How to self-care in lockdown

Nobody is finding anything easy at the moment – the world feels very strange, unknown and uncertain.

Our routines have been thrown into disarray again, we’re once more having to stay at home and avoid social events or groups of people and all while vigilantly protecting the health of ourselves and our families. It all feels quite overwhelming.

Mental health issues can be very tricky to manage in isolation. We may rely on the support of friends, therapists and medical staff that we can’t meet for a while or have a strict routine around food and exercise that will now be compromised.

It’s certainly a distressing time for many of us but we’re not alone as thousands across the country can relate to our struggle.

It’s more important than ever to practice self-care in order to remain as calm and level-headed as possible at the moment, and here are a few practical tips on how to do it…

Maintain routines where possible

Even if your work or study pattern has changed, try and stick to your usual daily routine as best you can. By that, I mean waking up and going to bed at the same time, working, eating and drinking when you usually would and scheduling down time to relax or engage in safe distraction activities. You may be at home more than you’re used to, but it doesn’t mean you have to adapt to a completely new daily routine. If elements of your schedule change, adapt and build that into a new pattern that you can stick to whilst isolating.

Regulate media exposure

There are some scary stories out there again and the more time we spend reading them the more fearful we become. It’s key to remember that not everything you read is true, and media outlets are paid to shock and hook people in with dramatic headlines.

Whilst it’s important to be as informed as possible, exposing yourself to negative press is going to be detrimental to your mental health so set aside time to read news from a trusted source and then switch it off.

Meditate or be mindful

It’s not always easy to find the time, but whilst we’re cutting back on social activities and staying at home more – it can be really therapeutic to do a guided meditation or mindfulness session to calm your busy mind. Apps like Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer do some really good ones that range from two minutes to an hour so fit nicely into your day.

Go outdoors (if safe)

I don’t know about you, but staying indoors all day makes me feel claustrophobic so just going out in my garden or around the park for a short while helps me to get a change of scenery. Yesterday I was struggling with my anxiety so went out for a walk in the winter sunshine and it reset my mind wonderfully. Just feeling the fresh air on my face and counting the trees along the way helped distract me long enough to carry on with my day.

Engage with people

I’m feeling really cut off from people at the moment so I’m making lots of effort to contact them digitally instead. That might be via message, email, FaceTime or a good old-fashioned phone call. I should have been meeting a friend this weekend but now that it’s not safe we had a good long phone chat instead and it brightened us both up a great deal. Humans are social beings and communication helps our wellbeing so it’s important to maintain contact wherever possible.

Re-frame your thinking

How many times have you found yourself saying you’re ‘stuck’ in the house? Why not try rephrasing that to being ‘safe’ in the house. When you substitute one word for another, your whole outlook can alter too.

When lockdown started last year I couldn’t see anything very positive, I believed we were all living in a state of fear and panic and my thoughts became quite negative. However, I then tried to change that and see it as a period of self-improvement, reflection and recharge instead.

I don’t mean we should all be doing online yoga or re-decorating the house in order to improve, I see this time as an opportunity to evaluate what and who is important in our lives and work to ensure we take this with us when things get back to normal.

Self-care

This alters from person to person in line with how you like to unwind, relax and focus on whatever it is that makes you feel good. Now more than ever, it’s vital to set aside time each day to look after yourself and engage in something that boosts your mood and positivity.

For me this has included watching my favourite TV shows and films, listening to music, walking, writing, colouring, speaking with friends and painting my nails. It’s also good to do the little things that make you feel better – the other day I was just about to forgo washing my hair for the second time (after all, who’s going to see it?!) but I forced myself to do it and I’m so glad I did. Feeling as good about ourselves as possible is really important when you feel anxious or out of control.

Be grateful

I appreciate it’s really tough to still find positivity in such uncertainty but even in the trickiest times, there is still a great deal to be grateful for and focusing on the good is really key.

Whether it’s a small achievement that day, a caring message from a friend or even just relaxing your mind for a short time, it’s helpful to recognise the good in life.

If that feels too hard at the moment, why not make a list of things you will appreciate when you start to feel a little more back to normal, or something you look forward to doing again in the near future.

I hope this helps in some way – please take care of yourselves, and reach out if you need to.

G x

Keeping positive this unique festive season

Like many, I can’t believe how close to Christmas it now is and that this crazy year is drawing to a close!

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the festive period because there are elements I adore and others I really struggle with.

This year is no different, yet totally different!

The traditions are still there but come with limitations and we can’t act as we usually would. For some that’s a relief, but for others it’s harder to take.

