It’s going to be OK.

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The last few days have been a blur of anxiety, events in my private life have aggravated my OCD behaviours, and compulsions I thought I had conquered have been creeping back in. I have spent the last couple of days scrolling through images on social media of everyones ‘amazing’ and ‘beautiful’ bank holiday weekends while feeling guilty for not enjoying one of my own. I always find organised events difficult to cope with, birthdays and Christmas and holidays where the pressure to have a perfect time just feels a bit too much and as a result I end up doing not very much at all, crippled by the need to do things ‘just right.’

It was with these thoughts that I stumbled across Bryony Gordon’s latest photo on instagram in which she too admitted to having a slightly rubbish time despite the sunny weather. For those of you who don’t know her Bryony is a British journalist, author and mental health advocate (basically an all round superwoman) whose work was one of the biggest inspirations behind my starting this blog in the first place.

And so following Bryony’s advice –  To hold on. And to pull as many funny faces as possible – I took myself off for a walk. I enjoyed the last hours of sunshine and I ignored my brains insistence that I had left the door open or ruined the entire bank holiday (I hadn’t).

So if you are having a bad day today, or if you have one tomorrow or next week, hold on. You can get through this, go outside if you can, speak to someone you trust and remember that tomorrow is a new day. I can’t guarantee that it will be better, but there is every chance that it could be.

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Breathing in a Panic

Perhaps the most common advice given to a person having a panic attack is to ‘breathe’ but unfortunately, when you are in the midst of panic, this is perhaps the hardest thing to do. Breathing is something we only ever think about when we can’t do it, and for this reason, very few of us know how to make ourselves breathe deliberately! Below are three breathing exercises which I find helpful when I’m in the middle of a panic attack, they are also useful for helping someone else whose struggling to breathe as you can talk them through the process and help to keep the calm.

Breathe out more then you breathe in

Think back to your breathing at other times of your life. When you are surprised or shocked by something (for example a massive spider) you may find that you take a large inhale or gasp echoing your fear. In contrast, when you are relaxed or relieved you often exhale, flopping down on the sofa or breathing a sigh of relief. These practices can be implemented during a panic attack. If you can concentrate on breathing out for twice as long as you breathe in then you can often help yourself calm down much sooner. At first this can seem counterproductive as the natural response to the thought “I can’t breathe” is to inhale as much oxygen as possible – but trust me – this is a much better option.

Square Breathing

This is quite a common breathing exercise and you may well have heard of this one before. Square breathing requires you to visualise or view a square (for example a plug socket or floor tile) and concentrate on it as you breathe. The idea is that you picture the four sides of a square and match your breathing accordingly… it looks a bit like this:

Square breathing

Breathe through your Nose. 

Personally this is my least favourite of the three exercises I’ve listed here. However, I’ve heard from many people who regularly use this technique so I’ve decided to include it here for you to try. This exercise is again intended to prevent hyperventilation by slowing your breathing down. Simply close your mouth and focus entirely on breathing out of your nose, imaging your breath traveling in and out of your lungs until you feel you can breathe regularly again.

Its important to remember that even if you don’t always manage to successfully employ these techniques your panic attack will eventually pass. Just keep reminding yourself that this is just PANIC and no matter how scared you may feel, you are in no immediate danger. Try and relax into your panic and wait for it to end. There is more advice on coping with a panic attack here.

Does anyone have any other breathing techniques they would suggest? Have you tried any of these before?

 

 

Mental Health Survival Kit #2 – Nail Varnish

We all have days when our mental health isn’t great. Maybe we are stuck somewhere on our own allowing our irrational thoughts unimpeded access to our brains or we’re facing some other personal challenges which just make everything that little bit harder. On days like these I find it is useful to have a few ideas to fall back on, to help alleviate distress and provide a distraction from the running commentary in my brain. Over a series of posts I am going to introduce you all to a few of these ideas which collectively form a kind of mental health survival kit ready for use at any time.

Ok, so the second item in my mental health kit may seem pretty frivolous, I mean painted nails are hardly going to help someone experiencing the lowest of mental health days but, bare with me here. For me nail varnish fulfils some of the essential parts of mental health care – many of which are easy to forget when your thoughts are overwhelming. Painting my nails encourages me to take some time to myself as I paint them and prevents me from undertaking more destructive behaviours as I wait for them to dry. The act of carefully painting each nail also helps to centre my thoughts, helping me to sit with and distance myself from unhelpful emotions, and letting them pass.  Finally the act of choosing a nice colour and wearing it for a few days (until it starts to chip) is the ultimate act of self care, reminding me that, despite what my thoughts are telling me, I do deserve nice things.

Here’s a run down of three of my favourite nail varnishes…

 

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OPI A Good Man-darin is Hard to Find £12.99

This is definitely the most expensive nail varnish I’ve listed here but trust me it is worth it. I bought a bottle of this at least 4 years ago and its still going strong. It is the perfect combination of orange and red which makes you look tanned even in the middle of winter and looks classic without seeming boring. Put this on whenever you need a bit of a confidence boost.

