Posted in Bipolar disorder, depression, depression management, lifestyle, mental health, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Wheel Of Wellness – Occupational

For today’s blog post on The Wheel Of Wellness I’ll be focusing on the Occupational segment. This section is all about finding meaningful ways to occupy your time whether that be doing a job you enjoy and get personal satisfaction from, volunteering your time and services for a particular cause such as a charity, helping the community in some way (either in person or online), raising a family or simply being a good partner / friend / mum or dad / sibling / pet owner etc.

When we think of the term ‘occupation’, our thoughts tend to turn to our job or the way we earn a living. However, some of us, myself included, are currently classed as unemployed (for whatever reason), in education, or are retired, but we still occupy our time in a number of useful ways. So, throughout today’s article, I’ll be talking about occupation in the broadest sense i.e. as a way of spending time, particularly in a manner that is useful for ourselves, our family and friends or our wider community.

Occupational wellness

To maintain occupational wellness, it’s important to consider how what we do impacts on our general health – both physically and mentally. Does your work leave you feeling good about yourself and as though you’re really making a difference or do you dread each and every week, feel constantly exhausted, dissatisfied and undervalued? If you volunteer your time for a good cause, does your line manager thank you regularly and encourage you to recognise the impact you’re are having both on yourself and the organisation or do you feel unappreciated and as though it is a struggle to think of the benefits? If, like me, you’re a blogger, do you get a buzz when someone likes your post, follows you or leaves a nice comment or do you feel like you invest too much time on your writing and have lost your spark? For those of you who are retired, have you adjusted to your circumstances, and are you happy with how you structure your days, or do you feel like you would benefit from making changes which support both your physical and mental health? Whatever you current situation, do you feel well motivated, happy and purposeful or is there room for improvement in this area of your wellness?

My own experience of occupational wellbeing (and lack of)

(N.B. these paragraphs may be triggering for individuals who are currently struggling with their mood in some way or have a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder)

Before my diagnosis of Bipolar disorder, when I was teaching, there were periods of time in my work when I felt on top of the world, superior to most of my colleagues and as though I was making such a difference to the pupils and the school as a whole that I was a complete asset. At other times, I felt demotivated, dreaded each week, struggled to get out of bed and get things done and found my work-life completely unbalanced and unmanageable – drowning both at home and at work. For the rest of the time, I was satisfied with the way my career was going, felt I was becoming better and better at my job and was, along with most of my colleagues making a real difference. I also felt that I was able to manage my workload and had the ability to say ‘no’ when necessary. The swings in mood I was experiencing were exacerbated by occupational / work-related stress but were also heavily affected by a mental health condition that I was unaware I had.

At the time, during a period of severe depression, I was convinced the solution was to give up my job and career and that following handing in my notice, everything would be perfect. I was devastated that this was the answer as I’d wanted to be a primary school teacher from my early childhood but, I was making myself ill and it just couldn’t continue. However, I soon realised that although some aspects of my situation had improved (less stress, better work-life balance, more time for self care for example), my mood swings (although not as severe) continued and I had highs, extreme lows and periods of balance. When I was stable, I would set goals for myself and filled my time in productive ways. I would wake up feeling good and ready to get on with things. When I was depressed, I completely lost my confidence, had extreme anxiety and felt like I was a waste of space and no use to anyone. When I was high (shortly after a depressive episode), I slept very little, was brimming with ideas for what I wanted to do and achieve, flitted from project to project often leaving them half unfinished, spent money on all sorts of items as everything looked attractive and definitely on my want/need list and basically felt like I could take on the world. This eventually caused burn out and resulted in another bout of depression or physical unwellness.

Fast forward a good few years and, although I still have mental health difficulties, a correct diagnosis, medication for my illness, a range of therapies and help from my support worker have put me in a much better place and I’m currently able to manage my moods more easily and occupy my days in useful ways that leave me satisfied and feeling like I’m making a difference (however small). I’m also able to add in mindful and calming activities into my day and can recognise when I need to take breaks and when I might be doing too much.

As some of you who read my blog posts regularly will know, I’m continually working on my physical and mental health in a number of effective ways and I even have paid work lined up with my local university for next month which will make full use of my skillset whilst offering me the opportunity to take a break during any future periods of mental ill health. I also have the chance to work and socialise with other individuals who have physical and/or mental health difficulties so I will feel less alone. For the first time since I resigned from teaching, I feel like my occupational wellness is getting to where it should be.

Asking yourself questions to consider your occupational wellness

I think it’s really important to reflect on the different aspects of your life regularly and consider how things are going. Asking questions can be hugely beneficial. Of course, the assessment questions you ask yourself will differ depending on your current life situation but below I’ve shared some examples which you can pick and choose from depending which are most relevant. You might want to spend some time thinking and considering your answers but another good idea is to make notes or do some journalling so you can deep dive into how things are for you, and evaluate if your needs are being met. This kind of activity is great for self care and building self awareness.

Again, I’ve tried my best to include everyone here but I apologise in advance if you feel like most or all of the questions aren’t relevant to you. If this is the case, you are more than welcome to drop a comment explaining why and I’ll rack my brains and see if I can create a few tailor made question ideas.

