All by myself

Yet again I couldn’t get myself in gear to write my piece for Mental Health Awareness Week – but here we are anyway. The theme this year was loneliness. Something many have faced over the past few years of lockdowns – but which is by no means a phenomenon reserved to pandemics.

What is loneliness? Because it is more than being alone, isn’t it?

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

It is possible to be alone and not lonely. Solitude, can be a blessing, a gift – something we can cultivate to make it an indulgence – living life exactly to our individual specification.

I was an only child, but I don’t really remember being a lonely child – in my home. I pottered, I occupied myself.

I was sometimes lonely at school. Because I could see what I was missing. Other children with closer, existing friendships which I perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be better than any I had with the few friends I made. Making friends, interacting with other children – was always hard. I preferred adults. Something I believe is not unusual for autistic people.

Humans are made for connection – we learn from our earliest connections, in fact we rely upon them for proper development – absent of connection and love, our brains do not develop in the way they should, and our ability to develop and maintain such relationships in later life is impaired.

Once we know what connection is, if we are able to appreciate it – then many of us miss it.

Loneliness is the lack of connection. Sometimes coupled with solitude, maybe involuntary solitude – but it is certainly possible to be surrounded by people and feel alone. It is possible to be in a loving relationship and still be lonely.

Can we connect? Can we relate? Do we understand each other? Does it feel like hard work?

In the recent incarnation of the Star Trek franchise – Picard, we are reunited with Seven of Nine – the former Borg drone who became part of the crew of Voyager. The Borg – assimilating all species they meet into their collective, all connected via the hive mind – all thinking and feeling as one.

Once separated from the collective, Seven tells us, you will always miss that connection, no matter how much you hated the violation of assimilation. No relationship ever brings you close.

Our attachment style may have a big influence on how we experience connection in our adult relationships. Understanding this helped me to unpick a lifetime of wrecked love affairs. Insecure attachment, Anxious attachment – I fall in love hard, and deep. My most profound relationships have shared the same intense beginnings – feeling like someone sees deep into my soul, understands me, like some kind of star crossed, destined to be together, inevitability. It burns with the heat of the sun. But never for long enough. Because most relationships – will reach a point where we settle down, where the rolling boil reduces to a simmer, still hot but not as excitable. If you have a secure attachment, that’s fine. We might look back on our glory days with fondness but actually we’re maybe glad things are not so intense, it was exhausting. We evolve into a new kind of connection. But with insecure, anxious attachment style – the loss of that fever dream leaves us bereft. It means you don’t love us any more, the validation we received from your obsession with us made us feel worthy, good enough – and the drifting of our connection leaves us uncertain – are we good enough? Do you love us? Will you leave us? In times gone by this danger zone would be where other attractions may form – with new loves who can give that certainty, reassurance -for a while. Understanding attachment means that when I feel that insecurity seeping in, I know i’m being silly. I maybe seek some reassurance, and I don’t run off with the milkman.

That doesn’t mean I don’t get lonely. I do miss that connection. That feeling that someone was fascinated by everything I said, and I them. That hunger, and synchronicity. Connection – like a radio signal – at one point on the same wavelength, our communication and understanding crystal clear, and then it drifts, and the crackling static starts to interfere and bring misunderstanding.

Friendships too – missing those days when I had a bevvy of friends I lived among, shared lives, shared experiences, shared understanding. There are people who the connection will never fade with, no matter how long you are apart. And others who are in your life every day who will never understand you.

I’ve come to realise a lot of the people I really connect with are maybe neurodivergent, or whatever this thing is that so many of us are recognising as we share our experiences. We think differently – our wavelengths are more similar. Sometimes trying to connect with people is like trying to fit a VGA cable in a HDMI slot. It is never going to work.

And that can be lonely.

How do we deal with loneliness? A) Seek connection by finding like minded people or B) Learn to be more comfortable with solitude. Connect with ourselves. With nature, the universe, God, whatever we feel energises us all. Meditation can help with the latter – self compassion, grieving the loss of connection (whether through bereavement, break up or simple drifting of time)

Finding opportunities to do things we love / are interested in / passionate about – in the company of others may lead to new friendships forming. It’s not always easy – I’ve sat on the sidelines of many groups and clubs, feeling more and more alone and alienated as others chat along happily. If you are an easy talker – someone gifted with friendliness and warmth – look around to see if anyone might need your help to make connections. They might be fine to watch, just absorb the hubbub, but they might also welcome someone the help them bridge the gap.

Are there people you haven’t spoken to in a while? Old friends? Family members – reach out to them, send a text or a card, you could call or drop by (though not everyone might be ok with that of course). We tell people who are lonely or depressed to reach out – but actually sometimes that is really hard – so we all need to be doing it – reach in, see if people are ok. Regular chats and check ins are good for us all. And of course especially if people are living alone, are elderly, isolated, or otherwise disconnected from the world. Mental Health First Aid training can help us understand and recognise when people around us are struggling – and gives us a framework to help.

Depression and other mental health challenges can worsen loneliness. Depression is a liar. It can fill our head with negativity, thoughts that no-one likes us, that we’re a bad person, boring, a waste of time, etc etc. It spins everything in the most negative light. If someone hasn’t called in a while, they hate us. If they don’t reply to a message, they don’t want to talk to us. It steals any energy or inclination we might have to go out and do things. Anxiety makes us catastrophise and think that things will go wrong, fear the stress and panic of travel or meeting people. Extreme emotions may make situations challenging for us, may mean people don’t always quite get where we are coming from.

Hopefully we can get help to overcome these challenges – talking to your doctor is a good start to gain access to medication or talking therapy which may make a huge difference to you. But also look out for other organisations in your area which may offer different kinds of help – peer support and wellbeing groups, walks and activities with other people who may know where you are coming from – having their own mental heath difficulties and so being more understanding about why some may find interaction harder than others. Similarly if we are autistic, have ADHD etc – sometimes groups for neurodivergent individuals may be valuable – to connect with people who may see life in a similar way to yourself.

In my local area of Calderdale, Healthy Minds have a range of excellent activities – I haven’t yet plucked up the courage to attend anything myself, but I hear great things from those who have.

However if we’re not ready to get out there for whatever reason – we might still find connection online – social media has a lot of downsides of course, but there are some lovely lovely people out there. Finding your people online can make an enormous difference. Sometimes it’s easier to be open when we feel safe in our own spaces.

Sometimes fictional characters ease our loneliness. TV shows, films, books – the phenomena of parasocial relationships is fascinating, but sometimes in the absence of all else, immersing ourselves in other worlds can fill a void we feel in our own.

But again, as I said at the beginning – solitude does not have to equal loneliness. Try to find a way to enjoy your alone time. Make your space more you – more comfortable, enjoyable. Make it somewhere you like to be. Take yourself on a date – what do you like to do? To eat? To listen to? To watch? Pamper yourself, get to know yourself. Talk to yourself. In my experience it is the best way to get a sensible conversation! It has also been the key to unlocking a lot of my emotional difficulties. Asking myself gently, with compassion – what I need, why I feel the way I do, why I did the things I did. Once upon a time I was very unhappy – with feelings of tremendous guilt and anger about certain periods of my life. Asking myself why – and truly listening, with empathy and compassion, helped me to recognise the pain, the remorse, the lack of understanding, the sorrow at the heart of these experiences – and let go of the guilt and anger, which after all could not change anything, and were only poisoning years which I should have been cherishing. It is important to feel our feelings, to give them space. But only as much as they need. There comes a time for the crying to stop, and the laughter to begin.


