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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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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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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Sleep I’ll keep but sugar it’s time to split

Today is Day 10 of the 100 Day Project and into my inbox just popped a little check-in from the team, noting that this is the point when often people feel like they’ve run out of steam, but reminding us that this is part of the process and we just need to keep showing up.

At the end of the working week, I am feeling very literally out of steam. It’s been just over five weeks since I decided to stop drinking alcohol and whilst I absolutely, 100 percent stand by and actually increasingly enjoy this decision, there have been two big resultant, well, results that I wasn’t expecting.

Like everyone who picks up women’s magazines, men’s magazines, or even a weekend supplement, I have read countless articles on the miracle benefits of cutting out alcohol. After the initial few-day slump, it seems like all the writers suddenly start jumping out of bed at the crack of dawn, rested and revived, and the weight then starts just sliding off as a new found enthusiasm for exercise simultaneously kicks in, and the countless empty calories are out.

Whilst I have had compliments on my glowing skin (!), five weeks in I am still surprised by two things.

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Finding your cow

Last night I hopped along the Hammersmith and City line to Housman’s Bookshop in King’s Cross to hear author and journalist Johann Hari talk about his latest book ‘Lost Connections‘. In it he explores a slightly different – and I would say complementary, although not all reviewers have agreed – explanation as to why depression has been increasing and mental health declining, focused on the changed way in which we live today, where we have ‘lost connections’ with things that matter to our well-being, as opposed to it all simply being isolated to causes in the brain.

I touched on one of these nine causes Hari describes, a lack of connection with others, in a blog last week on self-care. Personally, I found it one of the most profound and thought-provoking of my recent reads and I would recommend it as a must-read for anyone with an interest in this area. To say that we are facing real problems as individuals, communities and society because of some mis-match between the way we live, versus what we really need, is an understatement. And whilst there are some signs that we are awakening to this – from the recent rise of mindfulness to the even more recent appointment of a Minister for Loneliness – there’s a still a huge amount Hari writes about which either remains unsaid, or at least poorly understood, including by those who are suffering themselves.

Last night Hari re-counted a number of studies or stories from his book, but there was one which I’d forgotten since reading that really struck a chord. It’s about a South African psychiatrist Dr Derek Summerfield, the Cambodian countryside and a cow.

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Follow the Call of the Disco Ball

As I confessed in a blog post last week I am definitely a born and bred Night Owl. On the thankfully rare occasions I am forced to haul my body out of bed before sunrise my caffeine intake sky-rocks and I want to eat everything in sight.

Last year however that began to change when my awesome friend and fellow glitter-loving goddess Jessi introduced me to the (roughly) monthly miracle that is Morning Gloryville. Much to the bemusement of my colleagues, morning sober raving before work is now firmly planted right at the top of my hobby tree.

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Sweat the small stuff: the little things can count

Today was the first day since starting the 100 Day Project that I’ve a) felt a bit un-inspired about what to write and b) like perhaps skipping a night of writing.

However the latest issue of Women’s Health landed this eve with a section dedicated to self-care. It reminded me of the blog I wanted to, well, blog yesterday about connections, so never one to skip a sign, here goes.

Self-care is everywhere. It’s something I have always believed I was very good at practicing. I cook for myself, I ‘treat’ myself, I occasionally – well more than occasionally – splurge.

Recently though I’ve begun to redefine my definition of self-care in two, for me, really important ways.

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I’m so good at sleeping I can do it with my eyes closed… Five Tried and Tested Tips

There was a blog about connecting with others that I really wanted to write today but in all honesty, I’m just too damn tired!

So I’ll save it for another day and instead, inspired by yesterday’s post on Matthew Walker’s brilliant book ‘Why We Sleep’, I thought I’d share my finely tuned pre-sleep schedule that sets me up for a divinely serene slumber. (Remember, World’s Best Sleeper….I am really good at this!)

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