Broken bones or breaking inside: belated Mental Health Awareness Week

Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week and whilst I blogged inside my company, I have definitely let the side down on my public blog. In all honesty, I’ve decided to slow down a bit. I love the idea of the 100 Day Project and I would love to give it another go next year, but with something other than blogging. I adore writing and someone very smart reminded me on Sunday that just like reading, its good for the soul, but it is also time-consuming and I hate just to write rubbish. I’ve also started writing something privately, which right now is for my own personal consumption (and no my filthy-minded followers, its not ‘adult fiction’).

But, whilst blogging inspiration didn’t strike last week, a few things have sprung to mind that I thought were fit for this blog, this week, kicking off today with a belated Mental Health Awareness Week post.

As you may have seen, the focus for this year’s week was all around stress and the impact on mental health.

Stress – quite rightly – gets a lot of bad press. But there is a fine line and important balance to be struck between good and bad stress. Stress is a natural part of life, and isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. A little bit of stress strengthens connections between neurons, improving memory and cognitive functions. It can give your immune function a little boost, and triggers the fight or flight response, which has been key to keeping mankind alive for all these years. Personally it can give me that much needed push to the finish line when I’ve been procrastinating!

But chronic and severe stress is a killer – literally in the most extreme cases. It is linked to increased risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and physical illness. A lot of stress commentary and study is focused on stress and the workplace. Think back to analysis on the economic crash, the reduction in job security, and the pressure to deliver more if you were in work. So much of it was writing about the increased and negative impacts of stress at work.

New research from the Mental Health Foundation published last week found that three in four UK Britons have been so stressed in the past year that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. One in three were so badly affected that they were left feeling suicidal, which I think is a damming indictment of the way we are living today.

Young adults are amongst the most vulnerable to stress. The Mental Health Foundation found 83% of 18 to 24 year olds had felt debilitating stress and the number who felt suicidal was 7 percentage points higher than adults overall. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m lucky enough to be a trustee of an incredible charity called Young Women’s Trust which campaigns for and provides support services to young women trapped in low or no pay, who often also suffer from a range of mental wellbeing issues. Our own research published last September found that 40% of young people were worried about their mental health and over half of young women worry about whether they are good enough to be successful at work.

Like many employers I’m sure, my company did a whole bunch of activity to mark Mental Health Awareness Week and more importantly ensure they are providing support to employees. But beyond the company initiatives I was just amazed at the number of incredibly powerful and very personal stories from my colleagues on their experiences of stress. From the new mum who felt she needed to be Wonder Woman and started to break under the pressure to the colleague who characterises themselves as highly strung, also suffering from deep anxiety, who has following a bad episode learnt various ways to cope.

A common theme was not suffering in silence, a sense that talking to people helps rather than creates problems. That’s one of the reasons why they shared. It’s clearly very individual as to what people are comfortable saying, especially publicly and at work, but it’s so clear we need more discussion and less stigma around mental health; I touched on some of this in a previous blog. We are comfortable talking about broken bones, but how do you explain you are breaking inside? Each event like this, each small share that starts to normalise challenges with mental health, starts to change the norm on offering and asking for support, starts to change how we think about what our life should be not what we need it to be. It’s another step, and if sharing their story helped even just one more person, it’s actually not at all small; it really is life-changing stuff.

Be sure of your aim and never miss your mark

Building on last night’s post, I can feel a whole flow of dharma related posts coming on. Consider yourself forewarned.

Today we went to the park at lunch, to sit on the grass and be in the sun. My meditation stroke web master employee was there and he shared a lovely Japanese story about not worrying about things we can’t control. I told this story that our yoga teacher shared last week, which struck a beautiful chord.

Krishna and Arjuna are talking before the battle. A bird flies over and tweets for mercy; her nest has fallen, baby birds and all, right into the middle of the battlefield, and would be crushed as soon as the fighting began. According to one telling Arjuna empathises but simply says she must accept her fate. I liked our telling where he waves her away, still young and a little foolish and focused on Krishna’s telling, ignorant to the bigger message she was chirping, whilst Krishna listens on in silence.

