Category Archives: Making Connections

My 29 Gifts Challenge

In January, I came across a book called 29 Gifts by Cami Walker. It’s part memoir and part self-help book. At the beginning, Walker is bedbound by MS, in debt and has a strained relationship with her husband, who has become her carer. A renewed acquaintance, Mbali, makes a strange suggestion: she should give something away every day, for 29 days in a row.

Wrapped Gift

What I love about this book is that Cami Walker reacts in the same way most of us would in her situation – she thinks the idea is ridiculous, especially considering she can barely walk and has no money. She has no intention of carrying out her prescription. In fact, she is about to go into hospital and convinced she couldn’t start the challenge even if she wanted to. Being told it’s time to stop thinking about herself adds insult to injury.

Yet… She begins. She gives away her first gift and the rest follow.

The upshot is, Walker changes her life through completing the challenge. It changes her mindset and opens her to opportunities she hadn’t considered. The change isn’t miraculous in the definitive sense – she still has MS and debt – yet her attitude brings many positive things into her life, which help to counterbalance the negative and give it a different flavour.

After reading the book, I thought “that sounds like something I would like to do” but I wasn’t sure if I would follow through. After all, we all have a million excuses for not attempting such a challenge: lack of money, other things to focus on, it might be a waste of time, etc. But it lodged in my mind and stayed there.

My 29 Days challenge started by accident: I paid for a half marathon entry for my mum and myself, then I wondered whether I could count it as the first of my 29 gifts. I decided to approach the challenge as more of an experiment, to see what happened. I would make a conscious effort to give gifts for the following 28 days, without expectation or even hope that it would produce anything other than a warm, fuzzy feeling.


How to start the challenge…

The book sets out many suggestions for how to tackle your own 29 Gifts challenge. I didn’t remember to repeat the recommended affirmations every day and although I wrote about my challenge in my journal, I didn’t write a dedicated journal focused on the gifts and my thoughts/feelings surrounding them. I’m sure it’s helpful to do everything the book suggests, but it’s not necessary.

More importantly, the book points out that gifts don’t need to be monetary. You can give people your time, make gifts for them, do them a service or give them something you already possess. This is the crux of the challenge: everyone can give something.

You can also choose to give a gift to yourself. It may seem contrary to the nature of the challenge, but few of us consciously give to ourselves. Instead, we deny ourselves and then “treat” ourselves by overeating, overspending or engaging in other destructive behaviours – which gives us brief pleasure but leaves us feeling worse.


My 29 Gifts.

My own gifts tended to be about making time to connect with people. I made more effort to send my friends text messages, instead of convincing myself they wouldn’t be interested and would consider replying to be a chore. I shared things more, including sweets and blog posts. I also tried to be more thoughtful and helped around the house more than usual.

I had fun sponsoring a few friends, too. I gave small amounts and wished I could afford more, but their appreciation was reassurance enough that a few pounds can make a difference. It reminded me of how encouraging it felt when someone donated money for my Machu Picchu trek – no matter how much I doubted myself and my ability to complete the challenge, I felt supported and motivated.


So, did my life change?

Yes and no. My mindset has certainly changed. I had a terrible episode of depression before Christmas and started the year feeling more depressed and anxious than I had been for months. I was stressed about everything and as usual, a lot of this stress was concentrated on my debt, low income and lack of work prospects. Completing my 29 Gifts experiment reminded me that while I might not have a lot of money, I have enough. It made me more grateful for everything I have and switched my focus.

I also realised I have a lot to give, apart from money. I started valuing my time more. I strengthened my connections with other people. I feel more positive about my life.

Yes, it would have been cool if my challenge had resulted in bigger changes, but it has definitely had an impact. I don’t spend every day feeling sunny and serene – it hasn’t cured my depression, for a start – but I feel better overall. I have more confidence in my ability to change my life, though it will probably happen slowly rather than in huge, dramatic leaps.

It really does feel like the negative and positive aspects of my life are more in balance.


Try giving and see what you have to gain!

There is something special about the 29 Gifts challenge. It connects with a lot of concepts which I believe in, such as karma, compassion and gratitude. As Cami Walker’s friend, Mbali, pointed out, it takes the focus away from yourself and your problems. When you are looking for opportunities to give, you can’t wallow in negativity.

The beauty of doing the challenge is there’s nothing to lose. At the very least, you do a bit of good in the world. Its effect on your own life is a bonus.

And that warm and fuzzy feeling you get from giving is pretty damned good.


I started volunteering for The Project at the end of last year. It’s an East Devon-based organisation which runs peer support groups for young people aged 13-24 with mental health issues. It also provides mental health training and workshops, for schools, businesses and the general public. Lots of people choose to support specific charities/organisations because they have directly benefitted from them in the past, but I wanted to help The Project for the opposite reason: I wish it had been around when I was a teenager.

