LightHearts UK Mental Wellbeing - Week 7
by Liz Axham & Kat Jezzard-Puyraud
Hopefully by this week you will have notice some shifts going on in your life – perhaps you feel a little bit lighter in your attitude, maybe you even feel more capable of dealing with difficult situations. However, if you’ve been delving into some of the darker areas of your life or revisiting painful memories in order to get the bottom of your problems you could also be feeling a bit out of sorts. Whatever you’re feeling, the fact that you’re experiencing different feelings means there is some progress being made. You know that old phrase, there’s no way to go but up? Sometimes you have to go to that black pit of despair, maybe wallow there for a bit and really rip yourself to shreds before you can put yourself back together again.
That’s why therapy is so helpful. It’s like you’re a jigsaw puzzle and the therapist is the person who is looking at you and all the pieces of your personality spread out in disjointed sections. And what they do is turn the pieces over to see which pieces fit (the good stuff) and then see which parts just don’t seem to want to fit together, no matter how much bashing you do. That’s the bad stuff that doesn’t belong in your jigsaw box anymore. And a good therapist will help you throw away those pieces and build you new pieces to fill the gaps. But sometimes you and the therapist might reach the conclusion that you need to keep some of the badly fitting pieces because actually it’s what has made you a whole person. Sure, it may look a bit wonky, but faults are ok. As long as you don’t let them rule your life.
Looking at yourself differently
If you’re unable to see a good therapist right now, there are ways of being able to fill some of those gaps yourself and begin to come to terms with parts of your personality that you may not like.
One way of doing this is to use a method which might seem a bit harsh at first - you start by listing all the things you don’t like about yourself. So to give you an idea, Kat has agreed to embrace her dark side and give her list of things she hates about herself. (Brace yourself.)
- I talk too much.
- I interrupt people.
- I’m too judgemental.
- I’m a bit of a bitch.
- I’m too critical.
- I’m boastful.
- I speak my mind when I should just shut up.
- I’m self-righteous.
- I don’t listen enough.
- I have a sharp tongue.
- I'm a glutton.
(Kat says “This is just scraping the surface. I could go on but that would be self-indulgent which is another one of my faults”). So Kat could look at that list and legitimately start feeling really sorry for herself. But she's reached a point when she's sick of beating herself up and would prefer to look at those traits in a different light. So for instance, she can look at those supposed faults and see where they have actually helped her in life. Perhaps examine why she developed those traits. So now she can go back to that list and expand on those traits. For example, now she can write:
- I talk too much……actually, the reason I talk too much is because I’m enthusiastic about things. And my enthusiasm has brought me friends, job opportunities, and wonderful experiences. By talking too much I may have bored the pants off some people, but I’ve also revealed things to others that may have enabled them to open up to me about similar experiences. So I’ve made many beautiful connections in that way.
- I interrupt people…..I acknowledge that it’s rude to interrupt. But sometimes interrupting people can save time and help them get to the point. It can also help people to focus rather than rambling on about rubbish.
- I’m too judgemental……I’m so far from perfect that I have absolutely no right to judge anyone else. But there have been times when I’ve given people the benefit of the doubt and they have let me down badly. So when I’m judgemental now, it’s actually quite useful because it helps me filter out the bad eggs. Life is short and if I don’t judge people by their values and actions then I’ll end up wasting my time with a lot of people I don’t actually like.
- I’m a bit of a bitch…..I admit it. Certain circumstances have left me with some hard edges. But that’s ok because it’s helped me get over many obstacles. It’s stopped me from being bullied by people. It’s given me a protective shell so I don’t get hurt so badly. It’s meant I haven’t been walked all over. It’s meant that I’ve fought back.
And so on…..
So for each thing you don’t like about yourself, try and find a reason why you’re like that, how you’ve used that personality trait to help you in the past and why it’s actually been a good thing at times. And start to feel grateful for those traits. Start to like those traits in yourself and acknowledge that while you might not be perfect, you have tried your best. And if you really don’t like those traits in yourself, try and think of ways to curb them. For instance, Kat could try having a conversation with someone and allowing the other person to speak a sentence fully without jumping in. (She can but try….)
There is a huge movement going on right now about the importance of feeling grateful. It’s been proven that you are far more likely to be a happier person if you count your blessings every day. This can be pretty hard in today’s society as we are constantly bombarded with terrible news from the TV, radio, newspapers and internet. So no wonder we find it difficult to find the good in everyday life.
And when you’re suffering from anxiousness and depression, it seems like everything is pants. You can’t find anything good in your life, even if you wrack your brains.
The thing that many people find difficult about 'gratitude therapy' is that it can feel quite patronising at times. We all know that we should be grateful for having a roof over our heads and food to eat. But when you've been lying in the bath crying your eyes out for so long that it's gone cold and you don't even have the energy to get out, trying to feel grateful for just having water isn't going to cut it somehow.
