Posted in CBT, depression, lifestyle, mental health, Planning and journaling, psychology, wellbeing

Monday Matters: Negative self-talk – its impact on you and 3 ways to challenge and reframe it

For today’s Monday Matters post I want to discuss something which I’m currently really struggling with, and that is negative self-talk. I’ve been taught various strategies in different therapy sessions throughout the years but applying them when you’re really struggling is easier said than done. Also, during periods of better mood, the techniques tend to be forgotten about as the amount of negativity is much less. So, here’s some examples of different types of negative self talk, an outline of how it damages us mentally and three key ways to challenge and reframe it.

What is negative self talk?

Before you can begin to challenge your negative self-talk you need to know exactly what it is so you can label it as such as soon as it pops into your head or out of your mouth. Basically, we have lots of thoughts running through our minds all of the time such as ‘I wonder if there’s anything good on TV tonight?’, ‘I haven’t done any watercolouring this week, perhaps I’ll have a go at some tomorrow’ or ‘I feel a bit rough today so I’m going to take it easy’. These kinds of self-talk and reflection are perfectly normal and help you to make decisions and get on with things in your life. However, when the self-talk becomes harsh and self critical, such as ‘I can’t believe I did that, I’m such as idiot’, this is when it becomes a problem and can be really damaging in all kinds of ways.

The main forms of negative self-talk (AKA cognitive distortions)

The following are some of the main forms of negative self-talk. In psychology, they’re known as cognitive distortions because they’re inaccurate, exaggerated, irrational and negatively biased.

Overgeneralisation – this is where we draw conclusions about things in life or the future based on things that have happened (often once) in the past e.g. all men are liars, we’re bound to get stuck in traffic, bad things always happen to me, I’ll never be able to do that, I always fail.

Catastrophising – very closely related to the above, this is where we imagine and believe the worst will happen and completely blow things out of all proportion, for example, during a period of depression, saying that you will never get better and will spend the rest of your life miserable, or following the end of a romantic relationship, stating that you’re unlovable and will never find anyone else.

Mental filter – this is when we experience positive and negative things but only focus on the bad stuff and filter out anything good. So, for example you might have had a day out at the park, enjoyed a picnic in the sunshine, strolled around the lake, feed the ducks and swans and admired the cute, fluffy little cygnets before getting an ice cream from the cafĂ©. But, on return home, you might say that you had an awful time because you were stupid enough to drip ice cream on your t-shirt and that you got burnt because you failed to re-apply your sunscreen.

Predicting the future (AKA fortune telling) -this is where we predict what is going to happen based on little or no evidence, for example, we might say things like: ‘I just know I’m not going to get the job’, ‘I’m not going to the party because I’ll have an awful time’.

Mind reading – here, you assume what others are thinking, often in a negative way. So, for example, you might decide that your friend hates your clothes because she didn’t say how nice your new dress looked, or you might conclude that your husband is sick of you because you keep getting upset all the time.

Black and white thinking – this one involves thinking in extremes rather than anything in-between or in a ‘shade of grey’. It commonly involves the use of the words ‘always’ or ‘never’. Some examples that I’ve said recently are: ‘I always mess things up’, ‘I’ll never get better’ and ‘I’m a complete mess’.

Labelling – these are things that you say about yourself either in your head or out loud which are wholly negative and unhelpful e.g. ‘I’m a fat pig’, ‘I’m useless’, ‘I’m such a failure’ etc.

Shoulds and muststhis involves putting undue pressure on yourself and creating unreasonable expectations which become impossible to keep. For example, you might say ‘I should be a better wife’, ‘I must tidy up all of this mess’, ‘I should exercise more’, I must make sure I’m on time for my appointment’. Using ‘I need to…’ isn’t particularly helpful either e.g. ‘I need to lose weight’, ‘I need to be a better mum’, I need to get that work done’. I’ve written an in depth blog post on this previously as it’s something we covered in my compassion group classes.