Upcoming Courses

Online MHFA Refresher Courses:
Friday 20th May
Friday 27th May
Wednesday 1st June
Friday 10th June
Friday 17th June

Online Mental Health First Aid
30th June, 1st, 7th, 8th July (Thurs/Fri
)
13th, 14th, 20th, 21st July (Wed/Thurs)

Online Mental Health Aware
Monday 30th May

Online vs. Face to Face

One of the reasons I don’t blog as much as I would like to is that I often don’t know where to start. Then when I do – I don’t know where to stop. For someone who used to write abstracts for a living I am surprisingly bad at concise.

Last night is a case in point – I started writing this blog, prompted by my first face to face course in two years, and four (MS Word) pages later realised i’d got lost in a ramble. Truth be told I was actually writing three, maybe four, blog posts. One on comparing online training with face to face, one reflecting on the lessons of the pandemic, or remembering the positives, one on the My Whole Self campaign, and something there on how aspects of myself, relating to autism, gender, sexuality, fatness, had been handled badly in the workplace and led unnecessarily to worsening mental health.

I doubt I will complete all four posts unless I suddenly develop an enduring focus that confounds all precedents. But lets try for one.

As mentioned – last week I did my first face to face course in two whole years. More really – for a full course. I did a small one in Feb 2020, but the last one with a full room of delegates was Hull, December 2019 in really awful circumstances.

Two years ago came the pandemic, and lockdown. Obviously we all had different experiences depending on the work we do, where we live etc. But for me – common to many, it meant cancellation of all my work, uncertainty, and staying home. There were lots of online meetings and drop ins and so on for people like me who were cast adrift, anxious about what would come next. Surprisingly for me, I stayed pretty calm. For someone who has a history of severe anxiety and especially health anxiety – I am quite good in a crisis. Perhaps because it is good to know where your enemy is. Seeing as I am usually inventing something to be anxious about – if I actually know quite clearly what is threatening me, I seem to be able to take it in my stride. I didn’t know what would happen. I did know that my reserves were very low, having had a terrible year the year before. But I also knew that I was happy to be able to stay home and be more sure of my health and not bringing something home to my husband. I put my faith in the universe that we’d cope with whatever was to come.

And in a few months time MHFA England came to the rescue with a new online course that I could upskill in and opportunities to deliver online. Later, other online courses followed, and more opportunities. So life found a new rhythm. I took my place in my spare room / office / craft space, in front of a camera, and learnt how to deliver training online.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

I was nervous at first. The unknown is always unnerving. I had to get to know the different platforms we were using, figure out the technology. Luckily I am pretty competent in that department, a quick study as they say – and also have the enormous advantage of being ok with imperfection. I recognise sometimes when things are out of my hands and am happy to make do.

The online version of Mental Health First Aid is different from the face to face, in that it requires delegates to complete independent learning prior to each live session. In the Face to Face, you turn up, you sit there and hopefully listen and participate for two days, you go away. Again, hopefully afterwards you pick up your manual and read it now and again, you look at the resources on the website. but maybe you don’t. The online requires you to read sections, to watch videos, to answer questions and reflect on your learning. You have to do this in order to get signed off at the end of the course. I’ve come to realise that how much people engage with this, in the right order – can vary depending on how far apart the live sessions are, how good the messaging is, and how busy / the kind of work the people are doing. It works best when people take the time in advance of each session, a few days before so they can let me know if there are any problems or questions – and then in the session we build on that work. They are more likely to have thoughts or questions to ask, to fuel discussion.

Some say they find online learners to be less engaged. I don’t agree. However having gone back to face to face I think I recognise what people mean. People are more spontaneous in person. People speak up, interject, talk amongst themselves. The weird thing about online training is how quiet it can be. How orderly. If everyone is on mute – If they are talking to others in the background, we don’t hear it. Break out rooms happen out of earshot. People raise their hand to speak, or even bringing themselves off mute takes a little time and you see it happening so make a space. If you ask the right questions, if you invite people to speak, or contribute, they do. If they want to. But they also have other options too – that aren’t available in face to face training. If you are a quiet, thoughtful type – an introvert, or socially anxious, less confident – you might find it hard to speak up in front of colleagues. Whereas in online training, you can answer questions in the chat – even privately to the trainer. I also think it’s easier to contribute verbally when you are safe in your own space, rather than sitting next to and opposite people around a conference table.

I think some people will always prefer face to face. If you are an extravert, confident, chatty. If you never worry about what others think. If you just prefer to keep work and home separate, or if home is not so great a space for you, or you have no privacy. If you aren’t used to computers, don’t work with them – have to be on site, it may not be an option.

There are definitely pros and cons to both, for both learners and trainers. The learning outcomes should be the same, but which you will get the most out of will depend on your personality and preparedness to do the work. I do my best to give you the best experience I can, and make a safe space for people to share and contribute as much as they want to. If you are wanting to arrange a course for your organisation, various factors will come into play in deciding which you prefer.

“The course was really interesting and Sarah was an excellent trainer, obviously very experienced in this field and easy to listen to and approachable. A good split of theory, case studies and activities.”

Delegate, Face to Face course

Scheduling – is it easier for you to free people up for two days together, one day a week, or a few hours a time for four sessions, which can be spread over any period between two days to four weeks. (Albeit you will need to give people time for independent learning too – you might decide this should be homework).

Travel and accommodation costs. – Are you bringing people together from multiple sites across the country – while this can be a great networking opportunity, it can also be pretty costly in expenses. Having people attend from their own office or the comfort of their own homes is a lot cheaper. This also goes for my fees – if i’m training outside of my “home zone” – I will need to charge for train/taxi/bus fares, accommodation and expenses. If I’m delivering in my spare room – not so much!

Equipment / Space – do you have a suitable training environment, a large room with tables that can be arranged suitably, audio visual equipment, flip charts or white boards, coffee / tea / water facilities. Even though covid restrictions have been stepped down, it is still preferable to have a large space so we can have breakout groups, and good ventilation. Do you have up to date computers/laptops with video cameras, microphones, headsets so people can take part individually. It can be possible to manage with a few people in a room together but it is not ideal, and loses some of the functions of the online platforms. Or do people generally have their own laptops they can use at home? Can people have privacy to engage in sensitive conversations without being overheard by colleagues?

As for me – at the moment I still prefer online. It is easier to find work-life balance, involves less travel and time away from home. And I have come to be confident in it. I feel less vulnerable, behind my screen, than I do standing in front of a room of people.

I thought this would be a really long 2 days but I found they flew by. Sarah the instructor had so much useful information to talk us through. Although I never love the group breakout activities actually they were fine as they were only 10 mins long and they broke things up. I think it really worked to have a 2 hour break between sessions. I also got more out of this course personally than I expected to which is great.

