Gluten and anxiety: is bread making my mental health worse?

Gluten and anxiety – sounds like a ridiculous title, doesn’t it? Fear not, friends, I’m not going all Gwyneth at GOOP on you… Bear with me here, this is just what I’ve observed.

Sometimes, when you go looking for answers, you find out something you didn’t necessarily want to know.

Don’t worry – I haven’t been snooping through my boyfriend’s phone. What I have been searching for is an answer to some on-going health problems I’ve had for a few years now. Sore joints, swollen ankles, lethargy – even stuffed sinuses. I won’t harp on about how many times I’ve been to see a GP about all of these things in isolation over the years, only to be brushed off. The long and short of it is this: I’m gluten intolerant. A sufferer of non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), to be precise.

Goodbye, bread, beers and pie 

Sigh. ‘Beer’, ‘pies’ and ‘battered meats’ are all up there in my most beloved things in the world. And don’t get me started on bread; I can actually take or leave a cake, but seriously, I fucking love a baguette. I’d choose a hot, fresh French baguette, dripping in butter, over a fancy meal on six days out of seven. So this whole ‘gluten intolerance’ thing is a real shame for me and my penchant for beige foodstuffs.

Fortunately, being gluten free in London isn’t hard: the weekend before last I ate two gluten free pizzas, gluten free focaccia smothered in Italian cheese, a few pints of Daura (probably the best gluten free beer) and then a rib-eye steak in a French restaurant with no specifically gluten free options (hardly a sacrifice.) I also live in Islington, land of the yummy mummy, so my gluten free bakery options are on point (hit up Beyond Bread next time you’re on Upper Street, my fellow Londoners).

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And of course, it’s all worth it, because my symptoms have disappeared. I’m no longer cripplingly tired all the time (just some of the time) and I can actually see the bones in my feet properly, after a life time of assuming that I did, in fact, just have cankles.

But something else has happened, too. Something I definitely wasn’t expecting. The physical symptoms of my anxiety – an unsettled heartbeat, a low-level feeling of dread, a churny stomach, a strange veil-like feeling of being not quite present in the world – have all… basically disappeared.

Is there a link between gluten and anxiety? 

Now, I’ve heard of there being a link between coeliac and anxiety before, but this was more from people becoming (understandably) incredibly anxious about eating gluten and then promptly shitting it out/being violently ill, rather than a knock-on effect. But that isn’t the case with me – while having sore joints and feeling unreasonably tired is quite annoying, I’m hardly fearful of it.

Is it psychosomatic? Am I just imagining it? That’s what everyone asks me – it’s probably what I’d ask myself, so I do understand. But I know myself, my body and my state of mind pretty bloody well. After all these years of tinkering with my self-care, I’m like some sort of weird, expert mechanic who can spot and fine tune a problem in the motor from the moment it turns on. And despite not taking very good care of my body recently (oops) my anxiety has definitely improved substantially since I said sayonara to sandwiches, sausage rolls and sweet, sweet pastry.

But what’s science got to say about gluten and anxiety? 

I’m a prolific Googler, so I did what I always do, and starting tapping away. Does gluten cause anxiety? Is there a link between gluten and anxiety? Can gluten make me sad? And so on. It quickly became apparent that I wasn’t alone. Turns out there’s a whole host of people who have noticed a substantial mood and anxiety improvement after going gluten free.

Meanwhile, ‘attempts to characterise NCGS have shown that these systemic manifestations (tiredness, headache, fibromyalgia-like joint or muscle pain, leg or arm numbness, ‘foggy mind,’ dermatitis or skin rash, depression, anxiety, and anaemia) may be common’. The trouble is, this is by no means a full scientific endorsement. There isn’t enough proof. There isn’t enough research. So I’m by no means advocating everybody to cut out gluten as an anxiety cure-all.

But I can’t be the only one. Anybody else have any experience of this? Or other foods that make your anxiety bad, for that matter?

It’s all very interesting and I’ll definitely be looking into further. Because who knows – maybe I’m just having a freakishly calm few months, and I’ll wake up for a slice of gluten free toast one day with the same old crushing existential despair I always had. But so far, giving up the gluten has been revolutionary for my physical and mental health – even if I do miss baguettes every damn day.

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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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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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In defence of crying

My name’s Nic, and I’m a crier.