  • How would you rate your current happiness and life satisfaction? Why?
  • What is it about your current role or the way you occupy your time that makes you want to get up in the morning?
  • What does an average week / work week look like to you? Does this support your physical and mental health? Why? Why not?
  • Do you feel like your current employment / routine offers opportunities to expand your skills and use your strengths? Why? Why not?
  • If you are a student, do your chosen subjects interest you and are you learning well? Does your degree choice suit you and are you getting the help and support you need to learn? Are you able to study independently? Have you found the right balance between studying and enjoying life?
  • What are your career / life aspirations?
  • What do you feel is important in your life right now? Does your occupation / lifestyle reflect this? If there are areas for improvement, what changes do you think you could make?
  • Do you feel that you’re currently achieving balance between your work and leisure time? Are there any ways you could tweak things?
  • What opportunities do you currently have to use your individual gifts, skills and talents (try making a list of them first if you’re unsure what they are) in order to gain purpose, happiness and enrichment in your life?
  • Does how you currently occupy your time support your physical health? Why? Why not?
  • Does how you currently occupy your time support your mental health? Why? Why not?
  • Can you identify one change you could make to your life right now that would have a positive impact on your physical or mental health? (this could be asking for help rather than taking on all of the responsibility yourself, or simple putting your foot down and saying no!)
  • Social connection is considered important for wellbeing (even during periods of low mood). Can you name the ways you connect with others on a regular basis? Do these connections help or hinder your mental health? Are there any changes you’d like to make in this area to improve your wellbeing? Do you shy away from social situations during periods of depression / anxiety or low mood? Can you think of ways to remain socially connected that seem management during difficult times?
  • How do you manage your work related / family stress and responsibilities? If you struggle in this area, can you think of ways to improve?
  • What’s your current attitude towards life / work? Does this support your health or not? Why?

What about if I’m struggling with depression right now and feel pretty useless?

As someone with bipolar disorder, I have plenty of experience of depressive episodes and recognise the daily struggles. However, what I’ve learnt is that, if you feel like you’ve achieved nothing with your day, it tends to make you feel much worse. For this reason, creating a structure or plan for your time can really help. This might include going to your local recovery college to learn something new, identifying small and achievable tasks to do on each day of the week or planning activities which you know (either now or in the past) have given you a little mood boost such as going for a walk in nature, meeting a friend for coffee or doing something mindful such as colouring in, working on a jigsaw or doing some word puzzles. Then, by bedtime, you can celebrate all of your achievements no matter how tiny they are. And don’t forget, even something like getting out of bed and getting dressed shouldn’t be dismissed! Check out my post on Behavioural Activation if you want more help with making a daily plan.

Final words…

I hope you’ve found today’s blog post interesting or helpful in some way and it has made you think about your occupational wellbeing. I’ve tried to include something for everyone no matter what your current situation as I know my readers are all individual and at different stages of their lives. Let me know in the comments if a question or idea has particularly resonated with you as I love to hear the opinions and thoughts of others.

Until next time, take care.

Posted in Bipolar disorder, depression management, lifestyle, mental health, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Wheel of Wellness – Financial

This week, in my series of posts on The Wheel of Wellness, I’ll be focusing on the financial segment. This aspect is all about living within your means and learning to manage your finances both in the short term and long term. I’ll be considering the impact that some mental health conditions may have on your money and will also be sharing some tips for managing your finances effectively, particularly if some of your issues are related to your mood.

What is finance?

Finance is concerned with the management of money and, on a personal level, includes activities such as spending, saving, investing, borrowing and budgeting. It’s about meeting your short and long term financial needs and living within your means, in other words, spending no more money than you have. To help you manage your finances, it’s important to become ‘financially literate’ which basically means having a good relationship with money and become well educated on the various aspects of finance.

Mood disorders and your finances

Most people dislike talking about money but it’s important that you develop your understanding of the different aspects of finance so you can keep yourself financially well. If, like me, you live with depression and/or bipolar disorder you will understand that managing your finances can be a source of distress, particularly during periods of mental illness. Although we all have different experiences, when depressed, you may find yourself struggling to make money decisions or deal with aspects of your finances. You might also try to make yourself feel better by spending money buying nice things. You could find yourself unable to work or have to take time off when you’re unwell and this can also make things hard. During times of mania or hypomania (very elevated or elevated mood) you may find yourself having frenzied spending sprees or making expensive purchases which you / your family can’t afford.

For example, during periods of hypomania, I tend to buy lots of things to fix problems e.g. neat or cute matching storage containers to create order and look good at the same time, the latest kitchen gadgets which I’ve spotted online, new blankets/cushions for our sofa to replace ones which are slightly past their best but we can manage with just fine etc. Also, everything in the shops seems to develop a rosy glow and is heightened in attractiveness and I have to stop myself buying it all. When I watch craft videos on YouTube, I need to have those exact pens in those colours shown, particular stickers or ephemera because it all looks so pretty or a certain gadget / crafty resource so that I can make similar things to those demonstrated. Then, when I get depressed, I get upset because my craft room is bursting at the seams with all of the things I’ve bought and I have no motivation to make anything or use any of my supplies.

Money management tips

If you think you would benefit from increasing your financial wellbeing, you might like to consider the tips I’ve put together below. Some are general tips related to learning more about your personal finances and budgeting, whilst others are specifically targeted at those of you who find that your mental health has a direct influence on your money management.

Know what your current financial status is

Spend some time getting to know your current money situation. Make a note of what is in your savings account, your current account and your ISA if you have one. Also, become familiar with your debts e.g. how much is left to pay on your mortgage?, what do you owe on any loans you may have? do you owe any friends or family some money? etc. Learn how much income you / your household have coming in each month and so on. You could create a spread in your bullet journal such as me and my money or create an e-record on your mobile phone.

