes of postoperative analgesics, more positive physiological responses evidenced by lower systolic blood pressure and heart rate, lower ratings of pain, anxiety, and fatigue, and more positive feelings and higher satisfaction about their rooms when compared with patients in the control group.’  Sign me up.

But if you’ve got a bit more capacity and a teensy bit of outdoor space, even a windowsill, why not give a bit of Actual Gardening a go? It’s not just the end result that soothes a frazzled brain: the actual process of gardening, even if it’s on a small scale, is properly relaxing. It’s a) outdoors, and b) physical. Otherwise known as ‘the things I need the absolute most when my mental health is wobbling’. 

Plus: drifting around a garden centre is fun. Squishing earth beneath your fingers takes you straight back to childhood. And stepping back, dusting your hands off, and immediately seeing something beautiful… if that doesn’t give you a little mood kick, I don’t know what will.

It’s strange, because usually things that I’m shit at stress me out – but with gardening, it doesn’t matter. Even if the end result is a dead delphinium, I usually get to enjoy at least a few weeks. Which is more than enough for me.

(And sometimes, again the odds, my babies make a comeback. I really thought my basil was over, but he’s showing unexpected resilience with some frantic watering. A reassuring metaphor for my life.)

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Top tips for gardening for your mental health

  • Things dying unexpectedly can obviously be a teensy bit stressful, so seek out plants that can take a beating. Take bamboo, for example. Not only does it remind you to stay strong but flexible, it’s also one of the zennest plants going. These chaps are they lovely, leafy and make a deliciously soothing sound when the breeze goes through them. Not all types are evergreen, but most are pretty hardy.
  • Need a pop of colour? Pansies may look delicate, but they’re surprisingly tough little bastards: mine grew with wild abandon and brightened up my herb pots no end. (Until the mint got infected with white fly and it made my skin crawl so much I chucked the lot).
  • No balcony, no problem: houseplants have never been easier, especially since the renaissance of the succulent. If you’re truly clueless there are some amazing delivery services out there like Patch, which take the hassle out of it all, ideal if (like me) you don’t have a car. They even have a dedicated range of almost unkillable plants… Handy.
  • Succulents and cacti are so on trend these days that you can pick them up in Urban Outfitters along with a pair of Mom jeans. But, if you need a budget option, I urgently implore you to head to Homebase. Homebase may not spring to mind if you’re on the hunt for striking designs, but they’ve got some fab geometric pots (see below, all three cost under a tenner) and more cacti than you can shake a prick at – give it a go.
  • Mini herb pots: not only will they brighten up your space with some leafy energy; they’ll also make you feel v. smug and grown up. Why yes, I did make this mint yoghurt fresh this morning.
  • Need green-fingered help? I definitely did, once I bought a load of plants, lost all of their labels, and had no idea what any of them were/what care they needed. So, I bookmarked this handy site for a great visual guide.

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5 things my mother taught me

Whether you’ve spent the last week in a state of royal-wedding mania or hate the institution and all it stands for, one thing we can all agree on is that Meghan Markle’s mum, Doria, seems like a total boss.

Weddings are a funny thing for people who (for whatever reason) are lacking a parent. I’m not ashamed to admit I cried at Meghan’s solo entry into the church; I find it hard to think that if anyone’s ever brave/foolish enough to marry me, my Dad won’t be walking me down the aisle.

But what made me smile the most (after Michael Curry’s jazzy sermon) were the images of Doria. Markle has described Doria as her rock, and has obviously learnt plenty from her in life. It’s a feeling I know well; my own Mum didn’t just save my life when I was really ill. She’s also inspired me, supported me, and taught me valuable life lessons every single day of my 25 years on this planet.

My Mum is a trooper: a foul mouthed, gin-guzzling, chain-smoking, adventure-seeking and endlessly loving hero. I mean, her nickname is ‘Filthy Anne’, so that speaks for itself.

