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 lifestyle, Mindfulness, wellbeing

Monday Matters: How to have more fun (as an adult)

Fun times! Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping It Creative

Last week, after watching one of our favourite crime dramas, namely Line Of Duty, I popped online and spent a few minutes checking out related tweets on Twitter. As always, when your phone cookies learn of your interest in a particular topic, related content starts to show up on all on Google. On this occasion, I was more than happy that this happened as I found a couple of YouTube videos that really had me and my husband laughing hysterically. One was a Sports Relief spoof featuring Lee Mack and the other was a selection of “Tedisms”. Belly laughs are great for stimulating the vagus nerve which has a huge positive impact on your well-being. I certainly felt really good for the rest of the evening! Anyway, I do try to find things to laugh about each day but adding ‘have some fun’ to your daily to do list is a good way to increase your chances of smiling and laughing on a regular basis. So, in today’s post I’m going to share some of my best ideas on how to inject more fun into your life.

But first, what are the health benefits of having fun?

Aside from laughing being great for stimulating your vagus nerve, having fun (defined in the Oxford dictionary as enjoyment, amusement or light-hearted pleasure) is great for your overall health. Here are some of the main benefits:

  • reduces stress
  • increases our serotonin levels AKA the happiness hormone
  • can provide a much needed energy boost
  • better memory and concentration
  • improved sleep
  • helps us to be more resilient in the face of daily pressures
  • leaves us feeling more positive
  • better social connections e.g. with partner, friends, family etc

So, how can we ensure we have much more fun in our lives as adults?

Here are some easy ways to make sure you have fun each and every day:

Set an intention to have more fun

When we think of goal or intention setting, most of the time, we focus on serious lifestyle changes such as losing weight, exercising more, drinking less, cutting down on sugar etc. But, having more fun in your life can be just as impactful as any of these, so why not create a habit or intention where you actively plan to add more fun stuff to your week. If you start your day or your week with ‘I intend to have fun today’ or the affirmation ‘I dedicate each of my Saturday afternoons to fun activities which will make me smile’, I’m sure you’ll soon be reaping the benefits. I think in this case, setting an intention of increasing the amount of fun in your life is better than having a goal of a fun life because then you’re focusing on the process rather than the destination.

Decide what fun looks like to you

Of course, to have more fun in your life, you need to have a clear idea of what fun means to you. To some people, it might be an aqua zorbing session with friends or family, whilst for others, who aren’t adrenaline junkies, an afternoon making and baking cute animal shaped biscuits might be preferable.

If you’re a bullet journaller, I recommend making a spread dedicated to all the things you haven’t done in ages but know you would enjoy again, plus things you always meant to try but have so far never got around to. Otherwise, you could create a list to pin to your kitchen noticeboard. If I was creating a paper list, I would be decorating it with stickers and washi tape to make it visually attractive too but that’s just my personal preference! You’ll notice some of my ideas are activities which involve some kind of expense e.g. going to see comedian, whilst others are free things that take up relatively little time, like doing some doodling.

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping It Creative

Schedule some ‘fun’ into your planner or add it to your calendar

Instead of thinking ‘I wish I had more fun in my life’, a good way of increasing the fun is by actively sectioning off some time in your daily or weekly schedule. You could say that for half an hour after you eat dinner, you’ll engage in something fun or you might decide that between 1 and 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, each week, you’ll engage in a particular activity (from the list you wrote in your BuJo or have attached to your notice board).

One of the things my husband and I love to do is play the game Angry Birds 2 on our tablets each evening. As soon as we finish eating, we ‘retire to the drawing room / library’ (AKA our living room) and dedicate at least 20 minutes to playing. It’s become a complete non-negotiable and part of our daily routine so it’s a habit which is as ingrained as brushing our teeth morning and night.

Have some reminders in the form of quotes and sayings

If you go on Google and type in ‘quotes and sayings about having fun’, there’s an abundance of them to choose from including some with pretty backgrounds and borders. The best ones will be those which resonant most with you but here’s a few that you might like:

Always make time for the people that remind you, life is meant to be fun.

‘Enjoyment of life generally includes being socially connected, having fun and feeling a sense of purpose.’ – Mallika Chopra

Time flies whether you’re having fun or not. The choice is yours.

When you start enjoying your life, you will see how amazing this world is.