The consequences of a tendency towards negative self-talk

As well as causing high levels of stress for both the individual and their close family and friends, negative self-talk has a number of negative consequences including:

  • lack of self belief
  • poor levels of resilience
  • diminished ability to make positive changes in your life
  • reduced self-confidence
  • decreased motivation
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • feelings of hopelessness
  • likelihood of depression and anxiety being exacerbated

Personally, I find that negative self-talk goes hand-in-hand with depression and feelings of anxiety which only serves to make things worse.

3 ways to tackle your negative self-talk

In order to remedy our tendency to negative self-talk we need to recognise when we’re involved in it and actively challenge our words. Here are three ideas on how to do this:

Recognise it, write it down and challenge it

There are a number of psychological studies that have looked into developing awareness of self-talk and the key findings suggest that those individuals who wrote down their own personal examples in some form of log book showed greater insight into the specific content of their self-talk and the consequences of its used. They were also able to start challenging their initial thoughts in order to create more balanced conclusions.

Recognising and challenging your self-talk takes time and commitment but is really worthwhile doing. The following example is my own and I hope, by sharing it, you can see how the process works (you may need to click and enlarge it to see properly). When challenging the evidence, I find it helpful to think about what a good friend or my lovely husband might say in response to what I said.

Take it to court

This is a great technique, which I used in my chart above and feel is really helpful for cross examining your self talk. It commonly used in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and involves metaphorically take the thought or belief to court and place it in the dock. You then find evidence for and against the thought or belief, considering the factual evidence and not opinions. Working for the defence, you try to prove that the accused (your thought or belief) is truthful and correct by providing evidence that shows that your thought or belief is 100% totally true. You can see examples in column 4 of my chart. Then, working for the prosecution, you look for evidence that this thought or belief is not true 100% of the time. For this, you need to select good quality evidence that would hold up in court. Finally, the judge summarises all of the evidence and composes a final statement which is realistic, rational and balanced. This should then help you to see alternative ways of thinking and enable you to undermine your extreme and unhelpful though. You can find worksheets to go with this technique at Getselfhelp.co.uk.

Find more positive alternatives

When you catch yourself saying negative things, try to come up with more positive alternatives or different ways of looking at the situation. Again, think about what a good friend or your partner would say to counteract your thought or belief. Here are some examples which might help:

Negative self-talkPositive self-talk
I hate feeling like thisIt’s okay to feel like this, my feelings are valid
I’m never going to get betterThis is temporary and I have the ability to get through it. I’m taking things one step at a time.
I hate my bodyI’m grateful for everything my body can do, I’m healthy and strong and my body is beautiful.
My life is awfulThere are so many good things in my life right now.
I’m getting everything wrongEveryone make mistakes and we all have days that are better than others.
I need to do some exerciseI would like to do a little more exercise so I can feel more toned.
I can’t do itIt’s going to be hard work but I can do it
I’m so stupidI made a mistake, so what, everyone makes them!

Final thoughts

You might not need to complete these exercises all of the time but when you find yourself dealing with feelings associated with anger, depression or anxiety, try to make time to stop and become more aware of your thoughts. Then you can start to reflect on them, challenge your views and find alternative ways of looking at things. Hopefully, after developing the skills associated with thought investigation and thought challenging, you’ll find it easier to put the ideas into practice and conquer your negative self-talk and start being nicer towards yourself.

Thanks for reading and good luck!

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.

Posted in Bipolar disorder, CBT, compassion, depression management, mental health, wellbeing

Monday Matters: The importance of self-awareness and self-acceptance when managing a mood disorder

Photo credit: Ava Sol for Unsplash

Those of you who follow my blog and regularly take the time to read my posts will know that I’ve recently been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder 2. In brief, Bipolar Disorder is a mental health condition which is characterised by extreme mood swings including bouts of low mood known as depression, periods of elevated or high mood known as mania or hypomania and euthymic state where the mood is stable. Although it’s taken until the age of 43 to get what I now feel is an accurate diagnosis, I’ve been experiencing issues with my mood since the age of around 17 and, even though I’m not an expert in mental health conditions, I have developed a high level of self awareness through the years and have come to learn what helps me manage my moods and what doesn’t. So, in today’s Monday Matters, I’m going to talk about how important it is to be self- aware (which I believe I’m pretty good at) and self-accepting (which I’m probably not so good at – yet!). I’m also going to touch upon ways in which an individual can begin to make improvements and develop in both areas.

