Rise and shine: tips for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Wasn’t the summer of 2018 just… bloody glorious?

The sun shone relentlessly. The days were long and warm, pregnant with the possibility that football might actually come home. It didn’t, of course, but it was still a magic summer: full of beer gardens and spontaneous moments where I stopped to read a book on a park bench, just to catch a few more hours of that lovely golden light. We stored our coats away, and felt all sophisticated, sleeping with a sheet instead of a duvet. Tres continental.

And my mental health was seriously good – which is hardly surprising, given that every year for as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled intensely with my mood and energy levels being linked to the season and the availability of sunlight. As I’ve written about before, I, like many others, have more than a touch of the old Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Which is a bit of a bitch. Because not only is it exhausting – it’s also inevitable. Every winter, like clockwork, usually starting about mid-October, I turn into a tired slug of a woman, barely able to get out of bed, with no energy for anything other than the bare minimum. Fortunately, after all this time tinkering with my self care, I’ve tried and tested a few treatment options. So, here’s my tips for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) busting…

Using a SAD lamp

When I was doing my Masters, I used to have a Lumie SAD lamp, which you’re meant to sit under for half an hour a day to stave off the blues. Is using a SAD lamp effective? Yes. It is also wildly inconvenient? Erm, kind of. When I lived by myself, it was fine. But I can’t imagine when I’d find the time to do it now. People suggest doing it in bed in the morning, or even at your desk, but it’s such a distracting light – you’d have the whole office swooping down on you asking WTF you’re doing.

Moving to the Southern Hemisphere

The winter before last I avoided the issue entirely by going to the southern hemisphere. The whole ‘not doing winter’ thing is definitely a bit of me. But I don’t actually want to move to Australia, so that’s also not a viable option. 

Exercise for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Last winter, I did shitloads of exercise. In November 2017, I went to the gym 25 times in 30 days. This more or less worked, but it wasn’t sustainable. (If you are someone who thinks going to the gym 25/30 in normal: no.) And the second I stopped living in Virgin Active, the effects went away. So yeah, exercise for SAD does work – but who wants to have to go the gym six days out of seven just to keep their mental health in check? Probably some people, but definitely not me. I’ve got Netflix to watch.

Sleeping incessantly

Nope. Not for grown-ups. Sigh.

Sunrise lamps for SAD

Waking with the sun just feels better – in the summer, I regularly spring out of bed at 5am. So this year, I’ve invested in a Lumie Bodyclock lamp. You know how being woken up from a deep sleep with a shrill alarm feels like getting smacked around the head with a xylophone? Waking up to a soft warm light that arrives slowly over 30 minutes is the exact opposite of that. It’s like how I imagine Disney princesses wake up, being gently nuzzled by a fluffy woodland creature, and the sound of birdsong. So far, I think it’s helping. I feel much more awake in the morning and can actually get up and be productive before the last possible moment. It’s also lovely to feel like I’m waking up at the same time naturally. (Obviously it isn’t natural, but you know what I mean.)

I bought the Bodyclock Shine 300, but to be honest: I could have got a cheaper version. I liked the idea of waking up to sounds, but the sounds are all a bit weird. (Who wants to be roused from their slumber by the noise of goats?)

Any more tips for SAD? Let me know!

Other things help, of course – getting outside in the middle of the day, eating well. My new office helps, too: being up on the seventh floor, there’s plenty of natural light, not to mention the sort of spectacular winter sunsets that can cheer up even the moodiest of days. But I’m always looking for more tips, so if you have any for busting the winter blues, let me know in the comments.

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Are you okay?

One of the cruellest things about mental illness is how worthless it can make you feel. And when you feel that way, it’s very difficult to ask for help – as I wrote about earlier this week. But sometimes, it’s just as hard to offer help – and that’s a serious problem.

Now, I don’t think this comes from a place of cruelty. In my experience, people are mostly kind; we want to care for others where we can. So why do we find it so difficult to offer help to people we think might be struggling with their mental health? Why is it so achingly hard to utter the words: are you okay?

It’s not because we’re selfish – more because we’re awkward, and we don’t want to offend or intrude. All of which is understandable. But it’s also how people end up slipping through the net. Because they’re too afraid to ask for help, and we’re too scared to offer it.

Of course, we can’t blame this entirely on our own bumbling Britishness – it’s also structural. Western society isn’t really geared towards supporting emotionally vulnerable people, given how many of us live apart from our extended families. Likewise, large numbers of people live alone or with housemates found online, and we tend to spend most of our lives with our colleagues, who may or may not know us well.

