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Stigma and sitting with fear

Last month, I published and shared a post on my social media channels about using antidepressants to manage SAD and touched on the stigma I felt about them. It really seemed to resonate. So much so, that it had over 900 views. I received around 100 comments and private messages from friends, family, colleagues and even people I didn’t know. This response was completely unexpected – so humbling and overwhelming.

I felt such a wall of love and acceptance around me and over a month later I’m still feeling bowled over by it. Thank you so much if you’re reading this and you were one of the people who reached out to me. I’m not able to do justice to describing how much it meant to me.

So, what did we learn about stigma from this experience?

The first thing that became clear to me and hopefully to everyone else, is that the world doesn’t come crashing down around you if you share your experience of depression, anxiety, SAD, burnout, adrenal fatigue, mental/nervous breakdown… or any other common type of mental ill health.

I hope that if you saw the Facebook post you took strength and inspiration from the wonderful people who commented. You should be able to click on the comments icon after the post to read them:

I had a huge ‘vulnerability hangover’ after sharing this post and I wanted to delete it. How glad am I that I sat with that uncertainty and fear now though?! 🙂 If I hadn’t, we wouldn’t have seen the level of support that people can show when we allow ourselves to be known.

Is stigma a misunderstood term?

Interestingly, some of the conversations highlighted people’s different understandings of what stigma is. It made me wonder whether we have different interpretations of how much of a problem stigma is because of these discrepancies.

In its dictionary definition, it sounds very severe: “A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” (Oxford Dictionary)

For me, it isn’t just about an obvious ‘mark’ that would indicate something about a person, that you could perceive from the outside. And it might not always feel like full-blown ‘disgrace’; it can also be disapproval or contempt. I believe that is still stigma.

Anything that incites shame around a condition, circumstance, character or behaviour, I would call stigmatising.

I’m really interested in hearing in the comments what you consider stigma to mean, if you feel able to share?

Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes…

This commonly-quoted Indian-American proverb of unknown origin is as wise and relevant today as it has ever been. When we look at what is happening in the world, we see so much suffering that stems from judging others.

Most mental health stigma seems to come from lack of knowledge. It’s okay for us not to know what we don’t know! But the distinction is that it’s not okay to negatively judge and criticise what we don’t know – that’s what makes it stigma.

Often, we can hold opinions about something that are not our own. We can soak up the general feeling and opinions about a topic like a sponge. Children in particular are primed to learn from others in this way. We can teach them well or poorly.

If you hear enough people criticising antidepressant users, for example, you can shame someone for taking them, without knowing anything about them.

The majority of people we know would consider themselves to be non-judgemental, I’m sure. If they say something out of lack of understanding we forgive them, when they respond in an open way as we have a conversation with them about the topic.

The need for empathy

Sadly, as is so often the case in life, our memories are coloured disproportionately by the minority. Those individuals and experiences that leave you feeling raw and vulnerable. Our primitive brain makes us protect ourselves from further harm by magnifying and making us feel fear.

I have an example to share with you from my own personal experience from a few years back. Talking about my experience of SAD one day to my team, my colleague interrupted me and said, “don’t be ridiculous; you can’t get depression because of the weather!” At first, I thought maybe what sounded like contempt was meant to be a joke. Her first language wasn’t English, so I understood that sometimes this can happen.

However, as the conversation progressed it quickly became obvious that the contempt and attempt to shame me was deliberate. She couldn’t empathise and refused to listen to my explanation, believing she was right and she knew more about depression than I did. The real kicker was that some time later she started to complain that she felt that the weather was making her tired and getting her down, while asking for my advice about a dawn simulator. Had she been able to empathise earlier she might have been able to recognise and head off her symptoms before they started to affect her.

Little Light Room - less stigma more love

Opening up…

The memory of this experience and others like it is what bubbled up in me as I was sharing my post last month. The irrational thoughts of ‘what if people think I’m weak or just being self-indulgent?’ and ‘will this damage my professional profile – what will my colleagues and clients think of me?’ were very loud and insistent!

So why did I not only publish the post, but share it publicly on my social media channels? Well, I feel passionately about the topic of improving mental health and our need to overcome stigma as a major barrier to this. But I felt like a fraud because I was still hiding the extent of my experience myself. I genuinely want to help people understand and feel understood, but fear was holding me back.

The reality is that most people are able to empathise, if we are brave enough to face down our fear of being judged and share. Only by more people being more open will we be able to overcome stigma. This isn’t easy for any of us and we must do it only when it’s right for us.

The reward has been that I felt more love and acceptance than I could ever have imagined when I shared. I hope one day we’ll talk as openly about our mental health as we do about having a common cold.

Coping with SAD, ill health and antidepressants… my real story

It’s taken me ages to write and share this post because it makes me feel very vulnerable. However, I think it’s an important thing, to share my experience with you. It’s the point of this blog for you to have a personal perspective on managing SAD and know you’re not alone. I think it’s really important to realise that SAD is never in isolation, which is what I hope to show you. And if you’ve been through similar experiences, I hope this will help you and show you that you will recover.

This post is loosely based around my experience of medication to manage the condition, particularly antidepressants. Around it, I’ll tell you the real story of my last five years of managing SAD, acute and chronic stress, and my tentative recovery from burnout. It’s a long one, and might not be the most engaging thing you’ve ever read! But thank you for being here, for taking time out of your day to visit my blog. 🙂 If you’re feeling in a vulnerable state, please come back and read it when you’re feeling stronger, since some of it may be triggering for you.

Once upon a time..

Up until a few years ago, I successfully managed my symptoms using light therapy. You know what? I was kind of proud of this. I felt like despite life’s many ups and downs, I had this condition nailed. Silly me, right?

Then I went through an intensely stressful couple of years. After some difficult years I ended my nine-year relationship in 2012, losing my home and racking up thousands in additional debt in the process. This wasn’t a clean break; the emotional and practical ramifications went on for well over a year afterwards. A few close friends had moved away, so I felt the loss of my trusted support network and my family live in other cities. At the same time, I had a lot of job-related stress and was going through a long and painful restructure that ultimately resulted in me being demoted. Neither was that straight-forward; the after-effects of that restructure were felt by everyone for two years afterwards at least.

Through all of this, I didn’t take time off sick. I was proud of that, too, you know? Feeling like I’d thrown my entire life up in the air, “but hey, I’m still getting on with life,  still smiling, still working hard, still being there for others when they need me…” Wearing my stress like a bloody medal. Well, I discovered the hard way that there really is a limit to how long I can do that.

Stop the world, I want to get off!

Because I kept pushing myself through, my body eventually got sick of me and ground to a halt. I’d been getting progressively more exhausted, to the extent that I was dragging my body around and every movement felt like an effort. Keeping my eyes open was a battle. I was having dizzy spells and feeling like I was going to feint. My colleague later told me she’d never seen anyone look so tired as I had in that period. I just hadn’t realised I’d got so bad.

Mentally, I now realise I was shouting at myself and not listening to that, either. I was having thoughts of harming myself or just disappearing for a while. It wasn’t a desire to die – I just wanted to rest and for everything to be on pause… If I could have some time without stress for a bit I might recover my energy. Be me again.