What is self awareness?

Self-awareness is a conscious knowledge of one’s own character, behaviours and feelings. Basically, it’s all about knowing exactly who you are and why you behave in the way you do. Self-awareness is not an inherent trait – it’s something than can be learnt and cultivated using a range of reflection and introspection techniques.

I believe increased self-awareness is vital in helping us to find ways of managing a range of mental health conditions including bipolar disorder, depression and S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder). It can also help anyone who has other issues with their moods too for example, in early pregnancy or in the days leading up to a period.

How does self-awareness help us to manage mood disorders?

Enables you to make helpful choices in terms of coping strategies If you know yourself well, you will be able to identify and describe how you feel more easily and be able to make better choices in terms of self help and coping strategies. For example, when you are depressed, you may need to focus on celebrating small achievements, practising gratitude or using distraction techniques to change the focus from negative thoughts. If you’re feeling manic, hypomanic, wound up or angry, you may need to turn to relaxation techniques or use some soothing rhythm breathing to create a sense of calm.

Helps you spot patterns and cycles If you have full knowledge of what your different moods look like e.g. the key features of your depressive cycle, or how you present when you are manic or hypomanic, then you can more easily spot patterns or cycles quickly and be more pro-active in managing your episodes. For example, careful monitoring has helped me to identify the times of year when I get depressed, triggers which impact on my mood and how long my cycles of low / high mood tend to last. This was particularly useful to share with my CPN (community psychiatric nurse) and the psychiatric but also really helps me to cope with my illness.

You can establish what works and what doesn’t more easily Through taking a step back and thinking about issues I’ve had in the past, I’m able to identify what works e.g. sticking to a routine, going for daily walks, practising yoga and mindfulness and what doesn’t work e.g. ruminating over past mistakes, avoiding all contact with friends and family.

Makes therapy even more useful When you attend therapy sessions, whether you access them via the NHS or if you pay for them privately, it’s really important to ensure quick progress due to the time constraints e.g. with CBT offered by the NHS there’s a maximum number of sessions you can have and if you are paying for each session you want to feel that each hour is worth the cost. Having a good understanding of how you’ve been feeling, the ability to explain the changes you’ve made and the impact they’ve had can all help with presenting issues, solving problems and making progress with your treatment. Obviously, professionals are very good at picking apart what you say but it helps speed up the process so you get better faster and learn new skills with maximum efficiency.

Helps you communicate better with others Whoever you are talking to about your illness, be it your CPN, psychiatrist, best friend, partner, family member or work colleague, having the confidence in your ability to explain how you feel and what you think might help or exacerbate your issues, is vital if you want help and support or to feel listened to. This can improve your relationships in a number of ways so that, depending on who you are talking to, you might feel accepted, closer in your friendships, better understood, more confident and able to assertive. It might also help others to see things from your point of view so that they can be more empathetic.

Improved personal and work relationships Being aware of yourself and your moods is useful for maintaining positive relationships with your partner, family, friends and work colleagues. If you know, for example that you are feeling particularly irritable, you can bear this is mind when you engage with others. For example, I know that one of my symptoms of hypomania is extreme irritability and that this results in little annoyances becoming hugely frustrating and me becoming less tolerant of situations and people. I have to try really hard not to display my irritation too much, accepting that it is my illness causing the difficulties and that others are not the issue. By recognising this symptom of my bipolar disorder, I can take steps to manage my feelings and hopefully avoid upsetting others with what I say and what I do. It doesn’t always work, but at least the awareness is there.

Another part of self-awareness is your knowledge of how you come across to other people. Sometimes people can become overly anxious about this to the point of becoming obsessed about what other people might think of them, but I think a little acknowledgement in this area can be useful. For example, in terms of my bipolar disorder, when my mood is stable, I’m probably seen as articulate, friendly, assertive and optimistic, whereas when I’m depressed, I’m probably viewed as quiet, negative and passive. During periods of hypomania, people are likely to see me as irritable, agitated, easily distracted, overly forward and impulsive. By knowing how you present to others, you can help your partner, family, friends and work colleagues to understand how your mood disorder impacts on you and it can also help them spot signs of deteriorating mental health so they can offer support.