This means we typically no longer have somebody to keep a close eye on us. Most people don’t even see the same GP from visit to visit, so spotting poor mental health isn’t something we can leave up to medical professionals. We have to take this mantle up ourselves – especially in the case of demographics we know particularly struggle to ask for help, like men.

I don’t tend to write a lot specifically about men’s mental health, because (being a woman, and all that) I don’t feel qualified to speak about it. There are enough voices who can eloquently tell those stories. But I do worry about it – all the time, in fact – especially when I have exchanges like this with my boyfriend:

‘How would you ask for help?’

‘What sort of help?’

‘Mental health help.’

‘… I’d ask you.’

‘Ha. No, but seriously. In general.’

‘Erm… I would probably wait until somebody commented on it. Until somebody asked if I was okay. And then say, maybe, not really…’

That breaks my heart. And I’m sure he’s far from the only person who feels like that. But while I can’t undo years of structurally reinforced gendered nonsense, I can push myself to look out for the men close to me. And so can everyone who is well enough to take on the task.

Ask explicit questions of your partners, your male friends, your brothers. Even your fathers. Dads definitely aren’t exempt: my first real experience of ‘seeing’ depression close up was my own father. (PS., I’m definitely NOT saying it’s a woman’s work to do this sort of emotional labour; it’s everybody’s responsibility).

This isn’t the only solution, of course. A colleague recently shared this excellent development from men’s shaving brand, Harry’s, who have commissioned a listening bot called ‘HARR-E’, following research which showed men are 300% more likely to open up to AI than another human. If this can go on to help more men open up, that’s wonderful – and hopefully the same tech can be rolled out to support a wider range of people.

But in a way, the need for such tech reinforces my point: if 50% of the population are more likely to open up to AI than each other, we need to work harder to make people feel comfortable talking about their feelings. Because, as wonderful as AI is, it can’t (yet) rub your back and hold you while you weep. It can’t hold your hand in the GP’s surgery, and it can’t sit with you over a cup of tea while you research finding a counsellor.

So (in honour of World Mental Health Day) if you see someone struggling – or anybody struggling, for that matter: ask. When you ask, they may not want to share. Likewise, when you ask somebody if you can help them, they won’t always be ready or able to accept it. Sometimes, there’s a fine line to draw, where we have to make judgments about whether or not people are well enough to be left alone, if they ask to be. But we have to get better at doing this – not least because, in all likelihood, one day we’ll need it too.

Ways of Offering Help

Not a trained counsellor, obviously, but here are the things I personally think can be helpful:

  • The obvious one: ask, ‘are you okay?’ Then listen, listen, listen. You may receive no answer – but at least you’ve opened the conversation.
  • Many people will also just say ‘yes, fine’, regardless of how they actually feel. If it’s someone you’re close with, sometimes you need to push further. ‘You seem like you’re struggling at the moment – do you want to talk about anything?’ is a good way of phrasing the question that lets people know you do sincerely want to listen.
  • Ask to spend time with people who are struggling. Feel like they’ve withdrawn from you? They may well feel like they’re a burden and poor company, which can lead to self-isolation.
  • Offer to go with someone if they need to see a Doctor or counselling if you can spare the time – going alone can be bloody scary. Having a panic attack on your way to speak to somebody about having panic attacks, and all that.
  • Reassure them that their feelings are valid and they deserve help. Often, people battling with mental illness struggle to remember this.
  • It may be that you’re clued up on what your friend is going through. If not, do some research. Not least because mental health is a valuable thing to know about in life and general. And it may even be the case that your friend hasn’t looked into any resources for getting better, so this could help you to help them.
  • Ask if you can help with practical tasks and life admin. AKA, the stuff that often falls horribly by the wayside when people are ill.
  • Be patient. Be kind. Remember that what you are doing is worth so much more than feeling awkward.

Anybody else got any good suggestions for offering help to people struggling? Let me know in the comments – and in the meantime, have a peaceful week.

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dealing with anxiety

Asking for mental health help

It’s a difficult thing, asking for help.

Whether we don’t understanding something at work or need support with a physical task, I don’t think it’s something any of us like to do. I certainly don’t: I hate the idea of putting anybody out. And that’s just the everyday stuff. Asking for mental health help is harder by far.

But when so much is at stake – lives, in some cases – it’s probably time to start wondering: how can we get better and asking for the help so many of us need?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week. Mainly because of Timehop, an app which shows you an ‘on this day’ index of your social media, if you haven’t used it before. For me, Timehop induces 80% fuzzy nostalgia, and 10% horror at my own ignorance/lack of fashion sense.