Delegate, Online Course

Nine years into training – I still feel sick before I do a face to face course. I’m fine once I get going but it is very draining. It’s also physically demanding. Some of that is to do with my own fitness and health issues – I’m not used to standing most of the day any more, and my health issues mean this can be painful so I have to manage myself carefully – ditto when dragging cases heavy with materials and equipment around.
But I do enjoy some aspects of the face to face. Seeing different places, both towns and work environments. Meeting people, conversations held in breaks, over lunch or at the end of the day. Some of the activities we do in session are great fun. And I have to give honourable mention to some of the great lunches I have had provided over the years! The North East is so hospitable. Evenings on my own in hotels give me headspace away from the demands of home too.

Online training gives greater flexibility – and my favourite courses are those that stretch over a month. People have the time to do the work properly, to think, digest. And also a relationship builds between delegates. Sometimes bonds form in a two day course, where people share their personal experiences – but there is more space for it to mature over a longer time period.

We will see how things progress, if things continue to “return to normal” – in any case there will be change to come later in the year as a new version of the course is rolled out – I wait with baited breath as to what that will entail. Regardless, I am sure that both face to face and online training are here to stay, each bringing its own merits – suiting different people better. Variety allows us to reach more people, and has contributed to MHFA England reaching 1 in 50 people in England with Mental Health training. I’m proud to have been a part of that.

If you’d like to talk about what would be most suitable for your organisation, and get an idea about costs – drop me an email at sarahlongmhfauk@gmail.com

Alternatively book your place on an open course – Upcoming Dates

God grant me the serenity

The world is a lot right now isn’t it? Maybe it always is. Always has been. Just some have the privilege at different times to not be affected by, or even notice the turmoil that tears lives apart on distant shores. But the last two hundred years have brought us ever closer together, news and people travelling faster and faster – trains, cars, planes, telegram, telephone, television, internet… What once would have taken weeks, maybe months to appear in black and white print in a newspaper only a minority of the population could read or afford, now unfolds before us as it happens in high definition technicolour on our tv screens and social media feeds.

War. Pandemic. Terrorism. Cost of Living Rising. Homelessness. Unemployment. Climate Disaster. Corruption. Social Division. Hatred. Discrimination. Bigotry. Misinformation. Slight of Hand.

It sounds like an interpretation aid for a really bad tarot card.

How much we are directly affected by some of these things varies of course. Mostly a matter of luck. Where are you born? What is your background? What circumstances does life throw in your way? Even if we are not directly affected we may be troubled or impacted, one way or another. Feel compassion for people, feel angry, frightened, threatened.

I lay awake the other night haunted by despair and anxiety. Something which used to be a nightly activity – the feeling that life is over, pointless, that all the hope and promise I saw in the future when I was younger – was a mirage. We were cheated somehow. Or I made a mistake and it sent us down this dark path, and now there is no way back. Feelings of responsibility for global calamity are a particularly masochistic kind of delusion of grandeur. I know it isn’t really true. Well. I have played my part, as have we all, in building the world we live in, flapped our butterfly wings to create the hurricane. Even if in my waking, lucid state I am able to recognise that, it doesn’t ease the anxiety. The pit in my stomach, the growing sense of dread. Which adds then to all the other anxieties, the worries, the responsibilities, the stress.

How do we keep going? To quote Midnight Oil – How do we sleep when our beds are burning? Both literally, and figuratively. Because even when we are in the centre of a danger zone, we must find a way through our very real and warranted anxiety to be able to survive, to live. Just as we must be able to function on a day to day basis even when we can see multiple crises rippling across the world, becoming ever more likely to destroy us.

Three things come to mind. And I think they apply regardless of the nature of the stressors or anxiety we are facing. I saw a comment on a linked in post yesterday – someone had delivered what sounded like wonderful training to help job seekers handle their anxiety around interviews. Most people praised and supported the initiative. But one person responded suggesting (more or less) that it was stupid to be anxious about an interview – imagine living in a war zone, fearing for your life. Now – this person from their name, and the fact that they were clearly not writing in their first language, I think may even have been based in the Ukraine or somewhere in similar turmoil. So the troubles of people in a currently peaceful nation might well seem trivial. But it is to misunderstand the nature of anxiety, to think that one is real and warranted, and another not.

It might be true to say that our anxiety response is useful in one circumstance and not another. Fight or Flight is quite appropriate in a war zone, but not much use in an interview. We might think the war zone is a “real” danger to be responded to, and an interview not – but in effect when we have that anxiety going to an interview, we are not really fearing the interview, the questions, the panel. We are fearing a) not getting the job, not getting the next job, or any job, and ending up unable to pay our rent, feed our families and ourselves, and ending up without food or shelter and safety. We are fearing being judged and rejected by the panel, and our peers, and society. Just as the person in the warzone fears. We all try to keep ourselves safe. Just from different threats. It all goes back to that bottom tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of need. It is only when we are completely safe and secure that we can truly focus on the higher elements. There is always a hierarchy of danger – we might think the bombs falling are the biggest danger, until perhaps – we are injured, and we realise that if we do not brave that danger to seek medical assistance, then we will be dead anyway. In more peaceful times or settings, the threats similarly adjust, depending on circumstances. In the last few years, people have juggled risk of infection, illness, maybe even death, with the need to earn money, the need to interact with others, the need to seek help for other illnesses or problems. One person’s priorities are not the same as another. And how we are affected very much depends on what else is going on for us, or has gone on for us in the past.

We need to think back to our stress container. Our stress bucket. Which holds within it all of the worries of our lives. From bombs to business, Covid to Cars not starting. When it gets too full, we start to see problems forming, our anxiety rises and becomes more difficult to manage. It might be the horrors we see on the world stage, on the horizon, that make our day to day stresses harder to manage. It makes the stakes seem higher – the potential for disaster closer to home. Or it just uses up some of our resources, our energy, our resilience, our head space.

If we are starting to be overwhelmed, to experience problems, to be unable to take action to deal with those stressors, then that’s when we need to take steps to try and get back in control if we can. My first step in this, after writing down everything i’m concerned about, that’s bothering me – is asking questions to see if I can pare things back to only what I need to worry about, and what I can do anything about.

My 5 Questions: 1) Is it real? 2) Is it current? 3)Is it my business? 4) Can I impact it? And if yes – 5) what can I do, what am I going to do, who can help?

On a certain level these questions are easy. Lets take a relatively trivial, if still sticky situation. If I’m thinking about running out of toilet paper for instance. Most of the time, running out of toilet paper is not a real concern – I can usually get some from somewhere, or get some delivered. But as we know, during lockdown, it became a thing. Shortages, hoarding, lack of delivery or transport options, the prospect of finding ourselves without became real in a way it maybe hasn’t been for many of us for many years in the UK. So real. But what is it in reality? Its unpleasant, but not the end of the world. Other paper, or cloth would be available to do the necessary, and sooner or later a solution would emerge.

Is it current? Maybe the thought passes your mind that you might run out – if you look in the cupboard – and there are 10 rolls – clearly no, it’s not current. There’s a long while before it’s going to be a problem, time to source replacements and plan. On the other hand, if there are 2 rolls, and we know we’re not going to be able to get out, that might be more of a concern. If we’re picking up the last roll and finding there are only 2 sheets left, it’s a clear and present danger. If we’re sitting staring at 10 rolls but feeling anxious because we remember with horror that time we did run out and had to use a sock, then the “danger” we are dwelling about is from the past – we are reminded of it to try and ensure it doesn’t happen again. But worrying too much ceases to be helpful.