Well-meaning people were telling me it was an exciting time; I had no real ties and could do anything. They’d love that opportunity. I felt like this was the worst feeling in the world for me, actually. I’m a person that likes stability and belonging. It felt like I was a huge failure.

And then one day in October 2014, I just couldn’t get out of bed. I mean this literally – I wasn’t able to move. The day before, I’d been sent home from work at lunchtime. I was feeling leaden, having dizzy spells, and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I’d crawled into bed assuming I had a bug and some sleep would sort it.

So, I wasn’t expecting to wake up and not be able to move my body that next morning… It was very scary. Sleeping for another few hours, I had enough energy to get to the loo and call my boss. That exhausted me, so back to bed I went for another ten hours. And another ten after that… Putting my head on the pillow and closing my eyes felt like the most blissful thing ever!

A mental breakdown, burnout, depression, Adrenal Fatigue, Seasonal Affective Disorder at its extreme?…

After 36 hours’ almost-constant sleep, I managed to get to the doctor’s by taxi. I was diagnosed with depression and my doctor insisted I take antidepressants. As I challenged it, he told me, “well you’ve been doing everything else right, taking exercise, eating well, resting… what else is there?” I hated being put on them. I couldn’t figure out why I was giving myself such a hard time over taking them, when I fully support other people in taking them and being open about it. It felt like I was somehow letting myself and others down; admitting defeat. Such is the power of the stigma over antidepressants.

Meanwhile, I’d been seeing a nutritionist. My digestive health had been awful, I was losing my hair at an alarming rate, having skin flare-ups and I was exhausted. I’d had an intolerance test, which revealed a couple of foods I should cut out. While I’d cut them down, I was wary about eliminating such major food groups as dairy and wheat without guidance. So, off I went to a nutritionist. She warned that I was rapidly heading towards ‘adrenal fatigue‘ and needed to make changes.

I tried to reduce my stress levels and followed her diet recommendations. Things improved, but it was too little too late. She believes it was this, and not depression, that was the problem. GPs in the UK don’t recognise adrenal fatigue or adrenal exhaustion as a valid condition, though. My understanding is that only endocrinologists and alternative practitioners give it any credence. Some people would call my experience a nervous or mental breakdown. As I suffer from SAD it could have been something to do with that too, especially with the pattern that’s repeated each October since.

To be honest, it really doesn’t matter what label we put on it. What all of these have in common and what it did teach me is that I needed to make some serious changes to how I live my life and how I look after myself.

Coming off antidepressants…

Because I wasn’t sure what had caused this episode and wasn’t entirely convinced it was depression, I felt I only wanted the medication for the six months of autumn and winter, and came off them in spring. Going on and coming off the medication wasn’t great to be honest. I had expected the initial side effects when I went on them and knew they’d pass in a couple of weeks as the medication got into my system. What I wasn’t prepared for was very similar side effects when I was coming off them.

For me, these side effects were things like headaches, trembling, pins and needles in my limbs, sweating, dizziness/vertigo and nausea. They were very distracting and didn’t make work and getting on with life generally very easy, as you can probably imagine! That was okay when I was going on them because I was still so exhausted I was sleeping most of the time and my doctor had signed me off work for a week, so the worst was over by the time I returned to work. But because I’d been unprepared for the withdrawal symptoms when coming off antidepressants, I was at work and had interviews, events, and an assignment to finish that week! Eek, lesson learned! 😉

My doctor had recommended tapering down over several months. But I’d preferred to taper over one month so that I’d be off them for spring and know ‘where I’m at’. I should’ve realised there was a good reason he suggested the longer time frame, but he didn’t warn me when he’d agreed it was fine for me to taper for the month. Anyway, I got through it and the improved nutrition and the lighter days were enough for me to feel like I was doing really well and getting ‘me’ back again.

What the heck is going on with my body??…

In October 2014 when I had this ‘burnout’, I’d experienced some really odd symptoms earlier in the month. I’d woken up and couldn’t stop trembling. You know when you get out of the shower on a winter’s day and you’re freezing and can’t stop shivering? Like that constantly. It was completely uncontrollable!

I was preparing for a job interview which involved a presentation, test and panel discussion at the time. So I thought it was that and it would pass. Nope – it lasted for over a week. It was horrible! So distracting and scary, because I didn’t know what was going on with me. I knew I felt a bit nervous, but I’ve had plenty of nerves in the past (driving tests, anyone?), and had never experienced anything like this!

The trembling eventually calmed down, but what took over was that my heart was racing like I’d just sprinted, or thudding so heavily as if I was placing great strain on it and it was too tired to do its work. Eventually it eased.

Recognising a pattern…

The next year, the same thing happened around the same time of year. Come early October, these symptoms just arrived again one day, out of the blue! It was worse this time, lasting for a month. I couldn’t understand it. Sure, I’d just gone through another life change. I’d taken voluntary severance from my job in the summer and had six months to find myself something new. I was having a high old time, doing freelance work, volunteering, taking trips and enjoying myself! Was knowing I needed a new job enough to trigger it? Why was it occurring at exactly the same time of year? Surely this was SAD-related?

Back to the doctor’s I went, but it didn’t make any sense to her either. I was this time given beta blockers, for anxiety. It was odd – I couldn’t understand it! I’d wake up with my heart racing. It would be happening even when I was quietly reading a book and had nothing particular on my mind. One day it was there, the next gone, and the next it would be back again. The beta blockers didn’t make much difference, and I was scared of taking them anyway, so that won’t have helped! My doctor wanted to do an ECG to check my heart; that showed it was fine, thankfully.

Feeling the stigma of antidepressants…

Confused herself, eventually my doctor told me I should go back on anti-depressants, to see if balancing out the seasons would help. That maybe I just needed a ‘mini dose’ to be myself and maybe when my serotonin dipped, I wasn’t actually myself. The particular type I’m taking (Citalopram) is apparently good for anxiety too. That’s what confused me though; I’ve never been a particularly anxious person. And I didn’t feel like I was down or worrying about things. Certainly not enough to cause these extreme symptoms!

I had a real fight with myself about taking antidepressants for the two years the doctor wants me to take them. This seems to be a fairly standard thing, talking to others. You go on for six months to start, and then if you need to take them again, you’re advised to take them for two years. I’ll be on mine for another six months at least.

So what was the problem? Well, it’s complicated, but mostly I was feeling the stigma. Things have improved a lot around mental health in recent years, but I still feel antidepressants are frowned upon, casually called ‘happy pills’. They’re seen by some as being for people who ‘can’t cope with life’. Some people express the view that they’re not needed and we all need to just pull ourselves together. I’ve heard all these opinions directly in the past and it can really worry you about taking antidepressants. I know it’s the minority of people with these opinions, but isn’t that the way? That we over-focus on these?

When I had previously been taking the medication, my parents had unwittingly given me messages that they disapproved of me taking it. Just little things like ‘well you need to get off them as quickly as possible’. We talked about this since and I know it came from a place of love and they just didn’t realise the messages they were giving about it. I also felt like if I’m taking them, then am I really ‘me’? And how will I know if the other things I’m doing to improve my lifestyle and self-development work are making a difference if my brain’s being chemically altered?

