Tag Archives: Anxiety

Looking for Europe 15: Birmingham – the cat is back!

November 1st

Ahh it was a tough morning; last night’s euphoria gave way to a battle of tiredness, anxiety, broken down buses and near-misses with trains, but thankfully Someone had it all in their hands, and we experienced travel mercies upon travel mercies, arriving in Birmingham much restored.

Over the last couple of days we’d had the ‘pleasure’ of seeing Birmingham New Street Station from pretty much every side, since it seemed to be bang in the way of everywhere we needed to go! Today we must have been round or through it another five or six times!! We went out for another pizza lunch, coming away smelling beautifully of garlic, and then had a little time to get a few pictures of KittyJon climbing some of the city’s eccentric public art. That set the tone for the rest of the day…

Circling New Street once more we headed down to the venue, this time a converted church tastefully decorated in turquoise, brown and gold, and fronted with statues whose facial expressions and body language provided us with a great deal of pre-show entertainment!

Today’s soundcheck was so funny. Right from the off, Tim and Jon welcomed us in, in Birmingham accents!! I could not believe I was hearing that out of their mouths! 😀

Then they soundchecked a Led Zep cover, claiming it was a new song! At that stage the sound wasn’t great so we could mainly hear guitars and yelling, though that was enough for it to sound good! Then ‘Questions, comments or concerns?’ Jude asked what was happening regarding the long-awaited 25in24 movie. Jon said he expected it to come out next spring: ‘It’s been a labor of love!’. I laughed and said ‘Take my money already!’ Then Tim joked ‘Maybe you could show the film 25 times in 24 hours, and film it, and make a film of the film…’ 😀 Jude said ‘So it’s in the can!’, and Jon for some reason, probably because it was Jude, heard cat! 😀 Then they went on to play Mess of Me, before spending a while trying to fix kick drum issues (apparently it wasn’t coming through in their monitors! I can testify that it was coming through the main speakers just fine!).

This was a special show for me; my 20th! I never imagined I would reach 10, and never in my very wildest dreams thought I’d be celebrating #20 the very same year! I made a poster for the Meet&Greet, with the stats from this 20-year journey, and the towns and dates of the 20 shows listed round the edge. It was made on the back of a campaign poster about bees (because.), so I thought I’d show them that too for amusement’s sake, and they spent a while enjoying both sides of it.

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Drew gave me a hug and said to thank M for the cookies, asking did he like the show? I said ‘Yes he did, and he will be here tonight too; and oh, if you’re taking requests, he really wants to hear Holy Water or Where The Light Shines Through? I hope I haven’t stopped you playing that one, as I didn’t mean to!’ Jon said ‘Ah those are great requests, especially because we actually know how to play them!’

As the guys continued to look through all the stats and dates on my poster Jon commented ‘8 countries! That’s a cool stat!’ I then pointed to ’18 years of fandom’, and I told them my story: It must have been 18 years to this very week, as 18 years ago on the 24th of October ’99 God saved my life, and to celebrate, a friend had given me a mixtape with New Way To Be Human on the very end of side B, which fell off the tape half way through! But I had eventually borrowed, and then bought, the CD, and here I was 18 years on! I told them it meant they’d been a part of my journey right from the start and it meant the world to me. I said ‘I have a lot to make back to you; I hope you’re feeling 18 years worth of support’. Jon highfived me and said ‘I’m glad you’re here.’ – in both senses I think. He thanked me for sharing my story. It was almost a throw away comment but he complimented me on the daisies I was wearing – and I said ‘Ah, they go back 18 years too! I discovered joy for the first time back then and needed to find a way to express it. What does joy look like? To me, it looks like a daisy. I’ve been wearing them ever since.’ That was special.

Then Jude had another funny photo taken, with the guys all wearing fluffy haloes! Putting his on, Drew asked ‘Is my halo straight?’! Afterwards we saw him put the halo on his daughter and get a cute photo of her.

Outside again, we got talking to her in the queue about snow and cold feet and cream teas 😀 She is such a sweetie, just like her dad.

The Alvarez Kings found the crowd weirdly quiet! They were really into the onstage pranking tonight, Simon throwing a bottle comedically at the drummer, and at one point singing creepily close into the guitarist’s face and kissing him! Jude was tonight’s human mic stand, and just as I’d found, she just knew beforehand it was going to happen and had been saying so! Simon definitely possesses telepathic powers!