Is it my business? Well if i’m the one with no paper, yes, quite literally it is my business needing to be attended to. If it’s my husband shouting down the stairs, I’m going to be the one running around finding alternatives. If it’s someone outside of my home / family – maybe I can help if possible, if I have spare, if I can get some and travel. But sometimes the toiletting mishaps of another are sad, but not really my fault or remit to address.

Can I impact it – can I do anything about it? If there is loo roll in the shops, I have money and the ability to travel – I can solve my own papery crisis. If the shelves are bare, I can’t afford it or the bus is cancelled, or I have to isolate – maybe not. Maybe I can ask for others to help, but maybe they’re powerless too. I can write to my MP, toilet roll makers, whoever, but it might not do anything. If all of town is without tissue, unless I have the right connections or funding or want to set up some kind of charity to keep our collective backsides wiped, maybe I can’t do much except wait for things to be resolved and make do in the mean time.

Sometimes the questions are not so material. Not so easy to put a tick or a cross against. War in the Ukraine. Fear of Nuclear War. Climate change. Financial Hardship. Racism / Sexism / Homophobia / Transphobia.

Is it real. Is it impacting me this minute? Is it likely to? Is it impacting those close to me? Is it impacting other human beings or creatures or our environment?

War in the Ukraine is real today. Real violent threat to life and health to those there on the ground. Current. Their business. Can they influence it? Maybe. Some can, most probably not – as in most wars.

Outside of the Ukraine – people worry on behalf of those involved, and also themselves, the prospect of escalation, expansion – and therein the spectre of Nuclear war, Cyber attacks and global devastation. Some of these worries are current – some are fearing potential futures, some are echoes of past worries, the when the wind blows fears of the Cold War.

Is it my business? As a person in Russia / Ukraine, of course. As a person in a neighbouring country. As a human being, who believes we have a moral duty to protect others and prevent harm if we can. Of course.

Can I influence it? Can I do anything? What can I do? It’s a sad fact that often with these big issues those with the most influence and ability to effect change choose not to. Or not to think about it. Or actively make things worse. Ordinary people? What can we do – what do we do? Within an affected country – Fight? Flee? Protest? Protect? Be a part of a resistance, a counter movement, call for peace? Outside – our options become more limited, protest, march, petitions, letters, donations, arguments – pressuring our own governments and organisations to take action. But what action is the right action? Sanctions? Weapons? War? Diplomacy. We’ve seen before the costs for all concerned when international military interventions are launched. It’s hard to know what to do. Even sometimes to know what is really going on.

What do we do with our anxiety when these questions are not simple to answer. When the problem is real, but outside of our control, or uncertain, or in the future, or affecting others more than ourselves and we don’t know how to help?

Considering that alcohol is such a common unhealthy coping mechanism for many of us, when we try to manage our stress – it is apt that Alcoholics Anonymous adopted the Serenity Prayer, which deals with these very thoughts.

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s full version goes on – but these are key lines. Courage to change the things we can – if we can, to do what is in our power, that we have the ability, capacity, skill, privilege, resource -to do. But also knowing that there are things that no matter what we do, we cannot change, no matter how hard we try, or how much we worry, and we need to find a way to live with that knowledge. That these horrors are happening. That things might get worse. Indeed perhaps that the worst has happened sometimes. The wisdom to know the difference. To know when our efforts are wasted and would be best focussed on something else. To know when to stop. To let go.

Acceptance. Does not necessarily mean giving in. Does not necessarily mean stopping fighting or seeking change. But it may mean a moment of realisation, and shift – to a different course of action.

Many people for instance when it comes to Climate Change believe the time for trying to prevent catastrophe has passed, that it is too late – that what we should be focussed on is trying to prepare for and mitigate the inevitable impacts of the change to come. To develop new technologies to produce clean energy, to de-pollute, to cope with floods, fire and famine – to generate clean water and resilient crops.

Acceptance is an important concept in mental health – sometimes our anxieties are unwarranted, and out of proportion, and we can learn to recognise and overcome. The job seekers for instance – their self esteem and skills can be boosted, they can be taught to calm themselves and be able to present their best selves and have hope that if not this job or the next, something will come up to keep the wolf from the door.

But when the concern is more concrete. When the trauma happened, or is happening. When we do have cancer. When our loved one did die. When there is war. When we do face prejudice day after day. How do we keep that in check. Pretending it isn’t happening will only work for so long.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy brings this into treatment. We must acknowledge where we are and why, where we want to be, and commit to take action to change. I may be full of fear and anger because of something that happened – maybe an ex was abusive, or cheated on me and left me. I may be full of rage and resentment, unable to trust anyone, pushing everyone away. That rage might be righteous – justified. But might also be damaging. I can accept that it is true that I have a right to be angry because I was mistreated. A right to seek justice, if laws were broken, apology if I want it. But it can also be true that I want and deserve peace, to be loved and supported. To move on. To find a partner who will treat me as I deserve to be treated. And that in order to get that future I deserve I may need to let go of the past – whether or not I get the justice or apology I desire. Commitment to moving towards that. Doing what we can.

Acceptance that the worst has happened. The bombs are falling. I am justified in being afraid, angry, confused, betrayed. But that I need to keep safe, need to keep moving, to try and find the small moments of peace and joy that can be found even in the midst of disaster – which give us the strength to keep going. To survive.

Acceptance that I am afraid. That my voice may be small. That my ability to use it may vary from moment to moment, context to context. Commitment to doing my best, whatever that might be, in the moment, to moving towards whatever goal I have set for myself or the world.

To some extent it is a reworking of the old “Feel the fear and do it anyway”. But with more of an acknowledgement of how difficult that can be. That it can take work. But that in the right circumstances it becomes Feel the fear, and do it until you are not frightened any more. Until you realise you are strong enough. You got this. Or if you don’t – use that wisdom to let go, and focus on what you can do. What you have got.

Wishing strength, resilience, peace to all.


Upcoming events:

Online MHFA Refresher Training
Friday 25th February 2022
Friday 11th March 2022

Online Mental Health First Aid
Friday 18th/ Monday 21st 2022
Fridays 22nd April-13th May 2022

Online Mental Health Aware (Half Day)
Wednesday 6th April 2022
Monday 11th April 2022

Online Mental Health Champion (One Day)
Friday 25th March 2022
Wednesday 30th March 2022

More Dates

How Refreshing – Update your MHFA Skills

At the beginning of 2020, just before everything changed, I ran my first MHFA Refresher course. A small group, from a few different organisations, but enough to get a real feel for how enjoyable this new course was going to be. Over the last 18 months of course we have gone online, but i’ve run many more now and every one has the same vibe. People who are really committed to caring for their colleagues and friends, who did their Mental Health First Aid or Mental Health Champion course some time ago, and have been trying to help people ever since.

Some people have used their knowledge now and again, maybe in one off, quite extreme scenarios, others find they are using it every day, even in the most mundane of conversations. Some remember most of what they learnt, others think they have forgotten it all, and are pleasantly surprised as things bubble back up to the surface when given a prompt.

Everyone wants to be there. Everyone is interested. Everyone is playing an active role in making their workplace and the world more supportive for those who are going through difficult times. It is one of my favourite courses to deliver so I decided to schedule more regular dates. If your MHFA crown could do with a polish (MHFA England suggest at least once every 3 years) – come and join us.

