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Archive for August, 2010

Some people skip through life, some people get dragged through it.  I often feel I do both.  At the same time.

A psychologist colleague of mine tells me that mental hygiene is a lot like dental hygiene.  In other words, staying content and mentally/emotionally well doesn’t just happen, you have to put conscious time, effort and planning into it.  I agree, although I would venture again, that some people just have to spend a lot more time than others doing mental ‘gargling and flossing’ to keep the rot at bay.  Don’t ask me why.  Genes?  Upbringing?  Maybe.

Besides this, I sometimes feel that what might be called ‘psychological problems’ (including mild depression or anxiety) can produce some of the most insightful, compassionate, creative, original and profound qualities in people, not to mention masterpieces through them.  A little while back, the mental health charity MIND made this point incredibly powerfully through a poster campaign, featuring images of well known people such as Princess Diana and Winston Churchill alongside the captions, ‘what do you see?  Bulimic or People’s Princess’? and ‘Depressive or great leader?’

Partly through my own experiences and those of family members, I got into the job I do now with MIND.  Helping others through difficult times and encouraging them to work on their mental hygiene routines has been a steep learning curve for me too.  I certainly don’t believe that feeling content and happy is all simply down to an individual and their attitude.  However, here are some of the things that I’ve learned, and am learning, can make a difference:

1,  The way you interpret and think about something is much more likely to cause your feelings about it than the thing itself.  Two people can go through the same experience and feel very differently at the end.  The difference is all in how they are thinking about the experience.  You don’t have to automatically accept your thoughts and judgements as true.

2,  The 3 main ways to make yourself depressed are to think badly about yourself, to view the future bleakly and to interpret day to day events negatively.

3, There are a whole heap of common thinking patterns/styles that make people feel worse.  Try not to think in ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ but rather ‘I would rather he had……but’ or ‘I’d have preferred to do…… but’.  Shoulds and musts lead to a lot of anger.  Don’t be down on yourself or other people, don’t tell yourself ‘I can’t stand this’ or ‘I can’t bear it’ because you always can, and try not to catastrophise, ‘this is absolutely awful!  It’s going to be a disaster!’  My other favourite is mind-reading, in other words, assuming you know what others are thinking/feeling – girls take note!

4, You don’t have to do things the same way all your life or be the same person.  It may feel fake and weird at first but experiment!  If you don’t normally go to that kind of event then try it.  If you don’t normally wear that style of clothing because you think you’d look stupid, give it a go!  If you’re not an out-doors person, are you sure?  Or is that belief simply down to PE lessons 20 years ago?

5, The absolute only way to get through fear is to face it.  Reassuring yourself nothing bad will happen doesn’t help.  It might.  But you can cope.  So gradually take small steps to repeatedly expose yourself to what you fear.

6, Our emotions are simply chemical reactions going off in our body so they may actually bear no resemblance to reality.  Just because you are feeling fear and horrible physical symptoms of fear, this doesn’t mean there is actually anything to fear.  You can try to ignore your emotions rather than give them the time of day.

7, Why do you never approach people at a party?  Why do you never dance at a party?  Is it because you think others will think you are stupid or look silly?  Is it because you think you’re terrible at conversation or can’t move to save your life?  Well, maybe you could do with picking up some skills, but maybe you believe those things about yourself for no real reason, or at least for a reason that happened a long time ago.  Try the things that scare you and that you’d never normally do.  You may be surprised that you actually are quite a good mover!  And if people do laugh, can you stand it?  Of course!

8, Being assertive is not about being bolshy and pushy.  It’s rather about saying what you really think and feel in a considerate way.  Therefore, it’s actually being honest rather than deceptive.  Not expressing ourselves might save conflict in the short-term but usually leads to a build up of resentment against people, an erosion of self confidence and occasional blow-ups with people we care about, which totally surprise them as they seem to come out of the blue.  They have not had a chance to really know the real ‘us’.

8, A great way to tell someone assertively that they have upset you is called scripting: –

a, Tell the person exactly what situation you are talking about.  Eg, ‘when you gave me that report late…’

b, Tell them the impact it had on you both in terms of your feelings and behaviour.  Eg, ‘It meant I had to stay late to finish my work.  I felt really annoyed about this.’

c, Tell them how you’d like things to change in the future to make things better.  Eg, ‘Next time I would like your report to be with me by Thursday please’

d, Tell them why that would be good for you and them.   Eg, ‘That way I can get my work completed on time and our working relationship will also be a lot smoother’.

Obviously it’s not always that simple, but it’s a structured start!

These are just a few of the things that have made an impression on me and my life.