In honour of all the ladies looking after their kids without any support, for whatever reason, here’s the five of the most valuable things my mother taught me. All of these things are good to bear in mind if you have anxiety, but they’re also solid if you just want some serious #strongwomen inspo.

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Get the worst out the way 

If you’ve got a list of jobs or even just one unpleasant task, don’t delay: get the worst out of the way as soon as you can. This is actually solid productivity advice in general, but it’s especially true if you’re anxious.  Getting it over and done with means you won’t spend the day tying yourself up in knots thinking about whatever horrible task you’re facing.

There’s no limit to how many times you can bounce back 

My mum has been through some serious shit, but somehow she always overcomes it. Watching her bounce back from setback after setback and still crack on with the joy of living has been one of the biggest inspirations of my life, and whenever I’m feeling rough, I think of the happiness she manages to create despite all the losses she’s experienced.

Don’t worry worry until worry worries you

Admittedly I do a terrible job of putting this one into practice, but this isn’t just a tongue twister: it’s a solid mantra for the anxious brain. Worrying about things that have actually happened is one thing. We all have problems in life, and we often need to face these problems head on. But really, life’s much easier when you only stress about things that have already taken place, not vague possibilities on the distant horizon.

You can’t always be nice…

Obviously, this is a blog called ‘Nicer Thoughts’, so you might think I’d be quite a firm proponent of being nice. But sometimes, trying to be too nice can blend into being a pushover, and this can lead to a whole heap of anxiety. We worry too much about what people think, about making a fuss, about smoothing over awkward moments. I know I’ve definitely caused myself anxiety at times by not being upfront enough about my thoughts and feelings.

My mum, on the other hand, isn’t shy about coming forward: she’s ballsy, blunt, and can kick off like nobody’s business when she’s being fucked around or treated badly. It’s equal parts inspiring and terrifying to watch. And it’s a seriously important skill to have in life’s more serious times: when my Dad was dying of cancer, my Mum fought tooth and nail to ensure he got the help and care he needed, because it unfortunately wasn’t always forthcoming.

but you can always be kind.  

‘Nice’ and ‘kind’ are two different things, and whilst she isn’t always sweetness and light, my Mum has always shown me the incomparable value of being kind. Time and time again, I’ve watched her go out of her way to help people when it was in her power. Even if she got nothing out of it, or they didn’t deserve it, or it was a huge pain in the ass.

Sorry to keep jawing on about the Royal Wedding, but Meghan had it right when she said of her future husband: ‘If he wasn’t kind I didn’t really see there was any point.” If you can only try to be one thing, try to be kind. You don’t have to be an angel. My Mum isn’t, and I’m certainly not: we can both be grumpy sods with short tongues. But even within that, I always try to follow my Mum’s example and be kind, because kindness makes up for a lot.

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I’M RUNNING TOUGH MUDDER FOR MIND CHARITY – WANT TO DONATE?

Head to my Virgin Money Giving if you’d like to donate. 

If you’ve enjoyed Nicer Thoughts at any point over the last eight months, please consider donating, even if it’s just a £1 (or $!). It takes a lot of effort and energy to keep a blog running on top of full time work. I do it for the love of it, and I hope it helps people – but I’d love to help people with cold hard cash even more!

Goodbye Seasonal Affective Disorder, hello Spring

Long before I had serious trouble with my mental health, I became aware how badly the seasons affected my mood. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a genuine pain in the butt: the second the clocks go back, I’m exhausted, mopey, and more prone to anxiety.

Fortunately, the opposite is also true. Much as I hate to lose an hour of sleep, the clocks going forward is one of the highlights of my year, because I know that lighter, brighter days (and a lighter, brighter Nic) are on the way.

Of course, you can’t rely on the English weather to boost your mood—so I’ve celebrated today with a trip to the Columbia Road Flower Market, not to mention spending the weekend with some of my favourite people in the entire world. All in all, I’m feeling good about life—but if you’re still waiting for the sunshine to kick in with its mood-boosting effects, I’ve got a few tips below to help kick the Seasonal Affective Disorder blues.

