5 ‘Therapies’ that don’t involve a therapist.

My world has been spinning out of control again recently. I’ve felt once again overwhelmed and incapable of coping with so much responsibility whilst being so unwell. I’ve not felt like ‘me’ and some days, I’ve not been able to articulate what being ‘me’ feels like. The worst part is -or one of the worst part(s)- as I come out the other side now, is, I know all of these feelings are down to PMDD. Yes I still have overwhelming responsibilities and health issues, with seemingly endless insecurities, in spite of PMDD, but none of them feel as overwhelming when I’m not premenstrual. Such a scary illness… I can’t even… so I won’t…. Instead I’m going to list 5 things that have helped me cope and survive the past week during the latest luteal maelstrom.

I was lucky enough to spend the weekend in Weymouth with my mum and Ciara and truthfully, I had never needed the time away more. The weekend arrived when my panic and anxiety was highest in my cycle. Being around my mum is helpful because she’s very understanding. Though it’s still difficult sometimes to be around people when you’re not at your best. Below are some of the things that helped me through those days and I know they benefitted not only me, but Ciara and mum too.

1. Watching the sunrise.

There’s something so therapeutic about watching the sun rise. There’s a sacredness to being awake before the world officially starts it’s day. Of course there are always a few people milling around, but the first morning light is like a balm for my mind. Even better that this time I got to watch it by the sea. To view the sun’s reflection and listen to the waves lap at the same time is magical. I’ve always felt quite lonely and not very safe at the thought of going outside at the literal crack of dawn, but winter months bring a later sunrise and in the last fortnight I’ve made the effort to get up and out twice to watch it, and can report it was so worth it. There’s a placidity to it that calms my jangling nerves and puts me in a better place to start the day.

2. ‘Fancy’ dress-up

Let’s face it, we’d all like to pretend to be someone else once in a while, right? The sheer effort somedays to put a face of makeup on and make it outside is too much to bear thinking about, but somehow going out of the norm is strangely comforting. I loved being this witchy woman and picking pumpkins with my mini. I wasn’t even bothered at all the weird looks I got -and there were a few- if anything though, I got a confidence boost from them. Sounds weird I know, but with Halloween fast approaching there’s literally no better time to have a bash at being someone else.

3. Creative craft

It’s not ironic that I write my worst days. Ask any creative and they’ll tell you some of their best work was created during times of extreme stress or melancholy. Even without delving into the history of creatives and mental illness, for many of us craft and creativity can be a therapeutic outlet. In fact it’s even seen used in practice such as mindfulness and some forms of CBT. I often try to get creative with the kids when I or they are feeling stressed. It’s a great way to connect without any pressure. It’s something we both, particularly Ciara and I, find really relaxing. This (pictured) creative practise was simply ‘free’ drawing on pumpkins and it was soothing for us both, a great way to wind down from the day’s stressors or after lots of high intensity activity. It’s also a cute Halloween craft and a great idea for rainy days.

4. Creative Writing

As above. The creative process is a calming and therapeutic one. For me, words will always be my go-to outlet. Writing all my thoughts really does help me to process them. This notebook created by my friend and literary idol Emylia Hall, founder of the creative writing course Mothership Writers is full of motherhood writing prompts and gorgeous illustrations. It was the perfect accompaniment to a really rubbish week. I can honestly say I felt better during and after using it. It’s definitely going to be a permanent fixture in my self soothe kit.

5. Nature: Preferably involving wildlife

You don’t have to be an animal lover to appreciate the beauty of wildlife. Some of my favourite de-stress activities include animals in their natural habitat. When I first suffered with lingering PND after Ciara was born back in 2016, a common favourite was feeding the ducks and I’ve resorted back to doing this whenever I feel low. Earning the trust of wildlife requires being present and patient and that’s why it’s such a great grounding activity for when you feel as though you’re losing your mind. This little squirrel pictured, was a little too tame to be honest and made himself comfy on my thigh in wait for Ciara to snap open a monkey nut. It left me with a smile though, and there’s a lot to be said for simple pleasures.

This blog is not intended to substitute medical advice or the advice of a trained professional. If you need to speak to someone about your mental health, please make sure you do so. Be that your therapist, GP or an organisation such as Samaritans. And remember that if you’re concerned about your ability to keep yourself safe please call 999 or go to your nearest A&E.

In the interim though, these few simple, accessible and affordable techniques may help you focus on the present moment. Particularly for those rollercoaster mental health days that are often up and down. To prevent spiralling out of control all together, maybe one or two of these activities can help you process your thoughts a little more clearly. I’m by no means an expert, apart from in the field of my own lived experience, but everyday I am seeking small but manageable ways to be more mindful and regain a modicum of control over the often obsessive thoughts that plague me during both PMDD and times of high stress. We could all do with taking more breaks, and so I hope this blog will be helpful in encouraging you to do just that.