Here’s a list of things I’ve cried at in the last week: the Lloyds advert with the horses on the beach; Bridget Jones’ Baby; an article in the Telegraph; Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion singing The Prayer; a hospital appointment; the Lloyds advert again; and generally feeling a bit tired.

I am capable of crying an ocean of tears, and feeling utterly calm five minutes later.

Am I going through a bad mental health patch? Nope: this year has been the best I’ve felt in my adult life. I’m just one of those people who cries a lot. I cry when I’m happy. I cry when I’m sad. I frequently shed a tear when my pregnant friend sends me a baby bump update. I cry with laughter maybe once a day. I cry when I miss my Dad, or when I’m panicking, or (most annoyingly) when I’m really fucking angry and trying to have a pop at somebody. This usually completely undermines my point, but hey.

Naturally, to save other people from feeling awkward, I try to do this crying in private. As a society, we don’t like tears. I don’t blame people for this – tears aren’t easy to deal with – but I do get quite frustrated when people see it as a sign of weakness. Or worse, attention seeking.

Honestly, the most annoying accusation levelled against people who cry a lot is that they’re doing it for sympathy, or to get out of trouble. Every single time I have ever cried when I’ve been in trouble, it has got me into more trouble. It is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. They are not crocodile tears. I would really rather not do it. Believe me: I value the ability to get my point across in a terse conversation, and crying does not help you do that.

All in all, it’s not easy, this lip-wobbling tendency of mine. It’s always been a thing about myself that I would love to change. Again, as my fellow criers will know, some people are really offended by it. But in the last few years, I’ve slowly started to care less.

It probably started when my Dad was dying. And by ‘it’, I mean ‘no longer giving a fuck about my teary ways’. During that time, I lost the ability to care about crying in public. If anything, I did it more – because I didn’t want to cry in front of him, or my pals, given we were all revising for our final year exams at the time.

So I did a lot of sobbing in various places, primarily the Nottingham-Birmingham train line. Thankfully, being British, almost everyone left me alone to get on with it, barring the occasional ill-advised ‘cheer up love, it’ll be better in the morning!’ comment. (Terminal cancer: very rarely better in the morning, as it goes).

Through this, I learnt to realise that my tears weren’t the end of the world. Often, they were the only thing that allowed me to feel a bit better. Little wonder: crying releases stress hormones and reduces tension – a 2008 study found crying improved the mood of 90% of subjects.

Now, I’m often grateful for a little cry, and I refuse to see it as a weakness. Like still waters after a storm, a big bluster of emotion helps me give way to calm. Crying means I’m able to go from being in a remarkably shit mood to feeling absolutely dandy in under 20 minutes. A quick sob and I can be back about my day, bright-eyed and as cheerful and a lark.

Honestly, it’s a shame more people can’t take advantage of the magic of tears. Men especially. It genuinely makes me very sad that men find it so hard to let themselves cry. Nearly every boyfriend I’ve ever had has screwed up his face and turned away, rather than let me see their tears.

As someone who has literally cried to an EE sales assistant, I say: tears are fine! Embarrassment is literally the worst thing that can result! Men, believe me, you are allowed to cry (and, if you’re friends with me, positively encouraged to). It can make you feel so, so much better. And unlike other things that make me feel better, like exercise, I can do crying in bed. Ideal.

So yep – the older I get, the less embarrassed I am about being a crier. And I think it’s time that we stopped stigmatising tears so much. Because yes, I probably am an overly emotional person – but I’m also compassionate and empathetic and fiercely loving. These things go hand in hand, I can’t help but feel.

Best of all? I will never, never be made to feel awkward by somebody else’s tears. So if you need a shoulder to cry on, come on over. Just make sure I don’t catch sight of that bloody Lloyds Bank advert, or I’ll be joining you.

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5 things I’ve read this week that brought me joy

Content. Whether it’s books, articles, tweets or even a WhatsApp thread, most of us love to consume it. But the sad reality is that nowadays, we get an awful lot of negative content pushed to us from all angles. Which is definitely not good for our collective mental health. So here’s 5 things I’ve read this week that have brought a smile to my face.

Notes on a nervous planet, Matt Haig

I’ve written about Haig before in 4 books for a bad day. I regularly recommend Reasons To Stay Alive because it delivers exactly what it promises on the tin. I read it at a point in my life when I actually was suicidal, so it’s little wonder it holds such a place in my heart. Notes on a Nervous Planet is less emotionally loaded (or maybe I am?) but, just like RTSA, it’s wise, whimsical, thoughtful and earnest. If you struggle to consume content when your mental health is bad, as I do, it’s also extremely digestible, with short chapters and lists dotted throughout. Give it a go, and even if reading it doesn’t make you smile, following the tips within it will almost certainly help to give your frazzled mind a break.

