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?!

Being more mindful on social media

Scrolling through my Instagram feed one night I couldn’t help but feel sad at all of the happy, smiling faces looking back at me.

It felt like the world was out having the time of their lives whilst I was at home, battling my anxiety and isolating myself.

Yes, there are times when it’s me you’ll see on your screen, having fun with friends or taking silly photos with my family but they felt like a distant memory on this particularly difficult evening.

It wasn’t until I attended a recent mental health support group titled Social Media Influences that I started to see things differently and alter my perspective a little more.

We discussed the ‘business side’ of social networking and the ways in which many people manipulate what you see for personal, and in many cases, financial gain. 

We also touched on false portrayals, image enhancement and the freedom to pick and choose what we do and don’t want to see.

It was all very eye-opening and helped me to come up with five key things to consider when using social media sites…

Everyone’s lives look better online

‘Social media smugness’ is definitely a recognised thing now and we all know people who use their Facebook and Instagram profiles for nothing more than showing off.

When’s the last time you uploaded photos of yourself having an awful day where nothing’s going right, you feel stressed or unwell and you don’t like your hair/make-up/outfit choice?

I’m guessing probably never…and neither does anyone else! They only showcase the best of their lives to the world and it’s important to remember they also experience turmoil and hardship behind the scenes like the rest of us – we just don’t see it.

We all love a good filter

Image editing is becoming easier every day and very few people post photos without the odd tint and tweak somewhere along the line.

I don’t know about you, but my friends and I very rarely upload pictures without filters to either enhance our appearance or hide something we’re not so keen on – and I doubt we’re alone in that. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong but it’s important to remember when you’re perhaps feeling insecure and comparing yourself to others.

Follow the right people

Amongst a sea of people who use social media for all the wrong reasons, there are hundreds of great motivational channels out there, designed to spread positive messages to their followers.

I occasionally find myself searching for profiles and hashtags that I shouldn’t and resisting that temptation when it’s so readily available is hard. What helps me is following lots of inspirational users who promote wellbeing, encouragement and spread words of affirmation to lift my spirits instead.

Mute what you’d rather not see

If you have friends, family members or colleagues that trigger you or make you feel underconfident in some way, it’s probably time to mute their content and have a break from them.

That needn’t mean unfriending or blocking anybody and risking conflict, you can just opt to have their updates removed from your home feed either permanently or until you feel able to see it again.

Choose your time to go online

We all have times when we feel down or vulnerable and when this happens being suffocated by other people’s seemingly perfect lives will not help us at all.

There are much kinder ways of distracting our minds or escaping for a while that won’t leave us feeling rubbish in comparison. These may include doing creative hobbies like crafts and colouring, gentle exercise or spending quality time with supportive family and friends as opposed to viewing the world through a screen.

Body image and perception

“I hate my arms.” 

“My legs are huge.” 

“My hips stick out too much.” 

“I wish my waist was smaller.” 

…sound familiar?  

Body image has become a hot topic lately, regularly featuring in the media and the source of much debate in the press. It’s certainly getting us all talking more than ever before. 

Last week, I attended an online training session on body perception and it really got me thinking about this subject and my tricky relationship with it.

So what actually is body image? How is it defined?  

Well in its most basic form, it’s how we think and feel about our bodies.  

I imagine many of you will agree it can be really hard to get an accurate, balanced view of how we truly look because we bring our own fears and insecurities to our internal image of ourselves.  

I know I’m a serial offender when it comes to looking at myself in the mirror and honing in on everything I don’t like. Those thighs that I think are too large or curves I wish were bigger or smaller in certain places. I can drive myself crazy with it all! 

The media is often held responsible for the nation’s obsession with how we look and our comparisons with others around us.  

We’re all spending more time than ever consuming media and it feels like everywhere we turn there are messages telling us how we should look.  

Whether it’s filtered-to-perfection celebs on Instagram, slim models on clothing websites or even our family and friends looking amazing in their beach pics – it feels like we can’t escape these waves of jealousy that wash over us every single day.  

Positive vs Negative 

Most people will have a positive or negative body image depending on how they view themselves.   

A negative body image involves a distorted and dissatisfied perception of your shape and feelings of shame, anxiety, and self-consciousness. An all too common place for eating disorders to develop.  

Meanwhile positive body image is a clear, true perception of your appearance and feeling comfortable and confident in your body whilst accepting its natural body shape and size. A truly blissful feeling!  

So how can we strive for true body confidence and distance ourselves from our insecurities?  

Here are a few helpful tips you can use to improve your body image  

  • Be grateful for all that your body is, not what it isn’t – just think of all the amazing things it can do; our hearts that keep blood pumping, our skin heals itself, our lungs keep us breathing, the wonder of the five senses and the ability to move, speak and think. It’s far more than just the aesthetics!  
  • Remember everybody is different – our unique genetic make-up affects our height, bone structure, shape and size so you could spend your life striving to look like someone else and it’ll never be possible. That doesn’t mean we can’t be the best version of ourselves but we certainly ought to stop trying to be someone else.  
  • Choose your media carefully – as I already mentioned, we live in media saturated world so we really must choose who to follow, and what to look at very cautiously.  Why not spend some time considering whether you’re subjecting yourself to the right channels online.  
  • Surround yourself with positive affirmations – one of the best things I ever did was write a few things I like about myself and my character and ask a select few friends and family to do the same. I recorded them all in a notebook and stored them on my phone so I can keep reminding myself of all the good in my life. I’m going to start sticking some around my mirror too so I can see them every day.  
  • Treat yourself and your body – who doesn’t feel better for spending some time pampering themselves once in a while? Whether it’s getting your hair done, having a manicure or buying yourself some new clothes, it’s the small steps we can all take to feel good about ourselves and how we look.    
  • Watch affirming videos – the internet may fuel our insecurities at times but you can also find some great, thought provoking material on there too if you look in the right places. I found a couple of really interesting videos about body image that I wanted to share… 

