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.

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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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dealing with anxiety

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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Your beautiful state of mind

Do you ever read a quote and realise you’ve committed it to memory, without every trying?

In a book I read this week, a young would-be musician is in anguish, wondering whether composing is his true calling. Leon asks Marek – his hero, a Czech composer who has withdrawn his music from performance in the Reich – whether or not he really has talent.

‘No one else can tell you that.’

‘But how does one know if it’s worth going on? I don’t know whether I have any true creativity or –’

‘Good God, Leon, why do you always turn back on yourself? If you feel the need to write music, or play it, then do so, but believe me your creativity is of no interest to anyone. Write something – then it’s there. If it’s what you wanted to write, if it exists, then leave it. If it doesn’t, throw it away. Your beautiful state of mind is totally irrelevant.’

It stuck with me, that last line. At first, I thought: oof, little harsh, Marek. But it’s true. Your beautiful state of mind is totally irrelevant. More importantly, I think there’s a lesson in happiness there – at least for anybody who considers themselves a creative.

And this lesson was crystallised even further on Friday night, as I pottered round the Picasso 1932 exhibition at the Tate, one of my favourite spots in London. Don’t get me wrong, our friend Pablo had all sorts of issues, but looking at the work he created in a single year, it’s fairly obvious he felt the need to create and did so frantically. (PS., go to this exhibition if you can).

It’s a funny, lovely thing – the urge to make something. Whether it’s music or art or poetry, novels or installations or photographs. I think it usually arrives quite young, although certainly people discover creative skills later in life. It can be a source of great joy, or even a tool for improving your mental health. I almost never feel happier than when I sit back from something I’ve written and think, yes.

But the older I get, the more I seen how unhappy it can make people, too. Creativity can become a cage, particularly when we reach adulthood and start to feel like we haven’t lived up to our potential. Obviously, very few people get to make a living from the pure form of their talent. When I was a little girl, I would have told you I wanted to be an author. (Spoiler: I’m not. And I now know most authors have other jobs).

And I used to feel bad about not making that happen (or at least, not making it happen yet). If I were a Proper Writer, wouldn’t I be doing it? Wouldn’t I be writing the book idea I’ve always toyed with?

Perhaps. But the reality is, who cares? Why on earth would I let that affect my happiness? There’s no point beating yourself up about not doing something, if the reason you’re meant to do it in the first place is love.

It’s what I love about blogging, and bloggers, for that matter – it strikes me as an activity that is highly motivated by enjoyment, not a desire to be perceived in a particular way.

img_8801If you want to make something, make it. If you don’t, know that you might one day, but it really doesn’t matter right now. But don’t let it make you bitter. And don’t blame it on your life.

Because if what you’re clinging on to is just an idea of yourself as somebody who produces art, and you create just to conform to that sense of self, you’re not likely to find much happiness.

Worst yet, I think it can be a recipe for bad art. Sometimes it results in… too much artist in the art. It should be an insight or an expression, not a way of reflecting how you want the world to see you.

Of course, I’m not saying you shouldn’t stick with it. It’s part of getting better: painting every day, practising your instrument. Brilliant art doesn’t come without effort; by all accounts, writing a book can be a slow, tortuous effort.

But I think most of us would be happier if we followed Marek’s advice: if you want to create, create. If it’s no good, never mind. But just bear in mind that your beautiful state of mind is totally irrelevant. And there’s no small amount of peace to be found in coming to terms with that fact.

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The quote is from Eva Ibbotson’s beautiful book, Songs for the Summer. I read her books as a child, and still love them as an adult. 

gardening for your mental health

Getting old and green: gardening for your mental health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top tips for gardening for your mental health

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

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3 Important love lessons from Love Island

Say what you will about reality TV, but I reckon Love Island has a lot to offer us. Eight whole weeks of memes and great office chat, for a start. But life in the villa also provides some fascinating and genuinely quite important lessons about love, life, toxic masculinity and how we view relationships in 2018.