Normal People, Sally Rooney

I’ve been in a definite non-fiction mood over the last year. Normal People bucked the trend: I gobbled it up in 24 hours, and it’s been so long since I did that with fiction that this fact alone made me happy. Rooney’s been described as the voice of my generation, something I resist on principle – but she certainly put into words ideas that I’ve been desperately trying to formulate for years, with no success.

As a novel, Normal People will make you think deeply about love, anxiety, self-esteem, the male psyche, millennial woes, the timeless concerns of being a pair of star crossed lovers. The two main characters are perfectly realised and the plot is engaging. I didn’t like all of the stylistic decisions, but ultimately, I thought it was an excellent read. Rooney is painfully on-the-nose about topics I’m very interested in, like privilege: ‘Suddenly he can spend an afternoon in Vienna looking at Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, and it’s hot outside, and if he wants he can buy himself a cheap cold glass of beer afterwards. It’s like something he assumed was just a painted backdrop all his life has revealed itself to be real: foreign cities are real, and famous artworks, and underground railway systems, and remnants of the Berlin Wall. That’s money, the substance that makes the world real.’ I kept wanting to read bits of Normal People aloud to people around me, because Rooney so frequently encapsulated ideas I have tried and failed to express a thousand times. All in: a book that made me sad and joyful all at once. Go and read it.

It’s decorative gourd season, motherfuckers, McSweeney’s

And in a complete 180 on the previous entry – an article that made me cry actual tears of laughter. (Which is always a good thing to do for your mental health.)

So, one of my absolute favourite things about my new job is that, by dint of being a team of writers, we are also a team of avid content consumers, and we’re always sharing articles with each other. Some are serious. Some are profound. Others are batshit insane, like this post about autumn from McSweeney’s. Not everybody’s sense of humour, but definitely mine. Content like this is just such a joyful antithesis to the seriousness of life. So, strap yourself in and enjoy the timely reminder – as the leaves start to drift from the tree – that: ‘It’s fall, fuckfaces’.

AI saves lives, The Good News Network

I think it’s important to seek out content that is purely good, instead of relentlessly depressing. I’m a technology copywriter, so I spend a lot of time reading articles about AI. Many of which intrigue me, some of which depress me, and virtually none of which actually make me smile. This one did. An AI system in China was able to correctly predict that patients in a vegetative coma state would wake up within 12 months. This was in contrast to the actual Doctors, who gave the patients such low survival scores, the families were legally allowed to take them off life support. Good save, AI! Best of all, in reading it, I found the ‘Good News Network’, which is exactly what we all need, given 95% of what we read is about the world going to shit.

My group chats

Our phones get a bad rep. And rightly so, in many instances: scrolling endlessly through the gram isn’t good for any of our mental health. But there’s one thing my phone does to improve my mental health, and that’s facilitate group chats. Honestly: all hail the group chat. (Sounds sad? Well, I moved to London by myself a year and a half ago, so excuse me for needing the human interaction.)

I have group chats for my best friends from uni, groups chats for ex-colleagues turned friends, group chats with family members – and they’re just bloody great. We go through ebbs and flows of activity but I always know they’re there as a little source of comfort and lols if I need it. If you are in a group chat with me: know that I value it very much indeed.

Time for your recommendations

Have a read yourself (although not number 4, obviously) and let me know in the comments what you’ve read recently that’s brought you some joy. The more (and sillier) the merrier!

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Suicide: the great mental health taboo

Globally, every 40 seconds, a person ends their life through suicide.

In the UK, 6,213 people killed themselves last year. The suicide rate for young women is at an all time high. Men are three times as likely to take their lives than women. Hanging is the most common method. More children are thinking about suicide than ever before.

Does this make you feel uncomfortable?

It makes me feel uncomfortable. Even as I write this, I keep looking away from the screen. Suicide is a thing we still don’t like to talk about, unless a celebrity takes their life. I understand why. It’s too uncomfortable and too loaded. It forces us to confront something too painful to bear.

I suppose if you’ve never been suicidal, or even close, it seems an unfathomable act. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to talk about. Although it might be something to do with the fact that ‘self-murder’ was only decriminalised 50 years ago, and the very act of suicide – even admitting to feeling suicidal – is bound up in shame.