Is it SAD-related?

Three years, this has happened now, including the initial ‘crash’. Always in October. Last year (2016) was a bit later in the month as we had an ‘Indian summer’ and I thought I’d escaped from it. However, it wasn’t so bad this time. Still distracting, but I think because I now know it will eventually pass, it didn’t bother me so much. I was a lot more compassionate with myself too. That’s not to say it isn’t frustrating though, as I still don’t know what’s going on. I’m thinking it might have something to do with the equinox and a sharp change in light levels for it to be occurring around the same time each year. Very strange!

I bumped into my friend a while ago. He’s fantastic for me to bounce ideas with as he’s got a hugely inquisitive mind too and takes a very scientific approach in exploring how to help his SAD. He suggested it might be a drop in Vitamin D. This might make sense actually. I was found to be slightly deficient in the second year of this happening. That seemed odd to me because I’d had a career break and spent loads of time out in the sunshine, ensuring I had times without having sunscreen on.

So anyway – there’s another avenue for me to explore. I’m already supplementing Vitamin D, taking 400% RDA all year round at the moment, but my friend suggested I need a much higher dose for optimal levels. I want to cover Vitamin D in another post and I’m going off-topic, so I’ll not go too far into it here. Watch this space!

Learning to look after myself…

If I’m completely honest, I’m feeling impatient to come off the antidepressants again. Not because it’s bothering me to be on them anymore. I’m comfortable with taking them if I need to, but I’m not convinced that I do. The fact that the same thing happened last year despite being on them for a year makes me think there’s something else going on.

I have an inquisitive mind. I want to see if the personal development work I’ve done over the last few years, and continue to do, has really improved how I feel. It’s hard to know that when I’m still on medication. Maybe it doesn’t matter what’s helped. But I’d like to understand if the genuine well-being I feel now is a result of my own efforts, or a chemical alteration through the antidepressants. I’m sure it’s a bit of both, but I’d be interested to know for sure!

Feeling so grateful…

I’m very well aware, having had SAD since I was a teenager, that it’s a journey to understand how to manage it best for yourself. I felt I had it pretty well managed with just light therapy and then these weird autumn episodes hit. And life hit too, I guess!

I’m so grateful now that they did, though. I’ve learned a really important lesson from that morning when I couldn’t get out of bed.

I’ve done so much in the last few years to change my physical and particularly my mental landscape. We are all a product of our experiences. I might not have been able to control some of mine, but I can take responsibility for doing something about how they affect me today. Some really ingrained unhelpful thinking habits have taken a lot of work to unravel and improve. I’ve learned to be more compassionate with and to treat myself better.

SAD isn’t a condition that we manage in isolation. It impacts on – and is impacted by – every area of our lives. It touches every relationship we have. I can’t express enough how grateful I am for the support I’ve received through the years from my family, friends, colleagues and health professionals.

If you are one of these people and you’ve made it through this long post, then please accept a heart-felt thank you. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without your love and support. <3

Spring hypomania – a watch out for SAD sufferers!

Uh-oh! I fell off the writing wagon. Actually – that’s only half-true. I fell off the posting wagon because I’m writing a difficult post that’s making me feel quite vulnerable! While I continue battling with that one, I wanted to write about hypomania. 

Have you noticed your energy levels rising as spring has sprung? This is really natural for us as humans of course, but if you’re seasonally affected then you might find that like with your winter state, your spring state is also heightened.

Wind up chatter teeth - hypomania often makes you very quite talkative!Talking to a friend the other night, he commented that he loved my energy that night – that I was especially chipper. Translation: I was being a motor-mouth! If you’ve met me (and if you’ve read a few of my posts) you’ll know that I’m a real chatterbox generally; honestly, I am that person who’s chatting away to a complete stranger at a bus stop, on the train, in the gym…

What does hypomania feel like?

You know that feeling when you’ve had too much caffeine and you’re feeling ‘jazzy’? It’s like that, for me. It can be pleasant and funny on some days and uncomfortable and irritating on others.

I think most people would say they feel a sense of wellbeing when the sun shines. But if you’re suddenly feeling a marked surge of energy, and you know that you suffer from SAD, then you might be experiencing this thing we call hypomania. 

At this time of year I’m easily excitable, ‘gung-ho’, full of plans and ready to take on the world. However, I also have to watch myself because it can also mean I’m feeling impatient, and I can be more direct in my communications. This can cause issues in my relationships when people aren’t used to me doing that. So, lots of double-checking messages to soften them before sending! And apologising when I occasionally come across in a way that I hadn’t intended.

Beware of changing clocks!

Understandably, people ask me if I feel excited about the clocks going forward in spring. They’ve just done that last weekend and I’ve given it some thought. The answer is that I look forward to the idea more than the reality.

When you’re sensitive to light levels, sudden changes can leave you feeling off-balance. I get up at 6am and so for me, it was light when I woke up at this time a week ago. It’s now still dark. We’ve had some grey, misty mornings too, so this can have an impact when you need morning light. Back on with the SAD light, then! Of course, the counter-balance of this is that we have lighter evenings, which is lovely! 😀

I appreciate that to a non-sufferer, this might all seem completely bizarre. It’s a weird time of the year when you suffer from SAD. It can feel like you’re on a see-saw! Of maybe you’re reading this and it explains something for you; a slight unsettled feeling, perhaps?

As humans we’re animals and we will all of us be sensitive to light. I think of Seasonal Affective Disorder as essentially, being extra-sensitive to light.

Observe and think twice before you act!

I now remind myself of something each year: now is not the time to make big decisions! Yep, you might feel like you can take on the world, but if you’re experiencing these swings that I’ve described, it’s often worth waiting until they’ve settled down a bit before taking action. 

I’m speaking from experience. I’ve made big decisions in the past around this time of year that I wish I’d not made, or given a bit more thought to. That burst of energy can bring about a bit of the no-nonsense, ‘let’s get on with it’, ‘I’m taking no prisoners’ kinda attitude. Sound familiar?

Bronze pen on lined paper with To Do written on itMaking plans is great – it’s an ideal time for that, if you’re feeling fired up and motivated. Why not grab your pen and paper and jot down some thoughts on what you want to do for the rest of the year? I’ve always thought January is a rubbish time of year to make resolutions and plans, anyway – so much better to do it once you’re feeling energised and ready to put them into action.

But if your thoughts are on life-changing decisions, such as quitting your job, ending a relationship, moving, etc., then maybe just hold fire on making a final decision until you’re feeling less gung-ho.

Of course, if you have big plans that you’ve already made a decision on, then spring energy can be just the thing you need to motivate you. As ever, it’s about being aware.