Confessions of a chronically ill mum #7

We started well. The weekend the kids and I went for a short walk on our own. This was a big deal because I rarely go out alone these days, and it was the first time I’d been out on foot with both children. As my health has worsened so dramatically in recent months, I have developed quite significant, but understandable, health anxiety! I took the win Saturday, rested in the afternoon and woke up Sunday ready to attack the day. But it didn’t quite work out like that. I woke up feeling extremely fatigued to the point where I couldn’t keep my eyes open and had to have a nap mid afternoon. For most of us with fibromyalgia this is normal, particularly following a day in which we’re more active. However, for me, fatigue is also a symptom of the pro-drome phase of migraine.

Being the hormonal mess that I am, I have noticed migraine attacks increasing in frequency again in the last two months. 2am Monday morning I was woken by the head pain, swiftly followed by cold sweats, hectic fever and vomiting. Monday was a write off. I spent all day in bed unable to watch tv or read and silently crying in between naps. I’ve said it before, but migraine is the most debilitating symptom for me, even more so than not being able to walk well, because migraine is a complex neurological disease that affects everything!

Fast forward to today, Thursday and I am feeling better. Not by any means ‘well’ but I was able to get out yesterday and I haven’t needed my husband to stay home from work to care for me. I also managed to get out this afternoon even though I couldn’t think of anything worse at the time I forced myself to do it and I have to say…. I’m converted. All the times people said to me ‘you need to get out’ while I led in my bed riddled with pain and anxiety, I thought those people were prize pricks to be honest, but I can see there’s merit there. I will say it’s not as simple as just getting outside when you live with chronic and or mental illness, and even in motherhood it can be hard to just get up and out. Let’s be real here it takes longer to wrestle a screaming baby into the buggy and pack your nappy bag than it does to do your weekly shop! But if you can get outside, you may benefit to some degree. For me the benefits are:

  • It’s a scenery change from the monotony of mum life.
  • I feel a sense of achievement if I’ve been able to do something, even if it’s as simple as popping to the shops.
  • That sense of achievement rewards me with feel good endorphins.
  • It’s so much easier (for me anyway) to be ‘present’ whilst in nature and not dwell on negative thoughts.
  • It’s free!

During pregnancy when I ate every meal in bed and couldn’t get down the stairs, going out was not only a physical impossibility, but it became mentally terrifying. I avoided leaving the house for so long, doing it now feels alien, but it also feels good. I feel like I’m taking back some control.

I don’t have any major confessions this week, other than I’ve spent a lot of it feeling sorry for myself and on occasion a little bitter about how shit and unpredictable life can be when you’re unwell. I’m worried about how I’m going to do my job in a few months when I’ve already cancelled a Keeping In Touch Day because I was so unwell. However, those feelings were scuppered by guilt as they always are when I look at the bigger picture and remind myself how lucky I am to have the life I do. I’ve also learnt that life is more fun and fulfilling when you’re grateful for the tiny things. Like a hot cup of tea or getting into bed with a good book.  Kaiser, my youngest, is an absolute rogue. I’ve had to take deep breaths a plenty in the last couple of days whilst trying to stop him climbing the stairs and then throwing himself down them. Dunno if this is a boy thing but fuck, it’s hard work. 

It’s easy for me to write this today because today has been such a huge improvement opposed to earlier in the week. That’s not to say I won’t feel the sadness and resentment again in the near future, but it means today I choose happy. We don’t always get a choice, and so on the days that we are gifted one, we have a responsibility to ourselves, to make it a good one.

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Subtle break-throughs

If you suffer from anxiety, or the feeling of impending doom and inexplicable terror that comes with panic attacks, the debilitating calamity that is intrusive thoughts, the unrelenting personality shift before your menstrual cycle because of PMDD? I hear you. I see you. I am you.

If you suffer from one or all of the mental illnesses mentioned above, you will know that logic is about as far away from fear as is possible. You may as well fly a rocket to Mars and you’d be no closer to logical thoughts during a panic attack. I’ve been having therapy for five months. The single longest stint I’ve ever managed to stick at anything relating to my mental health that doesn’t come in a blister pack. Full disclosure I take the pills too, I need them, but therapy is a different level of healing. It’s eye opening, confronting and real hard graft.

During these five months I have had breakdowns, many breakdowns. I have also experienced breakthroughs. These tend to be subtler, less outwardly monumental, but I can tell you from experience they are transcendent and quite awe-inspiring when you become aware of them.

