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,

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Why January was a good mental health month

As January comes to a close, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the first four weeks of 2018.

And it was a good one. My mental health is in a great place. I feel strong and prepared and ready for the year ahead. My January goals gave me focus and helped me to take small steps towards improving my mental health, and in turn my life.

Here's why January was a good mental health month:

I started going to the gym (again!). We all know that exercise has proven benefits for your mental health, but it's hard to keep the motivation up. This month I didn't pressurize myself. If I got to the gym once a week, that was a victory. And I'd encourage myself to do some squats or ab workouts before bed, just so I could say I did something most days. Rather than feeling guilty about not exercising enough, I focused on doing a little bit whenever I could. I also made sure I went to a class I liked, not one I felt I had to go to, with an instructor I liked. It's a change in attitude to see exercise not as something I had to do, but as something I wanted to.

Time with friends. After realising I was isolating myself and finding socialising hard, I made more of an effort to text friends regularly. Instead of letting weeks pass between contact, I'd message them and see how they are getting on. And I'd record my efforts in a daily tracker to make sure I didn't go more than a day without reaching out to someone. I also got to see an old friend I hadn't seen in nine months, and it was so much fun - like we'd never been apart at all. Definitely a boost to my social confidence.

But I also wasn't afraid to say no. Rather than feeling compelled to accept every social invite, I also said no when I needed to and put myself first.

Drinking enough water. I also kept a daily log of how much water I was drinking. While I'm good at sipping away when I'm in work, I usually neglect my water intake on weekends when I don't have my bottle of water in front of me. Staying hydrated definitely keeps my mind clear and helps me get through each day.

Cooked for myself. I love cooking, but between two jobs I usually don't get a lot of time for it. So instead I started to do meal prep on weekends and freeze dinners and lunches for the week. Always find a way to make room for the things you love in life.

Gratitude jar. Everyone should keep a gratitude jar or journal. Recording reasons to be thankful and gracious is humbling, and always reminds me why I should keep going. This month gratitude extended to friends, hugs, the most amazing homemade gin, and my two-year anniversary with my boyfriend.

Building my confidence in work. I've a rough few months in my work life, with my confidence in the office hitting a low just before Christmas. I wanted to tackle this in 2018, so I started a list. (You may have noticed I love lists and trackers). I kept a record of compliments, comments and positive achievements that happened all month. Reading back over the list reminds me that I am capable, and I am good enough. Don't let self-doubt get you down.

I wasn't afraid to treat myself. January can often be a tough month, and with that in mind, I decided to generously treat myself when I needed a pick-me-up. Whether it was a hot chocolate on a cold, stormy night, a new nail varnish, or a new desk organiser just because, I didn't sacrifice treats just because I had a savings goal this month. Remember that self care also means spending a bit of money on yourself sometimes.

 How was your January? Did you find that your January goals helped your mental health this month?

Until next time,

Sunday, 28 January 2018

I don't know whether I should come off my antidepressants or not

One of the most common topics on my blog is medication.
I often find myself writing about anti-depressants and defending their use. No one questions the use of medication for physical illness with the same vehemence they do for mental illness. This remains one area where stigma remains strong.

I'm proud to take anti-depressants for my mental illness. I'm not ashamed. And I've always been open about it.

But it's been 7 years, and at some point my health would be better served without medication. There are some long-term side effects from using anti-depressants, such as blood disorders and liver damage.

So after 7 years, I'm starting to wonder if the time to stop is now?

It's been two years since I've had a breakdown. Yes, my mental health has been poor on occasions since, but everyone's mental health takes hits and dips. I haven't felt helpless, hopeless or had thoughts of suicide for over two years.

After a seven-year struggle, I now have more good days than bad. I've developed coping skills. I've found strategies that help, and I know what I should be doing for good mental health, even if I don't always do it.

But the thought of quitting is scary.

I've been on my current dosage of medication for about six years now, seven years since I started taking anti-depressants. What will happen when I change the chemicals in my brain?

I've also only been with my current doctor (GP) for just over a year now. It took me a long time to find someone who was and who I trusted. But my GP doesn't know my full mental health history. She wasn't there for the bad times. How can she advise on what's right for me if I have only ever been in a good place when I've been her patient? I know that you should never go 'cold turkey' off antidepressants on your own, without the support of a healthcare professional. But is this the right person to support me now?

