Small Comforts #2: Back to Basics

A series of blogs to help those struggling with isolation

Uncertainty and powerlessness over our own lives have become our new normal, and that’s very difficult for everyone, let alone somebody who is naturally prone to depression or anxiety. Feeling powerless can be a massive trigger for distress and hopelessness.

One of the hard parts of this current situation is not knowing how long it is going to last. It reminds me of being in the middle of a bad bout of depression when you can’t see a way out, and it feels like life is always going to be always to be this bad. It’s hard to cling on to positivity when everything around is negative.

Among the most useful pieces of advice I’ve gotten over the years is that when times are bad, you should concentrate on the (very) basics. This is the way to get through the worst days, and hopefully a better day will follow. Comfort can come from having a day where you follow all the basics and you feel less useless at the end of the day than you did at the start. Don’t underestimate the power of that.

The basics might go something like this:

  1. Eat three proper meals – nourishing yourself is a good way of self-soothing.
  2. Get a good amount of sleep – don’t worry too much if you find yourself sleeping more than normal. A nice nap can do wonders to reset a bad day.
  3. Try to get outside for some (social distanced) exercise if you can. Feeling physically strong helps a lot if you are struggling mentally. I’ve always found that being outside, in nature, is a great way of grounding myself when my head has started to go a bit mad.
  4. Get washed and dressed – Even washing your face and putting on clean pyjamas can lift your mood slightly. A nice double-cleanse at the end of the day is also a good way to be kind to yourself.
  5. Do one basic task everyday which will give you a sense of accomplishment. This is something you can think about when you go to bed at night to mark out today as a good day. It doesn’t matter what the task is: it could be cleaning; a piece of work; anything that occupies your mind and gives you back some self-worth. My task for today has been writing this.
  6. Don’t compare your life to others.  Try not to spend too much time on social media, if anything it can make you feel more isolated if you feel like everyone on your feed is having virtual house parties.
  7. Don’t obsess about the future – Now is not the time to question the bigger problems in your world. Your life might be very far from where you would like it to be at the moment but that’s ok. You might feel like you are going to be trapped where you are now forever; I know I do sometimes. Thoughts like this make me feel overwhelmed and so panicky so I literally have to haul myself out of it by distracting myself with something simple.

I realise that “focusing on the basics” might seem a bit, well, basic – I’m sure if you are at home right now looking after small children AND trying to work then you may roll your eyes at this advice! But I’m thinking more of someone who is alone, feeling anxiety for the first time and struggling with the impacts of enforced isolation. In those circumstances, the basics can often get neglected. Feeling a lack of purpose is terrible for your mental health and simple things like this may seem silly but achieving the basics when you feel overwhelmed is something to be proud of.

One last thing: I feel incredibly guilty all the time at the moment for suffering from depression, and for those feelings still being in my head during these strange times. If you feel that way too then please don’t beat yourself up about it. You’re not weak, you’re not a failure. You have an illness and that illness isn’t going to magically disappear just because a pandemic comes along. So: be compassionate to yourself as well as others. You are not alone in feeling scared, anxious or upset right now.

 

Small Comforts

A series of blogs to help those struggling with isolation

As someone who has suffered from mental illness for quite a while, some of the advice I have been given or offered to others just seems completely pointless at the moment. Trying to get out of your own head and concentrate on the outside world is hard when that world is going through unprecedented events. We are all trying our best to navigate a way through, without any map to guide us.

Depression tends to make you ruminate on past mistakes and very fearful of the future. Indeed, a future often seems impossible to imagine in the midst of a depressive episode. Alongside that, anxiety can cause an incessant, repetitive worry about what’s behind and in front of us. Therefore, we are told to try to learn the skills of being in the present: “live in the moment”!

Well, living in the moment right now is frankly bloody difficult for all of us. Of course, I worry about the impact of enforced isolation on those of us who suffer with mental illness, but I’m equally worried about people I love who have never known what’s it’s like to suffer from anxiety. I fear for the impact that the lack of social engagement will have on them.

I’m not sure I have much to offer in terms of help but hey, I’ve dealt with the challenges of isolation before so I am therefore going to use this period of self-isolation to write about the little things that have brought me comfort in my darkest days, in the hope that it may help someone who is struggling in the current climate. These small comforts are the little distractions that keep the dread of life at bay for a little while. The one absolute truth I have learned is that all you can do in the darkness is get through one day at a time – sometimes even just one hour at a time – and keep hoping that each new day is a step closer to normality.

