Tag Archives: mental health

Please enjoy my self care tips.

I just had a fantastic bath. A fantastic evening bath. Here’s how it went down:

  • Whacked those taps on circa nine thirty pm.
  • Full blast taps. Temperature range in the very-hot-to-too-hot.
  • TEN drops exactly of tea tree oil.
  • While the bath is running, I’m brewing a cup of tea. Twinings St Clements.
  • Slam down the bathroom blind. Screw shut the bathroom window.
  • Strip, obviously.
  • Phone by the bath. Got a podcast on. A comedy one.
  • I’m dunking down into the bath once it’s around half full.
  • My body…. screams? This is very hot, way too hot. I should probably get out.
  • A few seconds later that passes. No, this is the ideal temperature. My skin is a light pink already.
  • The water is almost at the taps. This is no time for cowards. I ramp the taps up to the hottest they’ll go.
  • Finally I kick the tap off as I begin to sous-vide.
  • I’m sipping on that tea. It’s also scalding.
  • There’s sweat running down my face. Steam from the bath is trying to escape the room, but it’s no good – it’s locked in here with me now.
  • Considering the tea sufficiently brewed I remove the tea bag. It plops down into the bath with me. The water is now a extremely weak broth of oranges, lemons, and like all my dirty skin and hair.
  • Laying here for a few minutes perfectly still is key. Sipping the tea just a bit. Taking in the podcast. Feeling the sweat.
  • Eventually the tea runs out. Out comes the plug and I get out the bath. If you don’t feel dizzy at this point, you’ve done it wrong.
  • Congratulations on the best bath of your entire life.

And that’s just one way I do so-called  ‘self care’. We spend a lot of our days rushing around to fix things or do things for other people, so it’s important to take time to do things that make you feel happy, or relaxed.

Self care is commonly prescribed in mental health treatment and coping strategies. My CBT therapist has even recommended it to me recently, and my reaction was basically “isn’t that just candles and hot chocolate and youtube vloggers with strings of fairy lights?”

Why do I think that? Well, because those are the things you hear most about it. It’s a term somewhat hijacked by both pseudo-scientific spiritualism and vacuous lifestyle vloggers. To quote this Buzzfeed article:

It might be overly cynical to suggest that vloggers have simply found in the mental health advocacy phenomenon another avenue through which to peddle products….But regardless of intent, the lines have become blurred over what, exactly, the audience is to assume they are watching”

And if you google “self care” you get a lot of stuff like this. Pictures of flowers, hearts, and words in the shape of a meditating alien. None of which is appealing to me at all.

Which is a shame, because I think self-care is really good and important. The main things it covers seem to be:

  • Healthy eating and meal planning
  • Seeing people
  • Taking care of your body (exercise)
  • Doing activities that are beneficial to your mental well-being.

Or to sum it up: be good to yourself. But what does that even mean?

Is it a treat yo’ self situation? Or a do what you feel one? Is it meant to be outright hedonism? Or is it more about self-discipline?

The most important thing IMO is that self care is about looking after your self (duh!), down to your basic needs of food and hygiene. Depression in particular can make things like just showering or changing into proper clothes a chore. So it’s vital to engage in these things.

Last year I read A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind by Emily Reynolds, which is a good book absolutely jam-packed with practical tips. Tips like:

Before you get depressed, or before you realise you’re overwhelmed and can’t cope, put small and manageable systems into place. Make tidying a habit, and be strict with yourself. Make your bed every day. Put bleach down the toilet every other day. Get a laundry basket and put dirty clothes in it at the end of every day, instead of on the floor.

And that’s what I think self-care is about. Not so much bath bombs and face masks, but remembering that you’re living your life, and taking care of that. Having that sympathetic, caring approach we find it easily to dole out to others, but almost never ourselves.

That all said, I think there’s still room for the ‘do things that make you feel good’ interpretation of self care. And I’d like to share some of the things I do:

1. Meditation and other exercises.

I’ve had mixed feelings about Headspace before. But I’m back on the “Headspace is good” train. If you don’t want to use it, there’s other perfectly good and free resources out there that do exactly the same things.

And if mindfulness / meditation isn’t your bag, there’s just plain breathing exercises that are really helpful. My CBT person recommended the Soothing Rhythm Breathing Practices here, and I do too! Real handy to calm you down in a stressful situation if nothing else.

2. Junk food.

Ok, this is probably a bit controversial. The official Mind guidance on self care specifically notes that you should watch your diet. And of course bad food has a negative influence on your mood. But sometimes eating rubbish just makes me feel better. And I’m ok with that.

