Five great things about support groups

“I think a support group could help me but I’m too scared to go” thought I, in the run up to attending my first ever group for support with my eating disorder.

Some friends had told me about this brilliant local charity that helps those with disordered eating so I researched them online and, whilst they looked like exactly what I needed, I still had doubts.

“Will they understand what’s happening to me?”

“Is my problem severe enough for me to go?”

“Will it be like Alcoholics Anonymous?!”

Yes, I genuinely did think that last one! But I needn’t have worried – it was all I could have hoped for and more and remains one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

As soon as I walked through those magic doors, I felt instantly welcomed and included. I had never been in the company of so many people who not only understand my difficulties with food, but who have actually experienced them first-hand. It was like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Five years on and emerging from Covid restrictions, our face to face groups are gradually returning which is so good to see and incredibly reassuring. Some are still taking place virtually which is helpful as it makes for a good mix and something to please everyone.

Here are my top five reasons to give group support a try if you think you or a loved one could benefit…

The staff

Each group I have attended was run by a member of staff who has first-hand experience of eating disorders or caring for somebody with one. Their expertise shines through all they do and they are the best people to listen, understand and advise those in the group. Peer support is incredibly key and visible in this environment and it really helps us to feel less alone.

The topics

Each group topic is selected by staff, volunteers or service users themselves and is a relevant, important factor in the eating disorder recovery journey. They focus on goal setting, identity, emotions and relationships amongst other subjects and really help us to understand our situation more deeply. We also do fun activities like crafts and quizzes and occasionally go out to nearby parks and events.

The people

Not only are the staff great empathisers but the other attendees in the group are some of the most understanding and supportive people I have ever met too. We all listen to each other without judgement and offer tips and advice from our experiences. I’ve learnt so much from the people I have met at the support groups and best of all, made friends for life.

The positivity

You would be forgiven for assuming that an eating disorder support group could be a pretty dismal place but that could not be further from the truth. The staff ensure the mood is light and whilst each topic is delivered sensitively, they appreciate we all need some light relief from our difficulties sometimes. We always leave on a positive note, feeling motivated to try something new and really glad that we came.

The feedback

Most organisations run regular feedback sessions to make sure the support groups are in line with the service users’ needs and requirements. These can take place in the groups themselves and evaluate everything from the topics covered, the timings, the delivery and format of the groups. The staff leave the room to allow everyone the opportunity to discuss freely and without hesitation, ensuring the true feelings of the service users are aired and acted upon.

It’s completely understandable to feel daunted but I would urge anybody struggling to consider group support as an option for recovery. It may be the most reassuring, heart-warming and inclusive thing you ever do.

G x

The positive impact of employment on my mental health

It’s a well-known fact that being in work is important for everyone’s general health and well-being and is used by the government as a way of measuring an individual’s quality of life.

It promotes independence, gives us purpose, provides an income, enhances our social skills, and is a key factor in preventing both physical and mental health problems.

In contrast, unemployment can heighten the risk of developing a mental illness and has been linked to increased rates of depression and suicide as well as a greater reliance on health services.

It’s clear that employment is vital for maintaining good mental wellbeing, reducing psychological difficulty and forms a very important step to recovery. I know it’s really helped me feel better lately, after six months of unemployment last year.

Here are some of the ways returning to work has improved my mental health and become an important part of my recovery journey…

Having a sense of purpose

Since returning to paid employment, my days are much more structured which has been massively beneficial to my mental wellbeing.

I feel like I have purpose and routine to my daily life again which I had not experienced for quite some time. I am once more contributing my skills and experience in a meaningful manner daily, which provides an enormous sense of self-worth and helped to build my confidence massively.

Financially rewarding

I have always believed that money isn’t everything, however having more of a disposable income has also been a massive benefit to my mental health. It means I can spend more time socialising, pursuing my hobbies and living a comfortable life, reducing financial concerns and treating myself once in a while.

Achieving  

When I was unable to work, I had nothing that gave me a sense of achievement. Yes, I’d do house jobs and go out for a walk or coffee sometimes, but that didn’t give me a boost in confidence like working does. Now when I do something well and my boss or colleagues recognise it, it’s such a great feeling and really makes me feel like I have made a difference and done something well.  It’s really motivating.