SmallComforts #1 (cookery shows)

Whether you are in isolation and all alone, or stuck indoors with your family, I reckon a half hour of escapism to soothe your frazzled brain will be welcome. So here is my first suggestion: cookery shows!

The news can be extremely agitating right now – especially if you’re prone to feelings of hopelessness or anxiety anyway. That means that the best distractions are often light-hearted – it is difficult to concentrate on anything too serious. I have always found cookery shows to be extremely soothing in times of crisis, so here are a few of my favourites:

Barefoot Contessa, Food Network

This features Ina Garten and her adorable husband Jeffrey as they go about their merry life living in the Hamptons. Ina uses at least twelve sticks of butter in all her recipes, and Jeffrey arrives home every Friday night from the city with flowers for Ina, who will have his favourite chicken dinner ready. They are “couple goals” for sure, which helps to soothe a bruised heart as well as an aching head.

Pioneer Woman, Food Network

This is my top tip for escapism. The Pioneer Woman is Ree Drummond who lives (wait for it!) on a huge cattle ranch in Oklahoma. She shares recipes that she uses to feed her wholesome family, as well as all the cowboys on the ranch. The Drummonds seem to own most of Oklahoma as far as I can make out, and are probably Republicans, but leave all that to one side and enjoy the wholesomeness of the whole thing.

Ree makes cookies and drops parcels off for her pastor, her sons say things like ‘yes ma’am’, and Ladd (the husband) is easy enough on the eye. Oh, and Chuck (the grandad) also seems like great craic. As for the food, these people consume insane amounts of meat, including steaks for breakfast. Ree cooks up brilliant American stuff like grits, Frito pie, snacks to accompany big football games, and tex-mex which the cowboys seem to have a grá for.

Once she’s done cooking, she loads everything into her pick-up truck and drives it out to the lads who are working cattle or something (they always look remarkably clean, so I’m, suspicious about this premise). Ree then hands out the food and everyone is happy. My only complaint is that I have NEVER seen anyone drink a cup of tea on this programme (more about the comforting power of tea to come in a future blog!). More specifically, Ree brings dessert to the cowboys with a lack of hot beverages of any description. You cannot be having dessert without tea or coffee to accompany it, as any Irish person will tell you.

Other notable mentions include: any Nigel Slater show: he is pleasingly scatty, and his Simple Cooking series is airing again on BBC1 in April. A dear friend also introduced me to the delights of old Keith Floyd. His Floyd on France shows are charming with sumptuous scenery – and available on the BBC iPlayer.

More generally, I find most cookery shows offer an easy way to comfort yourself and take the edge off anxiety. The gentle distraction can help, even if it’s just a little. This is the key to managing anxiety, distress or feelings of hopelessness. I suppose it’s the equivalent of soothing an upset child with a simple diversion. We all need comfort.

More Small Comforts blogs are on the way…

First aid kit

My life imploded last year, despite my best efforts to hold it together.

I had a job I loved, but I was barely able to function and couldn’t go to work. I had a man I loved and who loved me and a relationship which could have been wonderful, but I was so ill that I kept fighting it and him. I simply could not allow anyone to love me because I hated myself so much. This self-loathing manifested itself as anger and made us both miserable. I had wonderful friends who offered me support but I was too low to get out of my room and too anxious to be around people. My life wasn’t working because my head wasn’t working.

I had to leave London and go back to Ireland to get well. I did this through a mixture of psychiatric support, medication and counselling. I worked through a lot of hurt I’d been carrying with me for many years and finally let it go. For me, being well means being able to function again. I’m always going to be prone to anxiety but now I’m managing it and it doesn’t control me or stop me living my life.

My biggest fear now that I am well and back in London is that I will get hit by another bout of depression and be sucked back down into that horrible spiral of mental distress. I tend to panic on a bad day and think I’m on the way to another breakdown. Life is inevitably stressful and there is no way of avoiding that.

However, it has occurred to me that there are things I can do to protect myself in preparation for these little blips, so that the feeling passes (which it invariably does). The key is to bandage up my fragile mind so that stress doesn’t damage it.

