Are you okay?

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How would you ask for help?’

‘What sort of help?’

‘Mental health help.’

‘… I’d ask you.’

‘Ha. No, but seriously. In general.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ways of Offering Help

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

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

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

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dealing with anxiety

Asking for mental health help

It’s a difficult thing, asking for help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why don’t we ask for help?

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

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

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

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

Ways of asking for help with your mental health 

Asking for mental health help: friends and family

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

Asking for mental health help: Medical help

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

Asking for mental health help: Talking Therapies

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

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

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best apps for mental health

Finding ‘appiness: the best apps for mental health

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

Best apps for mental health

  1. Headspace

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

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

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

  1. Nike Training Club

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

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

  1. Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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dealing with anxiety

Dealing with anxiety: just sit with it

Dealing with anxiety is a funny thing.

It isn’t easy, but for the most part, you have to battle against it. As exhausting as it is, if you want to live any sort of a life, you have to try. Take your medication, go for your run, see your counsellor.

Because usually, these actions will help—at least, that’s my general experience, as is probably evident from the fact I run a blog bursting with tips for anxiety relief.

But sometimes—when the weather is awful and you’re tired and you’re stressed—it still doesn’t matter. Anxiety is a sly bastard, and it can creep up on you no matter how well you look after yourself. You can expend so much energy trying to do everything right, and still feel wrong.

(Wrong, in this case, being a numb, foggy feeling in my temples. A rolling swoop of fear in my belly at the smallest confrontation or sharp word. A tightening in my chest, and an insurmountable feeling of paralysis that makes it hard to focus, work, get out of bed).

This seems unfair, I think: so deeply unfair. But (obviously) life isn’t fair, so there’s no point dwelling too much on this. And (as someone wise pointed out to me this week) there’s also no point in beating yourself up.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to give yourself a break and sit with it. This is counter to our culture: we value productivity and solutions, quick-fixes and a ‘doing anything you set your mind to!’ attitude.

We’re also not used to just hanging out with unsettling emotions, most of us having been trained from our earliest days to avoid unpleasant sensations as a simple act of self-preservation. Feeling anxious is deeply unpleasant, so I very rarely allow myself just to sit with my nervously pumping heart and general feeling of unease. My instinct, when I feel anxious, is to try and do anything to kick it into touch.

But this weekend—at a loss for a better solution, not to mention feeling very short on energy—I’ve tried a new approach to dealing with anxiety. When my thoughts have started racing, I’ve just let them be. Like I’d accept a headache: frustrating, but not something to fundamentally be distraught about. (I haven’t worried myself about the jobs I wanted to get done, either. They’ll wait).

Sitting with your racing thoughts and allowing yourself to feel nothing but your anxiety is like doing a deep, painful stretch. It feels uncomfortable, for sure. But if you find somewhere quiet, settle in, and let the thoughts and feelings roll through you—eventually, you might come to a quiet place in your mind. It’s almost meditative.

Kind of like letting a snowball gain steam down a mountain. It seems like you’re hurtling towards disaster, letting your mind have free reign like this—but eventually, it always come to a stop. (Or melts.)

It’s not always a solution. Sometimes when dealing with anxiety, you have to do the work. Eat your greens, move your body, see your therapist. Sometimes—most of the time, in fact—you have to keep on battling through whatever you’re battling through.

But not all the time. Sometimes, you can just sit with it, accepting that your anxiety can exist within you without the world ending.

Things might not get done. You might not be productive at work. You might not be great company. But when you’re on the other side of it—as you always will be, eventually—you’ll know something important. Your anxiety can never truly overcome you. But you can always survive it.

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tips for anxiety relief

Tips for anxiety relief: five under £10

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

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

tips for anxiety reliefGet immersed in art

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

Get rid

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

tips for anxiety relief 2Get ‘appy

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

Get active

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

Get outside

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

tips for anxiety relief

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