And how do you know when the right time is right?
One of the joys of depression is that it could reoccur at any time. Quitting means balancing the risk of relapse. And there is nothing scarier than the thought I could end up in the horrifying pit of darkness that was me at my worst. 

I also worry about whether I'll be seen as a hypocrite for deciding to quit. I've been so vocal about taking medication for my mental illness, that stopping taking them looks like I don't support their use.

Articles I found online about stopping anti-depressants call the decision a 'personal choice'. But this is not something I can decide on my own. I will need the full support of my friends and family, but especially my partner if I'm to get through this. I could need time off work, time to recover (again), time to go back to therapy. Coming off medication is a slow process which takes time, as this advice from Dean Burnett writing in the Guardian says:
"Take it slow, get help and advice, do it gradually and carefully. It’s not like ripping off a bandage or plaster, one sharp shock and it’s all over. It’s more like slamming your brakes on while in the fast lane of the motorway: it may be safe in other scenarios, but you’re currently in a situation where that’s extremely hazardous."
It's like facing the great unknown. I could sink or I could swim. But I guess you never know until you try?

Until next time,

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Journaling inspiration | The 52 Lists Project

The 52 Lists Project by Moorea Seal
A year of journaling inspiration

I'm obsessed with lists. My 2018 journal is filled with lists like - my current TV shows, books I've read films I want to see, and my wishlist of treats to buy for myself throughout the year.

So I was only delighted when I received the 52 Lists Project as a Christmas present this year.

I've wanted this book for ages, and it's been sitting on my Book Depository wishlist for well over a year. It was the perfect gift for me!

Journaling and writing has many benefits for your mental health. It can help you to unwind and meditate, track your symptoms or thoughts, and to cope with and manage your illness.

I've tried my hand at journaling before, but it never lasted. The 52 Lists Project is the perfect chance to start again.

The journal contains 52 lists, one for every week of the year, with prompts to inspire and make you delve into yourself. Each week you have a list to fill out and answer, and no matter how strange or random or fun or irrelevant you find the topic, the 'Take Action' section encourages you to apply a lesson from the list to your own life. For example, I thought List 2 about your favourite characters from TV, movies or books was a pretty stupid second list of the year. But while it seemed like a silly list, I discovered why I'm attracted to a certain type of character and what traits I find important.

List your favorite characters from books, movies, etc.
Find a common personality trait between your favorite
characters. What is one character trait that you admire
in your favorite characters that you can work
towards this week.
As you progress through the year and the journal, the lists become more reflective. Like asking about difficult moments from your past that have shaped you, your accomplishments and the things you are grateful for. You are also encouraged to look outwards and towards the future.

As Moorea Seal says in the book's introduction: "start with a curious spirit and get ready to discover the beauty, joy, creativity, and power that is already inside of you."

I'm only a couple of weeks in, but already I love the writing prompts. Not only is the journal designed beautifully, but it truly is thoughtful and inspiring. I'm excited to stick with it for the year and understand my inner self. Are you ready to cultivate your own happiness too?
List 17 - List the difficult moments in you past that have
shaped you for the better.

Here are some other similar journals you can try as well:
  • Calm by Michael Acton Smith. Read my review here
  • Moorea Seal's other journal - 52 Lists for Happiness. Buy it online from Easons here
  • Fearne Cotton's Happy or her newest journal Calm have also had amazing review. You can buy them here

Until next time,

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Reading for your mental health | Book prescriptions

Reading has always been a source of education, entertainment, enjoyment and escapism.

And it's something health services are catching on to. Book prescriptions are starting to play a huge role in mental health care, with services recommending mental health-related novels, psychology books and memoirs for patients. See some lists below for reading suggestions.

But reading to help improve your mental health doesn't mean you should only read books about mental health issues.

In fact, often I find books about mental health issues more difficult to read. The content is too relatable. It can end up putting you back in that place of despair, or anxiety rather than helping you break out of it. While psychology and psychiatry books are helpful, it's difficult to learn from them and put their tips into practice while in a depressive state.

For me, reading has always been a form of escapism. I read to escape my mental illness, and I will only read mental health-related books when my own mental health is good.

