Tag Archives: mental wellbeing

How did colouring save my life?

This year, 4th-10th October is Occupational Therapy week!

If you’ve heard of Occupational Therapy, you may think about physical health aids such as a commode or guide rails, or maybe basketweaving, but they’re so much more!

The Royal College of Occupational Therapists says:

“Occupational therapists provide practical support to help you do the activities that matter to you. They will consider all of your needs – physical, psychological, social and environmental. Their support can make a real difference giving a renewed sense of purpose, opening up new horizons, and changing the way you feel about the future.”

When mentally ill, you may think you’ll see a psychiatrist or psychologist but the nature of mental illness means a multidisciplinary approach is the best and most successful.

The way that you occupy your time can profoundly impact your mental health. I’ve had contact with occupational therapy during prolonged hospital admissions.

One of the most helpful psychological techniques I’ve used is mindfulness but it can be incredibly difficult, when you mind is sick, to try mindfulness for 10 seconds, let alone a couple of minutes. When most unwell I needed something easier to engage with…

When an occupational therapist first introduced me to colouring, I feared it was a little childish and thought I‘d find it hard to concentrate. But I reserved judgment and gave it a go. I’ve been hooked ever since. Colouring was a simple enough activity, I could engage with it and it enabled me to switch off from my spiralling thoughts. It has a calming effect and therefore reduces symptoms of anxiety without much effort! It can also improve motor skills and vision and also boasts to improve sleep!

Ultimately, mindfulness guides you to be able to focus on your breath but mindful activity can be just as beneficial. Mindful colouring meant I focused my mind; continued practice of mindfulness enables us to remain in the here and now rather than dwelling in the past or worrying about the future.

I was seriously unwell so I had to take medication, work hard in psychotherapy and use a lot of other techniques but colouring was the thing I turned to when I couldn’t muster the strength to do anything else. If I’d used every ounce of energy to get out of bed, showered and dressed, I didn’t have any energy left but I didn’t want to just sit in front of the TV; colouring didn’t require me to use any energy, but it helped keep my mind occupied. It played an important part in me beginning to rebuild my life, 1 tiny step at a time.

Plus, I started to feel quite proud of the results, boosting my self esteem along the way!

I’ll be happy when…

  • I’d be happy if I found a new job…
  • I’ll be happy when I get a promotion…
  • I’d be happy if we had a bigger house…
  • I’ll be happy when I retire…
  • I’d be happy if I could get pregnant…
  • I’ll be happy when my family’s complete…
  • I’ll be happy when my children leave home…
  • I’d be happy if I could lose weight…
  • I’d be happy if I found a partner…
  • I’d be happy if I wasn’t chronically ill…

So many of us spend our lives chasing happiness around as though the next big thing will be the answer. Unfortunately, we often find that when we arrive at what we think will produce these magical feelings, we don’t feel happy and we need to set the next goal.

Ambition is good, aiming to achieve the next goal and believing it’s possible is how we better ourselves. However, pinning our hopes of happiness on achieving this next goal doesn’t work!

It’s as though happiness is always over-there-somewhere, this intangible thing. The reason we never quite achieve happiness is because we think happiness comes from something outside ourselves. But happiness must come from within.

Person standing on a very tall ladder reaching into the sky

I spent my teenage years and young adult life thinking I would be happy when I achieved the next stage of becoming a doctor. Unfortunately, each stage was never quite as I imagined and always brought a lot more stress. On top of my faulty belief, I was also depressed. Mental illness requires support and/or treatment from a trained professionals. If you think you, or someone you know is mentally ill, there’s no quick fix, I urge you to seek appropriate help. However, anyone can re-frame the beliefs we have around happiness (thinking it’ll come when some goal is attained) and we can, almost overnight, feel happier.

What if your current situation was ok? What if being: in education, in your current job, single, childless, your current weight, in your current state of health, wasn’t fraught with judgement? It’s what you think about your current situation that’s getting in the way. What if you could find contentment which, in turn, could mean happiness?

People who are unhappy with their weight are generally judging themselves as greedy or lacking in self control. People who are unhappy at work might be judging themselves as underachieving, perhaps comparing themselves to peers. People unhappy with their relationship status judge themselves as unattractive, undesirable, failing in some way. Someone who’s childless may think they’ve failed in some way.

What you’re doing right now, your current situation, is part of your journey, it is shaping you, developing you, strengthening you. Judging ourselves is cruel, unhelpful, unnecessary and only leads to unhappiness!