But there is a way. You have to fake it to begin with. Yes, fake it. It seems weird but as with many of the techniques we've shown you, if you tell your brain to be grateful it starts to do it of its own accord. At first it can be a real effort to dredge up all the tiny little moments and pretend you're grateful for them. But by doing this repeatedly, it jars your brain into concentrating on more pleasant things. And the more you focus on pleasant aspects of life, the more you'll notice there's actually quite a lot them around. You just need to keep your eyes open. Nature is a good place to start. It has a wonderful way of offering up beautiful reminders which you can feel grateful for if you look hard enough. It’s about observing the minutiae of life and being grateful for being presented with them in that moment. Even a smile from your supermarket cashier or the fact that you didn’t get shouted at during work. They’re all blessings.
Then there are other things like being grateful for relatives and friends, or being grateful for pets. Be grateful for your body and all the bits of it that still work. Every single thing in your life that is not total crap can be regarded as a blessing.
As well as observing these things, start to write down your grateful thoughts in your notebook - even if you have to fake it. It’s good to do this at the beginning of the day because it sets your brain in a good state of mind which filters through into the rest of your day. It’s a positive kick-start to your day. Or if you prefer you can do it at the end of the day so you go to bed on a good note which will promote healthier sleep. You might find that you use your notebook from now on as a gratitude diary instead so that you start to forge new neural pathways in your brain - you will find that the more you concentrate on gratitude rather than on negative thoughts, your though pattern naturally begins to shift.
When you’re feeling like you can’t think of anything to write, you can go to the back of your diary and read back through your blessings and remind yourself of all the things you can feel grateful for. It’s been proven that people who actually write down their blessings, instead of just thinking of them, are more likely to feel more calm and in a better frame of mind. So even if you have to repeat the same blessings every day, write them out just the same. It’s not a waste of time (or paper), it’s actually scientifically proven to help your mental health.
Kat’s Mental Fixit for Gratitude:
“When I was studying massage I had to learn all the anatomy and physiology of the body. It made me realise how amazing our bodies are and all the hard work it does on our behalf and we don’t even realise it. I suddenly felt enormously grateful that all these incredible processes are going on automatically, keeping me alive. I used to spend an awful lot of my time criticising my body on the way it looked or the way it under-performed. Everyone should read an anatomy book. It made me love my body more and count my blessings that bits weren’t dropping off.”
Below we have a meditation for you that focuses on gratitude and helps to give you a bit of grounding and energy at the same time. The music that accompanies this is a track called ‘Creation Song’ which has been very kindly donated to us by a talented voice healer, artist and musician called Christina Fire-Mane Charley (you can find out more about her and her music on the credits page).
We mentioned mindfulness practise in Week 5 with psychologist Dr Elizabeth Stephens but we’d like to expand on that practise a bit more here…
As Dr Stephens mentioned in her explanation of various techniques, Mindfulness is particularly ‘in’ at the moment, and has helped many people worldwide to conquer their stress and anxiety. Mindfulness is a technique where you concentrate only on the present moment – the actual moment right here and right now. Whatever you are doing in that moment you need to be focused only on that and nothing else. It’s a brilliant technique to stop your thoughts from spiralling out of control to the past or the future. So it’s particularly good when you’ve gone through the re-hashing of past events, to then use mindfulness to centre yourself on the present.
Just simply saying to yourself “I am alive, I am breathing, I am in no immediate danger, I am safe right now” and then concentrating on your breath can really help to bring you back to the present moment. It’s also good when you’re feeling stressed and rushing around. Instead of allowing your thoughts to churn around in a sort of mental ‘to do’ list – constantly thinking about all the future things you have to or ought to do – mindfulness can help you take a breath and to just remind yourself to focus on the thing you’re doing right at that moment.
A word of caution though – there are certain chores that mindfulness experts tell us we should be enjoying as part of mindfulness practice such as washing up, or ironing or cleaning. They tell us “Enjoy the feeling of the warm water on your hands. Smell the pleasant scent of the washing up liquid….” etc etc. Now this is all well and good, and if you can actually find a way to enjoy those sort of chores than you are better people than us. Unfortunately most of us are human and we bloody HATE cleaning, ironing and washing up and no amount of mindfulness is going to change that.
So we are here to tell you that if you find it hard to take pleasure in every single moment or if you struggle to “enjoy the warmth of the steam coming from your iron” then you have not failed. And do not tell yourself that you are useless because you cannot find joy in those things or be grateful for those things. In fact, it shows you that you are totally NORMAL and very sane. What isn’t normal is to go around being in a state of total zombie-like sereneness. It’s ok to feel apathy at the sight of a pile of dirty dishes. It’s ok to feel angry at your family when they expect you to do everything. And it’s ok not to like things or not to find joy in all things. (Read our article here about how the comedian and mindfulness expert Ruby Wax has a down to earth approach to mindfulness.)
