Tag Archives: Health

A decade vegan

I have been vegan for ten years this year! I was 24. I get asked about it a lot, so here’s my story:

I never actually went vegetarian.

I grew up a real meat lover in a normal omnivorous household. My favourite foods were roast dinners, steaks, seafood, and meat stews. And pizza. But it had to have pepperoni on it really. If I was taken out for dinner, it was always my mission to order the meatiest thing on the menu that I was allowed; the biggest steak, a whole chicken, a mixed grill… When my younger sister went vegetarian when we were older children, I mocked and criticised her mercilessly! Surely it was unnatural, we evolved to eat meat, we need it to be healthy..?

So, what happened?!

I’ve always been passionate about nature, science and the environment, so studying environmental science at A-Level and then university made perfect sense (if you’ve not come across it, environmental science is the scientific study of all aspects of the natural world; the physics, chemistry, biology and sociology behind weather and wildlife, geology, oceans, soils, landscapes and more, and the way they interact…). I was 17 when my A-Level ‘Env’ class studied a module on agriculture and food production. For the first time, I had to really look closely at the way my food was produced. I knew meat was made of dead animals; I unemotionally thought this a fact of life and quite natural. It wasn’t a surprise to me to learn about how animals are grown for food and slaughtered. What did shock me was how unnatural we have made the farming system, and how much of an impact it has upon the rest of the natural world.

The kind of farms I thought of as a child, small land holdings run by a family, keeping small flocks and herds of a range of farmyard animals, are largely consigned to history.

Today, most of our food is industrially mass produced. Animals do not have names. Large companies run the farms purely for profit. Many animals, chickens in particular, never see sunlight or reach anything near adulthood before slaughter, and have been selectively bred away from their natural shape and size to produce more meat or milk than their bodies can physically support, crippling them in various ways before their early slaughter. Those that are kept outdoors are kept on huge scales, and unable to be supported by grazing the land they live on, require feeding with tonnes of mass-produced animal feed. This has to be grown of course. To do this, vast amounts of land many times the size of the livestock farms themselves are required; land is constantly being deforested to grow more and more animal feed, including in the rainforests, and to keep producing the quantities of animal feed needed requires constant inputs of industrial fertilisers and pesticides to be produced and sprayed over the land. Gallons of water are needed to irrigate the feed crops, as well as to rear the livestock themselves and produce the meat. Both the production of feed and livestock farming cause shocking amounts of pollution; water pollution from run-off contaminated with fertilisers, pesticides, slurry and bacteria, impacting aquatic life and human health; air pollution from spraying agrochemicals and from ammonia from industrial poultry units; greenhouse gases from the methane the livestock produce, fertiliser production and transport of feed. In addition, stocking animals at high densities of the same species leads to disease outbreaks. In many places, this is mitigated by routinely feeding antibiotics to livestock, but this is leading to the rise of antibiotic-resistant disease in both animals and humans.

The more I learnt (and there is more), the more I became convinced that industrial livestock production was not environmentally sound. I cared deeply about the world we live in, so because I could no longer eat meat without knowing how it was produced, I felt I needed to make sure that any meat I ate had been produced to good environmental standards.

So I did some research, and decided that certified organically farmed meat was  produced in much more sensitive ways, with much higher environmental and welfare standards than factory-farmed meat. So I decided to go ‘organic vegetarian’ – vegetarian, unless the meat was organic. Because organic farming has higher standards it costs more to produce, so is more expensive. So I therefore ended up eating less, but better quality, meat. I was not at all vegetarian, but I was eating many more vegetarian dishes, and eating vegetarian food or seafood when eating out. I got used to eating a wider variety of foods, and to the vibrant flavours in vegetarian cooking, though I still loved my meat.

I lived like this for a couple of years before it occurred to me (or I had to admit to myself!) that eggs and dairy were also factory farmed, so for consistency if I was going to cut out all my support for intensive livestock farming, I’d have to go organic there too.

And this is where things got tricky.

Milk and eggs are ingredients in a lot of foods. Reading labels to find out if they contained animal ingredients, and if so, how they had been produced, got boring and time consuming. And the social impact – having to ask, before anyone fed me, ‘Is it organic?’! Nope.

I was living this awkward ‘organic vegan’ lifestyle when I moved to my second university. And it was here I met several real-life vegans, including the man who became my boyfriend and then husband. They seemed to have it a lot easier than me! They didn’t spend hours in the shops scouring ingredients lists. They could shop and eat out in normal shops and restaurants. They didn’t have to ask socially awkward questions – a simple ‘I’m vegan’ sufficed to explain their diets. And they could eat chocolate!! I’d previously assumed being vegan was miserable and difficult, and probably unhealthy, but the reality I encountered was anything but!