I thought about something that happened a few weeks ago. There was a weekend when I was physically really ill and had to stay in bed with a really high temperature. At one point on the Saturday, I cried my eyes out because all I wanted was some 7up (the cure to all illnesses as any Irish mammy will tell you) and there was nobody here to get me some. This was my lowest point since I’ve returned to London: I felt utterly alone. However, I genuinely think I wouldn’t have felt so bad if I’d had some “mammy medicine” on hand. So, once I’d recovered, I stocked up on emergency supplies of 7up for the next time I’m sick.

So, stocking up my mental health first aid kit is something I have been working on. Some things are tangible, like the 7up, but other remedies are about how I think and plan my life. Here are some of the most important things I’m working on:

1. Physical strength – being as strong as I can physically is the best thing I have learned to do for my mental health. Being physically ill is terrible for my mental health – too much time to think and ruminate is not good for me. So I’m trying to eat well (plenty of green smoothies), take a lot of vitamins and up the amount of exercise I do.

2. Rest – being tired is a huge trigger for me. Bad days are always a hundred times more tricky if I haven’t slept. I get tired easily and I used to beat myself up about this. However, now I’ve come to accept the fact that sometimes I need a nap to get through a bad day! It’s nothing to be ashamed of and sometimes rest and sleep is the only cure for a low mood or a massive bout of anxiety. Not feeling guilty about this is the key here.

3. Widening my world – depression can shrink your social circle. I spent months alone in my bedroom at my lowest point as I just could not be around people. My world was just me and the thoughts in my head. However, isolation is really not a good cure for a bad day! The first step in my recovery was opening up and letting people back in. Having as many people in my life as I can is hugely important to me; I am well enough now to stand on my two feet but having a support system that I know is there for back up is a huge comfort.

4. Changing my mindset – I’ll let you in a little secret: I’ve never known how to be happy. I didn’t think I deserved happiness so it terrified me – I didn’t know how to relax and allow myself not to worry. Moreover, I assumed I was broken and I would never learn how to be happy. The key word here is learn: I’m slowly figuring out to change this mindset and allow joy into my life. Finding happiness in little things is a wonderful cure for a bad day. The simple act of making myself a cup of tea and reading a good book is a great solution to anxious moments.

5. Self-acceptance – this is the most challenging remedy I have been working on and also the most important. Learning to be compassionate to myself is the kindest thing I can do on a bad day. I have had to put in a lot of hard work to let go of all the self- loathing I have held inside for many years, and accept myself the way I am. This is very difficult for me and I have to work at it every day, but self-acceptance is a big tool to fight depression with. Feeling comfortable with myself is the mental equivalent of wrapping my mind up in bubble wrap to protect it from negative thoughts.

So that’s how I’m handling my mental first aid kit. Mind you, anyone who knows me will have noticed that I am also extremely accident-prone and clumsy… so maybe I should also make a big bubble-wrap coat to protect the rest of me!

Four practical tips for managing anxiety

I have struggled with both depression and anxiety in my life, and of the two, I would say that anxiety has actually had more of an impact on my daily life. I think of depression as a huge tide that comes crashing over me periodically, like when you’re surfing, and you’re “washing-machined” by an unexpected wave. It picks you up, spins you around and throws you down disoriented on the sand. Anxiety, on the other hand, is like a lot of little waves that just keep coming. The surf never stops, and anxiety doesn’t either. That said, small waves can be managed; if you are standing tall they can’t knock you down. So, here are some ways I manage my anxiety by rising above the waves.

1. The one hour rule. My anxiety is always at its worst first thing in the morning. I wake up consumed by worry, and that makes the day seem impossible. To manage this, I use a trick where I make myself get up and tell myself its only for one hour: sixty minutes to have breakfast and take my medication. After that, I can go back to bed if I have to. This breaks the worry down into a manageable chunk and then I can cope with getting out of bed. Then, breakfast raises my blood sugar levels which improves my mood, and I rarely need to play the going-back-to-bed card.

I use the one hour rule for other things I find overwhelming – for example, I tell myself I only have to go out for an hour and then I can go home if I have to. It’s often the anticipation of something that makes me anxious, and I usually feel better once I’m out of the house and with people. The one hour rule just helps me get over that initial stumbling block. It can also be adjusted to a shorter period of time on a really bad day.

2. Turning my phone off at night. I struggle with sleep, and tend to lie awake ruminating about past mistakes and worrying about what the future holds. Here’s a shocker: it turns out that endlessly scrolling through Instagram and Twitter late at night is in no way helpful for avoiding these thoughts!