Last year I found myself turning to books for solace more than I have ever done before. I read every morning on my way to work, on my way home, on every bus, train or plane. I read on days off, on quiet days childminding. I read every spare second I had.

It all started when I joined Goodreads and set a reading challenge of 45 books for the year. I had no idea how many books I read a year before this, but it seemed like something to aspire to; close to, but less than, one a week. By July I had surpassed by goal, reading 72 books by the end of 2017.

And the mental health benefits were extraordinary.
  • Cut down on screen time. I spent less time on my phone, in front of my laptop, and generally being aware of my online presence. I forgot to Snapchat what I was doing because my focus was on reading. 
  • Sleep better. Because I was reading before I went to sleep, I fell asleep faster and had a better sleep. Limiting your screen time before you go to bed has been proven to lead to better sleep, and the nights where I did this, I definitely felt more rested in the morning. 
  • Relieve stress. One of the best things about books, is escaping from the real world and your problems for a little while. After a stressful day at work I used to go home, make a cup of tea and go straight to bed watching Netflix, going over and over my problems in my head until I eventually fall asleep. But reading lets you leave the stress behind. If it's a good story, you get drawn in and forget about your troubles. And after a break from analysing my problems, I usually realise their not that bad after all. Thank goodness I'm not in the Hunger Games. 
  • Always had something to talk about. One thing I find really hard about social anxiety, is trying to come up with possible conversation topics in preparation for a conversation occurring. But when you read, you have a endless supply of topics. Whether it's authors, new books, or book recommendations for other people, I have conversation on the tip of my tongue.
  • Remind you that you're not alone. When I did read mental health related books, I learned more about myself than therapy could ever teach me. You discover that there are others who feel the exact same way as you do, the way that you thought only you had ever felt in the whole world, and they can describe it so perfectly that you finally realise you are not alone. 
Any book can be your prescription to better mental health, but if you want some suggestions, see the lists below.

Do you find reading helps improve your mental health? Let me know in the comments below.

Until next time,

Discover some mental health book prescriptions:

Children’s Books Ireland and First Fortnight Children’s Reading List

Bibliotherapy- created by the HSE, Dublin City Council Libraries

Read Your Mind- created by Jigsaw Tallaght and South Dublin County Council

Reading Well- Created by Reading Well

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Life Lessons for workplace anxiety from Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

One of my January reads this year was the inspiring and motivational Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg draws on her own life experiences from her successful career, juggling motherhood, and the women she has observed in workplaces over the years to give us a detailed account of how women can should and need to lean in to their careers.

The book details 'the leadership gap' where men still hold the higher-level, better-paid positions in workplaces around the world. Sandberg acknowledges the barriers that continue to hold women back and force them out of workplaces, such as motherhood. It's been five years since Lean In was published and nothing has changed. Gender inequality still exists in the workplace.
"...women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self- confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in." 
And having anxiety is just another one of these barriers - where your self-doubt, inabilities and insecurities can play over and over - that often holds people back from reaching their goals whether in the workplace or in their personal life.

Lean In is the perfect New Year read. If there's a better book to set a woman up career-wise for the year ahead, I want to know.

I found myself nodding along and marking up sentences and paragraphs to come back to. There was so much I could relate to in my own workplace. But there was also so much I felt I could learn from and put into practice too. I want to share some of these bits with you today.

To help me build my own confidence in work, and reduce work-related anxiety.

Here are my key life lessons to tackle workplace anxiety from from Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

Allow yourself to be upset; but then move on.
I love this advice. Sandberg emphasises the importance of acknowledging your sadness, of feeling left out or let down, but also how it's paramount to your mental health to move on.
Okay, okay so this one is not only the first but by far the hardest lesson for me. Moving on is not something I am particularly good at, but I reckon I can start to learn this skill in the workplace. While I love my job, I also find it easier to emotionally detach from work than from most things in my personal life. So where better to learn to move on from being upset? It's okay to be upset, but it's also important to remember that everyone is human, and humans have flaws and make mistakes. Do not hold grudges.