After they finished, a very dubious tall and wobbly projector screen was brought forward to show Jon’s film promoting charity Food For The Hungry. The screen teetered precariously above everyone whilst the stage was being cleared and set up for Switchfoot, before we were given the spectacle of it being dismantled. It was… quite something! It was definitely one of those things that could have gone wrong in so many different ways, but thankfully, no incident!

Tonight I was stood between Tim and Jon at the barrier. As requested, and to M’s delight, they opened with Holy Water! The sound started out quite tinny unfortunately, which was maddening when I’d been waiting to hear this one live ever since first hearing it, but thankfully it got better. It went down very well with the crowd; you can watch it here.

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Then they again gave us Stars, and followed up with Oh! Gravity. Wow!! A photographer friend was stood behind me and I can’t tell you how creative I had to get, trying to rock out whilst keeping my hands out of her shot! I’m yet to find out if I succeeded or not…

We were treated to another improvised solo in YLIAS, then Jon again jumped into the crowd for Bull. As he got back up on stage, he hugged the security guy who helped him back from the barrier, then put his mic to Drew’s guitar, laughed and ruffled Tim’s hair roughly, clearly having a great time!

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As they reached the end of the song, Jon spotted the sign one of my friends had brought saying ‘Switchfoot is where the light shines through!’ being held up in the crowd. As he called it out, she then turned the sign round: ‘Do you love me enough to play my favourite song?’! Jon was taken aback! ‘Ohhh! Now I feel like I’m not sure which song you’re requesting! Pass that here…’ (it was handed forward and he held it up, Where The Light Shines Through outward) ‘I like this side! I feel like I know how to play that one! If we tried this one I’m not sure I know what would happen! It helps I know the words to Where The Light Shines Through…’, at which Tim laughed out loud and said ‘Don’t say that till you’ve played it!’ 😀

Well, with two requests now, they did indeed play it! I got my Europe flag out and was dancing with it on the barrier, using it as a prayer and not expecting it to be taken, but suddenly Jon was asking for it! So we threw it to him; he held it up, pointed at me and I gave him thumbs up, and he threw it back – but it opened up and fell short of the barrier, and he did a funny ‘oops’ voice whilst singing! That was a little glimpse of ‘aftershow Jon’ right there! 😀 That solo was absolutely awesome again, and M was so happy he finally got to see it.

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I filmed Jon’s beautiful intro to IWLYG and I’m very glad I did. You can watch it here; just a taste of the amazing things he sometimes comes out with between songs. Then he did the ‘Lift your arms… and let them rest on the perfect stranger next to you’ thing – and then said ‘Now we’re no longer perfect strangers; we’re flawed strangers. Some of us smell worse than others; some of us are sweaty, ha! (he was dripping!) But we’re in this together.’ He is great.

During House Burns, Jon broke a string and switched guitar seamlessly. And he finally went to someone else for that line! I feel cheated on. 😀 😀 Thus ends an almost unbroken run of about 8 shows I think! 😀

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Next they introduced the ‘fancy mic from the 1900s… way back… maybe ’99, ’97?’! Jon said ‘We have no control over when the storms come, but it’s about what we do in the face of the storms’, and they played Hello Hurricane, Chad at the end picking up his drum and walking back to the kit with the tambourine on his head.

And then the Led Zep cover! This time they introduced it properly, as Ramble On, explaining that they started out as a Led Zep cover band and were terrible! But ohh they make a pretty awesome Led Zep cover band today! Jon’s yelling was absolutely on fire!

During LAIWTF Jon again went back into the crowd… and climbed up onto the balcony, cat-like, as though gravity didn’t exist! If you could have seen the faces of security, and his amused bandmates..! At the end of the song Jon just sat looking up silently at the ceiling, as if wondering figuratively and literally where to go from here… And then he began singing Shadow Proves for a moment, before going into the second verse of Where I Belong again. And just when we began to wonder if he really was stuck this time, he suddenly turned and climbed down again, still singing, like it was no big deal at all, the crowd reaching up to hold his feet! ❤ Wow! He came back through the crowd up onto the stage and took my banner. I have so much respect for that guy!

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The encore was the same again, but oooh how Jon sang Float tonight!! As he introduced Live It Well he said this was probably his favourite show of the tour. And as they finished with Dare You To Move, Jon started with a yell, and we could really hear Romey filling out the sound; at times it was just him and Jon playing.