Blue light from your phone can suppress production of melatonin (the hormone we need to sleep), and the internet is no place for an anxious brain that is struggling to switch off. This is something I really find difficult, and I have a terrible habit of reaching out for my phone at night if I can’t sleep – even though being online in the middle of the night when you feel at your most vulnerable is a terrible idea. Nothing good is going to come from messaging someone at half one in the morning, trust me! So I have bought an old-fashioned alarm clock to help me beat my phone habit, and I’m going to start leaving my phone downstairs at night time. It’s for my own good. Step. Away. From. The. Phone.

3. Stop comparing myself to others. My inner voice can be cruel and I inevitably come up short when I compare myself to other people. I like the Theodore Roosevelt quote which describes comparison as “the thief of joy”. I couldn’t agree more. Anxiety for me is essentially an endless cycle of negative thoughts fizzing away at the back of my brain. I berate myself for not being good enough for anybody or anything. This can even involve being cross with myself for being anxious in the first place! I see my friends coping brilliantly with full lives, careers and children, and I wonder why I can barely leave the house. This leaves me feeling pathetic and like a failure. It’s a vicious circle and there is no way I can win the battle in my head.

The way I try to manage this is to step outside of myself and turn my focus onto these other people. I try to practise kindness every day. Little things make me feel better, like baking a cake for a friend or making dinner for my family; so it becomes a way of being kind to myself too. I’m never going to measure up to other people in my own head, so I’m better off getting out of that negative headspace by turning my focus outwards.

4. Exercise! I’m really not good at this, despite appearances from the photo accompanying this blog! That bemused face marks the one and only time I’ve completed a 5k run, so I’m not going to miss the opportunity to remind myself it can be done. I rarely feel like I have enough energy to make myself get out there, but I know it’s great for my anxiety when I do. I’ve recently been angrily reminded of this by my body – my neck literally seized up a few weeks ago from all the anxiety that has been stored up there, and I have been going for very painful sessions of acupuncture to try and relax my muscles. The acupuncturist thinks that I store tension and anxiety in my spine, and I need to get moving to try and prevent this tension from building up.

And so I have unrolled my sadly-neglected yoga mat and started stretching every day. I’m also getting out of the house for a short walk on a daily basis. Walking is the most beneficial for me as I can feel the tension seeping out of my body while I pound the footpath. I’m going to try to work back up to my glory days of running, as I also found this brilliant for getting out of my head. Loud music in my ears while watching my feet move is a brilliant form of escapism. I need those exercise endorphins…

Mind you, I did once run into a tree while training for that one famous 5k, as I was so busy watching my feet. So, yeah, don’t do that. Managing your anxiety can help you to rise above the waves, but it can’t stop a tree from bruising your forehead!

A New Relationship

“The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself. And if you can find someone to love the you that you love, well, that’s just fabulous.”

Carrie Bradshaw

Like most women of a certain age, I was obsessed with Sex and the City back in the day. I loved the clothes and the exciting lives they all led in New York… But most of all, I loved Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment. (Ah, how I wish it was possible to live like that writing one newspaper column per week!)

Anyway, the reason I quote Carrie now is that I am painfully aware that I have never managed to achieve a relationship with myself like this, and that has been a significant factor in my struggles with mental illness. And, to illustrate just how differently I view myself, let’s compare Carrie’s words to the following monologue that goes on in my head most days:

“YOU’RE UGLY, YOU’RE DISGUSTING. YOUR LIFE IS A FAILURE. HOW COULD ANYONE LOVE YOU? YOU’RE A WORTHLESS, SPINELESS, USELESS WASTE OF SPACE. YOU’RE A BURDEN AND I HATE YOU”

My Inner Voice

Imagine if someone said that to you. You’d be really upset, right? Well, those are the thoughts that swirl in my mind all day, every day. I’ve never liked myself, and have always compared myself unfavourably to other people. I always felt like the ugly duckling of my friend group. My self-loathing increased dramatically after being raped and it’s spiralled out of control since then. To be more specific, I’ve developed unhealthy coping mechanisms like self-harming.

That’s years and years of being my own worst enemy, of always being harsh on myself and never learning how to be comfortable in my own skin. I’ve tried to look for comfort in relationships, to find someone who could rescue me from myself. But of course, it doesn’t work like that. It is impossible to love somebody else if you don’t love yourself. You end up resenting the other person because you can’t understand why they love you, or even like you.