‘Have fun, be yourself, enjoy life and stay positive.’ – Taliana Maslany

Every once in a while, you gotta stop worrying, stop thinking and just let go. Have some fun in your life. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.

“Fun is one of the most important – and underrated – ingredients in any successful venture. If you’re not having fun, then it’s probably time to call it quits and try something else.” – Richard Branson

Whichever quotes or sayings you choose, I recommend adding them to your BuJo, wall or noticeboard – any place which you regularly look so that they are most impactful. It’s also important to actually take the time to read them regularly as just seeing them stuck there on the page or wherever, isn’t going to help you absorb the important messages!

Get together some fun related resources

Just like kids have a toy box, you can have your own ‘box of fun’. Similar to the wellness toolbox which I talked about in part 1 of my WRAP series, your box could contain fun resources such as jigsaw puzzles, lego, Jenga, tubs of slime or playdoh and anything else that you might want to use. You could also create a set of pictorial cue card reminders e.g. containing pictures of fun things such as a photo of all of your art materials, a picture of your pet to remind you of the joy he or she brings, the menu from your favourite café or restaurant, some pictures of the views in your favourite park or some pancakes with maple syrup drizzled on them. Basically, anything that you love which brings a smile to your face.

Spend time with fun people

Spending time with my niece (who is featured in the top photo) is always fun as a) like most kids, she’s an expert at playing and having fun and b) she has a wicked sense of humour. I’m either laughing at her antics or giggle along when she makes a joke.

I’m sure most of us can name some friends or family members who we love to be around due to them being fun. Now that lockdown is finally easing up, we can make the most of the relaxation of rules to get together with people we just love to spend time with.

On the other hand, I’m sure we can all bring to mind friends and acquaintances who can be a little draining and leave us feeling a bit ‘ugh!’ if we spend too much time with them. Obviously, I’m not suggesting avoiding these individuals, as, let’s face it, we’ve all been through times when we’re probably not the best of company, but we should also try to have a balance of relationships to suit all of our different needs.

Find joy in the little things

If I asked you to think of some fun things ‘off the top of your head’ that you could do tomorrow, you’d probably think of big things like going to see a favourite band, spending a day at a theme park or jetting off on holiday to somewhere exotic. But having fun doesn’t have to be about big adventures or expensive days out. We can also invite joy into our lives by appreciating the little things and making everyday experiences fun just by being relaxed and light-hearted. For example, the other day, I went to my local park for a walk and saw two squirrels chasing each other around and up a tree. It was just a little thing but it brought a smile to my face and it was fascinating watching them racing around at top speed. It also made me think about their reason for chasing each other, and, as it was likely to be part of the mating ritual, the thought of glimpsing baby squirrels in the near future is a pretty exciting one too.

There are plenty of ways of finding simple pleasures when observing nature or experiencing aspects of our natural world. Stargazing, cloud watching, bird song, looking at the amazing structure of the inside of a flower, watching a bee collecting nectar and so on are all pretty awe inspiring if you take the time to appreciate the experience. This is a key element of mindfulness as it involves really living in the moment and as well as bringing joy, it can also bring a complete sense of calm which can allow us to find fun in everyday moments.

Get yourself ready for some fun

I’m sure we can all recall engaging in something that should be fun and feeling deflated afterwards as we didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as we should. If we start to analyse why, it usually has something to do with us not being ‘in the mood’ which basically means we have loads of serious stuff going on in our head and are feeling wound up. For this reason, before you embark on any activity that’s on your ‘fun things to do’ list, it’s important to take time to de-stress. Doing a little meditation, yoga or going for a short walk in the fresh air helps to clear your head ready for living in the moment and being present. Then you can really focus on what you are doing and hopefully, experience the fun you are desperately craving.

Final words…

I mentioned this post to my nurse when I went for a blood test this morning as she was really interested to her about my blog and the topics I cover. Her response was “ooooh let me know the link and I’ll follow your advice to the letter because I could do with some more of that in my life’. Hopefully, if you feel the same, as I expect many of us who have busy lives may do, you will have found my suggestions useful. Although I’m by no means an expert on having fun, I am in a positive frame of mind right now and believe having fun helps to maintain that positivity. If you like what you’ve read or you have further ideas about how to have more fun feel free to give this post a like or a comment.

Thanks for reading, and have fun!

