Category Archives: coping strategies

10 tips to keep your sanity when you have chronic health problems

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Living with chronic health problems and long-term illness can push you to your limits physically, which in turn, can send you over the edge mentally. Having lived with Neutropenia and M.E (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) for many years now, I can verify that these illnesses have threatened to crack my sanity and spirit like a boiled egg shell hit repeatedly with a spoon.

In order to get through the rest of my life with some semblance of my mental health intact, I’ve developed several ways of coping and getting by that I’d like to share with you today.

1) There’s a lot of advice floating around about ‘accepting’ your situation and coming to terms with it and that’s all very well and good if you can do it. After 17 years of illness however, I am no closer to accepting it than I was at the beginning. I’ve now decided to accept that I can’t accept it and deal with that instead. I believe it’s healthier to feel all your feelings, even if the so-called negative ones such as anger, frustration, bitterness, envy, loss or regret. What I’ve discovered is that these feelings are fluid anyway and it’s impossible to stay feeling any one thing forever. If I allow the feelings to come without saying ‘I should have accepted this by now!’ they usually pass of their own accord and then I can get on with making the best of things.

2) Work out what your physical and mental limits in life are and stick to them. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds, but I’ve learned the hard way that ‘pushing myself’ is no longer an option. I’m done with payback and exhaustion from not listening to my mind and body.

3) In order to achieve 2) do not listen or pay attention to anyone who thinks you should be doing more. This is also a lot more difficult than it sounds but unless someone has the exact same conditions as you which affect them in the exact same ways, they have no place advising you on anything.

3) Forget about rigid time-management and organising your life. I tried this for years after I first got sick thinking it would help me maximise the time when I was well. What happened was that I had to change my plans and alter deadlines so much due to the unpredictable nature of my illness that I ended up feeling like a failure who couldn’t get things done. As difficult as it sounds, ‘going with the flow’ is a better mental approach for me than putting expectations on myself that I can’t live up to.

4) Prioritise instead and then you will be able to live with the lack of order in your life. My priorities are my health/self-care, work, partner, friends and family ( all at the top together ) Sadly, my goals and ambitions have to be lower priority because it’s just common sense that I can’t do everything at the pace I want to. Hence the sporadic blog posts, the years it took me to start getting my writing published and the YouTube channel that I’m desperate to develop, but which is moving along at a snail’s pace. Everything else like housework, decorating, crafts, reading etc is lumped together at the bottom of my priorities because if I kept up with them at the level I would like, the top priorities would suffer. Travel is nowhere on my list of priorities, even though if I was well I’d love to travel more. It takes so much energy that it is permanently on a back burner. Even going away for a few days results in payback and massive exhaustion. Trying to do everything will definitely send you insane.

5) If anyone has the audacity to say to your face they don’t believe your illness exists or that you aren’t really that sick, there are two simple steps you can follow. One is to talk to them and try to educate them about your illness and if this doesn’t work, you can go straight  to step two which is to remove them from your life via the nearest available exit. If that’s too brutal for you, try a gradual ‘phasing out’ so that you see and talk to them a lot less. These people are called ‘naysayers’ and they are one of the biggest threats to your sanity

6) Indulge yourself often. Living with health problems is 20 times more difficult than living a normal life, so regular treats are essential to stop insanity showing up on your radar. For me it’s clothes and I don’t care if I have too many or don’t need any more. I work very hard to keep my job whilst feeling awful and so if I spot a new leopard print item, I’m having it.

7) NEVER compare yourself to anyone else who is well. Comparing yourself to someone who is well is futile and also a bit silly. You might as well open the door to insanity and offer it a cup of tea.

8) Don’t feel you have to put on a brave face worse still, be ‘inspirational’. All of this can take energy and make you more ill from the effort.

9) But don’t moan a lot either, because this can also be very draining, for you and everyone else.