Does anything I’ve said ring true for you? Or do you disagree? Do you think that you experience hypomania?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Hope you’re having a great week! 😀

– Neens –

Image credits:
Chatter Teeth: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/424094
To-Do: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/to-do-1156681

How can I manage SAD symptoms? Part Four – lifestyle

Lifestyle. It’s a big, all-encompassing word, isn’t it? This final part of the series looks at ways you can jolly yourself along when you’re living with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or Winter Blues. These are just some of the lifestyle things I do that work for me. If you’ve just arrived on this site and want to find out more about the condition itself, a good primer is the ‘SAD basics – where to start‘ post. 🙂

To recap on the series, the first part covers how to manage SAD and Winter Blues with specialist SAD lights (light therapy). The second part covers dawn simulators and investing in light therapy. The third part looks at medication and talking therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). 

Daily lifestyle routines are really important!

Okay, I’m putting my hand up – I’m a routine person! Anyone with me? 🙂 From past experience, some of the best advice I can offer you is to try to establish strong daily lifestyle routines, especially in autumn and winter. You’ll find it so much easier to be consistent with your light therapy (and therefore feel better) if you can link it to something else that’s already embedded in your daily routine. 

I use my big light at home in the morning while I’m practising something called the Miracle Morning. This encompasses the physiotherapy I have to do each day and links everything together. Linking routines together helps make them a habit. I’ll do a separate post on the Miracle Morning later, but there’s a link there if you’re interested in looking it up now.

Get as much natural light as you can

If you can find yourself a routine to get some natural light each day too, all the better. Obviously it has to work around your current commitments, but getting out during daylight hours every day, no matter what the weather, is really going to help you.

Lifestyle is important in SAD: person walking in snow with dog in natural lightI know, I know – you probably don’t want to go out when it’s grey and raining! I’m the same, especially if I’ve no reason to go out. And sometimes, I don’t. This is a recent change for me; I used to force myself to go out. I’d beat myself up for being lazy for not wanting to. I have a conservatory bedroom now so some weekend days, if I’m content at home, I’ll operate from there and drink in the light.

However, when I didn’t have this natural light available at home, I would ask colleagues or a boyfriend to encourage me to get out and about. I find people are glad they can do something practical to help because you can feel helpless when someone’s going through a condition you don’t have experience of yourself.

When you’re at work, it’s tempting to stay at your desk for lunch on grey days isn’t it? If you can give yourself errands to run on your lunch break, that can help you get out. It also reduces your ‘to-do’ list in small increments without it being too overwhelming.

Diet

  • Don’t fight your urge to eat warming foods – they don’t have to be bad for you! I firmly believe the maxim ‘A little of what you fancy does you good’.
  • Eat little and often to avoid blood sugar crashes that will leave you feeling irritable and tired.
  • Try not to drink too much, too often – alcohol is a depressant, affects your sleep and leaves you tired the next day. These are often the very symptoms you’re trying to combat!

Exercise

  • Arrange to exercise with a friend – you’re less likely to skip it.
  • Keep your exercise goals realistic and be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t manage to do a session – be pleased about what you do manage to do.
  • Commit small when you’re struggling. Give yourself permission to only do 20 minutes at the gym or walk for just ten minutes.

Indulge yourself!

One of my favourite indulgences is curling up on the sofa under a blanket with a good book and hot chocolate! 

Sometimes, it’s the little things in life that get you through the day. A hot bath after a hard day. Listening to your favourite piece of music. Curling up with a book… be kind to yourself. You deserve it! 🙂 What are your favourite indulgences?

Lifestyle is the daily choices you make: treat yourself nicely and cosy up in a hat and scarf to feel goodYou can also kit yourself out with thick woolly gloves, lovely soft scarves, cosy hats and toasty socks. So, here I am with my waterproof jacket on too, feeling fine about going out in the wind and rain because I’m well wrapped up! Maybe you can up your cosiness and see how it changes how you feel?

Another thing to try is to do things that remind you of summer. Keep pampering yourself – use up that lovely sun oil spray, paint your nails a bright colour, wear skirts with woolly tights, bright floral tops with a cardi on top. Gentlemen – if you’re feeling a bit left out here, sorry! Maybe you can keep wearing lighter colours, using a lighter aftershave. Listen to music that reminds you of summer days. If you’re stuck for inspiration try this Spotify playlist of weather-inspired songs 🙂 What would you add?

Finally, I plan to cover diet and exercise in greater depth in other posts, so look out for these if you’re interested. 

So then… I love to hear your thoughts… What are your lifestyle tips for managing SAD? How do you persuade yourself to leave the house on a grey day? What support do you enlist from your family and friends?

Images:
Walk in the snow: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/walk-in-the-snow-1386838

How can I manage SAD symptoms? Part Three – medication and talking therapies

This is part three of ‘How can I manage SAD symptoms?’, where we take a look at medication and talking therapies.

Part one covered bright light therapy, which is delivered via a SAD light and is highly recommended for treating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Winter Blues. Part two covered dawn simulators and investing in light therapy. In the fourth part I’ll cover some lifestyle factors and share a couple of ideas with you about things you can try to jolly yourself along!

I consider myself to be very fortunate that I’m one of the 85% of people for whom light therapy is effective. But that’s not to say that I don’t use other things to help me manage my symptoms. Or that there’s no hope for you, if you find that light therapy doesn’t help you.

This is the part where I’m going to ask you to bear with me! I’m not a doctor or a therapist. So I’ll point you in the direction of good quality medical information. Please do consult your doctor or a qualified professional about any symptoms you experience.

Medication

I’m aware that some people are very uncomfortable with the idea of taking antidepressant medications. Sadly the stigma that people feel about mental health prevents many from seeking the help they need. I count myself here; I had to really challenge myself to accept taking medication – read the real story.

If you have been to see your doctor about symptoms affecting your mental health, then I’d like to say a huge well done to you! It takes a lot of courage to take this first step.

Small, round, white pills coming out of a bottleWhile the ‘first line’ recommendation for SAD and Winter Blues treatment is bright light therapy, your doctor may want you to try an antidepressant medication in addition to, or instead of light therapy. 

Mind’s page on antidepressants is very thorough and accessible and of course, your doctor can also answer any questions you might have too. 

For additional personal perspectives on managing SAD with antidepressants, I would recommend chatting with people on the Lumie Forum. I’ve found that people are very open and honest about their experiences. They’re generally happy to answer questions and share tips too. There is also the facility on the site to send and receive private messages. You can also become a member of the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA), who offer peer support services by telephone and email.

Some people find that a herbal remedy called St John’s Wort can help with feelings of mild depression and anxiety. Other products in a similar category are 5-HTP, which is a pre-cursor to serotonin production.

Products like ‘Kalms’, ‘Stress-less’ and ‘Bach Rescue Remedy’ aim to help with feelings of stress. These are available in health stores and chemists, and you might find they help. However, a note of caution: herbal remedies can interact with other prescribed and non-prescribed medications, including the contraceptive pill. They won’t be suitable for people with certain conditions, so always check with your doctor.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and other talking therapies

CBT is a commonly used treatment for depressive conditions (including SAD). It has a lot of support in the medical community because it has strong scientific evidence to demonstrate its effectiveness. Some studies have found it to be as effective in treating depression as antidepressants.

