mental health

31 Days: Thinking about others

Yesterday I talked about how important it is to stand up and say what you want to be and to ask for the support you need. However I’m not a fan of the ‘me’ and ‘because I’m worth it’ culture and while people might want to ‘fulfill themselves’ I have roundly been put off by certain navel gazing,  narcissistic (and phenomenally bestselling) accounts of how people tormented by their relatively successful and comfortable lives need to ‘find themselves’ without consideration for those around them.

What I’m trying to say that where it is possible we need to foster an atmosphere and practice in our lives of mutual respect and consideration. If we want to follow our dreams, then see what we can also do to help those close to us enjoy life and find space for themselves. We can sacrifice some time to help them and ask for a similar consideration.

Being a mother of four children was a choice I made. But let’s be realistic, the thoughts of bonny babies and prams is a far cry from the reality of bringing up children on a daily basis, and the responsibility that comes with it for the rest of their lives. No-one really knows what it will be like before they experience it and there is sometimes a curveball along the way that makes the challenge greater.

But being a mother, thinking about my children and how to guide them, trying to be a better, more patient, more relaxed person to create a good atmosphere for their upbringing, has made me stronger and has brought out the best qualities in me.

Similarly as people, as writers, we can be on the look out for opportunities to support and encourage each other, to offer assistance, to highlight someone’s efforts even when they haven’t asked for it. In this way we can offer energy and goodwill to others. In the wider area, if we can volunteer, get involved in fundraising or visiting the vulnerable then we place our own lives in context. Turning outwards is essential for mental health and this, I think, is a key factor that we need to emphasize in mental health for young people. Looking outward is a way of giving ourselves satisfaction and realising that many people face challenges and can be resilient and cheerful.

Again, I know and must make it clear that if you are in a patch where your mental health is so fragile that you can’t look out beyond yourself then you need help, medically or psychologically. But for those of us with the normal ups and downs, looking outward can help create mental resilience and energy, make us feel connected and have positive outcomes for the others that we reach out to.

31 Days: Say what you want to be

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

My dears, sometimes we feel fretful. For those whose drive to create is at the heart of them it’s something we have to do, somehow, it keeps us mentally sane, we are jittery and pacing if we don’t unlease these thoughts and connections that are zooming round our brains, if we don’t release the tender and exhilarated feelings pressing on our chests.

But we have normal jobs and duties and responsibilities. We have things that other people think we should be doing, indeed things we think we should probably do, housework is one shining example in my case.

I’ve written before about how taking part in the 50,000 word November nanowrimo writing challenge ensured that I was writing everyday but also that my family got on board to help me complete the challenge. For one month I could explain that I needed extra time, space and help to complete the full quota of words. It’s easier to ask people to rally round when it’s not an ongoing thing. If you have a family or a full time job it’s not possible to use every other spare minute to pour into writing or whatever creative endeavour you are pursuing. You usually have to work around things.

However, if you ask for time, a full day every so often to dedicate to it, a quiet hour when the kids aren’t to bother you, a weekend retreat that can be organised well in advance, friends and family are often happy to step up and help out to do something to support you. You can be flexible and ask them to be flexible. People like to be helpful when asked straight out for something specific, most of the time anyway!

But the first step is saying that you want to be a writer, or a photographer or an artist or whatever it is. It might be a hobby but now you want to take it more seriously. One of my most popular posts ever was: I’m not an aspiring writer. If you write, you are not aspiring, okay, you might not be a published author, you might aspire to be one of those but if you write and love it and make stories you are not just aspiring to write, you are. If you say what you are and what you want to be then over time people will come to see you and refer to you in those terms. Yes, you might feel more confident if you win a competition, or join a writing group or do a course. These are all ways that you will feel legitimized. But if you have a desire to create, let it be known and find ways of pursuing it. Don’t scuttle around in the background trying to fit it in without imposing on anyone else.

Some people play golf for the weekend, you create. And it doesn’t even matter if you are good right now, people learn to play golf, you can learn to write or paint or whatever it is because that’s who you are, now just let everyone else know about it.

31 Days: Sad Thinking and how to turn it round

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

I’ve talked already about how we shouldn’t beat ourselves up when we don’t achieve what we set out to do, how action can change our mood and perception and how thankfullness can help us stop focussing on what is wrong.

In an old post Haven for the Headwrecked I talk about how we can feel so overwhelmed, feel that no-one cares and how it’s hard to just get through. But I also link to a book that I’ve found tremendously helpful over time, especially in darker moments: Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns. This book is practical and from the reviews has helped countless people. Dr Burns starts by asking us to become aware of the following distorted thinking patterns. We are to write down our negative thoughts and identify which of the following kind of thought it is. It is tremendously helpful to become aware of the ways our particular thoughts are distorted. Have a look through the list.