Don’t get me wrong: we’ve come a long way on the mental health conversation front. Tell somebody you have anxiety or depression, and you’re more likely than ever before to receive a compassionate response, or even the empathy of shared experience.

But suicide is a different beast. Tell somebody you’re suicidal and watch the air freeze between you, like ice across a windowpane.

It’s the great mental health taboo. We do not know how to talk about it. Even I – somebody who literally runs a blog about mental health – feel myself dancing around the word. And I should really know better. I’ve been there, after all.

I was 22. On paper, I had everything going for me. I was young and high achieving, well-loved and financially secure. But I was also in the grips of a deep mental health crisis. I felt unreal, as if I were viewing the world through gauze. I had lost the ability to connect with the world around me. You probably wouldn’t have thought it to look at me. I have pictures of myself, graduating from my Masters, where I look positively suffused with joy. But most of the time I felt nothing at all, apart from the moments when I wept uncontrollably, until my chest hurt and I couldn’t breathe for gasping.

Everything that makes life worth living had slipped out of reach. Everything felt insurmountable. I was so tired. No wonder: it’s physically exhausting, to feel so very hopeless.

One day, the thought slipped into my head: I wish I could go to sleep tonight and not wake up. It didn’t go away. Over the next few weeks, I worried away at the thought; where could I do it, how could I do it? The idea followed me around; in the bath, as the tram approached the platform. What a relief it would be, not to feel at all.

The only thing that stayed my hand was the thought of my mum and sister, bereaved twice in 24 months. Not to mention the friends who relentlessly stuck to me. In the end, the people I loved dragged me back from the edge. They made me talk, breaking down mountains into hills I could imagine scaling.

Talking saved my life. But too many people don’t have anybody to talk with. In fact, too many people will never let their feelings slip at all. The thought, the urge, will remain unspoken. Until it’s acted upon. Until it’s too late.

We have to talk. It’s a hard conversation from all angles, I know. Admitting you are suicidal is exposing the rawest part of yourself. Talking about it still smarts now: I don’t want people to see me differently, to see me as unstable, when actually I’ve never been happier or more content. It feels like a dream I had a long time ago – one I can only remember because I wrote it down upon waking.

It’s hard for those left behind. Because it’s not an acceptable topic of conversation, people who have lost loved ones to suicide are forced to hide their grief, to blunt its awkward edges in conversation, for the sake of avoiding the discomfort of others.

And it’s hard to respond to. Sitting and looking into the eyes of somebody telling you they do not want to be here is painful and uncomfortable and heartbreakingly sad. ‘I hate to think of you feeling like that,’ people say, eyes shifting into the middle distance. ‘I can’t bear the thought.’

But what should we choose? The discomfort of the conversation or the event itself?

It’s difficult. But here’s some places to start: we have to start the conversation and keep having it, relentlessly, even when it hurts, until everybody who even has a whisper of that voice in their head feels like they can talk about it. We have to write explicit mental health provision into our workplace conversations and HR handbooks. We have to banish the word ‘commit’, with its implications of criminality. We have to educate ourselves on the signs of somebody having suicidal thoughts, and be brave enough to reach out when we see them. We have to listen.

We can’t save everyone. But we can sit down and talk, refusing to flinch, asking the difficult questions. It might make no difference. It might make all the difference in the world.

I’m publishing this the day before World Suicide Prevention Day. If you are worried that somebody you know is having suicidal thoughts, please reach out. There are some resources below, or if you want somebody to talk to, drop me a message. 

Resources

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Why most things (probably) won’t make you happy

Sometimes, when I’m having a bout of anxiety (or a full blown panic attack), I close my eyes and imagine myself in an almost empty room.

Nowadays, this is the calmest situation I can think of, other than being by the sea or halfway up a mountain. A space without clutter, without objects.

I wasn’t always like this. But more and more, I’m mindful that ‘stuff’ (and shopping, AKA the act of acquiring it) does very little to make me happy. If anything, it actively makes me feel worse.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a minimalist or a committed experientialist. I’m not even particularly tidy. (I can imagine my Mum and boyfriend reading this and huffing, ‘HA! Sounds like news to me!’).

And I’m not judging anyone for buying things. I like things! I like objects that are beautiful and functional. I do a little wriggle with delight every time I sit on my balcony furniture, and my coffee table is a source of endless pleasure. I feel immediately becalmed by turning on my bedside lamps, which scatter light across the room like stars on a night sky. My friend Polly has a kitchen table made out of her childhood bed that genuinely makes my stomach contract slightly with lust.