Again, I’m going to refer you to a Mind page for more detail, but for now, this is how they define it:

CBT is a form of talking therapy that combines cognitive therapy and behaviour therapy. It focuses on how you think about the things going on in your life – your thoughts, images, beliefs and attitudes (your cognitive processes) – and how this impacts on the way you behave and deal with emotional problems. It then looks at how you can change any negative patterns of thinking or behaviour that may be causing you difficulties. In turn, this can change the way you feel.

Your doctor may offer you CBT through the NHS. This may be delivered face to face, over the telephone or it may be an online course. You can also find private therapists on the It’s Good to Talk website, which is hosted by the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP).

Most services or therapists would have a chat with you before starting the therapy to ensure that CBT is the right approach for you. From this, they may recommend CBT or perhaps a blended CBT and person-centred counselling approach.

There are also some really good self-help resources available which you could use while you’re working with a CBT therapist, or you might want to just try giving it a go yourself. I’ve read and can recommend Overcoming Depression: A Self-help Guide to Using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques by Paul Gilbert and The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns, M.D.

Two people, one with a bike, walking in a park in the sunshine - talking therapiesRemember that as with any therapy, only you can do the work, and you’ll get out what you put in. Sometimes CBT itself is enough to help you. Sometimes you might need to combine it with medication and/or light therapy.

Of course, sometimes it can also help just to talk to other people who live with this condition and understand where you’re coming from. I hope that you might take some comfort from looking around this site, perhaps adding your thoughts and questions. The Lumie Forum is great too. And don’t discount talking to your family, friends and colleagues – they could be a great source of support if you are willing to share with them how you’re feeling and why.

For some less formal coping strategies, head on over to part four – I hope you’re finding this series helpful.

Image credits:
Medication: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/softgel-capsule-1325982
Walking friends: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/friendship-1534626

How can I manage SAD symptoms? Part Two – dawn simulators

This is part two of ‘How can I manage SAD symptoms’, looking at another type of light therapy – dawn simulators. I’ve also discussed making the decision to invest in light therapy here.

Part one covered the main kind of light therapy that is recommended for treating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Winter Blues – bright light therapy, which is delivered by a SAD light. In part three, I’ll cover medication and talking therapies. Then in part four, we’ll take a look at some lifestyle strategies that I hope you’ll find helpful.

Dawn Simulators

This is Lumie’s video about dawn simulators (also known as wake up lights):

There are other manufacturers of dawn simulators, but I have only had Lumie models. I use the basic model, the Bodyclock STARTER 30. However, they have a full range that give you more functionality if you want it. I use my dawn simulator every day, even in summer. I use black-out curtains to help keep a good sleep/wake cycle.

As you can see, a dawn simulator prepares your body for waking up by gradually raising the light level in your room. The artificial sunrise provides a cue for your body to reduce production of the sleep hormone melatonin and to start gradually increasing the production of cortisol, which gives you some ‘get-up-and-go’. You might find my earlier post, ‘Why do we suffer from SAD?’ interesting too.

Dawn simulators don’t reach the same light intensity as a SAD light. Although they’re great for helping you to wake up in a more natural way, they won’t treat all of your SAD symptoms.

Do dawn simulators work?

Mary Poppins dancing and singing - maybe she used dawn simulatorsI’m not going to tell you that I leap out of bed in the depths of winter à la Mary Poppins just from using my dawn simulator alone. I’ll tell you some other things I do in the fourth part of this series which helps me. What I will say is that it is a really lovely way to wake up, feeling like you’re ready to be awake. It also means your room is light and you’re less likely to have an accident from stumbling around the room in the dark! I recommend dawn simulators to absolutely everyone, regardless of whether they suffer from SAD or not.

I honestly couldn’t go back to a traditional alarm clock now. Being shocked out of sleep in the pitch black by a wailing alarm – no thanks! In my mind, it makes no sense to wake up this way because your stress response activates. Think about it – a loud noise that rips you out of sleep… Of course your body’s going to get ready to fight or flee! It’s just not a great way to start your day, is it?

My basic model has a fixed duration sunrise, sunset and alarm features. For the sunrise, you simply set your alarm for the time you want to get up. So if you set the alarm for 6.30am, it will come on very dimly at 6.00am. It then gradually brightens over 30 minutes. Other models have adjustable time periods.

There’s a back-up beeper for peace of mind, but I usually wake a moment before it goes off. When it does, it isn’t a shock because my body’s already awake – if that makes sense? More expensive models have functionality to select the sound you wake up to.

The sunset function of the dawn simulator is nice too, allowing me to wind down and the room to gradually darken as I drop off to sleep. Zzzzzz 🙂

Investing in light therapy

Are dawn simulators and SAD lights worth the investmentI appreciate that paying around £100+ for a SAD light and another £60+ for a dawn simulator seems like a lot. Personally, I would pay many times this, for the huge difference that light therapy has made to my quality of life! Being curious what this worked out at per day, I’ve done some very rough calculations:

I recently replaced the original light box I bought when I was first diagnosed, treating myself to a more powerful Lumie Brazil. So, at £295.65 in total, my two big lights and my small LED light I use at work, have cost me about £0.12 per day. This is based on using them daily for six months over 13 years. That will continue to drop as I only bought the Brazil last year.

I also replaced my original dawn simulator a few years ago. I spent £120 over 12 years. So used every day, I have paid about £0.03 per day for my lovely wake-up lights! 😀

Will light therapy work for me?

One of the main concerns when deciding whether to buy a SAD light or dawn simulator is whether they’ll work for you. If you don’t want to buy outright, you can hire SAD lights and dawn simulators, from e.g. the SAD Shop. Or, you could buy a product direct from a manufacturer, who may give you a money-back guarantee. Lumie give you 30 days and Philips give you 28 days’ free home trial. Most people will notice their symptoms improve in around a week or two. This would give you plenty of time to see if the products are helpful for you.

Giving people an experience of light therapy was behind my reason for launching the Little Light Room events. I wanted people to be able to experience it for themselves and ask me any questions.

Given that light therapy is the first line of recommended treatment for SAD and Winter Blues, I really would encourage you to invest in at least a SAD light if you can. If light therapy works for you, you’ll be amazed by the difference it makes to your quality of life.

And if you find light therapy doesn’t work for you? Well then, firstly you have my sympathies. There are other treatments you can try, such as medication and talking therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – look out for more on these in part three.

What’s your experience with light therapy? Have you tried a dawn simulator? Have you any tips and tricks of your own to share?

Neens 🙂

Image credits:
Mary Poppins: http://www.thefancarpet.com/uploaded_assets/images/gallery/919/Mary_Poppins_10976_Medium.jpg
Coins in hand: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/coins-in-hand-1245246 

Winter Solstice 2016

Hey, we made it!! 😀 We’re finally here at the shortest day of the year. I always celebrate Winter Solstice because little by little, the days are lengthening from now. We’ll gradually enjoy more natural light in our days.

It takes a while for there to be a noticeable difference though, doesn’t it? January and February can be really challenging months for SAD and Winter Blues sufferers, especially when we get many dull days that make us not want to go out, rather than the crisp winter days that we’d like to step out in.