True mindfulness is about finding your own joy, your own way of staying in the present moment. So when you’re trying out any of these techniques remember that it’s ok not to be perfect at them. It’s all about taking them step by step, and either keeping the parts of the techniques that suit you or leaving the parts that you can’t relate to.
And as a good start, just concentrate on your breathing. As the Indian author Amit Ray says “If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”
If you want to know more about mindfulness and the techniques, you can click on this link below to the NHS website: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/mindfulness.aspx
And to start you off on the mindful path, we have a ‘Mindful Body Scan’ for you to help you focus on the present – in this case how your body feels at this present moment. See how you can use during your day to bring your awareness and focus on our amazing bodies instead of letting our thoughts spiral.
Changing your Mindset
Our mental health can suffer an awful lot when we’ve unintentionally fallen into unhelpful behavioural patterns. These patterns can go a long way to reinforcing untrue beliefs about ourselves and damaging our self-esteem. If our self-esteem is low to begin with these patterns are like kicking a dog when he’s down. (We’re not calling you a dog. If you think we are, then you definitely need to read the next section.)
Liz has written this questionnaire to help you recognise that by telling yourself certain things you can change your mindset and really help dig yourself out of the hole of self-criticism. Answer the questions first and then read Liz’s helpful tips below it, but only after you’ve answered all the questions. (Remember, be truthful when answering these questions.)
Liz's Mindset Changing Questionnaire
Think about the following questions:
1/ How often do you tell yourself you have done something well?
2/ How often do you actually say “I CAN do this!”?
3/How often do you say to yourself “I CAN'T do this!”?
4/ If someone compliments you or tells you have done something really well, do you accept it? What do you normally reply when you get a compliment?
5/ Do you find it easier to accept a criticism? Do you find yourself thinking about this more than you do a compliment?
6/ How often do you say to yourself “I can’t cope”?
7/ How often do you say to yourself “This is not as bad as I thought – I CAN cope!”?
Liz’s Answers for Changing Your Mindset
1/ How often do you tell yourself you have done something well?
Most people find that they can easily focus on the things they fail at, picking things apart in detail and ruminating on how bad it was. But you can now consider this question and make changes – next time something goes well, allow time to reflect on this to boost your self-esteem. And no – it doesn't mean you are full of yourself! You are allowed to celebrate your successes. It doesn't mean you're a big-head, it just means you are allowing some much-needed confidence to grow.
2 + 3/ How often do you actually say “I can do this!!!”? How often do you say to yourself “I can’t do this!”?
For most anxious people, the natural default is to say “I can’t do this!” Anxious people almost expect to fail. When you are fearful of something there is an equal chance that it will go well or badly. Think about this. Instead of going with the 50% likelihood of failing, focus on the 50% likelihood of succeeding – it could go either way so make the succeeding option your choice. By changing the focus, you are being more positive and more likely to be confident and therefore more successful. Take a look at this link below on self-fulfilling prophecy reasoning:
4/ If someone compliments you or tells you have done something really well, do you accept it?
Very often we bounce compliments back without actually accepting them. Someone says: “I love your outfit, you look great today!” And we say:“Oh, this? It’s really old and a bit tight round the middle…I could do with losing a few pounds and the colour is really not me….”
Try NOT doing this. Accept it, say thank you, take it on board. If a person insulted you and said you look fat and ugly you would likely think about this all day, wouldn't you? So why not ignore insults and instead give compliments the same degree of your attention and use this to build yourself up. Why can't you think you're great? You're doing this course, aren't you? That makes you great in our book.
5/ Do you find it easier to accept a criticism? (We are not talking about constructive criticism here, but damaging criticism). Do you find yourself thinking about this more than you do a compliment?
Very often we think that if someone criticises us harshly then it must be the truth because it's just confirming what we think about ourselves. How about flipping that around? This is a tough thing to get a handle on – believing that you are NOT crap and NOT useless is easier said than done. Try thinking “that's your opinion but it doesn't mean you are right” whenever you are unjustly criticised. Don't accept it and don't allow it to become part of your self belief system without a degree of scrutiny. Are they REALLY qualified to judge you? REALLY? Not all criticism is bad – sometimes it's helpful – but try not to absorb all of it without question. It can be insidious and damaging if too much is dished out.
6/ How often do you say to yourself “I can’t cope”?
When it all becomes overwhelming, this thought often pops up for a visit – total system overload. It's a handy little phrase that manages to explain in three words absolutely everything you feel and often with anxiety, gives you a reason to quit what you are doing and further avoid the fearful thing altogether.
