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

Cutting the crap: positive talk for your mental health

It’s been a busy few days, so I’ll keep it short and salty. This week I want to talk about something I think is essential for good mental health: cutting the crap when it comes to self-talk.

What is self-talk? Any words you say about yourself, essentially. I’ve really noticed recently how frequently people run themselves down. In the workplace, amongst friends—I constantly see people talking negatively about themselves. There’s a sliding scale of this, from rejecting compliments to actively slating themselves.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m British, I know it’s Not The Done Thing to big yourself up. But there’s a difference between comical self-deprecation and constant critique. It’s time we reassessed, for two key reasons:

  1. It’s damaging to your mental health. You know how it’s hard to rub your belly and pat your head simultaneously? It’s also tricky to have a genuinely positive mind-set when you’re constantly spewing negativity about yourself.
  2. It’s fundamentally unfair to other people. The example I see most often is fatness; I regularly witness women (myself included, though I try not to, now) talk constantly about their loathing for their bodies. How fat they are, how grotesque. I have real sympathy for this; I know how paralysing body dysmorphia is. But if you talk constantly about how fat you are, I can almost promise you you’re upsetting someone else. I see size eight women calling themselves disgusting, in front of women who are double their size. And what does that reassert? I’m not good enough, and you aren’t either.

Of course it’s not intentional. Again, I am compassionate, but increasingly, I’m incredulous. You’re not just tearing yourself down—you’re tearing down the people around you.

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Believe me, I know how it feels to have poor self image. But (revolutionary thought, I know) if you have poor self image… you don’t always have to have it. And you sure as hell don’t have to reinforce it in your own mind by talking about it every twenty minutes.

So, rant over—and on to the positive. What steps can we take to cut the negative crap and talk about ourselves more kindly?

  1. First, learn to accept compliments instead of rebuffing them. This week, I overheard my yoga teacher compliment somebody’s hair. This girl was rocking a straight Pocahontas do, alongside some pretty flawless downward dogs. No word of a lie, she replied by saying ‘oh no, it’s awful, I need to get it cut!’ Can’t we just… accept it, when someone says something nice? Is it that hard?
  2. Next, train yourself to cut the crap. Every time you go to speak negatively about yourself, force yourself to stop, crumple up the words and throw them in your mind-bin. Self-love and good mental health are more likely to come when you stop spouting a never-ending ream of shit about yourself.
  3. Finally (and I appreciate the difficulty of this for all of my fellow Brits)… learn to compliment yourself. Own your brilliance. Last week at work, we were shooting the shit on a Friday afternoon, asking each other deep life questions. ‘What’s your favourite thing about yourself?’ I asked. The appalled silence that followed, and the hesitancy of the answers that followed, speaks volumes about how incapable we are of owning even one really good thing about ourselves. And this is sad, because this was a group of women that I think are truly fantastic humans.

None of this is easy, but it is important. But people will think I’m arrogant! Yes, they might. But do you actually want to be friends with people who think you’re arrogant because you don’t talk shit about yourself constantly?

For your happiness’ sake, I hope not.

Love Nic x

*Note: this doesn’t mean I think nobody should talk about feeling crappy. When my mental health was at its lowest, I needed to talk often and at length about a lot of negative stuff. Your feelings are valid. But there’s a difference between discussing your feelings and slating yourself relentlessly. A good litmus test is this: if you say something negative about yourself, imagine how you would feel if you overheard somebody say that about your mum. ‘My mum is having a really tough mental health day and feels awful about herself’: fine. ‘My mum is a fat, useless waste of space’: not so good.

Keep on movin’: exercise for anxiety

The year is 1999. Companies around the globe are plagued by fear of the millennium bug. The Phantom Menace has just been released, subjecting eager cinema-goers to whatever the hell ‘Jar Jar Binks’ is meant to be. The world’s population has exceeded 6 billion for the first time.

5ive_-_Invincible.jpegBut amidst all the carnage, ‘Five’, a dedicated quintet of hip-popping young vocalists have just released the track which not only became the 16th biggest selling boy band single of all time, but also the best piece of advice I can give anyone suffering with moderate anxiety: Keep on movin’.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it took me a disturbingly long time to truly cotton on to the link between moving my body and caring for my mind.