Find the middle ground. 
I feel like I talk too much in team meetings. It's something I've started to become aware of, and anxious about, over the past months. And it's making me self-conscious. Thankfully, this is something Sandberg covered really well in her book having had a similar problem. She suggests that instead you find the middle ground. Instead of butting in when another colleague is asked a question; bite your tongue and feel like you're not speaking enough. Don't butt in and give your opinion unless it's asked for in these circumstances. She also says that the people who feel like they do the opposite in meetings and never speak up should feel like they speak too much. Don't take over, but don't be walked over either.

Seize all opportunities.
"...opportunities are rarely offered; they're seized." Anxiety in the workplace can make you doubt yourself and hold your back. This is particular evident when new opportunities come along. Whether it's a taking on a new role or a promotion, self-doubt can stop you moving forward in your career.  Not only that, but sometimes you have to create a new role for yourself and make your own opportunities to progress. It's not an easy thing to do, but I can make a start. I can put my name forward when a new work comes in, I can actively seek training and courses. I can try to learn new skills that will not only benefit me, but my workplace.

Sharing emotions builds deeper relationships.
It's only week three of the New Year, but I'm already getting practice with this one. I've always been the type of person who went to work to work, not to make friends. I'd get on with my work, what I'm good at, rather than socialising, that which I'm not good at. At the same time, I would worry about what all my colleagues thought of me and distress over how much better they seem to get along with each other than with me. But New Year, New Me. I decided to make more of an effort, and not only that, but to tell my colleagues more about my life. Sandberg says we are more motivated to work with people we care about. So be human with your colleagues. It's okay to talk about your personal life and to be personable.

Be authentic not perfect.
I am, always have been and always will be, a perfectionist. But deep down I also know this is not realistic. Perfection does not exist. It's not easy to change your mindset and stop aiming for perfection. But it is healthy to focus on your authenticity rather than how you failed to be perfect. Being yourself, not putting up a front, and admitting your mistakes and faults is more endearing and human to your colleagues and will get you much further than pretending to be perfect.

Have you read Lean In? What did you think? Do you think these tips could help you tackle workplace anxiety?

Until next time,

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Discrediting Trump as mentally ill sets a dangerous precedent

There is only one topic anyone wants to talk about these days. What is wrong with Donald Trump?
You know the one, President of the United States. Boasts about having a nuclear button on his desk and how smart and stable he is.

There's nothing wrong with questioning a powerful world leader. But what is wrong, is discrediting and excusing everything he does on the basis of a supposed mental illness.

Speculation has reached fever pitch with the publication of a new book Fire and Fury which has turned all attention to Trump's mental state.

I have had conversations which quickly turned to arguments with workplace colleagues on this topic. I can't contain my passion. You see, I wholly disagree with labeling Trump as 'mentally ill' for a number of reasons:

If Trump has a mental illness, why does that mean he should no longer be President? Trump was elected for the view that he continues to espouse. He threw many tantrums and displayed similar Twitter rants and raves during the election. He was still elected. But the reason he should no longer be President is not that he holds dangerous views; but that he may be mentally ill.

This sets a dangerous precedent and poses the following questions:

Can people with mental illness not hold positions of power?
Can we be managers? CEOs? Politicians? President?

And if we do have a mental illness, do we now have to declare a deeply private and personal matter publicly?
Are we allowed to serve the public without revealing our medical record?

Is every person who makes decisions we don't agree with mentally unstable?
Is every 'bad' person, however you define 'bad', mentally ill?
Or what about world leaders from the past?
Maybe all dictators are mentally ill? Was Hitler mentally ill? Maybe Genghis Khan?

Here's the big thing though. We don't know if Trump has a mental illness or not. This is all pure speculation which causes significant harm

Speculating is excusing people who make bad decisions and poor judgments.
Speculating makes people like me, who are mentally ill, feel degraded, judged and inferior for an illness I cannot change. It makes me question my sanity. Am I also a 'bad' person because of my illness?

Mental illness is not an excuse for throwing a tantrum. It's not an excuse for racism, or other bigoted views.
Playing the 'mental illness' card diverts blame from a grown man onto a real, serious and life-threatening illness that affects millions of people. Using it in this way is only serving to restigmatise mental illness as something only the 'crazy' other has, rather than something 1 in 4 of us live with on a daily basis.
Mental illness is being used as a weapon against Trump. How can he be a fit President if he's mentally ill? But I refuse to accept the label of mental illness as an insult.