I’m going to give you an example of one of my recent breakthroughs.

I am currently waiting for several hospital appointments, one of them may end up being quite life defining so it’s pretty important. With anything of importance for me, almost always comes anxiety. Throw in a self diagnosed terminal illness via Dr Google and we’re talking full blown life limiting panic attacks. But, not this time. I got my appointment letter a few days after the referral was made, though supposed to be seen within two weeks the NHS backlog means the clinic are running two weeks behind. Where as this kind of delay would usually lead to more panic, endless overthinking and probable sleepless nights, something has shifted in me and I feel different.

My logical brain has always known that there is little point in worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet, but regardless of my knowledge I have never been able to stop myself from said worry.

Worrying about tomorrow, steals today’s joy.

After going through what I have in the last five months, being scared of my own brain and constantly coming up against new challenges in trying to change the way I think, I decided right at the beginning of my recovery that I no longer wanted to live in fear. Of course simply not wanting something isn’t usually enough to stop it from happening. But with subtle changes and a keen desire to get better, engaging and working hard during therapy sessions and opening up fully to my mental health team, I have noticed a shift. I still feel anxiety around the appointment of course, but anxiety itself is a normal healthy human response. It only becomes problematic when it interferes with our everyday lives. And in this instance, relating to this appointment….I’m so happy to say it’s not doing that.

I don’t want to waste time worrying about an outcome that I cannot predict or influence. I don’t want to fear the worst only to find out when the time comes that it’s not the worst, then look back regretfully that I had wasted precious moments living in fear.

What if it isn’t a tiger in the long grass? What if it’s just a fluffy little kitten?

I won’t bullshit you, I know I’m not always going to be able to rationalise in this way. So many factors contribute to my own personal experience with anxiety and panic, that there will inevitably be times when I falter, and times when I fall. But what I’m doing right now, today, is I’m saying no to worrying about things that aren’t within my control. Isn’t anxiety itself a deep rooted need to control our fears and possible catastrophes?

How did I get here?

  • I took on board the offerings of tips my therapist suggested, such as grounding and breathing techniques and practised them even when I didn’t believe in them.
  • I reminded myself that if there’s a possibility that my world might fall apart, there’s also a possibility, it won’t.
  • I take prescribed medication religiously and stick with it for the recommended amount of time.
  • I’m trying, I say trying because I don’t always succeed, to implement healthier lifestyle changes, such as getting more exercise and eating healthier.
  • I write my feelings. It’s a personal favourite in helping me to process them.
  • I try to stay more in the present moment.
  • I have an amazing mental health team that I talk to regularly, even when I don’t think I have anything to say.

I know these things aren’t easy to do, I know this because it’s taken me twenty years to even begin to start really healing. But along with the above list, I also believe that celebrating small wins is a great way to remind ourselves that even when we are not where we want to be, we are further forward than we once were.

Me this week on a particularly bad day. Reminding myself it’s just a bad day not a bad life.
Also me this week on a better day

Mindfulness

As a rule I’m not very good at mindfulness. I don’t practise it anywhere near as often as I should. I know it’s proven to work for millions of people and I am trying to warm to it, but I’ve always been a bit skeptical assuming it borders on hippyish and that’s just not me.

However I realise now I’m wrong and actually it can be as simple as getting outside for ten minutes a day and taking stock.

Today I sat by the river working on my novel and applying for yet more jobs. Feeling absolutely exhausted with corporate bollocks and rejection. I’ve been attending interviews like it’s my full time job and I’m starting to take the knock backs personally.

If you know me, you’ll know I take everything to heart and have a real complex around rejection. I decided instead to try and be rational. Give myself some time to take in the beauty of today. I know it sounds über cheesy and it’s not what you think. I don’t chant mantras or meditate (not that there’s anything wrong with those things, it’s just not very me) instead I just sat watching the river, listening to the running water of the weir and gave myself a bit of a pep talk. I always try and be thankful for the big and small things in my life. Like I have a roof over my head, a beautiful family, we don’t live on the bread line (even if we are always skint) and it was important for me to remind myself of these things today. I am a professional, I will find a job that suits me soon, it’s just taking longer than I anticipated but that’s ok.

Mindfulness is about being present, focusing on your surroundings and calmly accepting your feelings. So that’s what I did and I felt all the better for it! I was only sat there an hour, it gave me just enough time to write a synopsis and edit my copy to 3000 words. It was also enough time to feel like I’d had a break, got outdoors, took in the fresh air and got a bit of ‘me’ time in. The sunshine helps and maybe I wouldn’t of made the effort to be mindful if I’d been stuck indoors, but I plan to, going forward to get in a few minutes of mindfulness everyday.