Posted in compassion, meditation, Mindfulness, wellbeing, wellness

Monday Matters: 5 Easy ways to Practice Mindfulness every day

When practiced regularly, mindfulness can have a really positive impact on our mental health, reducing feelings of depression, anxiety and stress. In today’s post, I’m going to share five simple ways to incorporate mindful activities into your day so you can enjoy the many benefits mindfulness brings.

What exactly is mindfulness?

There are lots of explanations and definitions available online but I particularly like this one from the Oxford dictionary:

a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

Oxford online dictionary

Basically, mindfulness is about paying attention to the here and now, showing curiosity about what’s going on in a non-judgmental way. That’s not to say that as soon as you start practicing the various techniques that your mind won’t wander, it will, and that’s completely okay. But as you get used to paying attention in a range of simple ways, you’ll likely find it becomes easier.

So here are five ideas for practicing mindfulness every day that anyone can try.

Choose an activity you do each day and really pay attention

A great way to get started with mindfulness is to choose one activity that you do every day and bring moment to moment awareness each time you do it. Examples of suitable activities could be: drinking your cup of coffee or tea first thing in the morning, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, washing your face, getting dressed, driving to work. Whichever activity you choose, focus on knowing what you’re doing as you’re actually doing it, and what you are thinking and feeling from moment to moment too. At first, you’ll likely find that your mind wanders quite frequently, but if it does, gently bring yourself back to the present moment. With time, you’ll find it gets easier to remain mindful.

Connect with each of your five senses

Using your senses – touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing is a great way to focus on what’s happening right now. You can either spend time exploring each one in turn or pick a particular sense to focus on in a given moment. So, for example, you might sit quietly at home curled up in your chair with a coffee, smelling the aroma, being warmed by the heat of the mug. You might then close your eyes and tune in to sounds within the room such as the clock ticking, and far away sounds such as a dog barking. As you open your eyes, you might change your focus to the colour of your drink or the patterns on your mug, before taking a sip and savouring the flavour. At another time during your day, you might focus in on just one of your senses. So, during your daily shower, you might choose to focus on smell, inhaling the scent of your shampoo, shower gel or soap and your conditioner and really appreciating each one. By doing this you will be immersed in your current experiences rather than dwelling on past events or getting stressed about all of the things you have to get done before bedtime.

The following mindful activity is also a good one to do when you’re feeling anxious to help distract from negative thoughts, judgements and physical sensations associated with a tense body.

  • Close your eyes or lower your head and soften your gaze. Take some slow and deep breaths in and out.
  • Open your eyes and take your focus outside of your body. Find the following:

5 things you can see.

4 things you can hear.

3 things you can touch.

2 things you can smell.

1 thing you can taste.

Focus on your breathing

Breathing is a key part of mindfulness practice as it’s something we do naturally out of necessity. There are many online exercises which focus on the breath such as alternate nostril breathing, square or box breathing and equal breathing where you focus on making the inhalation the same length as the exhalation, but the technique which I find easiest and most comforting is soothing rhythm breathing, which I was taught as part of my compassion group sessions a few years ago.

  • Sit comfortably in your chair with both feet on the ground and your hands resting in your lap.
  • Close your eyes or direct your gaze downwards – whichever feels most comfortable.
  • Gently bring your focus to your breathing feeling the ribcage expanding as the air coming in to your lungs and leaving your body as you exhale.
  • Try breathing a little faster or slower until you find a breathing pattern that feelings soothing and comforting.
  • Focus on the breath as it comes in and leaves your body. You might like to notice the sensation of cool air entering your nose and warm air leaving.
  • Turn your attention to your body. Sensing the weight of your body resting in the chair feeling relaxed and supported. Feel your feet touching the floor beneath you.
  • If your mind wanders, notice what has happened and gently bring the focus back to your breath. Even if your mind is bobbing about all over the place, just accept what is happening without judgement and come back to the breath.
  • As you bring the exercise to a close, gently wiggle your fingers and toes and bring the focus back to the room around you.