Sometimes it helps to examine in that precise moment exactly what it is you can't cope with. When you try to break it down, it sometimes becomes evident that actually you have managed to cope with 99% of what it is your doing that's stressful and only now have you reached the point where you can't manage any more. That gives you something to work on. Reflect on what you HAVE done up to that point and focus on that. For example:
"I have managed to get the kids lunches/packed their bags/driven them to school in horrible traffic/got into the office/taken several difficult phone calls and spoken to my boss about wanting some annual leave. I did that."
Allow yourself to find the things you DID do up to the point when you felt overwhelmed. This will help not to 'catastrophize' and often this perspective reduces your anxiety to manageable levels again so you can then decide what to do next.
7/ How often do you say to yourself “This is not as bad as I thought – I CAN cope!”?
Having gone through the thought processes of question 6 try to consider this - having done all those things, actually I HAVE coped up to this point. And I got through it okay. I can actually cope. I'm pretty fantastic.
All these steps are examples of changing the way you think ever so slightly to change how you feel about yourself. If you can take control of your thoughts and make them more positive you absolutely can change how you feel. As William Shakespeare so succinctly put it: "Nothing either good nor bad but thinking makes it so." In other words, it's only our thoughts that make things good or bad, so you can spin everything and interpret events and situations by trying to change your mindset to embrace a more hopeful attitude.
Keep it Natural
As we mentioned before, taking an interest in nature is a wonderful way of lifting your spirits. And it’s free. So if you can, try and make it part of your routine to get out into nature. If you don’t live slap-bang in the middle of the country, you can still get out to a city park, or perhaps just try and cultivate a bit of nature around you. Even if it’s just a window box, or a house plant. Hang up a bird feeder and watch the birds flock to your windowsill. Bring the outside into your life.
When we have mental health problems, we so often feel like we’re on the outside looking in and watching other people living a real life. We so desperately want to be part of it, but sometimes we feel numb and we just can’t find a way to be included. But instead of seeing this as a disadvantage, we can use this to our advantage. We can become observers of life, and in doing so we can notice all the little things that other people don’t see. A look, a smile, a gesture. Just stare out of your window and watch the sky, see all those people passing by. Suddenly you begin to see that we are all outsiders, trying to find a place to belong and to be accepted.
All of us – even those lucky people who seem super strong and stable – are actually only ever one difficult event away from mental illness. You are not alone. Everyone walks a very thin line. You just have to learn how to get back on it when you’ve had a wobble or a fall.
So in keeping with our ideas about nature being good for you, here’s a wonderful meditation that incorporates a guided country walk to a secret garden. So even if you can’t get to nature for real, you can always visit it in your imagination here. Enjoy.
The Week Ahead
1. Start to notice if there are any shifts in your thinking. Are you doing things differently? Are you noticing unhelpful patterns and trying to change them? Try out the exercise about writing down what you think are your faults and try to see them in a different light - how have those traits helped you in the past? How can they help you in the future?
2. Start to list the things you're grateful for in your notebook and write down your blessings every day. Read them back to yourself when you need a boost. If you're finding it hard to do so, write about it. Try and figure out why this is difficult for you.
3. Try out the mindfulness techniques. Can you focus on the present moment more? Can you try and stop yourself from spiralling into thoughts about the past or future and instead bring yourself back to the present moment? At what times of the day do you find that difficult? Are there things you can change about that to make it easier for you?
4. As well as keeping a gratitude diary, go the next step and actually speak to the people you are grateful for and tell them just how much they mean to you. It might seem weird, especially if it’s not in your nature, but you can be honest and tell people what you’re doing by saying something like “I’m trying out this gratitude practice thingy and one of the exercises is to express my gratitude to people and I just want to tell you how grateful I am to have you in my life.” By spreading that kindness and gratitude, good things will start coming back to you. Write a letter, phone someone, buy them a present, make them a card, give them a hug. Just say thank you and say that you are grateful to them. Even if it’s just the friendly person in the supermarket – say thank you for being so friendly. It’ll make their day. (Just don't be creepy about it or you might end up with a court injunction.)
5. Answer the question: What does being happy mean to you? Write down the activity, the person, the thing – whatever it is that makes you happy. And then try to use words to describe that feeling. So for instance, Liz could write “Watching the Great British Bake Off on TV with her family while drinking tea and eating toast” and she would describe that feeling as “cosy and warm”. Then she would close her eyes and try to imagine feeling cosy and warm. See how you can actually invoke good feelings just by imagining pleasurable things. Realise how powerful your brain is, and how easy it can be to change your mindset just by using your imagination in a good way.
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We hope you find a way this week to turn round some of your negative thinking about yourself and begin to see how many things you can be grateful for. (We're very grateful for all you guys, for taking part in this course!) As ever, we wish you all the best of luck with your mental health work this week.
Kat & Liz x
© copyright 2017. ‘LightHearts UK Mental Wellbeing Course’ by Katya Jezzard-Puyraud & Liz Axham