I feel very mixed. I’m sad about the things I can’t enjoy experiencing this year but happy to be safe and well in a loving family home that we spent last weekend decorating.

I love seeing friends and family but it now feels like a risk and something to take great care doing. I will keep my social events strictly outdoors and at a two metre distance and won’t be able to meet my long-distance pals in person, so those encounters will have to be through a screen.

My immediate family is small but we have a circle of 15 people we would usually celebrate Christmas with. If we all come together we will exceed the number of households that can mix so I doubt it will be possible unfortunately.

This is undoubtedly the most upsetting bit – the cancelled unions of loved ones.

I know we’re all in the same boat. I’m not bothered about having fewer presents, or even too scared of the different food (shock horror!) but it breaks my heart to not maintain our beloved festive family party traditions. That’s the saddest part.

Change is scary, daunting and sometimes upsetting and I have found myself feeling really down about Christmas ‘not being the same’ this year. But maybe that’s OK.

Maybe it’s time to count our blessings however small and try to be at peace with things being different this time round.

If we still have a safe home, loving family and friends in our lives and our health, we’re more blessed than we think.

We’re all feeling the strain, but trying to do our best.

G x

Coping with Christmas

Anyone who experiences a mental health condition will know only too well how much the festive season exacerbates it.

The heightened sense of occasion causes anxiety, there’s a huge expectation to socialise more and many of those activities revolve around food which is challenging for those with eating disorders.

People can experience loneliness or find themselves forced to spend time with people who don’t understand them, leading them to feel alone. This can lead to depression and low mood.

It really isn’t the most wonderful time of the year for many.

I was gearing up to write a blog on how to cope with Christmas this month but had a sudden change of heart. It felt like a duplication of efforts.

About a month ago, the CEO of First Steps ED, a mental health and eating disorder charity in the Midlands, approached me to create a how-to guide for coping with the festivities. He asked me to generate relevant content and distribute to schools, colleges, universities and NHS organisations across the East Midlands, with the aim of helping young people and adults with the many challenges of Christmas. I was delighted to be trusted with such a worthwhile campaign that stood to benefit so many and make a difference.

I had plenty of ideas of what to include. There would have to be a section about food and eating, something surrounding relationships, feeling alone and managing financial and social pressures. I also wanted a section on resisting urges to conform to New Year’s Resolutions as well as distraction techniques and skills for carers.

It was quite a demanding task but I got there with the kind help of a few contributors and the results looks great!

I think the final version meets the objective wonderfully and will benefit thousands of readers across the region. It also ticks every box that I would have covered in my blog.

So, with that in mind – please take a look at the finished e-booklet here and as always, let me know what you think in the comments below. I really hope it helps you.

G x

Thought of the day…

You can’t heal in the same environment that made you sick.

I recently heard this quote and it really struck a chord with me. How true is it?!

I think so often we wonder why we get stuck in a cycle of poor mental health and can’t break free from it.

We try therapy, mindfulness, self-care, distraction techniques and even medication to rid ourselves of our demons but we don’t look at our immediate circumstances to spot the problems.

I remember once saying to a friend that whilst all the things that caused my difficulties were still there I couldn’t ever get better. Not properly anyway.

It wasn’t ever going to be possible to change my habits and coping strategies whilst surrounded by the situations that started them.

I stand by that. I was in a toxic work environment with challenging people around me everyday. I had some triggering friends, hardship at home, a deliberate lack of professional support and secrecy weaved into my daily routine. I had to break away from all of those things before I could even start to make improvements. It just wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

So if anyone feels that they are static, unable to progress but wishing they could…maybe think about whether you can truly make changes whilst remaining in the same environment that caused you problems in the first place?

A week in lockdown V2

Monday

It may be a new week but I find myself lacking in #MondayMotivation today. I woke up feeling empty and like I wasn’t sure what my purpose was. I’m working from home during lockdown but have today off so don’t have that to get out of bed for.

I lay there awake, watching TV for a further two hours, still unsure what to do with the day. The news channels are quite negative and frightening this morning so I turn over to a funny panel show to make myself feel happier.

My favourite time of the day is going on a walk at the moment so I decided to finally get up, have a shower and get outside. It always makes me feel better to move around, feel the sun on my skin and fresh breeze on my face so walking resets my mind frame and I feel more motivated and positive.

Last week I made a distraction box full of things I can do to occupy my mind so I reach in and pull out a piece of paper that says: ‘call a friend’.

FaceTime decided not to play ball tonight so instead I have a great hour long chat on the phone with one of my best friends and it cheers me up so much. We laugh, talk about good times and vow to make exciting plans together in the future.