  • If you’re at work most of the day, it can be all too easy to get minimal genuine sunlight. Make a serious effort to get outside at lunch, even if it’s raining. I’m really naughty for this because I hate being cold, but even a twenty-minute walk in the middle of the day can help.
  • A Seasonal Affective Disorder light box can also be a valuable investment. They’re not for everybody—some people find the brightness a bit headache inducing—but I find if I use mine religiously it improves my energy, mood and concentration. I’ve got the Lumie Arabica, which blasts out 10,000 lux at 25cm. Apparently the natural wake-up bodylights are good, too.
  • Take your vitamins! Vitamin D is key (no euphemism intended, although: you do do). I feel like a different person after a month of taking them religiously, particularly in terms of my energy levels. (DLux Vitamin D+K2 Oral Spray, Vitabiotic Health, Vitality and Wellbeing, and Vitabotiocs Feroglobin, if you’re interested.)
  • Expose yourself to something lovely. Whether it’s an art gallery, a flower market or a day trip to the seaside, a beautiful vista may not have a scientifically quantifiable effect on your brain—but it’s sure to boost your mood, particularly if you do it in some good company.

And of course, if all else fails: book a cheap flight and get yourself some blue skies! Let me know if the comments if you have any other tips, and in the meantime, fingers crossed for sunny days ahead.

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best apps for mental health

Finding ‘appiness: the best apps for mental health

In many respects, our phones are awful for our mental health. Whether it’s sliding mindlessly through Instagram (comparing our not-so-perfect lives) or scrolling through a barrage of negativity on Twitter, there’s plenty of misery-making potential. But to give technology its dues, there are plenty of apps out there which can definitely be used to improve our mental health. I’ve rounded up my ‘best apps for mental health’ below—let me know if you have any suggestions in the comments!

Best apps for mental health

  1. Headspace

I can’t rave about Headspace enough. A lot of people find the idea of meditation hard to get on board with; I certainly used to struggle with how it could really help me in managing my day-to-day anxiety. It also took me a long time to find a way of learning to meditate that I really clicked with.

But Headspace, with its playful design and straightforward approach, had me hooked straightaway. Headspace narrator Andy Puddicombe also has the loveliest voice, the most calming presence, and—as an ex Buddhist monk—the zen credentials to match.

So how does it work? Headspace offers a few different options: you can build up your meditation skills with a daily ‘pack’ (e.g., a 30-day managing anxiety pack). Or you can try a ‘single’ relating to the moment of stress you’re experiencing, like ‘Burned Out’ or ‘Falling Back To Sleep’. The app does cost £9.99 a month, but for me it’s definitely worth it—and you can trial the app for free to see if it takes your fancy.

  1. Nike Training Club

img_7228As I’ve said on many occasions: I am a lazy swine and hate exercising, but it’s fundamental to my sanity, so it’s a non-optional part of my mental health maintenance. Nike Training Club is a fab little app if, like me, you’re content to do seven half hearted squats, a few stretches and call it a day.

Like a personal trainer in your pocket, you’ll be guided through the moves both visually and through your headphones. You can filter by intensity, duration, target muscle (glutes, obv) and also by equipment—so even if you don’t have a dumbbell or gym membership to your name, you can still give it a go. Plus: it’s free. Most of the good fitness apps I’ve tried require a monthly subscription, so as best apps for mental health go, this is a thrifty option.

  1. Podcasts

We’re all used to using our phones for music, but it’s only in the last year that I’ve really begun to make the most of my Podcast app. I might be alone in this, but I sometimes find music doesn’t actually help when my mental health is suffering. I am really not above being that crying chick on the tube listening to sad ballads, but I don’t think this does me any favours.

