Wednesday, 28 February 2018

My February mental health victories

February has come to an end. It was a month of highs and lows, and my mental health took a few hits along the way. There were days I didn't want to get out of bed, days where I canceled plans, and days where I had to push through a mental block and felt the better for doing it. But today I want to look back on my month and celebrate the little things that went right - my mental health victories.

I went to a Step class
In my February mental health plan I said I wanted to try new classes at my gym. So I was brave, and on the very first day of the month I went to my first ever Step class. It was so much fun, and a super tough workout. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to make it back for a second one, but I can't wait to go back and step in March!

Gratitude Jar
I also set myself the challenge of filling a gratitude jar of things to be grateful for every single day of the month. And I did it! I have 28 reasons to be thankful this month, and each gratitude is a memory to look back on as well.

Got outside
Popular advice for helping your mental health. I'm really bad at taking this advice, but I did manage to grab some fresh air. I had the most amazing snow day at home with my pets. This was all the more special as it had been six weeks since I'd been home to see my family. I had another beautiful snow day in Dublin (there was a lot of snow in February)

I kept up my writing
After neglecting my blog last year and almost giving up, I was a bit worried January's blog enthusiasm would be short lived. But I kept writing and, even better, I keep coming up with ideas for future blog posts. Blogging regularly has been a real source of pride for me this month, so thank you all for caring enough about what I say to make this hobby worthwhile.

This month I have enjoyed channeling my creative side by making the time to collage. I've always loved scrapbooking and making collages, so I love that I've rediscovered this hobby. One of my creations from this month was an autumnal themed page below.

Until next time and next month,

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Positive thinking won't cure your depression

"Also, I was in possession of a positive outlook, which is just a trick whereby you convince yourself that the desolution of your world is a phase in your personal growth. The weird thing is it works." - Sam Lipsyte 'The Fun Parts'
I've just finished another self-help book that promises to hold the keys to findings happiness. And it got me thinking.

One of the most annoying and frequent things you hear when you have depression and anxiety is “Don’t be so negative.” Or maybe you hear “look on the Brightside.”

I get it; I’m not the most optimistic person on the planet. I don’t gush about making the most of all opportunities or finding the one good thing in a shitty situation. And I never will. I consider myself more of a realist if I’m honest.

Now I don’t know about you, but despite being told to be more positive on countless occasions and trying not to think that the worst may happen, I’m still depressed and anxious.

You see, I think positive thinking is overrated. It’s lauded as the saviour to mental health problems, when in reality it’s more like slapping a mentally ill person across the face with the false promise of the happiness they could have had if their brain was wired differently.

Positive thinking will not cure your mental illness. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have its benefits.

I did fall victim to the self-help cult of positivity. I thought that if I read enough books on the subject I would absorb at least a little bit of optimism and happiness. I can’t say I didn’t learn anything, but I certainly didn’t learn how to stop being depressed.

Over three years ago, when my depression first started to ease and I could smile and laugh and feel happiness again, I decided to start reading every self-help book I could get my hands on. I wanted this feeling to last, I wanted my mental illness to stay in ‘recovery’, not to be a daily struggle. So I read and tried to put what I read into practice.

I focused on building resilience. How to make myself stronger in the face of depression and anxiety. I was forging armour for the next time I had to go into battle with my mind.

I learned that I have negative thinking patterns, and spiralling thoughts. And I learned how to challenge negative intrusive thoughts. This is important and a huge skill. But self-help books are all too rarely written from the perspective of someone who has a mental illness. 

And often these skills fail you when you need them most.

When my depression returned to smother me, when I curled up in bed with a self-inflicted migraine and dreaded the next day - telling myself to 'think positively’ didn’t help. When I felt anxious and scratched myself enough to break the skin on my arms, I couldn’t challenge those negative thoughts. When I felt the weight of my mental illness on my shoulders, I felt guilty for not being the positive, happy person those self-help books were supposed to make me.

