As a lot of you will know, I have been talking about writing a book about connected living. Yes another book about success. Although I shy away from defining what success is and leave that up to the reader, other than suggesting if you want to have a life that is positive and fulfilling you are less likely to be able to do that alone. Therefore we need to start making meaningful connections with the people around us and beyond. Before we can make these meaningful connections, we have to connect with ourselves and that starts with making sure we are healthy and remain healthy, both physically and mentally. This chapter outline concentrates on our well-being that can often be left by the wayside. If you have read my blogs before, you will know that this is a subject close to my heart.
So below is the overview of that first chapter. Enjoy, and feel free to offer me feedback.
Since becoming an adult I have struggled with my mental health and well-being. Over the years this has manifested itself in a number of ways, ranging from general anxiety, self-hatred and physical symptoms. I was going to say I manage to avoid a dependency on this journey, but that would not be strictly correct. From the age of 16 until I was 44 I had an addiction to nicotine and I definitely used that as a crutch. Throughout my adult life my depression manifested itself as a physical ailment, generally I would present with joint and back pain. The pain I was experiencing was very real, however maybe not as severe as I felt it was. All the diagnostics came back negative each time. Eventually I was referred to the community pain team. This team was made up of a nurse, a physio a doctor and a psychologist. Each member of the team would take it in turns to triage new referrals. I was triaged (luckily for me) by the psychologist, who ended up continuing to see me. He started me on my journey of recovery from my back and joint pain and on my journey for managing my mental health and well-being. I recognised that my back pain was a useful framework for my poor mental health to take hold of my life, it also provided a shield for hiding my shame.
I had 4 sessions with the psychologists where we talked about how it all started and eventually how I found the pain useful, actively seeking it out to give me something to hide behind. When the negative thoughts were too much I would concentrate on pain in my back, telling myself and all those around me that is was the pain that was too much to cope with, allowing me to withdraw from the world. In my eyes it gave me a legitimate excuse not to be at work, to be grumpy and sit in front of the TV. Being away from the world does not help your depression however, the pain is still the same, the only relief is that you don’t have to interact with people.
As I said though these sessions changed my relationship with my back pain. For the first time I had permission to talk about the real reasons for my pain. It was just like shining a light on those childhood nighttime demons that lurk in the corner of your bedroom. When you shine that light you realise it is just a dressing gown. I started talking about the triggers for my pain, that made them somehow smaller. This was not an overnight sensation, however it showed me what was triggering my feelings of anxiety and how that manifested itself in me becoming tense and therefore creating that pain. Some of the anxieties were connected to unhelpful habits, others were reactions to what Professor Steve Peters would call my Gremlins. Gremlins are unhelpful negative memories associated with certain situations, places, sounds and smells. These gremlins would trigger those anxious feelings. By recognising these triggers I could start rewriting those memories with benign memories. Most of these gremlins were not based in fact but came from assumptions I was making about my relationship with the place I worked and the people I was working with. This was a long slow process but I did start to rewrite those memories. I now do not experience anxiety when I approach my work place. I still experienced pain for a good 3 months after being discharged from the pain team, but my relationship with the pain had changed and I no longer used it as a shield, I was beginning to manage my feelings by facing them. I stopped catastrophising the pain and accepted that my back was hurting because of the tension I was creating and once I relaxed, the pain would subside. I was then able to carry on with whatever I was doing and eventually the pain would diminish.
With regards to my anxiety I still have episodes of anxiety and low mood, sometimes on a weekly or even daily basis. The difference now is I do not deny these feelings, I am now willing to accept that this pain is psychological. It is still pain and I feel it as I would any other physical pain. Pain killers are not going to work, I once tried antidepressants when I first acknowledged that my mental health required attention. I am no longer on antidepressants, I came off them under the supervision of my GP. So far in this chapter I have been reluctant to call what I was suffering from depression. Now in my blogs I have called it depression, but then when I here about what people who suffer from depression go through I am more inclined to think I have low mood and anxiety as a result of not paying attention to my mental health, which is very different from having a diagnosed condition. My GP called it mild depression, and prescribed antidepressants for a few months in the first instance with regular check ups . In the end I was on them for a year. In hindsight I was grateful for them, they gave me the time and space to get use to paying attention to my mental health. Once I had come off them I felt able to be open about my feelings, and start looking for ways to look after my well-being. As I said I do not believe I was depressed or mentally ill, I believe I was mentally unhealthy, just as I was physically unhealthy. Essentially I had been neglecting myself and was paying the price for that.
This chapter is not about mental health or ill-health it is essentially to help you pay attention to your well-being. If you believe that you may be depressed or suffering from anxiety, then speak to a health professional. If you think you are suffering from any illness that is having a debilitating effect on your life then you need to be assessed and diagnosed by a Doctor, whether that is appendicitis or depression they are both potentially life threatening illnesses that require assessment and treatment immediately, take it seriously and get yourself checked out.