Listening to a Podcast, however, doesn’t trigger me emotionally—but it does help take my mind off things. Whether I’m pissing myself with laughter at ‘My Dad Wrote A Porno’ or expanding my mind with Russel Brand’s ‘Under the Skin’, Podcasts are the ideal way of feeling connected to the world of people and ideas.

  1. Two Dots (…or any other guilty pleasure game)

img_7226Sometimes, you just need to not think, so a mindlessly fun game on your phone can be a lifesaver. Two Dots is your standard addictive formulaic Bejewelled format, but with cooler graphics, a nicer soundtrack, and some indie design credentials that can’t really be argued with.

Some people are really anti mindlessly playing with your phone. This is true if it’s incessant, but I actually think this is a slightly snobby attitude to take: if it takes your mind off your worries, go for it.

So that’s it: my four best apps for mental health, and a good starting point if you’re looking to spend less time on the Gram and more time soothing your frazzled brains. I’m always looking for more suggestions, so comment below if you have any!

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tips for anxiety relief

Tips for anxiety relief: five under £10

When I was writing about self-care last week, I started thinking about how a few too many tips for anxiety relief require a certain amount of cash. (Sadly, I don’t just mean swish candles and nice yoga classes—quality counselling, nourishing food, a gym membership and a relaxing, safe home to live in all cost money. But that’s another post altogether…)

So I’ve pulled together five tips for anxiety relief, which are either free or under £10. It’s not much, but if you’re having a rocky day, consider one of the below—light on your wallet and easy on the mind.

tips for anxiety reliefGet immersed in art

Hit up a (free) art gallery. I feel deeply uncreative when anxiety strikes. It’s nice to be surrounded by the wonderful things other people have made. For me, you can’t beat the Tate Modern: there’s always something whimsical enough to make me smile.

Get rid

If you can’t quite work up to leaving your room, get working on throwing some stuff out! As tips for anxiety relief go, this isn’t the most exciting—but taking an hour to declutter a cupboard or make some space in your wardrobe will give you a sense of achievement. I beat myself up about feeling like a useless toad when I’m anxious, so I like the immediate gratification of a good clear-out. Plus, you might find some good stuff to give to charity—so not only will this not cost you money, but it could help to raise funds for a good cause at the same time.

tips for anxiety relief 2Get ‘appy

Download ‘Headspace’ and listen to a meditation next time you’re feeling anxious—the narrator, Andy Puddicombe, has one of the most relaxing voices I’ve ever heard. Headspace is a beautifully designed little app which brings meditation to the masses: it teaches you the skills of meditation in a straightforward way. You can trial Headspace for free, and then a subscription costs about £9 a month. Worth it, believe me.

Get active

Exercise for anxiety is key, but gyms sadly aren’t free – fortunately, YouTube has gotcho’ back. Just a half hour yoga video is a solid way to release anxiety. I like this quick full body flow by ‘Yoga with Kassandra’. It’s not too taxing, but it’s challenging enough to make you concentrate on your breathing… and when you’re breathing deeply, a calm(er) mind is sure to follow.

Get outside

Go to a park—this biggest park you can find. (Preferably, a park so big you can walk around in it and not see a car for an hour.) If you live in London, I strongly recommend Richmond Park. For just the cost of an overground ticket, you can pretend you’re a million miles away from hectic city life. The UK really does do a top-notch line in public parks, so get on Google maps and find your patch of green to restore your zen.

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selfish self care

In praise of ‘selfish’ self-care: you can’t pour from an empty cup

There are a few bits of mental health advice I like to throw out on a regular basis, such as ‘don’t do drugs if you have crippling anxiety’. But a more widely applicable (I hope) nugget is this: you can’t pour from an empty cup, so prioritise self-care when and where you can.

I don’t know where I read that first phrase, but it’s stuck with me ever since. Even if you don’t have a mental health problem, we should all be reminded that no matter how ‘selfish’ it feels, self-care isn’t optional: it’s an essential act of self-preservation.

