Are jealousy and envy always wrong?

Before researching this blog, I used jealousy and envy interchangeably but they have quite different meanings.

To feel envious is a feeling of lacking, a desire for something someone else has, whereas to feel jealous is about fearing to loss of something.

Jealousy may most commonly be felt as a fear of losing a partner or spouse – perhaps fearing their eyes are or may wander to someone other than you.

Envy may be felt about all sorts of things, from a young age, we may envy a school friend’s new set of colouring pens or someone with a disability may feel envious of someone’s ability to carry out tasks more easily.

I have said many-a-time that there are no such things as negative feelings. All feelings communicate messages to us – they tell us how important something is – for example, I wouldn’t bother getting angry about something I didn’t care about, once I realise it’s importance, through feeling angry, I do not have to act violently (as many fear when anger is out of control) but I can choose to act with appropriate passion.

Both jealousy and envy can be ugly feelings is used inappropriately. For example, a jealous spouse may be irritable or spiteful with their words – the jealousy may turn into anger, acting as if they have already lost their partner, not realising their jealousy is a sign of the deep love they feel and a fear of losing that person. If jealousy, in this context, was used constructively, a more loving, nurturing relationship could flourish. It’s always important to talk about these feelings, it’s far easier and simpler to say “I feel concerned about how much time you’re spending with x, is there anything I need to be worried about?” or “I’m concerned the spark is going from our relationship, what could we do to re-light it?”, that to be eaten up with jealousy and risk losing what you feared losing in the first place!

Envy is unhelpful if it stops you being pleased for the person who has the thing you want! For example, if I was envious of my friend’s new set of pens and told her I thought they were brilliant and felt a bit envious, she may well let me use them! But if my envy got in the way and I acted annoyed and angry about the situation, I’m unlikely to get to use the new pens!

Telling someone you’re envious of them is a way of communicating that the thing they have is desirable. This does not need to be negative! If I feel envious, it tells me the importance of the desirable thing – it may spur me on, give me the motivation to strive for the desirable thing. For example, if someone has particularly luscious locks, my envy, channelled correctly, could motivate me to try a new style or generally look after my hair better!

Forcing ourselves not to feel envious or jealous, or denying the feelings, is just like any other feelings, when unexpressed it can fester – and they will come out somehow! If we don’t express them healthily (by talking about them or another way) they could out in another emotion such as anger or in an addiction, headaches or other physical symptoms or unhealthy behaviours – there’s no way of keeping unexpressed feelings hidden, it just doesn’t happen!

Some may fear “the green eyed monster”, since it has its origins in sickness we’re right to avoid the ugly side of jealousy or envy but fearing the extreme expression of an emotion shouldn’t prevent us experiencing the healthy emotion.

If you’re happy with your lot, and don’t feel worried about losing anything and never desire anything anyone else has, no probs! Enjoy it! But don’t deny natural feelings – it’s ok and perfectly healthy to feel jealous and envious, just put the feelings to good use!

Advertisements

Should we be talking about self harm?

I’m really worried that me talking about my experience with self harm openly may plant the seed of an idea in the mind of a vulnerable person.

I was recently on The Wright Stuff…I’ll just say that again…I was recently on The Wright Stuff! The question was posed to me “what if there’s a link between the the increase in media coverage of self harm and the concerning rise in incidence of teenage self harm?”

What if, someone in distress comes across a blog or article I’ve written and, even if I say “I’ve been left with scars” and “there are other options”, what if just seeing that it’s something that people do, gives them the idea to try it?

Yet, we need to talk about self harm, to raise awareness about the issue in order to:

  • Stop the stigma related to self harm – people who don’t understand self harm make assumptions when they see the wounds or scars, they think the individual is unstable, unable to cope, maybe incapable of holding down a job, being a decent friend or even dangerous. Some people apply the unhelpful term of “attention seeking” – read my blog on what I think about that term!
  • Stop the discrimination – due to the assumptions above, people experience not getting a job or promotion, losing friends or being excluded from life in general! I have even experienced less than satisfactory medical care…

People do not need to be told about self harm to think about doing it. When I started, social media didn’t exist, the internet had only just been born (I didn’t really use it) and I definitely didn’t hear about self harm at school or amongst friends.

My mental state meant I didn’t need to hear about it or read about it to think about doing it.

Initially I did it in relation to the hatred I felt for my body, I wanted to damage it as a form of punishment. Unfortunately I became gripped by positive effects, it helped me manage the distressing emotions.

But I have an incredible simple but important message:

Self harm does not work.