So, I gave it a try. I was helped by the discovery that, to me at least, soya milk tasted far, far better than the cows’ milk I’d hated the taste of all my life! I missed and craved all sorts of animal-based things. But I made what turns out to have been a very wise decision to be extremely gracious with myself; if I had a craving (for cheese or pork for example), I would wait a short while to see if the craving went away (as it sometimes would). If it didn’t, I would allow myself to go and get some (if I could find it organic!), eat and enjoy it, and then, be vegan again the following day. I found over time the cravings got fewer and further between, and went away more quickly. I found I was having to give into them less and less, and eventually, after a couple of years, I found I just wasn’t feeling the need to buy animal-based foods. Today, whilst I do remember what animal-based foods were like and that I enjoyed them, it no more occurs to me to eat them as it would for me to eat cardboard. It doesn’t register to me as food.

The final straw was unexpected. I was on a train, passing through some beautiful countryside, where a few extremely sleek and contented looking cattle were happily grazing in a huge, open landscape. I thought to myself as I passed, ‘This is how farming should be…’, and was just beginning to feel pleased with myself when I heard God say to me, ‘So who are you to cut short those happy lives?’. Wow. I was hit with the compassion for animals that I’d never really experienced before. It was a perspective I’d not even thought of, that yes these animals were living happily on such farms, but that in demanding meat from them, I was taking that happy life away prematurely. So. No more meat.

Over that time I’d also learnt more and more recipes. I’d got a lot more creative and adventurous with my cooking (and started writing recipes!), finding ways to produce my favourite meals, desserts and snacks without animal ingredients. I actually put on a lot of weight (this was a positive, I’d been underweight for years), mostly I think from baking more than ever!

The last thing to go was the seafood; I’d been convinced for a long time that this was free from the concerns of factory farming, which was largely true for wild-caught fish at least. However, much of our seafood is also farmed, with similar associated problems, plus requiring huge amounts of wild-caught small fish for feed, to the detriment of seabird populations (as a bird lover this is the killer for me!). And wild caught seafoods have a myriad of associated environmental and ethical issues of their own. I realised, reluctantly, that this was also an ethical minefield I was best off out of. In my 24 years to that point I concluded I’d already eaten my fair share of the world’s fish stocks, so I decided to stop. That was a little sad; however, there is so much good food still out there for me it really hasn’t been a major loss. Including chocolate. 😉

Most foods are not made from animals at all, and are therefore on the menu. Almost everything that is can be replaced straightforwardly, especially if you have a good grasp of what flavours and ingredients suit the cuisine you are cooking. For a long time, the only things I couldn’t replace were cheese (for sandwiches and crackers – I could make cheesy sauces and substitute tahini for melted cheese in many recipes), meringues and seafood. Hardly a hardship, especially gotten used to over a period of many years as in my case.

When I went vegan a decade ago, veganism was about where vegetarianism had been in the 1970s – very much a minority lifestyle, seen as a bit unusual, not generally well understood, and you’d have to go to a vegetarian restaurant if you wanted a good meal out, though you could find something to eat in most places, especially if you looked them up beforehand and explained what you did and didn’t eat. There was great icecream and chocolate and yogurt and cream cheese available out there, in specialist shops mostly, but other ‘cheese’ substitutes resembled vanilla-and-Wotsit/Cheeto-flavoured plasticine!

Over the past decade, veganism has grown by over 350% in the UK, and the revolution has been really noticeable the past couple of years. Today veganism is about where vegetarianism was when my sister went veggie as a kid around 20 years ago; you could find something to eat almost anywhere, it was normal for a restaurant to have vegetarian options marked on the menu, sometimes including desserts, and there were a few lazy options like ready meals available if you searched, most people knew a vegetarian, and people generally knew what being vegetarian meant.

We’ve discovered that coconut cream whips like double cream, that the water from a can of chickpeas froths up just like egg white and makes a mean meringue (admit it, egg white is just as gross in its original form…), and even cheeze is becoming edible as some sort of cheese, even if it rarely resembles the particular variety of dairy cheese it claims to mimic. I now have a few brands I buy regularly, after almost a decade cheese-free! And oh how I am having to re-learn the art of self-control now that new vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants are opening up all over town, and café after bakery after tearoom, that I have to walk past every day, now serve irresistible vegan cakes..! Waistline expanding.