So, I thought now might be a good time to give you some tips based on my own personal experience and what I’ve learned about navigating winter.

Enjoy the beauty around you

frost on autumnal leavesWinter sun rises. Frosty grass and eery fog. Silhouetted bare trees against a dip-dye clear sky. Looking for stars. Appreciating the moon. Rainbows.

If you’re walking along (or any other form of travelling!), with your mind racing with lots of different thoughts, then it’s easy to get into a funk.

When you can remember to do it, try switching your focus to your surroundings and take pleasure in the small details of life.

Dress appropriately

I know this might seem an odd one, but if you’re dressed in a way that the weather doesn’t affect you so much, your mood won’t be affected so much when you’re out in the elements. There’s nothing like being battered by hailstones and arriving somewhere with soaking feet to make you feel miserable, is there? So pay attention to the weather forecast and plan ahead. Invest in waterproof clothing and footwear.

I haven’t always done this, feeling like I can make my boots last longer as they are otherwise okay, apart from letting water in. It is just horrible squelching around though, and it’s not good for me, so I’ve finally learned to be kind to myself and stop doing this! On that same note, I’ve also learned to treat myself to a taxi now and then instead of battling the elements – especially when I want to arrive looking respectable, instead of like I’ve been dragged backwards through a hedge!

Change the dialogue

On a similar note, see if you can change the way you think about the weather. I walk out in the elements every day that I need to be somewhere, whatever the weather is doing (except for the odd taxi treat!). I’ve learned that my experience will often be dictated by how I’m thinking about the weather. If I think ‘urgh this is horrible, it’s so cold and wet and windy’ then I’m going to feel sorry for myself having to walk in it. So I change the dialogue and say instead ‘this is refreshing!’ or I laugh at myself when I’m getting blown to work, or having to ice-skate down the hill.

This doesn’t come naturally, obviously! My first thought often is ‘urgh!’, but I try to change it quickly. I had to do it last night. There was an icy, strong wind and I was walking along saying in my head ‘oh wow, this is crisp!’ If all else fails, I focus on how nice it will feel when I get inside, into the warmth.

Embrace winter

Perhaps the biggest lesson that I can share with you is to be gentle with yourself. It really is tough, suffering with SAD.

This is the first year that I feel I’ve embraced winter and not fought with it so much. I think that the talk about women’s energy being cyclical at the One Woman Conference resonated with me. It gave me permission to say to myself, ‘it’s okay to hibernate more in winter and take time for myself.’

What’s interesting is I feel I’ve had more energy this winter than in the past. I’ve used it differently. Instead of pushing myself constantly to be out and socialising, running around getting stuff done, I’ve been using the time to plan. I’ve had whole weekends operating mostly from my bedroom, where it is lightest, and just doing what I fancy. That might be watching a self-development video and doing exercises, doing some work on the Little Light Room planning, catching up on messages from family and friends, or just reading for pleasure.

Wishing you…

…A fantastic festive break, whatever you’re doing. I hope that you take some rest, spend time with those you love and be gentle with yourself.

Thanks for your support of the Little Light Room this year. See you next year!

-Neens x-

Christmas Calm: Navigating the Festive Season with SAD and Winter Blues

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…! If that is making you groan and want to go back to bed, you’re not alone! I’ve got some tips for you to help you achieve Christmas Calm and have you floating about in a zen-like state… Well – maybe not that actually, but not the frazzled, overwhelmed state that you might recognise, at least! 😉

Grab yourself a cuppa or a glass of something nice while you read this one, because, y’know… why not?

Drop the guilt

If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s beating ourselves up for all the things we haven’t done. Instead of seeing all of the things we have achieved, we see what’s missing. This is where compassion comes in. Trust that you’re doing your best and so is everyone else. You wouldn’t point your finger at a friend and tell him or her that they’re a failure, would you? Don’t do it to yourself, either.

There is a lot of pressure on to have ‘the perfect Christmas’. We think it’s driven by existing expectations, the plans of others and us comparing ourselves unfavourably, and of course, marketing. However, what all these things have in common is that they are actually your own thoughts about them that make you feel guilty; you think that you’re not measuring up. What if you instead chose to be inspired and excited by the things you see or hear about instead of thinking you can’t measure up?

So, pay attention to that critical inner voice and what it’s saying. Challenge it. Think of why what it’s saying isn’t true. Do you really always leave everything to the last minute? When have you planned ahead successfully? If you can find even one instance when what your critical inner voice is saying isn’t true, then you can ignore whatever it has to say.

This technique is founded in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is based on the notion that your thoughts create your feelings and lead to your behaviours. You can read more about it on the NHS website.

I know that you might be thinking ‘well it’s okay for you to say that, but I just feel how I feel’. I used to think the same when people said these things to me too, but a mixture of CBT and Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) has helped me a lot. If you find yourself plagued by the critical inner voice a lot, then you can often get therapies on the NHS, so check within your area.

Make a plan – and a budget

Speaking of planning ahead successfully… Yes, some people have their Christmas shopping all wrapped up by September. Bravo them! But they’ve still had to do the same decision-making, shopping, wrapping, etc. that you’re going to do.

Christmas calm: standing still in a busy marketIt doesn’t matter when you do it. It can be less harried to do it earlier, but there are ways to reduce your exposure to the hussle and bustle. Shopping later in the evening or early in the day, at out of town shops, or online can all help.

So, in true Christmas fashion, if Santa makes a list, then so can you! Who’s been naughty or nice? And what gift would you like to give them?

You can indicate a rough budget too, so you don’t stress yourself by overspending. It’s so easy to do, isn’t it?

Now think about all the other things you need to do. Order the turkey. Buy cards and wrapping. Put decorations up. Whatever you need to do, get it all down in a list. You can also assign it a priority to help you with the next tip!

If you like, you can use my Christmas Calm planner template to either plan or take stock where you’ve got to; I hope it helps! To make your own copy of this, got to file > make a copy and it should save in your own Google Drive. Otherwise if you’re not a Google account holder, you can just copy the headings and paste them into whatever spreadsheet software you use.

Downsize your Christmas

Okay, so have a look again at your list. How is it making you feel? Excited? Overwhelmed? Stressed?

What things can you cross off that aren’t really necessary for you to do? What things on that list won’t make a real difference to your or your loved ones’ enjoyment of Christmas? Maybe you don’t really need to buy charger plates and more table decorations? Maybe there’s no need to buy a new TV right now? Can you simplify dinner a bit? Are all the social engagements you were planning going to make you happy?

It’s so easy to get caught up in the feeling that you need to make sure that Christmas is ‘perfect’ – and to shoulder all that burden yourself.

Part of downsizing for you might be to share the burden around a bit more. Can family members or friends take on some of the tasks on your list? Is there any they might actually enjoy?