But yesterday when I was sitting in the canteen in work and thought, “Everyone here must hate me” I could challenge that thought and rationalise how illogical that EVERYONE hates me. Maybe one or two don’t like me, but they probably don’t care enough to hate me.

Positive thinking is something we should be doing every day - not only as a last resort. It’s one of the many coping skills you learn on the path to recovery. But we also should think twice about shoving positivity down the throats of people with mental illness. It’s not always helpful, and can cause more harm than good.

Until next time,

Monday, 19 February 2018

Are We Happy Yet? Another self-help book promising the keys to happiness

Are We Happy Yet? 8 Keys to a Joyful Life

I've just finished reading Are We Happy Yet? by Lisa Gypes Kamen, yet another self-help book that I thought could teach me the magic skill of rewiring my brain for happiness.

I had high hopes for Are We Happy Yet?. Gypes Kamen reveals early on in the book that she's had her own mental health battles. Self-help books from the perspective of someone who has battled depression are all too rare. I thought that finally, I had found a book written with mental illness and depression in mind. Finally a book that didn't say I should just think positively and think happy thoughts to be happy.
“As a reformed depressed person, I did not wander into my happy place. There was a personal evolution to my happiness revolution.”
The fact that she says 'reformed depressed person' should have been my warning sign that I was wrong.

While Gypes Kamen said she wanted to debunk the annoying yellow "smiley face" notion of happiness, the book does go there.

Apparently there are eight keys to living a joyful life. Who knew that I just had to do eight things to find happiness! In fact some of the tips contained within the eight keys are quite thought provoking. I particularly found the emphasis on not holding grudges and learning not to complain useful, because I am a serial complainer. It made me think about how I can improve my constant need to complain and whine.

But the book also delivers cheesy self-help jargon like - "Happy people are resilient people", or how you should choose to thrive rather than mainly survive.

I liked that the book was full of practical tools like journaling and writing prompts. Early on you're asked to define your happiness factor - you natural level of happiness - through 65 questions. Similar quizzes are evident throughout the book, but how these can be considered in anyway scientific isn't clear. Readers are also encouraged to build a happiness toolkit, another practical and useful activity.

What I didn't like however, was the notion that you can cultivate happiness by playing happy music (because listening to happy music apparently makes it impossible to feel sad).

If you haven't read a lot of self-help books and want to dip your toe in, Are We Happy Yet? might be for you. It references lots of other books and authors, and the level of topics in there is like multiple self-help books rolled into one.

Are We Happy Yet? got me thinking about happiness in my own life.
Am I doing enough of what makes me happy? And what am I looking for when I read these self-help books promising happiness? But I can't say I feel happier having read it.

Until next time,

**I requested to review Are We Happy Yet? from Netgalley.**   

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Why it's okay to put yourself first

Do you ever feel guilty about putting yourself first?

Growing up as kids, we're always told from parents and teachers not to be selfish and to put others before yourself. And it's a great tool to be taught - it helps us make friends and learn about friendship on the playground.

But when you struggle with your mental health, sometimes it's good to be selfish. Sometimes we have to be selfish. And what we've been taught as kids can make us feel guilty and ashamed of this.
Ever made up an excuse to cancel plans with a friend because you didn't feel up for it? 
Or wanted to give up on your to-do plans and just crawl into bed after a day in work or college? 
Or tried to avoid your housemates after a tough day because you don't have the energy for small talk? 
Or felt like you had to lie to your work colleagues when they ask what you did at the weekend, rather than admit to the time you spent doing nothing by yourself?
And if you're like me, you probably felt like a bad person, a weak person and incredibly guilty.

Sometimes I just need a 'me night'. A night away from work, from friends and my partner. A night off from the gym and with nothing on my to-do list. I try to make sure I have at least one night like this a week. And when that evening comes around I do whatever I feel like doing. Whether it's curling up with a cup of tea and Netflix, colouring in or crafting, heading straight for bed at 7pm or maybe spending a few hours stuck in a book. It helps me to recover and rest after a long day. It ensures I can face tomorrow.