To ensure you commit to this short meditative practice each day, you might find it helpful to make an appointment with yourself in your bullet journal or diary e.g. 5 minutes after you’ve eaten your breakfast or as an end of the day thing to encourage restful sleep. Again, this breathing exercise is also helpful to calm yourself down in moments of anxiety.

Engage in mindful walking

Whatever the weather, cold, warm, rainy, bright sunshine, cloudy, try to find 10 or 15 minutes each day to go for a mindful walk outside. Take time to pay attention to the different aspects of your experience. Start by exploring how your body feels when you’re walking – your feet as they make each step, your legs as they move you forwards, your arms as the swing by your sides. Next, tune in to what’s going on around you using all of your senses – perhaps you can hear traffic in the distance or a bird singing, maybe you can see the sun shining through the trees, perhaps you can smell the damp earth. Be open to whatever you notice, wherever you are and whatever happens. Try to fully immerse yourself in the here and now. As you end your walk, bring your attention back to how you feel as a result of your practice.

If you want to read about mindful walking in more depth, I wrote a whole blog post on it last year which can be found here.

Be totally present during conversations

All too often during conversations, we’re either multi-tasking or our mind wanders so we’re not paying full attention. However, being fully present has so many benefits for the speaker and the listener. Not only will you both feel valued, you’ll have a better understanding of the other person’s needs and any information that you impart is likely to be comprehended more easily. You’ll also likely improve both your communication skills and your relationship with the other person whether you’re talking to a friend, colleague or family member.

If you want to be more mindful in conversations, the first step is to notice when your mind wanders and, without judgement (no berating yourself for being a terrible listener!), bring your attention back. Try to resist the temptation to make excuses for being distracted such as “I was bored by what they were saying”, “I’ve got so much to do I couldn’t wait for them to finish” or “they were just repeating themselves”. Just remember that mindfulness takes practice and you are just learning but it will get easier with time.

In today’s busy world, multitasking is very tempting and often encouraged, but studies have shown that humans aren’t really capable of focusing on more that one task at a time, and in actual fact, what happens is our brain constantly switches between the different demands on our attention. If you want to be full focused on a conversation, try to put distractions aside. Put your mobile phone away in your bag, close your emails, avoid looking at what others are up to or what’s happening elsewhere by facing and looking at the participants. Really listen with interest to what the other person or people are saying using gestures such as a nod of the head, a smile or an “I understand” as appropriate. Think about the words they are using, their tone of voice, body language and emotions to really comprehend what they’re saying. Let the other person finish before you contemplate what they have said and offer a response.

Being a mindful communicator takes practice and isn’t always easy, but it’s a great skill to have and can be really useful in social settings as well as work situations.

Final words…

Although in today’s post I’ve presented a number of simple ways in which you can start to be more mindful every day, mindfulness in itself is not always easy to master. It might be helpful to remember that it’s not all about being perfectly present at all times – it’s a way of slowing down and making a conscious decision to notice our thoughts, emotions and the world around us, intentionally accepting things as they are right now without judgement. Being mindful can help us to enjoy life, understand ourselves better and reduce stress. It’s something that everyone can try and, when practiced consistently, has been shown to have positive effects on our physical and mental health, happiness, work and relationships.

Feel free to let me know in the comments how you get on and if you have any questions, I’ll be more than happy to answer them if I can, or direct you to further resources which you may find useful.

Until next time,

Posted in compassion, depression management, lifestyle, mental health, self care, wellbeing

Monday Matters: 7 ways to be kind to yourself when you’re struggling

In today’s Monday Matters post, I’m going to be talking about something which I believe many of us struggle with and that is self-kindness. At school, we’re taught to be kind, respectful, patient, forgiving and gentle with others but do we apply this same compassionate attitude to ourselves? I know I certainly don’t, and I also notice that I’m particularly harsh and critical when I’m struggling. So, here are some ways in which being kind to ourselves can help our mental health and 7 ways you can show yourself some kindness right now.