10) ‘Big up’ yourself and remember to congratulate yourself regularly on the achievement of surviving health issues. Not going insane takes considerable effort which can’t be underestimated. I said ‘well done’ to myself nine times yesterday!

10 tips to help yourself if you’re suffering with Depression.

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10 tips to help yourself if you’re suffering with Depression.

One thing I’ve realised over a lifetime of suffering with Depression is that the power of self-help is hugely under-rated. There are so many things you can do to improve the way you feel and considering the waiting times for professional help, it’s a smart move to tap into your own resources. I had a think about the best ways I’ve found to manage my own Depression and here are my top 10 tips:

1) Do the exact opposite of what you feel like doing. If you feel like staying in bed all day, get up. If you feel like you want to withdraw from the world, go out and meet a friend. If you don’t want to eat, you should make yourself eat. Depression does not have your best interests at heart. I’ve realised that if I make choices based on what my Depression would like me to do, I ALWAYS feel worse.

2) Be patient. It takes a long time to reach the depths of despair and the reasons you feel like this may take a fair bit of unravelling. Don’t expect to feel better overnight.

3) Be kind to yourseIf. Don’t beat yourself up with all kinds of negative statements like ‘I’m worthless, I’m useless, I’m a burden’ etc. I would bet good money that you are none of these things. It’s the Depression talking. Depression makes you see yourself and the world through brown tinted glasses. Write a list of your positive points, or ask someone else to. Think about what you would buy for a friend who was going through a dreadful time and buy it for yourself. I once bought myself a massive bunch of flowers and some chocolates when I was suicidal. It definitely took the edge off and at least I had nice things to eat and look at while I felt crap.

4) Accept that you are ill. Depression is an illness just the same as heart disease and cancer. It’s not your fault. But there is a lot you can do to try and get better.

5) Ask for help. It’s important to reach out for help, whether that’s with counselling/therapy, medication or simply asking friends and family to support you.

6) Have faith that things will get better. It may seem a preposterous suggestion that you could ever feel any differently than the way you do now. But as long as you don’t kill yourself, there’s every chance things will improve. People can and do recover from Depression.

7) Read, read read. Trawl through self-help books and internet resources to find nuggets of wisdom and inspiration that you can apply to your own situation. Educate yourself on Depression; knowledge is power.

8) Keep to a routine and if you don’t have one, create one. There is nothing Depression loves more than a complete lack of distraction. Don’t sit at home alone as this is the perfect environment for Depression to drag you further into its hellish pit. Bear in mind that Depression is not as obvious to others as you might think. I’ve shown up at work, weddings, christenings and a host of other events and been shocked that the way I feel is completely invisible. Only the people who know you extremely well will have even the slightest inkling that anything is wrong. So use this to your advantage and don’t be self- conscious that your Depression will knock people over as soon as you come through the door. If getting out distracts you even for five minutes, it’s worth it.

9) Don’t self-medicate with drugs or alcohol unless you are sure you want to feel 100 times worse.

10) Try writing about how you feel.  You may find that reasons begin to emerge for the way you feel, or that getting it out on paper is better than having it eating away inside you. Writing can be hugely therapeutic. Try starting a blog and if you’re worried about going public, do it anonymously. When I started mine, I was amazed at the support I got from complete strangers online. It really helps to know there are other people who feel the same way you do. WordPress is very easy to use by the way, even when you are really horribly depressed.

I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any tips for managing Depression in the comments box below.

If you would like to see me in the flesh talking about these tips in more detail, head over to  my brand new YouTube channel!

Relationships and Depression

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Relationships and Depression

Depression doesn’t just affect you, although it can be difficult to see this when you are consumed by the beast of darkness. Its slimy tentacles will wrap themselves around every area of your life and if you aren’t careful, squeeze the living daylights out of it.

It can be hard to keep yourself together during these times, never mind the rest of your life. If you are in a relationship, your partner will often bear the brunt of the effects of your illness. It can pay to have a few strategies up your sleeve to make sure that your relationship will survive this testing time.