Forming relationships

Working in a great team as I do now, means I have daily interaction with people from various backgrounds and no longer feel as lonely and isolated as I did before. It has also given me the opportunity to discuss my health background with people who understand are totally supportive of my journey to date. It’s been remarkable to be accepted and appreciated for my lived experience, and has done wonders for my self confidence too.

A positive distraction

When you experience mental illness it can unfortunately start to form part of your identity and overtake your character and personality. Working again has shown me I am far more than just my diagnosis; I have skills, I can contribute to society and use my life experiences for good. This is a great distraction from my difficulties and allows me to see a world outside of therapy, medical appointments and medication. It’s like I’m a new person and have lots more to offer the world than just my problems.

G x

Keeping motivated in recovery

They say patience is a virtue and you certainly need it in spades during eating disorder recovery. 

I recently attended a workshop where the facilitator announced that the average recovery time for an individual with an eating disorder is seven years, making them one of the longest lasting mental health conditions. 

It’s common for us to suffer both physical and mental hardship, with the challenging symptoms and effects needing a great deal of time and commitment to improve. 

When someone experiences a restrictive disorder, there’s a high chance they will need to spend months weight restoring before they are healthy enough to engage in a structured recovery programme. Lapses and relapses can also sometimes occur, meaning the sufferer goes through a setback and must spend time rebuilding to get back to where they were before. 

It can be a cyclical process that demands endurance, resilience and bucketsful of love and support from those around us. 

Of course, each set of circumstances is unique and not everybody will spend that amount of time in treatment, but how can we keep positive through the ups and downs? How can we stay on the right track if our brains are screaming at us to revert? What are the most effective ways to remain motivated during recovery?

Remember the reasons you started 

It can be really helpful to make a list of reasons to recover and use it as a reference point when you feel like pulling back.

You can include the negative impact your eating disorder has on your physical health, the space it commandeers in your head and everything that it prevents you from doing. It might also help you to write down what you would like to do once you have progressed on your recovery journey and the things you can enjoy more if you weren’t being restrained by your condition.

Surround yourself with positivity

It can be hard to stay motivated when there are negative people and influences around you. These can be friends and family members, colleagues and online channels.

Whilst it’s very difficult to distance yourself from people, you can choose which profiles to follow on social media and who you engage with digitally more easily and ensure your down-time is not spent being drained by unnecessary comparisons and feelings of inadequacy. If your networks aren’t uplifting and inspiring you, it might time to seek some healthier ones.

Incentivise yourself

It can really help to have an incentive or something to reward your progress with if you start to feel directionless. Whether it’s material like a new item of clothing or gadget, or an experience such as a holiday it can really boost your morale and keep you on the right track. 

You may also benefit from planning to undertake a new qualification or make a lifestyle change like a different career path once your health improves. Whatever feels exciting and motivating, try and factor it into your recovery goals. 

Keep talking 

If you’re finding it all too much or dipping in motivation then it’s key that you confide in someone you trust.

Whether it’s a friend or family member, colleague or medical professional, they can support you to stay on track and remind you of the benefits of recovery. Talking can take the power away from the temptation to revert and this could in turn help to prevent a relapse. 

Self-care 

It’s a massive change that you’re undertaking, trying to improve difficult thoughts and behaviours that have become engrained over the years, so it’s important to look after yourself.

Try to factor 20 minutes into each day to do something for yourself that you will enjoy. It could be a gentle walk outdoors, colouring or crafts, reading, listening to music or a podcast, or taking a warm bath. If it resets your mind and makes you feel calm then that’s going to really help you when it all gets too much. 

Hopefully you can take something away from this blog and use it on your recovery journey.

Remember – resilience is key, setbacks are temporary, and a better life awaits you on the other side.

G x

How nature helps my mental health

If ever there was a time to feel grateful for nature, it’s now.

If it wasn’t for being able to walk outdoors, breathe in the fresh air and feel the sunshine on my face I don’t know how I’d have dealt with lockdown. Embracing nature has been a saviour.

