Monday, 21 December 2015

Top Five Tips for a Mentally Healthy Christmas

I have chippered up significantly since my last post! Things are starting to feel a little more festive at Hyggelig Towers, I have done some nice things with some lovely people, I baked hundreds of Swedish cakes, oh, and MY HEATING WORKS AGAIN! Hallelujah. A lovely long celebratory bath was had.

So I promised some kind of 'optimistic part two' to my last post, and here it is! My top tips for maintaining positive mental health over the festive period, in list form, because apparently that is A Thing now, but also I just like a list.

1. Good Food for Good Mood.

I don't know if it's the terrifyingly mild weather (does anyone else find it genuinely scary? I feel like I'm in Neighbours, Christmas down the beach etc etc), but this year I have not been feeling my usual need for hearty, stodgy Winter fare, and I am not overly enthusiastic about the prospect of rich, festive foods, I don't want to feel lethargic or weighed down, anymore than I do already. Instead I have been craving light meals with as much fresh colour in them as possible. I have been using this book a lot -

It's really how I want to eat at the moment, simple meals with tons of vegetables, bright colourful fruits and berries, and some nice oily fish. I used to be vegetarian, but I do now (guiltily) eat some fish. It may well be psychological but I think fish is great for mental health - whenever I eat fish I imagine all the lovely omega oils lubricating my brain and keeping it all in good condition. Mind has a useful page on food and mood here. I have also been meal planning as far in advance as possible to take the drudgery out of needing to eat so often. For me one of my major mental health 'warning signs' is when I stop feeling interested in food, I love cooking and eating but when I'm in a slump I forget what I like to eat, and the thought of thinking of a meal and preparing it feels like a massive chore. Meal planning and stocking up on lots of fresh ingredients really helps. I learned once that even the tiniest of barriers will stop you from doing something - having ideas and ingredients on hand removes some of these, and avoids that sofa-paralysis of thinking "I know I need to eat but first I have to think of what to eat and the fridge is empty so I definitely have to leave the house..." and then getting too hungry to do either of those and just eating toast. I am not dissing toast. But living on it does not make me feel very good about myself.

2. Get out of breath - and do it outside (ooh er!)

I think I said in my last post about useful things I've read to do with depression avoiding the usual cliches, well, I'm going to go totally cliche here and say that if your health/circumstances allow, exercise is SO important. In the past I've groaned inwardly whenever an article or doctor have reminded me of this, thinking 'but I can't get out of bed, as if I can go for a run'... but a few things over the last year have helped me make the change and it has now become part of my routine. I think I'll do a follow up post on this to avoid a list-within-a-list, so I'll just say here that there are two things for me that make physical activity a 'mental health' activity - I find I get most from it when I have got out of breath (gets the endorphins going), and that doing it outside adds a whole ton of 'bonus' benefits - I now go for a run around my local area as often as I can and as well as the benefits of the run itself, being outside and noticing the tiny seasonal changes keeps me grounded, and I also feel a lot more engaged with my local community - I see the bits that my usual daily routines wouldn't take me through, and regular faces in the park, and it gets me out of the house. These things feel essential living alone, and I always feel so much better for it. Cliche again but it turns out it is true that exercise GIVES you energy - left to my own devices I can be a very lethargic person, but I find a run first thing gives me energy and motivation for the rest of the day. Last year I went for a run on Christmas morning and it was fab - saying hello and happy Christmas to all the people in the park put me in an amazing mood, then coming back to stuff my face feeling like I'd earned it.

My running route (albeit in Summer)

3. Make your own traditions!

The top two items of this last apply at all times of year, but here's one for Christmas/Holidays/Birthdays. If the festive season and all the accompanying expectations of what you SHOULD be doing/enjoying get you down, just MAKE IT UP YOURSELF. Find out what works for you, and do it in any goddamn way you like. You don't have to answer to anyone. For my ex, this has always meant spending Christmas by himself. He sleeps in, he eats beans on toast, he watches EastEnders. And whenever he tells people this, they feel sorry for him, but they really shouldn't, because that is how he likes it. More power to him! For me it is smaller things than that, I actively despise Christmas shopping and have had many a town-induced existential crisis during December, so a change I have made is to switch to only buying presents for my niece, nephews and best friend, and making things for the rest of my family. And when I say making things, in the past I have set myself way too high goals involving embroidered teatowels and hand crafted decorations, now each couple gets some homemade pfeffernusse in a nice tin and and a bottle of wine, and they seem happy. But inventing traditions can also be about doing nice things for yourself, even if you do live on your own - perhaps especially if you live on your own. You're worth it too, singletons! Choose a nice thing to have for breakfast on Christmas morning and do it every year. If you spend Christmas with your family, bring a little bit of 'you' to the festivities - being obsessed with all things Scandinavian I choose a traditional Scandinavian Christmas recipe to make and take to my brother's for Christmas Day, and this year I had my family over here for a Christmas Fika which I might make a new tradition. Somehow it just gives me a little element of control over an event which is so dictated by societal expectations, and making something a tradition helps me get into the right mood.