All courses subject to a need for a minimum number of bookings – Discounts available for early booking or special circumstances – if you need several places contact me to see if there is a more cost effective option for you.

Online MHFA Refresher Courses – Delivered via Zoom – Workbook/Manual & E-Certificate Included

Thoughts on friendship

Listening to a recent Brene Brown podcast on friendship today gave me, as they say, “all the feels”. Friendship is such a difficult but important topic. Connection. Love.

I don’t have many friends. I am quite difficult to get to know I think, much more so than I once was. It gets really hard to make friends as you get older. Or at least I don’t think my experience is totally unique. It was never that easy to really make a connection. And life makes it hard to hold onto them sometimes.

When I was at school, my earliest friendships were cut short by moving house, mine or theirs. I reflected on this in my counselling course – what impact did it have that I made these bonds, one after another, only for them to be severed, again and again. And so I tended to be on the periphery, floating around other friendship groups. Until middle school, and after that friendships and relationships became intense and complicated and muddled.

Friendships in high school were strange because there was a huge part of myself that I had to hide away – not being able to come out as bi (indeed the lack of discussion of the issue at all meaning it took me a long time to settle on a label – thanks Section 28) – so not being my whole true self with friends, or with family, or even with my then girlfriend, for a variety of reasons. But I did meet some wonderful humans back then. I wish I were still in touch with more of them.

University brought more freedom, and authenticity, and amazing friendships. It was a chaotic time but I look back on that luxury – living on campus, sharing every day and night with a group of people just starting out in life and living it with such intensity.

Part of me would live like that again in a shot – some kind of communal living. But another part of me has become a bit of a hermit and would hate it.

Leaving university was the biggest wrench. The artificial end of so many friendships. We didn’t have facebook back then, so letters and phone calls and visits were required to keep any relationship going. That takes work. On both sides. And when friends are scattered to the four winds, and life becomes full of work and new relationships, people drift. Some quickly, some over years, some gently and some in angry resentment.

New friends were made at work. My second golden era, a close knit group of people of similar age who worked and played and laughed together. Mid to late twenties for me. But things change. Relationships soured, people moved on, and those that stayed, our priorities changed and it just wasn’t the same. It became harder to be friends at work. People seemed to resent it. I’ve even seen people say you shouldn’t be friends with colleagues because you can’t trust them and that’s just the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard. In my experience I work best with friends. With a team who care about each other.

In my depression, I sometimes feel so very lonely. And like everyone left me. Which is nonsense for I have left them as much as anyone ever left me. But there was for a long time a feeling that I remained the same while everything changed for everyone else. I think because people had kids and I didn’t. And my I didn’t get to move through some of the changes I had hoped for in my life at the time I hoped for them.

But coming out the other side of that, making friends was different. There are people you feel a connection with, and those that you don’t. I’ve come to realise that other neurodivergent people tend to get me better than others. My view of the world, my communication style.

There have been times when I have met someone and they have said “we’re going to be the best of friends!” and I have recoiled. Because the connection wasn’t there, but also, it felt wrong – isn’t friendship to be earned? Something that builds over time and familarity and learning one another’s strangeness? Why though? Why does it have to? When the connection is there, it doesn’t. When the connection is there I can meet someone for the first time, and being introduced feels like, “Oh yes. It’s you. I know you. I’ve always known you.” Maybe it is a past life thing, or a wavelength thing.

And here I am at 45 and there are several groups in my mind when I think of friendship.

My husband who is my best friend.
My two closest friends – who live too far away, but who I am still in reasonably regular contact with. One from work, one from university.
The two close friends (it feels too little to say friend for people who felt a part of yourself for so long) that I have lost in recent years, way too soon.
The two close friends, one from university, one from school, who I am not really in regular touch with, and I wish I were. One I check in irregularly with on Facebook, or vice versa – the other who moved away a long time ago and seemed to sever all ties.

The people I used to know well and wish I still did but its long enough to feel weird and stalkery to reach out.

Then there are those people who I didn’t get to know well at the time when life brought us together, but who social media has given a second chance to learn about and now I kind of wish we could be better friends.

There are people I know in real life (I know – how old fashioned) who I kind of feel are friends, could be good friends, but I’m not sure how to develop that. Life doesn’t give the opportunity for deep and meaningful connections and conversations.

How do we make friends as adults? How do we make new connections?

Social connection is an important factor in our wellbeing – we grow through other people, through relationships. Love helps us deal with pain. So trying to reinforce those connections which are there, and build new ones is important, but it can be really hard. When I moved to Hebden Bridge, I was here for years before I started to get to know people. Joining the WI gave me the opportunity to meet people, but not really to connect. But over time, those faces you know to say hello to might become people you see in a coffee shop, or a bar, and stop and have a conversation with. But how does it evolve beyond that? I’m not sure.

Maybe I expect too much. Maybe I already have what I am looking for. But can I be vulnerable enough to find out? To risk testing the strength of these connections and find out if they hold. But then I also wonder if others are feeling just the same. I wonder if they are thinking if they’d like to go for coffee, or talk about life or ask for help, or company – and then thinking, no, it’s presumptuous, I don’t know them that well, they don’t really like me. We’re all daft and vulnerable and afraid.

We should all be a little bolder.

Come as you are

I started to respond to this thread on Linked In about someone who shared their decision to be more authentic at work, no longer hiding tattoos and piercings but had more to say so moved over to the blog – others responding widen the topic out to many aspects of identity and personality, that this time where many of us have brought work into our homes, has made us less willing or able to hide or edit ourselves the way we have done in the past for the office.

This is such an important topic. Wellbeing in the workplace, and indeed life is made up of so many things. We know that if we want people to be able to thrive, and perform to the best of their ability, we cannot expect everyone to be the same. People have different backgrounds, experiences, identities, strengths, weaknesses and needs. Identity and values are key in our psychological wellbeing.

Trolls on the Internet like to criticise talk of identity, and focus on issues of diversity – but the formation of our unique identity as adults is a key stage of development. However it’s not always straightforward to discover and formulate our identity – if we face push back from the world around us. The world can be so hostile sometimes. Some aspects of who we are are undeniable. We can’t disguise them or change them. I can’t disguise the fact I am fat, a large person, I have no choice but to absorb the comments and looks, and know that a good chunk of people think badly of me for it. I am not one of those people who can change that, or at least I haven’t found a way in my 45 years that works with my combination of mental and physical challenges. Others can. Someone who experiences fatphobia may go to great lengths to keep to a size that society deems more acceptable, to avoid that opprobrium – even if this makes them unhappy and even unwell. Most people cannot hide the colour of their skin, their height, certain physical disabilities or disfigurements. And we can face different treatment, discrimination, prejudice, bullying, even violence, to different extents because of peoples attitudes to these things.

Knowing this, it is not surprising that if there is some other aspect of what marks us as different from whatever “norm” or “standard” model the world is judging us against – that we might go to great lengths to change this to “fit in” and hopefully deflect that negative attention. People from different cultural, class or religious backgrounds, or the LGBTQ+ or neurodivergent communities, opting not to make this obvious at work, playing things down, changing the way they speak, the language they use, the way they dress. Taking part in activities which would not usually be acceptable for them, missing out on prayer or other practices. Sometimes to those outside these things might seem peripheral, unimportant, whereas to us they are chords which are attached to the core of our being, and in masking, changing our behaviour, our expression, we are making ourselves less – dimming our light.