I’m semi-ashamed to admit I easily churned out about 5000 words of draft copy for this blog; seriously, I’ve had to finalise it on a Saturday when there wasn’t any new fodder for me to comment on. I could write endlessly about the gender dynamics and attitudes at play in the villa. But nobody wants to read my Love Island dissertation, so for a start, I’ve whittled down this post to three things the villa can teach us about love and the dangers of toxic masculinity.

Love Island Lesson 1: A ‘bad boy’ usually makes for a ‘bad boyfriend’

Why do we persist in loving bad boys when the clue is quite literally in the name? I get it: they’re usually bloody attractive. Adam is a handsome rogue, you have to give him that.

I’ve done it. Your mates have done it. We’ve all bloody done it.

But WHY? Why is this a thing? I think we tell ourselves that we really mean: ‘I love cheeky guys, with good chat’. But in reality, on 9/10 occasions, this really equates to ‘I love people who treat me like shit, ghost me on WhatsApp, have a track record of cheating, and give me post-coital tristesse at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon.’

I know it’s a game show, so Adam theoretically has license to churn through women like I churn through Holland & Barrett raisin and cashew nut mix. But Adam has shown his stripes repeatedly; I’ll never get over his smirking arrogance despite Rosie’s visible distress. Another level of callous. But now, a week or two later, all seems forgotten? At any rate, the gals are still remarkably keen to crack on.

It’s a truly bizarre notion and it stinks of toxic masculinity. Because every time we knowingly decide to take a spin on a bad boy, we reinforce the notion that if you’re good looking enough, treating women like shit is okay. Granted, poor Kendall wasn’t to know. But Rosie really had the warning signs in front of her. And Zara? Oh, love: when somebody shows you who they are, believe them the first time. (Granted Darylle is yet to properly declare herself, but I’m not holding out much hope).

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Obviously. Credit: Love Island Twitter

And women aren’t the only ones at risk here. The notion of the desirable bad boy is just as damaging for men. It enables and encourages bad behaviour. How can men feel comfortable displaying softness and warmth and empathy, when we constantly reinforce the idea that being a dickhead is an attractive quality?

And look, I get it: it’s a game show. But Adam’s complete lack of remorse/empathy/human emotion for Rosie as she poured her heart out was terrifying, and it really worries me that people might still be looking at him and thinking: ‘yes, he’s a literal turd, but he’s very handsome, and I’d definitely still have a crack’. Gals (and guys), it’s a no from me. Bad boys make bad boyfriends at best. And at worst…

Lesson 2: Think he’s gaslighting you? He’s probably gaslighting you.

It’s okay for your partner to drive you crazy. I often infuriate mine, with my propensity for squirrelling hairbrushes under the covers and leaving jobs half finished.

What’s not okay is for your partner to make you feel crazy. If the person you’re with repeatedly makes you uncertain and confused about your version of events, it’s important to take time to question what’s going on.

Warning signs include: overtly making you feel jealous and then denying all knowledge; recounting conversations in a way that jars with your memory of events; twisting something you did say so you can’t technically claim innocence; and insisting that your intentions were different to what they were (“you were flirting with him!” “no, I just smiled at him for serving me dinner”). Bonus point for any “I just get jealous and angry because I love you so much” manipulation.

Serious red flags include feeling permanently more anxious than you used to, walking on eggshells, avoiding confrontation, and constantly feeling like you’ve done something wrong.

Obviously this happens on both sides. But it’s in many ways trickier for women, because accusations made by gaslighters are often reinforced by negative gender stereotypes—‘she’s crazy, she’s insecure, she’s embarrassing herself’.

Not only is this toxic masculinity at its finest, it’s also bloody difficult to spot, because it’s insidious and creeping. To make it worse, these unhealthy relationships often start in a whirl of romantic passion, so you’re left thinking: ‘but this person was so great to me—surely I’m imagining this?’ Gaslighters, as a rule, are charming. They’re often good looking, and charismatic, and completely oblivious to the noxiousness of their own behaviour.