Some background on me: I am a cheerfully lazy sort by nature. A big fan of cheese, and wine, and getting public transport everywhere over a ten minute walk away. I never enjoyed sport or exercise as a teenager. If anything, I regarded it as a punishment—a thing I had to do to make myself skinnier (but that’s another post altogether).

Until, that was, my anxiety led to my mental health hitting rock bottom. I had lost a lot of weight, and no longer felt motivated to exercise to fit into a smaller size. For the first time, in desperation, I flirted with the idea that exercise might just be good for my mental health.

Now, I had the approximate strength of a kitten and the endurance of a nervous 17 year old boy. But when I finally got out the door, to jog-shuffle-splutter my way around the block, it helped to clear some of the anxious fog in my mind.

I didn’t go in hard on the fitness. I did drop out of my PhD and get a physically demanding job, so I was sort of fit without thinking about it—and also taking a shedload of sertraline, so it was difficult to pinpoint the blame. I then went on a seven-month adventure around the world where I walked so many miles every day I could barely stretch my legs out—so again, I was fit without really thinking about it.

It was only when I came home from travelling and got a desk job that I started to feel really quite anxious again. And I’d been healthy for a while, so I put this down to the stress of trying to start an adult career. It all came together surprisingly quickly, actually; I got a good job that I enjoyed, made friends, found a flat. But I still felt anxious, and couldn’t identify why. Maybe this is just who you are, a voice said. Maybe you’ll always be this way.

Even then, I didn’t quite click. I started exercising purely because, in a fit of insanity, I signed up to do Tough Mudder with work. Having not been to a gym in over a year, I was very sceptical about how this would go down.

It was bloody hard. I couldn’t walk for three days after my first session, having gone in slightly too enthusiastically.

22292073_10155124123726553_470448784_nSo. I walked until I could jog. Jogged until I could run. Then I wanted to build my strength, so I started lifting. Lifted until I could lift more. Lifted until I could haul somebody else’s body over a 10 foot wall during a muddy obstacle course. And then I flew for a week on the giddy adrenaline of what my body could do.

And throughout this time… not one bad mental health day. It was like a magic pill. I remember thinking, could this really be it? Is exercise the way to keep my anxiety at bay?

Turns out, the answer is yes. One of my biggest mental health problems has been that my anxiety leads to a strong sense of ‘detachment’: I struggle to feel emotions, and have a disconcerting sense that I’m a visitor in my own body. My mind, body, and reality are all disconnected.

Exercise aligns the three: it’s almost like focusing a camera. When I’m ill, my mind is foggy. Exercise endorphins sharpen my worldview, and help me get my body and my mind in tune.

I’m finding the only way to keep at it (I have fallen off the fitness wagon more times than I care to admit) is to treat exercise like you would a counselling session, or even taking your medication. Exercise is an input, and the output is better mental health.

As I said, I’ve never been an exercise fan. Full disclosure, I still don’t love it now, but I love how it makes me feel less batshit. So I’m sucking it up and trying to make it fun. There are many ways to move your body in a joyful way, not slaving away in a gym: ten minutes of slut dropping in your bedroom is as good a start as any.

And don’t beat yourself up about it, on the days when it doesn’t go to plan. Some days I clock-watch every second of my body pump class. Some days I run for two minutes and then sidle home because I just can’t be arsed. Some days, I cancel Burn 360 and slink off to the pub, because having a pint with people who make my stomach hurt with laughter is also excellent for my mental health. Consistency really is the key—just two or three times a week, find the time to raise your heart rate, release some endorphins, and see if you notice a reduction in your anxiety afterwards.

I plan to write more posts about how exactly to get started; including top tips for free or very cheap exercises. So watch this space, and let me know in the comments what your experience of anxiety and exercise are.

And in the meantime? Keep on movin’.

Love Nic x

4 Books for a bad day

Last week—for the first time in a good six months—I had a few bad anxiety days. (Realistically, this was brought on by an excess of booze during my holiday to Morocco, so erm… potentially my fault). To pick myself up, I decided to indulge in a spot of bibliotherapy.  The following are my favourite 4 books to read on a bad day—all very different, but all with something important to offer.