Examine your cash flow

When you know how much you earn each month or how much you receive in benefits, find out how much you typically spend and on what. Try creating a tracker for income and expenditure for a month to get a better idea of your incomings and outgoings. You could also consider looking at your spending habits at different times e.g. when depressed, manic or hypomanic or when your mood is stable (neither high nor low).

You could do a paper version of this in your bullet journal or a notebook as shown below or you can use a free app which calculates your spending and deducts the money you from your monthly income. I found a couple of Android apps which were really easy to use by doing a quick search on Google Play.

Source: Laura Jones for Keeping It Creative blog

If recording your expenses seems a little overwhelming right now, you could start by look at your monthly bank statements to see where your money is going each month. Although it won’t identify exactly what you purchased, it will tell you the name of the shop or business for each transaction.

Create a monthly budget

This is definitely something to do when you’re feeling well as it can be quite time consuming and requires good concentration and forethought. Once you’ve examined your cash flow situation you’ll know what your income is like and the kinds of things you purchase each month or each quarter. You’ll also know if you’re spending more or less than you have coming in and how much you are able to save (or not).

A monthly budget is a plan for how you will spend your money each month. It’s a popular way to manage your finances as lots of recurring expenses such as mortgage, rent, mobile phone etc. occur on a monthly basis. If you know what your income is each month, you can make sure you spend less than you have coming in. That way you can try to save a small amount of money with a view to creating an emergency fund for any unplanned spends.

There’s lots of information and advice online from money experts about how to create and stick to a budget but the key steps are outlined below:

  1. Calculate your monthly income – only consider consistent sources, not one off things like selling unwanted stuff on Ebay or money you get for your birthday
  2. Track your spending (see above)
  3. Consider your financial goals – this could be something like saving up for a deposit on a house, your wedding or a new car but could also be something small like reining in the amount you spend on clothes each month so you can put money aside for a holiday.
  4. Create your budget – make a list of all of the things you spend money on each month and allocate an amount to each category. This could include spending more or less on your favourite hobbies, cutting down on eating out and takeaways etc. A popular rule for creating a budget is the 50/30/20 rule where you allocate 50% of your income to needs, 30% towards wants and 20% towards savings.
  5. Continue tracking your expenses and refine your budget as and when necessary – do your spending habits align with your budget? have your financial goals changed? etc.

Identify your triggers

If your spending varies depending on how you feel, you might want to track your spending and your mood at the same time. Then, you can identify your triggers. For example, you may self soothe by shopping for little (or larger) treats in attempt to make yourself feel better when you’re depressed. You might overspend when you’re feeling high because each purchase comes with a little thrill or you have boundless energy for a frenzied shopping spree. Once you know your triggers, you can create a plan for managing them or seek advice and support from a professional.

Take steps to manage your spending

If you know your spending tends to get a little out of control during periods of mental illness, try to create a plan when you’re feeling well and maybe share it with close family and friends. This could include:

  • leaving your debit / credit card at home and drawing out a limited amount of cash for your shopping
  • shop with a friend or family member who can rein in your spending. You may argue against their recommendations, but ask them to persevere!
  • get rid of your credit card altogether so you can’t spend money you haven’t got
  • ask you ‘shopping partner’ to encourage you to think it over before making a decision to purchase. Is the urge to buy still there is a few days time or after you’ve slept on it? Most overspending is caused by impulse purchasing which you are likely to regret later!
  • if you think you might be about to have an online shopping spree, try to distract yourself with something else which makes you feel good such as reading a book, doing some work in the garden or tending to your houseplants, having a relaxing bath or doing some yoga

Set up direct debits

During periods of difficulty you may have little energy or motivation to pay bills or manage your finances. Setting up direct debits (instructions for your bank to authorise payment when they’re due) for your monthly and quarterly bills such as your broadband, mobile phone, energy, council tax etc. makes things easier and safer and ensures you don’t forget to pay and become in arrears.

Seek medical help

If you feel your money issues are related to your mental health e.g. spending to cheer yourself up when depressed or going on manic spending sprees when you feel high, try talking to your GP, CPN or psychiatrist. Your GP should be able to refer you to the mental health team or your psychiatrist may tweak your medication or advise you upon therapy which may help to manage your symptoms.

Get free professional advice

If you live in the UK and are currently in debt you can get free advice from a number of places such as Step Change, Turn2Us, National Debtline and most people’s favourite money saving expert Martin Lewis. You can also seek our information of different benefits which may be available to you. Bipolar UK is a good source of advice and their website also has a selection of stories about money issues and a section dedicated to finances in their forum.

Ask for help from a loved one

Depending on the severity of your issues, you may just need to ask for help from your partner or a trusted friend. You can ask them to monitor your spending and intervene when necessary e.g. helping you to organise pay your bills when you’re depressed or look after your credit and debit cards during periods of mania or hypomania. You can also ask them to look out for changes in your behaviour related to spending during periods of mental illness.

Check out supportive webpages and sites

There’s a wealth of information available online relating to finances and there’s some particularly useful bits and pieces about money and mental health. Here’s some I found following a quick search:

Coping with financial worries and debt

If you have money worries right now you may struggle to control your emotions and have feelings of guilt, shame, stress, embarrassment and exhaustion. This can lead to low mood and worsening of your mental health. You may be tempted to bury your head in the sand and hope that things will get better at some point but, although it might be really difficult and overwhelming, you should try to take control and find a way forward (easier said than done I know). Many people are currently struggling with managing their finances but there’s lots of help out there in the community and online so you’re definitely not alone. Also, remember the saying a problem shared is a problem halved. If you thought a good friend was having money issues you would want him or her to reach out and not feel ashamed of their situation so try to be self compassionate and seek some help and support.