I was lucky with my partner that we had been together for over a year (and known each other as friends for 3 years before that) when I became seriously depressed as a result of my Dad’s death. So he already knew me pretty well and had seen a lot of the positive sides of my personality. He knew I’d had problems in the past but for the start of our relationship at least, we were able to get off on a solid footing.

I’m pointing this out because I’ve had other relationships that started when I was already depressed and they either never got off the ground or were doomed to failure because I wasn’t well enough to hold them down. Depression clouds everything and the type of boyfriends I picked whilst consumed by the quagmire were let’s say, less than exemplary. If they were suffering from depression as well, then the hideous starting dynamic meant that we both ended up with twice as many problems as we’d begun with.

It’s given me a lot of valuable insights into how relationships work. They are difficult at the best of times, but throw mental illness into the equation and it can all get pretty messy quite quickly.

My current partner does not have personal experience of depression, so when I succumbed to the monster, he didn’t know how to handle it. Overnight I had changed from someone who was independent, motivated and capable to a needy, clingy mess.

We both had to learn how to handle me in this state and how to get our relationship through one of the worst times of my life.

If you are the one who is depressed, it is important to challenge all those negative voices in your head saying your partner is going to leave you. Despite having no evidence whatsoever to back this up, I held onto this belief with a vice-like grip. Depression is evil; it can help to see it as a separate entity and give it a hard time when it shows up. From past experiences I’ve learned that nothing will get rid of a boyfriend faster that constantly asking them to promise they will never leave. So I fought against these thoughts. You have to give your partner credit for being able to see beyond depression and believe them if they say they love you. If you think that you are going to drive them away with your depression, you probably will.

Communication is also vital, even though the impulse of depression is to withdraw. Talk to your partner about how you are feeling, even if every fibre of your being believes they won’t want to hear it. If you can’t explain what you are feeling, tell them that. Be honest if you feel dreadful. Share and involve them in your experience. My partner was honest with me and told me he didn’t know what to do or say when I felt bad. I told him he didn’t have to do or say anything, that listening was enough. Over time, we worked out ways to bridge the gap. I learned how to explain what I needed and he felt less pressure to be measurably helpful.

It’s also important not to have unrealistic expectations of your partner and expect them to save or rescue you from depression. If you are lucky to be with someone kind and helpful, resist the temptation to make them totally responsible for your well-being. I’ve found that when one person is depressed, it alters the dynamic of the relationship dramatically into that of carer and patient. I’ve been both the depressed one and the carer through various relationships and it’s very hard to get back on an equal footing. It’s great if your partner wants to help, but you have to take responsibility for yourself too. Get professional help, look into medication, support groups and self-help and above all, try and keep your life as intact as possible. See friends, talk to them about how you feel and develop coping strategies for getting yourself through it. The more you withdraw from life and your commitments, the more of a burden your partner has to shoulder.

It can be helpful to apply these strategies to all relationships, not just the one you have with your partner. I’ve always found it helpful to spread myself around amongst my partner, friends and family to make sure that no-one feels over-burdened by me. Although you don’t want to be hard on yourself, it is realistic to accept that depression is a pain in the backside and it is difficult to support someone through it. Again, communication is important. If it’s hard to get out and meet people, explain that. Keep in contact by text, email or phone instead. If people don’t know how to help, reassure them that just being there is enough because it often is.

Finally, the most important thing to consider when keeping your relationships intact is to remember that life still goes on for other people when you are depressed. You have to ask how they are, show an interest and act like you care, even if you don’t. Of course you need support, understanding and flexibility, but relationships beyond your family are not unconditional and they won’t survive if you disappear into your own doom. It can often provide a welcome break from your own head to listen and consider someone else’s life for a while.

The chances are that depression will pass eventually and you don’t want to emerge from it to find your life full of deafening silence and tumbleweed. I’ve found that these damage limitation strategies can go a long way in helping to rebuild your life afterwards.

Navigating the minefield of professional help.

