What do you mean I’m not perfect?

People seemed to like my painting last month so here’s April’s effort – the Packhorse Bridge and Wavy steps in my home tome Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. I thought I’d use this painting as a jumping off point on some thoughts around mental health.

Painting of packhorse bridge and wavy steps in Hebden Bridge, houses in the background, the White Swan pub, people on the steps and children paddling in the river.
Packhorse Bridge & Wavy Steps – Hebden Bridge

I was showing it to my mum the other day, and she pointed out something she thought could be improved. Which is ok. I’m never completely happy with anything I do. I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Which is a shame because perfection is almost impossible. And in truth sometimes it is life’s imperfections which are the most beautiful. But yeah – she picked on the spot I was least happy with. And truth be told I might go back and work on it a bit more, because I’m always learning. But even if I manage to improve on that – there’ll still be something my eye will be drawn to, that I think is not good enough. I know I have a problem with this.

We all have a tendency to lean towards the negative. To focus on the problems. It’s natural, and important, and it keeps us safe. Because it’s not the sturdy, healthy planks on the rickety bridge we need to worry about, but the ones that are half rotten and might have us plunging to our deaths. But sometimes we can become so fixated on those problem planks that we don’t see that actually we can cross quite safely regardless.

Sometimes that natural negative mental filter goes into overdrive, and it blows small negatives out of all proportion, makes us think something is ruined if it isn’t perfect. Makes us disregard anything positive that is going on. Me fixating on that one bit I don’t like on the painting, ignoring other bits I quite like, like the stonework on the bridge, or the water under the arches, or the overall impression, which is at the very least OK.

Just as I might be chuffed to receive some fantastic feedback on a course, but I won’t remember it, or dwell on it as long as that time someone said something quite unkind – that frankly reflects more on them than it does my performance, but still makes me feel like i’m a failure.

It’s all down to acceptance. If I’m not perfect, don’t do a good enough job, don’t paint as well as Leonardo da Vinci – then maybe people won’t accept me, maybe I will be rejected, maybe I will be turned out of my house, community, and be alone and cold and wet and friendless and in danger.

Daft, I know. But somewhere in my ancient lizard brain that’s what I’m thinking. And I can recognise it, and know it’s silly, but it takes a lot of work to get to a place where i’m ok with not being perfect. Not being liked even. To listen more to the good things – to process and learn from the bad, but also realise I can disagree. Learning to accept our selves, recognise and celebrate our strengths. Let go of perfection.

Hebden Bridge has helped me on that journey – a supportive community where I find it easier to be myself. Lots of opportunities for creative expression. Wild, beautiful nature to get outside and gain a sense of perspective on life. Come visit sometime, when it’s safe – cafes, pubs, wonderful shops and galleries, walking and woods, canals and mills. Lots of paddling opportunities.

Come and learn more about mental health with me on one of my online courses – Mental Health First Aid, Mental Health Awareness and more.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/sarah-long-mental-health-amp-wellbeing-14624952023

Off Topic(ish) – Sarah Long Art

One of the many ways I have been helping keep my mental health in a good place this past year, has been painting. It’s always been good for me – I enjoy it immensely and find it a very mindful activity – focussed attention, challenging action. But I’ve always found it hard to give myself permission to spend the time on it, or build up a habit. However – after managing a couple of paintings last year, I made a resolution to try and do one a month in 2021.

I’ve shared these on twitter and linked in and a few people have expressed an interest in seeing more. I am going to look at doing a range of high quality prints in summer, – so will probably be setting up a site or page to show them off, with better, clearer pictures – but for now here are some of my more recent works. I’m open to suggestion for future topics – this year I’m keeping to Yorkshire – alternating between more local to Hebden Bridge and further afield.

Whitby, North Yorkshire
Old Town Mill, Hebden Bridge
Kirkgate Market, Leeds
Pecket Well, Hebden Bridge
Piece Hall, Halifax
Birchcliffe, Hebden Bridge

Checkpoint 20/21

April has long been a time of reflection and planning for me – years of working in an organisation where performance review, business planning and financial year end were all jumbled together. I don’t have a boss any more to make me do it so indulge me while I naval gaze for a moment. It is as good a time as any to reflect on the year gone by, and set out hopes for the new. .

And what a year we have to reflect on.

My prayers are with those we have lost, and my love to those who bear this bereavement most closely. Many of us have faced significant stress and hardship in this last year, I hope that we find the days to come brighter and easier.

This time last year I had no idea what the future held. I only knew that all my work had been cancelled and I didn’t have any savings. But I had my health and the sun was shining so I tried to count my blessings and hope for the best.