Final words…

Ultimately, managing your personal finances depends on all kinds of factors including your income streams and how steady they are, your employment status e.g. student, self employed, unemployed etc, your current non-negotiable monthly outgoings such as your mortgage or rent payments, your savings and how much you wish to increase them by if at all, any benefits you are entitled to, your dependents and your financial goals. However, if you dedicate some time to assessing your cash flow by examining your income and expenditure then you will become better educated with regard to your current situation and this will help you to manage your budget. By learning about the link between mental health and money you can identify your own issues and seek help with them, either from resources online, friends and family or professionals.

I hope you’ve found the information contained within today’s post helpful and it has encouraged you to think about getting on top of your finances if you feel it’s an area of your wellbeing that you might like to work on.

Posted in Bipolar disorder, creativity, depression management, lifestyle, mental health, Mindfulness, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: Wheel Of Wellness – Intellectual

In today’s Monday Matters I’ll be considering the intellectual element of the Wheel Of Wellness. This segment is all about keeping your brain active, exploring creativity and finding different ways to expand your knowledge and skills in various areas. It also includes finding ways to challenge yourself and ensuring you do activities which stimulate each area of the brain e.g. speaking and listening, problem solving, fine motor tasks and using and developing your skills of observation etc.

What do we mean by intellectual?

Sometimes when we use the term intellectual, we’re referring to individuals who come across as ‘brainy’, clever or highly educated as demonstrated by their thought processes, reflections, use of vocabulary, problem solving and factual knowledge etc. However, the term can also refer to ways in which you can stimulate your mind.

Today’s blog post is not about trying to develop a superior intellect or the knowledge of a Mastermind contestant, but more about keeping the different areas of your brain active and becoming a lifelong learner. Good mental fitness is very beneficial for your general health and wellbeing, and, as you get older, it can help to prevent signs of dementia or, at the very least, slow down cognitive decline.

Great ways to keep your brain active and expand your mind

Puzzles The term puzzle might make you think of a box of pieces that you join together to make a picture but a jigsaw is just one type of puzzle. In fact, the term is used to defined any activity that requires mental effort and has a definite ending. This can include paper puzzles such as crosswords, wordsearches, spot the difference and sudoku, board games such as Cluedo and Scrabble, guessing games such as I spy and charades and online games such as Candy Crush, Word Cookies and my favourite Angry Birds 2! Puzzling takes lots of concentration and mental effort which is great for improving both your physical and mental health. Here’s 5 benefits for you:

  • improves your problem solving skills which can then be applied at home or work
  • a wonderful stress reliever
  • reduces your risk of mental diseases such as Alzheimer’s
  • slows mental aging
  • a good form of entertainment and can be great fun!

If you are currently struggling with anxiety or depression, puzzles are a great way to distract yourself from negative thoughts, rumination and general worry about your problems. During my last period of depression, I used to dedicate a lot of time to doing jigsaws, wordsearches, arrow words and online games as it provided respite from thoughts that I wasn’t going to get better and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

Learn to play a musical instrument There are so many benefits of learning to play a musical instrument that I could write a full blog post on it. According to my research, playing music uses both sides of the brain so you’re giving it a really good workout. Attentiveness, fine motor movements, memory and creativity are all required and as you get better at playing, you’ll become more confident, not just with regard to your instrument of choice, but also in general too. Setting and working towards goals and celebrating your achievements is bound to make you more positive and after a while, you will probably want to share you learning with others and impress them with your new skills – presenting a great opportunity to socialise with friends, family and even work colleagues.

In this month’s Happiful magazine, I also read that new research has found that learning a musical instrument (in the study they looked at the impact of piano practice) can protect against dementia in those over 60 as it strengthens white matter in the brain.

Read plenty of books, magazines and newspaper articles Being a regular reader is great exercise for the brain and both fiction and non-fiction have many benefits.

Fiction books can help improve your memory, vocabulary, empathy and emotional intelligence, analytical skills and tolerance of others. They can also be a huge source of pleasure and relaxation, alleviating stress and helping us to get a good night’s sleep.

Reading non-fiction books and articles (including blog posts) is a great way to improve your knowledge on a variety of topics which interest you. Whether you want to find out more about gardening, read about an interesting bird you spotted on a woodland walk, improve your understanding of a historical event or explore self help strategies for good mental health there are books and articles on every subject imaginable. And, if you join your local library, you can have access to a range of learning materials for free.

Many people also like to read a daily or weekly newspaper to keep themselves informed. Both the paper and online versions provide a source of global, national and local news, weather updates, the latest health and wellbeing advice, technological advances, entertainment and sports. You can even personalise the homepage on your computer so that news articles on particular topics appear first.

Learn a new skill Learning a new skill is a great way to fire up your brain. There are endless opportunities available for free online or you could try taking a class at your local college or doing a distance learning course. Here’s some examples which you might like to try:

  • flower arranging
  • photography
  • a foreign language
  • drawing
  • ceramics
  • watercolour painting
  • basic car repairs
  • Tai Chi
  • embroidery
  • good sleep hygiene
  • knitting
  • basic first aid
  • mindfulness
  • cooking on a budget
  • swimming
  • yoga
  • aromatherapy
  • Microsoft Office for beginners

As part of our course homework for last week, we were asked to have a go at learning something new. I chose something which I’ve been meaning to give a go for a long time which is developing the skills involved in creating wavy hair using a curling wand (which I purchased nearly a year ago and have barely tried out). My hairdresser showed me some of the basic techniques but it’s not so easy when you’re trying to do it on your own hair as you can’t see the back and you need to swap hands for each side meaning that for half of the styling process, you’re using your non-dominant hand for the wrapping. I found a few super helpful YouTube videos which used the same or a similar wand and have watched them a few times to get some tips. For next week’s session, I’m going to go to college with wavy hair to show off my new skill!