The other 10% is reserved for the strange, heavy-stomached feeling I get when I realise that this time, three years ago, I was crashing towards a total breakdown. And, I hardly need to add, I had no idea how to deal with this fact. Timehop makes it quite clear that I was regularly fishing for help I didn’t know how to ask for, all while indulging in self-destructive behaviours and withdrawing from the world.

Which is sad to think about. I was eloquent, after all. I was expressive. And I’ve always been a chronic over-sharer. I should have been able to find the words I needed to say. In private, I could: I wrote a great deal at the time about how I was feeling. How I was experiencing a pain by turns sharp and dull, which left me with little appetite for the act of being alive.

But I couldn’t say this yet, not explicitly, not to the people around me, and certainly not to a Doctor. I had been dismissed by medical services (or at least felt like I had) too many times. And surely all my friends hated me by now, with all the misery I was wrapped in? So I withdrew into myself, essentially subtweeting my mental health problems out into the universe.

It’s so obvious, looking back. I was straining for someone to hear words I wasn’t explicitly saying. Fortunately, people did. (You might say I had help forced upon me, which sounds awful, but was exactly what I needed). Things got better. But not everyone is so lucky.

asking for mental health help
Note to self: moody Instagrams are not an effective way to ask for urgent mental health help.

So why don’t we ask for help?

Some of us are afraid of looking weak. Some of us don’t actually feel we have anyone we can ask. But mostly, I think, asking for help with your mental health is awkward. It’s embarrassing and exposing. And it usually means confronting something deep and raw within ourselves – most often, something we’re terrified of exposing to the light.

Worst of all, when we most need to ask for help, our self-esteem is likely at an all-time low. Which makes us all the more susceptible to that poisonous little voice – the one that whispers: you don’t deserve to be helped in the first place.

That’s utter bollocks, of course – everybody deserves help. Even if you feel you aren’t worthy of it. Even if, in the state of being unwell, you’ve done bad things. We’re not all good people all of the time, but everybody deserves to feel sound and strong in their mind. And often, that help can only come when we find a way to ask for it. It isn’t easy – but it almost always is the only way for things to get better.

I’ve compiled some resources below that might give you a starting point, if you need it. And I’ve got another post in the works about how to give help, which I’ll hopefully put out on World Mental Health Day this week. But in the meantime, I hope you can believe me when I say: you are worthy of the support you need, even when it feels like you aren’t.

Ways of asking for help with your mental health 

Asking for mental health help: friends and family

  • It’s the cruel trick of mental illness, to make you feel you’re an inconvenience to everyone around you. But, while you may not feel like it, your friends and family want to support you. And while not all of them will be equipped to do this, the likelihood is there is someone in your circle who can, from their own personal experience, give you at least some of the help you need.
  • Can’t speak about it? Write letters, if sitting down and speaking is too difficult. Or, share other media – even somebody else’s words. There are so many accounts of different mental health experiences, available in books and online or even Instagram. You can send these to your loved ones with the simple cover note: ‘this explains how I am feeling’.
  • Sometimes, look in unexpected places. There are people in my life I don’t actually know very well, but they’ve posted something online that suggests they have insight, and I’ve reached out to them on that basis. People have done this to me, too, and I am always delighted to offer any help at all.

Asking for mental health help: Medical help

  • Your Doctor is another obvious place to start, although this can be scary, especially given the brief ten-minute slot you’re likely to be given. In this time, it’s often hard to get your point across honestly – you might forget key bits, freeze up, burst into tears. So, if you think you’re going to struggle to express yourself, write down the key points of what you’re experiencing before you go in.
  • Yes, the Doctor is probably busy. But this doesn’t mean you have to rush in and out. Remember that.
  • Consider taking somebody with you. That might just be for emotional support, but it can also be practically helpful. It’s a sad fact that sometimes, in the NHS, you’ll get a better result if you have someone to fight your corner. But fighting is bloody hard when you’re feeling so fragile. Case in point: I got drastically better results when my lioness of a mother was with me.
  • If you pursue this route, the thorny issue of medication is likely to crop up. It’s a difficult one, and not for everybody. But it can be hugely helpful, and just like there’s no shame in asking for help, there’s no shame in taking medication for your mental health, either.

Asking for mental health help: Talking Therapies

  • Ask for help from a counsellor. A GP can give you a referral to see a counsellor, but you can also refer yourself directly to psychological therapies services. Bear in mind there is often a wait – but if your situation is urgent, i.e. you’re having suicidal thoughts, make this known.
  • In the UK, there is also a wide range of free services for specific issues, like relationship or bereavement counselling. Some, like Relate, even have live chat functions.
  • This is desperately unfair, and I wish it wasn’t true, but it is: private counselling is likely to be faster, more convenient, and more tailored to your needs. So, if you can afford it, it isn’t an indulgence. The BACP therapist director is a good place to start. This also helps to free up strained resources for people that can’t afford this option.
  • In a pinch, a helpline can do it. The NHS have a fairly conclusive list here.
  • I toyed with putting e-counselling in here, because I haven’t had it, so what do I know? But I do see it advertised more and more, so perhaps something to look into.