Remember that the best thing you can give your family and friends this Christmas is your time and energy. If you’re completely spent by the time the festive season comes round, then you’re not going to be able to do that. And you’ll probably beat yourself up for that too…

So think about what’s really necessary and do those things first. The rest is nice-to-haves, if you have time and energy to complete them. Or you might snuggle up on the sofa with a Christmas film with your family instead! 🙂

Make it a pleasure

Isn’t it funny how we run around, head-down, on a mission to prepare for Christmas? We’re so busy working towards making the ‘big event’ enjoyable that we forget to enjoy the preparations.

Christmas calm: taking time out with a coffeeI know you’re busy and might feel you don’t have time to go get a coffee mid-shop. You will feel so much better if you do though; give yourself breaks and your shopping time will be more productive.

Slow down and enjoy the lights. Take a taxi if you are overloaded with your Christmas booty. Allow yourself to wander around and take in the scents and sounds of a market.

There’s a lot of talk about mindfulness and if you have ever tried to practice it, you have probably seen its benefits. Christmas Calm will be more of a possibility if you stay ‘in the moment’. Do your best to focus on enjoying what you’re doing right now, rather than allowing your mind to run amok and make you anxious with all the things you have to do.

Christmas Calm: all in the mind?

I don’t know what your Christmas to-do list looks like. You might be reading this post thinking ‘that’s all right for you to say, but I have sooo much to do!’ I don’t blame you; I would probably think the same.

But consider this: you have at least some of it to do anyway unless you decide you’re cancelling Christmas! So you can either enjoy the experience or find it a hassle and a pain. You can change your experience of it by choosing how you view it. Try it out and let me know how you get on?

Wishing you an enjoyable festive run-up! Remember when we get to Christmas the days are getting longer and lighter again too! 🙂

– Neens –

Image credits:

Coffee: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/coffee-1559191
Still lady: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/stillness-in-time-1251186

How can I manage SAD symptoms? Part One – Light Therapy

I’ve touched on how to manage symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and Winter Blues briefly in ‘SAD basics’. As promised in that post, I’m working my way through the ‘What, Why, Who, Where, When and How’ of SAD in more detailed posts. So, this is the big ‘How’. “Finally” – I hear you say?! 😉 This first post focuses on light therapy.

This turned into a really long post, so I’ve split it into four parts, to make it more digestable – although they’re still long! I’ll add links at the end to the other parts as I post them. These posts are based on my own personal experience of living with SAD; I’ll signpost you to quality information available on the web if you want to do further reading. The resources section of the site is there too.

So you know that you suffer from either SAD or Winter Blues – now what? How do you manage the symptoms so that you can get back to being you? Or a slightly more recognisable version of you, at least? 

First the bad news, to get it over with:

There is no one universal, this-will-definitely-work-for-you treatment for SAD or Winter Blues.

You can’t permanently ‘treat’ these conditions in the traditional sense; unfortunately you can’t be cured of SAD. It is really about managing your symptoms with daily treatment when you feel you need it.

OK, so now that’s out of the way – the good news! 😀

According to the SAD Association, 85% of people will find some relief of their symptoms by using light therapy regularly.

This is usually from the onset of symptoms (any time from late August) until the time their symptoms normally disappear (for many, this is often late March/early April).

What are SAD Lights/Lamps?

hands cupping sunshine - natural light therapy is best if you can get itSAD Lights/Lamps are very bright lights that simulate the level of light you would get on a clear spring morning. They are the leading method for managing SAD symptoms.

Light is measured in lux. A minimum of 2,500 lux output is recommended for treating SAD symptoms, but a brighter 10,000 lux light will enable you to sit further away, or reduce your treatment time. The newer LED lights are often a lower intensity at 2,500 lux, but they contain more blue light, so can be as effective as a 10,000 lux light.

Normal light bulbs, or even ‘daylight bulbs’, are not strong enough to treat SAD – 2,500 lux is roughly five times brighter than a well-lit office.

How do you use light therapy lights?

You can do other activities, like reading or watching TV while you’re having your light treatment. You don’t look into the light, it just needs to reach your eyes. How close you need to sit and for how long depends on the strength of your light and how severe your symptoms are.

If you like to sit further away from your light, you’ll need a longer treatment time. The manufacturer of your light will give you an idea of typical treatment time; for example the strongest and largest lights are generally 10,000 lux and take 30 minutes at 30cm (about arm’s length).

What do I use?

I have two lights. I treated myself to a new Lumie Brazil (shown in the image) last year and I love it! It is a broad spectrum light – the first I’ve had – and it is a lovely warm-toned light. My previous light for home was daylight spectrum and a stark, blue-toned light). I have my breakfast sitting in front of it. I’ve also started practising ‘The Miracle Morning‘ recently and so I do the practices at my dining table. 

Lumie Brazil light therapy lamp

At work I have a small portable LED light for top-ups or if I have missed my morning session for whatever reason. They don’t make the one I have now; it’s been replaced with the ZestMy light sits on my desk at work and is about the size and weight of a paperback novel. What’s great about this is that I can put it away in my desk drawer when it’s not in use, and if I happen to travel somewhere, I can easily take it with me.

Before I bought this light, I did consider how I’d feel about having it on my desk, with colleagues coming to see me to discuss projects. I also wondered whether the bright light would bother my team. I needn’t have worried. The light’s quite targeted and I can always switch it off if someone comes to my desk. It’s not unusual for colleagues to be interested and ask about the light. Some have even gone and bought light therapy products off the back of these conversations. 

What alternative light therapy products are there?

You can also get light therapy in the form of a visor, so you can move around while receiving light therapy, but I’ve never used these. Also, the Valkee Brain Stimulation Headset was launched a few years ago, but I have no experience of this and the SADA committee don’t believe they work so I haven’t bothered to try. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has used either type of product.

How long will it take for light therapy to work?

You might need to play about a bit with light therapy before you find what works best for you. It’s really worth persevering for a little while though, trying different times of the day, different distances and length of treatment.

Most people will start to feel better (more energy, improved mood) within about two weeks, but if it takes longer than this for you, don’t worry! If you’re not finding the light therapy helpful, try calling the manufacturer for some advice.

If you still find that light therapy doesn’t work for you, try not to lose hope; your doctor will be able to recommend other treatment strategies, some of which I’ll talk about in part three.

Final advice…

It’s really important that you be as consistent as you can with your light therapy – use your light every day in the months that you normally experience symptoms. This will help keep your serotonin levels on a more even keel and, together with a few other coping strategies, you should feel much more your normal self than in previous winters.

In spring and summer, a run of dull weather can bring your symptoms on again. Don’t worry – many people experience this! It would be so nice to be able to put your light away in a cupboard for six months. Unfortunately the UK’s spring and summer months seem to be becoming wetter and so it’s worth keeping your light within easy reach.

Dog enjoying some light therapy in a sunny windowAnd of course, my final piece of advice about light therapy: try to get as much natural light as you can! I know it’s hard, but if you can get out and about you’ll feel better. If you struggle with this ask a friend or family member to give you a prod! Sit by windows if you can too – it all helps.

I hope that you will have found this post helpful, but as always, I welcome your feedback and comments. What’s your experience of light therapy? Have you tried a visor or the Valkee in-ear system; what did you think? Is there anything missing from this post that you’d like me to include?