Harming yourself, whether through cutting, an eating disorder, drinking to numb feelings or deliberately persisting with thinking errors is not the answer to managing difficult feelings.

Self harm leads to guilt, shame and adds to the existing turmoil.

There are numerous other ways to manage mental distress. If you’re in a position of thinking that self harm might help, instead of looking up triggering material on google, instead try looking up ‘healthy coping techniques’ and you’ll find numerous other solutions, for example, this website Get Self Help.

I say “my scars are part of my story” and I shouldn’t be ashamed of them but that does not mean I’m glad I have them, if I didn’t have them, I could still be proud of my journey.

If you’re currently self harming, I cannot stress enough how important it is to seek help. I know it’s a secretive, hidden thing but it doesn’t need to be, there are ways to break free from it, you deserve better.

I’m glad the media are highlighting the issue but it needs to be thoughtfully and sensitively balanced; we need to raise awareness but not even hint at the idea of it being something everyone does, it is certainly not a group activity (as shown on Hollyoaks) nor is it in any way a good, fashionable on ‘in’ thing to do!

What do you do if you just can’t talk about it?

A large contributing factor to why I got ill was that I didn’t talk about my feelings. Whatever I experienced I thought it was bad so I pushed it down, ignored it, pretended I was fine and put a brave face on. Even when I was getting very unwell, I had no idea what was going on, I had no language to describe my inner turmoil so I just kept quiet and things, unsurprisingly, got worse.

I have learnt, through various therapies, how to talk about my feelings in a healthy way – I don’t talk about my feelings all the time but if things don’t feel right, I have ways to communicate and talking through my struggles, this means things are easier to understand and manage.

Whenever I hear about someone self harming in some way, whether it’s cutting, over dosing, drinking to excess or disordered eating – I do my best to persuade them to find a way to talk about what’s going on. It’s often about who you talk to as well as what you say, sometimes it’s about writing things down, but I think putting your thoughts and feelings into words is vital for mental health recovery.

However, what if things are so overwhelming, words just won’t come?!

Or, what if, due to another condition, a developmental condition or learning disability, you’re never going to be able to talk/communicate the way other people do?

On my mind is a young lady who’s desperately unhappy, she has self harmed in the passed but recently felt so hopeless, she tried to take her own life – this story, unfortunately, is not rare – sadly, this young lady also has Asperger’s syndrome, which is now considered part of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). People with ASD have problems with, amongst other things, social interactions and communication.

I would always advise anyone in mental distress to seek professional help but sometimes there are things we can do to help ourselves, so here are some of my thoughts when words just aren’t the answer:

Exercise

Whether it’s anxiety, depression or other symptoms such as psychosis, some form of exercise has many benefits:

  • Grounding – it helps people stay in touch with reality, rather than spiraling off down a disordered thought stream or into a reality that causes more harm than good.
  • Endorphins – ‘happy hormones’ proven to be released when we exercise
  • Release of aggression – some people (usually females) force their aggression inward while others may express aggression/anger towards other people, either physically or verbally. Some forms of exercise, especially something like kick boxing can be brilliant for releasing pent up aggression.
  • Can be done in community or solitarily – introverts and extroverts take their energy from different sources and exercise can provide either the company or the solitude needed.
  • It can be a good distraction – taking pressure off talking and going for a walk with someone can actually make the taking side of things easier. Just being in nature, for example gardening, can have this effect as well.
  • It’s generally good for your physical health as well!

There are many forms of exercise from formal team games to walking, running or cycling on your own, or classes such as body combat, Zumba or martial arts. It may help to do something as a regular outlet or just do it when feelings feel particularly uncomfortable.

Art or creativity

You don’t have to be Salvador Dali or the latest Banksy to pick up a paint brush, some crayons, a pencil or some charcoal – people find all sorts of ways of expressing themselves through art. I’m not particularly creative but when angry it can be incredibly therapeutic to press down hard with a pencil and scratch away at the paper. Tearing paper or fabric can also be calming or helpful for a destructive mindset.

Liz Atkin uses charcoal drawing to directly manage her mental illness. Her story is fascinating and can be found here.

Adult colouring is a bit of a craze at the moment. The way I used it was as a distraction, it was something that could consume my focus and while I was doing it, it helps me stop my destructive thinking.

It may also be useful to make collages of words or pictures from magazines, this may express an acute emotion (eg anxiety) or overriding issues (eg loneliness) and this links to the next thing to try.