Support The Project

Giving Hope

A couple of days ago, I had an Instagram exchange with a parent whose child is on the waiting list for one of The Project’s groups and she made a comment which resonates with me (and probably many other people): “The Project gives hope to families.”

When I was a teenager, nobody spoke about mental health. There were no local organisations available to help me and my mental health problems were dismissed as “only stress” by teachers. I wasn’t diagnosed with a mental illness until I was 18, because I didn’t tell my doctor about all my symptoms – I believed they were somehow my own fault and I was embarrassed to mention them. Instead, I was treated for recurrent throat infections and tension headaches caused by stress (and, with hindsight, depression and anxiety). Social media didn’t exist and mental health was rarely mentioned in the press or on television.

The fact that The Project exists is a big deal. It shows young people with mental health problems that someone cares – and they are not alone.

The Project gives hope to many people affected by mental health, including parents/carers, who have their own monthly peer support group. It helps young people and families across East Devon, South Somerset, West Dorset and beyond. It raises awareness of the issues surrounding mental health and equips people to cope better and support others with mental health issues.

In my role as volunteer Writing and Communications Officer (a title chosen for me, not by me!), I’m trying to help The Project get more publicity so that it can spread mental health awareness and help more young people. When I was 18, I thought my life was over. Mental illness had prevented me from going to university as planned, I struggled to find a job (and to keep the job when I found it, since my mental health caused a high rate of absence) and felt I had nothing positive in my life. The help available from the NHS was limited and I was patronised and dismissed. A psychiatrist even told me that the only treatment options available were for “serious conditions, like schizophrenia” – despite the fact I had attempted suicide and was still feeling suicidal.

I don’t want today’s young people to have the same experiences. The Project gives them somewhere to go, someone to turn to, support to access. The Project tells each and every young person – whether or not they attend the support groups – that they matter. Their mental health and wellbeing are important. They deserve support.


An Inclusive Approach

One of the things I love about The Project is that young people don’t need to be diagnosed with a mental health condition in order to attend the support groups. Some have mental illnesses; others are struggling with mental health issues like bullying, bereavement and exam stress. While I’m frustrated when medical diagnoses are regarded as labels, I think the priority of all people and organisations involved in mental health should be to reassure and support anyone who is struggling. The Project does this: there are no hoops to jump through or boxes to tick. If your mental health is suffering, the solution is more important than the reason.

The solution The Project offers is holistic and flexible. The peer support groups are informal, relaxed and friendly. Nobody is pressured to talk about their feelings – or to do anything they don’t want to do. Every session involves at least one activity aimed at giving young people life skills and tools they can use to manage their mental health, but participation is optional. The activities are varied: cooking, arts and crafts, stress management techniques, music and group discussions have all featured.

Mental health can affect all aspects of your life and all aspects of life can affect your mental health. The Project not only acknowledges this, but embraces it.

The Project Needs Support to Provide Support

You may have seen on social media that The Project has launched a crowdfunding campaign, #Support4September: It aims to raise £15,000+ during this September, which also marks The Project’s 4th birthday, so The Project can continue providing all of its services for another year.

The Project receives funding from Comic Relief, but needs to (at least) match the amount of money it’s given by Comic Relief in order to function. It cannot survive without the generosity of its supporters. Raising the money needed is difficult and The Project needs all the help it can get. Please donate to the #Support4September campaign and spread the word to everyone you know – by supporting The Project this September, you will help to support young people all year round.

The value of giving hope to young people with mental health issues and their families cannot be underestimated. During dark times, The Project is a beacon to those in need of support. To keep it shining, please visit Thank you.

For more information about The Project, please visit


Types of Support People with Mental Health Problems Might Need

“How can I help when your mental health is bad?”

I have been asked this question a couple of times recently and didn’t really know how to answer, except to say that I always appreciate someone listening to me and checking in to ask how I am. It made me think about the different types of support I have received and/or wanted over the years I have experienced mental illness.

Here is a brief guide to the types of support you could provide to someone with mental health problems. Your ability to give different types of support will depend on your own circumstances and relationship with the person who has mental health issues. I’m not saying that everybody should aim to supply every type of support to everyone they know who is mentally ill — that would be impossible and inappropriate — but if you are wondering how you can help, here are some ideas.


Emotional support

I believe this is the most important type of support, because it enables people with mental health problems to help themselves. It’s easier to try to solve your problems when you feel supported. Emotional support also prevents isolation, which perpetuates mental health issues.

Defining emotional support is difficult, as it can include various elements and different people prefer different types of emotional support. At its core, emotional support is about kindness, compassion and empathy. It involves listening to the person with mental health problems and trying to understand how they are feeling.

The key thing to remember is that providing emotional support can be very simple. A text saying “thinking of you” means a lot. Spending time with the person with mental health problems, whether doing an activity or just chatting, helps, too. Asking how they are feeling and listening without judging, criticising or telling them what they “should” be doing makes a huge difference.