Try new things Trying something new is a great way to grow as a person. You might go to a restaurant you’ve never visited before, find a new recipe to have a go at, take a different fitness class, put on a different radio station, try listening to a different genre of music or go on a day trip to a place which a friend has recommended to you. You never know, you might discover a new favourite or create an amazing memory.

I took the opportunity to try out a new kind of exercise whilst I had access to all of the fitness classes for free. I’ve now discovered that I really enjoy doing pilates and although it’s a relatively gentle form of exercise, it’s great for toning your core muscles.

Ask questions This is something my husband and I do regularly as part of our thirst for new knowledge and greater understanding. For example, there are some swifts that come back every year and nest in one of the roofs we can see from our back bedroom. They’re fascinating birds and, being nature lovers, we always want to find out more about them. Some of the questions we’ve searched on Google this year include: When do swifts arrive in the UK? How many eggs do swifts have in a clutch? What do swift eggs look like? Do swifts pair for life?

You can also learn a lot from asking questions of friends, family, work colleagues and various acquaintances. You might want to get a different opinion or perspective or you might want to find out about something they seem to be somewhat of an expert in or at least know more about than you.

Try out a new hobby New hobbies are great for enhancing your skill set. Also, they present new challenges which can be wonderful for boosting your confidence and self esteem. Here’s a few hobbies that might appeal:

  • birdwatching
  • geocaching
  • upcycling
  • origami
  • gardening
  • calligraphy
  • scrapbooking
  • martial arts
  • astronomy
  • archery
  • camping

Keep a ‘things I want to learn’ list in your bullet journal or notebook Every time you think of something you’d like to know more about, write it down so you don’t forget. It might not be top of your to do list right now, but making a note can be a good reference for the future. When you’re ready, you can then pick something out to focus on and set some learning goals.

Watch documentaries If you’re a visual or auditory learner, documentaries are a great source of education. You can find out about anything you’re interested in, including wildlife, nature, different cultures, living with particular health conditions, environmental issues, technology, crime, history, arts and media, science, religion and current affairs. In the UK, Panorama and Dispatches are popular documentary programmes which tackle the latest issues, whilst Horizon focuses on a variety of subjects related to science and philosophy. I also find anything that Sir David Attenborough narrates to be both fascinating to listen to and incredibly informative.

Get creative Every one of us has the potential to be creative as long as regularly find the time to develop our skills. You might think that creativity is all about making a piece of art work or writing a story or poem, but you can be creative in many different ways. Here’s some examples:

  • developing a new storage system for all of your cleaning supplies and tools at home
  • finding an alternative solution to a problem at work
  • create a capsule wardrobe for your holiday abroad
  • choose a colour scheme for your living room and have fun choosing complementary soft furnishings
  • learn how to make bread dough and then have fun turning pieces into different animals
  • try styling your hair in a different way
  • create a costume for a fancy dress party
  • take a landscape photo and then recreate the scene as a watercolour painting
  • choose a new theme for your bullet journal spreads and have a go at designing different pages for the month

Final words…

Although as adults there are things that we feel we must learn to get by in life and to progress in our jobs or career, we should also make time to learn about things that particularly interest us. I love trying out different art techniques and a few years ago (before COVID struck), I joined a beginner’s ceramics course. I had so much fun and met some lovely people there and, even though we were given specific assignments, e.g. to make a pinch pot, our creations were all completely different and unique to us. Quite a few of us signed up for the intermediate class too to develop our skills further and try out different techniques. It was so exciting to see our finished projects when they’d been glazed and fired and we all felt a huge sense of achievement by the end of the course.

I would be really interested to know if you consider yourself a lifelong learner and, if you do, what you’d like to find out about next, which kind of hobby appeals the most, or which skills you particularly want to develop in the future.

Posted in Bipolar disorder, depression, depression management, lifestyle, mental health, Planning and journaling, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: A mini guide to using Behavioural Activation as a treatment for depression

In last week’s blog post, I mentioned that my support worker and I have been using a technique called Behavioural Activation (B.A.) as a practical treatment for my depression and anxiety. Today, I thought I’d share an introduction to how B.A. works, ways in which it can help ease depression and anxiety and some tips on how to get the most out of using the method.

What is Behavioural Activation?

Behavioural Activation is an effective and pro-active treatment for depression which can be used in addition to medication and CBT techniques. Research shows that when individuals are struggling with depression their activity levels reduce, leading to less enjoyment and achievement and feelings of lethargy and poor motivation so that even small tasks and activities become hard work. This then becomes a vicious cycle of inactivity – depression and anxiety – inactivity and so on leading to us feeling worse.

Source: NHS Greater Manchester Mental Health

Additionally, a person may engage in unhelpful behaviours such as turning to drugs or alcohol, staying in bed late into the day, withdrawing from social situations or sitting ruminating about things.

Behavioural Activation (B.A.) aims to break the above cycle by increasing pleasurable and positive activity each week with a view to improving mood and decreasing feelings of anxiety, including any negative thoughts you might be having such as “I’m a useless wife/husband/partner”, “I can’t do this anymore”, “I’m never going to get better” etc.

