Tag Archives: mental wellness

Illness and wellness are not binary

Illness – a disease or period of sickness affecting the body or mind.

Wellness -a state of being in good health, especially as an actively pursued goal.

I was ill with anorexia and depression for many years. I spent a long time in recovery, making steps towards wellness, it was a tough journey but I got to the point where I felt I could say I was recovered a couple of years go.

A stable mood, a stable weight, a life focused on the future rather than having to focus on managing my mental health and many other markers of freedom have been reached.

But I still have to do a lot to manage my mental health. To maintain my mood I need to manage my weekly and daily routine so that I manage my energy levels, get enough rest and carefully consider how much stress is acceptable and what activities I can manage. I practice mindfulness as it helps me stay in the here and now rather than panicking about the future or dwelling in the past.

To stop myself spiralling into anorexia, I have to eat regularly but avoid rituals or strict habits. Over eating and under eating are ok but I must always be on the watch for the “anorexic voice” – it’s easily triggered by today’s diet culture chatter and irresponsible social media postings.

I am no longer “ill” and I “actively pursue” wellness.

I have heard some people say they are chronically ill because they will be on medication for the rest of their lives. I have tried coming off my medication, tapered gradually, but my symptoms returned. I have had to come to terms with the fact that I will probably be on medication for the rest of my life – but I don’t consider that to be the definition of illness.

Someone who has high blood pressure usually manages their blood pressure with lifestyle and medication in order to keep their blood pressure within normal limits. Someone who has diabetes uses lifestyle, medication and/or insulin to keep their blood sugars within normal ranges. Equally, I use lifestyle and medication to manage my mental health.

Even though I continue to need to manage my mental health I don’t think considering myself as an ill person is helpful. For some people, holding onto an identity as an ill person can have a negative impact on self esteem and ability to develop and grow as a person. But if I consider myself well and/or recovered, there’s the risk I might take my eye off the ball and not give my health the attention it needs.

So if I am neither ill nor well, what am I?!

Maybe I don’t need a label for what I am!

Sometimes I am more well than others – I have to work hard to stay well, that does not mean I am ill. I do not have to let this define me. I’m learning, despite what some people will have you think, not fitting into a category isn’t a bad thing!

The power of silence

Does anyone else find the world too noisy?

I think we’ve forgotten what quiet is like. Some people find silence awkward or uncomfortable, but I think that’s only because people feel a pressure to fill the gap.

Take the pressure away and silence is just that, some quiet time – there’s nothing intimidating or scary about that.

Yes, I know there are times, perhaps when meeting someone at a party, when small talk is polite, social etiquette is fine but that’s not what I’m talking about.

To be able to be silent with someone is a sign that the relationship has reached a deeper level. That you can just be with this person, without the pressure to fill the gaps says you’re totally comfortable with them.

Silence allows us to just be!

There are people who think out loud – I find this baffling but accept that’s what they need to do. It’s important to understand lots of people need time and space to think inside their heads.

I find it very difficult to concentrate when there’s extra noice around. I have make a conscious effort to block it out, it takes a lot of energy and this detracts from the actual thing I’m trying to concentrate on!

It’s amazing what we can discover in the gaps!

In my counselling training we’ve discussed how important it is to leave silence for our clients. It’s important to give them time to think, it’s only by doing this do we get beyond the practical facts of the situation and into the deeper feelings etc.

As a Christian, I pray daily. For me, this is not a formal process, I chat to God in my head. God does not need me to talk using my external voice. There are times I pray with other Christians. Praying out loud is something some people feel a pressure to do and can get quite anxious about saying “the right thing” – as far as I’m concerned there is no “right” way to talk to God, he knows everything that’s on our hearts, he does not need us to utter a word. The only reason to pray out loud is for the benefit of those around you, this is only necessary in specific circumstances. I pray weekly with a group of people where we share some prayers points, then we sit in silence for a few minutes – in this time God hears the prayers of every individual, instead of just the vocal one! Prayer is a 2 way thing – when Mother Teresa was asked what she said to God, she answered, “I listen”, when with excited anticipation she was asked “what do you hear God say?”, she replied “he listens” – I know this will not speak to everyone but for me it’s one of the most enlightening things I’ve ever heard.

Silence can be refreshing!

As a musician, I couldn’t write a blog about silence without mentioning John Cage’s 4’33”. I’ve never experienced it but I’m in no doubt, sitting in a concert hall full of people (adhering to concert hall etiquette), listening to nearly 5 minutes of ambient sound would be pretty powerful! Music is made up of notes of varying tone, pitch and duration with gaps of silence; John Cage challenges his audience to listen but he’s removed 1 aspect of the music. So, the debate continues about whether it’s music but there’s no doubt it’s an experience!

The therapy session that said to me “this therapist is for me” was one where I sat in silence. I thought he’d be angry that I wasn’t using the session productively – I felt pressure to fill the gap (it wasn’t silent, I was sobbing…) but I couldn’t put any of what I was feeling into words. Looking back, I was angry, but I didn’t have the word, I felt overwhelmed but didn’t know what it was. As a side note, my therapist wasn’t angry with me, he gave me what I needed – time and space to just be.

When I find silence, I can actually feel my ears relax! As a highly sensitive person, noise can be anxiety provoking, some sounds drill into my head as a physical sensation. But when I find silence, I feel my ears say “thank you”!