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Again the lights and pack-down music went up immediately and there was no encore. 😦

As I was leaving the venue I overheard the venue security fangirling! ‘…never heard of them before… he has a great voice… seems a really nice guy… did you see him crowdsurfing? He just floated back onto the stage, you see so many others really struggle…’!

Ohhhh yes. I am so happy for you, discovering Switchfoot! Welcome to the planet. 🙂

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As there was no aftershow and their tour bus was parked elsewhere, we circled New Street Station one last time and got straight off to our hotel. It was such a great night, they had definitely done enough.

The following morning we had a lie in and large breakfast, before getting back on the road for our drive through beautiful autumnal East Anglia for our final show…

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Survival strategy

I wrote this in my diary the night I missed Jon Foreman’s aftershow/solo show at the BCDO festival; it’s a survival strategy for getting through a depressive episode, so I have it to look back on the next time the ‘wolf‘ starts beating me around the head with painful thoughts. It’s the process I went through that night, and over the following couple of days, firstly to withstand the immediate assault, and then to calm myself down from it, and then to find God, and light, and hope, through it all, and eventually to recover.

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The little note at the bottom I added in the morning. It felt like sometimes you have to lose the occasional battle even when you’re winning the war, and that it’s ok that sometimes ‘chaos wins’. With no apologies for quoting a lyric, because it was one of the lyrics that shifted my perspective that night, this episode was the shadow that proved the sunshine; suddenly facing a (temporary) deep and scary darkness turned up the contrast on my life, and giving the tears to God as a desperate prayer I really did see hope, and joy, and every good thing, in a breathtaking light.

Hope is strongest set against despair.

The Light shines the brightest in the dark.*

 

*John 1:5, The Bible

Resurrecting me

Like so many of Jon Foreman’s songs, Resurrect Me has played a huge part in my story.
I stayed up till 3:30am last night watching (amongst other things in the beautiful, honest, hope-filled evening that was TWLOHA’s Heavy and Light concert) Jon singing this song. In a whole evening dedicated to being real, opening up about when life hurts, and affirming that hope is real, it struck me again that this song was what first inspired me to seek help for my own pain about a year ago.
I’d been back and forth between ‘ok’ and ‘not ok’ for some time, and keeping an eye on myself, aware I needed to take my mental health seriously but not sure at what point to reach out.
And then one day last spring I found myself listening to this song. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times, but that day one line jumped out at me: ‘I tried to drown the pain with a friend of mine, it didn’t seem to help, ah she’s got a pretty face with her wedding lace but I’m still waking up with myself
Suddenly it was obvious; if I’m not ok now, without a job, what makes me think I will be ok when I get one? Isn’t the problem right here, in me? A line in a book I was reading that same week confirmed it: Wherever we go, ‘We take ourselves with us’. I had to find a way to be ok with that!
Here is the truth. I was ‘ok’, but I was carrying pain that previous jobs had not fixed. Neither had my marriage, my relocation or my home. Maybe it was ok for that ‘ok’ to not be enough, and to seek help.
I can testify that it was absolutely worth it! There is help and support out there, none of us are alone in our pain, and as TWLOHA will tell you, hope is real, help is real and recovery is possible. I’m now on that road; I hope that I am learning to ‘take myself with me’ now, to be able to keep my eyes on the honest reality of the state of my soul and listen to both my ‘light’ and my ‘heavy’.
I don’t know where you are at. But if you find yourself waiting for something to complete you, I’d love to encourage you to find help to discover that you can be whole already, without that thing yet in place. If you’re not ok with yourself now, you will not be ok when that job, relationship, family, move, marriage, money, or home arrives. That pain is there, in you. And that’s ok. And you can be helped to find yourself whole, now.
Resurrection is real.

You can watch the whole of Heavy and Light here, I recommend the whole thing, a really affirming and honest event.

Self-help for anxiety and depression; part 2

I’ve now finished the CBT self-help classes I have been taking this summer. I wasn’t sure how to write this post as it isn’t such a personal perspective as the last, and I’m reluctant to turn this into a mental health blog in general; my aim is just to keep sharing where I’m at. But I felt I wanted to follow up my previous article on techniques for managing depression by sharing the treatment techniques we learnt on the remainder of the course, as I feel the more this information is shared about, the more we can help each other overcome our illnesses.