But these are things that serve a purpose; they make a home a comfortable place to live in. I feel the same about clothes, shoes and bags: I’m still furiously in love with my four-year-old Barbour jacket and the multitude of pockets it offers. But nearly every dress I’ve ever bought has at some point made me feel shit about myself. Hmm.

As a result, I’ve started to read a hell of a lot about how I can make myself happier and less anxious by whittling down the amount of unnecessary crap I either keep in my flat or lust after online. This is important for your mental health on two fronts. One, clutter is stressful. The more clutter, the more mess.

Two, our need to keep buying things… well, it usually means something, doesn’t it? When we buy things, the sad reality is that we’re often trying to be somebody, or impress somebody, or plug a gap. But in reality, we’d probably get a lot more joy out of life if we stopped spending £200 a month in Topshop and spent the money enjoying activities with our loved ones, seeing new places, and building memories.

So what am I doing about it? I’ve started to unsubscribe from newsletters and direct mailers from brands I once loved. (Sorry, did anyone else think GDPR was going to do that for us?!). I’ve started to donate or throw things away if they’re sat in a cupboard or ‘tidied away’ somewhere.

Finally, I’m forcing myself to research before I buy, and only buy on a needs basis, like the rucksack I replaced recently. Most importantly, I’ve begun to question and interrogate my purchase. If you’re interested, here are the questions I’ve been asking myself to discover if an object is really going to bring me happiness, or if my money could be better spent elsewhere (e.g. weekend breaks to Europe).

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Does having it cause you stress?

‘Things’ should be beautiful, or useful, or both. But the things you own shouldn’t cause you stress. If all you’re ever doing with something is finding new ways to store it out of site, get rid of it. Likewise, if you own something that makes you feel bad about yourself (like, half of my wardrobe), get it down a charity shop pronto.

Even if you like it, do you actually need it?

I picked up some beautiful coasters yesterday, tootling home down Blackstock Road. And when I say ‘picked up’, I mean ‘picked out the four I wanted to buy’. But then I realised that we already have beautiful coasters. Like, more coasters than we could actually use, unless we both decided to drink three brews simultaneously. Or had four guests around. Sometimes, just because you like something, doesn’t mean you need it – especially if it’s just adding to an existing pile of clutter.

Do you need to pay that much money for it?

Will the expensive version of something really make you happy? This isn’t a snide question – I prefer slightly more expensive bedding, for example, because it generally feels nicer on my skin. T-shirts, however: no. I do not need to pay £100 for something I’m going to spill ketchup on. Get out of Selfridges and put it down.

Jeans are another good example of this. You can buy high quality, stylish, fashionable jeans for £50-100. (My thighs rub through anything cheaper). Is a £300 pair genuinely going to make you any happier?

Basically, before you buy something, ask if you’re really getting a level of value that’s proportionate to the extra spend. Because all of that ‘extra spend’, over the course of a year, could pay for an amazing holiday or the adult learning course you’ve always fancied to build your dream career. Just saying.

Are you buying this for the person you are or the person you want to be?

I can’t tell you how many pair of high-heeled shoes I bought as a teenager/young adult. I don’t like heels. I don’t like walking in heels. I don’t feel happy in heels. They’re deeply uncomfortable, and you can’t dance properly in them. And I definitely wouldn’t want to have sex with anybody who doesn’t fancy me in trainers, so I can’t even argue I wanted my legs to look thinner.

So why did I keep buying pairs of heels? I have no idea. I think I want to be the sort of woman that can and does walk in heels. Baffling. In short: you can’t buy your way into being a different sort of person. And you won’t find happiness by trying.

Do you love actually love it, or do you think it says something about you?

Very like the above. This is a hard and uncomfortable question to ask yourself. I have been guilty of it on so many occasions. And have, over the years, probably wasted £1403493024932 in Urban Outfitters as a result.

It’s not easy, and it’s a work in process – I’ve been trying to get up the energy to tackle my wardrobe with all of this in mind. But it is worth it – because every draw I clear and every penny I save from not buying crap needlessly is helping me on my way to a slightly saner, happier life. Which sounds like a good direction of travel to me.

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(This plant, this copper pot, and this Bowie print all make me happy every time I look at them. As does the chap in lurking behind).

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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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