Use pictures to communicate

There are specific systems such as the Picture Exchange Communication System but it doesn’t have to be that formal. Use Google Images and search for what speaks to you, it may be pictures of people or landscapes but it could just be colours or shapes. You don’t have to know what it means or why it’s important but if you use this method a few times, you may get used to expressing your feelings in this way.

Punch a pillow

You may not call it anger, but if you feel like you have lots of energy and don’t know what to do with it it may be helpful to punch a pillow. This is helpful to prevent keeping energy/emotions locked up, it’s important to let it out as people have a tendency to either take emotions out on other people (through verbal or physical aggression) or on themselves (by self harming).

Mindfulness/meditation

Mindfulness can be a complex concept to understand but at its most basic level, it’s about being aware and then sitting with how things (feelings/situations/thoughts) are, as they are, without judgment or desire to change them. If we manage to do this, we can learn to manage all sorts difficult or uncomfortable feelings.

Meditation takes a number of forms and may include elements of relaxation techniques as well. This link to YouTube may be a good place to start.

Even if it doesn’t sound like ‘your thing’, sometimes it’s worth trying something new, just to see what it’s like. Type, mindfulness or meditation into YouTube and have a look at what’s out there. The most important thing with this is not to get cross, upset, angry or to judge how you’re doing with the exercises, there is no right or wrong way to do it. Talk to yourself with compassion when trying something new.

Pets as therapy (PAT)

Spending time with animals can be an amazing healer for some people. A loved family pet can evoke calmness in any situation. There are also special animals trained for therapy and horses are used in some specialist centres.

No matter what the situation, there is a way through, some times we just need to be a little more creative with how we get through.

Work stress nearly cost me my life

As Mental Health Awareness Week comes to an end I thought I’d write a bit about my personal journey and (hopefully) warn against the dangers of work stress.

I struggled with my health all through uni. As an introvert, I found the social life expected was too much for me, it was so far out of my comfort zone, I had to pretend to be someone else and that cost me more energy than I had. Team this was a course (medicine) that I found very difficult; the high proportion of patient contact was great experience but, again, cost me energy I didn’t have.

With my commitments sapping me energy, my mood plummeted and my thoughts followed. I felt I wasn’t good enough, I couldn’t cope, I was completely useless and I had imposted syndrome – someone was going to find out, I was a fraud and discover I didn’t have what it takes to be a doctor.

I got through medical school thinking “I just need to get through, it will be better when I qualify, there will be fewer assessments and I can get on with doing what I want to do, be a doctor”.

Unfortunately, when I qualified, while the daunting exams were over and I felt relieved that I’d made it, the stress did not stop. It might sound silly but until I qualified, I don’t think I realised that people’s lives were literally in my hands!

Yes, as a junior doctor, you have the support of a team but when on call or, as I was, working in a hospital with few doctors, it was down to me. I felt completely overwhelmed with the responsibility and felt I didn’t know enough. Imposter syndrome was crushing my confidence, the anxiety was crippling. Every time I needed to think clearly and quickly, my brain froze. Literally, no thoughts would come through my mind and I struggled to take action.

I spent many moments crying in the toilet. But this just led to guilt, I couldn’t do my job hiding and crying, so I’d dry my eyes and put on a brave face.

I still thought, “if I just get through this stage…” but I couldn’t survive thinking that at every stage. I tried to confide in my colleagues and they reassured me and supported me as best they could but my health couldn’t hold up.

One day I was a doctor, the next I was a patient.

My depression was severe and I was experiencing psychotic symptoms with my anorexia. My life was at risk with self harm and suicidal behavior. Of course, there were many contributing factors but work stress was right up there!

If you’re feeling work stress, please talk to someone, don’t hope it will get better, it needs managing. Your health is more important than any job.

Is social media causing more stress than it’s worth?

The idea behind social media is brilliant, it connects us. Initially it was that simple, maintaining connections between people who’re friends in real life or building virtual relationships between people who may never, otherwise, meet.

But it seems to have taken on a life of its own, making demands on us to present a specific “public friendly” version of ourselves, we get caught up in how many ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and ‘follows’ we’ve had and it makes 41%* of us feel lonely. That doesn’t sound right!

For Mental Health Awareness Week, PushON, an eCommerce agency, conducted a survey asking all about social media, how it makes us feel and how it impacts our mental health.

In 27 – 64%* of us, social media evokes feelings such as resentment, sadness, anxiety and jealousy and it makes 48% of us feel self-conscious.#

We’ve had to invent a word for that special photo that’s usually filtered – the infamous selfie!