The next part of this post will look at dawn simulators; they’re great little inventions that help get you out of your pit in the morning!

Take care

– Neens –

Image credits
Hands up: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/hands-up-1537812
Laurent: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/laurent-1373052
L
umie Brazil: http://www.lumie.com/collections/light-therapy-sad/products/brazil

Learnings from the One Woman Conference

Earlier this month I attended the One Woman Conference. If I had to sum the experience up in one word? Transformational.

With 300+ women in the room, the event felt tribal. These amazing, beautiful women – all there for different reasons. We will likely all have taken different things from the conference, but what I think we all came away with was the message that ‘we’re women, we’re different, and that’s okay!’

I’m really interested in psychology and personal development; I’ve learned a lot about myself and others. Through Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) I’ve made some big improvements to the way my life feels day-to-day. But I know I want to continue to invest in my development so I can remove barriers and develop the skills I need to achieve my potential.

The One Woman Conference was very emotional for some women, for whom this might have been their first experience of these kinds of powerful techniques. Check out the Storify below:

 

I want to share with you five key things I took away from the conference:

We are NOT superwomen

Jo Martin’s inimitable presentation style really shone through as she demonstrated how we become ‘superwoman’ and what it does to us. Putting on other people’s glasses, one on top of the other as she collected ways of seeing the world as she grew up, she effectively demonstrated how we end up with some very damaging attitudes. Damaging for us, and for our relationships.

Many of us have received these messages as we’ve grown up: ‘we must work hard, push through even when we’re tired or sick’; ‘if you want something doing properly, do it yourself’; ‘nothing good comes easy’… etc! On goes the cape and the pants…

What it leads to is us running around like headless chickens, ignoring the needs of our bodies and ultimately, burning out as our bodies eventually tell us enough is enough!

We don’t have the same hardware as men

If you plug a 120v American hairdryer into a British 240v socket, what happens? IT BLOWS UP! Yet British and American hairdryers work great when you plug them into the right sockets.

This led to quite a powerful ‘ah-ha’ moment for many of us in the room. It’s not that we don’t know that as women we’re different… I mean, look at us! Physically we’re different and we also have subtle differences in our brains too. In the UK we’re living in a country that highly values masculine traits and so some of us have been trying to be like men, especially in our work. Geert Hofsteade’s work is very interesting and you can read more about the UK’s culture on his website.

This isn’t a debate about who’s ‘best’ at anything, by the way. Men and women bring their own value to the table and work so well together. What they were saying is ‘let the men be the men and stop trying to also be a man!’

We were introduced by Susie Heath to male energy (Yang) and female energy (Yin). How they are different, and how they feel in the body, using some stirring music and a set of words spoken to us over the music. The Yin and Yang should balance; sometimes you need to use more male-type energy to get stuff done. However, if we spend too much time in that energy, then we’ll burn out. We need to balance it with Yin female energy. Susie’s latest book is ‘Dance Your Way to the Top‘.

We are cyclical

As women we’re often called out in our lives when we act in ways that don’t seem to be ‘us’. Sometimes this is the effect of hormones. Sometimes it’s the season we’re in. Often it’s because we’re pushing ourselves to our limits, are stressed or ill.

Jo explained how she tracks and harnesses the energy of different times of her cycle. When she’s feeling low on energy and wants to curl up in a ball, she allows herself to retreat and rest. She knows that a few days later she’ll have a whole load of energy to blast through work. Obviously the practicality of this has to be considered; there are days you can’t retreat and rest and you do have to push through, but then she advises to ensure you make some time for rest.

She also spoke about time blocking, which she called ‘batching for energy matching’. This is where you gather similar tasks together and do them as a block. The reason this works is that it takes 15-20 minutes for you to shift your mindset into different types of work, so you can feel like you’re not at your best. So her advice was to focus on one type of work for half the day, and then do something else for the other half. Learning your own daily and monthly rhythms of energy also helps, so you can schedule e.g. creative, nurturing or demanding tasks when you can best complete them.

We have many archetypes that we can harness

Women are many things, aren’t we? There was a whole list! From the empowering: caregiver, teacher, actress, etc. And then there’s the disempowering ones: bitch, victim, martyr.

While it may seem an odd concept at first, what we learned is that you can ‘call up’ different ‘power types’ when you need them. One of many™ calls these the Soft Power Types. The ones we learned about were mother, lover, sorceress, warrioress and queen. We also heard that many of us get stuck at times in one of the unhelpful power types: bitch, victim and martyr.

We naturally have these different types of energies within us. Susie Heath helped us to feel them in our bodies. Some of them are under-expressed and we find them difficult to connect with. Others we spend most of our time in (mother, anyone?)

If this all sounds a bit weird… well, yes, it was a bit! Many parts of the conference were and it would certainly not be everyone’s cup of tea! But I’m learning through experience that you have to be open-minded and try something different if you want a different result from what you’ve been living so far.

My favourite was queen. I really felt something shift in me when we were doing that one. Most people in the room seemed to grow by a few centimetres and be holding their heads up high after that one!

 

We achieve so much more by reaching out

Time and time again through the stories shared – including by five very inspiring ladies who had been doing the Lead The Change programme – we heard about the importance of a strong support network.

We’re social creatures. We work well when we share our ideas and provide support to others with theirs. When we’re planning our goals, so often we see them as being a solo undertaking; something we must do ourselves for it to be our achievement. It doesn’t have to be like this, though. You don’t get medals in this life for struggling on your own.

So whatever you’re working on, whether it’s to be a great mum, achieve in your job, a personal project – or maybe all of these, see what happens when you reach out.

If I’m struggling in winter, I can feel very alone. I think we can all identify with this, can’t we? “My family live two and four hours away. I don’t want to burden my friends as they have their own stuff to deal with. My colleagues aren’t the appropriate people to support me. I shouldn’t need anyone else’s support.” These are all the things I think at times.

Yet it is only me limiting the support available here if I think these things. I have a fantastic support network and I work to maintain it by keeping in touch and providing support with anything I can. I have close friends who I can talk to about anything and who accept me completely. I only have to pick up the phone to my family. I have great colleagues who I can speak with if I choose to. And in terms of achieving the goals I’ve set myself, as well as all the personal support, I’ve got some pretty great professional contacts I’ve made through the years!

Final thoughts…

There was so much that resonated with me while at the One Woman Conference, and in the days since. It got me thinking about the experience of SAD and Winter Blues. It strengthened my belief that if we allowed ourselves to just ‘be’ and feel how we feel more often, instead of beating ourselves up and pushing ourselves through, we’d feel so much better.

If you struggle with doing this, I recommend Paul Gilbert’s compassion work. I’ve mentioned it a few times in various posts because I believe it’s been one of the most helpful things I’ve done. There are still times when I get frustrated with myself though, so it’s a work in progress!

Our masculine ‘Yang’ energy is as essential to us as the feminine ‘Yin’ for both genders; we need to harness it in the right way and balance it better to maintain our physical and mental health. Winter is a time when we are all naturally programmed to hibernate more – and so we should let ourselves when we need to and can.

Happy hibernating! 🙂

– Neens –