Posted in Bullet journaling, lifestyle, mental health, Planning and journaling, wellbeing

Monday Matters: Journalling for Wellbeing

Photo credit: Laura Jones for Keeping it Creative

If you have been following my blog for a while now, you will have seen from some of my previous posts that I’ve been a fan of journalling for a while now and really enjoy using both my bullet journal (BuJo) for planning and recording and my Traveler’s notebook journals for creative memory keeping. In today’s Monday Matters, I’m going to give a brief introduction to journalling, describe some of the ways it can support your mental health and wellbeing and provide you with some different types of journalling that you might want to try.

What is a journal?

A journal is a safe and private space for you to record your thoughts, feelings and reflections on life. It’s a place where you can write daily or just occasionally, when you feel the urge. You can produce a few short lines or a couple of pages depending on the type of journaling you want to do and what you’d like to get from it. There are no rules to follow and so it is a great way of letting your guard down and expressing yourself in any way you choose. Many people decide to share their journal with others – as you can see on Instagram or Pinterest, but this is completely optional and something you should only do if you feel comfortable or if you find it beneficial in some way.

There are many different kinds of journal that you may want to keep and you can either choose to have several on the go at once or keep it simple with one space to write something each day. There are also lots of dedicated books and booklets available for purchase if you want one with a structured framework in which to write but I personally prefer to create my own using a blank notebook. Here’s a list of some of the most commonly kept journals:

  • dream journal – a space to write down what you dream about and then think about what each specific one might mean
  • travel journal – a book in which to write about all of the places you’ve been, adventures you’ve had, people you’ve met on your travels, places you want to go in the future etc.
  • specific timeframe journal e.g. a record of a holiday, baby’s first year, wedding planning etc
  • reading journal – a record of the books read, your rating and your thoughts on them
  • garden / nature journal – details about your garden e.g. new plants, plans and layouts, nature spots etc
  • gratitude journal – a place to record one or two lines about things you are grateful for or a list of things you are thankful for each day
  • progress journal – a place to document your achievements in a particular area of your life e.g. yoga practice, work you’ve done towards your goals etc.
  • project journal – if you are working on a particular project, you might record how you are getting on e.g. photos of a house renovation or photos and words relating to decluttering a particular area of your home
  • creative journal – a scrapbook / junk journal style where you stick in tickets, receipts, leaflets etc and record your life experiences, adding decorative papers, stickers, stamped images etc
  • personal development – a record of how you have grown as a person, for example, a Level 10 life assessment followed by ways in which you have made progress in the different areas in order to work towards a better life

If you keep a bullet journal, you may even decide to create dedicated pages within your monthly spreads. For example, I draw up a 2 lines a day gratitude journal each month which comes after my cover page and monthly calendar.

What are the benefits of keeping a journal for good mental health and wellbeing?

Regular journalling can greatly improve your quality of life and various studies have proven it to be wonderful for your wellbeing due to the positive impacts it has on your physical and mental health. Some of the main benefits include:

Reduction of anxiety, stress and depression Journalling helps in a number of ways. The physical process of writing can be good for calming your mind and soothing your emotions as it is a meditative kind of activity. Writing can also boost your mood and put you in a more positive mindset – gratitude journalling is particularly great for this as it focuses your attention on appreciating the small things in your life that make things better. Getting all of your thoughts and feelings on paper can also help you rationalise and process all of the things that are going on for you at the moment. As you write, you may think of alternative ways of looking at things or find some solutions to your problems. You can even write a love letter to yourself where you identify difficulties that you are currently facing and offer kindness and compassion to yourself.

Improved self awareness Journalling can really help you get to know yourself better. Learning what makes you tick has been shown to help you deal with life’s ups and downs and can make you more much more resilient in the face of difficulties. It can also enable you to spot patterns and recognise any traps you may fall into on a regular basis.

Better cognition Regularly writing in a journal has been shown to boost our cognition. Cognitive skills include attention, memory, organising information, learning and solving problems. Also, if you engage in a reflective style of journalling which helps you process negative emotions and thoughts, you are creating room in your mind to explore your creativity and engage in more positive activities.

Reach your full potential Many people like to keep a journal to establish, track and achieve their short and long term goals and writing things down can be a great way of checking in with yourself to see how you are progressing.

Nightly journaling can provide an opportunity to reflect on how you feel your day has gone, any issues you had and how you dealt with them (whether in a good way or less than helpful way!), what you are looking forward to tomorrow and anything which is worrying you. This can help you make progress in both your personal and professional life and also encourages you to celebrate your achievements no matter how small.