The second half of the course looked more at ways to overcome anxiety – first a session about understanding and handling panic attacks, then a session looking at worry and how to manage it healthily, and finally a short session on recovery and avoiding relapse*. I’ve been experiencing more anxiety than is normal for me since being ill, but not to the extent of being diagnosable, hence this being much less of a personal perspective than part 1; I haven’t had to deal with the symptoms to know how effective these treatments are. But here they are; they’ve helped me to understand anxiety more, and I hope they will help us to overcome any anxiety of our own, and to help others experiencing it:

Panic attacks – ‘Panic’ is one of those words that is in everyday use, and yet has a very specific meaning when talking about mental illness. We all ‘panic’ at times. But not everyone experiences panic attacks. Panic attacks are very common, affecting maybe 1 in 20 of us; they are extreme anxiety attacks, usually lasting just 10-20 minutes, that cause physical symptoms such as a pounding or skipping heart, breathlessness and/or hyperventilating, sweating, shaking, feeling like you will be sick or need the loo urgently, or feeling dizzy or faint, and feel terrifying. When a person is having a panic attack, they often feel like something awful is happening to them, for example that they are choking or having a heart attack. They feel so bad, people become anxious about having another.

The course leaders described what is going on here as being like a household smoke alarm, which goes off if there is a fire, but also reacts to burnt toast! Basically our brains interpret something as a threat, even if it may be a non-physical threat such as a deadline or a crowd, and release adrenaline, which would prepare our bodies for ‘fight or flight’ responses. The physical symptoms experienced in a panic attack are the direct result of this adrenaline, which increases heart rate, breathing, sweating etc to prepare our bodies for action in response to this ‘threat’; the symptoms may be scary but they are not dangerous, and the worst is not going to happen. Knowing this can in itself help break the fear cycle.

The anxiety the onset of a panic attack causes can cause a vicious cycle of panicking thoughts and symptoms, and afterwards, the fear of a repeat can mean that consciously or even unconsciously a person can begin monitoring their body for small changes – which can trigger the ‘smoke alarm’, and mean a panic attack can seem to come on out of the blue. And so, we start to avoid certain situations we fear may bring on an attack or be hard to cope in if it happened, and develop ‘safety behaviours’ to cope, things like staying near to exits, having something to distract us like a phone or music, or seeking reassurance. In the short term, they help us feel less anxious; but in the long term they reinforce the problem. What if these things were not available to you? Could you cope? If not, it is a safety behaviour. Using it is training your brain to be dependent on it and that without it you would be unable to cope, whilst never giving yourself a chance to prove that you can cope.

To regain your independence from safety behaviour and feel able to cope in situations that made you anxious, the treatment is again going to involve hard work and perseverance, but apparently really does help people overcome crippling anxiety. It involves facing your fears in a very careful way. The aim is to retrain your brain not to be afraid of fear, but to accept that anxiety subsides with time and doesn’t need to be run from. Anxiety symptoms are caused by adrenaline, and adrenaline wears off; this treatment teaches you to feel the adrenaline wearing off and become used to that as a normal follow-on to the feeling of it increasing.

Firstly, grade the situations that make you anxious – give them a score out of 100 for how anxious they make you feel and rank them. Find one thing that ranks about 40-50, and work with that until it stops causing you anxiety before moving on to something tougher. Identify any safety behaviour you use, and perhaps incorporate that into your scores; maybe something is easier to face with a friend than alone for example, so would score lower. Taking that situation that scores about 40, work on putting yourself in that situation regularly, at least four times per week, scheduling it specifically into your diary to make sure you do it. Do not allow yourself to do anything to lessen the anxiety of the experience or distract yourself; you need to be able to feel that initial anxiety to feel it coming down with time. Stay in the situation long enough each time to experience the anxiety levels reducing to about half what they were initially. This way you teach yourself by experience that if you expose yourself to this situation, the anxiety will reduce.

We discussed reasons it may not work, and they mostly came down to not staying in the situation long enough, masking the anxious feelings, or incorrectly grading our anxiety, which obviously takes some practise (if you pick something you think will be a ‘40’ and it turns out to be much more anxiety-causing than that, you may not be able to handle sitting it out long enough to let the adrenaline come down and feel that effect, whereas if you go for something that turns out not to make you very anxious you won’t feel much either). Basically this aims to retrain our brains out of triggering the ‘smoke alarm’ over situations that are actually not dangerous, and get used to the physical sensations of increasing and decreasing adrenaline, whilst increasing our self-confidence.