Although Behavioural Activation is a relatively simple idea and can be used as a self- help strategy, I think it is best done with a therapist or support worker so that they can guide you through the process and provide encouragement along the way. They can also look at the particular difficulties you’re having and help you to put things in place to make positive steps towards tackling them.

Establishing a baseline – the first step of Behavioural Activation

Once you understand the principles behind B.A. therapy the first step in the process is to monitor your current activities throughout the week and how they affect your mood. This can either be done using an activity monitoring sheet, examples of which can be found online, or by simply making a list of what you do each hour of the day and scoring your mood out of 10 each time, 0 representing feeling very depressed and 10 representing feeling really good. This should help you to clearly see the relationship between your activity levels and your mood. You could also try listing which of your activities made you feel good and which made you feel bad, for example going for a walk in the park made me feel good, sitting and worrying that I’ll never get better made me feel bad.

Using a ‘Weekly Schedule’ sheet to make plans – the next step in the process

Once you’ve established what you are currently doing, it’s time to make some small improvements. Each week, you work on creating a schedule which should include routine plans such as having breakfast, going food shopping, pleasurable activities such as playing cards, watching TV, doing something creative etc and necessary things that need doing e.g. paying your car tax.

You should also try to include activities which you already do that make you feel better such as getting dressed, brushing your hair, going for a daily walk etc. So, for example, even though I didn’t feel like doing my yoga each day, I did it anyway as it helps to calm me and I feel good after doing it.

My modified B.A. weekly schedule sheet created in MS Word

What you write in the boxes depends on your current difficulties. For example, if you are struggling to get out of bed you might write in the first box ‘Up by 9.00am’, ‘Have breakfast’ and ‘Get ready’ (dressed, teeth brushed and face washed). If you’re currently not doing any household chores, you might add laundry related activities to your list. This can be broken down into small steps e.g. ‘Load the washing machine’, ‘hang out clothes’ and ‘Bring in washing’.

You should also try to think of activities which are important to you, for example spending time in nature, being creative, quality time with family or friends, eating a balanced diet etc. These are related to your core values and you might want to talk to a support worker or therapist to establish what you want from life so you can set some goals for the future. Although your depression is likely to lead you to believe that things will never get better and you will never again feel a sense of pleasure or achievement, try to think of your situation as temporary and know that things will improve in time (I know this is much easier said than done though).

Using your weekly schedule to good effect

Your weekly schedule is your plan for the week and is a guide for what you hope to achieve. It should be referred to throughout the day and will help you see what you have planned. It’s also a place to record your achievement and enjoyment levels (out of 10) so you can evaluate the effect B.A. is having on your mood. You might also like to spend time each evening reflecting on your day – you could even do a little journalling too. If you find your enthusiasm waning at any time, remind yourself why you’re using Behavioural Activation and think about the positives so far.

Tips on using Behavioural Activation to treat depression

Start small When I first started planning out my week according to the principles of B.A., I would identify one activity for in the morning, one for in the afternoon and another for in the evening. This would mainly include relatively simple and mindful activities which helped to distract my anxious and negative thoughts and improve my mood a little. So, for example, in the first week I would have breakfast, get dressed and straighten my hair in the morning, go for a walk in the park in the afternoon and then play cards, do some of my jigsaw or watch TV in the evening. By week 5, I was doing several activities in the morning, afternoon and evening and setting more difficult goals for myself. However, we always made sure I had some time for pleasurable and relaxing activities each week such as reading my book in bed two mornings a week (after having a good breakfast and brushing my teeth and washing my face).

Break down activities into steps When you’re feeling depressed, it’s common to lack the motivation to do even basic things. For this reason, it’s helpful to break down activities into small steps which feel more achievable. So, for example, ages ago I bought a cheap set of gouache paints and really wanted to have a go at using them. Rather than creating a full page art piece, I set myself the simpler task of painting some stems and leaves. For the first step, I experimented with creating different shades of green by mixing varying amounts of blue and yellow. Then I introduced small amounts of other colours of paint to explore what happened. I also added white to some of the mixture to make lighter shades. After that, I tried painting samples onto a small strip of watercolour paper to see if I had the consistency of the paint correct as I knew that gouache is quite a bit thicker than watercolour which I’ve used many times before. This was all I did on the first day. I returned to my paint samples a few days later and decided to have a go at some stems and leaves. I spent time looking online at different stem and leaf shape and patterns and then had a go at creating them using a small selection of brushes. By breaking down my art project, I avoided feeling overwhelmed. I also did the same for housework tasks e.g. rather than cleaning the whole kitchen, I started by just cleaning and polishing the sink area.

Routine, Pleasurable and Necessary Try to create a balance of activities on your plan so that you engage in a range of pleasurable and achievement related activities each week. So, for example, you might do some watercolouring on Monday morning because you know that you have enjoyed painting in the past. This would be a pleasurable activity (even if you believe that you won’t enjoy doing it). On Tuesday morning, you might put one load of washing in the machine and then hang it out in the sunshine when it’s finished. This would be a routine task (something that needs doing regularly) and is likely give you a sense of achievement. On Wednesday afternoon, you might plan to get a few necessary tasks out of the way such as renewing your car insurance, replacing a lightbulb or replying to an email or text message from someone.