3. Video games

Video games are very fun. There’s no denying that. I like to play them, often more than anything else, and especially more than having to deal with people in real life. Which is why I struggle with multiplayer games – if I’m trying to escape from other people, why would I actively go and seek them out?

But yeah, video games are fun. And I’ve learnt not to feel guilty about spending time on them if they cheer me up.

4. Ironing.

Ironing belongs in a special category of things including colouring and knitting. I call this it ‘secret mindfulness’. It’s a category of activities where you have one task to focus on that requires some amount of technique but not any particular amount of difficulty. It’s brain-on-autopilot territory.

Man, I love ironing. There’s something just really satisfying about pressing the creases out of clothes with hot steam. Turning a pile of laundry into a neatly-folded stack of shirts ready for the drawer is molto, molto bene.

Plus it’s also proper self care in that it means you have clothes to wear that aren’t all creased looking. Top self care, ironing.

5. Memes

Memes are very self care. I’ve fallen lately into the pit of Vine compilations – 10 or so minute youtube videos of collections of funny 6-second videos. As my housemates point out, these compilations invariably contain all of the same Vines each time, but that’s the point. Seeing the same things again and again, and laughing at them again and again, they soon become like close friends to you.

6. Getting real organised. Probably too organised.

I’ve written before about my stupidly overly-organised online life. But I stand by it. There’s something liberating about letting a complicated system of rows and columns rule my life. I don’t really have much control any more about what TV series I watch next, or the next book I read, and that’s fine. I’m sort of glad that these decisions are being made ‘for me’.

Is getting up at the same time every day to follow the same routine every day good or bad? I’d say it’s good. It lets me actually get things done, like regular exercise every day, which is what self-care is all about.

7. Loud music.

Today I had a stressful walk. I was walking between offices and had a lot to do, but knew the walk itself would take up about ten minutes of valuable time. So I put on my intensity playlist and power-walked the hell out of it. On the way, I listened to ‘Ize of the World‘ by The Strokes and ‘Big Unit‘ by Abedisi Shank – two of my favourite songs – super super loud. It felt amazing.

Music really does have that power to exorcise our emotions. And its use in self-care is enormous. Most importantly, it doesn’t have to be light, fluffy Katie Melua stuff; heavy metal, electronica, rap – it’s all good if it makes you feel better.

(‘What Went Down‘ by Foals is another very good song for banishing stress. For me at least. And you have to play it really bloody loud).


And that’s probably enough self-care tips for now. I hope you found them useful.

I’m still not 100% clear on what SC is. But I think we’ve at least been feeling around the right kind of area. The main takeaway is that we should love ourselves, which I hope you do. Because I love you. You know that, right? x

checking in on my own mental health

So, 14-20 May is Mental Health Awareness Week. The theme this year is ‘Stress’ but it’s good to think and talk about MH in general, yeah? For us men especially, since suicide is the leading cause of death among young people aged 20-34 years in the UK and it is considerably higher in men.

A year ago, I wasn’t in the best place. Literally. I was living alone in a big house that I couldn’t afford. I was coming out of a two year relationship. And I was spending most of my time commuting for a job I wasn’t really into. Outside of work, I wasn’t doing much fun, and basically I was just not very happy.

A year on, how am I doing? Not a whole deal better, to be honest, but there’s been improvements in a few areas. So let’s break it down, in excruciating detail!

Health

Health-wise, I guess I’m ok. I always worry about my weight, which I know is stupid since folks frequently comment on me being thin/skinny. But I know I’ve definitely put weight on over the last few years, and I’d love to lose it. I know my diet of beer and sweets probably isn’t helping much, but I haven’t had much luck cutting them out.

In particular I know my diet worsens when I’m stressed/depressed. I eat a lot of sugar (hence my like 30 fillings) and I’ll use it to get through the day when I’ve got a low mood. I wouldn’t call it an addiction, but I’m literally eating a bag of Haribo Fangtastics right now if that gives you any indication.

Living situation

I’m not living alone anymore! And I’m not commuting 90 minutes each way for work!

I moved from Cambridge to London about six months ago, and it’s had a mixed effect on my mental well-being. Yes, the commute is better, but London is a busy, crowded place. It’s harder to get away from the hustle and bustle, people seem just a little bit meaner, and the buildings aren’t as pretty.