If you ever go through periods of low mood or anxiety, have any other mental health needs, or are just interested in finding out more, then you’re definitely not alone.  It’s estimated that 1 in 6 people at any one time is experiencing some form of a common mental health problem.  There are some great on-line resources out there. and the best ones we encourage people to use at work are:

http://www.livinglifetothefull.com (an on-line course of various modules covering techniques to help yourself)

http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au (for all kinds of issues, including panic attacks, social anxiety, self esteem, assertiveness, depression, worry and disordered eating)

http://www.moodgym.anu.edu.au (more for depression) or http://www.ecouch.anu.edu.au (more for anxiety)

If you’re in the UK and are interested in having some free NHS sessions of guided self help (or possibly more in-depth CBT therapy) to help with things like depression, anxiety, panic, OCD, social anxiety, sleep problems and worrying, then you can go to your GP and request a referral to the Improving Access to Psychological Therapy service (IAPT).  Not all areas have this service but many do now.

Of course you can also look up http://www.mind.org.uk or http://www.rethink.org for further information and support.

Personally, I think we could all do with using these resources at some time or other in our lives!

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I bet most of us have had the conversation (or heard the conversation) about ‘love is not a feeling’.   You know, the one where your parent or a preacher or a more mature friend waxes lyrical about how in today’s western culture we mistakenly associate love with mushy, gooey, lovely feelings and then feel our love for someone has passed or died when those stomach fireworks are no longer going on.  Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree with the sentiment that love is not primarily a feeling, (although I dearly hope that any future husband of mine might actually marry me because of some things he finds lovely and pleasing in me, not just inspite of all my flaws!  (“well dear, you’re certainly not much to look at but don’t worry, I’m going to grit my teeth and propose marriage to you anyway because I love you”!!)

But all this begs the question, well what is love then?  And lots of people have lots of answers to that too.  What strikes me, and what I come back to time and time again, is that love in it’s most simple but toughest form, is the overwhelming desire for somebody’s (or something’s) good.  That includes their physical, emotional, spiritual and mental good at the very least.  This is so simple but profound because it means love is no longer a selfish thing that is satisfying the lover’s needs.  It’s possible to do all sorts of things for someone’s good that may have no benefit for you and may even be detrimental to you.  They may never even know what you have done for them in secret.  Certainly Jesus was not feeling all mushy and gooey on the cross.  This definition of love also means that it’s ok to be cross with someone, to discipline them (in an appropriate way if this is your role) or to sometimes be brutally honest and blunt/harsh with them as long as the prime motive is always to help them flourish.  In fact, love sometimes requires these things, even at the risk of the person reacting badly to you as a result.  I regularly see Jesus acting this way in the gospels.

This ties in with another point.  Again, if you’ve been to church for a fair length of time (I don’t presuppose that most of us have to be fair, but if you have) then you will also probably have heard a preacher say that when God looks at Christians, he sees Jesus and therefore he does not see our flaws, we are truly pristine and wonderful creatures in his eyes.  To be honest, this idea is supposed to be comforting but it just grates on me and makes me distinctly uncomfortable.  It’s like God is wearing some cosmic rose-tinted specs and not seeing reality at all.  The whole point is that I want God to see me in reality, otherwise how can he really love the real me?  How can he help me in my difficulties and out of my flaws?  Who of us really wants a partner who puts their fingers in their ears when we try to express our brokenness to them, and sings loudly so they can continue to believe we are perfect?  Surely what we crave is someone who will be absolutely clear about our failings but love us unwaveringly anyway.  How else will intimacy and honesty develop?

The only way that someone could have that kind of honest love for another person (I am convinced), would be if they could already see something wonderful in their beloved but could also see their beloved’s potential and who they could be, perhaps the glorious being they were created to become.  That person would not let go of that vision and would continue to do all they could to help the other flourish and develop into their glory.  That’s how a mother sees her child isn’t it, the baby she once held in her arms so clean and fresh, full of potential?  She will continue to believe in the goodness of her child and the possibility of its redemption to the end, even if the child has grown up and royally screwed up its own life.  That’s how I reckon God sees us – not perfect creatures now, but the perfect creatures we could be because we have the seed for that in us already.  I guess the seed is his image and God continues to love the real us in the now in order that we might develop into the truly glorious us.  Every little bit of beauty and flourishing in us is a complete joy to him.  The kiss gradually turns the frog into the prince.  Forget the rose tinted specs, that’s the kind of love I need and, I believe, the kind of love he gives.