Fortunately, with Love Island being televised, it’s much clearer that Adam is indeed trash. But for those of us who don’t have the privilege of round the clock camera crews, a simple bit of advice. If you’ve got a stage where you seriously wonder if you’re being gaslit: you probably are. Please, please, get out. This can so easily spiral into serious emotional abuse. I know too many women—strong, clever, beautiful women—who have been reduced a shell by this sort of behaviour. Compile some screenshots. Share them with loved ones. You are not alone. You are not insane.

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Credit: Buzzfeed

Lesson 3: Being a ‘nice guy’ doesn’t make you the ‘right guy’

Now let’s swing to the other end of the toxic masculinity pendulum. The nice guy. The spiritual guy. Lord forgive me, but I’ve fallen for this one before. Bad boys might be horrendous, but as least they’re obvious about it.

Let’s lay it down: virtually every single man I have ever met who makes a visible point of highlighting his own ‘niceness’ has had more than a hint of the ‘tremendous shit’ about him.

Seriously, this is just not something that genuinely kind people do. Kindness is always visible without overt reference. It announces itself quietly, as does true spirituality, arriving with a soft, unflappable aura of general loveliness. It’s just obvious. Decency is like… sticky toffee pudding. Not much too look at, but by god, you know it when you smell it.

And we’ve had two notable cases of nice-guy syndrome in the villa, albeit expressed quite differently. Presenting the defendants: Eyal and Alex. Whether you agree with me or not, I offer two pieces of evidence:

Alex: ‘I was ready to treat Ellie like a princess and she’s thrown it in my face’.

Eyal: ‘I didn’t expect everything I’d worked towards to be thrown in my face’.

Sorry: nope. I had so much material for this segment, but really it boils down to the above. WTF? I’m sorry, but you virtually never hear women saying this sort of shit. And I’m not here for it. Women are not coinstars. You cannot shove pennies of niceness into us and expect to get a paper bill of adoration (or for us to ‘do bits’) in return.

Where does this attitude come from? Maybe it’s the flip side of the bad boy problem. Are we inadvertently teaching our boys that some men are so awful to women, the act of being ‘nice’ merits romantic affection? This is a gross disservice to all genders, if true.

Because let’s be clear: having nice-guy syndrome doesn’t make you a bad person. I don’t seriously dislike Alex; I think he’s probably well intentioned and quite sweet in his bumbling way. And yes, being rejected is hard. (I do think Eyal is a toe, soz). But it can make you dangerous. My stomach dropped when I saw Alex’s reaction to Ellie parring him off.

Rejection can make your chin tremble with impending tears but it shouldn’t make your nostrils flare with rage.

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Credit: Love Island Twitter

TLDR: 3 lessons from the men of Love Island.

  • When somebody shows you who they are, believe them the first time. A bad-boy dickhead will always be a dickhead, and you really don’t deserve it.
  • When your partner makes you feel crazy, walk away. (Unless you are Beyonce, crazy in love, in which case, proceed.)
  • Nice guy ≠good guy. Approach with caution.

So there we have it: my three lessons on love from the villa. You may think be thinking: ‘this is a mental heath blog, what are you blathering on about?’ but I know categorically how ignoring these lessons can lead to the detriment of your mental health. Romantic love won’t fix your mental health, but by God it can destroy it.

And this is never truer than when some poisonous gender fuckery is at play. (I’m aware this is all very binary man/woman, by the way; that’s simple because I’m limiting this to the villa. I know it’s more complex.) Learning to recognise toxic masculinity and react appropriately is vital for your self-preservation. It’s the curly-haired hippy with a nasty streak when you don’t play ball with his chakras. It’s the gorgeous, dead-behind-the-eyes lothario. It’s the well-spoken Doctor whose nostrils twitch with anger when yet another girl fails to fancy him.

And it’s complicated, because these same men can be kind and funny and good. Silly and soft, sweet and shy, charming and charismatic and side-splittingly funny. We all exist on a spectrum, and we are all products of our society.

You might think this is just 1500 words of me ranting about the opposite sex, but it’s not. I certainly have my Angry Feminist™ badge, but I adore the opposite sex; I am fortunate to be surrounded by brilliant, decent men, so there’s no reason for me not to. The reason I want to call this shit out is because it benefits all of us to identify and cull these sorts of behaviours. We all stand to benefit from living and loving in a world without toxic masculinity.