Having housemates again is great. And it’s especially good that it’s friends I’ve actively chosen to live with – not absolute randomers. Living with randoms is awful for your mental health since they can act unpredictably and it’s harder to have difficult conversations with them about things.

Living with friends is much better, but it still makes me anxious sometimes. Do my housemates hate me? Do they think I’m uncool? Why don’t they ask me to join in with things sometimes? How do I get them to take part in the things I want to do? These kind of dumb questions are still a cause of stress for me.

Work

I started a new job at the beginning of the year. And it’s great.

I wasn’t enjoying my job at the end of last year. It was stressful, made me feel inadequate, and frankly I’d probably been doing it too long. Leaving a company after six and a half years was really stressful to do, but I reckon it was the right move in the long-term. So I’m glad to be out of that environment.

My new role has come with its own stresses. I’ve got a lot more responsibility, which is satisfying, but also challenging. Sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming, but everyone is super supportive. I’ve had some rough weeks, but some great times too. Hopefully I’ll grow more secure and confident with time.

Love

A bit like a year ago, I’ve just gone through another breakup. This time it had just been a little under six months, so a bit less serious, but it still sucks. And it seems partly down to my inability to integrate in social situations properly with a partner’s friends and family.

This has come up a few times, which tells me that it’s something I need to change or improve about myself. Or I just die alone, I guess.

Family

I recently went on holiday to Iceland with my Mother and sister, which was great. I don’t hang out much with my family otherwise. So that was nice.

But this month I also met my half-brother and half-sisters for the first (proper) time. This was a bit of a surreal experience, and I’m still “processing” it. It’s really weird to have all this family you don’t know, and I don’t know how to feel about it. So that’s just something going on in the background, I guess. Does it make me sad? Sometimes, yeah.

Social Life

Being social is difficult for me. Parties, gatherings, meeting new people – these can all make me pretty anxious. It’s something I’m focussing on with CBT, but it’s one of the main blockers in my life right now.

I just find it difficult to talk to people sometimes. Especially if there’s lots of new people, or if we’re in a loud environment. I’ve never understood how people can chat in clubs, or even loud clubs. Often I’ll just sit there and nod along to other conversations, even though I can’t actually make out a word of what’s going on.

And as I mentioned above, this is particularly difficult when meeting the friends/family of a new partner. Which causes all kinds of problems down the line and isn’t much fun.

I also really value my free time, like weekends and stuff. Sometimes you just don’t want to see anyone at all, right? And I can feel like I’m sacrificing the precious time I have to myself to see people I don’t really want to see. But then other times I get desperately lonely. So either way it sucks.

Creativity

I like to be creative. I write things like this blog, and make videos and things. Being creative is a great coping mechanism for me when I’m feeling down. But I often feel like I’m at the bottom of the well of my creativity.

Or I’ll have a short burst of creativity where I want to do lots of things, and then suddenly lose all drive and momentum. It doesn’t help that I always hate the things I actually produce, and usually the things I’ve worked hardest on get the luke-warmest reception.

Without wanting to be petty or anything, but here’s a thing that annoyed me recently:

Last July I did this and it was great – I was a viral sensation and felt really good about myself. Earlier this year I tried to do it again in what I thought was actually a more technically impressive way, but it got a much smaller reaction. Meanwhile, someone else did something similar in the same week and not only got lots of Twitter praise, but actually did better numbers-wise than my original tweet.

Yes, I know it’s kind of pathetic to base your self worth on social media vanity metrics. And yet that’s exactly what I do. If I work hard on something and it doesn’t ‘do well’, what’s the point in me even trying? What’s the point in me even bothering to create anything? Sometimes it seems like I shouldn’t even start on a new creative project, when I know it won’t be appreciated anyway.

And yeah, that makes me feel bad.

Mental Health

Way back in like October, my GP referred me to a local NHS mental health unit for some anxiety I was having. A few phone calls later and they were like “yeah you need CBT”. So a mere five months later I started some CBT, which I’m doing weekly at the moment.

CBT is a weird one for me. It’s very curriculum-driven, in the sense that there’s a list of things you just have to learn and understand. But once you’ve read and understood the list of common cognitive errors and been through the behavioural strategies for dealing with them, what next? There’s only so much mindfulness I can practice before I just have to admit it’s not helping.

I’ve been on medication before, but I’ll always try to avoid it as much as possible because of the side effects. So I’d like to avoid that as much as possible.

Exercise is sometimes heralded as the ultimate cure for low mood / depression. But as we all know, when all you want to do is lie in bed and cry, going for a light jog is at the absolute bottom of your list of things you’d feel comfortable doing.