Distorted Thinking Patterns (Cognitive Distortions) 

  • All-Or-Nothing Thinking – You look at things as black or white, perfection or failure, there is no middle ground.
  • Overgeneralization – You extrapolate from one negative situation or event and assume that every situation will be the same.
  • Mental Filter – You pick out the negative aspect of a situation, or the one thing you got wrong, you focus in on the small criticisms rather than the overwhelmingly positive reaction to your work, for example.
  • Disqualifying the positive – The good things don’t count. Maybe you think they were a fluke, won’t happen again, were not down to you or don’t make enough of a difference.
  • Jumping to conclusions – You assume the worst of situations and people, you think you know what the (negative) outcome will be.
    A. Mind reading. You assume that someone thinks badly of you without finding out if your assumption is true.
    B. The fortune teller error. You predict that negative outcomes will occur and that there is nothing you can do to change what is already set in stone.
  • Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization–  You exaggerate the importance of slip ups or things that go against you making mountains out of molehills. You ignore evidence of your own positive and capable qualities and the flaws or setbacks of others.
  • Emotional Reasoning – We’ve talked before about whether emotions or actions come first and the importance of checking whether your mood is really related to something like hunger or anger. Emotional reasoning assumes that because you are sad or mad there must be a good reason for it. You feel it, so it must be true.
  • Should Statements – By motivating yourself with shoulds you are beating yourself up with feelings of guilt and you are setting yourself up with expectations of others that will lead to anger and resentment. Should is like a stick to beat yourself with rather than a positive intention to move towards another behaviour.
  • Labeling and Mislabeling – By labellng and mislabeling yourself or others ‘What a loser, ‘ ‘He’s a nasty, lazy man’ you are emotionally charging your view of yourself or others and reinforcing a caricature of yourself/others that will colour all your future actions and interactions. What was that black and white movie with the famous line ‘There’s no such thing as a bad boy.’ I recently was at a talk where the lady said that some people in a session she was running had labelled themselves as impatient. They noted they were impatient for 30 minutes a day. Even though it was a small percentage of the day and they were patient for the rest, they had labelled themselves negatively. With that label they are expecting themselves to be impatient next time.
  • Personalization – ‘It’s all my fault!’ Have you ever heard or said this? How come you are the centre of the universe now? Sometimes we blame ourselves for things that are not wholly or at all in our control.

Merely by being aware that we are thinking in a distorted way we can readjust our thoughts to take in both sides of the story, or tone down the distortion. There are very many exercises in the book covering identifying these distortions, dealing with perfectionism and procrastination etc but one simple exercise I found fantastic was the simply talk back/write back exercise where you act as your own devil’s advocate.

Mental Exercise

1: You write in one column exactly what you are thinking and how you are saying it to yourself. Eg ‘You are useless, you haven’t finished your novel yet, you should have finished it by now, you’re lazy, you are a failure, Anne is far more successful than you.  You will NEVER succeed etc etc etc. (Sounds horrifying out loud doesn’t it!)

2: Write down a percentage of how bad you feel on the back of that statement. eg 80%.

3: Next write down which cognitive distortions you have in the statement (there are several there – all or nothing, labelling, should statements among others.)  Then write back your answer, readjusting the thoughts to be less distorted. eg. You are not useless, you’ve just hit an awkward bit in the novel and need more information on how to figure it out. You need to reassess your deadline but you have a good chance of completing it with an additional week. You’re a busy person and have accomplished many other things at the same time as writing this book. Anne is finished now but that doesn’t mean you won’t be finished within a short time.You can succeed in finishing the book if you get help with solving your plot problem, write each day for an hour, take 2 days in January to work on it.

You could also list your achievements to date here to boost yourself!

4: Finally, having written back to yourself you write down how negative you now feel eg 70%

If you are in a bad patch you follow this practise everyday, listing four or five of your most pressing negative thoughts and answering them. The same ones may crop up again and again and that tells you something. By practising talking back to your inner life critic you can build up mental resilience. By understanding the negative distortions you can see how your thinking is biased and not based on truth or evidence of your abilities or characteristics.

These are widely used teqniques in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which has found to be very effective in treating depressive thoughts. The book is well worth the purchase or there may be a CBT course on offer in a local clinic. Some places are now offering specially CBT courses for those whose self-esteem and confidence has been knocked by unemployment, just Google for your local area.

Small things can make a huge difference

Life can be very hard and there are many tragedies, losses and setbacks that can send people a little bit off the track with how they think and feel. In turn we can then feel bad for feeling bad, especially if we feel our moods and behaviours are impacting on others. We may also blame others for their apparent indifference but they may be unsure how to help or they may reach out but we’re not ready to accept their help.

Problems and setbacks seem huge. Sometimes they are huge and go on for a long period of time and it’s hard to find resilience. Sometimes a depression might be something that needs medical intervention before there is a chink where we can implement mood bolstering habits. But sometimes a very small thing can make a difference, a kindness to the self, permission to stop, these pep talks against negative thinking, thankfullness or writing down our achievements, smiling, finding ways to interact with others out of fun and acceptance rather than resentment and conflict. A walk with a mixed up child, a spa day for yourself in your own home, a cuddle on the sofa, a movie, life’s tiny pleasures – these in isolation and by accumulation can make a massive difference to our experience.