Thankfully I was able to adapt, and gradually make the shift to online training – working with a variety of organisations over the year, qualifying to deliver new courses, learning new skills & platforms, trying to push myself to use some new tools and take up new opportunities. It hasn’t been easy and there were big chunks of time where things were very uncertain (and no doubt there will be more to come) – but to say that I managed to help 485 people learn to understand mental health in a variety of ways over the past year is astounding.

My enormous thanks to MHFA England for the work they have done to set up the online learning platform and adapt courses for online delivery. Also for the variety of opportunities to feed back and communicate with them, and other trainers in a similar position – which has been an enormous improvement on previous years and provided emotional support which has really helped get me through. And I know I’m not alone in thinking that.

I’ve learnt a lot in this unusual year, about my abilities, preferences, priorities. I think many of us have. With my fingers firmly crossed that this current roadmap does lead us back to a safe and open future – I hope we hold on to that learning. Recognise what we are capable of in a crisis. Appreciate what we liked or enjoyed about the last year – and try not to let it go. And of course relish being able to return to those things that we have missed, sooner or later. Not take them for granted again too soon either.

I am nervous about it. My anxiety took a back seat for a good while last year – my introverted, neurodivergent self is quite well suited to lockdown life. But it found ways to re-emerge. I have been lonely, but find some of the wonderful efforts of ongoing community and connection that I have seen to be even more isolating. Seeing others connect when you don’t is saddening. I will continue to be anxious about my health, and others’ – I had health anxiety before the pandemic, 150,000 deaths has done little to assuage that. But all I can do is take precautions. Be careful. Weigh up the risks against the benefits of each action. The early part of 2021 was difficult, I have had some moments where depression has reared its head and with it old urges to respond to my distress in a variety of unhelpful or unhealthy ways. But with the love of my husband I shake it off, mostly.

Anyway. What are my personal positive and negatives? Achievements or regrets. And what do I hope for the year to come.

Positives

Online training – love the new course format
Great feedback from delegates
Meeting and getting to know other trainers
Going on the radio
Doing a podcast
Doing some Facebook video/lives
Exploring new online content options
Completing the Science of Happiness course
Learning something new every day (J’apprends le francais avec Duo…)
Making myself paint
Delivering 56 courses, reaching 485 people
Qualifying to deliver 2 new courses
Volunteering with SHOUT to offer support via text to people in crisis (Text SHOUT to 85258)
No lugging heavy suitcases hundreds of miles on trains
Spending more time with my husband and cats
Vaccine
New pen pal

Negatives

Not seeing family & friends
Cancellation of work with organisations I like working with
Cancellation of open courses due to lack of bookings
No face to face training conversations
Eating too many biscuits
Financial insecurity
Not getting enough exercise
Health anxiety
Forgetting how to interact with others
Worrying about societal divisions
Worrying about splits in my community
Worrying for others who are more at risk than I (health or finance wise)
Too much time on screen – bad for eyes and RSI

Plans for future
Go back to doing more audio / video
Podcast?
Developing new courses / training options
> Wellbeing course
> Mental Health Masterclass for Employers
Return to some face to face training?
Continuing with online training.
Making new connections with clients
Get my garden in hand
Writing more.
Keep learning
Keep painting
Get prints done and set up art sales.
More exercise!
Seeing Parents and Friends!
Visiting the seaside.
Supporting local shops, pubs, restaurants and venues where I can
Pursue Coaching & Mentoring training
Get therapy.

What are your take-aways from this year? What are your plans for the future? It may take a while to get there, but that just gives us more time to plan and prepare.

Find Your Why

Why do you do what you do?

Picture of a hand holding a compass
Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

And by that I don’t just mean what you do for work, though that is a big part of the question. I also mean, why do you spend your leisure time doing whatever it is you do. Why do you choose to respond to that facebook post but not that other one?

We only have this moment, this one life, that we know of. Even if there is another beyond, it doesn’t make these seconds ticking by any less precious. Are you content with how you are spending this most precious and finite of resources?

Sometimes the best way to spend a moment is doing nothing. Is lounging on the sofa staring at the TV, hand grasping a beer, the other one in a bag of crisps. But other times, that is an enormous waste. And a bigger waste are the moments we will spend feeling guilty about having done it, feeling bad about ourselves, berating or punishing ourselves.

So if we want to have less of those accidental wasted moments, we need to try and be a little bit more deliberate about life. Think about what we want to spend our moments on, and why.

Another waste is when we spend our working lives doing something we hate. Something we don’t enjoy, or aren’t very good at, or with people we don’t like or get along with, or which makes us unwell and unable to enjoy they rest of the moments in our lives. And yet so many of us spend years like that.