Loving yourself isn’t about ‘self-care’, bubble baths, or treating yourself to nice clothes. That’s all very nice and to be encouraged, but on a deeper level loving yourself comes down to silencing your inner critic, making healthy choices and looking after yourself. It involves being able to look in the mirror and pick out something good, rather than obsessing over tiny flaws.

The irony is that being kind is something that comes naturally to me, except when it comes to myself. I love looking after other people, yet I find it impossible to look after myself.

So I’ve decided I’m going to give a relationship with myself a go. To be honest, I don’t have a choice anymore. I’ve come to the end of the road this year when it comes to my mental health. I reached rock bottom at the start of the year, and I’ve found myself back at home, living with my family and unable to work or function.

The good news is that I’m doing everything I can to improve my mental health. I’m going to counselling, I take medication and I’m putting in all the hard work… yet I now realise none of it will make a difference if I can’t learn to follow Carrie Bradshaw’s advice and develop a relationship with myself. So I need to learn to at least like myself, at least a little. I might not ever learn to love myself as much as New York’s most improbably well-paid columnist, but I might be able to develop a kinder inner voice.

Running to stand still

I feel like I have spent the past year running. The problem is: I’ve been going round in circles.

It’s now the end of June, and I’ve been fighting my current bout of depression since last year. This time it has brought me to my knees and I’ve found myself back at home, living with my family in Cork, having had to give up my job and my life in London. (I say life, but in reality, life had shrunk to the point where I was confined to my room, barely able to function.) Coming home for some support was a last-ditch effort to find a way to get well.

Unfortunately, this has been the pattern of my life for the last number of years. I get well for a while, try to live my own life, and yet somehow it all comes crashing down and I have to come back home again. Here is the thing: I have been dealing with mental illness since my early twenties, and I always thought someday it would go away; that I would wake up one day and be happy. I thought moving to London would make it better: starting a new life, getting married, having a job I loved. And yet… none of it lasted. These things did help for a while, but the anxiety and depression were always lurking beneath the surface, waiting to pounce. That happiness never became the norm and here is the reason why: I hate myself.

Deep down, I blame myself for being raped, and I think I am disgusting. These are the sentiments that have defined most of my life and there is no running away from that. Everything I feel stems from this. I don’t think I deserve to be happy, I can’t accept myself the way I am, and I am consistently my own worst enemy. The inner voices in my head are always telling me I’m not good enough. I thought I had dealt with the rape and the trauma years ago but I’ve come to realise that isn’t the case. Getting divorced last year seems to have brought all the old feelings of shame and loathing to the surface.

Running home hasn’t made these feelings go away, but it has forced me to reflect on what’s going on in my head. I’m tired of running; tired of trying to escape myself. It’s not possible, of course. I have to learn how to like me as I am, and work out how to feel compassion for myself.

For now, that involves taking my medication and continuing with counselling. It doesn’t always feel like I’m getting that far, but at least I’m standing still and taking stock. That’s the only way I’ll create the space to change the conversation inside my own head.

 

Radio Star…

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to speak on the radio about my blog and my experience of anxiety. An old school friend of mine who works in the Irish media contacted me to ask if I was interested in talking to PJ Coogan from The Opinion Line on Cork’s 96FM  to take part in a segment on panic attacks. This all came about following a video posted online by an Irish actress called Rachel Sarah Murphy, entitled ‘ Panic attack on a Train’. The video went viral,  and the production team at the Opinion Line decided to raise awareness of the issue.

I got a message asking me if I was interested at half past two on a Tuesday afternoon, and the interview took place the following morning. I told friends and family in Cork and elsewhere to listen out for me, and as the interview approached, I sat at my kitchen table in my pyjamas, already shaking with nerves. And then, just as I was waiting to go on air, the phone line went dead! All I could think of was the humiliation of my Auntie Mary waiting to hear me at home, PJ announcing my name, and me not being there…

Of course, these people are professionals, so they called me back and soon it was all systems go. PJ immediately put me at ease and we talked about my experiences of mental illness and my methods of coping. We also touched on panic attacks, and how to help somebody who might be suffering from depression and anxiety. My favourite part of the chat was talking about the very Irish phrase of ‘cop yourself on’, and how to deal with unhelpful advice from others. I felt completely overwhelmed after the interview, and it has taken me until today to listen back to it and feel able to share it here. Speaking about mental health can be difficult, but ultimately I find it very rewarding, so I’ve decided to share the interview here in the hope that it will help others.