So what can we do? We can call it out, when we see it. We can reject it, when we encounter it. We can do more to teach our men that we value them most when they’re decent and thoughtful and good. We can teach women that they never deserve to be spoken to like shit, manipulated into feeling insane, or made to feel obligated by the basic human quality of kindness.

It’s not much, and it’s just some silly lessons from a silly TV show. But it’s a start.

Sorry to go all ‘he’s just not that into you’, but as a closing note… Want to know the sign of a healthy, emotionally stable man?

If somebody really likes you they will make it fairly obvious, generally be quite decent to you, and then ask you to be their girl/boyfriend.

That’s it.

It’s that simple.

(Love you, Jani).

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Credit: Love Island Twitter

 

PS.

Girls, if you’re wondering how to remodel your attitudes toward men, and how you deserve to be treated, I present: Queen Laura.

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Credit: Love Island Twitter

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The magic of simple pleasures

When was the last time you took a few days to remember the magic of simple pleasures?

That’s what I’ve been doing for the last week in the beautiful Basque city of San Sebastian, and as a result, I’m feeling more relaxed and rested than I have done in a long time. To be honest, I’d been feeling a bit worried about this trip; the region can be quite expensive, and for some silly reason I felt pressured to go to lots of expensive restaurants to make sure we had a good time.

But actually, instead of expensive day trips and pricey dinners, we focused on the simple pleasure, from enjoying cheap, local food to walking for miles and miles. As a result, it was the nicest trip I’ve been on in a long time – so here are the simple pleasure I enjoyed on the trup.

The magic of simple pleasures 

Finding the best bakery in the city (hint: it’s the one locals are queueing out the door for), buying an insane amount of pastry, and eating it overlooking the sea.

On that note: being by water, constantly. The sea or a river or a bloody big fountain. Water instantly makes me feel calm.

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Hiking, for a long time, on tricky enough terrain that you have to really think about where you’re stepping. There is such a simple, meditative bliss on focusing on nothing other than putting your feet in front of you.

Deleting work emails off your phone. Unless you have a very serious job or are an entrepreneur, it’s unlikely that you need to be contactable all the time. If your work emails are liable to stress you out despite the fact you can’t action them, why on earth would you read them?

Eating a sandwich made with cheap, local ingredients, overlooking something beautiful. San Sebastián is noted for its prevalence of Michelin star restaurants, and I seriously considered booking one with an amazing view over the city for Adam’s birthday. This would have cost circa €350, and probably would have been incredible – but honestly, eating a ham and cheese baguette at the zenith of a four hour hike, overlooking the Atlantic, was one of my favourite moments of the trip and cost approximately €10.

Watching football in a bar, eating meat and cheese piled on bread, drinking beer, talking with strangers, explaining the group stages of the world cup to Americans.

Playing cards and drinking beer with the person I love.

Reading greedily. I’ve always been a voracious and speedy reader, but over the last year, I’ve spent so much time at work reading and writing that I sometimes get home and slump out on the sofa with my phone instead of picking up a book. This week I’ve remembered the pleasure of tearing through book after book. (Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, Everything I Know About Love, Affluenza, I Choose To Live, High Fidelity and About a Boy, if you’re wondering. All recommended!)

Spanish wine.

img_8192Spanish Cheesecake. (Sorry not sorry about the crappy photo: this stuff has been voted Spain’s 6th best cheesecake and I can vouch that it is DELICIOUS).

Giving myself the freedom to indulge in whatever I want to indulge in, without feeling guilty or uncomfortable.

Sleeping without an alarm, napping in the sun, cuddling in bed.

Thinking about writing without actually doing it, until the ideas build up in my brain and start bouncing around.

It’s been a stressful few weeks and I couldn’t be more relieved to be feeling myself again; next time I’m feeling frazzled, I’ll look back on this list for a reminder of the importance of simple pleasures on holiday.

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