Inability to live in a manner which is congruent with our identity and core values causes inner conflict which contributes to unhappiness and other manifestations of mental distress. Feeling we cannot be ourselves, or that some aspect of ourselves is not valued or respected by our peers, leads to further conflict, damages self esteem and can build an enormous sense of injustice.

If we are dealing with all of this, and expending energy on trying to be other than we are – we are not able to bring our best game to the table. It is damaging for both individual and employer.

We need to nurture and celebrate our diverse teams. To me professionalism is about what we do, about results. Making everyone fit in one “standard” box will diminish everyone, and the best you can hope for is average results. Standard removes the possibility for excellence. People need the right conditions for their needs to show us just what they can do if we let them.

https://mhfaengland.org/my-whole-self/

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to

It was my birthday last week. I wasn’t in a good place. I had had one of those months where my hormones play havoc with my state of mind, but it dragged on longer than usual.

A long haired person leans to blow out candles on a cake held by someone in a shirt
Photo by Sergei Solo on Unsplash

I found myself lying there debating if I was depressed. I mean, yes. I was feeling depressed, sad, low. But was this just a blip, albeit a longer one than usual, or was this a return of my old foe. Or – was it a perfectly reasonable reaction to *waves arms frantically at everything* I mean, the world is on fire. The weather was miserable – August – torrential rain, great. And where I live we are always on edge with the threat of floods. The pandemic trundles on an has amplified horrific ideological divisions. Racism, homophobia, transphobia all seem to be becoming much more openly expressed. It bothers and frightens me. My physical health is wobbly. I’m tired and achy and worried.

So is it understandable to feel rubbish? Of course it is. It may well be a perfectly natural human response to difficult times and challenges. But it’s not nice. Nor is it helpful. In that state I am not enjoying life but I am also robbed of any ability to do anything to change all of those circumstances which I am well within my rights to be distressed about.

So I ask myself, was I depressed?

Low mood ✔
Tiredness / lack of energy ✔
Loss of interest in things I would usually enjoy ✔

Check, check, check.

I kept trying to think of something to do for my birthday. It felt like such a chore. I knew my husband wanted to do something nice for me but I couldn’t think of anything that felt worth doing. That wasn’t also attached to feelings of anxiety or guilt.

Add to that increasing thoughts of death, urges to hurt myself, lack of appetite but comfort eating, aches and pains, lack of confidence, inability to make decisions, concentrate, etc, etc.

Birthdays are hard too. The pressure of them. The reminder that things have changed. Once upon a time I was the queen of birthdays – I loved them and gathered my friends around me for lengthy celebrations. Now they are a reminder of how friendships drift as we age and our lives change, and also, sadly, a time when the absence of those no longer with us is much more keenly felt.

This blip was longer than most. Usually I have a few days feeling like this before my period, and it quickly disipates. As I near menopause I am keeping an eye on how my mood changes. For whatever reason this lasted longer. I got to the point of considering going back to the doctor. Though I’m not sure what I would ask them – given my history with anti-depressants. Instead I thought to myself – am I practicing what I preach? Have I let my good habits slide? Probably.

Luckily – the days after my birthday brought a return to clearer mind – the clouds rolled back a little both metaphorically and literally. But I’m not complacent. My recovery, is one of constant vigilence. Because my depression is like a weed, those thoughts take hold and grow and get into every crack. But luckily I know how to spot the first shoots, and rip them up at the roots.

Come and learn how to spot signs and symptoms of mental ill health in yourself and others – and how to support people through difficult times – places available on my Online Mental Health First Aid Courses – contact me if you are eligible for a discount.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/sarah-long-14624952023

Recovery – Uncovering – Discovery

What is recovery? What does it mean to recover? It depends what we are recovering from of course. And what we are trying to recover. People who are seeking to break free from addiction often talk about being “in recovery”. It’s not a destination, it’s a journey. Is it possible to say one is no longer an alcoholic? Perhaps – but more often people, however far along their journey they are, maybe prefer to acknowledge that it is something that takes work, that may present challenges, sometimes be hard, sometimes easier.

Recovering from illness can take different paths too. Sometimes that path will take us from the depth of sickness or injury, to 100% fitness. I’m sure you’ve had illnesses, colds, stomach bugs, even something worse – where you have felt utterly awful, bed bound, weak, emitting substances from all manner of places, and then a couple of weeks later been back to your usual self, hale and hearty. Some wounds heal without trace. But others don’t. Some scar.

Some injuries or illnesses leave lasting traces. Maybe we’re not as strong as we once were. Maybe we don’t have the flexibility, strength – maybe our lung capacity isn’t as good. Maybe we ache more than we used to do. Maybe there are things we can’t, or shouldn’t do anymore. Maybe some of these things we can work on – with physiotherapy, exercise, medications. But sometimes we can’t. It just is what it is. Some illnesses are chronic – ongoing. They may have fluctuating impact on our wellbeing. We don’t always recover. Sometimes that isn’t an option, given our current medical knowledge and technology.

So what about mental illness? The story is the same. There is no one shared experience of “mental illness”. Each of us has our own symptoms, experiences, diagnoses. And we each have our own recovery. Some of us, may find some treatment or path which takes us to the other side of our illness and find ourselves free of any symptom, able to embrace our lives once more with gusto. But for many more of us it is not that simple.

Recovery is a journey. One where there are many possible routes. Maybe some of them turn out to be dead ends – maybe we’re going along great, and then the path gets rocky and we have to find a diversion. Some of those paths might be uphill, with many challenges, rivers to cross. It can be hard work. But sometimes the view along the way is interesting too.

My recovery is ongoing. My journey has been long, and I don’t consider it over. But I have certainly come far. And this journey of recovery has taught me many things.

I suppose we don’t necessarily need to recognise we are unwell, before we recover. Sometimes we might suddenly reflect and realise that we are in a better place than we once were, and be thankful for it, whether it was our actions, or chance, which brought us there. But I knew I wasn’t well. I recognised in my teens that I had issues with depression, mood swings, self harm, suicidal ideation, – I saw something in myself that I didn’t see in others. (It may have been there but after all we didn’t talk about things like that then). I saw myself as broken, a depressive. That was just how I was, no way out of it. In later years I met kindred spirits, drowned it with alcohol, and leaned in to the nihilistic hedonism. I experienced wild flights of fancy and what I recognised later as hypomania. It took a while before I realised there was a pattern to it all. Eventually, with the help of a job in health, and some celebrities starting to talk about their own experiences, I figured maybe I had this bipolar thing people were talking about. It made a lot of sense out of things that never had. But it was still pretty vague, and not an official diagnosis. So I started to learn. And learning started my journey.

I went to the doctors several times over the years. First time at university, once fobbed off, another time dragged by friends – mid finals, mid breakdown – which led to an abortive counselling stint. Five or six years later I tried again, and had some fund and games with medication, discovering my love of side effects and that I responded slightly better to SNRIs than SSRIs but that neither made me “better” mentally, and both made me physically a wreck. So I came off them. And gradually got worse, so ended up trying again five more years later. Briefly. And then more counselling – stress classes, CBT, guided self help – my most recent batch in 2017. Maybe at some time I will need more.