We’re feeling awfully confused about social media, many feel concerned about being over monitored or ‘spied’ upon in the evolving technological world, yet we worry that no-one will pay attention to or ‘like’ what we post.

I’ve had a mixed relationship with social media. When I’ve been less inclined to leave the house (as a depressed introvert, it’s an easy place to end up!) it’s been a way of keeping in touch with the world and interacting with people at a comfortable distance.

Social media is great at connecting people with similar experiences, I wouldn’t have met these people without social media but I developed relationships that boosted my recovery as we were ‘in it together’!

28% of people say they feel motivated by social media and 43% feel happy while using it.*#

As I recovered from anorexia I had amazing support from the Berkshire Eating Disorders Service and their Support, Hope and Recovery Online Network (SHaRON!). I didn’t have to sit awkwardly in a room and do ‘group therapy’ – I just logged on whenever, wherever – not only getting the support (from therapists and fellow sufferers) when battling my way through a bowl of soup but also giving support – this 2 way process was important.

But at the same time, there are some negatives! How many of us can say our facebook statuses give an accurate picture of our life? At any given time, a Facebook wall could be covered in wedding, sonogram and baby pics – giving the impression everyone is either planning babies, having babies or caring for babies and all of this is shiny and happy. We all know this is no-where near the truth! Most people aren’t thinking about babies or children at all and those that are, are stressed out about it, rather than it all being smiles and laughter!

Mental illness is great at making us feel isolated, alone and completely incapable of doing life, the biased Facebook wall can compound these feelings. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying people shouldn’t share photos of their exciting moments. When unwell, it’s important to hold onto the fact that people do not write “struggled to out of bed today” or “washed my hair then watched TV”. Like good news rarely makes the newspapers, bad or neutral news doesn’t hit the Facebook status!

What’s more, while most of us are posting the edited highlights, 36%* of people admit they’re somewhere between ‘jazzing up’ their online profile and it being a complete lie.

Although social media can have a negative impact at times, 63% believed taking social media away would have a negative impact on them (with 1% believing they would feel heartbroken!)

There’s no debate, it’s here to stay, perhaps we all need to be careful, be clear about how we use it and don’t let it become a source of unrest or unhappiness – this is our choice to make!

*All stats from a survey of 1000 adults in the UK carried out by PushON, an eCommerce agency. (# Participants could choose multiple feelings). Survey carried in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Week.

Managing stress is not rocket science but we have to make it a priority

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (14th- 20th May) is Stress!

85% adults in the UK experience some form of stress, 39% describe themselves as “too stressed”. #

54% people say they’re worried about the impact of their stress on their health. This does not mean stress is not impacting the health of the other 46%, it might be that they are unaware of it! #

Stress is key contributing factor to mental ill-health.

Mental Health services are more stretched than ever, so just imagine, if we removed stress or managed it better, we’d reduce the rates of mental illness and those who need the mental health services would get quality support in a more timely manner and staff within these services would have lower stress levels – it’s win-win!!

Spotting signs of stress

Stress can impact us in all sorts of ways; here are just a few examples:

  • Feeling irritable, anxious, low or tearful
  • Loss of interest or apathy
  • Fatigue and sleeping problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Muscle tension and headaches
  • Social withdrawal
  • Stomach problems
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Using alcohol or drugs to cope

If stress is impacting you’re health, it’s vital to consider whether any changes could be made.

Causes of stress

The thing most likely to cause stress changes as we age, while young adults are more likely to be worried about money, those ages over 55 are more stressed about their health (which is a vicious cycle!). Those aged between 25 and 55 feel stressed about work and money.

A number of factors impact our working life, these are the top causes of stress at work:

  • 44% caused by work load
  • 14% due to lack of support
  • 13% caused by violence, threats or bullying
  • 8% due to changes at work *

At work, some people work better under some degree of pressure, after all, “pressure makes diamonds!” But stress is strain or tension caused by adverse or demanding circumstances – this means it has gone beyond the helpful pressure that makes us work more efficiently, it is having the opposite effects and actually decreases productivity and causes people to get ill.

A lot of causes are beyond our control so it’s how we manage the stress that’s going to be important.

Managing stress

There are no magic answers, we all know how to avoid or reduce stress, it’s nothing complicated but we’re not very good at putting it into action, we are our own worst enemy when it comes to putting ourselves first and looking after ourselves!

For some reason, we put our job or other people above ourselves, we think that it is more important to look after other people; we see it as selfish if we want some ‘me time’ or if we need to ask for help or support.