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

books for a bad day 4

“Depression is also… smaller than you. Always, it is smaller than you, even when it feels vast. It operates within you; you do not operate within it. It may be a dark cloud passing across the sky, but—if that is the metaphor—you are the sky. You were there before it. And the cloud can’t exist without the sky, but the sky can exist without the cloud.”

Part memoir, part guide to a life well lived, Reasons to Stay Alive is exactly what it says on the tin. If you’ve ever suffered from anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts, I implore you to buy a copy, find a scenic bench, and dive in.

I read this book at the lowest point of my life. My memories of that time are foggy, but I can clearly remember feeling breathless at how succinctly Haig described exactly what I was experiencing. Frankly, this isn’t just a book for people suffering – I’d advise buying this as a gift for your loved ones, if you want to help them understand how anxiety feels.

Read when… you’re at a low point and need to be reminded: things will get better.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

Frankl was a Jewish psychologist, working in Vienna before the outbreak of World War 2. His background provided a unique lens through which to experience the horrors of Auschwitz. With the keen eye of a trained professional, Frankl carefully noted the behaviours and outlooks of his fellow prisoners.

Man’s Search for Meaning details both his experiences in the camps and his psychological findings. In particular, Frankl focuses on how to find meaning in the most horrific circumstances. One of his most interesting observations is that those prisoners who strove to comfort others were the ones who survived the longest.

But there are many other lessons to be learnt from this beautiful book. My most important takeaway is probably the idea explored in the quote above—that regardless of your situation, your attitude will always be a freedom nobody can take from you.

Read when… you’re looking for perspective, wisdom and inspiration. A friend sent me this shortly after my Dad died, along with a bumper crop of malteser chocolate bunnies (win).  At that moment, it was the most perfect gift I could have received.

Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon

4 book for a bad day“It’s as if I think mental illness is something I might grow out of, like puppy fat or having an imaginary friend. I want to shake my thirty-year-old self by the shoulders and say, ‘No, Bryony! OCD is not an imaginary friend. It is a very real enemy, and very real enemies do not just disappear if you ignore them, you blithering IDIOT!”

Journalist Bryony Gordon chronicled her hedonistic twenties in The Wrong Knickers, but in Mad Girl, she details an altogether more agonising reality: the debilitating onset of OCD, anxiety, bulimia and depression.

Admittedly, it doesn’t sound like the most uplifting read—but Gordon writes with such honesty, dark humour and general effervescence that I alternated smiles with tears on almost every chapter.

Gordon also illustrates a Very Important Point: someone going through a mental health crisis isn’t always… obvious about it. Your colleague/daughter/friend might be presenting to the world as a successful journalist with party-girl sparkle, but the reality is often very different.

Gordon’s style probably isn’t for everybody—but then, I’m a huge fan of a) being upfront about my mental health and b) joking about sex. By all accounts, so is Gordon, so five stars from me.

Also: check out her organisation, Mental Health Mates. It’s a fab idea.

Read when… you need something to put a smile on your face. Gordon’s writing is the literary equivalent of having a Thursday night drink with your most entertaining pal.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Like the book itself, I’ll keep this one short. The Little Prince is poignant, wise, and utterly joyful.

But ultimately, this choice is less about the book’s content and more about the place this childhood classic holds in my heart. I think most of us have a book like this. If you’re having a bad day, dust off a copy of whatever your childhood/teenage favourite was, make a hot drink, and lose yourself in an old friend.

Read when… the adult world is too much to bear.

Thanks for reading – let me know in the comments what your go-to bad day book is.

Nic x

So you had a bad day: 5 tips for bouncing back 

What ever happened to Daniel Powter? ‘Bad Day’ was a bop. But unlike the eponymous 2005 classic, nobody likes a bad day. And if you’ve suffered from mental health problems, the setback of a bad day can feel like a world-ending calamity.

They take on an ominous quality—not like a ‘I’ve missed my bus and spilt coffee down my top’ bad day. They can feel world-ending. Some can be predicted—I know I usually feel fairly crap on certain significant dates. Some come out of the blue, which is almost worst. One of the hardest things to come to terms with is knowing that, unfortunately, they’re likely to crop up throughout the rest of my life. This is incredibly annoying, as I’d like to be able to say I used to have anxiety, put a tick next to it and move on with my life. But sadly not.