Being outside has long been championed to reduce anxiety and boost mood, and many mental health advocates recommend it to help people feel better. It’s been proven to lower stress, blood pressure and heart rate and encourages physical activity which, when done in moderation, is really good for us.

For me, it makes all the difference. It’s a brief escape from my daily stresses that forces me to appreciate the beauty all around and put things into perspective. I love it.

There are a great many reasons to get outdoors and become one with nature, and I’ve listed the following as just a few of my personal favourites:

Reset your outlook

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been worrying about something and going outside for a walk has lessened the problem. It’s acted as a pleasant distraction and readjusted my mind frame to allow me to view it differently and put it into perspective.

It could have been breathing in fresh air, appreciating the scenery or moving my body – perhaps a combination of all three, but I’ve returned to the original concern and found that it’s loosened its grip.

Boost serotonin and endorphins

Exposure to sunlight is said to increase the brain’s release of a hormone called serotonin which is associated with boosting mood and helping you feel calm and focused. Similarly breathing fresh air can raise the amount of oxygen in your brain, which in turn also increases the levels of serotonin and positively alters your mood.

Meanwhile engaging in outdoor exercise, such as hiking, running and cycling enhances the production of endorphins – a chemical produced by the body to relieve stress.  A completely free and accessible way to make yourself feel better.

Increase Vitamin D

When your skin is exposed to sunlight, it makes vitamin D – a vital nutrient to enhance bone and muscle health and boost your immune system.

It’s been well documented that patients with Covid-19 possessing high levels of vitamin D in their systems have fought the virus more successfully than those lacking it, so it’s important to keep up your intake!

Sun exposure is thought to be the best way to increase vitamin D levels because very few food and drink supplements contain significant amounts, making getting outside even more important.

Escape the daily grind

I’m working from home and it can get very monotonous sitting in my house most days and nights. Ensuring I get that lunchbreak outdoors and a post-work walk is essential to lift my mood and get me away from my screens.

It’s also important to move and avoid being static for too long and to me there’s nothing better than walking amongst the trees, flowers and birds to get me away from the mundane and reset my mind.

Appreciate nature’s beauty

When the technological world gets too intense and complex, I love nothing more than surrounding myself in natures simplistic beauty and escaping it all.

Sometimes my problems and anxieties feel overwhelming and far bigger than I am, but then I spend time in a beautiful place and I get the perspective I desperately need.

The intricacies of a flower’s petals, a pretty blossom tree, hills and peaks or rivers and reservoirs…I just love it! It takes me away to a special place where I see a world outside of my worries and feel much freer.

Nurture something to life

As well as appreciating what already exists, I love channelling my efforts into creating something new.

I spent much of lockdown growing sunflower seeds while my friend started her own vegetable patch and herb garden and we enjoyed it so much. It gave us an additional sense of purpose and felt like we’d nurtured something that either looked or tasted lovely. It was like such a positive and worthwhile use of time, I really recommend it.

Hopefully you can get outdoors this week to celebrate Mental Health Week 2021 and the topic of nature. Why not see if it improves your mood and how it helps you to change your outlook on the situations you find yourselves in.

G x

It’s OK not to be OK…

Today. Tomorrow. Any day.

This week may be mental health awareness week but that doesn’t mean we should stop speaking out when it ends.

The louder the conversations, the more likely we can incite positive change and make mental health services more accessible to the many not the few.

Keep talking and spreading the word.

G x

The very unglamorous and expensive side of eating disorders…

It’s not easy having an eating disorder.

For many of us sufferers we lack certain nutrients that we don’t get from food so supplements are the best way to keep as healthy as possible.

I’ve lost count of the different types I’ve tried over the years and this photo is just a snapshot of what I’ve got on the go at the moment.

There are vitamin drinks, calcium and magnesium tablets and probiotics to help keep levels high.

Digestion can commonly be all over the place too so having high fibre supplements and colon cleansers is essential. Oh the joy!