Benefits of self-kindness which are particularly relevant during periods of difficulty

  • better self-esteem
  • increased resilience
  • less self-criticism
  • increased self-acceptance
  • helps us cope better with stress
  • improved self-confidence
  • decreases anxiety and depression
  • helps us feel more optimistic

7 ways you can be kinder to yourself

Practise self-compassion

During times of difficulty, many of us tend to be really unkind to ourselves. We place unrealistic expectations upon ourselves, say engage in negative self talk, criticise ourselves when things don’t go right, place blame unfairly, find fault in what we do and fail to celebrate our achievements. Sounds pretty harsh right? And it makes us feel ten times worse than we already do. Instead, what we would really benefit from is practising self-compassion, where we offer ourselves warmth, gentleness, understanding, acceptance and empathy. A good way to do this is to imagine what you would say to a friend who was going through a period of difficulty and was dealing with the same issues that you are. Then apply that compassion to yourself. You can even take this a step further and write yourself a compassionate letter where you offer support and encouraging words and then read it back. You can find out more about the therapeutic benefits of writing here.

Focus on the good

When we’re struggling, we tend to get into a negative frame of mind. Try to break this by thinking about your positives. Here are some ideas for you to try:

Congratulate yourself on your achievements no matter how small – maybe you got dressed and went out for a walk, maybe you completed something from your to-do list or maybe you dealt with a difficult situation assertively. Just getting out of bed can be a huge achievement if you’re struggling with depression.

Use positive self-talk – I’ve written before about the impact that negative self talk can have on us and how we can reframe it. As part of being encouraging and supportive towards yourself, you can counteract negative thoughts with positive affirmations. Some examples are: I am kind to myself during difficult times, I am doing the best I can, I can get through this, I have the ability to cope, I am brave and strong.

Make an all about you list – things you’re good at, your best qualities, a ‘done list’ of all of the things you’ve achieved today/this week. Try writing a different list each day to really improve your relationship with yourself.

Nourish your body and your brain

When you’re struggling, it can be really tempting to reach for high calorie snacks full of sugar or fat and eat processed foods for your meals. The reason we crave these items is because they temporarily increase our mood boosting endorphins leaving us feeling happy, blissful, calm or soothed or provide you with a chemical sugar high. Unfortunately, these feelings don’t last and can lead to overeating and poor diet overall. And of course, an unhealthy diet can create all sorts of problems including reduced energy levels, weight gain, obesity, depression, weakened immune system and vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Be kind to yourself by focusing on eating a balanced diet which includes a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Something that I find really helpful is to plan my meals in advance. This means that I’m more likely to eat healthily but also that I can ensure I’m eating a balance of different foods and a range of fruit and vegetables. And don’t forget, you are allowed a treat every now and again but it’s best if you really take your time eating it so you can savour the flavour and really appreciate it (search ‘mindful eating’ online for more info).

Get moving

When life is hard you might feel tired and lacking in energy and this might mean that even the though of exercise too much. But, something gentle, like a walk in your local park, ten minutes of basic stretching exercises or a short yoga session could make you feel so much better. Exercise releases feel good endorphins which help to boost your mood and if you engage in a mindful activity you will also be focusing on the present moment and forgetting about other concerns in your life which can lead to feelings of calm and relaxation.

Do something that brings you joy

Try to make it a habit to do something you love each day. Try to carve out at least half an hour for your own enjoyment. Here’s some ideas:

  • Hobbies – sewing, watercolour painting, papercrafting, drawing, playing a musical instrument, baking.
  • Outdoors – time in the garden, nature walk, sculpture trail, sit in the sunshine.
  • Retail therapy – a new houseplant, a scented candle, a pretty scarf, some sweets you haven’t had since childhood, some stationery.
  • Brain stimulation – crossword, word search, sudoku, jigsaw puzzle, board game.
  • Movement – yoga, stroll along the beach, mindful walking, dancing to some upbeat music, ten pin bowling, try out a team sport.
  • Socialise – coffee with a friend, take a class e.g. flower arranging, phone a relative.