Whether you’re suffering/recovering from anxiety or depression, or are just a human being living a life, there’s always going to be bad days. In my experience, you can’t outrun them—but you can sometimes manage them.

5 tips for a bad day

1. Touch things! This sounds a bit weird, but one of the side effects of my own anxiety is feeling a bit… unreal. Like I’m not quite connected to the world around me. (This is called derealization and is a THING). A solid way to counter this is to touch things, preferably something living, although a great fluffy blanket is also a solid shout. People are good, dogs are better. I’m allergic to cats so I can’t confirm on that front. Whether it’s a hug, a squeeze of a hand, or even just physical proximity to another living thing, I find physical touch to be really grounding—it brings me ‘back into reality’.

‘But what if I haven’t got anyone to touch?’ I hear you say – and I feel you on this one. I lived alone for about a year and a half, and it was during this period that I was seriously unwell, and pretty lonely to boot. I was advised to ‘touch myself’. Not like that – (although: live your life). Squeeze your fingers, run your palms over your arms. I find it weirdly soothing to make a deep pressure on my palms. Give it a go!

2. My PhD supervisor always used to beg me: please, be kind to yourself. This is key advice. Do something nice and self-indulgent. If you’re already having a terrible day, don’t beat yourself up further by depriving yourself of things that might bring you pleasure. Get a hot chocolate, buy yourself a treat in your lunchbreak. Leave work on time, and refuse to feel guilty about it. Put your pyjamas (or better yet, your pants) on the radiator and enjoy having a warm butt. Cancel on your gym class and go to the pub with your mates. Cancel on your mates and go to yoga. I don’t condone being selfish all the time, but when you’re having a bad day, just do whatever you know feels good for you.

And if you have a date which you know is triggering for you, book something! On my Dad’s birthday and the anniversary of his death, I like to make sure I’m doing something a bit self-indulgent, preferably with somebody who also knew and loved him. It’s a ginormous help, even if it’s just something small.

3. Leading on from this: food. This brings a whole host of issues, which I’ll discuss another time; ‘comfort eating’ can obviously be a negative thing. But when I was at my most anxious, I couldn’t eat at all—I legit once threw up a spoonful of scrambled eggs back onto my plate in a restaurant. (Gross, sorry).

I wailed to my therapist that I couldn’t eat—even that I was trying to eat good, nourishing food. Turns out, healthy food wasn’t what I needed. I needed ice buns dunked in Earl Grey, and plenty of them. This weird diet slowly got my stomach used to food again, so I was able to start eating broccoli and all that other good stuff again. In my opinion, if you’re having a horrible day, treating yourself to something yummy and not beating yourself up for it is a win-win.

I repeat: do not beat yourself up. Don’t even allow yourself to say the negative words, ‘I’m being bad today’. Food does not have a moral quality. You are not failing for enjoying a chocolate bar on a shitty day.

4. I’m very loathe to put exercise as a tip for battling a bad day because I know when many of us are having a dark day, getting out of bed at all is a big ask, let alone hopping to the gym. So, this is really annoying advice. But if you can, get out of the house—preferably during daylight—and walk for at least 15-20 minutes. Or just dance around in your underwear for a few minutes.

It’s silly, but it’s seriously important. I hate that this a thing (I am naturally a sloth) but unfortunately, it’s a truth you can’t argue with. Exercise endorphins are good shit.

5. Tell someone! The simple act of saying it out loud often gives me a huge cathartic ‘woosh’. I get very ‘in my own head’ when I’m having an anxious day, and then I start to get paranoid that I’m acting weird and everybody thinks I’m a fruit loop. Now, as soon as I’ve identified a ‘bad day’, I try and tell somebody. A friend, a family member. Just a text to a mate who understands, or a workmate who can give you a bit of support for the day. I’ve been very lucky to work with sympathetic colleagues, who are understanding—and I do really believe that, if you’re brave enough to be honest, many people you work with will be more compassionate than you know.

If you don’t have anyone, tweet me, and I will send you my stash of puppy gifs.

These sound trite, and of course, these are tips for down days, not when you’re undoing a serious mental health incident. If you’re having serious thoughts, please always seek the appropriate help.