A flower in a hand Featured

Mental health needs more than just a week

Last week was mental health awareness week, but the conversation shouldn’t just stop there, awareness needs to be raised all the time. It’s great that mental health is being given a platform, but things around this subject are slow to change in ordinary, daily life. We all still feel the need to put on a brave face and this is especially true if we are in any position of authority or leadership. The pressure to be fine can be immense, often if we show a crack, people who depend upon us wobble. Sometimes there is an inference that we are not looking after ourselves properly, that we have let things slip if we dare say we are struggling. All of these things need to be discussed openly, honestly and with all the judgment taken out.

For most of us, when we feel overwhelmed, down or anxious, we want to withdraw, we don’t want to be seen. This is a protective measure and makes sense, as this can be helpful sometimes. However, if this is for a prolonged period of time, coming back out into society, work etc, can be really daunting. There is an element of this happening for a lot of us now with us coming out of lockdown and things opening back up. A lot of people are scared, if they haven’t been out for a long time amongst groups of people, it’s all very unfamiliar. Add that on top of all the new rules and regulations we are supposed to know about and follow, as if they are normal. It’s somehow not ok to be seen not having a clue how things work. If we feel as though we are coming out of hiding, the last thing we want is to be told off, shouted at, or called out in front of others. For this reason some people are avoiding getting back out there and staying inside instead. When we feel fearful, we get more hyper-vigilant and scan around for danger. We loose the ability to be curious, take in our surroundings and feel relaxed, this in turn increases our anxiety.

So what can we do?

Firstly, we need to start connecting with things again, opening up our curiosity and feeling a part of things. The theme of this years awareness week was nature, which is brilliant, especially as its spring time and all the trees and plants are emerging, just as we are. Nature gives us the perfect opportunity to be curious, engage our senses, and feel involved. We always know what we will get with nature, it’s not unpredictable or hard to read, unlike the way humans can be. It can really help us to become more mindful in a very relaxed way, by just taking notice of what’s around us. When we plant things and watch them grow we feel involved in the process. We plant the seeds, we water them, and we watch them emerge and grow. We have to nurture them to keep them alive and we feel responsible for them. Planting cress seeds on damp kitchen roll is one of the quickest ways to do this, they begin growing so quickly. When we go out for a walk or into the garden, we can really notice the leaves growing and changing. We can feel them, smell them and notice the difference between the two sides. Touch things, notice textures and scents, listen to the rain falling, or notice the way the wind moves the trees. As you do this, notice the way you are breathing, let yourself really take in the connection, be curious about what feels good and how your body tells you this feels good.

If we practice being really present in nature, it can help our hyper-vigilance stay under control, if we can always find something to focus on, to really allow our awareness to be engaged, it is settling for our nervous system. We can use these skills when we go out amongst people, instead of worrying what might happen, focusing on what is actually around us right now. When we learn to be observant, it can help us feel less like a rabbit in the headlights and more of a part of what’s happening.

We do need a bit of a retraining programme but it’s so important that we connect back with people, isolation is so damaging to us and has a dramatic impact upon our mental health. If we are going to be more aware, then we have to be able to communicate with each other. None of us will open up or reach out if we don’t feel safe, we have to be able to smile at each other, let the people around us know we are there and we are approachable. The more we can make going outside a pleasant experience, the easier it will be for those who feel scared or nervous. Just making the effort to smile at people we interact with helps us and helps them. Smiling is very underrated, it’s more tricky in a mask but people can see the smile in our eyes. If we bear in mind that there are nervous people around us, pretending to be fine, we might remember to smile more and be open to engagement, it might make a huge difference to someone’s day.

Featured

Let’s talk about anxiety

Feeling stressed and anxious is normal for us humans. Normal that is if we know why and the levels of anxiety seem appropriate. However, a lot of people experience almost constant levels of anxiety from the minute they wake up, or at certain times of the day. This kind of anxiety is a different and can affect us in a number of ways. It can make us feel really down, as if there is no end to it and nothing that seems to shift it for any length of time. It can send our head into overdrive, thinking about what is wrong, this can lead to quite catastrophic thoughts. It can affect our behaviour, making us fearful of seeing people, going out, scared that we might have a panic attack and isolating ourselves. 

This type of anxiety affects our emotions, our thoughts and our physical health over time, it sends the head into overthinking. It’s unlikely that talking about it will help, firstly, because we probably don’t know why we are anxious in the first place but secondly, it just makes us think even more.

We need to focus away from our thoughts, stop trying to work out what’s wrong and help our body feel calmer when we do that the head becomes quieter. There are many things we can try, the ones which work need to be noted and practised on a regular basis. If we can try to notice where we feel the anxiety this can be a good measure if some of these things work.

Then try some experiments and notice after each one if anything has changed. Here are some things to try:

  • Squeeze your arms tightly into your body really hard hold for ten seconds then release. You’ll take a big breath automatically then notice what your body tells you, repeat.
  • Press the palms of your hands together in front of you and push them against each other, feel all the muscles working, hold for ten seconds than release, repeat and notice.
  • Link your fingers together, hold them in front of you and pull, feel the different muscles working hold and release. Try and see which one your body prefers pulling or pushing.
  • Sit down and place your hands on either side of your knees, at the same time press in with your hands and push out with your knees, create resistance, hold for ten seconds then release, notice and repeat.
  • Stand with your back against the wall, walk your legs out in front of you so you can really feel your leg muscles working, push down through your feet and press your back against the wall, really notice the solid feeling of the floor and the wall. 

The main thing is to really listen to what your body tells you about each of these experiments. How can you tell which ones work better than others? If some of these work then set a timer or a post it on the fridge and aim to do them two or three times a day. Even if you only get a break from your symptoms for a few minutes remind yourself that you gave your head and body a break.

Noticing is the first step in mindfulness and so important in knowing what helps.