I know I have. I spent decades in a job that was terrible for me. Don’t get me wrong. It was a good job. I enjoyed most of the work. I was good at it. It paid relatively well. It kept me fed and with a roof over my head, and promised a pension which will make life a little easier if I live to receive it. But it made me ill. It was stressful. There were toxic relationships on all sides, at all levels. The culture of the organisation was unpleasant. It was restrictive and we were undervalued and constantly targeted in different ways. I spent hours crying in toilets, my sleep was destroyed, I had panic attacks, palpitations – I went through cycles of depression and hypomania, I self harmed, I had problematic eating, I drank waaaay too much. I made a total mess of my life. Not all of this was to do with work but the poison of that job seeped through everything – like you see in films where something spreads through a character’s system making all their veins stand out black under the skin.

When I studied counselling I was introduced to the idea of congruence. Where one is living in line with ones inner values and beliefs. Able to express oneself honestly. If for whatever reason we can’t do this, and we are in a state of incongruence – because for instance our parents have different beliefs from us, or we disagree with how our employer acts, or we have to do something in our professional life we would not do if we were acting in a personal capacity – it is jarring. It feels uncomfortable, It is damaging, it eats away at us. It makes us feel at odds with everything around us and fearful of being found out and ejected. (As an aside this is one reason I really strongly disagree with workplace policies which restrict personal social media use – one way to diffuse incongruence is freedom of expression. With limits obviously – but if you are worried about an employee damaging your reputation by talking honestly about their experiences, you are missing the point. Make sure their experiences enhance your reputation.)

On the other hand – if we are congruent – if we can build a life which is in line with our values – and also make use of our strengths, and the things we enjoy – then we blossom, we thrive. We know we are doing good, we are meeting our expectations of our selves, we are serving a purpose. And that makes us feel safe and contented in our place in society.

So. Are you congruent? What are your values? What do you believe your life should be for?

I do what I do (now) – because I believe strongly and passionately that we all deserve to enjoy good mental health and that in order to do that we need to understand it – and other people need to understand it and how we can help each other. Employers need to understand it so they can structure their expectations of people healthily and provide support for wellbeing. We need to build understanding of mental health and what influences into every stage of our education system so we can try to a) avoid problems in the first place, b) spot signs of issues emerging as early as possible, c) feel ok about acknowledging that in ourselves and those we love and d) get help to those who need it. I strongly believe that the vast majority of us would be able to return to wellbeing if we are able to access the right supports – and that if we were able to do that it would free up resources and research to help find ways to make a difference for those with more severe and enduring mental health issues which may be harder to treat or help. We could radically transform our world if we got this right.

I try to contribute to this by helping people understand mental health and have the courage and confidence to offer support. I help employers to see the point, the human, legal, ethical and business case behind supporting wellbeing at work. I help individuals understand their own situations and needs and believe they deserve to live a happier, healthier life, and that they have the power to make that happen.

And through doing that – I make it happen for myself.

Not overnight. There are things I still don’t like, aspects of my working life that jar, and rub – and that tells me I need to investigate, and ask why, and adjust. Pain is where the work needs to be done.

How about you. Why do you do what you do? Do you spend your moments on something that is worth your time? Or are you at odds? Could you change that?

Ask yourself – what matters to you? What do you value? Is that reflected in how you live your life? Could it be?

There are lots of tools and questionnaires out there which help you explore this topic – it’s never too late to make a change. Maybe you can’t do it overnight. But if you know you aren’t happy with where you are – this can help you figure out where you want to be, which is the very first step in getting there.

Training Dates – March – Jun

It’s that time again – new dates scheduled for open training courses from March-June.

Online Mental Health First Aid (4 Sessions)
Sunday Mornings from April 11th
Wednesday Evenings from April 14th
Friday Mornings from April 16th

Monday Afternoons from June 7th
Saturday Mornings from June 12th
Thursday Evenings from June 17th

Online Mental Health Champion (2 Sessions)
Friday Mornings from March 19th
Friday Mornings from May 28th

Online Mental Health Aware (Half Day)
Monday Morning March 15th
Monday Afternoon May 17th

Online Mental Health First Aid Refresher (Half Day)
Friday Morning April 9th
Monday Morning May 10th

As always I need a minimum number of bookings to be able to go ahead – as these courses are online this is only 3 at present, but if we aren’t able to get that on a course you have booked on to – then you will be offered a refund or a place on a future course (sometimes of higher value than the course you chose). The minimum is to improve your learning experience – I’d prefer more, but we need 3 if possible to do activities and have a chance of discussion.

Details and costs are listed on the Eventbrite pages – there are a range of discounts for different circumstances to try and ensure the training is accessible to most – some at your discretion, some you will need to send me evidence of eligibility to receive a promotional code.

While the special NHS/Social Care rate has come to an end (for now) – I am now including public service organisations in the Charity rate – including NHS, Social Care, Emergency Services and Armed Forces. Please send proof that you work in these organisations to access the special rate.

Where does it hurt?