My favourite foods today are thai curries and stir fries, chocolate ganache pies, and pretty much anything involving roast aubergines! And pizza. Especially with veggie pepperoni. 😉

As now a relative old-school vegan I’m having to up my game with baking and cooking, and re-learn what I thought were my limits. But over the years I’ve also discovered more and more reasons I’m convinced that veganism is a step in the right direction; it’s no longer just about the environment, though that remains my passion; it’s about loving my global neighbours, about walking kindly alongside other species, about health, about my worship and that of the rest of creation, about understanding others with special diets, and about a love of food and creativity.

Let’s see where things head over the next ten years; I hope we can really begin to shape the world into something a little better.

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.

2017-06-16 09.56.45

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

Living in the now

The biggest lesson I’m learning this year is this: ‘Now’ is the only moment that is in your control.

The unfortunate mixture of depression and political upheaval I’ve been battling this year are drilling it into me. I look away from the moment I hold in my hands right now, and the world becomes very overwhelming. But when I focus on this present day; minute; breath, I begin to see ways through; ways to make creative and beautiful responses to the ugliness I see around me, be that an untidy house or a xenophobic society.

Whatever your ‘now’ looks like, be creative with it and make it sing. What can you make out of the raw materials this moment presents you? What’s the best way you can handle this situation? Who would you want you to be right now..?

It’s easy to worry with the world looking as it does, to look back and find people to blame and make the enemy, or look at the future and be paralysed by fear. Even looking at my social media feeds I see a lot of sharing of angry or fearful articles, but much fewer practical suggestions for what to do now. There’s a lot of uncertainty around. But so much of that uncertain future is in reality out of our control. And the past has happened. What we have is right now.

What’s the best we can make of it, to shape the part of the world, and its future, that we can influence? Let’s look for all the positive moves we can play, to break down hatred and division, to spread hope, to fight for what’s right and campaign hard against bad policies as they come up. Whatever the future looked like, we’d still have that task before us.

So we don’t know how our country’s climate change policies will pan out – so, now, let’s do what we can; keep on doing what we can to minimise our own impacts, encouraging others, turning up the volume to make sure our leaders know it is an issue we care about… and doing what we can to actively stop things sliding in the wrong direction. We don’t know what will happen to our immigrant friends; so, let’s ensure they are welcomed, challenge hatred, and stand up for their rights in the media and with our politicians. We don’t know what will happen to our healthcare; so, let’s support and listen to those working in healthcare, and echo their concerns to our government, and maybe find ways we can step up our practical care for others ourselves.

I’m now making a conscious effort not to share in the speculation, but to spread both hope and practical responses. We don’t know; but we have ways of doing good today.

And should we worry? Of course Jesus taught us not to worry. But I think there’s a difference between being concerned and heartbroken over injustice, and being so preoccupied with material concerns (Jesus was speaking about concerns over money, food and clothing for example) it stops us from following God, especially where that challenges our comfort and convenience*. Should we worry about terrorism for example? On the one hand, yes; we should be concerned that this is happening in our world and allow it to move us to prayer and action, perhaps doing what we can to support refugees fleeing danger, support the persecuted Church, or build bridges across society’s divides. On the other hand – no. It shouldn’t make us so afraid we fear to live the daily lives we are meant to live.

Living in the past or the future can steal the potential from the present if we let it. I’ve written this from a political perspective as I’m seeing the impact of the Brexit vote, and political uncertainty at home and around the world, on both my own activism and that of others; so many of us stuck between anger and paralysis we’re not quick to respond to today’s challenges and keep our eyes on the current work to be done. But in my own context of learning first hand how mental ill health can send us into an unhealthy vicious cycle of worrying about the past and the future until we feel too overwhelmed to face the present, I think this applies far beyond ‘politics’.

Breathe.

What is in your hands right now? What is one thing you can be, or do, right now?

Just do that.


* There’s also a huge difference between a healthy person being preoccupied with their own worries, and having a clinical anxiety disorder. Jesus never instructed us not to be ill, that just happens; instead we need to support one another going through illness…

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.

Speaking our minds

I’ve been blessed with great mental health for over 15 years (bar a bit of stress), but recently I’ve found I’m not feeling quite 100 percent. I’m ok, in general, but I’m finding I need to give myself some TLC and make more of an effort to take care of myself. I’m aware I’m saying that I’m ill, and that I’m ok at the same time, but this is an attempt to tell it like it is, and that’s the honest truth at present.