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Dharma vidhya. Into action.

On Saturday evening I returned from a deeply magical and very special week on a yoga retreat in the Portuguese mountains. Many things emerged and started to settle. I learnt a lot, both about the history and meaning of the practice, and also as I continued to uncover and get to know more about myself. I won’t try to fit all of it into one post because it was so wide ranging and varied and I wouldn’t do it the justice it all deserves by rushing to write it down. And some of this is only just beginning.

One theme we touched on during the week, and returned to again and again on a number of the days, was indecision, which has been playing through my mind. Paula, our incredible teacher for the week, would open each day with a short talk and some storytelling on an aspect or teaching of yogic practice. She spoke a lot – and more beautifully and naturally than I likely will – about how yoga is a way for us to turn inwards to connect with ourselves, to know yourself, to awaken, find and connect with your ‘dharma’ – your work, truth, sacred duty – and then upon knowing this, to turn back outwards and connect with the universe, the wider world and give back.

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GALs and Visonaries*

As I mentioned on Friday, I’ve just finished reading Mary Beard’s ‘Women and Power: A Manifesto’ (which has now been book-napped by my mother, and I will be taking back for a second read very soon!) It really took me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting to have such light sharply shone on things about the relationship between women and power, or how women in power are treated, that I’ve either never noticed or had never thought about the implications of.

On Friday I wrote about how powerful women through history were often made more ‘masculine’, or effectively had their femininity removed, in order to make them more acceptable, just like the ancient Greek goddess Anthea. I mentioned there was one other thing that had struck me reading the book.

That was the discussion about women speaking about women’s issues. And how Mary brings into question whether this is done just because women want to, or because this is the ‘safe’ space we are allowed to comfortably occupy, front and centre, in the public sphere. She looks back – obviously – to the ancient Greeks and the Romans and the few examples of women who were allowed to “publicly defend their own sectional interests, but not speak for men or the community as a whole” and even then only in “extreme examples”. She also points to a few more modern-day examples where the public speeches made by women which we hold up and laud are often women speaking about ‘women’s issues’. The implication being that the well known speeches made by men in contrast are much more diverse.

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There is more to life than simply increasing its speed

Today I have been going nowhere fast thanks to a rather painful ankle roll while strolling the uneven streets of Covent Garden last night.

It was supposed to be a busy day, zig-zagging from one side of London to another for friends, family and commitments. But stiffness and swelling setting in overnight putt a literal stop to any of that, even armed (or ankled?!) with my trusty strap.

Thanks in part to the sunshine, I decided there was no point in wallowing in self-pity and instead taking it as a sign that this was a day to slow down. I also have a nasty underlying fracture in my other ankle that left me in a boot for three weeks the last time I rolled it, so it also could have really been much worse (and very un-timely given I’m off for a yoga week in just under a week).

Slowing down doesn’t always come easily to me. A busy work schedule, often rushing from one meeting to the next, emails from waking until late at night, grabbing lunch on the go, along with a sense that free time should be filled and an interest in experiencing experiences. I talk fast and I walk fast. Sitting with thoughts and emotions, with nothing to distract, can also be very uncomfortable and unfamiliar. It takes time and some perspective to realise that silence can be a sweeter sound and slowing down makes space for rest and renewal.

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Only those who forgive can be free

I’ve been thinking a little – not a lot actually, happily less than I feared – about how you move on from love when it ends. A few of my close friends are coming out of tough breakups and so its been a topic of long conversation.

One such friend was talking to me last night about that moment when you move from loving someone, when the clouds begin to part, the dopamine they stimulated begins to drop, and you start to see some of the wood for the trees. Of course, depending on the nature of the relationship and the break-up, and your personality, this can be the start of the shift towards hatred. When with some distance you can see the things that in the moment you either didn’t see or chose to ignore. My friend said that she’s been learning not to let the hatred win, that resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. She said when she feels like she is being dragged back in she remembers the quote from Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel:

The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference

After all, to love or hate someone is still intensely emotional.