If anybody else has any wisdom to add to this list, I’d love to hear it. Let me know in the comments, and in the meantime, take care of yourself in the way you deserve to.

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Recovering from anxiety: a work in progress

Are you ever really recovered from a mental health problem like anxiety?

I’d be interested to hear what everyone else thinks about recovery from anxiety? Once upon a time, I would have liked to think it was. I was quite young when I first seriously started to acknowledge that my brain wasn’t working like it should. My only frame of reference for illness was all the other ailments I’d had in my life – like swine flu (no, really) or a kidney infection. Horrible, but ultimately surmountable.

After all, my anxiety did ‘go away’, at various point. And if we’re judging ‘recovery’ from the baseline of ‘being suicidal’, then you could argue I’ve been recovered for well over three years.

Except, except. I’ve never been that bad again, granted – but anxiety has always found ways to creep back in. Which seems pretty bloody unfair – surely after all the counselling, and the sertraline, and the soul-searching/life-changing, I could just enjoy being better?

Sadly not. While I don’t love the ‘mental illness is like a broken leg’ analogy, I have realised that for me, anxiety is a bit like asthma; I have an active part to play in managing it, and probably will do for the rest of my life. My asthma got a hell of a lot better once I quit smoking (shock). It got worse again when I moved into a mouldy damp basement flat in North London. It got better when I got fit(ish).

My actions impact my health. It’s not fair that I have dodgy lungs, but bemoaning that fact won’t change the truth.

It follows logically, then, that anxiety might not be something I can recover from entirely – but it is something I can manage. I’m starting to think there’s a sort of happiness to be found in accepting this. Because accepting it means accepting a lifelong management approach.

And when I manage my health effectively, I can wake up and spring out of bed in the morning, going about my life with nary a worried thought in my head.

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Turns out some downward dogs don’t cancel out 6 cocktails… but we can only try. 

Managing anxiety: my 5 must-dos

  1. Get outside regularly, even if it’s cold.
  2. Limit my alcohol intake, even though I love booze.
  3. Sleep enough, even when people laugh at me for being a Granny.
  4. Exercise enough, even though I hate it, and would rather be on the sofa watching Mad Men.
  5. Listen to Headspace every night – I’m not going to call in meditating because I usually fall asleep four minutes in, but I’ve trained my mind to associate it with relaxing, and it seems to work.

It’s taken me a surprisingly long time to work out what this list should look like. And then I wasted more time ignoring it, because I love drinking, and late nights doing wild things with friends, and not exercising. But I hate being anxious more, and if this active management is what it takes to keep it at bay, I guess I better suck it up. Is it fair? No. But you can’t change that, so there’s not a lot of point in worrying about it any more.

Because for me, recovery isn’t an endpoint. It’s getting up every day, facing your demons, taking care of yourself, and remembering that you deserve to be happy.

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Keeping anxiety at bay: a 4 step mini-guide

  1. Over the course of a week, spend time noting down what makes you anxious. Even if you suffer from a general sense of dread, there’s usually triggers – whether that’s alcohol, lack of sleep, a social interaction, or something else. (PS., if you can, share this process with someone: staring down the barrel of what makes you feel bad can be quite triggering, but I do think it’s a necessary part of changing your life for the better.)
  2. Pick the one that seems most manageable to deal with and write down how it makes you feel and why it’s a part of your life.
  3. If it’s something you can stop doing, like drinking, try cutting it for two weeks and see if you feel an improvement. My advice is to only cut one thing at a time – don’t give up smoking, drinking and sugar in the same week; it’s a recipe for rebounding. (Also, don’t give up sugar: pudding is great).
  4. If it’s something you can confront, like a social interaction, get it out of the way as quickly as possible. Rip the plaster off! 90% of anxiety for me is thinking about the thing – the thing itself is rarely that bad.

What do you think – is recovery an endpoint or an ongoing process? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and let me know if you have any good tips for keeping anxiety at bay!

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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.

gardening for your mental

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books for a bad day

4 Books for a bad day

When I need to pick myself up, I often like to indulge in a spot of bibliotherapy.  The following are my favourite 4 books for a bad day—all very different, but all with something important to offer.

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

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“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 Gordon4 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. A solid entry into books for a bad day, if only to make you laugh!

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 compiling your books for a bad day list, 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

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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.

things my mother taught me 3

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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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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