I’m feeling very anxious at the moment. The days in the run up to training, or having to do anything involving other human beings are full of stress and nerves and even panic. I feel lacking in confidence and desire, tired and overwrought. I just want to shut down, curl up in a ball, go back to bed. Even looking at the endless rent-an-argument of twitter has me rocking back and forth, or (fictional) people having (fictional) arguments on the television.

There’s a lot to be anxious about at the moment. And this reticence to engage with others is nothing new, nor pandemic specific for me. But perhaps it has different significance at the moment. With so few interactions with people, each has more power – to boost or to bulldoze my self esteem and feeling of connection.

Much is made of the importance of connection, of socialisation for our wellbeing. There is indeed much evidence of our need to be loved and accepted by our peers, the mutual benefit of a smile, hug, touch. It’s certainly vital for our early development and continued thriving. But I’d be interested in what research has been done into the impact of imperfect or negative interactions. For those of us who find it hard to communicate or get on with others, considering issues of neurodiversity, social anxiety, trauma, etc. – If interaction is largely stressful or difficult for you, is no interaction as harmful as it might be for other people who enjoy and find it easy? Or is it the situations where we find ourselves on high alert which do the damage?

Frustratingly of course a lot of researchers seek a “typical” cohort to study, and so would perhaps reject the outliers.

In any case anxiety serves a purpose – it is a signal – a sign that I feel threatened and am trying to deal with that. It is a message that there is a problem. Just like pain.

I may have written about this before, my memory is shocking. I’m thinking of when I went for physiotherapy. I get a lot of RSI type problems with my wrist, elbow, shoulder. I’ve also had problems with Plantar Fasciitis. What these things have in common is that they have caused me pain, and when they have flared up, I have tended to try and avoid that pain. To put the weight elsewhere, or use my other arm. I have rubbed, but then laid off when it was particularly tender.

Image shows hands massaging someone's back
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Of course this pain tells us there is a problem. But sometimes, laying off is exactly the wrong thing to do. Put your weight on your right foot because your left foot is hurting – soon you have two aching feet. Stop doing movements with your arm that cause you pain, sometimes all that happens is you stiffen up and lose your range of movement. Sometimes what we need to do is walk through it. Use exercises and massages, techniques, to work into those painful spots and loosen them up so the scar tissue dissipates and we regain the movement and strength and flexibility we had before (or something close to it). Concentrating on the pain, noticing when it hurts, what aggravates it can teach us more about where it came from – and then we can think about preventing future problems too.

So – my anxiety, a pain which flares in situations where I feel vulnerable to judgement or criticism, (my primitive mind fearing rejection and the risks of destitution) – my first instinct to protect myself, to avoid those situations which make me feel this way, but that just leads me to become more and more anxious. More self conscious. More convinced that nobody likes me, that i’m stupid, that I can’t do this. And with no evidence to counteract these negative appraisals I might believe that they are true. (Though of course there is evidence to counter – should I choose to look, feedback, comments, friends)

So I must instead, when I can, to use the old cliche, feel the fear and do it anyway. Feel the stiff and swollen joint and knead gently into the pain. Sometimes in the kneading, I learn. I remember things which have made me feel this way. Situations where I have felt I must do everything right or face rejection. Times I have been rejected, and made to feel it was my fault for not doing x, y or z. Times that my opinion or expertise has been ignored or belittled because it wasn’t what someone wanted to hear, or because of the dynamics of family, age, sex, and so on. Understanding these things help me understand the pain, the fear may not be justified. But it doesn’t always make the pain disappear.

Exploring psychological trauma is hard, painful and sometimes even dangerous. We need to be in the right place, have the right support and resources on hand. Perhaps the middle of a pandemic is not the right time for you to be delving into the painful spots. Or perhaps this is giving you time and space to find clarity for yourself. There’s no shame in curling up in a ball and protecting yourself if you are not feeling up to the challenge. Just know you do deserve to be free from your pain. You do deserve support.

Sometimes our pain sends us a valuable message. While I know some of my anxiety is unjustified, there is always an element of stress when we perform in front of others, which is part of what we do as teachers and trainers. Educational performance but performance nonetheless. And where we seek evaluation for continuous development, we invite negative as well as positive responses.

Part of my discomfort, this tug I feel, is a constant questioning – am I on the right path? Do I want to be where I am, to be going where I am headed? Part of me doesn’t want to open myself to judgement which has such potential to undermine me at every turn – not in connection to my livelihood. Something isn’t quite right – and my anxiety reminds me to think about it. Work on it. Adjust my course and see if I can find a direction that allows me to float more comfortably. Creating, Sharing, Teaching what I know, learning as I go. Hoping I help along the way.