Click on the “play” button below to have a listen, and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

I don’t need to punish myself

Summer is almost over and I’m looking forward to the leaves falling from the trees and having an excuse to buy a new pair of autumn boots. I’ve written before about how I find summer to be the most difficult part of the year. Bright sunshine tends to make me panic and gouge holes in my face. That’s an odd sentence, I know; so let me walk you through how it happens…

I was raped when I was younger, and subsequently developed an obsession with hair. I associate hair with being dirty and have a compulsive need to be hair free. If I have no hair, then I’m clean you see? And being clean means I’m ok and not dirty. Writing this down is making me feel sad: it’s pretty clear to rational-writing-me that this hair removal ritual is because deep down I still blame myself for being raped.

I’m 36 years old and I was raped when I was 21. That’s a hell of a long time to punish myself for something that wasn’t my fault, but it’s a hard habit to shake off. I didn’t tell anybody about the rape until a few months after the event, and by then I had turned all my pain and anger inward. I started self-harming and my campaign of hate against myself had begun.

This has taken many different forms over the years: the aforementioned self- harming, an inability to look after myself properly, and the compulsion to be hair free and ‘clean’. The need to free myself of ‘dirt’ has probably caused me the most distress over the years. I’m not sure I could count up the hours lost in my magnifying mirror, trying to pluck out tiny hairs; first with tweezers, and then if that doesn’t work, with a needle, to get the tiny ones out from my pores. This is obviously a battle I am destined to lose, as we all have tiny hairs all over our bodies which are not going to enjoy being ‘gone at’ with a needle. So I emerge from this daily battle covered in red marks: self-harm 1 – me 0.

I’ve tried numerous times over the years to try to curb these compulsions. I’ve thrown away countless magnifying mirrors, yet I always buy a new one. My natural instinct when I have a bad day is to blame the fact that I am ‘disgusting’. So, to combat this, I’m trying a new tactic of putting little signs up all over my room like the one at the top of this blog: mantras to help bring some positivity into my head.

I have one more tactic which I am going to try today. I am going to write a paragraph to myself, and to anyone else who might need to hear this. It doesn’t matter who raped you, what you were wearing, or whether you had been drinking. Rape is not your fault. The rapist is the only person to blame; the only person who made that choice. There is nothing you could have done to deserve that. And if you haven’t done anything wrong, then you don’t need to be punished, do you?

So with that in mind, I am going to try and set down my weapons of war, and I urge you to do the same. Of all the relationships I’ve ever had, the one with myself is the most destructive. But the good news is that we’re working hard to resolve our issues.

Colouring in and covfefe

It’s been eight weeks now since I tore my calf muscle. That’s eight weeks of crutches and immobility. I’ve had to move back in temporarily with my ex, as my new flat is up several flights of stairs, and that’s not really manageable without two working legs. But I’m lucky that I have somewhere to go and people to look after me (including my dog, who helpfully licks my foot every now and then to ease the pain). I’ve not been able to work and Netflix has become my new best friend. But one way or another, Josh, Dougal, my crutches and I have managed to get by for the past few weeks.

My mental health has suffered somewhat as a result of this enforced period of inactivity. I have wonderful friends who have called round and kept me occupied (and even painted my toenails – thank you Eleanor!) but it’s difficult to keep fighting anxiety when you are cut off from the outside world and have too much time on your hands to think. When I’m cooped up, I don’t have any of the tools that I normally use to fight anxiety, and so I’ve been reminded of how fragile my mental health really is. Over the last week especially, my world has shrunk to a tiny pinpoint, and all I can think about are the negative thoughts taking over my brain.

Without a routine and engagement with the outside world to occupy my mind, I’ve fallen into bad habits. Without strict discipline, I tend either to ruminate on the past, or worry about the future. It’s difficult to stay focused on the present when you are feeling very anxious: the thoughts are all-consuming. For example if I try to have a conversation with somebody when I’m anxious, I find it hard to look them in the eye, and it’s virtually impossible to concentrate. The thoughts act like a swarm of angry flies buzzing around my head, making it very difficult to focus on anything else.