But think of it this way, if you’re permanently stressed out (even just a little bit) this will have an adverse impact on your health which in turn means you cannot look after other people or be optimally productive in your job. If we all put ourselves first a little bit, it’s for the greater good!

Identify the triggers – ideally avoid them but if that’s not possible, think outside the box, is there any other way around it? We’re under constant pressure to do more work in fewer hours but there may be other ways to improve efficiency without piling on the load! If it isn’t possible to avoid the triggers, at least you’ll be on the lookout and can put other management technique into practice.

Learn to say ‘no’ – why do we find this so hard?! We’re afraid to let people down but those of us who say ‘yes’ all the time get lumbered with all the jobs no-one else wants to do. Trying saying ‘no’ in different ways and the results can be interesting, for example ‘I don’t have time this week but I may be able to do it next week’ communicates that you’re willing but not currently able and if it’s urgent, someone else will need to do it. Just this week someone tried to make their deadline more important than mine, they wanted me to do their job first even though their deadline was 4 hours after mine – I was assertive and simply explained why I was not going to change my priorities.

Develop good time management – this is one of the most important things since managing stress can take time, it’s important to fit it in! It may be about travelling more efficiently, (e.g. going to the gym on the way home rather than making it a separate trip) or making a list of priorities and how long each will take. Time management is a whole separate topic but it’s important when managing stress.

Get more sleep – work out when you need to get up, subtract 9 hours – this is the time you should start getting ready for bed, this gives you 1 hour to wind down fully and get ready for bed. Of course, this may not be possible every night but instead of picking an arbitrary 11pm (for example), we have a time in mind that will help us get the full sleep we need. Having a lie in at the weekend has been proven to be beneficial but only for an hour or 2, sleeping away the whole morning to make up for major sleep deprivation during the week just leads to lethargy.

Exercise 4-5 times per week – people often say they don’t have time but time will not materialize out of thin air – you have to make time! Instead of staying that extra hour at work, go home on time and go for a half hour walk – this will help you sleep, for one and work more efficiently tomorrow. Find an exercise you enjoy, some people love the variety a gym offers, other like the simplicity of walking or jogging, some people need to exercise alone, some with other people – there’s something out there for everyone. Lifting a beer to your lips while watching rugby doesn’t count!

Have some ‘me time’ – everyone enjoys different things; from acrobatics and art appreciation to yoga and zentangle. ‘Me time’ can also be a long soak in a hot bath or walking the dog. This is particular important for introverts in a world designed for extroverts, other people sap our energy and we need time on our own to recharge.

Practice deep breathing and relaxation – there are huge benefits to spending a couple of minutes relaxing and breathing deeply:

  • More oxygen to the brain keeps it healthy and enables clarity of thought and better concentration
  • Reduces muscle tension
  • Lowers blood pressure reduces risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Improves posture
  • Releases endorphins, improving mood and decreasing pain
  • Encourages dispersal of harmful toxins

Taking things a step further, mindfulness or meditation can also be helpful.

Take your annual leave – there is nothing heroic about working your annual leave, we have it written into our contracts for a reason – it is vital to have a change of scenery and do something different (even if you ‘just’ stay at home) in order to recharge the batteries – it benefits everyone when you come back refreshed.

Remember, putting yourself first a little bit is for the greater good!

# stats from Forth survey Jan 2018

* stats from HSE survey

Honesty over Silence

Mental illness thrives on silence; secrecy and deception feed the illness and keep it alive. The longer we keep quiet, the more ingrained the thoughts, feelings and behaviours become.

I recently went to a conference entitled ‘Honesty over Silence’; the challenge is that once we break the silence and start being honest about our experiences, we become vulnerable. Vulnerability is tricky, it is sometimes considered weak, risky or even dangerous. But we need to see vulnerability as a positive assent, to be respected; it is to be embraced rather than feared or expostulated.

How many times have you been asked “how are you?” And said a bright and cheered “fine thanks, how’re you?”. This is fine if it’s just a salutation but how about we take advantage of this question to be honest? “I’m not doing so well today” or “feeling a bit down/anxious today”. We struggle to do this because it can lead to more questions or awkwardness but it could lead to some honesty and sharing; when one person opens up, it gives the other person a chance too.

Bringing our illness, addiction or vulnerability out into the light diminishes it. Depression in the dark is huge, black and unbearable – shedding light on it, can make it seem more manageable.

I hid my mental illness for many years, scared about what it was, lacking the language to explain what was going on. My journey to recovery only started when I finally said “I’m struggling”.