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Rimmel London Bee a Honey £2.99

I have been looking for a yellow nail polish for quite some time and while I’m not fully convinced that this is the one – it’s pretty close. It needs a couple of coats to get full coverage but once its applied it stays on well and is bound to cheer up a grey and dreary morning.

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Maybeline Spot Light £2.99

Nothing says f*** you to your mental disorder like black nail polish and this one has the added benefit of containing glitter. Using this will make your nails look like a clear nights sky and its unusual appearance is bound to get you a lot of compliments, perfect if your self esteem needs a bit of a boost.

Have you got any nail varnish recommendations? I’m always on the look out for new colours. What are your favourite makes?

My Hair is Falling Out

As shallow as this makes me sound I’ve always been quite proud of my hair. Its thick, dark brown and wavy (read wild) and although it sometimes turns frizzy I like the fact that it explodes off my head like a lions mane on days I forget to brush it.

That was until a couple of months ago. Since about April my hair has been falling out thick and fast. At first I thought it was just in my imagination but over the next few weeks, as clumps of hair began to fall out every time I touched my head, I began to realise that this definitely wasn’t only happening in my mind. Other people also started to comment on how much hair I was shedding, laughing at the stray hairs I was leaving in my wake every time I sat down.

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My GP thinks that this hair loss could be put down to one of two things. Firstly it may be the result of my somewhat limited diet thanks to my OCD ideas about certain foods which have left me limited in terms of hair growing vitamins. Apparently hair growth responds to your diet 100 days (3 months) prior, explaining why despite significantly improving my diet since earlier this year this has yet to be seen in my hair.

The second option is a type of alopecia where hair falls out across your scalp but doesn’t necessarily appear obvious to others. Apparently this type of alopecia can be connected to stressful life events, suggesting that it may be connected to my recent OCD relapse or just more generally to my OCD thoughts.

While I am trying to improve my diet by eating more iron and protein I am yet to see any real difference to my hair and although my mum and sister both assure me that you can’t tell  (probably due to my hairs natural thickness)  its making me feel low every time I see its reduced size in the mirror. Part of me wonders whether I should get it cut shorter to see if this helps but I can’t bare the idea of a heavy handed hairdresser pulling out more strands than would fall out anyway.

I know things could be a lot worse, I could loose all my hair or develop large bald-spots and in the grand scheme of things, hair really isn’t that important compared to being loved and healthy and safe. But for so many years my big hair has been a part of me, acting as an armour against the outside world. I’ve always respected women with big hair, my grandma who has hers washed and cut once a week, my first idol Rizzo from Grease, Caitlin Moran, and now I’m excluded from the one club I could belong to (backcombing only makes the hair loss worse).

And so I am stuck in a kind of limbo, desperately hoping that one day soon my hair will be back to it’s old volume whilst also hoping against hope that I don’t loose any more.

Has anyone else had difficulties with hair loss. Do you have any advice? Did yours get worse or better over time?

Mental Health Survival Kit – Podcasts

We all have days when our mental health isn’t great. Maybe we are stuck somewhere on our own allowing our irrational thoughts unimpeded access to our brains or we’re facing some other personal challenges which just make everything that little bit harder. On days like these I find it is useful to have a few ideas to fall back on, to help alleviate distress and provide a distraction from the running commentary in my brain. Over a series of posts I am going to introduce you all to a few of these ideas which collectively form a kind of mental health survival kit ready for use at any time.

The first example I am going to talk about is Podcasts, I know that a lot of people find that listening  to music can be helpful when they are feeling low but personally I find it can be a hindrance rather than a help, forcing me into a spiralling cycle of introspective thoughts.  Instead I turn to the comforting voices of my favourite podcasts, providing a distraction from the never ending thoughts. Here are a few of the best…

Jules and Sarah

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This is the perfect podcast if you’re looking for a bit of lighthearted fun. Jules Von Hep and Sarah Powell are two Northerners living in London who chronicle the amusing events of day to day life in the big city. Expect plenty of talk about food, spray tans and ‘News from the North’ which are certain to cheer up a gloomy day.

Sarah also wrote a blog post on her own experiences with anxiety which is well worth a visit and can be found here

Find Jules and Sarah here every Friday morning.

My Dad Wrote a Porno

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As the name suggests this podcast is definitely for older readers as it includes a lot of sexual talk and innuendo. This laugh out loud podcast is not one to listen to in public as Jamie Morton, Alice Levine and James Cooper attempt to read Jamie’s dads self-published porno ‘Belinda Blinks’.

The podcast comes out every Monday and there is also an extra ‘footnotes’ episode every Thursday. Find the three of them here

Hey It’s OK. 

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Presented by the staff at Glamour magazine, each episode of this podcast features a celebrity guest who debates the pros and cons of daily life. Discussions range from the frivolous – is it ok to repeatedly use the same emoji? to the more serious – is it ok  to be bored in a relationship? or to not attend a friends wedding?