I realise that I haven’t really eaten very much today, mostly because of low mood so I make a stir fry for my family tonight and it tastes amazing!  A tricky start to the day, but grateful that it improved.

Tuesday

Today I’m back to working from home and have a video meeting on Teams so get up early to be ready for it.

I feel more motivated and productive today and have some tasks to be getting on with following the meeting which helps keeps my mind active.

I’m conscious that we’re running out of some of my safe foods at home and it’s making me anxious. My family and I are trying to only go food shopping once a week as we have a vulnerable person in the household so minimising trips to busy places like supermarkets is important.

It can make it hard when running low on supplies and having to adapt meal plans to fit in with availability, and I struggle with being out of routine and eating different things. I made a list tonight of the things I need to get and discuss items that would be ‘second best’ should stocks be low.

Hopefully we can go shopping tomorrow and find the items I like to eat and feel comfortable having.

Wednesday

Today I feel anxious – it’s food shopping day.

Not only do I worry how busy it will be, I’m nervous for what we will be able to buy. If the foods I want aren’t available I find it hard to compromise and adapt my routine to accommodate the changes. I know we’re all in the same boat and I’m fortunate to have any food at all but it is a struggle.

The experience wasn’t too bad – I managed to find 80% of my safe foods and even though we had to queue I felt calmer once we got in to the store.

Tonight I made myself a new meal plan for the week ahead based on what we bought. I always feel so overwhelmed by all the new food in the house because it feels too much but I have to remember that it’s not all for me and it’s not all for now!

Thursday

I’m grateful for sunshine and a countryside stroll today. It makes such a difference to my mood when the weather is good and I can walk outside instead of feeling stuck in the house.

I enjoyed logging in to an online mental health training session this afternoon and sharing tips on anxiety management. It’s really helpful hearing how to control my mood levels whilst knowing there are others feeling the same as I am at the moment.

I also felt very calm tonight doing my yoga class via Zoom so I end the day on a positive note and notice that I am less restrictive and guilty over my food intake as a result.

Friday

A day of two halves – an anxious morning followed by a better afternoon.

Rubbish weather has resulted in me being inside all day and I’ve felt very restless and struggled to concentrate. I had to have regular ‘breathing breaks’ several times to stop and focus on slow breathing techniques. The simple ‘in for four, hold for four and out for four’ works best for me today.

This afternoon my ED therapist phoned me. I’m so grateful for the telephone appointments I’ve been having since lockdown restarted and they help me a great deal – but I do find it tough not being able to attend in person. It’s just not the same.

We had a really positive chat and she shared some helpful tips with me including finding motivation in the mornings so I know straight away what I’m getting up for and methods to distract my mind from periods of anxiety. Planning is key, and she would like me to try creating a daily plan this week and see if it helps. I feel better for talking about how challenging I’m finding things and receiving some caring advice in return.

Tonight a friend messages me and suggests avoiding the news, both online and TV, so I’m going to try that this weekend and see if it helps improve my mood.

Saturday

Yet again, I wake up lacking motivation as I’m not working today. But I remember my therapist’s advice from yesterday and decide to get out of bed and vacuum my room this morning for distraction. It helps me feels better having a sense of purpose and achievement.

This afternoon I went on a slightly longer walk along a different route which was helpful. It’s good to see sights that make a change from the usual routine!

I had that familiar feeling of uncertainty and uselessness when I got home so went to the distraction box again and decide to do colouring and crafts. It’s quite exhausting having to keep my mind constantly occupied to avoid it racing but at least I enjoy doing the activities.

Sunday

When lockdown was reintroduced I signed up to an online course but haven’t made a start on it yet so decided to get going on it this afternoon.  

My family decide to make tonight’s dinner together and as I’ve not really eaten much today I’m quite hungry now.

I definitely feel better for avoiding the news, even though I’ve still caught sight of a few unnerving headlines on social media.

I end the weekend on a positive note and decide to write a list of things I’m grateful for. I know it’s a scary time and I often find myself spiralling into negative thinking, but I must also remember that I’m very fortunate too.

What better way to do that than to make a note of everything I appreciate at the moment so I can refer to it each time it all feels too much?!

Dealing with anxiety

Anxiety and I have a colourful past.

It first noticeably impacted my life aged 14 when I found my nervous system going into overdrive at the smallest of things. I remember offering to cook dinner for my family and feeling so panicky that I had messed it up and was going to make everyone ill.

I also got very nervous at the prospect of going to parties and social events and had a big anxiety attack at my own birthday meal in front of all of my friends. It was horrible!