On occasions, Christians with mental illness can be made to feel they’re failing in their faith; it can be suggested that you don’t pray enough, or you don’t truly believe that God can cure you.

I’ve learnt that healing takes many forms – healing for me has not been about medical cure, it’s about walking a journey of recovery, making numerous choices, meeting inspiring people along the way and a lot of learning!

The things I’ve had to do to recover have taken time – I’d been thinking I was a terrible person for many years, the new neural pathways were not going to be formed over night – even if they had been (because God can do anything), it would have taken me a long time to get used to thinking differently and going back to old ways would have been very easy.

Jesus spent time with the stigmatised and marginalised, he showed them compassion and love which led to healing (in various forms). No matter who you think Jesus was, there is enough evidence to show he existed and was a very influential person – so, if he allowed people to be vulnerable, and even valued it, his is a good example to follow.

Christian’s believe Jesus was the epitome of vulnerability, he was God made flesh; omnipotent God became a helpless human baby, fully reliant on a care giver to provide for his every need – if God can do that, surely, I can say “I’m struggling with some dark thoughts at the moment”?

I’ve opened myself up many times in this blog but I still find it hard to be honest, and in turn, vulnerable, face-to-face – this is strange isn’t it?! I’m happy to tell strangers my inner secrets about suicidal thoughts, self harm or disordered behaviours (in the hope I can help others or make people feel they are not alone) but when it comes to being honest with my nearest and dearest, I don’t want them to worry or be brought down by my troubles.

However, the benefits of honesty far outweigh the perceived drawbacks:

  1. It can deepen a relationship
  2. You give others permission to open up
  3. You’ll find shared fears and vulnerabilities leading to you both feeling less alone
  4. Solutions may come to light

To name, just a few. How about we all give it a try, you never know what you might discover.

Inspired by the Honesty over Silence conference run by Kintsugi Hope – discovering treasure in life’s scars. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with precious metals to highlight the join; our scars are part of our history, are brokenness is what makes us beautiful.

Why we’re still struggling to talk about mental illness

We’re making a lot of progress as more people get involved in talking about mental illness but it’s still very difficult for individuals to put their hands up and say “I’m struggling”. I believe fear is at the centre of this and there’s no easy way to break this down but we can do with small steps. 

1. Lack of understand and confusion

When I was first suffering with symptoms, I had no idea what was going on and I had no way of describing my distress – I didn’t know that the tight bundle of thoughts in my head, increased heart rate and tension was anxiety, I had no idea my lack of appetite was caused by an illness, I had no idea that feeling low and having to fake smiles was a sign I was unwell. I was frightened but I had no idea what I was frightened of. I didn’t know anything about mental illness and I had no language to describe it.

We need to raise awareness of signs and symptoms and make talking about our feelings common place, just like we talk about physical problems. More knowledge will make everyone more likely to see if someone gets unwell, and if we’re already talking about, it’ll feel less strange and awkward.

2. Fear of stigma

In general mental illness still has a negative reputation; people perceive the individual as weak or lacking in something. There are many misconceptions, such as thinking that we’re dangerous, unpredictable or unreliable. Some people think it’s our fault we’re ill, that we’ve done something wrong.

The truth is, mental illness does not discriminate, it is not a sign of weakness and we have good and bad characteristics, just like everyone else.

The way I fight this one is to go about my life and when someone least expects it, I let them know a little bit about what I’ve been through – this helps people see me for who I am first, then they realise being mentally ill is just part of me, it does not define me.

3. Fear of discrimination

“What will I miss out on?” is the fear. People worry about all sorts of things if they divulge a mental illness, “will I be able to get a job?”, “Will I lose my job?”, “Will I be able to get the promotion I want/deserve?”, “Will I have fair access to healthcare?”. I have heard stories about people being discriminated against in both work and personal life simply because they happen to have a diagnosis.

Someone’s mental illness should not be used as a excuse to overlook them in anything – it’s important to look at an individual’s characteristics and skills rather than judging them and making assumptions about them based on their diagnostic label. This is not unique t mental illness, there are numerous reasons people will be overlooked or left at the back of the queue – fortunately, the law is on our side. I sometimes feel like I have to work extra hard to prove myself but with perseverance, I hope we can stop discrimination.

4. Normalisation

When I first started having problems, in my teens, I thought it was ‘normal teenage angst’, I thought everyone hated their changing bodies and so I coped with it as best I could. Turns out my intrusive thoughts and anxiety were pathological!

