When it comes to our health and wellbeing, we usually think of the body. We try to protect it from environmental influences, accidents and illnesses. Happily investing in how we look and can spend hours at the gym to try and lose a bit of weight or tone up. BUT, do we pay enough attention to our mental health and mental wellbeing? 

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared that negative stress is the greatest health risk of the 21st century. And by 2020, depression – currently the fourth most common cause of disease worldwide – is said to be the most widespread health impairment after cardiovascular disease by 2020. 

The importance of our mental wellbeing having a direct impact or connection on our overall health is not necessarily a new idea. Sigmund Freud for example explained that mental health is depending on our ability to work, enjoy life and love others and was particularly interested in observing his client’s skills to deal with problems and their ability to enjoy life’s pleasure to improve their overall wellbeing. And Juvenal, a Roman poet wrote about this vital connection: “ in a healthy body lives a healthy mind”.

Nowadays mental health is brought forward into the publics’ awareness with more celebrities speaking out about the difficulties they have previously, privately faced. So slowly and surely, we begin to understand that looking after our mental health does not need to be viewed as a luxury but is in fact a necessity for a holistic approach to health. 

It is safe to say that we can agree the goal for a happy life is not to have a problem free life, as this is often not in our power of control. Illness, loss, relationship problems, redundancy, moving house to name just a few, are issues that can and often do have a negative effect on our mental wellbeing and our coping abilities. It is in these situations where good mental health allows us to cope with stress, overcome challenges, build relationships and recover from life’s setbacks and hardships. 

Most of the time we are able to manage by ourselves but there might be times when we feel stuck or overwhelmed or simply need a space to process what is happening. The important bit here is our awareness to recognise when we might need help and to find the best way to support ourselves when moving forward.

For some this might mean to connect with family or friends. For others they may feel more comfortable talking to an outsider, who is able to offer confidential support on a professional level, whilst also not being connected to the problem.

As one of my clients once said: “I can’t believe how grateful I feel to have given myself permission to make this step and put myself first. This is the first time I felt able to talk and more importantly hear myself say these things and it has lifted a weight off my shoulders.”

Mental Health awareness week will be held between May 18-24. Why wait until then to make a change?

Happy New Year and all that!

By now most of us have carefully packed away all the bits and pieces of Christmas, filled the recycling bin to the brim and possibly made a long list of New Year’s resolutions. However, soon enough reality sets in and good will is yet again replaced with the only too familiar attitude of ‘keep calm and carry on’ where old habits quickly come back into action. In fact, statistics of how long people keep to New Year’s resolutions often show how hard it is to stick to new habits as most people return to old behaviors within 4 weeks. So why is it so hard to follow good intentions and make meaningful changes?

Unrealistic Expectationsfor one can, be a big hindrance in achieving our goals. It has to be said that the media and external triggers especially at this time of year seem to be almost impossible to ignore. Numerous releases of self-help books and better ways to shed the pounds offer recipes for change and almost guarantee success in 4 to 8 weeks. Unfortunately, the assumption that change is easily achievable by following simple steps is often too good to be true and in fact makes it even harder to achieve real change. This one size fits all programs leave little room for self-exploration and self-exploration in my view is necessary to clarify realistic expectations and set reasonable goals.

 Time to reflect, is often one of the most important steps to initiate real transformation. To contemplate what it is that we want to change and why we want to make these changes will encourage us to take the ‘risk’ to let go of old habits. After all a lot of us seem to be ‘creatures of habit’ and fall easily back into old ways, almost like on autopilot. I believe that most of our daily lives is controlled by routines. We don’t need to think about how to brush our teeth, dress ourselves or figure out each morning how to get to work. All this is done routinely, almost without any cognitive input as to how we do them, and most of the time this is absolutely fine. In fact, having routines helps us save a lot of energy and time to put into more important things. So, it could be concluded that habits fly below the radar of our consciousness and help us get the mundane things done with the least bit of effort. 
Tackling habits can therefore be tricky as we have to convince our brain to let go of these once deemed ‘useful’ behaviors. Mark Twain says about overcoming habits: “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed down-stairs one step at a time.’ But what does this mean? 
In my view, changes are not just “done like that”. Changes need space, time and attention. They are processes and not straightforward. Changes come with setbacks from which we can learn and grow. Setbacks are just moments when things don’t go smoothly.  
So we can accept them, learn from them and continue with more insight, which means we are getting closer to our goal.

Every year the build-up to Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier with the pressure increasing with every day. Get gifts, plan and prepare the Christmas dinner, organize family activities and gather everyone. And all this in a festively decorated home, carefully prepared with a beautiful tree and homemade cookies and turkey on the table. The hairstyle fits, the dress is new and the mood is great. Or not?

 

Big wishes and high expectations

The number of those who suffer during the Christmas season is not small. One in five of us feel stressed during the holiday season according to a survey by MIND, the mental health charity. And in Germany, the University of Göttingen in a recent study concluded that many people doing a survey during the holiday season say they are less satisfied with their lives than people who gave information about their well-being outside this period. The scientists blame the growing hustle and bustle before Christmas and increasing consumer pressure.