On bad weeks when I'm low and struggling with my mental health, sometimes I need two nights. And that's just midweek. I also crave one a night like this on weekends too.

And yes, I have had to cancel plans with friends to get this 'me time'. Usually with the flimsiest of excuses of working late or not feeling well, and then I've felt inadequate when I respond to my work colleagues questions with 'oh, nothing much'.

Sometimes I have to withdraw to look after my mental health. If it prevents me from burning out or breaking down, why should I feel guilty or flawed for that?

Self care is more than making a cup of tea or running a bath.
Often it’s broken down to these small acts. And while small acts are important, self care is so much more than that.

Self care is doing what helps your mental health, what makes you feel better and what allows you to get through another day. Sometimes all you need is a cup of tea. Maybe a chat with a friend. But other times, you need to withdraw and take the time to rebuild your defenses. So say no, take a night off and allow yourself the time and space to heal.

Self care is putting yourself first. You know better than anyone what you need to improve your mental health. It will differ from moment to moment and day to day, but do what your mental health needs. If it's canceling plans or hiding out in your bedroom for a bit, do it. And don't feel guilty or like you're failing as a person for it. It's not selfish to prioritise your mental health over tasks, social events or other people's expectations.

But self care is also making sure that putting yourself first doesn't mean you make a habit of isolating yourself. While I need my one night a week for me, I also know that seeing friends or having a chat with housemates boosts my mood on other days. I don't want to become isolated and cut-off, so I try to find a balance.

It's okay to take time out for you. It's okay to put yourself first, to withdraw for a bit and come back healthier and better able to face the next day.

You matter, so make you and your mental health a priority.

Until next time,

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Love yourself this Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and I’m here to say DO NOT LET IT GET YOU DOWN. Whether you are single, broken hearted, or waiting for a match on Tinder, don't let a day about grand romantic gestures and loving another human dictate your self-worth.

Instead, show some love to yourself this Valentine's Day.

One thing I learned during my two years of singledom was that I'd never have a healthy relationship unless I loved myself first, rather than allowing another person's love define me. I had built my mental health around relationships and male approval. In school I felt like a failure for not having kissed a boy, and then for not having a boyfriend, and then for not having sex. When I finally got male attention, I dived straight in.

I had two break ups in my late teens, both leading to breakdowns resulting in self-harm and suicide attempts. While I had depression before and during these relationships, being with someone was the only thing keeping me alive. I had thought my mental illness made me unlovable. And so I felt worthless without a partner because I hadn’t yet learned to love myself.

Three years later and two years of being single and I learned that I was never going to have a truly happy, healthy relationship without learning to like myself when I didn't have a partner around. Over those years I invested time and energy in self-care and building self-esteem. When I finally met someone new, it was because I felt ready to invite someone else into my life. Although I knew I'd still need a lot of self-care and me-time.

Now here I am — 25, in a healthy relationship and happy.

So this Valentine's Day why not work on self-love rather than validation from another person?
Take the time to re-build yourself, feel empowered and loved.

It's time to get cheesy and love yourself.

Here's some of my suggestions for treating yourself this Valentine's Day.

Write yourself a letter
You know how your parents (or grandparents if you're younger than me...) used to write each other love letters when they were courting? Well I think it's adorable and a lost art. Write yourself a love letter this Valentines full of self-praise, encouragement and compliments. Because you are awesome and you deserve to be told so.

Buy yourself a bouquet of flowers
One summer's day a few years ago as I walked past a flower stall on the street, I realised I had always wanted someone to by me flowers. But so far, no one ever had. So I decided to buy myself a sun flower and it felt so good to have a beautiful flower to take home and display. Make a splurge and treat yourself to the bouquet of flowers you've always wanted.

Jar of why you love you
Need a pick-me-up? Why not make a jar of positive reasons you love yourself to look at on your bad days? I washed out and decoupaged an old jam jar (and made it look suitably cheesy), and printed and cut out strips of paper saying 'I love you because....'. Write down as many reasons you love yourself for you (your eyes, how you cope under pressure etc.) that it takes to fill up the jar. And you'll always have them when the going gets tough.

