Thursday, 26 March 2020

The Start of Something New

It has been just over 2 years since I last made a post on this blog. My life has changed a great deal in that time - I've moved to another part of the country, stopped teaching ACT on Life (because of the move) and welcomed a new baby to the family. And just as I was starting to settle into a new house and start my life as part of a new community, the Coronavirus COVID-19 threatened to kill hundreds of thousands of people in this country and our government asked all of us to stay in our homes.

I haven't consistently practiced ACT in a long while but I now find myself turning back to it at this extraordinary time. Understandably, there are lots of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings arising from this situation and I'm sure it is the same for most of you. There's the fear of becoming ill, of losing loved ones, of being unable to get hold of food and other necessities. There's sadness over the things that I can no longer do, the trips and events that have to be cancelled or postponed, the people I can no longer be in the company of. There's guilt over not being the world's best homeschool teacher and not getting enough of the housework done or giving my eldest enough attention. There's the worry about how things will pan out, how long life will be like this before returning to normal and what that normal will ultimately be. Deep down I feel that we will all come out of this changed in some way.

During the first week of isolation I felt my mood plummet. I've been through it enough times to be able to recognise the dark cloud of depression creeping in. What I experienced felt a lot like grief, with its waves of anger, denial, bargaining and sadness. I knew I needed to do something to help me through my distress and so I turned back to the tools that have helped me so often in the past - the tools of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I realised, as I was refreshing my memory of the various techniques, that there are probably a lot of people out there right now that would really benefit from using them too. So I have decided to restart my blog with the aim of teaching the basics of ACT to anyone who would like to give it a try for themselves. I don't know exactly what these lessons will look like yet but I'll get started as soon as I can. If I help just one person get through this difficult time then it will have been worthwhile.

Monday, 19 March 2018

When the mind starts beating us up.

“I’m selfish. I'm lazy.”

There my mind goes, starting to beat me up again. It's latching onto the fact that I went back to sleep this morning - after dragging myself out of bed and getting my daughter to nursery, I returned to bed. Now I've got 30 minutes to get everything done before I have to go and pick my daughter up again. So my mind is blaming me - if I'd just muscled through, I could have got a lot more done. I'm lazy. I'm selfish. It's easy and somewhat automatic to treat these thoughts as truth - certainly, I could have got more done if I had chosen to use my time differently. But I didn't choose to do that. My stressed mind is very quick to forget why I did something, it just focuses on where I am left now, on all the things I am not going to get done today, on what I should have done.

At moments like these it is important to catch the mind at its games. I turn my attention to the memory of myself choosing to go back to sleep with compassion in my heart. I know that my decision wasn't coming from a place of laziness or avoidance of the tasks I had to do, but because I had woken up feeling exhausted and that feeling just wasn't fading away. So I chose to find out if a nap would help me to feel more awake. That decision came from a place of self-care, not selfishness. Yes, that choice resulted in me not getting as much cleaning done as I would have liked but I let go of that alternative version of events because it is just unhelpful right now. “What if it's my depression coming back and by sleeping I'm giving in to it?” Thanks for your help mind, but I remember what trying to sleep off depression feels like and this wasn't it.

I continue to get on with what tasks I can in the time I have left. My mind pipes up a few more times trying to hook me, but I just notice it and let it be while I carry on with my cleaning. I leave the house without the burden of self blame weighing heavily on my shoulders. I hold my expectations of how much I will achieve today lightly and acknowledge that it's ok to put myself first once in a while.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

A more mindful Valentine's Day.

Valentine's Day is here - a day for telling those we love how much we love them and celebrating that love. At that basic level I like the idea of Valentine's but I do hate how commercialised it has become. I cringe at the displays of huge cuddly toys and sparkling, heart-shaped balloons in the shops. I don't like the idea of showing how much you love someone by how big a gift you get them (physical size or monetary value). What happens with these gifts for the rest of the year? Are they placed somewhere as a reminder of how much you are loved or, out of necessity, does it just get stored away to be discovered years later when clearing out the cupboards? Do these gifts retain their significance throughout the year or does it inevitably wane? Despite what the marketeers try and tell you, I think these gifts are actually getting in the way of showing how we truly feel about each other.
I'm not saying that you have to stop buying gifts for your loved one on Valentine's Day - it is absolutely up to you whether that is the way you would like to demonstrate your love. I simply want to suggest an additional idea for today and future Valentine's Days.