All of this – so why do I not considered myself “recovered”? Surely if I don’t then none of the above can have worked? And yet, if I compare myself at my worst – at the mercy of suicidal lows or life destroying highs, self harming, obsessed with but terrified of death, riddled with health anxiety, hording, purging, finding every day a torment. I am better. So very much better than I was. At some point, depression stopped being a near constant. I let go of my horror at mortality, I no longer felt the need for some of my more troublesome coping mechanisms. I do still live with anxiety, which can sometimes be very problematic, and issues with self esteem and confidence which hold me back in my working life. And I do still, occasionally experience some nasty lows, sometimes very nasty – which I now know to be associated with stages in my hormonal cycles. So I’m not “recovered”. I still have issues relating to my mental health which interfere with my life, my ability to do the things I need to do, and my enjoyment of existence and relationships. I’m working on it.

What has helped me into this better place, is manifold. The things I mentioned above, the medication, the therapy. They were not without merit. The meds don’t work great for me but I know it might help me through a particularly dark patch if one returns. I’ve also learnt more since then about other supplements that help me chemically too – that boost dopamine, which seems to be more helpful for me than the serotonin/adrenaline routes. The techniques I learnt at the counselling sessions – like exercises learnt at physio – things I try to bring into practice as often as I remember to avoid old habits that don’t serve me. And I’ve learnt more about therapeutic approaches myself. Studying counselling helped me to understand myself more. Understand where all of this came from (maybe). Uncovering my past, revisiting it. Realising the patterns, their impact.
I had long known I went through some difficult circumstances – not the worst they could have been, but certainly not the best. Realising the ways I had been let down, or not had the emotional support any of us deserve, helped me to understand why I felt so vulnerable, aggrieved, never believing I was loved, always expecting betrayal, self-sabotaging and creating self fulfilling prophecies of doom. I was able to be gentle with myself, compassionate, merciful. Further along however, I also began to own some of the damage I must have done myself, and see the traumas which led the people who had harmed me to make the choices they had made. To see this endless interaction of trauma, us each colliding with each other like waves, building and building until we come crashing down somewhere. It makes me feel infinite compassion for this whole world of suffering.

Somewhere along the way, relatively recently, I was led to learn more about autism and ADHD, and realised that this may also have had a lot to do with “why I am the way I am”. Reflections stretching back to before my depression emerged, to a childhood feeling odd, and different, and trying to play a role to fit in with a world which made little sense to me. Now I see how I have sought out my tribe, understand why I can hear electricity when no one else can, and why a crowded bar or shopping centre is my version of hell. It doesn’t stop me getting anxious, or make interaction any easier, but I understand an accept myself now. I don’t have a diagnosis, but then I don’t have official diagnoses for a lot of the things I might qualify for – it’s not so easy to access them. And at the end of the day they are simply labels on a bunch of symptoms or experiences. Maybe I would “pass” or maybe not. Maybe the diagnosis would be more trouble than it is worth. If learning about these things, neurodiversity, trauma, whatever – help me to understand myself, and in understanding find a new road to my recovery, or key to my past – then that is enough for me.

Recognising and moving on from the past, I allowed myself to consider a future. I made material changes in my life. For all that the past was heavily involved in my illness, the present contributed too – painful journeys needed to happen to end an unhappy relationship, find a place to live that brought me joy, not sadness, break free of a job which was destructive, lessen debt, improve family relationships. Not all of these journeys are over, some of them are still sources of great sorrow. But it must be recognised that recovery in mental illness is often reliant not just on our ability to access treatment, or practice self care, but also overcoming material circumstances which add to our distress. Sometimes we are able to influence these things, sometimes we are not.

We do what we can. And so another part of my recovery is pro-active. Try to eat better, not drink as much, take supplements, build new friendships, enjoy nature, take simple pleasures, channel my energies into creating, painting, writing. Exercise more. Sleep. Learn. Help people.

When I am having a bad day, anxieties high, panic attacks – I try to lean into it a little. Explore it – find out what it is which is provoking that anxiety, because that teaches me what I still need to work on, to think about, to find a way through. Sometimes I find it is something I have worked on before, and I realise I have to try and practice some more. Sometimes it is a new revelation, another stage of the journey, and I am grateful for everything it is teaching me. Because in going through all of this, I learn more about myself, and the things which are important to me, and what I want out of this life. What do I want to recover? I don’t necessarily want to go back to the high stress, high responsibility job. I don’t value status. I want to be fitter, so I can live longer and also be able to get about more and enjoy this world we live in for whatever time I do have, even this square mile around me. I don’t need to be famous, or everybody’s friend. I want to sleep soundly and be at peace. I would like to be more confident, and able to reach more people, help more people. Maybe I will get there.

The greatest lesson in all of this for me was to keep learning, and keep moving. You are the greatest resource you have. Recovery for you may involve the care of others, medication, therapists, hospital. But that is not always the case. And it is certainly not usually the only thing that will help. Keep trying new things, learning new approaches, keep talking.

Sometimes, in the depth of chaos and despair it can feel hard to believe things can get better. Or even that we deserve for them to do so. But if you can’t feel that hope, that belief – then let me feel it for you. Let me hold it until you are ready for it. Let those around you help you. You just focus on one breath at a time. And then one step at a time. And before you know it you will be well on your way.

New Date – 28th July – Mental Health Aware

I’ve had the opportunity to set up an additional / alternative date for the half day Mental Health Aware course in July – so if Wednesday morning works for you, now’s the time to book. If you’re quick you’ll catch the Early Bird discounts!

55 ways to boost wellbeing with nature

I’m sure I’ve said somewhere before that I struggle with Mental Health Awareness Weeks and Days. Not because I disagree with them, like some (who have a valid point that for those with enduring mental illness, or who are struggling to access the services they need, awareness is hardly the problem at hand.) – I really do think we still need to be raising awareness for all sorts of reasons, not least, challenging the stigma that stops many from feeling able to tell their friends or family members that they are struggling, let alone ask for help.

No, my difficulty falls a little into the Pathological Demand Avoidance category – even if I really want to do something, as soon as someone else asks me to do it, or there is some wider expectation, I find it almost impossible to carry on.

Maybe it is the increased attention or importance associated with the act when that expectation is attached to it – and hence anxiety that I will say the wrong thing, or not enough, or too much.

Anyway. Plenty of others stepped into the breach for me, and I tried to retweet and share some of the excellent content out there.