It came to a head during the dress rehearsal for a school play when mid-performance I completely froze. I couldn’t speak, the lights made me so hot and the faces of the other students watching me became a blur. I managed to utter that I felt unwell before running outside with palpitations, struggling to catch my breath and an overwhelming numbness in my hands.

My friends came to find me and brought our teacher who managed to slow my breathing down and get my fingers moving to get the feeling back. It was such a frightening experience and I went home in tears, unable to do the actual show.

My Mum took me to the doctors and I was referred to CAMHS for CBT which helped me to understand what anxiety was, what triggered it and how to re-train my brain so that I became less fearful.

Fifteen years on and it still affects me daily. Some occasions are easier to rationalise than others.

I’ve worked with multiple therapists for various difficulties over the years and anxiety always crops back up as it lies at the centre of so many different mental health problems. It’s still hard to nail even all of these years later, as it sneakily creeps up on you faster than you can tell yourself there’s no major threat.

If this sounds familiar and you struggle with anxiety too, I have put together a short list of five key tips that have helped me most over the years. Please read on and comment some of your own below if you would like…

Breathe

Breathing techniques are incredibly helpful in lowering the heart rate and preventing the panic from taking hold.

When I feel my anxiety levels rising I kick start my slow breathing and find the process of exhaling at a reduced speed really calms me down.

I don’t know the medical technicalities but I believe that hyperventilation (the act of breathing very fast and not taking in enough oxygen whilst gasping) can exacerbate an anxiety attack so making sure you take long, deep breaths helps to counteract that.

Another major plus is that you can do it very subtly in public too, without those around you noticing what you’re doing.

Educate

Something that has helped me enormously is learning what anxiety is and how it actually benefits the body. Yes, benefits!

I’m sure we all know the basics – the ‘fight or flight’ response from the caveman days and how adrenaline prepares us to either face our perceived danger or run from it…but when you truly drill down into the effect it has on the body it makes so much more sense.

I don’t know about you, but I find the physical symptoms of anxiety pretty scary. My heart races, I feel sick, I get flushed, my tummy starts to flip, my fingers tingle – none of it is at all pleasant and adds to my fears. It’s a vicious circle.

I’m still not brilliant at it, but now that I understand what is happening and that it’s origins are actually to HELP not hinder me I can rationalise it more and relieve some of the fear.

I tell myself ‘anxiety is not harmful, just very unpleasant right now.’

Self-care

Anxiety is relentless and exhausting, so it’s important to take some time to look after yourself when you’re struggling.

When I’m apprehensive about something, my nerves will be elevated so I have to use calm distraction techniques to settle myself back down. For me that’s walking, yoga, breathing techniques, meditation and guided relaxations or speaking to family and friends. Keeping my mind occupied allows less time for the negative thoughts to creep in.

It’s also a priority to take care of yourself when you’ve recently experienced an anxiety attack as you’ll be feeling vulnerable, tired and low in mood. I always feel a little sad once I’ve calmed down (and a tad emotionally battered and bruised) so simple things like having a hot bath, early night and listening to music I enjoy helps me to recover. You deserve to focus on feeling better when you’ve been through a traumatic ordeal.

Meditate

Now, this one doesn’t work for everybody but I find it really helpful and calming.

Meditation means something different to each individual, but for me it’s phsyically stopping still, practising breathing techniques, focusing on the present moment and listening to guided imagery and audio relaxations.

This isn’t always possible in the heat of an anxiety wave and actually, it was never intended for that purpose either. Meditation practice is most effective when you have time to yourself, away from your stresses and usually in the comfort of your home or in an instructed class.

The more you are able to gain the benefits of this chilled downtime the lower your general levels of fear and tension will become.

Many people find it helpful for them to meditate first thing in the morning as it makes them calmer ahead of their busy days. Personally I find it more restful to engage in at night but whatever works best for you is fine. I really noticed a difference.

Monitor triggers and patterns

When you make a note of your anxiety triggers you will begin to see patterns of thoughts that lead you down the panic path.

Whilst attending CBT sessions, the therapist tasked me with the below exercise to track my anxiety levels and identify the key events that activated the ‘alarm response’ in me.

It was very revealing, and I noticed a few trends – mainly in the cause of the anxiousness and the negative thinking that prolonged it. I also couldn’t help but spot that I usually always recovered from it and noted that I was catastrophizing each time, fearing the worst and realising it didn’t happen.

Once I was able to learn from this, the anxiety lessened in severity and the perceived threat diminished.

I hope that helps. Please leave me a comment if you have other techniques that work for you.

G x