Person lying on the ground smiling broadly with a dog by their side

Maybe you’re not precisely where you want to be but that’s ok.

Being content is not an excuse for apathy. If changes need to be made or you desperately want something, you can still strive, but if you stop judging your current situation it’s amazing how much more energy you have to fight for what you want!

Most of us have a friend who was single, very “keen” for a relationship… wasn’t it when they stopped behaving so “keenly” that they found love?! And, how many people have got pregnant the moment they stop trying?!

Once we’re ok with being who we are and where we are, we become happier and funnily enough, change becomes more possible!

Some people become stuck in mental illness, often using maladaptive coping strategies over and over. Often they’ll feel angry with themselves for “doing it wrong”. Thoughts such as “if only I could sort myself out” or “if only I was a better person” or “if I had better support” are very common vicious cycles. But what if these could be re-framed as “I’m doing my best” and “I have some support I could use”, the picture looks different. Of course, I know it’s not as simple as that but being ok with who we are and what we’ve got can free us up to see where and how small gradual changes can be made.

Woman looking out the window calmly

Should we be normalising mental illness?

Awareness around mental illness is certainly getting better, reducing stigma and discrimination is important but are we doing the general population a disservice?

1 in 4 mental health awareness. 4 silhouettes, 3 are blue and 1 is has words such as “there’s too much to do” and “why does it always happen to me?”

The figure is 1 in 4 people will suffer with a mental illness at some point in their lives. There are also statistics out there about how many anti-depressants are prescribed each year or the number of sick days mental illness costs companies. Some say “mental illness is on the rise”, perhaps due to the state of our economy, social media or life stresses from other sources.

But, perhaps we need to stop and think. Not coping is different from mental illness.

Talking recently to someone working in Child and Adolscent Mental Health, she said she is seeing a rise in children being referred to her service but this is not due to a rise in mental illness, she is seeing a rise in children not coping and a decrease in resilience.

This seems to be the same across all sector of the population.

The phrase “panic attack” has become synonymous with feeling anxious. Now, I do not want to diminish anyone’s anxiety but if you’re stood in a queue in the supermarket “having a panic attack” but you “kept it in” – you did not have a panic attack. You may have experienced extreme anxiety, and I’m not saying that is ok, you may need to learn some techniques to manage feeling anxious but please do not use a medical phrase for a normal emotion.

An outline head and shoulders with thought bubbles saying, “worry”, “anxiety”, “fear”, “tension” and “panic”.

The language around mental illness is diffciult because they’re standard English words. You can feel depressed without being diagnosed with depression, you can feel paranoid without suffering panaroia (a symptom of mental illness), you can feel anxious without having a diagnosis of anxiety. By raising awareness, we’re making all these words more accessible and they’re falling into common use. But bandying medical words around in common parlance diminishes their meaning in the context of illness.

If you suffer severe fluctuations in emotions that feel uncomfortable, please do talk to someone, you are allowed support, I do not want to take that away from you. After all, apparently Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living”. You do not have to be ill to access support, explore yourself and your life and to develop better coping strategies. Nor do you need to justify your struggles by using medical terminology.

I started training to be a counsellor because I want to help people diagnosed with mental illness but the more I learn, the more I see how incredibly helpful it can be for people who’re struggling with life’s ups and downs. It’s ok to seek counselling or other support when things just don’t feel right.

Words on a rainy back ground, “it is perfectly okay to admit you’re not okay”

It’s great that people are getting more comfortable in talking about their emotions but we need to be able to differentiate between people who’re struggling and people who’re ill. It’s ok to say “I’m having a bit of a tough time” or “I’m not feeling so great today” – the #hashtag #itsoknottobeok is falling into common use and this is helpful for everyone’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

If you’d sprained your ankle, you wouldn’t say you’d fractured it, put it in a cast and use crutches would you? A sprained ankle needs appropriate support. If I had a sprained ankle but I acted as though it was broken and treated it as such, i.e. immobilised it etc, it would get worse, not better.

By normalising mental illness and by normalising the language, we risk normal struggles being treated as illness. Since recovering from mental illness, I’m not immune from normal life struggles but I’m acutely aware they are just that.

By raising awareness of mental illness, we need to be careful we don’t label all emotional struggles as “illness”. We need to make sure we’re also raising awareness of the differences between illness and not coping.

Quote “The unexamined life is not worth living” accredited to Socrates. On a black and White Sea scape background