This obviously only works for situations that we can experience regularly; for one-off situations such as a job interview or party for example, we were taught to try behavioural experiments. The first step in this case is to identify the anxious thought (perhaps ‘I won’t know what to say if I’m asked a question and will look stupid’ or ‘no-one will talk to me’). Then identify any safety behaviours you might use (maybe taking in notes to read from, or taking your phone to hide behind). Then plan an experiment (Can I do this thing without my safety behaviour?). Plan out how you will do it, then predict exactly what you think would happen if your anxious thought turned out to be true. Write it all down to keep a record of to refer back to. After the event has happened, come back to your experiment, and note down the actual, honest outcome, and exactly how it worked without your safety behaviour. How does it compare to your prediction, and what does that say about your initial anxious thought?

Finally, when we came to discuss this as a group, several people said that the controlled breathing techniques we learnt previously really helped overcome panic, firstly by shifting the attention onto the action of breathing, and secondly, physically working with the adrenaline by increasing oxygen intake whilst slowing breathing down, which helps the heart rate to come down and stop hyperventilation.

Worry – When we’re ill, our worrying can feel out of control. There are basically three types of ‘worry’: Practical worries (about something we are able to do something about); Hypothetical worry (‘what ifs’, which we can’t do anything about), and ‘Rumination’ (going over past events and thinking what you ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ have done or wishing it had been different – which again we can’t do anything about). We handle worry differently because of differing basic beliefs about it – some negative (for example ‘I shouldn’t worry’, or that it will get out of control), some positive  (for example thinking it helps motivate or prepare us for things).

We all worry, and that’s ok, but we can’t deal with worry by simply trying not to worry; that just makes us worry more. To deal with excessive worry healthily, try keeping a diary for a short while to identify your worries. Are they practical or hypothetical worries, rumination, or negative thoughts? Negative thoughts are better dealt with by thought challenging.

Set aside a short period 15 minutes of the day as a worry time – a time when you won’t be busy with other things and not too late in the day so you go to sleep with anxiety; you need time to relax afterwards. Through the day, write down all your worries as you go, maybe on post it notes so they can be discarded once dealt with, and put them aside to look at in that planned worry time – that way you acknowledge them rather than trying not to think about them but can shelve them for later; you can think about them but don’t have to think about it right now. Practise drawing your attention back to the here and now after writing down a worry, perhaps by focussing on your breath or on your physical senses (what can you physically hear right now for example). In the worry time, allow yourself to think about the things you’ve written down, but discard them at the end of the allotted time.

Any that turn out to be practical worries, you can think through a strategy for how you will deal with them. When you do this, think as creatively and even outrageously as possible to list all the possible ways you can think of to solve the problem: For example, if the problem is having no money for the bills, solutions could be to change jobs, cancel a subscription to something you don’t use… or rob a bank! Then go through the advantages or disadvantages of each, make a plan, schedule it, and once you’ve done it, review how it went.

I’ve found a massive difference in my own excessive worrying simply from categorising my worries; once I’ve noticed what I’m thinking it seems to have interrupted the worry process enough for me to bring me out of the worry. The techniques we’ve already learnt for motivating ourselves and challenging negative thoughts have also really helped me with worries too, meaning I get on with addressing practical stuff rather than getting into a cycle of letting tasks become overwhelming. As for rumination… I’m going to need counselling for some of that.

Recovery – It is normal to experience both good days and bad days during the recovery process. Keep a diary and monitor how you’re doing to see if the bad days are increasing or decreasing, and to keep a record of the symptoms you experience. If they’re increasing, you may be able to troubleshoot by looking to see if there’s a technique you’ve forgotten that could help, or maybe you need further help – in which case, do seek it out. The treatment techniques require a lot of practise so keep trying, and monitor how they are going alongside how you feel. Keep practicing them until they become second nature again.

So, how am I?

As I write, I am doing really well! For the past three weeks I’ve been feeling far more myself than I have for maybe a year or more. Maybe all my self-care efforts are paying off; maybe prayers are being answered; maybe the CBT is having an effect; maybe these are good days, interspersed with bad days on the road to recovery, or the end of the first wave of illness before the next hits. Maybe it’s the season – I find it hard to feel down when the autumn is coming in, although it’s also a season when vulnerable feelings make more sense. Maybe it’s a combination of things. But I’m feeling good just now. That said, I’m taking one day at a time; I can feel the depression-monster lurking somewhere behind my back, and I’m having to keep checking over my shoulder the whole time to stop it sneaking up on me again. I can still hear it feeding me lies, and it’s still taking deliberate effort to put these things I’ve learnt into practise and stay healthy. I’ve now started seeing a counsellor. CBT treats the symptoms of mental illness really effectively, but many of us need more than that to fully recover; counselling aims to address the underlying causes. I definitely feel in need of both tackling the symptoms and the causes. I feel now like I have strategies for coping and re-developing my resilience to pain. But I am still carrying that pain around, and I really want to address that, to dig underneath and understand what’s really going on. I’m hoping counselling will help with this. Another step towards kicking this thing!