A time for reflection and gratitude.

Let's use Valentine's Day as a special day to reflect on our relationship - to take a moment to recognise how grateful we are for our loved one, to look at any flaws we perceive with compassion and truly open up to the love we feel for them. When we open up to such love we can often find fears creep in - what if we lose them? What if we are not good enough for them? Acknowledge these fears, allow them to pass in their own time and know that they are a natural part of loving someone this much - loving another being with their own free will and susceptibilities can make us feel very vulnerable. Try to open up and accept that you can't know what the future brings and remind yourself that despite that uncertainty you are willing to feel that love because it is so worth it. If the fears get too powerful you can use your feelings of gratitude as an anchor.
Take a moment to appreciate all the things they do for you and think about the kind of person you would ideally like to be to them. This can bring up feelings of guilt if we are not currently being all we want to be for our loved one - be compassionate with yourself but also know that this is good news because you have just been given guidance on which areas you may wish to work on over the next year.

A gift with more longevity.

Rather than spending loads of money and effort on one big gesture on just this one day of the year, maybe it would be better to use Valentine's Day as the start of a regular routine of small gestures to be made throughout the following year. Think about small ways you can help your loved one or just little ways you can show them that you appreciate them. Make sure it's something easily achievable and something which can become habit with a little practice.
Here are some ideas:
  • Make them a cup of tea once a day and while you make it be mindful of who you are making it for and why.
  • Make the effort to ask them how their day has been and really listen to the answer.
  • Resolve to be mindful of the things they do for you and simply thank them each time - it can be surprising how much we take for granted.
  • Make sure you always tidy up after yourself: pick laundry up off the floor, or put your cups and dishes in the dishwasher etc.
  • Set one evening a week to spend in the company of your partner without other distractions.
  • Do a chore each week that you don't usually do - washing up, vacuuming, laundry, taking the bins out etc.
  • Practice gratitude at the end of each week - think of your loved one and reflect on all the ways you are grateful for them.

Obviously this is not an exhaustive list - ultimately, you are the person best placed to know what actions to take for your loved one (other than your loved one themselves I suppose).
Whatever you choose, make sure you know the timescale (what day of the week or month will it happen?) and specifically what the action will be. Ensure the action is small and easily achievable. Also, make sure that the action you choose is about your loved one and not about you - a good test is to ask yourself “if I did this and they never even notice, would I be ok with that?” If the answer is no, then you are looking for recognition and praise rather than doing something purely for your loved one's sake.
So rather than grandiose gestures on one day of the year, you can start using that day as a springboard for showing that person how much you love them throughout the year - a far longer lasting gift which may have greater ramifications throughout the rest of your time together.
Can making a few cups of tea or picking up a few pairs of underwear really do all that you ask? There's only one way to find out...

Happy Valentine's Day.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Being Process Focused

My kitchen is a mess right now - a total tip. There's stacks of washing up, various dirt and debris across all surfaces, loads of things waiting to be put away. I would ideally like it to be spotless - all surfaces tidy and polished to a beautiful shine and it seems I am always short of that lofty goal.

However, today I congratulated myself - I have done so well. There's one load of washing up drying on the rack, the dishwasher is filled and going, I've tidied a lot of debris off the sides and moved more washing up next to the sink. I'm cooking a healthy lunch for myself and my toddler (and making more mess as I go) and I've spent most of the morning playing with her which is something I value greatly. To the outside observer my kitchen really doesn't look much tidier but I know what I have achieved and I am proud of myself.

If I focus on the end goal of the spotless kitchen and hold onto it too tightly then I will end up feeling bad: either sorry for myself - “why is this place never clean? I never do anything right. What's the point?” or angry at myself - “I should have stayed up later last night to clean. I shouldn't have wasted my time talking to my friends when there's work to be done. I shouldn't have spent all that time playing with my daughter this morning. It's all my fault.  I'm so lazy. I'm so useless. I can never do anything right.” If I hold on tightly to my perception of what others would think upon seeing my kitchen then I can get caught in the same trap.