Unfortunately, this goes against the grain of modern life. Is it just me, or is there a certain cachet in pushing yourself to the edge nowadays? I regularly feel personally attacked wrong-footed by LinkedIn articles telling me success starts with a 5am wake up call. (Sorry, I know it’s not cool to admit to needing eight hours sleep, but I really do.)

There’s also a certain pride in the ‘I just can’t say no’ mentality. This isn’t a criticism, mind—the people who ‘just can’t say no’ are some of the kindest, most loving and thoughtful people I know. But they’re also usually exhausted and often unhappy, because they don’t put their self-preservation first. In turn, this gets taken out on the people they love, because (it bears repeating): you just can’t pour from an empty cup.

You’d have to be some sort of superhero or saint to have boundless energy for other people’s needs: the big JC turned water into wine, but he couldn’t magic it out of nowhere.

So remember: self-care first, within the realm of being a good human. The world won’t fall apart if you say no. Your friends should support this; if people only love you because you’re at their beck and call, screw them anyway.

So how can you implement self-care?

I’m not here to suggest you go out and buy a £100 candle in the pursuit of self-care. I read a truly excellent article by Amy Jones about the ‘Goopification of self-care’ this week, and saying no is a prime example of self-care that doesn’t involve luxury branded products. Self-care can be as simple as laying down boundaries about what you can deal with. (PS. Read The Pool

For example, I find it exhausting to have intense, emotional conversations over text. This isn’t because I don’t want to help people—in real life, I actually find it quite energising to try and help people with their problems. But I work in an office, staring at screens all day. I can’t get home and have intense WhatsApp sessions. It just makes me feel awful.

So I’ve just started telling people that. ‘I’m sorry if I can’t support you very much over text—I love you and am here for you, so please call me if you need to chat, or we can arrange to meet up.’

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Still hanging out on the sofa with a puppet. Not sorry.

Another example is time alone. I’m an introvert who needs this to recharge. But turning down plans always seems ungrateful (especially given my secret anxiety that everyone hates me and only invites me places under sufferance). I’ve learnt the hard way I need at least one weekend a month where I don’t have plans, and whilst people are occasionally offended when I say I can’t see them because I’m busy doing nothing, nobody has unfriended me yet (I think).

I’m currently on my ‘free weekend’ after a few big weeks of socialising and I feel a million times better after a 10am lie-in, several rounds of toast, and pottering in the flat. I will be a better human tomorrow because of this weekend. This is just who I am as a person. I really, really love hanging out on the sofa. I always have done. Please try it for yourself, if you can. Doing nothing is so underrated.

Go one step further, if you’re feeling brave. Actively call people out if they’re infringing on your self-care. My mum pointed out to me last year that I only ever phoned her to moan, which was draining for her at a time when she was personally struggling. I was briefly offended (in the way people tend to be when they’ve been rightly called out) then realised she had a point—so I’ve tried to adjust my behaviour, and I think our relationship is better for it.

Of course, your self-care will be different depending on your personality. Maybe you need to see people less. Maybe you need to turn down extra stuff at work that you don’t have capacity for. Whatever it is, find it, and don’t be afraid to do it—or rather, don’t do it.

Because you can’t pour from an empty cup. And it isn’t worth trying.

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Art For Anxiety: Creating a Worry Free Mind

Good news, team. The end of January is in sight, and I for one couldn’t be happier. Trying to keep my mental health ticking along smoothly feels like a full-time (and exhausting) occupation in the post-Christmas lull, and I know I’m not the only one who finds it tough.

Fortunately, I’ve had something to look forward to over the last few weeks, and it’s given my mental health an unexpected boost. I didn’t set out resolutions as such in December (apart from Dry January), but I had been making noises for a while about learning a new skill in 2018. Something creative, like an instrument or a life drawing class.