Video one – this one just shows how much we tear ourselves to shreds and fail to realise the positives. It’s a tough watch at the beginning as two complete strangers share their innermost insecurities, but bear with it – it gets so lovely at the end.  

Video two – this is the best Ted talk I have ever seen on the body image topic and I can relate so much to what the speaker, Mary Jelkovsky is saying and the experiences she has had. It really changed the way I think.

Interesting and thought-provoking tips that I hope will help you think differently and realise just how truly beautiful you are!  

G x

The limbo of quasi recovery

Have you ever heard the phrase: “I’m not where I need to be, but at least I’m not where I was.”?

That’s the current definition of my life in recovery from an eating disorder. And it’s really tough!

Last year my food restriction was the worst it’s ever been, my thoughts were incredibly distorted and my weight was the lowest yet. I was truly in the grips of my battle with anorexia.

I was losing around a kilo every week, too underweight to legally drive, having bi-weekly appointments and calls with the ED team and supported meals with a wonderful eating disorder organisation in my city. It was intense but it was necessary to turn things around and stop me getting into dangerous territory – hospital.

Fast forward a year – and a crazy year at that – I receive less support and am no longer in the danger zone weight wise. My relationship with food is better, I can manage three meals on certain days, I exercise less obsessively and don’t feel as tired and weak. On paper I’m doing much better.

But that only tells half of the story. The rest isn’t so rosy.

One of the most difficult things about trying to beat an eating disorder is quasi recovery – a limbo-like state where you aren’t relapsing into your illness but you aren’t experiencing the benefits of true recovery either.

My weight may be higher, but my thoughts are still plagued with food and exercise routines, awful body image and the daily longing to be back in the driving seat – restricting my intake and feeling less heavy!

It’s pretty exhausting and can make me feel very hopeless. Like having an angel and a devil on each shoulder.

Each time I feel motivated enough to improve, it’s accompanied by an awful sense of guilt for defying the disordered voice in my head and desperately unhappy about my increasing size. I then revert to compensating by reinstating some of my old rules and curse myself for thinking I could ditch them.

It’s like the physical progress is not matching the mental progress leading me to feel that my weight is spiralling out of control and my head isn’t catching up. I’m still over a stone away from my healthy weight but I worry I’ll reside in a weight-restored body yet keep my disordered mind which frightens me.

I know it’s common and I have been told by both professionals and fellow ED sufferers that the discomfort of progress can be drawn-out and unpleasant. I have been supported to find coping strategies and distractions which, whilst helpful, don’t always mask the torment.

The solution?

I guess I have to keep going in order to get to a point where the daily stresses around food loosen their tight grip on me and I find a way to make peace with my body again.

I tell myself:

It’s like pulling a plaster off – peel it back slowly and you drag out the pain, but rip it off and whilst it hurts more at least it’s over quicker.

I’ll keep going, because I didn’t come this far to only come this far, but it’s a huge challenge and I have great sympathy for others who are in the same boat.

We’re all in this together x

#WorldMentalHealthDay

Elvis Presley had the right idea when he sang: ‘A little less conversation, a little more action please.’

I doubt he had World Mental Health Day in mind when he penned the lyric but nevertheless it’s very appropriate.

I’m in huge support of anything that raises awareness of mental health problems and it’s great that days like this get people talking and sharing experiences.

But do these conversations ever get us anywhere? Do we make a difference on days like today? Do services improve so that people get better treatment? Do waiting lists shrink in length? Are we healing the many sufferers of these cruel, relentless conditions?

It’s true we have to speak out before anything will change, but with mental health problems on a steep upward trajectory we need to see improvements in care now more than ever.

It breaks my heart that people are left to decline on long waiting lists and some haven’t heard from their care providers in months.

You wouldn’t leave someone on the ground with a broken leg, but too many with mental health issues feel abandoned for too long.

It’s just not right 😔

So whilst I love seeing solidarity at times like this, what would be even more incredible is if we could see some change. I pray we can use our collective experiences this year to boost services more than ever before.

We’ve got to keep going! 🙏🏼

G x

Five lessons I’ve learned from therapy

I’m very open about my positive experiences with therapy for my eating disorder.

Some people turn their noses up at the notion of telling your innermost secrets to a stranger, but I feel it has benefitted me massively.

The biggest challenge is finding the right person for you, someone who can listen, empathise, challenge you and ultimately gain your trust.

It may have taken me a few years and various attempts with different therapists, but I feel I have met my match and it’s amazing to experience the difference it makes.

To truly release your inhibitions and reveal your biggest fears is the first step to altering your mindset and that’s where I currently sit.

This week, I wrote a blog for The Recovery Club about the top five lessons I have learned from therapy so far.

I would love for you to take a look and see what you think.

Read the blog here.

G x

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