Evaluate how your week has gone During my weekly support sessions, Nichola would ask me how my week had been and part of this involved talking through how I’d got on with my B.A. plans. This gave me the chance to share my achievements but was also an opportunity to identify any problems I’d had, if I’d found solutions myself or if I needed help to find a way forward. For example, one week, I’d got really upset because my dressing table in the bedroom was thick with dust and I felt ashamed at how bad it was. I only cleaned this one piece of furniture instead of the whole of our bedroom as I became really overwhelmed. We discussed that sometimes a task may need modifying or simplifying to make it easier and that I may need to try to be kinder to myself / show more self compassion etc.

Reward yourself regularly As well as going easy on yourself, it’s also a good idea to spend time recognising your achievements and reward yourself for progress made. As well as doing this with Nichola once a week, my husband talks with me about how my day had been and what I’ve achieved. Also, every Friday afternoon, we go to my favourite cafĂ© for a coffee and cake as a well deserved treat. This has become a part of our weekly routine which will have carried on even though I’m now feeling much better and it’s not so hard to get things done.

Enlist the support of others If you find it difficult to motivate yourself to do the activities on your weekly schedule, it can be helpful to ask others for support. This could be a family member or friend who regularly checks in with you to see how you’re getting on and provides gentle encouragement. They might also help you with a particular task e.g. preparing a meal, filling in a form or tidying a space in your home.

Final words…

Although Behavioural Activation on its own isn’t a cure for depression, it can be a really useful coping mechanism and a helpful treatment for lifting your mood. Hopefully, in time, you will find that you start to enjoy some of the activities on your plan or feel a sense of achievement when you’ve completed tasks that you’ve probably been avoiding. As you continue to schedule in activities and complete them successfully, you’ll likely be motivated to do more. Remember, though, that there may be days along the way where you don’t feel so good and some of your tasks might not get done. This is okay and perfectly normal – just go easy on yourself and celebrate what you did achieve. Even a small number of activities done each day can have a big impact on your mood.

If you have any questions about Behavioural Activation, feel free to drop them in the comments and hopefully I’ll be able to answer them or direct you to an online resource which might help. Also, if you would like a copy of my Weekly Schedule, I would be more than happy to share it – just get in touch using the email address in the ‘Contact me’ section of my blog.

Posted in Bipolar disorder, Bullet journaling, CBT, depression management, mental health, Planning and journaling, wellbeing

Monday Matters: Useful ways to track your mood

At the end of April, as part of my post on self-awareness and self-acceptance, I mentioned the usefulness of mood trackers as a way of learning more about how your mood changes and about different things which impact your mood. Although there are hundreds of examples of bullet journal spreads featuring decorative, pretty and colourful trackers (just type #moodtracker into Instagram or search Pinterest), I find that many are a little basic and are more about aesthetics than being an effective learning tool which helps you manage your mood. So, today, I’m going to explore why mood tracking is helpful and discuss some more useful ways of tracking your mood which go beyond colouring in shapes to show if you’re happy, sad or neutral.

Why track your mood?

You might simply track your mood to see if you spent more time feeling happy than sad during any given month but there are so many more benefits to be had such as:

  • It can help you to better understand your triggers and their impact – as well as genetic and physical factors affecting your mood, social and environmental factors play a big part too. By learning about your triggers, you can take steps to minimise the effect and work on developing healthy coping mechanisms.
  • Enables you to identify patterns – after you’ve tracked your mood for a while, you can start to look for patterns, so for example, you might notice that you always feel particularly stressed or down on a Monday after a weekly meeting at work, or anxious in the build up to going supermarket shopping on a Tuesday, or you might notice that a period of depression always kicks in at the end of Autumn and lifts when the weather starts to become brighter in the Springtime.
  • Helps you to develop strategies for managing your moods – when you’ve established patterns, you can then work on developing strategies to combat the effects of various triggers, such as working on positive self talk, doing relaxing breathing meditations, scheduling in something fun on a Monday evening, connecting with nature or getting a little Winter sunshine.
  • Helps you to track your progress – once you’ve put the various strategies in place, long term mood tracking can help you to see if what you’ve put in place actually works. And if you know specific things are really useful, you can do more of them!
  • Can help you to get an accurate diagnosis or appropriate self help strategies – you can take the information you’ve collected when you see a mental health practitioner such as a community psychiatric nurse (CPN) or your psychiatrist and then can use this to help you get an accurate diagnosis or to to make suggestions on how to manage your symptoms more effectively.

In fact, mood tracking is a key element of CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) and related exercises are often given as homework due to the fact that they can really help you manage your mental health much more effectively.

Issues I’ve had with keeping a basic one page per month mood tracker in my bullet journal

One of the first issues I had with a basic mood tracker was that my mood changed so much throughout the day that I wanted to record it all and ended up splitting the shape or section for that day into about 4 different colours e.g. I was tired first thing, then I was annoyed about something someone had said, then a little later in the day, I received some great feedback and I was happy, then by the end of a busy day I was either exhausted or extremely stressed at the amount of work I had to do the next day. A more useful idea is to record each time your mood or emotional state changes and what has made it change (i.e. the trigger or circumstances). Then you can come up with some strategies to combat the moods which are causing difficulties e.g. developing relaxation techniques, reframing particular thoughts and feelings, talking about things that are causing you to feel stressed etc.

Also, I think that a lot of mood trackers become restrictive when they only have a set number of moods such as happy, sad, neutral, tired and stressed. What if you feel embarrassed and it had a huge impact on your mood? What if something someone said has made you feel completely inadequate and this leads to feelings of self doubt and lots of negative self talk? There are so many different moods and I think it’s important to recognise them all. I downloaded and laminated a mood wheel a while back now and have found it really useful to find the words to pinpoint exactly how I feel. There’s lots of these available online and this one is available here.