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Fall in love with a girl

When you commit to blogging every day for 100 days, it’s pretty bloody obvious when you fail! One thing I learnt this week is that even with the best of intentions, sometimes life gets in the way. This week was a multi-day away trip for work, with long days, friendly colleagues and lots and lots of sunshine (finally, just yay). I kept up a bunch of commitments but some things like blogging I’m afraid fell away. Now back at home, I have to say I missed it and some other elements of my usual daily routine. Without realising we can become little creatures of habit.

That said, a friend said to me tonight that as long as the important things stay true, there is no need to beat ourselves up about the ‘should’. After all we can’t change the past, but actions in the present matter. And in this case, words are action enough.

This week I did manage to devour Mary Beard’s latest book ‘Women and Power: A Manifesto. And I mean devour, on one not so long train ride. I actually had the happy fortune to meet Mary recently, unexpectedly at Houghton Hall in Norfolk visiting the Damien Hirst exhibition which she was filming for her new series of BBC’s Front Row Late. Just great. As is the book.

I have and always will classify myself as a feminist. My mother – who I affectionately christened my ‘trophy mother’ – was a staunch feminist who campaigned vigorously for equal rights, and very deliberately actually equal rights, including better paternity rights. I keep meaning to get myself a matching ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ top.

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The butterfly counts not months but moments and has time enough

Its lucky that I made a public commitment last night to blog about my recent butterfly encounter because I have to say I couldn’t think of anything else to write about today! (Note to self, must think of a compelling blog topic tomorrow). For a rare change recently, its actually not because I am sleepy. Its actually because I have just had a really good, uneventful, happy, content day! Which is a wonderful thing, but doesn’t necessarily make for the best writing.

I’m partly attributing my good mood to the sunshine which is an instant mood-lifter. I am a proper little sunflower and the (finally!) change in weather just lifts my mood. The other part of it was starting yesterday with a morning of reiki and spending the rest of the day with a newly found dear friend. (Oh, and I’m sure the end of Mercury’s retrograde and the Aries full moon last night is also to thank).

So, time for the tale of the butterfly. As I mentioned last night, it was my reiki healer Vickie who said she saw a butterfly around me as we went through the session (sceptics, please bear with me, or at least don’t give up on my blog for good!). Afterwards, we looked up the meaning of the butterfly and for a number of reasons it made me smile at the time:

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Restorative reiki

Today I experienced my second session of reiki, this time in a group restorative yoga and reiki workshop, with the absolutely amazing Vickie Williams who I met just under two months ago at the Re:Mind studio in Belgravia (PS it’s London’s first meditation studio, a proper sanctuary of serenity nestled just a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of Victoria’s station).

I had one private session with Vickie about 6 weeks ago, having wanted to try reiki for an age. It was one of those fantastic serendipitous moments where the only spot I had free for weeks happened to be the next day and by some small stroke of good fortune she was free too.

As you may have guessed from my loud and proud horoscope obsession, I definitely lean into my spiritual side. But reiki really is something else. It’s quite hard to find the right words to do the experience justice but feeling the energy re-balancing around your body is just… wow. And even more incredible when you think that reiki ‘just’ involves laying on hands. I can’t remember ever feeling anything that comes remotely close to the balance, calmness and peace that I have felt after those sessions, so much that it seems to be radiating throughout and out of me.

Wondering what reiki is? This description from the International Centre (yes I am overriding the American spelling) for Reiki Training is spot on:

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Tonight my darling this is for you

For picking me up not once but twice this week, for your wise words, friendship, humour and all round brilliance. For reminding me what true good and kindness look like. For being the thing I was actually looking for, not the fake dopamine hit I thought I needed. And for the endless stream of compliments about my sexiness and brain and for also correcting my spelling mistakes.

You are a superstar and gem of a friend Rosie Luff AKA my pilot Luffstar. Here’s to many more years of basically being the same person and endless opportunities for me to impart birthday twin horoscope insight.

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