 


 

*We also had a quick look at medication; I’m absolutely unqualified to talk about this medically, so if you want to know more about it, please speak to a doctor or pharmacist for advice. I can’t tell you about all the different types of drug, how they work and what they do, except that it’s to do with healing the way chemical messages are passed within the brain, which gets disrupted when you are ill. But the main points I’ve learnt are that there are many different drugs out there, which work in different ways and have different associated side effects. Most take a few weeks to take effect, during which time they may make you feel worse before you get better, so you may need to persevere to get the benefits. Most of the side effects subside in that time too. Different people’s anxiety and depression illnesses respond differently to different medications, so you may need to try more than one before you find one that works, and that may mean finding a good doctor to work with you and be understanding of you. They are not addictive. Most people are able to start coming off medication after six months or so, some need longer. Those I know who do or have used medication are really keen to tell me the difference it has made to their lives, that they are able to feel like themselves again and live a normal life. As for the stigma attached – if you had cancer, and were recommended medication to treat it, you would take it and no-one would criticise you for it. If you had a condition, diabetes for example, that meant you needed to take medication daily to be able to lead a normal life, you would take it and no-one would criticise you for it. Mental illness is illness. Mental health medication is medication. Let’s not treat it any differently.

Fighting depression with truth

Depression lies. Lately it has been making me feel like a failure, a reject, someone who breaks all she touches, that maybe I have much to offer but that the world isn’t interested. But it’s not the truth. The lies are powerful, but ultimately truth holds a greater power.

Since I last wrote on the subject I have been to my doctor, been diagnosed with mild depression and as a result been offered counselling, and referred to a self-help group for learning to manage anxiety and depression. I’ve also been reading a book with a friend, which has given me some really helpful insights and ways of dealing with my illness. I want to share what I’m learning as I figure the more information is out there for people, the more we can overcome this stuff. I hope I can help demystify the treatment process a bit, and share the things I’ve found helpful.*

Despite my really pretty low level symptoms, my doctor listened when I described them, took me seriously and told me that what I was saying sounded important. Low level as they are, the symptoms were still enough to be diagnosable and worth referring for treatment, and catching it at this early stage should stop it becoming worse. It’s SO worth knowing the symptoms of mental illness, so you know when to seek help; you don’t have to just accept these symptoms as normal and suffer in silence, there is help, and as with so many illnesses, treating it early gives the best prospects of recovery.

So. My self-help group is basically a training course, teaching a group of us a set of techniques called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which basically aim to break the vicious cycles of self-destructive thoughts and behaviours our illnesses can lead us into. This is the main recommended treatment for mild depression and anxiety, and one of the most effective too for mental illness in general. It is front-led, and somewhat death-by-powerpoint, but as a result, none of us have to share anything personal or talk about our illness or circumstances at all unless we want to. I’m currently almost half way through the CBT course, and am already seeing some things change.

One of the most significant changes is actually that I’ve seen a massive change in the confidence of other participants. The first session I found heart-breaking; we were a room full of beautiful, broken souls, and so many were evidently completely unaware that they were not alone. People were surprised to hear that mental illnesses like theirs affect a quarter of people at any one time, and stories emerged of feelings of isolation, worries that they were ‘crazy’ or would be seen that way, years spent trying to just cope with the way they were feeling, unaware that there was help available, or that ‘help’ did not necessarily mean scary drugs and certainly did not mean being locked up, and all sorts of feelings of guilt, weakness or inadequacy in coming to this group. I realised how incredibly, unusually blessed I am to be surrounded by so many friends, family and colleagues who are open about their health and help to raise awareness and share solidarity with each other; as a result, I have experienced none of this. Four weeks in, people are no longer trying to sneak into the clinic unseen; they are talking more freely about their experiences, they are beginning to see how normal and common their experiences are, to speak of their illnesses as illnesses and not weaknesses, and there’s a general sense of solidarity, strength and pride breaking through. It’s lovely! Openness makes such a difference! Breaking stigma is one of our greatest weapons against mental illness, so please do what you can to open up the conversation around you; it truly makes a difference.