Worse still, we cannot possibly judge someone's mental health from the image they project. While some psychologists have come out to state Trump is mentally ill, an almost equal number have come out to say that it is unethical to assume this when they have never met Trump.

And as for former colleagues who are questioning Trump's mental state?
Imagine telling a work colleague that having watched how they perform in work over the past few weeks or months, you've decided that they are mentally ill. If we can publicly question Trump's mental health and use it to belittle him, what's to stop us from doing to everyone else?
The stigma around mental health in workplaces remains high. And those of us with mental health problems who are working are left feeling under threat. Will my capability be questioned or belittled if rumour of my mental illness gets out? Will my decisions be scrutinized for signs of instability? Will it be used against me?

Those of us with a mental illness are being silenced by media and political speculation.

This has to stop. Every positive step that has been made towards defeating the stigma around mental health is on the verge of being set back or reversed. The legitimacy of surveys showing stigma-reduction and positive change hang in the balance.
Mental health awareness and advocacy groups need to take a public and vocal stance on this issue. And they need to do it now.

Monday, 8 January 2018

If we don't call out stigma, how can we challenge it?

Most of you probably noticed that there's been a lot of outcry over Youtubers and 'mental health awareness' lately.

From Logan Paul to Jack Jones, US and UK Youtube stars were among the latest batch of Youtubers to make offensive mental health comments over the last week.

Logan Paul hit international headlines after showing a suicide victim in one of his videos watched by millions of kids.  Thankfully, because we're a society that is trying to increase awareness of mental health issues and defeat the stigma around them, there was outcry. Paul was immediately criticised on Twitter and forced to issue an apology. He did not however take the video down, instead amassing millions more hits than he was likely to gain without any outcry.

A man who died by suicide was belittled to nothing more than a form of entertainment and gossip. 
Similarly Jack Jones' advice to people with depression is to 'be happy'. Tell your depression 'to jog on'. Thanks mate, I'll try that next.

Imagine those teenagers who haven't yet told their friends about their depression. Imagine those young people being told that they can easily get over it. That it's not a real battle. Imagine their friends sharing this. Trusted figures have a responsibility to their followers, and this oversimplification of an illness showed the lack of respect he has towards educating or starting a real discussion on mental health.

This is not just a Youtube phenomenon. Celebrities and politicians put their foot in it every day. This is nothing new. But the backlash is. Social media allows us to instantly hit back at those in trusted positions and vent our disgust or anger. And who is in a more trusted position than the Youtuber parents allow their children to watch every day?

Following the Logan Paul controversy, Chrissy Teigen hit back at the outcry and tweeted "should we really be trying (to) ruin their lives and end their careers or accept the apology, personally make a choice to stop watching, and move on."

But doesn't that miss the point entirely?
If we don't call out stigma, how can we challenge it?

Paul posted the video and didn't think he did anything wrong until it was pointed out. Until his followers, and thousands that never would have heard of him until this issue, told him that he was insensitive and potentially dangerous, he didn't care. His non-apology about 'raising awareness' shows his lack of knowledge or basic research into a very sensitive subject. You cannot raise awareness by showing a lifeless body. Paul was called out to show not only him, but all his followers that what he did was wrong, and to explain why, highlighting the need for sensitivity around a very delicate and dangerous subject.

There is a line of course. And in that respect Chrissy Teigen has a point. Threats and hate messages cross that line. There is a difference between calling something out and resorting to bullying.

But Logan Paul and Jack Jones needed to be called out. And that's not a bad thing. Despite their complaints, you should never feel guilty for having stood up against the stigma, because in doing so you're standing up for all people with a mental illness.

Sending them hate messages though? Yeah, you should feel very bad for that.

Until next time,

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Lonely | Why I find friendships hard

You may have noticed that one of my New Year's resolutions is to make more of an effort with friends.

I also have a daily tracker to keep a record of how many days I am doing this and accomplishing my goal. It's basically my way of forcing myself to message, talk to or visit a friend. If I learned anything from 2017 it's that I need to make more of an effort with the people in, and who I want to be in, my life.

There were too many times last year where I felt truly, deeply lonely. I felt left out, like I had no social life, like I was failing at this one huge aspect of my life.