For many people, Christmas is, so to speak, the annual finale – the highest festival day in the course of the year. Everything should be perfect. The first preparations and plans are made weeks in advance. Especially in the run-up to Christmas, almost everything is geared towards Christmas Eve and the first two days of Christmas. Most of the time there are overly high expectations and desires that often cannot be fulfilled. If there are underlying family issues, the pent-up collection of feelings – consisting of stress, excessive demands, disappointment, etc. – quickly becomes an explosive mixture. The full range of this is often revealed even after the actual holidays. And at the beginning of the new year, many people fall into an emotional, psychological “hole”. Women in particular can be found among those affected, since it is often they who take care of the Christmas preparations and who are eager to take on the task of creating a magical time with the perfect gifts and excellent culinary delights.

 

The post-Christmas anti-climax

For counsellors, the psychological plunge that some of us experience after Christmas is not unusual. Low moods and even depression can be common side effects that go hand in hand with relief from a stressful, pressured period. Christmas could easily be compared to an important test that was mastered perfectly but instead of elation there is just a void of emotions. And as a result of this lack of positive feelings irritation can quickly follow: “I should be trilled, everything went so well. So why do I feel flat and low?” And if it was chaotic and frustrating, the disappointment and the supposedly wasted strength are now all the more apparent with people asking themselves: “Why am I doing this to myself every year? Why am I putting so much energy into it that nobody appreciates anyway?”

This emptiness usually disappears after a few days – mostly in connection with new tasks – but if the dull, numb feeling does not let go, you might want to look into seeking support out of this negative stagnation.

 

Christmas & loneliness

Christmas is a socially busy and emotionally charged time. After all, Christmas is the festival of love. And this message is pushed home with numerous movies and beautiful advertisements day in and day out. While some of us are happy to surrender to these images of love and togetherness, others seem to fall into a vacuum of loneliness and isolation often suffering in silence and out of the spotlight. Negative feelings seem out of place, since Christmas is praised as a blissful, joyful festival and this can become particularly difficult, especially for those of us without family to celebrate with. The lack of contact can often be accompanied with a negative internal dialogue, lowered self-esteem and confidence.

Surviving the holiday season

To keep stress and disappointment to a minimum, you might want to kee the following in mind:

1. Try to approach your expectations of the festival realistically

Talk to family about ideas and wishes and possibly reduce stressful tasks. How can we all carry the load? Which traditions are too much? Do we really want to give something to everyone or just to children?

2. Question your own assumtions.

What makes a great time in your eyes? Quality instead of quantity. Space for retreats for everyone often prevents aggression and disputes.

3. Connect with people

If you are lonely yourself, try to find alternatives early on, such as how to spend the day or evening with others. Charities are often very thankful for an extra pair of hands.

4. Be mindful of your needs

This point cannot be stressed enough in my opinion. Too much alcohol, food or company can overstress your system in many ways. Mindfulness exercises are a very useful way to get in touch with what we need. This might include a bit of peace and quiet, a long walk in the fresh air or taking time to really listen to someone we have not seen for a long time.

Whatever you do, take care of yourself.

Have yourself a very peaceful time and see you all in the New Year!

What about anxiety?

My clients often ask the question ‘Can I get rid of my anxiety?’. For me the short answer will have to be ‘No’ and you can imagine the short intake of breath and raised eyebrows I get. So, what is anxiety and how can we use it?

Anxiety is probably one of the most basic of all emotions and all of us experience this unpleasant sensation throughout our lives. The severity can range from mild anxiety to extreme terror and panic and the duration also varies from a fleeting flash to a constant sometimes all-day experience. 

For most people anxiety fades away when the perceived threat has gone, but for some people, anxiety takes a while to end, and it’s on a level that is “more” than what would generally be expected.

We all experience anxiety in different ways, and these symptoms are not as obvious as we think. Some signs of anxiety include:

  • Extended periods of feeling worried
  • Racing heart and difficulties with breathing
  • Obsessive thinking and behaviour
  • Insomnia and fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Sweating, dizziness, and shivering

It is useful to know that most of the time anxiety is a very useful sensation to have. It serves one vital goal > to keep us safe and ensure our survival. We could call it the ‘human alarm system’, alerting us to possible threats and giving us the chance to move into action and get out of harm’s way.

In fact, if our ancestors did not have this alarm reaction ‘fight or flight response’ we probably wouldn’t be here. Now that’s a scary thought J.

So, having read above, you might agree with me that it would not be advisable to get rid of this very useful alarm system that can be paramount for keeping us safe in many situations.

However, at times this normally useful safeguarding tool needs readjusting and there are many ways of doing this. 

  • understand your situation, based on your unique situation and circumstances.
  • better understand your symptoms.
  • explore how your current condition developed.
  • Identify the underlying factors associated (core issues and causes).
  • Better understand how and where they came from.
  • Develop individual tools and strategies to support positive change
  • Begin readjusting how you experience anxiety in challenging situations.

To begin with this inner exploration can be difficult but if manged correctly can make lasting change possible. We can learn to trust our ability to feel anxiety but understand that we can manage it, either by ourselves or at times with the help of others.

It is important to feel comfortable and safe when exploring difficult emotional events. Most of the time we can easily cope alone or with the help of family and friends but at other times it feels safer and more doable with someone who is not emotionally attached where we don’t have to think about worrying someone we are close to or feel like being a burden to them. Support in a professional, therapeutic setting can often make the change we seek happen.And remember, there is never a wrong time to do the first step and reach out.