If that’s not fun enough, there are tablets and soothers for tummy cramps and bloating and some hormone regulation meds too. Not to mention the classic Fortijuices which are pretty unpleasant tasting high calorie drinks to help with meal replacement.

I dread to think how much I’ve spent on stuff like this over the years. I know it’s for the best to get in the key nutrients I don’t always get from food but not ideal or particularly sustainable.

Great motivation to get better though!

My first Eating Disorders lecture

If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that I want to spend my time doing things that help people and make a difference. Things that are more worthwhile.

This week I got the opportunity to present to a group of Child and Youth Studies students at the University of Derby about eating disorders in young people.

It was brilliant!

I used all of my own experience and resources from the charity I work with and put a presentation together to help the group understand these complex conditions better. I learnt a lot of new facts along the way too.

We covered the visible and less common signs that someone might be struggling as well as misconceptions and created a toolkit of skills to support a young person.

The class was so engaged, asking thoughtful and insightful questions. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

It was such a rewarding experience and the feedback was really positive. Everyone learnt something from my time with them and I really felt like I had made an impact.

I love days like this!

G x

Comparison is the thief of joy

It’s quite sad that comparisons often play a huge part in eating disorders and recovery.

Many feel unworthy of support because they don’t consider themselves to be ‘sick’ or thin enough compared to others.

They may think they’re weak for eating more or less than someone else, exercising at different levels, weighing more or being smaller than other people. They might also worry that because they’re considered ‘better’ or ‘healthier’ than someone else, they won’t be taken seriously and get the help they need.

I’m completely guilty as charged, forever comparing myself to other people and what stage they’re at in life or their recovery journeys. I put off seeking help for months, citing ‘I’m not ill enough‘ and ‘weigh too much.’

I often worry I’m too slow, too fast, weigh too much, don’t weigh enough, bigger than that person or smaller than I was a few months ago…it’s non-stop!

I also struggle with body image issues so automatically assume I am bigger than others around me. I once tore myself up for weeks because I worried my thighs were too big and began comparing them to my friend’s whose seemed much slimmer. I drove myself crazy!

I brought it up in a therapy session once and it helped me to slowly see sense. As my view of myself is skewed, it was likely that our thighs weren’t that dissimilar.

Yet, even if mine were bigger, why would that matter? Does that make me a lesser person? Or undesirable in some way? Would my friend be a better person if hers were in fact smaller than mine?

All of these questions led me to really think about the situation I found myself in. I realised that in becoming obsessed with my friends thigh shape I overlooked other characteristics that I did not want to share. I failed to realise my worth, my popularity, my close relationships with family and friends, my skills, my ambitions and the other elements of my appearance that I do like.

It sounds completely backward now but I thought I was somehow less worthy of being supported through an eating disorder because my thighs were bigger than somebody else’s.

It shouldn’t be like this, everyone is individual and no two cases are the same and therefore don’t deserve to be treated as such.

Different people find what works for them and their own pace to be able to make improvements.

We cause ourselves so much anxiety and depression by engaging in comparisons and it’s so unnecessary.

The world will do that for us without us doing it to ourselves!

If your body shape is different, you still deserve help. If your pace is slow or fast that’s fine. If ripping the plaster off and taking the bull by the horns works for you, that’s great. Or if you’d rather go steady and adjust to the changes gradually then that’s OK too.

You do you! No one else is living in your body or head, every path is unique.

Be the focal point of your own journey and the best version of yourself instead of a second-rate version of someone else.

G x

2020: the worst year ever?

“I thought 2020 would be the year I got everything I wanted. Now I know 2020 is the year I appreciate everything I have.”

A friend sent me this quote last week and it really resonated with me.

I knew it wouldn’t be the year I got everything I wanted (who ever does?), but it’s certainly given me a slap around the face and made me see how blessed I truly am.

I’ve been far too guilty of ‘why me’ syndrome this year. Why did I get made redundant in a pandemic? Why do I have to stay at home every day when it makes me anxious? Why are my parents having to shield? Doesn’t Covid know I have an eating disorder and all of these changes to my routine are making it worse?!