If you’re struggling with depression right now, you might be thinking that nothing brings you joy at the moment so there’s little point in doing anything. However, research has found that if you do some of the things that you normally enjoy, you will still reap the benefits of the activity so try scheduling something in and then congratulate yourself for finding the motivation to do it.

Add some soothing activities to your day

When you’re struggling with your mental health or life is extremely busy and stressful, it’s a really good idea to plan something soothing to help yourself feel calm and relaxed. The activity you choose is very much a personal preference but you could try one or more or the following:

  • a hot bath with scented bath oil or a bath bomb
  • a foot massage with refreshing peppermint oil
  • read a book, under a blanket with optional hot chocolate
  • light a scented candle and watch the flame flicker
  • buy some flowers and spend time arranging them in a vase
  • cuddle something – a pet or a soft toy
  • watercolour painting or colouring in

Make good sleep a priority

A good night’s sleep benefits us in so many ways including better mood, more energy, improved cognition and stronger relationships with others. However, when we’re struggling, we’re likely to find that the quantity or quality of our sleep is affected so it’s important to take steps to fix it. This can include doing relaxing activities before bed (and avoiding known stimulants), spending time journalling about your day so you can process what’s happened and prepare yourself for tomorrow, and making sure your bedroom environment is just right. If sleep is an issue for you right now you might want to check out this blog post. Or, for really in depth look at sleep issues, the NHS has a long self help guide which can be accessed here.

Final words…

I hope that today’s blog post has been useful in providing you with some ideas about how you can be kinder to yourself. However, if the thought of doing all of these things seems a little overwhelming, trying choosing one suggestion which you think might make you feel a little better and start from there. Remember tiny steps can lead to a big impact.

Posted in art, Bullet journaling, compassion, mental health, Planning and journaling, watercolour painting, wellbeing

Monday Matters: Creating a ‘Words Of Encouragement’ spread to help you get through tough times

This month, I moved into a new bullet journal – a gorgeous handcrafted linen notebook from Notebook Therapy. The journal is completely blank so I set up the usual index, future log and grid spacing cheat sheet. Then I decided that I wanted to create a spread which was full of messages of support and encouragement to help me whilst I’m struggling with my mental health. The idea is that I read all of the positive content each morning a bit like you would a list of affirmations. It took me quite a while to make but I’m really pleased with how it turned out so I thought I’d share the results on here and talk a little about the process.

Creating the background

A watercolour wash

I wanted something bright and cheerful for the background so I decided to create a wet on wet variegated wash using just two of my Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolour tubes – cadmium red and gamboge yellow hue. I used an A5 piece of Aquafine smooth paper and taped the edges down so I got nice clean lines. After coating the paper with water, I swished the first colour back and forth from the top to the bottom, leaving gaps between the paint strokes. I then did the same with the second, filling in the gaps but also sweeping over the first colour slightly so that they nicely blended together. I was really pleased with the effect I achieved. When the paint was dry, I removed the tape and then scanned the piece in using my printer/scanner. I then printed it off twice, trimmed the papers so that they would fit perfectly in my bullet journal and stuck them in using double sided tape.

Finding the supportive messages

When I’d created my backgrounds and stuck them in, it was time to find some messages to stick on the pages. I spent a while thinking about what I’m struggling with at the moment and some words of positivity that I could focus on. So, for example, I’m being really hard on myself and self critical so I chose a ‘be kind to yourself’ message and a quote about being enough. Most of the images were found online by typing them into an image search (a lot of them are actually phone wallpapers cropped to size). I also got a few from a Tim Holtz Small Talk idea-ology sticker book but you could just as easily type onto plain paper and cut and stick them. I created a MS Publisher document to add the images to and cropped them and altered the size until they would all fit into the double page spread. I then printed them onto an A4 sticker sheet to make it easier to stick them in but you could easily use an A4 sheet of paper and cut them out using a paper trimmer.