What are some easy ways to develop my self-awareness?

You can improve your self-awareness by working with a trained therapist or by using a range of self help style strategies or a combination of both. Here are some ideas which may help.

Therapy Therapy sessions can be really useful for getting to grips with difficulties and the effect that thoughts, feelings and behaviours can have on each other and on our lives. I’ve had individual sessions which focus on CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) techniques and group sessions which have looked at compassion, mindfulness techniques and self-acceptance (i.e. it’s not your fault that you have difficulties etc) All of the forms of therapy I’ve accessed have been helpful and I’ve taken lots from them all but I think CBT is particularly good for finding out about yourself.

Journalling I wrote about the positive impacts of journalling a few weeks ago and if you choose a reflective style, you can find out lots about yourself, how you interact with others and positive and negative ways in which you tend to solve (or exacerbate) problems in every day life. You can either choose a free-form style where you just write what comes into your head, or a more structured style where you respond to particular prompts. Either way can be really eye opening. Try searching ‘journaling prompts’ on Pinterest and make a list of some of your favourites in your bullet journal or other notebook so you can pick and choose.

Try to be more open-minded It’s easy to think that our way of doing something is the best way or that our opinion is more valid than others, but what if someone else’s way is better or when you listen carefully enough, you find that a different opinion makes more sense or is more logical? Even if you don’t agree with another person, you should always try to listen to their point of view as it helps you learn things about yourself and can help you develop your own potential.

Take the helicopter view This one is a CBT technique and one which can be really difficult to do (for me anyway!). Basically, it’s a metaphor for taking a step back to see the bigger picture. If we’re too close in, our emotions take over and we lose the sense of perspective which we would likely gain if we were less involved. If you imagine a helicopter taking off and viewing your problem for a little further away, it would be able to assess the situation with clarity, see why you are reacting the way you are, offer impartial advice (as would be offered to you by a close friend) and take time to consider the best solution based on all of the information. If you would like more information about this click here for further explanation and a PDF worksheet.

Make some ‘about you’ lists If you love writing lists as much as I do, this is one which you’ll really enjoy whilst finding out about yourself as you go. Rather than writing endless to-do lists, why not write about you, your strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes, what makes you happy, a personal bucket list etc. And no, this is not self-indulgent, it’s perfectly okay to make things all about you every once in a while – especially if you helps you get to know yourself and makes it easier to manage your moods.

Keep a mood diary I see lots of bullet journal spread mood trackers on Pinterest and Instagram which look really pretty any colourful by the end of the month due to different colours for the various moods. However, in my opinion, they tend to contain limited information and are therefore of limited use, as they just show that a person’s mood has changed throughout the month or has mainly stayed the same. Personally, I prefer to keep a detailed mood diary as this enables me to make notes about my mood alongside what has triggered it. I also like to be able to describe changes in my mood from one part of the day to the next. For example, I might wake up feeling really happy and full of energy, but then something might trigger a completely different mood e.g. I might see or hear something which upsets me or makes me cross. I find the Bipolar UK Mood Scale and Diary really useful as a starting point for tracking moods but I also like to create more detailed records by utilising space in sheets such as this one from Get Self Help. The first is designed to help individuals with lived experience of the various types of Bipolar Disorder but the second can be used by anyone who is dealing with mood changes.

What is self-acceptance?

Self-acceptance is about accepting everything about yourself – the good and the bad, the rough and the smooth. It’s about recognising that we are all unique, complex human beings with strengths and weaknesses. It’s also about knowing than no-one is perfect and that we all make mistakes and have periods of difficulty in our lives.

Self-acceptance is not about making excuses for bad or inappropriate behaviour, but it does make it easier for us to evaluate how our feelings and emotions may affect our actions so we can work on making changes for the better or recognising why we might be struggling with some of our relationships.

In my opinion, self-acceptance can be pretty difficult, especially if you have perfectionist tendencies like I do. Most of us are easily able to accept the good bits about ourselves, but can the same be said about our flaws and our failures?