It certainly hasn’t been easy, rationalising all of my worries with so many terrifying headlines around. The pandemic has impacted so many elements of life I struggle to recognise our former ‘normality’. Going to shops, drinking coffee in café’s, working in a busy office and enjoying my hobby of ballroom dance. When will it ever be deemed safe to get within two meters of my partner to learn the Cha Cha together again?!

It’s so hard to deal with grand-scale change like this. Not being able to solve everything makes me incredibly anxious…but is it completely terrible? Has this year been a total write-off?

Well, no. I don’t think so, and here’s why…

Food

Managing eating disorder recovery in a pandemic is like pushing water up a steep hill. It’s not going to go well! My safe foods weren’t available in shops (cheers panic-buyers!), I had big changes in routine, there was reduced access to support services and a big dollop of inability to control any of it for good measure. It did not a happy mind make!

I managed though. I reparented myself around mealtimes at home, endeavouring to eat at least something three times a day and progress to introduce snacks. I developed a heightened appreciation for my appointments with the ED service and gained much more from them as a result. I learned that when the world around me changes, I must still prioritise food and nourishment to deal with it effectively and noticed my body function better as a result. It was quite a turning point.  

Relationships

I spent the majority of 2020 at home with family and even though we drove each other crazy at times I would not have had it any other way. I felt supported, comforted and like no matter what horrifying things were happening in the world, I was always safe and protected. My Dad has spent much of the year shielding making homelife tense but we’ve certainly come out much stronger as a result.

There was nothing sadder than not being able to meet with friends and relatives as much as I would have liked. Thankfully technology connected us when face-to-face gatherings were too risky and for that I’m super grateful. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I now value those friendships even more than I did before. I can’t wait to see people properly again!

Change

‘I don’t like change, I’m rubbish at it’ I would often say. I’m a creature of habit and live a very routined life to keep my anxiety at bay.

If you’d have told me a year ago that 2020 will see a killer virus sweep the world, forcing us all into our homes, meaning I wouldn’t be able to go out anywhere for fear of catching it – I’d have had a meltdown there and then. Nevertheless I’ve survived it. I’m still here and still (mostly) smiling. Everything has changed and it’s been completely terrifying but I’m proof that it’s possible to get through it. I’m so proud of my resilience. I didn’t know I had it in me.  

Lack of direction

I believed that losing my job to a Covid restructure was a one-way ticket to hopelessness and ‘what-the-heck-now’ land. I’ve worked since I was 14 (before it was even legal to be paid!) so how on earth would I cope with being unemployed?

Well, pretty wonderfully as it turns out.

I realised my job had become a noose around my neck and kept me rooted in ED behaviours. Without it I felt free, like I had a chance to really explore my options and work out what I’d truly like to do in life. I turned the empty days into opportunities to write, become a freelance blogger and communications project manager from home which gave me more fulfilment than I’d had in years. I also got onboard the online course hype by enrolling on a counselling skills programme which taught me so much about myself and helping others. I’m absolutely loving it!

I don’t know what’s going to happen long-term, but instead of being terrified I’m surprisingly excited!

2020 has taught me that I can deal with change, don’t need a job to feel valid and have so much good in my life that I needed six months of sitting at home to fully appreciate it.

I couldn’t see my friends, so I realised how much they meant to me and valued our precious meet-ups even more. I feared for my family’s health and wellbeing and grasped the huge importance of their presence in my life. My therapy became less frequent so I truly understood the positive impact it has on my well-being. I didn’t need to buy clothes, gadgets or beauty treatments because life’s about so much more than that. I swapped shopping trips for walks in the countryside and gained a fresh appreciation for nature and all of it’s wonder.

It wasn’t easy, far too many tears were shed and frustrations acted upon. I felt whole new levels of hopelessness and like giving up on various occasions. But I have honestly never learned so much about myself, the true meaning of happiness and being grateful for the little things that mean a lot.

And for that, 2020, I thank you.  

G x

Five ways that 2020 impacted eating disorders

Hands up who had a great 2020?

…that’s a collective no-one then.

It’s been a unique year full of challenges and uncertainty. The word ‘unprecedented’ has now lost all meaning.