So you can imagine my delight when I was bought a beginner’s pottery course for Christmas (at the fabulous Claytime studio in Finsbury Park). I used to be a reasonably good artist, but I gave it up in my second year of college. Essentially, I was too worried about not getting the grades and sacrificing my university place.

Screen Shot 2018-01-28 at 19.02.27This was probably the sensible choice but it does mean it’s now been the better part of eight years since I really sat down to draw, craft or create anything more than a drunken fancy dress effort. (Although as you can see, my drunken fancy dress efforts were very good.) This makes me sad, because I really loved it, once upon a time. And it’s also a shame because art for anxiety can have really impressive results.

It’s a mixture of factors. For one, it’s hard to worry when you’re working with your hands. The problem with day-to-day living is that we can do it on autopilot, leaving our minds free to fret. When you’re learning a new skill—particularly something creative, which takes a lot of concentration—you’re forced to be present in the moment, thinking only about the techniques you’re learning. You can literally create your way to a worry free mind, even if it’s only temporary.

It’s also a nice way of physically working out your anxieties and tensions. There’s a reason kids like play dough so much: it’s intensely satisfying to spend a few hours squeezing, shaping, and rolling a big hunk of clay. Wheel throwing is even better—just the right balance between mesmerising and frustratingly difficult, requiring concentration levels so intense I wouldn’t have time to worry if I wanted to.

art for anxiety
It’s a bit lumpy, but it’ll do.

Don’t stress if you’re not creatively inclined. My pottery isn’t very good, and I’m probably going to piss my Mum off by trying to offload some to her for Mother’s Day… but I’ve had a nice time doing it, and that’s what counts.

So there’s my mental health tip for the week: get arty, not anxious. Have a search, and see if you can find a way to get creative—because even if you’re not creatively inclined, it’s a bloody good laugh and a nice way to meet people.

It’s given me a sharp reminder how therapeutic I found art, long before I was even troubled by mental health problems. It’s also got me noticing the #arttherapy tag on Instagram—this is something I really want to read more about, so if anybody has any recommendations, please let me know in the comments!

Lots of love,

Nic x

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real kombucha

The best booze-free alternatives for Dry January

As discussed in this recent post, I’ve given up my favourite hobby alcohol for the first month of 2018, finally succumbing to the increasingly popular Dry January trend.

People have mixed views on Dry January, and to be honest, it’s not the sort of thing I’d usually be on board with, preferring moderation over total deprivation.

Sadly, alcohol and anxiety have a funny old relationship. I know people who use alcohol to cover their anxiety, and I know people whose anxiety is massively exacerbated by getting on the sauce. I fall into the latter camp, so I’m aiming to cut down this year to help minimise my alcohol-induced anxiety.

But since I bloody love sitting in the pub and clinking a glass with some pals, I’ve started thinking a lot more about the best low-alcohol or alcohol free drinks. I want to improve my mental health, but I don’t want spent Friday night necking Fanta, so I’ve been on the hunt for some more sophisticated choices.

Fortunately, the options have never been better. And far from the sugary crap you used to be able to get your hands on, some of them are actually pretty damn good for you. The best one I’ve tried recently is Real Kombucha, a fermented tea low in calories and sugar.

dry january 2Royal Flush is my recommendation: brewed from Darjeeling, I could tell you about its notes of rose, vanilla and quince—or I could be honest and tell you how much it looks and tastes like prosecco.

This is a huge win for me, because if we’re being totally honest, one of the hard things about not drinking is feeling like a fun-sponge at the pub. When you’re having a dry night, there’s nothing more annoying than you loving but ultimately sozzled mates ribbing you constantly for staying sober.

Real Kombucha is great in this regard—the guys behind the Booch recommend you serve Royal Flush ice cold in a champagne glass, and I agree. If I ever decide to follow in my mother’s footsteps and have a shotgun wedding six months up the duff, I’ll be toasting my guests with Royal Flush. If you’re more of a cider fan, try Smoke House—I can see myself necking around a campfire, if I was the sort of person who believed in paying to sleep outdoors.