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Navigating the minefield of professional help.

When I first sought help for my mental health issues at 16, I was shocked to find that the psychiatrist I saw was a horrible and nasty cow. I expected that she would be nice to me as I was suffering and all; sadly this wasn’t the case. As I was only 16 and lacking in any self-esteem or assertiveness skills, I let it go and filed the experience under ‘more shit that’s happened to me.’

I never went back and it took me another 3 years to pluck up the courage to ask my GP for help again. This time I was referred to a male psychotherapist. He was altogether more agreeable but unfortunately I was only assigned a couple of months worth of appointments before I was released back into the wild. All he ever really said was ‘how does that make you feel?’ but I appreciated being able to chat and discuss how things made me feel.

I wasn’t sure what to do after this as I was still prone to awful depression and thought I had exhausted all my options via the GP. Luckily, when I got to University I discovered that the campus offered a free counselling service. I was amazed when the woman I saw was friendly, helpful AND insightful. Not only did she patiently listen to all my shit, but she drew diagrams on a white board about feelings, processes and behavioural patterns. For the first time ever, someone was able to present the contents of my head back to me in a way that made sense. She was big on ‘inner child’ therapy and had me drawing pictures and writing letters to myself with my non-dominant hand. It was fun!

I used to love going to see her and learnt a lot about myself during her sessions. Then she told me she loved seeing me too but we had to finish the sessions because of ‘transference’. Her transference had manifested itself in her having motherly feelings towards me which she had raised in her supervision. I told her I didn’t want to stop coming because it was really helping me and she burst into tears.

It was a less than exemplary situation but at least she had the self-awareness to flag up the issue and be honest about her own reactions. It’s just difficult to know what to do when your counsellor is sat in front of you crying her eyes out. From this experience I learnt that counselling was definitely something I wanted to pursue with somebody else, although I’d have to watch out for unwittingly acting in a daughterly fashion.

After graduating University, I sought help from a young persons counselling agency and spent nearly 2 years seeing a guy who was only a couple of years older than me who was on a work placement as part of his Diploma. Again it was very helpful and I felt that I was gaining a lot of insight into my problems. He was very focused on coping mechanisms and I was delighted one day when he announced that my coping skills ‘surpassed those of anyone else he knew.’ The problem here was that I’d started to see him as a friend. I think he saw me in the same way and would tell me a lot of information about himself, his life and his own feelings. He allowed me to get close to him and I didn’t realise at the time that this was entirely inappropriate. Things got worse when he told me he had been on a hypnotherapy course. He asked if he could demonstrate what he’d learned and I trusted him, so I said yes. The practical upshot of which was that it wasn’t hypnotherapy at all but some sort of weird, esoteric trance-inducing practice which brought on a massive anxiety attack. I would have let it go as it was one bad experience in 2 years of seeing him, but unfortunately his other clients complained and he was dismissed.

I was starting to see that receiving successful and appropriate professional help was a bit of a minefield.

From here onwards I gave the therapy a miss and relied on my highly acclaimed coping skills. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, all was well until my Dad popped his clogs prematurely and I had to take my place again on the mental health referral merry-go-round.

I then spent a few months with an NHS counsellor who at best could be described as useless, pointless, ineffectual and boring. I swapped her for another one I found myself through a women’s centre. She was a lot better but also ended up in floods of tears one day after ‘connecting deeply’ with what I was saying.

It was all getting just a little bit tiresome. At this time, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) was now being hailed as the new therapy du jour so I asked to be put on a waiting list for this instead.

I waited and waited and waited before getting 6 sessions with a man who was very nice but didn’t do much. He told me it would be a mistake to work on in-depth techniques as my problems were so ‘deep rooted’ that I needed Cognitive Analytical Therapy instead. I’d never heard of this but allowed him to refer me to the waiting list. Apparently it is long-term analysis that takes 12-months and you get to grips with all your current issues by going back into your childhood for answers. I must admit my heart sank when he said this as I thought I’d done the childhood stuff in my University inner-child therapy. I was pretty sure my current problems were entirely connected to my Dad’s death. But when you are feeling vulnerable and have waited an eternity to see someone, it’s difficult to know what’s best. He told me I’d only have to wait 6-8 weeks for the CAT so I hung on.