Anyway; back to the content. We have so far been learning techniques to help us improve our sleep patterns, calm us down when anxious, break cycles of destructive thinking, and motivate ourselves into getting active again when depression tries to shut us down, paralyse us into inaction, stop us enjoying the things we used to, or to regain control of tasks that seem overwhelming.

Sleep – sleep problems can be a cause and symptom of depression and anxiety, and tackling them can help recovery. Caffeine, alcohol, sugar, smoking, eating too soon before bed, physical discomfort, exercising not enough and/or too soon before bed, lying awake, and using the bed for things other than sleep and sex, especially involving screens, are all detrimental to sleep. Apparently the amount of sleep we get is far less important than its quality, so it isn’t about going to bed or getting up at particular times so much as retraining ourselves to sleep well when we do sleep. We were advised to learn the difference between feeling fatigued and feeling sleepy – literally ready to fall asleep – and only go to bed when we are genuinely sleepy, and to get up and go somewhere away from the bedroom if we find ourselves lying awake, until we feel sleepy again. Keeping a sleep diary for a couple of weeks (no longer, don’t get too hung up on it) can help identify patterns.

Calming techniques – we were taught a breathing exercise to help us to calm down when feeling anxious. Instead of breathing quickly and shallow, it helps slow our breathing down and deepen it. Putting one hand on our chest and one on our belly we can feel the difference between breathing deeply and shallowly. When we are breathing deeply, from the diaphragm, our belly should move more than our chest, so focus on this. Count as you breathe in – maybe to four but whatever feels natural – hold the breath in for a second or two, then let the breath out slowly as you count a little longer – maybe to six, but again whatever feels natural. Focussing on breathing can help calm the mind in itself, but so does the deep breathing itself. We also learnt a relaxation technique where in your mind you think about each part of the body in turn, noticing how it feels, tensing the muscles there and then consciously relaxing them again, working down the body until we’ve noticed and relaxed all areas we’ve had tensed up.

Thought Challenging – healthy or unhealthy, we all have negative thoughts pass through our minds regularly. But when we are ill, they come at us more frequently, we lose resilience to them, and we can find ourselves in unhealthy thought spirals. Firstly, we learnt the difference between a thought and a feeling, which sounds obvious until you consider how often we might say ‘I feel…’ when describing something we actually think (for example ‘I feel stupid’). A thought you can rephrase into an ‘I think…’ statement (‘I think I am stupid’), and someone could call into question, whereas a physical or emotional feeling (‘I feel sad/hot/sick…’) no one can argue with. Secondly we learnt the different types of unhelpful thought patterns we might find ourselves in, so that we can learn to spot them. These include: Thinking in very black and white terms (that things can’t be partly good, only all good or all bad), Overgeneralising (thinking something is always the case), Taking things personally (eg thinking it must be your fault), Mind reading (thinking you know what someone else is thinking or coming up with reasons why something has happened), Fearing the worst, fixed ‘Shoulds’ that induce guilt, Focussing on the negative whilst ignoring the positive, or even Disqualifying the positive (eg putting down a compliment paid to you rather than accepting it), making Negative predictions that can be self-fulfilling (such as ‘I won’t enjoy myself’), and Mistaking feelings for facts. We were encouraged to keep a diary, noting down the negative thoughts we’d had as they come at us, to rate how bad they made us feel and how much we believed them, and through that, to identify the really problematic one that we’d most like to tackle. For me – ‘I think I’m a failure’. It should also help identify triggering situations. Finally, we challenge the thought. We were taught to put the thought on trial, to list the concrete, factual evidence for and against that thought really being true. Usually that will result in a list of points both for and against it. And from this, we can then work out a more rational statement to replace the original thought with; not an unrealistically positive statement, but a more true one, taking into account both sides of the facts. Identifying, analysing, challenging our thoughts and learning to believe the replacement thought more than the original negative thought will take practise, but I’m finding even beginning to practise is helping disrupt the unhelpful thought spirals that lead to my low moods.