What you choose to put in your spread or board would depend on the particular difficulties you’re facing. For example, you might need some confidence boosters, help with dealing with anxiety, messages to encourage you to manage your depression or some little reminders about positive body image and loving the skin you’re in. Here’s some ideas to get you started:

Confidence boosting – You’ve got this. You’re more powerful than you think. Inhale confidence. Exhale doubt. Believe in yourself. Self confidence is a super power. Once you start believing in yourself magic starts happening. I can and I will.

For dealing with anxiety – Everything is going to be alright. I can’t control everything and that’s okay. I am stronger than my struggles. Just breathe. My anxiety does not control me.

Managing depression – I am strong. I can get through this. Life is tough but so are you. Keep going. I’m enough. Stay positive. Choose to be grateful. Think positive and positive things will happen. Everything’s going to be okay.

Body positivity – Happy, beautiful and strong. Your body loves you. Love it back. My body. My goals. My happiness. Be kind to your body. All bodies are good bodies.

Final words

I made a spread in my bullet journal because it’s somewhere I look every day. However, if you’re not into bullet journaling, you could just as easily create a board out of a piece of coloured card to go up on your wall or some other place to look each morning. As an alternative to searching online, you might choose to use post it notes to write messages to yourself or cut small pieces of paper and use brightly coloured pens for your reminders. The most important thing is to make sure you look at what you’ve made frequently so you can try to take on board the supportive statements.

I hope you have found today’s post interesting and it’s inspired you to have a go at creating a similar ‘Words of encouragement’ spread. Let me know in the comments what you think you would benefit from telling yourself each day.

Posted in compassion, mental health

Monday Matters: 7 ways you can offer support to someone with a mental illness

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping It Creative

I’m really lucky to have a very supportive husband who does everything he can to help when I’m struggling with my mental health. He seems to know exactly what to do and what to say and, although he will admit that life is hard for him too when I’m going through a period of difficulty (albeit only saying this when I’m feeling well again) he works tirelessly to look after me and make things easier, whilst at the same time, maintaining a busy full time job. With this is mind and knowing that most of us will have a partner, friend, family member or colleague who has mental health issues at some point, here are 7 ways that you can offer much needed support.

Ask ‘How are you? Twice.

Most of us will be able to sense if someone we know is having difficulties. They may seem a little quiet, look washed out or just not quite their usual self. The ‘Ask twice’ campaign recognises that most of us, when asked ‘How are you?’ tend to offer up the standard response of ‘I’m fine’ or ‘I’m okay’, even when we’re really not. Asking a second time can make all the difference as it can let the person know that you’re really interested in their welfare. It’s up to them whether or not they choose to open up to you, but at least you’ve let them know that you are there if they need you.

Make time to listen

Before you make the effort to ask someone if they’re really okay, it’s a good idea to think carefully about when is a good time for a mental health and wellbeing conversation. If they do choose to open up, it’s important that you both have a lengthy window for a chat and an appropriate space to too. Picking a quiet place with no distractions shows that you are seriously interested in what they have to say and also helps the person know that they won’t be overheard by others.