Mental health-wise I seem to be getting worse. My anxiety and depression scores are going up, despite the CBT, and I’m noticing warning signs in things like my diet and alcohol intake. Physically, I’m a bit drained. Some days I wake up with my chest pumping with cortisol, which isn’t a fun sensation.

I’m a bit more anxious than usual at the moment. And I’m living with constant moderate depression.

But it’s ok.

It’s good to talk about this stuff. I have a few friends I can confide in, and that’s good. And writing blogs like this, out in the public and shared with the internet, is super cathartic.

The worst thing you can do is bottle your feelings up. That’s the most important thing I’ve learned over the years. But sharing them is also the hardest.

So: talk! Talk to me, talk to a friend, talk to anonymous strangers on Twitter. It’ll help, and you’ll feel better. I know it helps me, at least.

Thanks for reading. Getting this all down makes me feel better, and if it at all helps you come to terms with anything you’re feeling too, that’d make me very happy.

<3


Further reading:

If you’d like to know what living with anxiety can be like, here’s a piece I wrote a few years ago about an attack I had during a comedy gig. I’m glad to say things are better now with this, and I frequently go to shows on my own now (only partially out of choice). But the negative thoughts patterns and things in that blog post still affect me day-to-day.

And the other week, as an exercise for myself, I wrote down a list of as many of my anxiety triggers as I could think of. Writing them out and seeing them in a list is kind of therapeutic. But reading over it, it makes me feel a bit silly. 28 year old men aren’t supposed to freak out when someone knocks on their door.

All of which makes me anxious, at times unbearably so.

I don’t like meeting new people.
I don’t like large groups.
I don’t like loud places.
I don’t like crowds.
I don’t like joining a conversation that’s already started.
I don’t like getting a seat before i’ve ordered my coffee.
I don’t like taking up space.
I don’t like sitting in front of people at the cinema.
I don’t like eating loudly at the cinema.
I don’t like being late.
I don’t like breaking any rules.
I don’t like going into shops where i’m not going to buy anything.
I don’t like confrontation.
I don’t like introducing people that are only going to be meeting for a few seconds.
I don’t like being misunderstood.
I don’t like walking with groups of people but being too many people to walk in a line, so having to fall back and walk alone.
I don’t like being near policemen.
I don’t like answering the phone.
I don’t like making phone calls.
I don’t like being a tourist.
I don’t like waiting at a road crossing for the sign when everyone else is crossing anyway.
I don’t like swimming in a pool with a lifeguard.
I don’t like waiting on my own at a pub for people to turn up.
I don’t like bothering people.
I don’t like sitting in priority seats on buses/trains.
I don’t like people knocking on my door.
I don’t like stag dos.
I don’t like queuing at busy bars.
I don’t like being in a car in a situation where other drivers are angry at us (like we’re holding them up).
I don’t like trying to navigate complicated systems in a country where i don’t speak the language.
I don’t like setting off shop alarms by accident.
I don’t like walking behind people walking slowly.


This list is non-exhaustive. But it is exhausting.

Review: Headspace

Mindfulness is all the rage right now. Well, I suppose ‘rage’ isn’t the right word. Mindfulness is all the calm right now. (Eugh, I’d delete that sentence if it wasn’t the best opening I could come up with).

From colouring books to origami, it seems like everybody wants in on it.

And I’m a pretty big advocate myself. I first heard about it in a counselling session for anxiety/depression, where I was told it’s being increasingly prescribed as a treatment option by the NHS. At first I was sceptical. If all my years of philosophy had taught me anything, it was that you can’t think your way out of problems. But I gave it a go, and it worked. But how?

There’s a great section in Infinite Jest where one of the characters is going through Alcoholics Anonymous, and reflecting on the mantras they use to help people through recovery. Chief of these is the simple refrain: “keep coming back.” Even if it doesn’t seem to be working, the very act of returning again and again seems to have some therapeutic value. And so it seems to be with mindfulness. It’s a bit like a magic trick. I’m not sure how it works, I’m just sure it does work. But you have to stick it out.

But what is mindfulness, anyway? The best definition I can jumble together is that it’s the practice of having a ‘conscious experience’ of your life. Like imagine you’re sitting on a bus or something. Maybe you’re thinking about where you’re going, who you’re seeing. Boom, that’s an open door for anxiety (are the people on the bus looking at me? / am i going to be late? / what if the bus breaks down? / what if i miss my stop?). Imagine instead that you simply do a mental inventory of what you’re actually experiencing: I’m sitting on a bus, this seat is uncomfortable, that man over there smells bad, there’s a nice view out the window.