When we stayed up until midnight to welcome in 2020, could anyone have predicted what was in store for us all? Certainly not me.

Without a doubt, it’s been a terribly difficult 12 months for anybody with a mental health condition as fear and anxiety swept the world, causing even the hardiest of characters to wobble. Those with eating disorders certainly weren’t exempt.

It’s been the perfect storm for both those in recovery and ones who manage their ED unaided. A pressure cooker with all of the right ingredients to wreak havoc!

Each individual sufferer will know which elements of lockdown caused them the most difficulty, but on reflection, I think the following five tripped me up the most…

Stockpiling

Nothing induced panic like fearing my ‘safe foods’ would be unavailable.

Rice, pasta and tinned goods are staples of my daily trusted edibles and unfortunately also popular amongst the stockpilers.

Going food shopping is stressful enough without worrying about my safety items being out of stock and I would feel apprehensive about finding appropriate alternatives to satisfy my needs. Similarly, when we were told to only visit our local supermarkets, I missed the foods I usually bought from other shops further afield. A friend was kind enough to post some to me as she lived closer to those stores than I did. What a bonkers time!

However, I coped. I built those alternative foods into my daily plan and hardly bat an eyelid about them anymore. It’s funny how something so initially scary can turn out to be absolutely fine.

Nothing to lift mood

I don’t know about you, but when I feel like my ED voice is in the driving seat, it helps me to go out and take my mind off it.

I try to socialise more, I make an effort to say ‘yes’ to invitations to do things (rather than politely decline as per) and attempt to make myself feel positive and worthy in other ways.

It was impossible to do that for several months of 2020 – even illegal at times! I felt the effect of losing those social distractions and lifting my mood by spending time with people I love. It helps you to see the world outside your own bubble and get a broader perspective to keep your worries in proportion.

I felt that without those comforts, the demon voices shouted louder and I had more time to ruminate on my fears, food choices and weight. Not ideal.

Lack of control

It is common for people with eating disorders to feel they need a sense of control over something, namely their shape, food intake and exercise levels. This overwhelming instinct usually kicks in when there are elements of our lives we feel powerless over or that seem much bigger than we are.

Throwing a highly contagious, novel virus that is wreaking havoc all over the world and killing people in their thousands creates a breeding ground for those out of control feelings to run riot.

I found myself becoming even more obsessive over daily exercise totals and calories as the result of little else being within my circle of things I could ‘sort’. Not properly anyway.

My therapist did some work with me on the locus of control – a tool that demonstrates what is in your reach to have control over and what isn’t, and it really helped. I actually learnt I could control more elements of life than I first realised and was able to let go of those other things more as a result. It’s worth a google!

Restricted access to support

As I’ve said in previous posts, I have a fantastic therapist and I rely on her a great deal.

I’ve often told her that she is like a ‘fixing machine’ and that my chaotic, irrational, disordered thoughts and worries tumble out of me and into her much more logical way of thinking. She literally transforms and retrains my brain and I’ve improved so much as a result of my appointments with her. She’s quite remarkable.

It’s the great relationship we have that made it so tough to lose touch a little this year when arguably more support than ever was needed. I was fortunate to have phone calls and the odd socially distanced, face-to-face appointment in the summer but it hasn’t been the same and I feel progress has stalled somewhat as a result. I’m hopeful that some regularity can resume when the vaccine is rolled out.

Fear

When you’re living in near constant fear, it can feel pretty hard to focus on recovery and stamping out disordered behaviours. Eating difficulties commonly manifest as a coping strategy and we’ve all needed lots of those this year!

I’d have days when my anxieties and worries were so huge, I couldn’t have eaten if you’d have paid me. I also felt that I often wanted to eat but my thoughts were so negative I couldn’t allow myself to. It was quite hard to navigate my way through such uncertainty at times. I have to be in the right head space to eat properly and on very few occasions this year was that possible.

With any luck, 2021 will provide more hope and an exit strategy from the hardship of the pandemic.

I’m sending lots of positive vibes and good wishes to everyone reading this. I hope you’re well and finding ways to self-care at this turbulent time.

G x