‘Mental illness’ can sound very dramatic (and of course it can be the biggest thing we ever have to face), but it isn’t always. Saying I’m ill, but ok, isn’t in this instance a veiled cry for help; it’s an acknowledgment that I feel a bit ‘off’, and that sometimes mental health can be like that. I don’t want to over-dramatise where I’m at, as I know so many people who are facing real health battles. That isn’t me. I’m feeling pretty positive about myself and my life at the moment, in general; other than my lack of paid work, my life is wonderful, and I really like myself. But at the same time I’ve been struggling more and more with self-doubt these last few years. To an extent, that’s a normal thing to struggle with, and as I was musing here last year, can even be healthy. But it’s got to a point where it is causing me to feel sort of paralysed at times, like I can’t make myself do anything. If that happens frequently or persistently it is a symptom of ill health, and it has been happening to me more and more often. In addition, small things have been triggering big mood crashes, leaving me feeling like all the options before me are equally pointless, and again making it hard to stir myself to do anything as a result, until I or someone else manages to shake me out of it. Not healthy. So, it’s time to talk about it.

I believe in talking openly about mental health, as there’s still so much stigma and misunderstanding surrounding it that it helps us all when we’re open about it, whether we are feeling great, or terrible, or a bit under the weather. We need to talk to allow others permission to talk, to feel comfortable discussing things when they’re not feeling right, to know how to spot the signs when something’s up, and to be able to get appropriate help. Right now, that’s what I’m trying to do. I spend a lot of time encouraging and affirming others who are sharing their struggles, knowing how valuable it is that they are being open, and now it’s time I took my own advice.

Maybe the act of talking about it will help me too, to let others know to keep an eye on me, pray for me, and encourage me to seek help. It’s already focussing my mind more on putting into practise good wellbeing advice (see below), to take care of myself and help myself overcome unhealthy thought cycles. The good news is, I know that this stuff does actually work even though it sounds a bit naff when you write it out, and can (though obviously doesn’t always) effectively treat mental illness, lead to full recovery and stop it becoming serious. I hope and pray it works for me; having been through hell in the past and not wanting to go back there, I’m taking this seriously.

Just as with ‘physical’ illness, these things can affect any of us at any time. At least a quarter of us will be battling mental ill health at any one time. It doesn’t matter how ‘strong’ or otherwise we are; a person with a strong immune system could still get cancer, a strong person can still get depression. We rightly fear cancer, so we find out how to spot the signs, and know to go to a doctor if we find a lump or have suspect symptoms. Just as there are ways to treat a physical illness, so there are ways to treat mental illness; there are therapies and medicines available that work, and we should make use of them when we need them the same as we would if we were ill or injured in any other way. And we know how important it is to share our struggles with others and not try to go it alone when we’re physically ill. Likewise, we need to be open, and we need one another. Let’s treat mind cancers the same as body cancers; they are just as serious.

Finally, a bit about faith: Christians get sick sometimes. That’s a fact of life. It’s ok. It doesn’t mean God has abandoned us, or that we have abandoned God. It’s merely the result of living in a broken world, where things are not as yet as they should be. I have no answers to the ‘why’, nor does anyone else. Let’s just do our best to respond to ourselves and one another with love and grace, and reach out to the God who goes ahead of us just as He has always been behind us, and who walks with us even whilst we walk the darkest paths of life. I have to admit, I’m a little scared, but I’m hanging on to these truths. And I know that being ill now does not negate my previous healing; God is still good. God is with us, and we are loved.

I hope this encourages you to be open, and keep being open, about your own health, to get to know yourself and learn how to spot the signs of something being wrong, and to look after yourself. Be blessed :)


 

 

Stuff that helps*

  • Eating, drinking and sleeping healthily
  • Hanging out with friends
  • Keeping active and exercise
  • Keeping a good daily routine
  • Trying new things
  • Being outdoors – sunshine and nature
  • Speaking kindly to and of yourself
  • Taking care of yourself – caring for your appearance and doing things you enjoy for example
  • Counting your blessings
  • Being present in the ‘now’, being mindful of who, how and where you are and what is in your control now, rather than dwelling on the past or future
  • Finding creative ways to express yourself
  • Spending time focussing on Jesus

 

* (This stuff is good advice, but please be aware that when someone is really sick it just isn’t always possible to follow it – just as when you have a stomach bug, and know you need to drink plenty of fluids, but struggle to keep anything down, even water – so please don’t over-advise struggling friends, they may just need you to be there for them)

There’s plenty of help out there if you’re struggling yourself – speak to a doctor, and find online resources such as this.