Duty of care

I was listening to the latest episode of Brene Brown’s podcast, Dare to Lead yesterday. A second part to her interview with Aiko Bethea, Diversity, Equality and Inclusion expert. I recommend both this podcast and Brene’s other one, Unlocking Us, for lots of insight on leadership and what makes us tick. There are lots of discussions relating to the difficult but vital work needing to be done around race, – and the impact of recent times on people of colour, along with many other important issues.

Something Aiko said in this podcast got me thinking in all directions. “Stop asking for the business case for diversity and inclusion work”. (I could be paraphrasing)

Business case. What is in it for me? For the business? Will this make us more money? More productive? Give us a better reputation in the community? The answer to all of these by the way is generally yes. But what if it wasn’t?

What does it say about a business that is are only prepared to make things better for their staff if it pays? It says firstly that you acknowledge there is a problem, which is negatively impacting your teams or your community, but that you don’t care. And that message in itself makes it so much worse for those staff. Destroys any idea they might have that they are valued by their employer.

For Diversity, Equality and Inclusion, you can also read mental health, health and wellbeing work. If we see evidence that our staff are struggling with their mental health, or know we are going through a period of intense stress (either within the organisation, or in the wider world), and we shrug our shoulders and tell our staff to get on with it, then we are failing in our duty of care to those staff.

We’re also failing to question – why? What’s going on? Are we causing these problems or worsening them by the way we work or do business? We have reached a point in time where we accept, hopefully, that the risk to people’s health that they face in the line of their work should be the absolute minimum necessary. Some jobs have a certain amount of inherent risk, unavoidable risk. Even then we know we should be doing our best to protect the worker – Soldiers given bullet proof gear and weapons to defend themselves, Firefighters with breathing apparatus and fireproof clothes. Doctors and nurses with effective PPE (more important right now than ever), Factory workers with ear, eye and foot protection.

We carry out risk assessments to make sure the environment people work in is free from avoidable hazards – things we might trip over, sharp edges, unstable items in high places. We test air quality, light, noise, fumes. Over the course of the past few years, working in a variety of industrial settings I have been provided with ear plugs and visors and strange rubber shoes and ventilators, had to take courses and pass tests to be even allowed onto a site. Most employers (if not as many as should) take Health & Safety pretty seriously. If only because they know there will be hefty fines and potential liability if it goes wrong. In some professions where the duty of care is inherent (i.e. medicine, nursing) there are avenues for whistleblowing if conditions within an organisation are preventing the proper implementation of that duty.

And yet when it comes to our mental or emotional health and safety, there is a sad lack of awareness or concern about why this should be any of their business.

The Health & Safety at Work Act etc Act 1974 gives a general duty to look after the welfare of employees, The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require the assessment and management of risk.

This includes mental welfare, it includes the need to assess the risk of stress and the illness that it can cause – or worsen.

Thinking about looking after the mental welfare of your employees needs to be preventative and pro-active as well as re-active. If there are factors in your work or business that increase risk, you should be either eliminating these, or ameliorating the impact, and protecting your staff. If there are things you could be doing to actively improve the mental and physical wellbeing of your staff – which in itself is protective, you should be doing them. And you should also be thinking about whether there is any way you can help those staff who are struggling with their mental health – whether wholly work related or not.

There is a business case. There is a legal case. But the most important is the human case. People are struggling. More so than ever in these difficult pandemic times. We certainly don’t want to make things worse than they have to be – but employers have a perfect opportunity to actually make things better. To improve life and working conditions, to challenge behaviours which are unnecessary and unkind, (bullying, harassment, discrimination – all of which negatively impact mental health), to equip people with an understanding of their mental health, skills for wellbeing and coping with life’s challenges – and also, in the case of larger organisations, providing access to information, advice and services which help us to get back in control of our lives sooner – if we are struggling to access that help outside of work.

Too often I find Mental Health is only taken seriously in an organisation when someone at the top is personally affected, or one of their family members is struggling. Suddenly they get it. Suddenly they realise it is important, and that they have it in their power to do something.

We all have that power, to some extent. To learn more. To support our friends, families and co-workers. To lead by example in our words and acts. But businesses and government have the most power of all – and could transform the world if they chose to use it properly.

Where do you live?

Dwelling.

It’s an interesting word. It means the home itself, but also what we do in it. It also means something else. To dwell upon something. To linger thinking on something, to cogitate, ruminate.

In an effort not to ruminate upon the troubles, large and small which afflict us these days, I have been painting – a mindful activity, involving sufficient detail to take most of my attention. In order to occupy the remaining bit of space in my head I tend to do it while listening to a podcast or watching something fairly familiar or mindless.

I decided to rewatch Star Trek – Deep Space Nine. Not that I am accusing Star Trek of being mindless. Quite the opposite sometimes. But it is familiar, and took me back to watching it for the first time around when living with my parents. Star Trek is very much a shared family interest so it makes me feel more connected to them somehow in these days of not being able to see each other.