Motivation – depression can easily demotivate us from doing anything; it feels like a weight pressing down on us, making even straightforward activity hard work, making us tired or overwhelmed, taking away enjoyment from things we used to enjoy doing, and adding anxiety to social situations that can make us avoid others. However, the truth is that withdrawing from activity is one of the very worst things to do; it perpetuates and deepens the illness in a vicious cycle and can lead to it becoming really serious. Breaking that cycle takes a lot of effort, but is vital to recovery. The first thing we were advised was that motivation doesn’t necessarily precede activity; activity itself is often what causes motivation to increase. The technique we were taught to regain motivation I have to admit caused me a lot of anxiety even thinking about it, as it sounds like the to-do list from hell – but I do think it makes sense in breaking the paralysing effects of depression, so I’m going to persevere with making it work:

We were taught to list all our routine tasks (everyday things like showering and cooking for example), our necessary tasks (like work, paying bills, and for me at present, freecycling all the junk that’s in our garden), and pleasurable activities (including things we used to enjoy doing but are currently finding difficult, such as social activities or hobbies). The next step is to rate them in terms of how easy or difficult we are currently finding each task, breaking down those we’ve rated hardest into the smallest chunks we can, and then re-rating those chunks for difficulty. Then we are to plan out our weeks, scheduling in the tasks for really specific times so we don’t put them off, making sure we plan in a good balance of routine, necessary and pleasurable activities, and crucially, starting small. They emphasised the need to not try to take on too much to start with, but concentrate on the tasks we’ve rated as easiest, and also not to get carried away if we achieve something and feel good, and be tempted to do too much more, overdo it, and then feel low on energy the following day. Finally, at the end of the week, we were advised to review the week’s plan before planning our next week; what worked, what didn’t, had we taken on too much, could we do a bit more..?

Discussing this in the group after we’d given it a go for a couple of weeks, we found that breaking down the tasks as much as possible, and celebrating and rewarding small victories rather than beating ourselves up for stuff we hadn’t managed to do were really important, and I confessed that I’d found it hard to do with a rather chaotic lifestyle; I’ve been trying to apply the principle to smaller blocks of time, maybe a day or half day at a time, planning my time so I don’t get stuck on the sofa feeling low and overwhelmed but making sure I deliberately planned in little tasks to all my time, and keeping a good balance between routine, necessary and pleasurable activities. I now have a book in which I’ve started noting down small victories, things I found difficult on the low days but did anyway, which is encouraging.

At the same time, I have been reading a book with a friend called ‘Loving God With All Your Mind’. This is a book written by Elizabeth George, a Christian who discovered a similar treatment for depression and anxiety via the Bible. Having struggled with depression and anxiety for many years, she suddenly made a breakthrough after reading the words of Phil 4:8; ‘…think about what is true and honourable, right and pure, beautiful and respected. If anything is good and worthy of praise, think about these things.’ She suddenly had a revelation that actually the way she was thinking did not match up to these criteria. The more she examined her thoughts, held them up against these virtues, and questioned ‘but is it true?’, the more she began to break her destructive thought patterns and head towards recovery.

Truth in particular is an important one; it is so easy to begin to believe or worry about untruths, about ourselves, about others, and certainly about God. Some of my own are that I am a failure, that others are better than me at everything, and feeling surplus to requirements, even to the extent of doubting whether God has a use and a plan for me. There’s a little truth behind some of this; but are these things really true..? Honestly, no.

The technique is remarkably similar to that recommended under CBT, and has helped many people overcome depression and anxiety. Learn to identify the negative thoughts underlying your low feelings, and ask yourself ‘but is it true?’. I’ve been doing this a lot over the last few weeks, and although it’s early days, I know it is already helping a little. I’m still getting into negative thought spirals that mean sometimes I just cannot lift myself out of a real low, but just beginning to ask the question, is it true, is already starting to interrupt the vicious cycle a little, and causing me to focus on what I do know to be true in fact, even if I don’t necessarily feel it at the time. Good stuff. I’m only part way into the book so I can’t say whether the whole book is helpful or not as yet, but certainly I recommend these first few chapters, and exploring how this Biblical advice could help you.

We so easily lose sight of what is actually, really, true. Bringing ourselves back into a true perspective is tough when we’re ill, and takes a lot of time and practise. But at the end of the day I do believe the truth will set us free.

(2nd half of this post here, featuring my notes on what we learnt about panic attacks and managing worry.)


 

*I figure it is in the interests of the NHS to have this shared widely to potentially help others on the way to recovery and thereby possibly help reduce pressure on the overstretched service – though please do still go to professionals for help. What you won’t get from online advice is the chance to ask questions and advice of professional therapists, share difficulties you find when using these techniques, tips for making them work for you, and the sense of solidarity from being part of a group and learning with others in the same position.