During one particularly hard and lonely point of the year, I felt that there was a gap inside of me preventing me from being anyone's friend. I felt like it had always been there, and that I was socially inadequate.

Why I find friendships hard

I'm the person who doesn't reply to your WhatsApp message. I'm the person who doesn't have Facebook Messenger because I found group chats and messages there overwhelming. I uninstalled it and I have zero regrets. I'm the person who stops replying to Twitter DMs when you ask 'how are you?'. I'm the person who only sees their best friend once a month. I'm the person who drops off the face of the planet for four months, only to pop up in your notifications again.

My ability to make and keep friends, or rather how I feel about my ability to make and keep friends, is dictated by my mental health. If I'm enjoying good mental health, I am replying to friends, arranging coffee dates, getting the bus out to see you. However, when I feel overwhelmed, down and depressed (THE VERY TIMES I NEED SOCIAL CONTACT) I cut people out.

When my depression hits, I isolate myself. I push people away. I don't want to talk or make an effort.

I tell myself that people don't like me. I tell myself that there's no point messaging someone; I find a multitude of reasons not to. I tell myself that they'll only reply out of pity.

Sometimes the habit sticks, and even when my mental health is good I lose contact. Sometimes I find it hard to make and keep friends. Other times, it's the keeping in touch that I neglect, letting amazing friends drift away. And with working two jobs, I can always turn to 'time' as an excuse to not make an effort with friends. And I do. A lot.

The reasons I feel lonely are me

Yes, the reasons I feel lonely are because I find friendships and contact and communicating hard. But all these reasons are something I am responsible for. I can't blame anyone else. And I also can't expect it to ever change or improve if I don't take action.

So it's time to tackle it.

My daily tracker has already been encouraging me to reach out to friends I haven't spoken to in a while and to keep in regular contact with others. I'm even replying to Snapchats and Instragram stories like I never have before. I know that this is only one tool to help me be a better friend. And I expect that when my mental health takes a knock, I'll still struggle. But that's okay. Because change starts with the small steps. And change starts here.

Until next time,

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

New Year, New You?

I try not to buy into the New Year and sense of imminent change and endless possibility that comes with it, but like a lot of you, I succumb to resolutions and goal setting.

I love a good goal, task, resolution, basically anything I can tick off a list. It gives me a sense of achievement and accomplishment. And to be honest I've been very excited to start using my new 2018 journal which I've tailor made to help me make small, everyday improvements to my mental health. So Happy New Year, here's to my new planner.

But on New Year's Eve as I sat down to write my 2018 resolutions, I realised they were the same as the goals I had set last year.
  • Improve body confidence i.e. for the love of God exercise and stop biting your nails.
  • Make more of an effort with friends i.e. please stop dropping off the face of the planet and start messaging people back.
  • Save money i.e. stop buying yourself gifts when you're sad, stop spending all your money on books, and no ordering subscription boxes (not a single one!).
  • Question negative thoughts i.e. it's not possible for everyone to hate me, because I don't know everyone in the world now, do I? 
I hadn't achieved what I'd set out to in 2017. Change didn't last, it came in spurts before petering out. I quit the gym, I bit all of my nails down to the skin, I did not reach my savings goal. I felt like a failure. What's the point of making the same resolutions every year if I don't get anywhere?

New Year, New Me

I always harp on about how there's no quick-fix to mental health problems. There's no magic cure, no pill, no meditation that will resolve everything forever. It doesn't work like that. And as all of my resolutions relate to and impact on my mental health, they should be the same.  

Similarly life, like resolutions to improve my life, is constant, it's ongoing. So why shouldn't my resolutions continue? 

Sure, I wish I did more last year to work on my goals, but everyday, not just every year, is a fresh chance to do this. As disheartening as it was to reflect on how I hadn't reached my goals or kept my promises, making improvements and changes to your life shouldn't be a once-off event. You have to keep a change going forever, otherwise it never changed. 

So I'm adding a new resolution to the list this year. The new and improved 2018 model Zoe will try to be less hard on herself. Yes, it's healthy to set goals and inspire yourself to make positive changes, but so what if they take time? 

Real change doesn't happen overnight. 

This, like all my resolutions, is a process.