Instead, I focus on the process - today I made several small steps towards my goal, the kitchen is now that little bit closer to being clean and tidy. Plus I feel motivated to do more, which is in stark contrast to how I feel if I'm beating myself up for not being there yet. Rather than holding on tightly to that ideal of a spotless kitchen I am more flexible about it - I know that the tidiness of my kitchen is always in flux, for example, my lunchtime cooking took me back a few steps by creating more mess and washing up. Even if I reach my lofty goal, it won't stay that way for long - there's always more food to prepare and dishes to wash.

Life just seems to flow better from this perspective - I am no longing wasting my time beating myself up nor forcing myself to disregard my other values because of a misguided desire for perfection in this one area. By focusing on the progress I am making and allowing myself to praise my small achievements I am giving myself more motivation to continue while being flexible if other stuff comes up.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

When the mind gets a bit foggy

I was teaching ACT this morning and for the whole first half of the morning I felt like I wasn't there at all. I couldn't identify any specific thoughts that were getting in the way but I felt like I couldn't focus on what was in front of me. My mind was foggy and despite my efforts to focus on the class I felt like my attention kept drifting off into a void. Usually I am quite good at noticing thoughts I am fused with but it felt like I was fused with nothingness.

After the break we spoke about contacting the present moment and did the ‘notice 5 things’ exercise to demonstrate the concept. It was like waking up from a dream - all of a sudden I was back in the room and able to actually focus and truly see what was in front of me. With my attention back on the class I could finally get something out of it and contribute more effectively. Despite having spent the morning desperately trying to focus properly, it was only by simply taking a moment to actively notice the sights and sounds around me that finally enabled me to step out of my mind and feel like I was actually there.

For a while I have been getting stuck when my mind gets foggy - it adversely affects everything else and I didn't know what to do about it. Today, contacting the present moment really seemed to work. Even though I've been using ACT for a long time, I never before realised that it could help me step out of my mind fogs so effectively. It may not happen every time I try it and perhaps it was just a useful byproduct on this one occasion but I am going to continue testing it when my mind goes foggy and see how it works. I'll let you know in a future post if it proves consistently effective.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

World Mental Health Day 2017 Kintsugi facepaint

1 in 4 adults and 1 in 10 children will experience a mental health problem in a given year. In any given week 1 in 10 adults are suffering with depression. With such statistics it's hard to believe that we all talk so little about mental health and that there is still such stigma surrounding it.

This year, on World Mental Health Day, I am celebrating my history of mental illness and showing that it is nothing to be ashamed of by painting golden cracks on my face to imitate the Japanse art of Kintsugi.

Kintsugi, roughly translated as 'golden joinery', is a Zen tradition of repairing broken ceramics with a gold infused lacquer. It is a practice filled with respect for the item, rather than trying to hide the cracks, the gold lacquer makes a strong join while celebrating the damage endured along the way. In this way I want to show that despite the many times my mental health difficulties have broken me, I have taken great care to put myself back together again but I also carry the history of those experiences with me and they are a part of who I am and make me, as a person, stronger and more beautiful than before.

For me, ACT is my gold infused lacquer, helping me join the pieces back together, stronger and more resilient than before and this blog is my way of showing off the beauty of those gold cracks to the world. Whatever tools you use to help you manage your illness I hope you will want to join in with me today and on future World Mental Health days.

Please post your photos on the Keeping Up The ACT Facebook page and pass the idea on to your friends. If you have joined me today or in the future, then my heartfelt thanks to you.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Kintsugi for mental health awareness

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of joining broken ceramics together with gold infused lacquer. Instead of hiding the joins between the pieces, the golden lacquer celebrates and honours the item's history by highlighting every crack.

When we suffer with mental health problems it can often feel like we have been broken and we spend huge amounts of effort putting ourselves back together again. But sadly we have a tendency to hide our struggles and not let anyone else know what we've been through - trying to put the pieces together while hiding the cracks. Maybe we could take a lesson from Kintsugi and celebrate our own history, the struggles we've been through and the achievement of working through them.

This World Mental Health Day on Tuesday 10th October, join me as I paint golden cracks on my face to celebrate the beauty of the mental health issues I've endured and show others that they are not alone in their struggles.

I will be using facepaint to create the golden cracks on my face but feel free to use photo editing software to make your own image. Perhaps you would like to use your image as your Facebook profile photo on World Mental Health Day or just post it on our Facebook page to show your support. Thank you so much for helping raise awareness of mental health.