If you are feeling essentially well or just a bit clunky and under the weather then this chapter may well help you stay mentally healthy and even make you feel significantly better.
When I was looking around for ways to help me,someone suggested I have a look at the work of Martin Selligman. He is one of the founders of positive psychology. Positive psychology looks at the psychology of a healthy mind and the behaviours and conditions that encourage that state. I discovered his book Flourish in which he describes what extensive research in the US suggests are the conditioned required to mentally healthy. The research suggests if you have an abundance of the following then you will flourish and be less likely to access mental health services;
Relationships (that are positive)
Meaning (in your life)
I remember looking at this measure and thinking that is easy, I have always had an abundance of positive emotion. I love a good laugh, I am always cracking jokes. That was true but when I looked deeper I asked myself how often I smiled, I mean really smiled. How often did I look at the world and see more than just my surroundings, how often did I see my beautiful surroundings. I remembered being on holiday in Thailand and having my breath taken away by the beauty of the country. I asked myself since then, how many times had I felt that. I struggled to be honest. I can tell you now every time I take my dog for a walk, go for a run, or just look up at the sky I feel joyful and grateful for living in a beautiful country. I listen to music and smile, I laugh out loud daily. I feel joy when I see family and friends. I smile when I see or hear that a friend is doing well.
Ask yourself do you smile, feel joy and laugh on a daily basis?
Do you find yourself during your day taking part in an activity that requires no effort or thought? An activity that you enjoy for the sake of it, for the pure joy of it. Whilst writing this I was wondering, what I do that is engaging. I suppose once I get out there, running is engaging, but I have to get out there and I have to get into the rhythm of the running before it becomes mentally effortless. Reading a good book I suppose creates the most engagement for me, and most of all researching for this book, reading about how the mind works, how we behave and what makes us successful and effective. I love reading about this, I love talking about it as well, I love giving masterclasses and lectures on this subject. That creates the most engagement for me. I can spend hours prattling on about how to empty your bucket, understand your stressors and connect with each other. I love it, it energises me and the better the response from my audience the more engaged I become. So there we are that is my engagement. This stuff, my passion provides me with engagement.
Do you look up and realise hours have gone? One commonactivity that creates engagement is catching up with a best friend over a coffee that leads to several coffees and then a race across town to pick the kids from school, because you completely lost track of time, catching up on old times. Some of you might get engrossed in a good book, sometimes that might be a new book or an old favourite. Whenever there is a new Jack Reacher story I will pre-order it and devour it as quickly as possible, I will binge read it in about 2 sittings. Other people love to curl up with a favourite book, something they have read over and over again, it gives them comfort and transports them to another time, without any effort or too much thought.
Music is another way to create that engagement, either playing or listening. Music like many engaging activities also creates a positive emotion. It is obvious really that for you to be engaged in an activity that you enjoy it.
So do you take part in engaging activities regularly?
Loneliness is a real problem in modern society. In 2018 The Office for National Statistics released a report on the characteristics and circumstances that are associated with loneliness. The findings are not unsurprising but stark all the same. 1 in 20 adults reported feelings of loneliness between 2016 and 2017.
You are more likely to experience loneliness if you, are single or bereaved. People with long-term illnesses are also more likely to experience loneliness. If you live in rented accommodation, and feel disconnected with your community you are more likely to be lonely. What was quite striking for me was that people aged between 16 to 24 are more likely to be lonely than any other group.
Being single or bereaved, having a long-term condition and even disconnection with the community are unsurprising causes of loneliness. At first glance though the fact that young people are more likely to be lonely than older age groups is surprising. I don’t know about you, but when I imagine lonely people I think of a little old lady or man sat in a flat, not a young adult. In fact over 75s are 63% less likely to report loneliness. That really surprised me. The ONS provides a couple of explanations; a) older people have developed a resilience to loneliness, as a result of adverse life events; or (and this will make you sit up and notice) b) most of the lonely people are already dead before they get to 75%! According to the ONS loneliness increases mortality by 25%, so being lonely reduces your life expectancy. It is vital not only to your state of mind, but to your life that you seek out positive relationships. You won’t only be having an impact on your life, but the life of the person you are connecting with.
If you see the same person everyday, on the train or the bus, or in the lift, start with a smile, then progress to a hello. Now not everyone will respond, but there will be people willing to connect that will say hello.I can think of a number of people who I have connected with, and have a positive, friendly relationship with, that started with a smile and a nod of the head. If you think about it all our relationships start with at least 2 people who have never met before (even your mum and dad). Be bold give them a smile, let them know that you believe there is more that connects you with them, than disconnects you.
Does you life have meaning? Is there a purpose to what you do everyday? Putting it another way, what gets you out of bed in the morning? What gives my life meaning in the first instance, is being Dad to my boys. Being a father is an integral part of my being. Next is caring for people. For most of my adult life nursing has provided me meaning. Nowadays I do very little hands on nursing and spend my days as a nurse educator and internal coach.