The first episode sees the newly arrived Commander Sisko venturing into a wormhole and there encountering a new, powerful alien race of energy beings who exist outside of linear time. They see into Sisko’s mind, events of his past, including the tragic loss of his wife. He tries to explain the nature of how we live in time, how when something has happened it is gone for us, never to return. And yet, the aliens keep asking him – “Where do you exist?”, because when they look in his mind they see the currency of his pain and grief about his wife. Despite the fact the event happened three years ago, it is as raw for him as if it were yesterday.

And this how trauma can affect us. It is only when we find a way to put it in its place, learn from in sometimes, or sometimes just accept – and allow ourselves to live in the present moment, and finally have a chance to move forward.

Grief, bereavement – of course we perhaps never leave it fully behind. But to be able to regain control of and a positive forward momentum for our lives we have to find a way to accommodate the memory of the lost in our lives without it overwhelming us.

Dwelling to an extent serves a purpose. If we experience a traumatic event – it is natural that we don’t just shrug our shoulders and move on. If we have been injured, violated, nearly died, or been in a situation where we felt incredibly unsafe – there is a period of sense making. Our brain’s main job is to keep us alive, to keep us safe – and if it has failed in that in any way, it needs to understand what has happened in order that it might do whatever it can in future to avoid it happening again. So we dwell upon it for a while, we go over the story in our head, or out loud. We may even relive it. And perhaps we realise something we could have done differently, or perhaps we reach the conclusion that it wasn’t our fault, it was out of the blue – say a car mounts the pavement and runs us over, unexpectedly, due to a tyre blow out. And at some point we realise there is nothing more to learn, and mentally file the event away in our archives.

But sometimes that doesn’t happen. Sometimes we can’t shake it. Sometimes we see fault in ourselves where there was none – there are a million “what-ifs” in any situation – we have no way of knowing if any of them would truly lead to any different outcome. Even if we had set out ten minutes later or taken a different route – who is to say some other calamity may not have befallen us. But sometimes we cannot make ourselves put the event to rest, it plagues us in different ways, and remains in some ways as current to us as it was when it happened.

Not just big stuff either. Emotional, relational trauma can have a lasting effect on our personality, our feelings of safety, confidence, self esteem. Specific triggers can subconsciously remind us of interactions earlier in life, and we respond automatically as we did at the time.

How long is too long to dwell upon something? Some amount of thought over an issue helps us to understand and clarify it. It is surely better to pause and think things over than to respond rashly, whether that be to get angry and lash out, or hurt and upset. If we can stretch the moment between prompt and reaction we have the opportunity to try and make our reaction more positive or helpful for us. Though that is of course easier said than done. There is a mechanism which keeps our worries on our minds. Sensibly – in some contexts – our brain, once it notices a threat, wants to make sure we don’t forget it, so every time we think of it, we are rewarded for our continued awareness with a little hit of dopamine. Excellent, if we are keeping our eye on what that bear in the distance is doing, or the traffic as we walk along a road with no pavement, or the proximity of the edge when we walk along a cliff path. Don’t daydream and drift in those circumstances, stay alert to the danger.

But we know that many of our modern problems with mental health come from the fact that this ancient fire alarm system is ill suited to modern needs. The smoke alarm goes off all the time, when we are cooking bacon, the steam from the kettle, even Uncle Bob’s vape cloud. Stress builds, and at some point we start to see it as a threat – You’re in debt. You’re not going to get that work done in time. You don’t think that person likes you. That headache you keep getting could be something serious. – All concerns which may be worthy of our attention. So we think about them, and our brain is happy we have noticed and it rewards us. And then we go about our day, and at some point we think of it again and get rewarded again. And dopamine makes us into the worst fiends – addictive as it is, driving many of our addictive behaviours – we become stuck in this cycle, going over and over the worry in our mind, anxiety building all the time, body responding to the “threat” with our Autonomic Nervous System and all that that entails.

We ruminate. My mother used to say to me – “You think too much” – when i worried about something, or became desolate about things like Death. “Just stop thinking about it”. How? I thought. I didn’t understand how people could be going about their day casually in the knowledge that we all die one day. How were they not all on their knees like the last man in a cheesy horror or disaster movie crying “Why?! God, Why?!”

And then I read something about how people with depression are x percent more prone to rumination than those without. I forget the percentage. I was certainly depressed, much of the time. Something in my head was making me dwell on things that worried or distressed me more than other people might. And it is unsurprising that if we spend a lot of time thinking about these things without finding positive solutions or interpretations we are going to get more distressed. I had to find a way to break the cycle.

A rough drawing of a stick person with a house for a head
Where do you live?