How can I learn to accept myself?

Practise self compassion If you’re having a tough time at the moment, one of the worst things you can do is beat yourself up about it. During periods of difficulty, you need to be as compassionate towards yourself as you can. If you were ill with sickness or a headache you generally wouldn’t think twice about resting up, spending the day in bed or whatever you need to get well again. The same needs to apply during periods of high or low mood. Be kind and accept that you’re not your usual self and then either ask for help from one of your supporters or choose appropriate coping strategies that you know work. If you find it difficult to practise self compassion, think about what a good friend would say to you to make you feel better – then say it to yourself. Click here for some more ideas.

Be openly curious rather than judgemental

This is a primary aspect of mindfulness and one which I believe can be hugely helpful during times of difficult emotions. Being curious about what is going on for us allows us to accept what it happening and notice the associated feelings. For example, we might note that we feel anxious or angry and then explore the affect that this is having on us in terms of bodily sensations e.g. tension in the shoulders or tightness in the facial muscles. Then, rather than judging the feelings and sensations as good or bad, we accept that they are there are are just part of our experience.

Be proud of your strengths and celebrate your achievements We all have lots of strengths and we have all achieved things in our life (learning to manage our mental health is one of them). On a day when your mood is stable and you’re feeling okay, try making a list of things you’re good at and another of all of your achievements. So for example, you might be good at sleeping, drawing, cooking, papercrafting, planning, organising etc. You may have completed a degree or a distance learning course. You could be proud of yourself for all kinds of reasons such as singing in a choir, doing a presentation in front of others, teaching your children to have good manners or even developing a successful planning system in your bullet journal.

Find out more about your diagnosis Having recently been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (2) I am still coming to terms with accepting my diagnosis and learning more about the condition – including finding out about Lithium which is the medication I’ve been put on. For me, this was pretty straight forward as I have been dealing with the symptoms of the illness for a long time and it was more a case of finally being offered an explanation for the difficulties I have. But, everyone is different and you need to be patient with yourself and others in getting to grips with your mood disorder and what it means for you. The worst part for me, is knowing that I may improve my ability to manage my moods, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to have difficulties in the future. This will take time to accept and also, due to different medication, I won’t know the effect this will have on my mood cycle in the future.

Try to be more accepting of others You might think this is a strange one to have on a list of ways to accept yourself, but bear with me! If you learn to accept others for who they are and accept that you can’t change how others think, feel and react, then you can focus on how you react to them. This can help you accept that everyone is different and we all have valid thoughts, ideas, beliefs etc. By doing this, you can increase your tolerance levels and improve your relationships with others whether it’s a romantic relationship that you want to develop or a work relationship which you find difficult to bear. It will also help you see that there’s no set right or wrong way to do things and may help you be more assertive, stopping you from worrying about the approval of others so much.

Use positive self talk Affirmations are a great way of accepting yourself as you are and recognising your strength to recover from periods of difficulty. Here are some good examples:

  • I choose to love and accept myself
  • I love and appreciate myself
  • I have many accomplishments that are worth celebrating
  • I value myself above all else
  • I’m proud of myself and my achievements
  • I’m filled with gratitude for who I am
  • I love that I am real, rather than perfect
  • I have enough, I do enough and I am enough
  • I am proud of myself for daring to try.
  • I am resilient and can get through this.

Final words…

Mood disorders are very common and there are lots of us out there who are striving to help ourselves manage our condition in any way we can. Even if you don’t have a diagnosis, I hope today’s post has been useful in some way. I appreciate that it is difficult to put into practice some or all of the ideas when you’re really struggling but if you develop a routine of self care during periods of euthymic (stable) mood it should be a little easier to keep going during high or low periods.