Sounds lame, right? But it’s actually a very grounding experience. Extended further, you can start looking even further inward to catalogue your own thoughts. There’s a worry, there’s some anxiety, there’s a pain in my foot. It’s not really about judging these thoughts, or trying to overcome them. It’s just observing. And somehow (it’s really a mystery, to me) they start melting away.

But you do need to practice. And that’s where apps come in.

Yes, mindfulness has apps. Lots of them. Chief among them: Headspace.

20150713-Headspace-logo

What does the app do? Well, it gives you little mindfulness sessions. These consist of your mindfulness guide (a chap called Andy, who we’ll get to in a bit) taking you on a little tour of your body and mind. These all follow more or less the same structure:

  • Sitting down comfortably
  • Focussing on your breathing
  • Closing your eyes
  • ‘Scanning’ up and down your body, focussing on the sensations
  • Counting your breaths
  • Allowing yourself to get distracted, but turning your attention back to the breathing
  • A few moments of nothingness (no thoughts, no counting)
  • Then all of the above in reverse again

Yes, it’s that simple. At first glance it feels pretty light on content – and that’s sort of right.

The app begins with a 10-session intro that you can try for free. I’d actually highly recommend it if you’re at all interested. At least try the one session if you’re curious, or even sceptical. Beyond that, the app offers you a couple of different courses. These include a focus on your health – for example – or relationships. Then there’s some other simple add-ons like one-off emergency sessions, sessions for walking, and so on.

I tried the health course and picked some things that claimed to be specifically geared towards anxiety. I found that beyond a few different bits of narration in the sessions, they weren’t drastically different to what was in the initial course of ten. They were, however, a bit longer, creeping towards 20 minutes. Now, of course, we can all surely spare 20 minutes out of our days – probably a good idea to re-evaluate your life in general if you can’t. But man, that 20 minutes can drag.

So many times I wanted to do something really badly, like playing that video game or something. And I’ll admit that a few times I cracked and just put the app on in the background while I did other stuff. It’s just kinda boring. But I did stick with it.

At least until I figured out that I had more or less memorised the entire sequence of meditation. The student had become the master, and I no longer needed the app. Also, each session is downloaded onto your phone (rather than streamed for some reason) and each has to be manually deleted – so it ended up consuming loads of space.

Would I recommend it? Well, maybe. The app itself is quite lovely and well-designed. But you can get the same features pretty much with any other mindfulness app. I mean, all you really need is someone to say “think about this… ok now think about this” and once you get the hang of it you don’t even need that. Sure, you don’t get Andy’s lovely soothing voice (think Iwan Rheon), but that’s by-the-by. I use another app at the moment called Calm which is pretty sweet. And it doesn’t cost you £4.99 a month.

Which brings me to my last point. The thing feels a bit like a cash-in.

I mean, it’s pretty expensive. For a fiver a month, I can almost get all the films and TV I want on Netflix. I know it’s comparing apples and oranges, but paying a fiver a month (or £249.85 for ‘forever’ access) feels steep. Especially since it’s meant to be a resource to help people with their mental health. It’s this weird mix of lovely helpful wonderful natural therapy and hardline business. And don’t think it’s not about business.

o-ANDY-PUDDICOMBE-facebook

This is Andy, chief Headspace person. Here’s what the website says about him:

In his early twenties, midway through a university degree in Sports Science, Andy made the unexpected decision to travel to the Himalayas to study meditation instead. It was the beginning of a ten year journey which took him around the world, culminating with ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Northern India.

After said monking about, he ended up founding Headspace. He then became a millionaire. Ah yes, the classic monk-to-riches success story. Doesn’t quite sit right, does it?

I’m not saying the brand should be a charity, of course. Capitalism is the force that drives innovation, etc. etc. And they do run a ‘get some / give some‘ program that gives out Headspace subscriptions to those in need… leveraged on the number they sell to paying subscribers. But.. just.. hmm…

I’ll leave it up to you to decide how you feel about the ethical standing of all this.

In short:

  • Mindfulness is good and seems to work.
  • Headspace have a very attractive package for the first-time mindfull-er.
  • You can get what you need from it just out of the free offering.
  • There’s equally solid offerings out there, without the fancy branding.

Annndddd, breathe.