Where was I living? I spent many years dwelling on events in my past – negative ones which had unquestionably had an impact on me, positive ones which I missed and yearned for. Or in the future – worrying about what might be, fearing death, and what comes after (or doesn’t), mine or my loved ones’. And all I knew was in this present moment I was unhappy. I was depressed. I wasn’t able to see the world around me. The blessings I had, the chances, and opportunities. I drank to feel better, adopted a nihilisitic, hedonistic stance, which led to behaviours which in the end increased my woes.

Mindfulness activities try to get us to be in this present moment more. To realise that what is past is as gone as we allow it to be. And that we cannot predict the future. That the only moment we are absolutely sure of is the here and now. This breath. This breath. This breath.

When I catch myself ruminating on a worry, I try to break the cycle. First – with action. If there is an action I can take to alleviate the worry, that is something the brain likes even more than knowing we are alert to the danger, and will give us an even bigger reward for. Hopefully if successful we can sort the issue out so it doesn’t trouble us again. However many worries are not so easy to tackle in one fell swoop. So then, I try just to name the worry. Make my brain aware that I have noticed its concern. Thanks, I haven’t forgotten the debt. I know it’s there. I’m working on it. And then I move on to distraction. Deliberately trying to break the cycle. Sometimes focusing on my breathing works. Focusing on physical sensations. Scanning through my body – moving my attention methodically from the souls of my feet to the top of my head. Grounding techniques that check in with my five senses. I try to read a book, if I am ok with being awake – overwriting my brain’s anxious narrative with some other storyline. Or if I am trying to sleep, and my head will not stop drifting into the past or future – I allow it, but I instead try to take it to happy memories. Or imagine pleasant futures. Decorating an imaginary house for instance, or trying to vividly remember the sights and sounds and sensations of a day on the beach on my last holiday.

Sometimes we need to learn a wide array of techniques to help us break the cycle. Different forms of counselling or therapy can be helpful. Specific therapies like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming) can help in cases of trauma. It isn’t always easy. Our worries, these things we dwell upon, within – can become obsessions we cannot escape, paranoias that haunt our every moment. They can develop into serious mental illness. We can lose the ability to exert control over these cycles of fear. We can become convinced of our powerlessness, of the reality of all manner of delusions.

So if we can learn to recognise when we are dwelling on something more than it warrants, ruminating for longer than is helpful, and try and find a way to shake it, it is in our best interests. If our anxieties are dominating our lives, our fears and sorrows robbing our days of joy – if past traumas or bereavements are influencing our lives in such a way that we cannot live them the way we want to – then if we cannot shake it off on our own, we may need some professional help to learn techniques which could set us free.

Managing expectations – what do you want from your training?

Street signs indicating one way - pointing in different directions
Photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash

I deliver several different mental health training courses at the moment, some of them well established, others just finding their feet (and new ones in the pipeline). They all have their subtle differences, are great for different requirements – and are generally well received. However sometimes it is possible to tell from feedback that someone was expecting something else. Usually it is not that the course has not delivered – but that they had a different idea of what they were going to be learning.

Often sadly this comes when an organisation talks about “Mental Health First Aid” training, but then commissions shorter “Mental Health Aware” courses. It’s important to recognise that not all MHFA England accredited training is “Mental Health First Aid” training. All of it aims to improve your understanding of mental health, and ability to manage your own and support others to some extent, but it’s obvious that a 4 hour course is going to teach you much less than the two day or 4 session online course. So – be clear about what you need, and what you are getting.

Mental Health Aware training is excellent for a broad brush initial approach to raising Mental Health literacy in your organisation. But those who you expect to be offering more direct support to individuals need to take a deeper look at the issues, and be given an opportunity to discuss and practice a bit more. You should also be giving careful thought to how you support those Mental Health First Aiders, and if possible ensure they have good resources to which they can signpost employees in distress.

It’s common for employers to choose the cheaper option and perhaps think Mental Health First Aid training is out of their budget range – but if you come to an independent accredited trainer like myself we tend to offer at a much more affordable rate – so do ask for a quote for all options to make sure you make the right decision for your staff.

Another common disappointment comes from the age old urge to fix things. To do something. How do I approach this, what technique can I use to make this better?

Of course we cover some basics in this area, considering how and when to raise our concerns with someone. The kind of things we might want to bear in mind, and thoughts about the kinds of questions we ask. But there is no one right set of words to say, no one magic exercise which will help every person you are faced with. It would be wrong to pretend there is. Even things which many can find very effective may be completely wrong for some. All we can do is give you a framework, and encouragement to build your own toolkit for yourself, and to be able to support others to do the same. And the one universal tool that enables us to do this is talking. More specifically – listening. Giving someone else the space to listen. Unconditional, non-judgemental and empathetic support. Sometimes that is all people need – someone to hear and validate the difficulties they are facing, the pain they are in. Yes we can go on to help them work out a way forward, find solutions and draw on other supports. But we mustn’t underestimate the sheer power of being able to let go of all we have been bottling up.