Wishing you all well,

Posted in CBT, compassion, lifestyle, mental health, psychology, wellbeing

Monday Matters: The psychology of optimism and how to become a glass half full kind of person

Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

When I was struggling with anxiety and depression at the end of last year and the beginning of this one, I found myself being very negative and developing a very pessimistic view of the future. I was convinced things (I) would never get better and spent a lot of time wallowing in self pity and believing I couldn’t make myself well no matter how hard I tried. Now I’m feeling well, I’m happier and full of optimism and any challenges I face don’t feel like mountains that I’m unable to climb. I’ve always known that being optimistic is a key part of wellbeing but how can we remain that way all of the time, even when things are a little (or a lot) shitty? Today’s Monday Matters post looks at the psychology of optimism and how we can foster it no matter what life throws at us.

What is optimism?

According to the Oxford dictionary, optimism is ‘a feeling that good things will happen and that something will be successful; the tendency to have this feeling’. The exact opposite of this is ‘pessimism’ which is described as ‘a feeling that bad things will happen and that something will not be successful; the tendency to have this feeling’. Further to this, an optimist is ‘a person who always expects good things to happen or things to be successful’, whereas a pessimist is someone who ‘always expects bad things to happen’. I do think these are oversimplified definitions, however, as most people realistically know that over time, good and bad things will happen to us all and that it is our reaction to events and thoughts and feelings which can be described as mainly optimistic or pessimistic.

Why are some people optimists and others pessimists?

Early research into the subject tends to suggest that an optimistic or pessimistic view is largely an inherited biological trait, but more recent works have shown that environmental factors can influence us too. In other words, we are born one way or the other but our life experiences can impact on us too so, for example, we may learn to have a positive outlook from our childhood if we have an optimistic parent who encourages associated traits such as self belief, resilience and acceptance. Conversely, being surrounded by pessimists who believe they are hard done to, always see the worst in a situation and have a tendency to be negative overall can influence our thoughts and feelings about life too.

So, even if you are a ‘glass half empty’ type of person, it is possible to learn to be more optimistic or reduce pessimism by working on challenging and changing your thought processes. This does mean that if you have always been described as an optimistic, there is a chance that, with certain life experiences, you may develop a more pessimistic view (sometimes temporarily) but there are many ways of of combating this.

What are the benefits of being optimistic?

There are so many benefits of being of being an optimistic person in terms of physical and mental health. Optimists:

  • have healthier lifestyles, for example they exercise more, have a balanced diet, are less likely to smoke or binge drink and just generally make better choices with regard to their health
  • have better quality relationships with family, friends, partner or co-workers
  • have more life satisfaction, happiness and high levels of psychological and physical wellbeing
  • are good problem solvers and tend to strive for what they want as they believe themselves to be capable of high levels of achievement
  • are more motivated
  • have better self esteem
  • are generally more successful
  • accept their failures and learn from them
  • have a better immune system
  • have lower cortisol levels (stress hormone)
  • actively pursue their goals
  • recover from physical illnesses more quickly
  • take less time to recover from surgery
  • less likely to have a stroke or cardiovascular diseases
  • have lower blood pressure
  • emerge from difficult circumstances with less distress than pessimists
  • see setbacks as temporary events caused by circumstances
  • are more likely to engage in health related self care activities such as regular check ups

How can we learn to be more optimistic?

The idea of learned optimism is a concept developed by a leading American psychologist called Martin Seligman.

learned optimism involves developing the ability to view the world from a positive point of view.

Seligman

He believes that the positivity associated with being an optimist can and should be cultivated and that being optimistic is a key part of good health and wellbeing. So, pop on your positivity glasses and read my suggestions on how to train or rewire your brain.

Shift your focus – instead of thinking about what you can’t control, focus on what you can instead. In any situation, there are things that can’t be changed and things that can. If you spend your time obsessing over the former, you will quickly become stressed and frustrated. However, if you look at what you do have control over, you can control the controllables and forget about the rest.

See setbacks as temporary – it’s not the end of the world if something goes wrong or doesn’t go the way you expected, it’s something to be learnt from. Resolve to come back better and stronger!

Regain your sense of control – focus on what you can do to improve a situation and believe in your ability to make things better rather than focusing on the barriers. This is in contrast to ‘learned helplessness’ associated with pessimism.

Watch out for unhelpful phrases – talk such as ‘I never…’, ‘I can’t…’, ‘I always mess up…’ etc is not helpful and can create a negative mindset. Try to catch yourself saying them and come up with some alternatives which are more positive – ‘I might be able to…’, ‘I could…’ etc.