If you love Glamour magazine or celebrity gossip you are sure to enjoy this podcast which can be found here

So there you go, do you have any podcasts you can recommend? Or something else you listen to on bad days? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

How to Survive a Festival with a Mental Health Condition

Yesterday night, or more accurately this morning, I returned from a festival exhausted and achey from four days of walking, dancing and camping. It has been a tough couple of days and, until a few hours before leaving I was definitely unsure if I would be able to make it to the site at all. But overall I am incredibly pleased that I made the jump and did it – breaking away from a number of safety behaviours I have adopted over the last couple of weeks.

For someone who struggles with mental health difficulties festivals can be incredibly scary and unpredictable places, with multiple triggers and challenges coming at you from all directions. These issues are heightened by the almost omnipresent view on social media that at a festival all ‘normal’ people are having the time of their lives (If your interested in the ‘expectations’ of festivals Em Clarkson has written an excellent post on this here.)

So moving beyond the glitter make up, the brightly coloured wellies and the instagram photo shoots here are my top 5 tips on visiting a festival when you have a mental health problem.

  1. Don’t feel pressurised into going – Just because your friends are all going and everyone says that the festival is the most ‘amazing place ever’ don’t feel that you have to visit it if you don’t feel up to going. If you’ve never been to a festival before and are not sure how you will cope with the environment perhaps consider buying a day ticket this year rather than a weekend camping, just to test the waters. It’s better that you have to leave wanting more than you get half way through the weekend and are stuck in a field wanting to go home.
  2. Know your weaknesses – Different people have different opinions on this one with some saying that this is pessimistic and anticipating problems which may not arise. However I find that identifying potential problems BEFORE I arrive somewhere new can be incredibly helpful allowing me to discuss potentially difficult situations before I encounter them. For example, as someone who has a number of OCD ideas around food I made sure to research what would be available at the festival site and packed accordingly, giving myself plenty of options for over the four days.
  3. Look after yourself – Ensure that you eat and drink plenty over the festival weekend as well as getting enough sleep. These things may seem boring but they are vital for keeping going and things will be 100% harder if you don’t do these things. Equally, don’t feel pressurised into drinking if you don’t want to. I am not drinking at the moment and this can make you feel isolated amongst everyone else. However, most festivals offer plenty of soft drink options so stick to these if you prefer and remember you don’t have to drink to have a good time!
  4. Don’t beat yourself up if things go wrong – Even with the best will in the world you are bound to face some difficulties over the weekend. Whether this is reverting to behaviours you have been battling to stop, calling home on the phone to ask for help or having a full blown panic attack don’t let these things write off the entire weekend. It’s going to be a difficult few days and you have to expect some blips along the way. Try and identify some quiet spots around the festival where you can go to if you need a bit of a break and let the people you are with know if you are having a tough time.
  5. Make sure to rest afterwards – While this is true of everyone attending a festival it is particularly true for those attending with mental health problems. The adrenaline and chemicals racing around your body will completely exhaust you for at least a day or two afterwards, so give yourself time to recover. Maybe book an extra day off work, or make sure you have a few early nights over the days after. As someone who finds resting incredibly difficult I understand how hard this can be but trust me, it is DEFINITELY necessary.

So there are my top 5 festival survival tips. Do you have any other advice for someone visiting a festival with a mental health condition? Or stories of how you have coped? I’d love to hear them.

 

A brief explanation of OCD

* Disclaimer – this is not a medical  account of OCD and is merely my understanding of an illness I have lived with for over 10 years. Please see the links below for official accounts*

Although people are starting to accept that OCD is not the quirks of order associated with a Buzzfeed article. Nor is it the levels of cleanliness seen on shows such as Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, very few people really understand what real OCD is. This is partially because it’s so difficult for anyone to understand what is going on inside the head of another human being and also because, like everything in life, no two cases of OCD are the same.

Put simply however OCD features a combination of two things: Obsessions, which are often persistent and uncontrollable thoughts and Compulsions, repetitive behaviours intended to relieve anxiety for example checking items, counting, or performing rituals such as turning switches on and off (this is where the stereotypes come from). Many people find that their obsessions and compulsions change over time, morphing from one idea to another.

It is important to note that in some ways all people complete activities which may be considered OCD behaviour at some time (for example checking that a door is locked) but OCD is only diagnosed when activities consume excessive amounts of time and/or cause significant distress and anguish and/or interfere with daily functioning.

This is not to say that OCD is always obvious to those suffering from it or to those around them, many live in a state of anxiety and distress for years before their OCD is diagnosed, making the importance of raising awareness even more significant. Equally, many people fail to associate their thoughts with OCD because of the stereotypes which surround it. For example as an incredibly messy person (you should see the state of my bedroom) my lifestyle is not compatible with the ideas of symmetry, cleanliness and organisation normally associated with depictions of the illness; making a diagnosis of OCD more surprising.

I will discuss some examples of my OCD in a later blog post but for now anyone wishing to know more about OCD itself can visit any of the following links which will provide more detailed information and advice on how to get help.

OCD UK – Understanding Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)