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I really enjoy the more or less annual summer road trip with my family from here to Switzerland.  I remember one year, stumbling bleary eyed into the Volvo at 4am, informing the neighbourhood we were off with repeated attempts at starting the engine culminating in a backfire, and then travelling along virtually empty motorways to the white cliffs of Dover.  Along the way a mist had formed at ground level and it was not yet late enough and warm enough for it to have evaporated away.  It settled in ditches and hollows and hovered above rivers with the sun rise piercing through it, looking, for all the world, like part of a cloud kingdom inhabited by goblins and imps.

But my most favourite part of the journey (bar lunch) is when we start winding through the Vosges Mountains of north eastern France.

The Vosges are in the red box!

As we do so, a great sense of calm and peace begins to descend on me.  Of course, the scenery is unquestionably beautiful, with some of the best views emerging from gaps in road-side forests around hair pin bends (“KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE ROAD MUM!!”)  The mountains are not particularly stark and intimidating like some, but instead tuck into each other and appear covered in a granddad’s green beard of trees.  Sometimes the distant landscape is so patch-quilted with gentle colours that I want to run my hands over its smooth softness.

Even the houses look carefully thought out and friendly with their pastel colours and decorative shutters.  It gives me the impression that people have taken care over their homes and land and therefore that somehow they care about life in general.

But maybe apart from all this, what I am really feeling is that I am very near the end of my journey and on the boarders of reaching Switzerland.  I’m nearly home.  The landscape appears more Swiss-like, the architecture and design more familiar and the towns often have such Swiss-German sounding names that I wonder how on earth a French person would even pronounce them!  Why should Switzerland feel like a home when in fact it is not my literal home at all?  Why don’t I get a similar feeling when returning to my physical home?

I think this is because I have so many virtually untainted happy childhood memories out in Switzerland.  Primarily these involve my whole family’s excitement at seeing loved ones again, knowing that they will be just as overjoyed to see us too, and particularly feeling safe and secure amongst this age-old family love and generosity, such that I and my cousins could just play together with no concerns about school or responsibility or even decisions about how to fill the next moment.  As the sun goes down over the Vosges Mountains and the shadows lengthen, I begin to feel as if I myself am being tucked safely in to them with heavy eyes after a long day’s play, just as they tuck into themselves and just as my aunts and grossmami have tucked me in many times before.

This feeling reminds me of a reminiscence by John Eldredge in his book ‘The Sacred Romance’.  He describes Sunday afternoons in summer as a child when he would often be at his grandfather’s ranch alongside many cousins, great aunts, friends and relatives.  As he sat on the step outside he could hear the elder family members talking and laughing and he felt very settled and content.  He goes on to say,

‘My sense of security grew from an awareness that all this had been going on before me, that though I was part of it I wasn’t responsible for it.  It didn’t depend on me.  You’ve heard that children care more that their parents love each other than that they love them, and that is the reason why.  It’s the assurance that there is something grand and good going on that doesn’t rest on your shoulders, something that doesn’t even culminate in you but rather invites you up into it.’

I don’t believe that even as aged adults we lose this desire for love, for security, for foundation and for a home that was there long before us. My 97 year old neighbour who died last year used to tell me that she still cried out for her mum at night.  At times I think that maybe this desire comes from the simple fact that we are conscious beings and therefore aware that one day we will die.  The unease that this engenders no doubt sometimes leads to a strong search for security and a sense of being looked after.  (Yes, I do have a mind that is (at the moment anyway) regularly tossed between the scientific and the spiritual, not that I think they always have to clash.  I sometimes wonder if anyone else out there knows how that feels!)

And yet the feeling that I get in the Vosges and that John Eldredge describes and that I’m sure most people experience at times is different than simple longing for self preservation.  There is something really lovely about hearing my mum, her mum and 2 sisters talking and laughing together, It’s as if, in their bond of love and shared experience, they’re holding together another bond from which many rope-spokes protrude, including mine.  They are their own little community but that community was going on long before I existed, it doesn’t depend on me but I can become part of it, rest in it, benefit from it and pass on the love and joy.

And now I know that God is a community, a bond of love between Father and Son which is the Spirit.  From all eternity this community has existed in great closeness and intimacy, and has continually poured out self-giving love from one member to another, almost like a dance.  Out of the joy of this love God created because love always desires to share, just as couples in love often want to extend their family and their love and so have children.  And the offer of this trinity God is that we can be taken up into their family community, into the bond and spirit of love as children if we wish to be, just as Jesus has always been the Son.  If the experiences we have in our own lives in our most joyful, peaceful moments are reflections of the kind of love that flows in the trinity then maybe that is the real home that we are ultimately looking for?