I was trying to explain what went on in my head when I was embroiled in anorexia to a colleague recently (they asked!). I explained about the fear of food, of fat, of calories and of putting on weight. The reaction I got was “don’t all women feel like that?” – this person may have been trying to make me feel better or they may have completely missed my point, that these fears paralysed me and stopped me functioning. No – these feelings are not normal and I had to undergo years of therapy to enable me to eat with strangers or in public.

Sometimes it helps to see symptoms as ‘on the normal spectrum’ but this can prevent people from seeking help if they do not realise what they are experiencing is illness.

It’s important that talking about symptoms is normal but we need to remember the symptoms themselves are part off an illness and need treatment.

5. Wanting to protect other people

When struggling with something, it’s a common human instinct not to want to burden other people with it.

When someone you love is mentally ill, it’s natural to worry about them and want to help, not being able to help/solve the situation can add to the worry! When I’m ill, I do not want people to worry about me, I don’t see the point in someone worrying when there’s not usually anything they can do. It can make a relationship awkward.

Keeping loved ones in the dark does not protect them; people are more likely to worry if they think something is going on but they don’t know what it is. It can help, when telling someone about your illness, to also let them know what they can do. This may be something practical like cooking a meal, to come to appointments or to listen to you, without judgement, criticism or advice, but whatever it is, if someone feels the can be helpful, they are less likely to worry.

6. Guilt and shame

Due to stigma, discrimination and lack of understanding, people feel guilty and shame about being ill. We feel guilty about being ‘a drain on public resources’, we feel ashamed that we’ve relapsed despite therapy, we feel we ‘should’ be better but would anyone say any of this to someone with chronic lung disease or someone or renal dialysis? Of course not!

There is nothing shameful about being mentally ill – it is what it is, an illness, none of us choose to be ill nor are we to blame. We need to have compassion for ourselves, we need to talk to ourselves as we would talk to a close friend who was ill. Once we’re making steps to diminish the (wrongly placed) guilt and shame, we will have more confidence to talk about it.

I know, it can be very difficult to speak out but the current situation with discrimination and stigma will never change if we do not bravely continue to talk about mental illness.

ECT should be a last resort

TW – contains content some people may find upsetting.

I had tried all sorts of medications, they were not working.

I had tried psychotherapy, I was too unwell to engage.

I was suffering with severe depression, I was not eating and was fixated on suicide, I was so unwell I was merely existing – I could still fake normality with most people but ultimately I was going to find a way to complete suicide – I consider that a certainty.

I was sectioned in hospital as it was deemed I no longer had a capacity to make decisions about my health.

As a last resort, I was given Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT).

I was told about all the possible life changing side effects, but ultimately, I didn’t have a choice. My mental state was going to kill me. Whether I wanted it or not, ECT was the only option.

NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) guidelines state it should be a last resort, at that point, the benefits far outweigh the risks… at any point before that, it’s tough to justify using ECT as other treatment (with fewer side effects) should be tried first.

Recently, I, and another lady called Sue, were interviewed for a video feature on metro.co.uk

Sue and I had different experiences but we agree on the most important fundamental aspects.

ALL treatments should be given with informed consent and ECT should be a absolute last resort!

Please bear in mind I had a terrible virus and my voice sounds terrible but watch and read this video feature on Metro.co.uk – let me know what you think.

All treatments have side effects, but if you’re dying, you, or the doctor treating you has to weigh up the potential benefits with the possible side effects of any treatment.

I learnt about ECT at medical school, we were taught that the side effects could be severe but patients with severe mental illness could experience positive outcomes. This was reiterated to me when my psychiatrist suggested it could work for me.

I don’t know why doctors would use ECT before trying other treatments, only careful, non-biased investigation of all the facts in each case would uncover this.

Sue states that the hospital where she had her treatment is using it 12 times more than any other areas of the country. There is no way of knowing the reason for this without further investigation but it would interesting to see why other hospitals use ECT less. I don’t like to speculate, it could be any combination of medications, therapies (psychological and occupational) as well as more 1-1 support, for example.

It would also be interesting to compare suicide rates between hospitals – if other hospitals are not using ECT when it could save their life, that would also explain the isolated statistic.

Audits and reports tend to throw up differences without looking into the whys or the hows. There also tends to be a lack of reporting making the sample size very small – therefore the results, although relevant and interesting, may not be significant.

I was a doctor too but it’s my illness that stopped me practicing, not ECT. I’m just glad my illness didn’t take my life as well as my career.

For more information about ECT please read here (Royal College of Psychiatrists), here (Mindful Survivor) or here (Metro.co.uk).