Think about the company you keep – some people seem to complain about everything and never have a positive word to say. After so many minutes of talking to them, you might find you start being negative too. It’s almost like the pessimism is contagious. Conversely, spending time with a optimist, can encourage feelings of optimism and make life seem much more rosy. I’m not saying cull everyone from your life who isn’t a ‘glass half full’ kind of person, but you might want to think about who you spend most of your time with.

Avoid overgeneralising – After something has gone wrong for you, have you ever found yourself thinking or saying that the world is conspiring against you, or everyone has got it in for you? Remember that one set back in one aspect of your life does not mean that everything is going wrong. Neither does it mean that you are unlucky or any of those other things that might pop into your head or out of your mouth!

Take a balanced approach – In every situation there are positives and negatives. Unfortunately, the society that we live in often encourages us to focus on the more negative side and ignore the many positives. I like to do some gratitude journaling each evening to focus on the positives in my day. I might also have a few negatives that become problems to work on solving, but I try not to dwell on what I can’t change or those minor irritations which we all have.

How can we stay optimistic during tough times?

As I said earlier, when I was struggling with my mental health for so many months, I found it very difficult to be optimistic in relation to the present moment and the future. But there are ways of remaining positive, even during periods of difficulty. So, what could I have done differently? Some of my online reading has suggested that optimism doesn’t require you to brush aside anxious and negative feelings, but rather to accept them whilst being hopeful about what the future will bring. Obviously, this is easier said than done when you are consumed with difficult emotions, but the idea is that you work super hard to acknowledge that things are difficult right now, but try to hold on to the belief that things won’t always be like this. Here’s some ideas of ways that this can be made easier (not easy of course, but having an I can get through this attitude is a big part of it):

  • try to practise self compassion – accept that things are a struggle right now, but also remind yourself that you’ve got through difficulties before and you can do so again
  • disrupt the negative thought cycle – focus on the breath, change your environment (go for a walk in nature), confide in someone you trust about how you are feeling and seek a fresh perspective
  • jot down some coping statements e.g. I can take this one day at a time, this is frightening and I can handle it, I am a resilient person and I can get through this etc.
  • practise gratitude – even when things are hard, there’s always small things to be grateful for – the friend who texted to say she’s thinking of you, the tranquillity as you sit drinking your coffee in your sunny garden, your warm coat on a chilly day etc. At certain times, it might be difficult to focus on the positives, but it’s not completely impossible and taking the time to be grateful has been shown to really help.

Final words…

I hope today’s Monday Matters has been helpful in some way and that you will give at least one of the ideas a go. Lockdown is beginning to ease now but there is still a little uncertainty around about the future making things difficult. As I type this, I’m feeling positive and optimistic, yet whilst I was unwell, things looked bleak. So, it just goes to show that things can and will get better.

Take care until next time,

Posted in CBT, compassion, lifestyle, mental health, Mindfulness

Monday Matters: The beginner’s guide to self-compassion

Photo credit: kaboompics.com for Unsplash

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post which explored different ways to practise self love and gave some ideas for bullet journal spreads you might like to try. Today’s writing is an extension of this them and focuses on self-compassion. I hope you find it both interesting and useful.

What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion is all about showing yourself warmth, love, kindness and understanding, especially during difficult times. It’s about accepting ourselves as we are, learning to be less self-critical and avoiding judgement. It’s about being mindful of our different emotional states and the situations we find ourselves, recognising that we all make mistakes, that no-one is perfect and that we all struggle at times so we’re not alone in our suffering.

Why should I practice self-compassion?

There has been a lot of recent research into the benefits of being self-compassionate and how it can work wonders on our wellbeing. Individuals who practise self-compassion have been shown to be much happier, more optimistic, grateful for what they have, and enjoy better relationships with their loved ones. They’ve also been shown to have lower stress levels as they avoid being judgemental towards themselves, others and situations, recognise and accept that we all find things hard at times and, through mindfulness, become more in tune with their thoughts and emotions. Self-compassionate people are also likely to have a higher level of resilience as they are easily able to bounce back from difficulties and can accept and learn from their mistakes.