6 MONTHS later ( why can’t they just be honest about the length of time these appointments take? ) I got my appointment for what I thought was Cognitive Analytical Therapy. The therapist was a no-nonsense woman who was very confused that I thought she practiced CAT as she was actually a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist. She told me that her organisation didn’t offer CAT and the last therapist was completely wrong to think I could get it! After a short heated interchange she told me she’d have to report him and I agreed wholeheartedly. She assessed me and agreed I didn’t need CAT anyway and that my problems were related specifically to my Dad’s death.

I saw her for a few months and cannot praise the CBT therapy highly enough. It helped massively. In many ways, it was more helpful than anything I’d experienced before as it was so practical and gave me the tools to be able to think about things differently. It appealed to my sense of logic and reason and suited my way of thinking. Of course the therapist wasn’t perfect. She could be cold and officious and wound me up by asking which items I would like to put on the ‘agenda’ each week, but at least there was no boundary crossing, crying or other inappropriate nonsense. I learnt a lot from her and feel that CBT techniques have permanently re-wired my brain.

I don’t know whether I had extremely bad luck with my earlier ventures into therapy, or if these experiences are relatively common. I often wonder how different my life would have been if the psychiatrist I saw at 16 had been better, but I suppose it doesn’t work like that. Therapists are human too and subject to the same flaws as the rest of us. My only regret is that I wasn’t confident enough at the time to speak up or complain about some of the ridiculous scenarios that came my way. Despite the difficulties though, I did manage to achieve a lot of insight and self-awareness into my problems. I’m glad I kept going and asking for different types of help as eventually, I did manage to find the right support.

Laura’s Top Tips for navigating the minefield of professional help

1) If you are unhappy with anything your therapist says or does, SPEAK UP. If you don’t feel comfortable saying it directly to them, then ask to speak to the manager of the organisation or complain in writing.

2) A therapist is not your friend/mother/anyone else in your life and if they start acting as such, it’s time to end the sessions and move on. The sessions are yours, to talk about your issues and not theirs. You will never see them again after the sessions end, so make sure they keep to their professional boundaries.

3) If your therapist cries in front of you, that is their problem not yours. If it makes you uncomfortable, say so. Remember therapists are human too and may be affected by what you say, but you always have the right to let them know how it makes you feel or walk away.

5) Therapist don’t always have all the answers. Don’t expect them to completely ‘fix’ you or transform you into a totally different person.

6) If you have given a therapy a good try and don’t feel it’s helping, don’t continue. Ask to be referred to a different person or a different therapy entirely.

7) If you are on a massive waiting list and find yourself struggling, don’t hesitate to call the Samaritans or any of the mental health helplines such as MIND which are available. You could be waiting months, so don’t let things build up and overwhelm you.

8) There are many different types of counselling, therapy and support available. Do your research and see which types seem appropriate for you.

9) Don’t be afraid to ask to see someone’s qualifications and ask about their experience. You are letting them loose on your mind, so make sure their credentials are in order.

10) Remember as they say in the L’Oreal adverts – ‘You’re worth it’ You deserve to have the right help.

“Fail to plan and you plan to fail” – coping strategies for when life turns nasty.

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One of the most reliable things about life is that you can count on it to fuck you over at some point. Whether that is through difficult life events, relationships or circumstances, it is rare to sail through to old age completely unscathed.

I’ve employed various coping mechanisms over the years to deal with depression, anxiety, long-term health problems and a variety of other difficult things that came my way. Some of them were good and some were very bad indeed. Before I received proper therapy and support and got to know myself inside out, my coping strategies included heavy drinking, over-eating, self-harm, exuberant credit fuelled shopping sprees and hanging out with people who were as fucked up as I was, or worse. I’ve always had an invisible sign on my head saying ‘Come meet me!’ that only the seriously messed up could read.