Screen Shot 2018-01-20 at 19.17.47And there are plenty of other great options out there, regardless of what your go-to beverage is. I had the pleasure of trying Seedlip the other day—I recommend the Spice 94 variety. Seedlip has some seriously impressive credentials and is stocked in Selfridges and The Savoy, which tells you all you need to know.

Sadly, I’m yet to try an alcohol-free beer that really floats my boat. Can anybody recommend one? The weather is currently pants, so I’m not missing sunny days in the beer garden too much just yet—but rest assured, I’ll be on the hunt come Spring.

Whatever your usual poison is, alcohol free versions are popping up faster than you can say ‘Booch’. So keep your eyes peeled and give your sober-self a spin–and if you have any recommendations to keep my Dry January fresh, let me know in the comments!

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Gifts of joy: positive thinking and mental health

The veg is peeled, the turkey’s waiting, and the table is set—and as crazy as it seems, Christmas is just hours away. For the first time in a good five years, I’m feeling properly festive and looking forward to celebrating with my family, especially as my sister’s boyfriend’s and his family are joining us for lunch.

But as exciting as the presents under the tree are, I thought now would be a good time to talk about one of my favourite mental-health boosts: the unexpected gifts we all receive on a daily basis.

When you’re down, it’s only too easy to focus on negative stuff that happens, which reinforces your mood. I think most people’s brains are wired that way; I know I often end the day dwelling on some fairly minor crappy event. Believe me, I don’t want this to come across that I think mentally ill people should just ‘cheer up’ and ‘think positive’, because I know that’s often not possible.

mental health at christmas But it is possible to practice this mental health trick. When I’m trying to pick up my mood, I make a conscious mental note of every good thing that happens to me during the day; sometimes I even make a physical list. These little ‘gifts of joy’ are often insignificant, but they’re just one small way you can train your brain to seek out happiness. Sounds cheesy, but it’s true: I now feel like ‘positive thinking’ is a strength of mine, where it used to be anything but.

I tried to come up with 12 gifts of joy (because it’s Christmas, and there’s 12 days of Christmas… or something) but mine are fairly boring, and mainly consist of food/meeting cute dogs. So, I had a whip round the office to round up some of the weird and wonderful joy gifts we all experience on a daily basis. Some are poetic, some are pragmatic—but all of them are a little boost from the universe and a way to increase your positive thoughts.

  1. ‘Unexpectedly good sunsets in the midst of a grey and dreary winter.’
  2. ‘When you wake up before your alarm goes off.’
  3. ‘Getting a seat on the tube/bus/train. A cliché for a reason. Likewise: getting to the platform just as the train/tube arrives.’ (Editor’s note: there’s a set of traffic lights just outside my tube stop that takes ages to change. When I get off the tube just as the lights turn green and get to saunter across without missing a beat, it gives me way too much joy.)
  4. ‘When I get to the gym and the smith machine is free.’
  5. ‘When work has my favourite porridge and almond milk in stock for breakfast.’
  6. ‘When someone’s eating something delicious, and they get full and offer you the remainders.’
  7. ‘When you’re buying a baguette from the bakery and the person behind the counter gives you the most filled, juiciest looking one.’
  8. ‘When you get home late and think you’ve run out of makeup wipes, and then discover you’ve got one
  9. ‘Unexpectedly seeing dogs: especially if they sit next to you on public transport, and the owner is happy for you to pet them.’ (Ed: this was mine, but other people backed it up.)
  10. ‘When your overdraft is at bursting point and you risk it anyway and your card doesn’t get declined. Winning.’
  11. ‘Turning on the radio just as your favourite song comes on.’
  12. ‘When my favourite toilet at work is free.’ (Ed: fair.)

nicer thoughts Give this form of positive thinking a go next time you’re having a crap day—physically make a list of every good thing that happens, no matter how insignificant. I’d love to hear about the weird things that make you guys happy, so let me know in the comments!