Improved physical health Studies have found that regular journalling can decrease symptoms of long term health conditions such as asthma and arthritis. They also shown that it can boost your immune system, helping to reduce your chance of catching common illnesses such as a cold, and making your body better able to fight off any infections.

Are there any negative aspects to journalling?

For me, there’s just one and this is related to my perfectionist tendencies. Sometimes, I become overly concerned with aspects of writing such as cohesion, penmanship (handwriting, spacing etc), readability etc, which kind of detracts from the thoughts and emotions that I’m trying to get down on paper. Although I’m getting better at embracing the imperfections, this is still very much a work in progress. One way you can combat this is by writing down everything that’s in your head and enjoying the therapeutic effects, then destroying your pages by shredding them or hiding your writing by covering it with papers, thick layers of paint, pretty images etc,

Things to remember when you start journalling – some tips for beginners

No matter what kind of journal or journals you choose to keep, remember that it should be all about improving the quality of your life whether that’s making you more organised, relieving stress, having a creative outlet, recognising your achievements or any other of the wonderful benefits that come with a regular journalling practice. As a beginner, try to think about what you want to get out of keeping a journal. Do you want it to be all about reflection? Do you want it to be a record of your experiences and how you felt about them? Or do you want to focus on being more grateful and appreciative of the things you have in your life? Find your purpose and once you are clear on this, think about how you might present things.

There are many styles of journalling and there are no right and wrong answers. Some people write to just get everything out of their head in order to create some space – a popular method to create ‘morning pages‘ where you do some free writing first thing in the morning and fill a couple of pages without thinking about spelling, punctuation and grammar. However, this in not for everyone and not something I’ve tried. So one of the questions you might ask yourself is, do I want something that I can look back on for years to come or do I just want to focus on actually getting all of my thoughts and feelings out with no regard to what my pages look like as I’m not going to be looking at them again?

Also, when you first start, you might want to experiment in order to find your own journalling style or styles. In doing this, it may be tempting to spend hours perusing the internet looking at the work of others for inspiration and ideas. However, this can cause overwhelm and hightened stress levels before you even get going. Comparing yourself to other journallers can leave you feeling inadequate which is certainly not going to lead to good mental health and wellness! Also, you may be ‘wowed’ by everything you see online and end up buying every supply available – washi tapes, stamps and inks, watercolours, gouache, brush pens, gel pens stickers etc, when really, it’s probably better to start simple and choose a few basic supplies that suit your style e.g. a nice pen and some tape to stick in a few photos and maybe a couple of embellishments until you find what you like.

Of course, if your passion is the act of writing, you might just want to fill your pages with words and add only basic decoration in the form of a border or a cute sticker. Other journallers might prefer to create arty pages, adding decorative elements such as photos, sketches, watercolour, stickers, stamped images and so on, plus a few lines of text. Again, there’s no right or wrong answers – just do what you feel comfortable with.

Final words…

I hope you have enjoyed reading today’s post and it has whetted your appetite for a little journalling. Maybe you’re completely new to the idea or you’ve tried journalling in the past and would like to give it another go. Remember, start small and above all have fun with it as this is more likely to make it a habit you want to keep. You certainly won’t reap the wellbeing benefits if you do it only once or a couple of times, but if you journal as part of your daily or weekly routine, I’m sure you will soon see the benefits and want to continue. If you want to learn more about instilling new habits like journalling check out this post. Let me know in the comments if you are already a regular journaller and what impact it’s had on your life.

Posted in lifestyle, mental health, wellbeing

Monday Matters: 5 ways that having a pet can improve your wellbeing

My lovely mug featuring our very own Rosie, which my husband got me as a surprise!

If you follow my blog and have read my intro page, you’ll know that as well as being a wife, I’m also a hamster mummy to the gorgeous Rosie. Due in part to my mental health difficulties, my husband and I made the decision not to have children. However, I still love looking after things and having a pet is a great way of doing this. Today, I’m going to share five ways that having a pet, whether a furry friend or something scaly, can support your health and wellbeing.