Pamper session
I'm talking fresh sheets on your bed, a bubble bath, face masks, do your nails. Whatever it is that makes you feel more confident in how you look, do it. Body positivity affects mental health, and cultivating a healthy body image is so important. Treat yourself and do what makes you feel good and comfortable in you.

Create a self-care box
A self-care box can be anything you want it to be. All you need is a box, and all the things that bring you comfort and make you feel better. My self-care box contains a journal, some of my favourite herbal teas, a packet of nerds, hot chocolate, a small colouring book and a letter to my future self to read on hard days. Not only is it cute and pretty, but it’s just a relief to know you have a safe place to turn when you’re feeling down. See more on creating a self care box here.

Get an early night
Sleep is underrated. You deserve the best, so get into bed early and catch up on your rest. 

Until next time,

Monday, 5 February 2018

Hey, guess what? I’m still depressed!

I know that I'm always smiling in my Instagram photos. And that all my recent blog posts have been focused on mental health improvements and victories.

But hey, guess what? I’m still depressed!

Depression isn't the mask you show the world. The reality of living with a mental illness isn't even always evident on a mental health blog.

Being depressed doesn’t mean I’m sad all the time.
It doesn’t mean I cry myself to sleep, or that I can’t sleep. I take medication that makes me hungry and makes me sleep.

This is what depression looks like

Being depressed means that for no logical reason, I still wake up sad, lacking hope and motivation and feeling like a failure.
It means that my natural level of happiness is lower than the average person. 
That I still doubt and hate myself.
That one small comment or act can send me in a thought spiral until I'm convinced the world hates me.
That I can't pick myself back up when life knocks me down.
That I need a lot of alone time to be able to function.
That my thoughts and feelings can make me physically ill.
That I can go through entire days and weeks in a trance without registering what's going on around me.
That sometimes I live on autopilot with thinking, feeling or experiencing.
That I smile with my mouth but not with my eyes; while inside I feel self-conscious, judged, stupid, inferior.
That I feel worthless.
That I feel like I don't deserve happiness.
That I can be in a crowded room, filled with people I know, and still feel utterly alone.
That some days I can't feel anything.

It means that I live in fear of the depression winning.

I'm not doing better than you. I'm not a pinnacle of mental health recovery. Don't let my smiles and positivity fool you. I try to keep my content positive by sharing what helps my mental health in the hope that it will help others who are struggling.

I'm still struggling too. I still have bad days, hard days, horrible days. I'm still depressed. I'm still battling, living with and surviving my depression.

Until next time,

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Debunking the mental health myths

As a mental health activist, I'm aware that there are a lot of misconceptions out there when it comes to mental health. For one, we all have mental health (whether good or bad), and mental health should not be synonymous with mental illness. So when I finished a new book all about psychology myths, I knew I'd have to talk about it.

50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein debunks what a lot of us actually believe about human behaviour and mental illness.

Psychological myths can be dangerous. What people think is true about mental illness can perpetuate the stigma and cause harm. And this is the bread and butter of this book - challenging stereotypes that exist thanks to misleading popular culture. Whether its news stories in the media, or what we consume in books and films, what we consume shapes how we think and feel about an issue.

For example, one stigmatising myth that keeps popping up in the media these days is that people with mental illness are dangerous. Whether it's terrorists, murderers, or even President of America, Donald Trump - lately the media is reinforcing the idea that mental illness is dangerous and is used as a justification for heinous crimes (Yes I did say heinous crimes like I was doing the Law & Order voiceover).
Myths like "most mentally ill people are dangerous" are debunked with science, evidence and facts.
And the book tackles this one, because there is no evidence that someone with a mental illness is more dangerous than someone without one. And people with a mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of, rather than the perpetrators, of violence. Yet the media coverage virtually guarantees that many people will think “violence” whenever they hear “mental illness” (Ruscio, 2000). And now I have sources and quotes aplenty for every time I have this argument on Twitter. (Which is a lot.)