When we stop talking about our pain

The other day, I read something that really struck home:

“You don’t learn to live with pain, you just learn to stop talking about it”

When an injury first occurs or before a chronic illness is diagnosed, we talk about our symptoms, if they’re worrying us, we have no problem saying “I’ve got a splitting headache again” or “My tummy ache’s not going away” or “The cold really affects my joints” but once you’ve got a diagnosis and are managing (with medication or otherwise) as best as you can, there seems little point to keep going on about it…this is something that seems to happen naturally but it’s a tricky thing that isn’t always the best thing.

One of my husband’s friends was having terrible back trouble a while back, as fellow Christians we were praying for him as he made decisions about treatment including the possibility of invasive surgery. After a while, I asked my husband how his friend was, he said he didn’t know – we didn’t know if that was because his back was better (unlikely) or he’d just stopped talking about it.

I have chronic pain in my neck, back and shoulders and have done for many years. This is due to spondylosis in my spine and fibromyalgia affecting all joints and soft tissues. Spondylosis is diagnosed with MRI and is a degenerative bone condition causing pain, including periods of inflammation and osteophyte (bone spur) growth, which press on nerves etc. Fibromyalgia is a condition diagnosed by ruling out all other connective tissue disorders which causes tender/trigger points and generalised pain and fatigue. I also have arthritis in my ankles which causes pain with every step I take.

I used to complain quite a lot, the conditions I have are difficult to manage, especially in someone “so young”, as my orthopaedic surgeon told me! I take regular pain killers, do physio, do regular exercise, get regular sleep and do relaxation techniques.

The other day my husband asked how my pain was, commenting that I’d not said anything about it for a while. I said that it was ‘as usual’ – I hate complaining, and I hate lying so it just is what it is!

I have come to realise I may have a low pain threshold (ie I feel pain sooner than someone else) but I have an incredibly high pain tolerance – I can put up with a lot of pain and still go about my daily life, not that it doesn’t bother me, just that I don’t let it stop me. This, of course, take a lot of energy which contributes to the fatigue I get anyway!

I find it difficult to talk about my pain as most people, when they hear about it, want to help in some way, or at least say something useful, sympathetic or supportive. But there isn’t really anything anyone can say or do to help. If I do mention it, it generally feels quite awkward and I defer to lying, along the lines of “it’s fine, I’m managing ok” or “I have good days and bad days” – which is technically true but my good days are still about 5-6/10 on the pain scale…

Normal for me is pretty bad but who wants to hear that every time I see them?!

If I don’t talk about it, people don’t realise that I’m suffering, assume I’m fine and don’t understand when I need to leave events to go to bed, if I’m distracted or if I don’t offer to help (set up tables, move chairs etc). I worry that people won’t believe me because I ‘look normal’ or they will just think I’m lazy or a flake!

The thing is, I can act normal, as I did the other day in breakaway training at work, but I pay for it afterwards. That evening, I could hardly think, my head felt like it was completely split open, my shoulders and arms were stiff and I coulnd’t move them without excruciating pain. Hot pokers and crushing vices could probably reproduce the pain fairly accurately.

I have read some fabulous books by Paul Brand and Philip Yancy about how we’re meant to listen to our pain, not get angry about it or wish we didn’t have it – it tells us something is wrong, if we didn’t feel it we wouldn’t pull our hand away from the flame or take care of a brewing illness.

Unfortunately when it comes to fibro, the thing that’s wrong is the pain communication system – this means, I feel pain when I shouldn’t. Pain from spondylosis is due to physical degeneration or deformities – I listen to my pain and do not push my body beyond it’s limits too often but it’s incredibly frustrating when my brain is active and wants to be doing, but my body just can’t.

I’m not looking for people to feel sorry for me (that’s fairly pointless!) – I’m just saying it how it is.

So it’s a difficult balance, talking about the pain doesn’t solve anything and makes other people feel helpless or awkward, not talking about it means people don’t know the truth, may think I’m rude or acting strangely.

So, perhaps we should try to remember, if someone has a chronic condition, no matter what it is, diabetes, arthritis, mental illness, bowel or kidney disorders, they are managing it every single day. They may not talk about it but that doesn’t mean they’re fine, it doesn’t mean they’re not suffering just as much as when they do talk about it, all it means is that today, they’re not talking about it.

Sometimes I wish my conditions were more visible but most of the time I’m glad I can choose who I tell. I guess, my health is my business and I maybe I shouldn’t worry about what other people think.