Essentially all of these roles (Parent, Nurse, Educator and Coach) all provide the same meaning for me. That is caring for and supporting my fellow human beings. I hope I have a positive impact on the people I meet. Being an active positive member of the human race is my meaning. It is as simple as that.
When I had poor mental health and spent time away from work, I was disconnected from my meaning. I didn’t feel I made a positive contribution to the people around me. At the time I was a Ward Manager and was deeply unhappy with what I perceived my role to be and started to disengage with the job. There was a clear gap in my view between my values and what was expected of me. My job no longer had meaning as far as I could see. When I was a Staff Nurse I was caring for my patients, using empathy and compassion, something I felt comfortable doing. I assumed that being a Charge Nurse meant that I would extend this care to my staff as well as my patients. However at the time these attributes were not valued for managers. Coming to work and not being valued had a terrible effect on me and I could not see any meaning to what I was doing and who I was. My mental health suffered and eventually I became so unwell I went off sick. I was not ready to be open about my mental health at the time. My poor mental health manifested itself as back pain. Nurses notoriously have bad backs, so the normal aches and pains became unbearable pain. I would find myself in unguarded moments holding myself with so much tension to create more pain in my back. I couldn’t stop it, I needed the pain so I did not have to engage with the world. Being of sick removed nearly all meaning to my life. I only had being a parent to hang on to, but I didn’t always recognise it. It was a vicious circle the more time I spent off work the less meaning my life had. The less meaning my life had the worse my mental health became. At the time I was not aware that any of this was going on in my head, I had convinced myself that my back was the problem.
As you know there was a happy ending for me. The psychologist who saw me and helped me realise that my poor mental health was driving my back pain, gave me a way back into the world and reconnecting with my meaning. This didn’t happen overnight as you know the struggles with my poor mental health continued for a while longer. My journey to good mental health is relatively recent. Since combining both my nurse educator role and coaching role, I have developed a clear sense of meaning in my life. Becoming an internal coach has given me the confidence to start a blog and do some life coaching, which have all added to this sense that my life has meaning because I contribute positively to the human race.
What have you achieved? It doesn’t have to be a dramatic achievement, like a first class honours degree or running the London Marathon (although there are plenty people I know who have done this). Accomplishment means you have achieved what you set out to do. It does need to have been challenging though. It needs to have required effort on your part. We have all achieved something in our lifetime. Can you remember that feeling you got from that sense of accomplishment, being able to complete something you have never done before?
On many occasions this accomplishment comes along side the other PERMA components. For instance learning to play a musical instrument or singing in a choir creates positive emotion, engagement, possible positive relationships if you are in a choir or a band, even meaning as music entertains others. Then when you can either play a piece of music that is recognisable or you sing with your choir at a concert, you have accomplished something.
The question is do you challenge yourself to accomplish something most days? It does not have to be really hard, but should challenge you. I go for a run at least once a week I don’t run far or very fast but I do it, and every week I accomplish running at least 1 or 2 miles and even 3 miles. I always aim to exercise for 30 minutes and push myself each time to be out for a little longer. Every week I write at least one blog, to me I have accomplished getting my message across, hopefully bringing some light to someone’s darkness. When it is published on my website I look at it and think, I made that. What have you made this week?
Often all we need to do is take stock of PERMA to realise what a full, and rich life we lead when we actually break it down. As Brene Brown says in her book Daring Greatly, we often live in a world of scarcity, where we never have enough of anything, we could all do with more of something. If you do a quick inventory of your life using PERMA it can often be evident that you have enough and you are enough.
Another little checklist I like to use comes from Brene Brown, and that is her BRAVING checklist. Often when our well-being is low it is because our self-worth and self-esteem has taken a battering. It is however nearly always ourselves that is the main assailant. It is then worth considering how much trust we have in ourselves. This BRAVING checklist helps you address any trust issues you may have with yourself.
Boundaries: Do I respect my own boundaries? I am clear about what is okay, and what is not okay?
Reliability: Am I reliable? Do I do what I say I am going to do?
Accountability: Do I hold myself to account?
Vault: Do I respect the vault and share appropriately? I am sharing too much? Am I sharing something that is not mine to share?
Integrity: Do I act from integrity? Do I do what is right over what is expedient?
Non-Judgement: Do I ask for what I need? Am I non-judgemental about needing help?
Generosity: Am I generous towards myself?
Before we can even think about connecting successfully with others, we must pay attention to our well-being. When we strive for success it can be very easy not to pay attention to ourselves. If we do this we will pay the price. Paying attention to your well-being is not just vital to success, it can be the difference between a long and happy life or an early death.
Our well-being is heavily dependant on our relationship with shame and vulnerability.