And now, go off and enjoy your festivities in whatever way brings you the most joy. Merry Christmas, and lots of love to everybody who has read, commented on or shared my blog this year.

And if you want to get me a last minute present… please scroll down to subscribe and be kept up to date with all my posts!xox

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When Christmas sends you crackers: mental health in the festive season

As a merry voice on the radio is currently reminding me at least once an hour, it’s the most wonderful time of the year—but as anybody with mental health problems knows, the month of December can be anything but.

I used to love Christmas. But after losing my Dad and experiencing severe anxiety and depression several years ago, the season hasn’t just lost it’s magic… it often makes me feel actively worse.

mental health at christmas 2
I also apparently used to look like Michael McIntyre, but that’s not the point.

As the excitement ramps up, so do the mental health triggers. If you have issues with food and body image, the endless parade of festive feasting is a nightmare. If money is a big source of your anxiety, the pressure is ramped up even more. If you’re suffering because you’ve lost someone you love in the last year, the whole thing feels almost offensively pointless—no present in the world can plug that gap.

And all of this is sharpened by the expectations of happiness. The general environment doesn’t help; long, dark days and terrible weather are a killer if your mental health is fragile—and this is made all the worse if you feel like everyone around you is having fun, fun, fun. It’s sad to say, but Christmas can be a truly lonely and difficult time.

Just to really push you over the edge, there are emotional booby traps everywhere. Christmas TV adverts destroy me: I can’t even talk about the BBC father-daughter animation without welling up. As I found to my embarrassment at work. Oops.

Unfortunately, short of hibernating, it’s hard to avoid the whole shebang. It’s been three years since I lost my Dad and simultaneously lost my shit—here’s what I’ve learnt about dealing with Christmas along the way.

Treat yourself first – the rest can follow

treat yoself

It’s a time of giving, but remember you can’t pour from an empty cup. Take time out from the madness for self-care, quiet reflection, a hot drink on a busy day of shopping—whatever you need. A bonus tip: if Christmas is hard because you’re grieving, make the most of an awful situation and splash the cash you would have spent on them, on something nice for yourself. (Shallow? Yes. Do I care? No.)

People not presents

In a completely contradictory bit of advice: focus on people not presents. Make the time for your loved ones; it seems like effort sometimes, but you’ll feel better after. And don’t be afraid to open up. When everyone’s caught up in the Christmas hype, I often worry I’m being a party pooper. But really, there’s a lot of good people out there—and once you start admitting that you’re struggling, you’ll be amazed how many people fess up to their own private struggles. If you can’t believe in the magic of Christmas, believe in the magic capacity of people to give you the support and love you deserve. You might just be surprised.

Sack it off

Remember you aren’t obliged to engage in the whole shebang. It doesn’t make you a Scrooge or a bad person. Let’s be real: the whole thing’s a horrendous capitalist ploy. If Christmas makes you feel awful, bin it off wherever you can. In the words of a wise and sassy colleague, ‘TURN OFF THE MUSIC AND THROW AWAY THE JUMPER!’

Change it up

christmas in australia

And finally, if you can’t avoid it, and you can’t make it better… make it different. Do whatever version of Christmas you think will bring you the most peace, whether that’s sacking off the work Christmas party or refusing to stress yourself out with Christmas dinner, a la Caitlin Moran. The best Christmas I’ve ever spent, mental-health wise, was pissed up in a swimming pool in northern Australia. It was so different, I didn’t have time to dwell on my sadness. There were no presents, social pressures, or expectations—and the only mass consumerism was a mass consumerism of tinnies. Win.

So there you have it—a rushed post this week (I’ve been away and am now dying of a cold so struggling with my to-do list) but hopefully one which resonates with at least a few people. I’d love to hear how you all cope with the difficulties of the festive period—let me know in the comments, and good luck with the rest of the month!

Nic x