The theme this year was Nature, and how it can support our wellbeing. (And aid recovery from mental illness)

When you sit down to think about it, nature can be interpreted in many ways, and have many beneficial opportunities. How many can I think of? The key with this is to try and build as many of these as we can into our lives, as often as possible. Along with other self care strategies and coping techniques, and drawing on the support of friends, family and services – together these things support wellbeing, give us ways to escape our stressors and recover from adversity

  • Go Green… Green is good for us in lots of ways, spending time in green spaces, making the spaces we spend time in more green.
  • From the big to the small – I’m lucky to live on the edge of the moors, with easy access to wide open spaces, even if i’m not always fit enough to take advantage. Figure out where your nearest accessible countryside is, and how to get there – plan a trip as soon as you can.
  • If not the countryside – how about a park? Even our most industrial cities generally have a number of parks we can take advantage of. Make a point of exploring them and finding out your favourite. Take a picnic, a kite, a blanket, a book.
  • Maybe there are smaller green spaces in your neighbourhood – not quite a park, but a patch of grass, scrubland, grass verges – even roundabouts! One of my favourite nature memories is the smiles I used to see on my bus home through heavy traffic in Leeds, when we passed a roundabout which was populated by bunnies. I even wrote a book about it. Make sure you remember your green cross code if you’re crossing roads, but see what you can find. If your area isn’t too pleasant – maybe you could set up a guerilla gardening and clean up group to make it better!
  • If you’re lucky enough to have some garden space, are you making the most of it? Spending some time outside to begin with.
  • You might like to take your socks off and walk barefoot in the grass – some suggest this has health benefits, -regardless, it can be quite pleasant. Check that the area you want to walk in is free from sharp objects or other unpleasantness you wouldn’t want between your toes. Whether the grass is warm from the sun, cold and wet from rain or dew, or muddy and squishy – explore the sensations you experience, and try to feel connected to the earth. Walking on stone can also bring different feelings, from pain to pleasure depending on the texture.
  • Look, and really see. What’s in your space – what plant life, animals, insects? Split your space into foot or metre square sections, map what’s there, learn about it. The more we look at a single space, the more we see – a patch of grass turns out to be made up of different types of grass, moss, daisies, dandelions and other plants, and home to insects, the earth containing stones and pebbles and bits of old pot or glass. Even a rock, when investigated, shows us the glistening beauty of the grains and particles that make it, the different facets of its shape, shadows and spaces that give it form.
  • If you do have a garden, and you are fit enough – give gardening a go – explore different kinds of planting, space, and get digging. If you don’t have a lot of money to spare – borrow books from your library, and look out for local plant or seed swap groups. If you do have money but no strength or inclination, you could always pay someone to make your space just how you like it. But if you can do some yourself, try – not only is it great exercise and a strength builder, the act of planting, nurturing and watching your plants grow is very rewarding & mindful. Problem solving when things go wrong is also a great distraction.
  • If you don’t have a garden – think about whether you could have a window box, or indoor plants – grow some herbs on your kitchen or bathroom windowsills. If you aren’t able to do this, or convinced of your ability to keep things alive (Though there are plenty of low-maintenance options, like airplants or cacti) – even pictures can have a beneficial effect. How about you make your screen saver an image of beautiful countryside or far flung locations.
  • When the weather is dry, and the sky is blue, preferably with clouds – find a safe space to lay out a blanket or coat, and lie down. Look at the sky. Watch the clouds. The endless shifting of the skies. Look for imagery in the clouds, see how they come and go.
  • When the weather is dry and the sky is clear, at night – find a safe space to lay out a blanket or coat, (wrap up warm), and lie down. Look up at the stars. If you can go somewhere as far as possible from streetlights, all the better. Go with a friend. Look at the endless universe, see the constellations, the satellites, the planets. Look at the blackness in between and know that it is full of light, just that you cannot see it with your eyes. (Remember that this is what the Hubble found when picking a spot of darkness to look into). `When the weather is wet – go out for a little while without an umbrella, let the rain wash your face, your arms and hands. Feel each drop as it trickles down your neck. It can be quite freeing to cry in the rain, if you need to. I feel like the sky is crying with me.
Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image
  • Let the wind blow your cobwebs away. Feel it on your skin and in your hair.
  • (Make sure you get dry and warm after 12 or 13 – revel in the contrast between the cold wind and rain, and warm towels, hot tea, coffee or cocoa)
  • If you can – go for a walk, run, ride or wheel in nature. In the wildest place it is safe for you to go. Go somewhere you are unsure about. Take a map. Keep your phone charged and keep an eye on your signal. Make sure someone knows where you are going. Watch your footing. Walk until you stop thinking about your worries and then keep walking until you start having ideas. Walk until you are out of breath. Try do this as often as possible.
  • Go to the highest place you can and look out at the horizon. Look at the world around you. See the stillness, and the movement. Look out for people and creatures living their lives. Try to imagine what they are thinking and feeling. Look at the rocks and the trees. How long have they been there? What have they seen? How many lives have been lived and lost while they stood by?
  • Seek out water. Do you live by the sea? Can you visit? Go paddling or swimming, or sit and let the waves wash over you for a moment.
  • Feel the warm sand under your bare feet
  • Pick up a handful of dry sand and let it spill through your fingers
  • Look at a handful of sand, each chrystaline grain, tiny seashell.
  • Find the best pebbles or shells on the beach, the shiniest, the most interesting shapes, beautiful colours. Pick one to give to each of your friends and one for yourself.
  • Make sandcastles. Sand cities, Recreate the canals of Venice in the sand.
  • Dig a hole
  • Get someone to cover you in sand except for your head
  • Make a sand sculpture
  • Look for rock pools and shellfish.
  • Watch a crab
  • Go fishing with a net (and put them back)
  • Go to a lake or reservoir – walk around it or along the shore line
  • Go and find some waterfalls – bonus points if you can stand under them or let the water wash over your hands
  • Take up wild swimming (safely)
  • Walk along your nearest river, stream or canal. Look out for wild life in, near or around the water.
  • Put a pond or water feature in your garden
  • Look for life wherever you are.
  • Learn about and watch birds – listen to their song, notice the colours of their plumage. Watch the soap operas of their lives
  • Learn about the animals in your area – get involved in their protection.
  • Visit bird sanctuaries, nature reserves, butterfly houses, zoos or safari parks. (Look into them first to make sure they are looking after the animals and contributing to conservation) Get to know some critters.
  • Go and look at some farm animals – either in the countryside or at an urban farm. This is a great time to see lambs and foals. Watch sheep, horses, cows, wandering about their fields. Slow down to their pace.
  • Make friends with bugs.
  • Make the most of your pets! Especially the furry ones. Spend some time playing with them, stroking, massaging, looking them in the eyes. Learn how they communicate and tell them you love them. Share some valuable oxytocin by having a cuddle.
  • Go foraging! Preferably with someone knowledgeable – enjoy the fruits of nature. Especially enjoyable when the berries come out. Don’t eat anything you aren’t sure about – especially mushrooms/fungi.
  • Go berry picking and get enough to make something delicious when you get home. Muffins are easy and tasty, as is a crumble.
  • Visit some open gardens – enjoy the flowers and learn about them
  • Find a sensory garden, or a herb garden, and smell the different plants, enjoy the different scents. Smell the roses!
  • Explore the different textures of nature. Cold hard rock, smooth damp leaves, soft warm fur, sharp thorns, rough stone, cool water, warm mud, dry sand.
  • Make a snow man
  • Have a snowball fight
  • Build an igloo
  • Eat (clean) snow
  • Have an icicle sword fight.
  • Sunbathe (with suncream on)
  • Read a book in the sunshine
  • Join a walking/cycling/running/fell running etc group
  • Watch a documentary about animals, plants, the planet, space, the weather
  • Learn about the aspects of nature that interest you most

I could keep going with this forever. Remembering we are part of nature is a huge part of my recovery – much of our stress and anxiety comes from lives which remove us from nature, the rhythms of life, the benefits of air and sun and exercise and watching the cycle of life. Find a way to reconnect. Remember you are nature too.