Christmas Fika


4. Time alone and time together

This is getting a bit long now so I'll wrap it up (no festive pun intended!). I'm a classic introvert, I love people but they really exhaust me, recovery time is essential. But like anything, it's about balance. I feel like everything with mental wellbeing comes back to balance, and it's one of those things that's very easy to say but really quite challenging to achieve. I get it wrong all the time, but it's a learning curve. I cannot be around people all waking hours of the day, I really can't - it's almost physical. But my love of alone time can easily drift into too long spent alone, becoming withdrawn, and that's not good either. So I have tried to plan for this in advance - I will spend Christmas Eve to Boxing Day at my bro's, but I will definitely be taking plenty of opportunities to have a little 'by myself' time - my aforementioned Christmas run, a long bath and a podcast, all these things keep me sane and help me enjoy my family time rather than feeling like an overheated computer. But equally I am planning 'together time' into the rest of the festive week when I will be back home but a lot of my friends are away, even if it's just EastEnders with my ex (hey who am I kidding, this is one of my highlights of the year...). Probably this point sounds like stating the bloody obvious, but with depression I find knowing what you should do is not even the half of it, it requires extra conscious effort and planning that maybe for other 'non-sufferers' aren't so important. For me there's always a window of opportunity where I'm are aware I'm a bit at risk and need to change something up, it's about identifying that moment before it goes too far and the paralysis sets in.

5. Podcasts

I said I was going to wrap it up but writing the last point made me think of this! Podcasts are maybe my favourite discovery of 2015, and such a boon for the lone household!  An informative podcast and doing something crafty with my hands = pure bliss. Also an insomniac's best friend. I'm really into pyschology podcasts at the moment as I'm formulating ideas for my dissertation. Top recommendations are - All In The Mind, Digital Human, Invisibilia, BPS Research Digest and The Hidden Brain. And Serial is back! Recommendations (psychology or otherwise!) greatfully received.

Well that's it for now, I don't know if any of that is actually helpful to anyone other than me but I enjoyed writing it. Now just to stick to my own plans! 

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

On Christmas and Mental Health

Last year's tree - I'm a late decorator so this years isn't up yet!
I'm just going to come right out and admit it - I feel rubbish at the moment. Which makes me feel extra down in itself, I've been on a real upward trajectory for what feels like months, so falling back into a slump has been disheartening, on top of the slump itself.

This post might seem like a departure from my usual ones but it really isn't, this blog grew out of a private blog I was keeping a long time ago called 'a year of hyggelig living' which was a project I set myself for fostering good mental health. I kept that blog private as I always mmm and aahh about writing about mental health, I think out of a fear of coming across as wallowing or self involved or negative, but then part of me thinks the best way to normalise it and to break down that stigma is just to do it, right?  Anyway I don't think I am negative, I've always found it kind of ironic but I am almost stupidly optimistic by nature, just with an unfortunate propensity for depression (not to mention anxiety and OCD but that's a whole other post). But actually writing that down two things have struck me about it - firstly that mental health and personality are NOT the same thing, and secondly, that perhaps at times my optimism has worked against me with my mental health, as I've blindly carried on thinking 'everything will be alright' even when I can feel myself sliding and thus avoided dealing with it. I have an immense fear of being negative, and feel a lot of pressure (from myself) to be cheerful, but it means the dark feelings grow and get a bit out of control sometimes.*

Anyway. I wasn't meaning to write any of that particularly, it feels like this might turn out to be a longer post than I meant!  I wanted to write specifically about Christmas. Similarly to my contradictory optimistic/depressive personality, I both really adore Christmas, and find it horrendously challenging. The last few have been particularly hard, two years ago I was going through a horrendous break up and could barely function, and last year I had just been forced out of my job and was having some Very Bad Times. So by contrast this year seems like it should be easy! All is good in Sarah World - I have completed my first term of a Masters (hurrah!) and no longer find it the most terrifying thing ever, I have settled nicely into living on my own, I have decent time off... But it is Really. Getting. Me. Down.

It doesn't help that my boiler is broken, so what should be a warm and cosy time isn't... If you're already struggling to find the will to get out of bed, knowing it's by far the warmest you're going to be all day really doesn't help!

I know that a large part of how I'm feeling is to do with the weight of expectations, of Christmas, and life in general. I'm single and in my thirties and all my life I've known I want a family. Which is absolutely fine 99% of the time, I'm still pretty sure that's going to happen and to be honest at the moment I am very happy being single. But I can't help but feel like Christmas emphasises any feelings I do have of being 'alone' (oh woe is me, tiny violins etc. etc.), all the things I love most about Christmas are so much better shared, they seem either pointless or empty on my own. I think there's a stubborness that goes along with that too, it's hard to admit to feeling lonely when you feel like you're just confirming people's expectations that single people lead sad and inferior lives (whenever I start to feel like they might be right I go for Ikea Dinner with my best friend and listen to 101 couples arguing about flatpack furniture and feel instantly better!). I'm not sure it's even that I MIND being on my own, under normal circumstances I actively enjoy it, but the whole month of December with Christmas adverts and music and shops and all the accompanying expectations feel like they're telling me I'm doing it wrong, doing life wrong. I don't even believe that! But I feel it. Disconnected from the rest of the world somehow, out of sync. And the pressure to be cheerful is even greater.

Blargh, I do sound very sorry for myself! I am immensely fortunate and privileged in so many ways , but knowing that can just make you feel worse when you're depressed, like an ungrateful oaf. And of course I know that most people probably aren't having the shiny fantastic Christmas experience I imagine they are. My old friend compare and despair !

Hmm, this post was meant to be about my strategies for coping! Because I do have them, and I wanted to share them, last year I spent a lot of time googling Depression and Christmas and really took heart from some of things I read, things that went beyond the usual cliches about not doing too much. Last night I had a bit of a 'enough is enough' moment and decided to start taking a bit more control and put some plans into action, I think I'll write about those as a separate post so this one doesn't get too long.

I mainly wrote this to straighten out how I feel in my head and I think it has helped, but if anyone did read this all the way through (before I inevitably freak out and delete it), really really thank you :)

Sarah x

* incidentally, inspite of being an optimist, I do take issue with the whole 'positive thinking' brigade - an excellent book is 'Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World' by Barbara Ehrenreich, which mostly captures how I feel about this.