Remember, some people may never have spoken about their mental health before so might be worried about opening up and sharing how they feel. Others, like me, may have shared their thoughts and feelings with a variety of people including therapists and doctors. They may also have already received a diagnosis from a health professional. In this case, they may just need a listening ear, some reassurance or even a hug (according to my reading, a cautious cuddle is possible from 17th May when this post goes live!). In making a judgement about what the individual needs good listening skills are essential. Some basics include:

  • be patient and listen really carefully – lots of eye contact, supportive gestures such as a nod or supportive words such as ‘take your time’.
  • avoid second guessing – try not to jump in too quickly or make assumptions about what the person is saying
  • offer phrases which validate what the person is saying e.g. ‘that must be really hard’ rather than offering advice or solutions – don’t try to fix them!
  • avoid phrases which dismiss the person’s feelings or suggest that they can easily change how they feel e.g. don’t say things like ‘you’ll be fine’, ‘I know how you feel’, ‘everyone feels this way’, ‘it could be worse’ or ‘cheer up’.
  • use open ended questions e.g. ‘is there something I can do to help?’ ‘are there any signs I can look out for which might tell me you’re struggling?’
  • paraphrase – repeat back what they’ve said in similar words so you can check you understand fully
  • offer them reassurance – remind them that they have the strength to get through this, they have a support network to help them and that thing are going to be okay.

Read up on the person’s particular health condition

Everyone’s experience of mental health difficulties are different but there are some common symptoms to look out for and read up on. There’s lots of information available online and good places to start include the NHS Website and Mind. For specific conditions, you can also check out dedicated websites such as Anxiety UK, Bipolar UK, PTSD UK and ADHD UK. You might want to find out for yourself or you might want to share these resources with the individual so they can learn more about their diagnosis or discover self help strategies. There are also online communities which enable both of you to ‘meet’ others to share experiences, stories and tips for managing particular conditions.

Offer practical help

With some mental health conditions, day-to-day living becomes really difficult. Offering support such as getting shopping, making a nutritious meal, giving them a lift to a medical appointment or doing a household chore for them can be a big help. Other support you could offer includes working with them to make a list of things to share with the doctor (or questions to ask), reading literature about mental health conditions either in booklets or online and helping them to make notes, developing a bank of self help strategies to try.

Regularly check in with them

After the initial chat with the person, make sure it doesn’t end there. Someone who is depressed, anxious or struggling in some other way is very likely to withdraw from social contact with friends and family, but this kind of isolation can make things worse. Checking in with them regularly and occasionally suggesting short, one-to-one get togethers such as a quick coffee or a brief walk around a local park reminds them that you care and are still thinking about them. They might turn down the face-to-face contact if they’re feeling really bad but at least they will know that you’re there.

Even if you don’t see the person regularly, you can still show them you’re thinking about them by sending regular texts asking them how they’re doing or inviting them for coffee, a walk in the park or something similar. You might only get a few lines back or sometimes no reply at all but remember that your words are being read and are helpful.

Support them in getting further help

Depending on where the person is in their mental health journey, this might be offering to go with them when they visit their GP, looking into different treatment options or going online to find out more about a particular condition and self help strategies which are recommended. You could even offer to do something together which might help, such as going for regular walks in the sunshine, attending yoga classes or going to a support group.

Don’t forget to look after yourself too

Listening to and supporting someone who has a mental health difficulty can be challenging and at times very draining. You may find yourself getting upset or struggle to cope with seeing someone you love having such a tough time. If you live with the person, you might also be taking on the majority of or all household activities and chores such as cooking, cleaning, tidying and child care. In order to look after someone else as much as you can, it’s really important to find some time to take care of yourself both physically and emotionally. If you are adopting the role of caregiver when the person is unwell, you’re likely to need to have regular breaks where you spend some time alone or with others. And remember to set some boundaries between yourself and the person you’re looking after so that as well as having some space, they’re reminded that you have personal needs and limits too.

Final words

I really hope you’ve found today’s post useful. Figures suggest that about 1 in 4 people experience mental health problems every year and the lockdown restrictions which have been in place during 2020 and 2021 have made things particularly difficult for a lot of us. Therefore, it’s likely that at least one of your immediate family, close friends or colleagues may be finding things hard right now and could benefit from your help and support.

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,