Creating a Mental Health Fitness Plan

We’re almost two weeks into the new year. Gyms all over the world have been  inundated with newcomers suddenly motivated to achieve their fitness goals that they started to neglect at the end of the year. I myself have been trying to get back into yoga and start bouldering again, with the help of Yoga with Adriene and (hopefully) my colleagues.

Still, regardless of whether people actually achieve their fitness goals — the joke is that people often don’t, of course — it’s seen as such a normal thing to create a plan for physical fitness and stick to it. Even people who can only manage one push up are aware on some level that regular exercise is necessary to keep our bodies working. Not quite so for mental health, where most of us believe we’re fine until we’re not, with little thought about how we got there.

Mental health is not seen as a skill that can build or deteriorate with time; it’s something you have or don’t. But since reading Mark Freeman’s book, The Mind Workout, I’ve often wondered — why aren’t there easy, accessible routines to follow for mental fitness? 

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Why 2019 Will Be Awful: Cleaning Rituals

Every New Year’s Eve, for as long as I can remember, I have cleaned my room from top to bottom, cleared out documents and thrown away items I don’t want anymore. It’s a larger version of a mini ritual I do every weekend — ‘a weekly review’ you might call it, if you’re into productivity communities. When I feel stressed at work I clean up my desk as well, or delete all my emails. A cluttered mail inbox makes my skin crawl.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to clean and minimise. Looking after your belongings and taking care of your surroundings can certainly boost your mood. A weekly review is also a useful tool to get a picture of your week and learn from your mistakes. But in my hands it’s also been a compulsive tool.

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Dear Rat Brain: What are your stories?

Dear Rat Brain,

Whenever I come home, I notice the pattern we immediately fall back into. We’re snappish, quick to criticise, sometimes immature. It’s a frustrating thing to deal with when you try hard to move *away* from this kind of behaviour when you’re not at home — but as soon as your foot steps over the threshold, I hear you squeak, ‘Ooh, I know this place! I know how we used to act!’

Part of this is the stories other people have about us; other times it’s the stories I still carry around myself/my family.

‘I must defend myself. They don’t understand me. I don’t know any other way to be besides passive aggressive’. The walls we put up as a teenager for our safety were needed then, but not now.

My goals for this Christmas are to try and unpick these stories, bit by bit. To extend some kindness for myself and for our family, who are trying their best and almost always have our best interests at heart. Even when they unknowingly hurt me, fight with each other or try to control each other, they are acting out the stories they hold onto, too. I can’t begrudge them that.

Lucky

I am one of the lucky ones.

That’s funny to say, now. I wouldn’t have considered myself lucky a few years ago, when I thought I’d never be free of anxiety. I never thought there would be a day when I wasn’t plagued by thoughts of harming myself or just ending it all, or when I’d go to bed without having to call someone so the anxiety would finally dissipate enough for me to sleep.

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A Takeaway Free Month

During the month of November, I decided (alongside a friend, who did her own monthly challenge) to go without takeaway (or fastfood in general), for the whole month.

The ‘rules’ were fairly simple:

  1. Where possible, cook every meal. This meant that all lunches would have to be something I made or prepared the night before. I wouldn’t, for example, buy a sandwich from a shop as a meal.
  2. If I’d made plans in October to have lunch or dinner with someone, I kept the plans. But I didn’t make any new plans to eat out. So I went out for dinner twice: once with my parents and once with a group of friends. For all other plans  I had to work around it somehow (usually just getting a drink, if anything), rather than just turning up somewhere and hoping I could eat there. If someone invited me out spontaneously I’d usually just get a drink but not eat with them.
  3. For simplicity’s sake, I decided to forego convenience food like oven pizzas etc, for the most part. I only bought one throughout the month, although I did have quite a few portions of oven chips…

Honestly, I thought I’d bail within the first day or two, so I was pretty surprised that I lasted the whole month. Yay 😉

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Not sponsored by Papa John’s. Sadly 😦

Still, what surprised me most was how this challenge gave me something worthwhile that I hadn’t expected: an odd sense of clarity on what my brain was doing with regards to food. I’ve always just followed my anxieties about food wherever they led me, but here I practised being able to accept those thoughts, while I did something completely different.

Here’s some of the mental health skills I got to practise this month:

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