  • helps manage loneliness and depression

Keeping a pet can be great for combatting loneliness as they may help you to feel needed and can also be a source of companionship. People might feel lonely for a variety of reasons such as loss of a loved one, aging, moving away from family and friends, marriage breakdown or divorce. It’s even possible to feel completely alone when you are surrounded by others, especially if you have depression, feel misunderstood or uncared for. Pets can help as they are often very reliant on their humans for care and attention, and, depending on the type of animal chosen and their temperament, might also offer unconditional love and affection towards their owner.

Additionally, having a pet gives you something else to think about when you are finding yourself consumed by negative thoughts and are therefore a great distraction when you are struggling with anxiety or depression. Obviously, some animals need more attention than others and dogs have been found to be particularly good at offering emotional support to their owners at times of difficulty.

  • helps you make friends and improves your social life

The obvious pet that comes to mind for this one is a dog where there’s the potential to meet other dog owners in the park or other place that you take then for walkies and get chatting either about your own pets or about other common topics such as the weather. However, you can also make virtual friends online by joining a group on Facebook dedicated to your furry, feathered or scaly friend. For example, I belong to a Hamster group where we share cute or funny pics of our little ones, discuss any issues we might be having and console each other during times of loss. You can also share images on Instagram – I personally use #hamstergram, #hamsterlife, #hamstersofinstagram etc and gorge on cuteness from other members. And there are even little videos to like and comment on.

  • can substantially improve your mood

Pets can be great for elevating your mood and making you feel happier. I certainly found this to be true when I was struggling with depression, but even if your low mood is just temporary and due to, for example, a bad day at work or a particularly stressful commute home, a pet can be a great tonic. Also, studies have shown that making eye contact with your choice of creature can stimulate the production of oxytocin aka the love hormone whilst spending time together can boost serotonin, a substance which regulates mood as well as supporting a range of other aspects of wellbeing.

  • provides sensory stress relief and help you unwind

I love having cuddles with Rosie and sitting her on my knee for a stroke. Petting a furry friend has been shown to be a really soothing activity and one which helps release the stresses of the day. Now, you might say, but I keep fish, I can hardly get them out of the tank for some close one-to-one time, but you can still use your other senses to help you relax. For example, watching tropical fish as they glide around their environment or watching them feed or weave through the plants can create a sense of real calm and relaxation. In fact, that’s why they are sometimes found in the waiting room of a dental surgery or in hospitals. Other pets in tanks, such as stick insects, can also be fascinating to watch as they feed on leaves or blend in to their surroundings.

And even if you don’t have the time or energy to invest in a pet of your own, you can still enjoy wonderful sensory experiences by appreciating visitors to your garden. Simply observing a bee sneaking inside flowers, doing its waggle dance to collect pollen and smother its back legs with bright yellow can be a delight for your eyes. Hearing bird song as you relax on a garden chair may be just the kind of amazing tune that your ears need after a busy day.

  • helps to improve your relationships

Research has shown that keeping a pet can help strengthen your relationship with your partner and even your kids. According to my reading, whether you already feel pretty close to your loved ones or not, having a pet is something you both have in common and this creates a new bond where you both share similar feelings and sentiments. This certainly holds true for my husband and I as we often spent time interacting with Rosie together and she is regularly the subject of discussion on an evening when she is up to her usual antics!

Things to consider before you get a pet

Of course, before you all rush out and get yourself a new pet, you need to make sure that you have time for one and that you know all about the type of creature you are thinking of getting. Some basic questions to ask yourself could include:

  • how long does this pet live on average?
  • what does the pet like to eat?
  • how much exercise does it need?
  • which habitat is required to keep the pet healthy?
  • what basic equipment is required to keep this type of pet?
  • how much does it cost to keep this pet per week or year?
  • how big does it get?
  • do I have enough time to properly care for this pet?

All pets require some form of commitment, so make sure you’re able to make one before purchasing or adopting!

Final words

I would love to hear about your experiences of having pets and what you think are the main benefits for you. I know some of my followers keep guinea pigs and rabbits, whilst others have a dog or a cat. My husband and I even enjoy caring for wildlife in our garden such as the birds and our nightly hedgehog visitors – all of which can have similar benefits to our wellbeing. Pets can also help other family members too. For example, they can be great for your children as they can learn the skills associated with responsibility and, from a young age, can develop their communication skills and widen their vocabulary as they chat to or about the pet. Even visiting an elderly relative with your dog or cat can be wonderful to enable them to find meaning and joy in their life. I’m sure you can bring to mind may other benefits too so feel free to share them in the comments.

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,