That’s not to say I don’t think there is space for a more practical approach – and I hope to offer something soon – first on boosting wellbeing, and then on managing mental distress. But they are in general individual approaches, things we can practice ourselves which can make our more difficult moments more bareable, or which over time increase our experience of more positive mental states. When it comes to what another person can do for me, if I am struggling – It’s not about them giving me some tips on calming down or cheering up, I want to know they care. That they see me, my pain, and they are there for me, listening, holding, hearing.

So which course is right for you and your staff? Some basic pointers below, but please get in touch if you would like to discuss the courses on offer in more depth.

Mental Health Aware Courses

For general awareness and some pointers on managing your own mental health

Mental Health Champion Courses

for more depth & an opportunity to consider supporting people
– great for team leaders & management who need to understand why
mental health needs supporting in the workplace

Mental Health First Aid Courses

To learn more about mental health, signs and symptoms,
what helps, and an approach to offering initial help to people in distress (Excellent for line managers, union reps, HR staff, those who people come to for help – as well as setting up a support panel)

MHFA Refresher Courses

To refresh your skills and knowledge if you have already done a
mental health first aid or mental health champion course
over three years ago

Mental Health Skills for Managers*

to improve your skill or confidence in having supportive mental health conversations with the staff your manage

Return to Work and Mental Health*

for HR Professionals dealing with staff returning to work after absence relating to mental health – to improve the support offered and make those returns more successful in the long term

*Mental Health Skills for Managers & Return to Work and Mental Health Courses

These courses are currently only available to book directly from MHFA England – either see their website for more details or contact me and I will put you in touch.

Bespoke Courses

If the above courses do not meet your requirements – please contact me to discuss designing a course specifically to meet your needs.

Mind Your Head – Happy Valley Pride

In addition to starting an evening class on Tuesday, last night I had an engagement to appear on a mental health panel discussion for Happy Valley Pride – talking about mental health with the LGBTQ+ community in mind particularly.

It was nice to connect with others in the community and think about the ways in which this peculiar year has impacted us.

There will no doubt have been many LGBTQ+ people who have found the restrictions of this year more challenging than others – I think especially of young people, building their confidence in their identity. Being stuck at home for longer periods of time, not able to socialise – perhaps in family settings which are less than supportive or even safe, is difficult, unsettling, even dangerous. We go through a stage of working out and asserting our identity in our teens/twenties – if we find ourselves having to suppress or hide how and who we feel we really are, that can have consequences.

So much “replacement” social activity, and also access to services is now online – there’s a big assumption there that it will be possible for people to access these things. That people will have the techology, the internet connection, the technical capability, and the privacy where needed – to be able to participate. That is not the case for everyone – and there are significant numbers of vulnerable people who are missing out, and have been so glad to be able to reconnect even in the limited ways that have been able to re-start in some places.

Many LGBTQ+ perhaps rely more heavily on their family of choice, their social circle, – people who you are not necessarily going to be living with – and so maybe feel the separation more keenly when we have to restrict our social connections.

The statistics around mental health and the LGBTQ+ community don’t make for pretty reading. Many of us have gone through years of difficult circumstances, discrimination and trauma – which leads to increased risk of developing mental health difficulties. It can also be a barrier to engaging with services – or finding services and mental health professionals who have the understanding to meet our needs.

However – there is strength and positivity in the LGBTQ+ community which if harnessed can paint a different picture – of a community which supports each other and helps to build a future of ever improving wellbeing, which overcomes isolation and boosts connection.

We touched on many topics, challenges of intersectionality – thinking about LGBTQ+ people of colour, (we did notice we were an all white panel – regrettable, while recognising Happy Valley represents an area with very low ethnic diversity – hopefully in future suitable people can be found to bring other perspectives into the conversation). We also considered the experience of growing up Trans, and how that has changed over the last few decades. Current arguments and pushback may be disconcerting for young people who feel their rights being challenged, but our hostess Kate had reassuring words for them – that things are much better than they were, and will keep getting better.

People shared their top tips for wellbeing – some highlights:
* Get moving. Find an activity that suits you. Dance in disco pants.
* Write your worries down, get them out of your head
* Practice 10 minutes of proper relaxation – no distractions – no screens.
* Reach out and ask for help if you need it. Talk to friends, family, see your GP.
* Schedule a time to worry – if you are being troubled by anxieties.
* Practice self compassion – give yourself a break, treat yourself with kindness.

A pleasure to be invited and reminded of the fabulous community out there. I look forward to when we can welcome back our Happy Valley Pride festival in all its rainbow glory.