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Nearly every year since I was born, my family and I have made the summer trip to Switzerland.  This is where my mum is from and where I have family connections and anchors that seem to be rooted in me more deeply than a Redwood into the earth.  Initially we flew, but when ‘number of children’ exceeded ‘ability to pay airline tickets’ we started getting up at 4am to squeeze 6 people and luggage into a volvo estate and make the 18+ hour road trip down to the south coast of England and then across the north east of France.

There are really no words to describe how much Switzerland, that little patch of ground squeezed between France, Germany, Italy and Austria, means to me.  Holey cheese, chocolate, cuckoo clocks and Swatches just don’t cut it.  But I can try.  This time I’m attempting a sort of photo journal.

The photos are either there because they illustrate part of the day, or because they capture something about this repeated summer trip that means a great deal to me.

This may not mean much to you and maybe I’m being slightly nostalgic and self indulgent here.

Oh well.

To hang on the rearview mirror. Holidays begin!

Farewell beautiful white cliffs

Ferry food. How to cost yourself an arm and a leg (but it's gotta be done)

La Ventillette - 'The clearing in the woods'. Arrival at our little home in Normandie

Sundown behind La Ventillette

A new morning

Content in the garden. Bushes heavy with berries

Visiting friends in the village - a truly typical Normandy home

Searching for glass treasures in heaps of dumped rock and factory debris. The barriers to the site and the fear of being caught raising the level of intrigue

Our treasure finds

The 'Haexehuesli' ('witch's little house') we always pass on the way to the heaps of hidden treasures!

The one rose in the wild chaos of Hansel and Gretel's garden

Onward journey. Stop off for lunch, which was nice until mum pointed out all the discarded tissues about. Obviously a toilet behind the bush spot.

Arrival at our flat for the next week. This house was where my grosspapi grew up and where his sister lived until she died 6 years ago. It's where I found the ring I mentioned 2 blogs ago

The view from our house. Rita and Walti, the neighbours (and distant relatives) are regularly out there of an evening with friends, laughing a lot. One year Walti offered me and my siblings some ice tea but said it in such a way that in swiss it sounded like he was saying it was 'Schystee' ('shit tea'). This of course had us (and him) in stitches for the rest of the afternoon.

Food that makes me realise I'm back in Switzerland

Nutella! My grossmami usd to make my brother and I 'schtybitzli' ('little stolen things') of bread spread with an inch of butter and 2 of nutella at 6am, way before my parents were awake to know about it.

The steps up to bed at my grossmami and papis. The speckled floor that means I'm in Switzerland, I'm on holiday, I'm safe. Mr fox who's known me since I was able to stroke him without stooping

A lot of long lovely meals around this table

The swings I spent hours on (and jumping from great heights off) in the summers that seemed endless. Usually sucking on a bubble jo lolly, which was a total dream because the stick was made of bubble gumDay 6

My other home town where I'm registered - Sissach, Basel. Continental cafe culture. Coffee for breakfast at the baker's with mum, sister and aunt Barbara (who refused to be on the picture!)

drinking water

Sissach

'Die Scwarzen Brueder' ('The Black Brothers') play on the shore of the Walen Lake in the Heidiland region of Switzerland

The view that means we're arriving at my cousins' house and a sunny fun day is about to happen

When we'd surface from the cooling water of my cousins' pool, this was the view we'd always see. The sound of cowbells is missing!

The baking hot drive stones we'd lie on after swimming. The walk towards a day of friends and summer fun

Us cousins. Of course I'm at the front, well I was the biggest!

1st of August - Switzerland's birthday! Fireworks, William Tell and all that!

The flags of each kanton (county) in Switzerland. My home one (Basel Land) is second right from the middle pillar

Salad, chips, ice cream and a brilliant playground up at a little airport in the hills. A regular and beautiful haunt

The Tesco of Switzerland. But for me, yet again, it's a sign that I'm somewhere I love

Cable car up to the Stockhorn mountain

Little frogs making their way out of the lake everywhere

The alp boys making hay!

alp roses

The path between one aunt's village and the other's. An oft trod route. Sometimes when I'm stressed and anxious, I close my eyes and visualise, hear and feel walking this path

Every house-front seems to have been adorned and taken great care of. People seem to know that we need beauty around us to feel good and to show we actually care about life.

The Sissacher Fluhe - the cliff that stands prominently watching over Sissach. Show me this cliff and I'd recognise it anywhere.

Travels home through France all too soon. Picnic of all kinds of cheese and bread, the very necessary celeriac salad and boiled eggs.

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