Normally, I try to defeat my anxiety with some form of activity to get me out of my head. This can be going to work, or doing some form of exercise; anything that forces me to turn my focus outwards, helping to swat away those angry flies! This has proved difficult whilst I have been stuck inside and I’ve been struggling to calm down my racing brain. Sleep becomes harder, too. I find myself aimlessly scrolling through Twitter… if I’m not careful, I’ll start tweeting about covfefe.

This need to try something has led me to think about mindfulness. Being mindful roughly translates as trying to live in the present moment and notice what is happening around you and within you at any given time. Mindfulness is a form of meditation, and can be a useful tool to calm an anxious mind.

My own mind, predictably enough, finds mindfulness a tricky concept. One therapist I saw a few years ago tried to teach me how to be mindful using the example of eating a square of chocolate. The idea was that you focus on feeling and tasting each square, to slow down the brain whilst you eat. Yeah, so that doesn’t really work for me. I just wanted to say: “Look lady, when I’m eating chocolate I’m concentrating on getting the yummy into me as fast as I can!”

However, if ever there’s a time to give the concept another chance, it’s now. So I decided to try out some mindfulness colouring-in… and I’m happy to report that it really does work!

Mindfulness colouring books have been everywhere for the past few years, and I was sceptical at first, but I’ve come to find them a really good starting point for mindfulness. The very act of the colouring – including the all-important staying inside the lines – focuses the mind on the present task, and forces the brain to slow down. Those anxious thoughts recede when I’m concentrating on the best shade of green for those trees in the background.

The best thing is that small, hobbly steps soon lead to bigger strides. So just as I’m starting to walk without crutches again, I’m also finding that the mindfulness colouring is helping to give me the calmness and focus to write. In the past year I’ve found that maintaining this blog gives me real confidence – but I need to be in the right frame of mind to write full sentences. If only the President of the United States could spend a bit more time colouring in…

Springing forward 

The clocks went forward last weekend and spring has officially sprung. London is looking glorious with cherry blossoms in full bloom and daffodils waving merrily at me from every park. In theory, more light in the day should mean an improvement in mood for those suffering from depression. More sun and light can contribute to feelings of wellbeing and those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder should see a marked improvement in their mood.

In practise however, I usually find the spring and summer months to be my worst time of year. Sunshine and brightness are a huge trigger for my anxiety. I feel like I’m missing out on so much by dreading this time of year, so I’ve decided to try and make 2017 different. After all, there’s no Olympics or football this summer competing for my attention, so I may as well try and fix my brain instead!

With this in mind, I’ve been trying to make sense of my anxiety about the light. This is tricky and not easy to write about but I’ll give it a go.

I was raped during the summertime, and my anxieties all began around that time. The sunshine now makes me feel horribly exposed. My fears about excess hair are magnified by it. I associate hair with being dirty, so having to worry about exposed legs and underarms adds worry upon worry.

My negative thoughts have a lot of power over me and I’ve decided to try and fight back this year. There have to be better ways to use energy than pointlessly fighting against the sunlight. So I’ve started to see a counsellor for some cognitive behavioural therapy, and it’s helping me to recognise negative thoughts patterns and, more importantly, how to diffuse them.

The trick to this is unpicking the reasons behind my thoughts. Deep down I still feel ashamed and dirty because of being raped. This leads to the need to constantly torture and pick at myself in a magnifying mirror. I can’t accept myself the way I am, and I struggle against things I have no control over. I can’t control the sunlight, I can’t control the hair that grows on me and will always grow back, and I couldn’t control my rapist either. And that’s ultimately what it is all about. The way I feel about how I look on the outside is a reflection of how I feel about the uncomfortable truths of having been raped and having a mental illness. When I compare myself to other girls and think I’m ugly, it’s because I don’t feel like I am as good as everyone else.

This is a sad way to live my life though isn’t it? Always struggling and never having any power. Beating myself up and not feeling good enough. So: taking back some power from my negative thoughts is the way forward.

Talking about them can help, as can writing them down. Either way, it helps to get the thoughts out of my brain. It’s uncomfortable to face up to these facts, but it’s the only way I can take back control. Being kind to myself, looking after my health and not punishing myself anymore is the way I would like to live my life. I think I have suffered enough.

So this is the plan for the spring and summer ahead. I may even take up gardening as a productive way to enjoy the sunshine. Wish me luck!

Postscript: how Murphy’s law works

I jumped down some steps in a burst of happiness after writing this blog… and tore a calf muscle in the process! Alas, my springing forward may be considerably slowed down by the crutches I’ll be using for the  next few weeks…