That's not the only myth the book tackles - there are 50 of them after all. The media has also shaped, and mislead, public opinion about ECT (electric convulsive therapy) and schizophrenia.
"The misleading stereotype of schizophrenics as persons who act like two completely different people on different occasions has become ingrained in modern culture."
It also lists 10 sources of psychological myths, such as where they come from and why they exist, so that you can bust them yourself.

My favourite thing about the book was that all the self-help nonsense that has sold millions of books and that I've been buying into for years is debunked with clinical trials and research. It definitely helped me to unlearn old habits of thinking. For example, dismissing the 5 stages of grief, or challenging the validity of IQ tests. The book also details the harm these beliefs can lead to - like if we all just dismiss teenager's mood swings as 'normal', it may stop them from seeking and receiving the help and support they may need.

If you have an interest in stigma or even in the science and evidence behind popular beliefs, this book is a good read. It's also filled with puns, which always makes science a bit more fun!

Until next time,

Thursday, 1 February 2018

How I'm looking after my mental health this February

Rather than large, unrealistic New Year's Resolutions, I like to break down my plans for happiness and mental health into realistic sizes that I can work on each month. 

My January 2018 was a good mental health month because I had a plan in place, habits to track and goals to achieve. So for February I'm doing the same.

This month I want to build on what I achieved in January. I'm working on my self-confidence, journaling, bettering myself in work and staying motivated.

Mental Health tracking.
As previously discussed on the blog, I'm thinking about coming off my anti-depressants this year, I need to start tracking my mental health. Whether its low moods, or days when I feel ecstatic, I need to become more aware of my good and bad days. 

Find something to be grateful for everyday.
I started a gratitude jar last month, but it was a sporadic place to put things I felt grateful for when I remembered to. But I want more that that. For February I want to find something to add to my gratitude jar every day. 

Try new gym classes.
All of January I went to the same gym class, all be it on different days. But it's time to shake things up. I want to keep motivation up so it's time to be brave and try new classes. My gym has so many classes to offer, but I like familiarity so I always attend the one I know. 

Keep writing.
After a year of turmoil with the blog (where I felt uninspired and contemplated giving up), I suddenly, and somehow re-found my blogging spark in January. I hadn't intended to start writing. But once I started, I couldn't stop. And I don't want to stop. There is something therapeutic about writing  and something calming about the structure and routine it brings to my life. I've really missed this sense of achievement. I also want to keep writing offline too like in my 52 Lists Project.

Eat better.
I'm sick of eating junk food and then feeling guilty about it. So I decided to donate (to some very willing kids) all of my bags of popcorn, chocolates and biscuits I had in my room. I'm not about to give up all my favourite foods - Galaxy chocolate is still allowed in as big a quantity as I want, I still have some packs of jellies, and I will always consider McDonalds as the first option when I wanna grab some takeaway. This is about getting rid of the junk food I don't even like, the stuff I just eat for the sake of eating. I'm talking a bag of sweet popcorn, Crunchie bars and KitKats, all that stuff in my biscuit tin I've been working my way through for the past few months. And I feel great for having gotten rid of it. 

Professional life.
I want to keep building my confidence in the workplace and in my professional life this month. To this end I've submitted a training plan for February so that I can increase my skills and feel confident and comfortable, and in control, in my day-to-day job. I also want to update my CV. It's been over a year since I last had to submit a CV, and I've learnt and achieved a lot since then - so it's time to revise.  

Be creative.
Whether it's taking pretty blog pictures, or making cards or collages, I loved making time to create in January. But I want more of that. I want more nights dedicated to scrapbooking, and to have more than two collages to show for a whole month. I find cutting and gluing and sticking and creating so relaxing and calming for me. It keeps me busy and my mind quiet. I also want to keep creating content for my blog; be it photos or original new posts. 

Do you set monthly goals? Or do you have new things you want to try to improve your mental health this month? Let me know in the comments below.

Until next time,