Self-compassion is also a great antidote for perfectionist tendencies, which I, for one, have always struggled with, right from childhood and I’m sure many of my readers will have too.

How can I bring self-compassion to my life?

Today, I’m going to share with you some simple ways to bring self-compassion into your life so that you can start being easier on yourself and show yourself the love and kindness you would demonstrate to someone else you care about.

Notice and reframe your critical self-talk

I’ve spoken before about the negative ways in which we tend to talk to ourselves before in my blog post about self love. We can be so good at saying unkind and unhelpful things such as “I’m such an idiot”, “Other people are so much better than me”, “No-one likes me” and “I’m just no good at…” etc. And, as you can imagine, this critical inner voice can destroy our self confidence and lead to feelings of worthlessness and depression.

So how can we put the lid on this damaging talk? The very first step is to start noticing when you are being self-critical. Take the time to examine the situations in which you use negative self talk, the exact words you use and the tone of voice that you adopt. You could even try keeping a little notebook of examples to reflect on. Now consider how you could reframe things in a more positive way. Focus on being self-compassionate, non-judgemental, supportive and mindful of the situation. If you find this difficult, think about what a really compassionate friend would say to you. Changing how we talk to ourselves might be hard at first but it will get easier with time and practise so keep working on your skills and congratulate yourself on your efforts.

Write yourself a letter

This is a great exercise to do if you are going through a difficult time or are struggling to accept something which has caused you mental pain. Start your letter by outlining the situation that you find yourself in and how it has or is affecting you. Next, go on to identify your thoughts and feelings and what you were hoping for or needing to make things easier. Now offer a message of common humanity which will remind you that you are not alone and encourage you to feel connected to others e.g. ‘we all make mistakes’ or ‘everyone has times when they feel…’ etc. Finally, offer yourself some guidance and positive encouragement like you would to a friend who needs your support. Sign your letter with a loving message and add some stickers, washi tapes or little drawings of something nice if you would like to. When you have finished your letter, you can either read it out loud to yourself straight away or put it away somewhere special for when you need to show yourself some compassion.

Start a self-compassion journal

Keeping a journal is a great way to reflect on how you are feeling and what is happening for you right now. I like to spend about ten minutes each evening writing down my thoughts. What I chose to write about differs each day but might include:

  • what I have achieved today
  • what I learnt today
  • ways in which I am proud of myself
  • things I’m grateful for
  • anything I found challenging today and why
  • what I’m looking forward to tomorrow
  • anything I’m feeling apprehensive about

You can finish your writing by adding some kind, understanding and sympathetic words to yourself. For example, ‘most people would get annoyed in that situation and it’s okay that you lost your temper’ or ‘things were difficult today, but hopefully you’ll have a better day tomorrow’ etc.

Use affirmations

Another great way of showing yourself loving kindness it to write your own personal affirmations and practise saying them to yourself each day. I like to create a decorative spread of them in my bullet journal every few months – it is a great way of practising my brush lettering too. Here are some examples:

  • I am enough
  • I talk to myself with love and kindness
  • I’m proud of myself and my achievements
  • I accept my flaws because no one is perfect
  • I’m doing my best and that is enough

Engage in self-soothing activities

If you know you’ve had a difficult day, your week isn’t going quite as planned or you’re finding yourself in a negative mood, you can help to make yourself feel much better by engaging in some self soothing activities.

Here’s some examples of things I like to do:

  • take a walk in nature and use my senses to explore the immediate environment
  • get under the duvet and read a good book
  • do some drawing or colouring in
  • listen to a guided meditation
  • make a collage in my bullet journal of things I love
  • do some watercolour painting
  • mindfully eat a bar of my favourite chocolate
  • watch a funny film
  • paint my nails

If you would like to read more about using self soothing for emotional regulation, you can check out this blog post I wrote last year.

I hope today’s blog post has helped to develop your understanding of self-compassion and how important it is. Let me know which of the activities I suggested appeal to you the most and if you try some of them, be sure to share how you got on.