It’s taken me the best part of 25 years to rid myself of all this destruction and find more helpful and less damaging ways to cope with life and the problems I’ve faced.

I’m proud of the fact that I haven’t carried out any of the above unhelpful methods of coping for many many years. These days, I am sober and eat healthily, the credit cards have been banished and my friends are either completely normal (whatever that is) or of a pretty similar level of battiness to how I am now.

Although I am on a stable footing at the moment, I’ve learnt that I must always have coping strategies hard-wired into my brain. Staying on top of mental and physical health problems requires vigilence, discipline and self-awareness. It’s not a very relaxing life, but it’s one I feel in control of.

Perhaps the most important factor in coping is your belief system and attitude. I’ve always believed things would get better, even when they were fucking terrible. No matter how improbable it seemed, I knew that if I didn’t believe this I would be doomed. Having this belief opens you up to things which may help and improve your situation. If you don’t believe things will get better, you dismiss or don’t even notice anything good that comes your way. Running closely alongside this belief is to categorically believe there will always be SOMETHING that you can do to improve your situation, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem. After noticing I am still alive and prospering after many years of hell, it is now part of my coping hard-wiring to believe that I will get through any future shit that comes my way.

Another important coping strategy is fine-tuned self-awareness. I’ve learnt to recognise all my own signs of stress, depression and being overwhelmed. It’s been very important to me in coping with problems to recognise when I am NOT coping.

If I feel I am not coping, I have learned by trial and error that certain actions will always help. Talking about it to someone I am close with can often stop any problems dead in their tracks. Learning that some people are better than others to talk to has been a key development in my life. As was letting go of the expectation that certain people ‘should’ be there for me. I wish I’d known 20 years ago to just give up if people don’t offer their time, attention and support freely.

A branch of this coping mechanism is to never isolate myself if going through a tough time. I have a tendency to get right in my own head, over-analyse things and feel very intensely overloaded indeed when I am alone. I know that to maintain my current and future sanity I must police how much time I spend sans company. I also know now that I cope with life best when I am not living on my own. I’ve tried it 3 times, even though I vowed after the first time never to do it again. All 3 times I did it, I was completely unable to deal with what life threw at me. I think I felt I ‘should’ be able to conquer it, but it’s just not for me. It brings out my absolute worst self and you should all hit me around the head with a wet fish if you ever hear me planning to do it again. Maybe for other people, a break from the world is exactly what’s needed and living on your own suits you. The important thing is to know yourself and your needs and listen to them.

Another favourite coping strategy is acceptance coupled with being realistic. Don’t get me wrong, by acceptance I don’t mean settling back and not doing anything about your situation. I’m a firm believer in taking postive action and making changes if you can. I’m talking about accepting things that you can’t really change, like other people or a lifelong health problem. It’s taken me a long time to learn, but I’ve realised that you can waste a whole lot of energy fighting things instead of working within the boundaries of what you have been dealt. It’s about accepting when you have changed everything you possibly can and being realistic about the world, life and your situation.

There are so many other things I’ve found useful and helpful that I could carry on indefinitely. The coping mechanisms I’ve mentioned above are top of the list but there are many others such as keeping a routine, eating well, writing and having a bar of soap from Lush in the bathroom at all times.

It’s all about taking responsibility and being honest with yourself, identifying what helps and what doesn’t. What works for someone else might not work for you. I’ve been advised numerous times to do Yoga and meditation for example, but they don’t help me. I end up thinking about all kinds of bad stuff or composing shopping lists in my head when I’m meant to be focusing on my breathing. I can’t switch off this way and find it more relaxing to put funky music on and have a dance. Work out your own way of coping and pull on your resources when times get tough. You can’t stop shit happening but you don’t have to be at the mercy of how you feel.