A wheel showing every mood and feeling you could possibly think of!

Finally, recording your mood is more useful if you also take the time to journal about what caused the mood / emotion and the impact it had in terms of thoughts and subsequent behaviour. Then, you can come up with ways of going forward.

My idea for a more useful mood chart for your bullet journal

It took me a while to come up with a set up which isn’t too onerous but is helpful in identifying moods and emotions and can also be used to record action techniques such as those I learnt in CBT, Compassion and Mindfulness sessions to manage the moods. The main focus, I guess, is on negative moods but it’s also important to recognise positive moods so that you can try to find ways to inject more positivity whilst making sure that you don’t get too high if you are inclined toward mania or hypomania.

Obviously, this is an idea that I think will probably work for me so bear in mind that it might not suit you, but I hope that it might give you an idea for a layout which you can modify to fit your own needs. You might also think that the chart is time consuming, and yes, it does take time, but, if it helps you deal with your moods effectively, I think it’s well worth doing.

The date and mood/emotion columns are pretty self explanatory and I’m using the above wheel to help me best describe how I feel. The ‘why’ column can be used to identify the circumstances which caused the mood such as lack of sleep, a particular situation that you faced, a comment made by someone or an event which has occurred or may be about to happen. You might also like to record your related thoughts as these can really impact on things too. The final column ‘actions’ could be used to identify ways of improving your mood or providing a remedy to high levels of stress or excitement. Some ideas include:

  • work on reframing the thought that made you feel bad in some way
  • take it to court to consider the evidence for your thoughts / beliefs – this is a great CBT technique and you can find related PDFs here.
  • plan in some relaxing activities to combat stress / help you relax
  • talk to someone about what has happened with a view to getting an alternative point of view
  • go for a walk in nature
  • find something else to focus on if you’re finding yourself ruminating

A useful way to track bipolar moods

For bipolar disorder symptoms, the free charts from Bipolar UK are great for tracking changing moods so you can recognise signs that you are slipping into a depressed mood or becoming hypomanic or manic. My personal preference would be more room to make notes about triggers, so I would use the first sheet as to record my mood and then create a weekly page for information about events, triggers, wellbeing activities or interactions with others.

Using an app on your phone

If you’re not a fan of pen and paper methods, you could always track your moods on your phone. I’ve found several options and some are more in depth than others. These are all available for both iOS and Android but there are some I’ve read about that are just available for iOS). As with all apps, if you want access to all of the features, you’ll need to pay a subscription for Premium access, but there are some which offer simple ways of recording basic information and tracking things over time.

Daylio This one is particularly popular and, due to it having lots of clickable icons, you can quickly record how you feel, state what your sleep has been like and mark off what you’ve been up to during the day (e.g. hobbies, health related, kindness and compassion related and chores). There’s also the option to add some notes to sum up your mood and your day. I found the mood labels annoying at first as the really happy face one said ‘rad’ but after some exploring, I discovered you could change them to something you would actually say, I chose ‘joyful’. After consistently entering your data over a period of time, you can create graphs to see how your mood has changed over the weeks and you can also see how doing different activities impacts on how you feel. Also, to help you get into the routine of filling in your data, you can set a reminder for a particular time, for example, I tried 8pm so I could reflect each evening.

Bearable This one has loads of bits and pieces that you can record alongside your mood. You can add if you had a headache and if you had an mental health symptoms such as stress, anxiety and depression. You can also identify factors which may have impacted on your day such as how busy you’ve been, if you’ve been to work and how much screen time you had. You can say where you’ve been, how much physical activity you’ve engaged in and if you’ve been socialising and what your sleep has been like. Again you can set reminders and edit what you want to track.

emoods Another app which looks like it might be really helpful for individuals with Bipolar disorder is emoods. Each daily log has a space to record how much sleep you got (in increments of 0.5 hours) and your mood, focusing on the four areas of depressed mood, elevated mood, irritability and anxiety, rating them from none, mild, moderate to severe. Over time, the data you enter can then be made into various graphs so you can see if there are any patterns. You can also record if you had any symptoms of psychosis, if you attended some form of talk therapy and your medications (type and dose). Finally, there’s a box to type in anything else which is relevant and may have had an impact on your mood.

Tracking your moods on your phone has several benefits – you can have lots of data in digital format and it doesn’t take up lots of space like a paper version would and you can get graphs of your data which would be difficult and time consuming to create in your notebook. Personally I found both records to be useful but I much prefer working in my bullet journal.

Making it a habit

If you’re going to go to the effort of making a decision to track your moods and learn from it, you also need to make filling in the diary or using an app. a habit and part of your daily routine. If you use a paper based method, you might choose set times during the day to sit down and do some journaling. It’s helpful if you reflect on things pretty much straightaway so you can complete some action steps but it might not be feasible to make notes there and then so you need to find what works for you. My previous blog post on habit creation might help you with making sure you stick to filling in your chart but a simple way of reminding yourself is to set an alarm on your phone or a reminder with a notification tone in your calendar.

As I said earlier, the apps which I tried include the option of notifications to remind you to fill in your information at various points in the day which can be really helpful as long as you choose useful times for the messages to pop up.

Final words…

I hope you have found today’s post useful and it’s given you the key points about why it’s helpful to track your moods and some ideas for how to go about it. If you are really struggling with your moods, however, I would recommend you consider trying CBT as a trained therapist can help you to you look at your emotions and also teach you key techniques for dealing with unhelpful and negative thoughts.