How about you try it? For a lot of people it will be difficult to find some quiet, but try, sit with your thoughts, don’t get caught up in them but mindfully notice them and see where they go! Quiet can nurture creativity, an inner calm or a deeper understanding of ourselves – it’s worth giving it a go!

How does light and colour affect us?

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A photo recently went around Facebook about stating that some areas in Scotland and Japan switched to blue street lights at night and saw a decrease in crime and suicide rates. If it’s that simple, this surely needs to be looked into…!
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In Glasgow some street lighting has been altered for aesthetic reasons and some anecdotal reports indicated a reduction in crime. The research in Japan involved 71 railway stations and the blue LEDs appeared to reduce suicides by 84%. However, an article published later indicated the apparent reduction in suicide rate could have been misleading as there were additional details such as position and timing that was not taken into account. The claim is therefore unproven since in neither case was it possible to explain the mechanism by the which the lighting could work or find a definitive causal link.
However, I know that lighting and seasons affect mood so I thought I’d look into this a little further…
Light and mood
A study published in Ergonomics considered 988 people across 4 countries to determine whether mood of people who work indoors was affected by seasons and proximity to a window. The mood of people far north of the equator changed significantly depending on the season, which did not occur in people closer to the equator. The effect the amount of light had on mood appeared to be related to the individual experience (rather than objective measurement of luminescence). Mood was lowest when lighting was experienced as “much too dark”, mood was best when lighting was experienced as optimum, however, mood decreased again once lighting was too bright.
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In my experience some people like bright light and will turn an artificial light on early in the evening even when light from a window, in my opinion, is sufficient. I can feel overwhelmed and over-stimulated in a bright office. This is tricky to manage since most of us work in teams, if not in offices holding large numbers of people – lighting (and therefore mood) would be optimum for one person but not for another. If you work at home and/or alone personalised lighting should be thoughtfully considered.
Seasonal affective disorder
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Looking further into seasonal differences, the existence of Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is evidence itself that people are affected by the seasons. SAD is a recurrent major depressive disorder beginning in the autumn and continuing through winter. A study has shown that SAD is more prevalent the further away from the equator people live. This could be due to a number of factors including light, specific weathers, temperature or perhaps culture. Successful treatments include medication, indicating chemicals in the brain such as serotonin are affected and psychotherapeutic approaches provide people with ways to work through negative thought and behaviour patterns as well as alternative ways of problem solving etc. However, the most highly promoted and successful treatment is light therapy. The use of light boxes emitting the full colour spectrum, similar in composition to sunlight have been found consistently to show significant improvements in symptoms. In Scandinavian countries research into light rooms (indirect and evenly distributed) has been carried out and has proven benefits. Insufficient vitamin D is also linked to depression and can be due to low dietary intake but particularly due to a lack of sunlight since we absorb it through the skin. Light therapy can also be of use in re-setting the circadian rhythm (via the impact light has on melatonin production) in people with sleep disorders, people working shifts or to quickly correct jet lag.
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Colour and mood
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A study published in Genetic Psychology revealed that people respond differently to colours, finding bright colours eliciting more positive emotions while darker colours were associated with emotions perceived as negative. A similar study with children as subjects had the same outcomes, the brighter colours being, primarily pink, blue and red, and dark colours were brown black and grey. These studies also found that females had a greater emotional response than males. These responses make sense when considering the seasons. Winter is naturally more dull with grey overcast clouds literally darkening our world while Spring sees the emergence of daffodils and bluebells, naturally brightened by sunshine the clouds gradually part to reveal.
Biological affects of light and colour
So what effects does light have on the body? When light strikes the retina they are converted into electrical impulses, these pass to the hypothalamus which regulates the autonomic nervous system (e.g. breathing and heart rate) and other functions such as sleep (circadian rhythm), sexual functions, appetite and metabolism. Light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum so it is no wonder that inside the brain different colours will produce different responses!
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It has been found that warm colours, such as reds, oranges and yellows increase heart rate, arousal and are associated with excitement – for some this excitement may be anger or irritability, for others, cheerfulness and joy. Yellow has also been found to trigger the release of serotonin (the “feel good” neurotransmitter lacking in the synapses of people with depression). While cool colours, such as blues and purples have been found to have more of a calming affect, decreasing heart rate, breathing rate and lowering blood pressure. Sometimes this could be perceived as a good thing, at other times people may feel drowsy or sluggish.
Other influences
Some colours will simply be preferred by different people depending on their experiences (for example a particular blue of a certain logo distresses me due to the experience I had working for that company) . There are also cultural influences, for example purple has become a symbol of royalty, simply because when dying of fabrics was first available, purple dye was expensive. Green is often viewed as lucky, in, for example, in Irish culture it is the colour of the 4 leaf clover etc.
Unfortunately it is not simply a case of surrounding ourselves with a particular colour in order to feel a particular way. There are many other factors impacting our emotional state and thus our susceptibility to the influence of the colours. Mental illness and the process of arriving at suicidal thoughts, feeling and actions are is complicated and thus, blue lights at suicide hotspots is unlikely to significantly impact an individual’s actions. I have been fascinated by the amount of research there has been into light, colour and it’s impact on our health and mood. Sunlight, in particular is vital for our overall health. Individuals may find specific colours useful – for more info follow the links or just give it a “Google”!
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