At its heart, emotional support is connecting with another person and showing you care. 


Practical support

Mental illness makes it difficult to do things which other people find easy. You can provide practical support by either accompanying the person with mental health problems or doing things for them. Some people will argue that doing things for someone who is mentally ill means you are acting as an enabler, but this is utter nonsense. You wouldn’t hesitate to help someone who is physically ill and cannot do certain things; mental illness is no different.

People need different types of practical support at different points, as their mental health changes and fluctuates. For example, someone might be too ill to buy groceries one month, but well enough the next month to go shopping with a friend. Asking what practical help you can provide is useful, but people with mental health problems are often reluctant to ask for help because they feel like a burden, so try to empathise and anticipate what they might need.

Practical support can include going with people to medical appointments (with their permission, of course!), making phone calls on their behalf and preparing meals for them. Be observant and try to pinpoint areas in which they are struggling.


Financial support

Mental health problems and money problems often go hand in hand. Taking a lot of time off work or being unable to work and subsisting on benefits usually means your income is very low. In addition, many symptoms of mental illness make managing finances difficult. Sometimes, mental health problems can cause overspending as well. Given this, it’s no surprise that many people with mental health problems get into debt and/or need extra financial support.

The level of financial support you can give depends very much on your own situation and your relationship with the person with mental health problems. If you are able, helping to pay for things or lending money without charging interest can be very helpful and relieve huge burdens. However, helping someone manage their finances can also be very useful — especially as many people with mental health problems can’t face dealing with their financial situation, so tend to ignore the problem as it gets worse.

Money is a sensitive topic at the best of times, so be aware that your offers of help might be refused. While there should be no shame in facing financial difficulties, especially as a result of illness, many people feel ashamed of being poor and in debt. They might (incorrectly) see it as a reflection of their own value and believe they don’t deserve help.

Be sensitive and empathetic when offering financial support. Don’t attach conditions which could put the person with mental health problems under extra pressure. Also consider your own needs: don’t give or lend what you can’t afford to lose. 



You can offer support by advocating for someone, fighting on their behalf when mental illness prevents them from fighting for themselves. In my experience, this is particularly valuable when the person with mental health problems is claiming benefits, since the DWP and its associated organisations care more about their targets than the wellbeing of vulnerable people. It’s also helpful in situations where people are trying to secure their legal rights, such as facing discrimination at work.

Advocacy takes many forms and depends on the situation, but can involve contacting people/organisations, filling in forms and logging events. It may necessitate research or following procedures. All of these things are difficult to negotiate when you have mental health problems, so having someone to advocate on your behalf means a lot.


Provide support responsibly

Remember to take care of your own needs when providing support — you will be less able to help anybody if you let your health/finances/relationships/whatever suffer. We have probably all been in situations where we wish we could help more, but damaging your own life doesn’t help anyone in the long term. Also look to your own sources of support, especially emotional support, to help you in supporting someone else.

Even if you can provide nothing but kindness and compassion, it will make a massive difference.

10 Things to NEVER Say to Someone with Mental Health Problems

People find talking about mental health difficult. It is one of the reasons why the stigma surrounding mental illness is so powerful and pervasive. Unfortunately, when some people break the silence, they do more harm than good.

Purple scream

All of these examples have been said to me at some point, many of them by a single family member (whom I no longer have contact with, for obvious reasons). It is time we moved past these products of assumptions and misinformation. So if you ever find yourself about to say one of the following phrases, please STOP and educate yourself before inflicting more pain on someone who is already suffering.

1. Snap out of it

If only it were that easy! Seriously, if you have ever said this, what the fuck were you thinking? Nobody chooses to be mentally ill. Nobody chooses to be miserable, to endure debilitating symptoms and to limit their quality of life.

Mental illness is not a choice. People with mental health problems cannot choose to recover and then magically get better. Mental health is far more complex than that, for a start. Many people with mental illnesses also struggle to access help, for a variety of reasons, and being able to access treatment doesn’t guarantee recovery.

Telling people to “snap out of it” also places the blame on people with mental health problems, as if it’s their fault they have a mental illness. Again, it’s not a choice. You have a choice though: you can choose not to use this insulting, damaging and all-too-common phrase.


2. There’s nothing wrong with you

First of all, how would you know whether someone has a mental illness? You don’t know what is going on in their head, even if you spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with them (which is unlikely, especially when you will be asleep for a significant portion of time). Plus, chances are you’re not a mental health professional if you take this attitude towards someone. At least, I hope you aren’t a mental health professional.

Secondly, attempting to negate someone’s experience of mental illness can be incredibly harmful. What right do you have to dismiss their diagnosis? How would you feel if you had been diagnosed with a physical condition, diabetes for example, only to be told by some ignorant bastard that there is nothing wrong with you? To be told that your symptoms somehow don’t count as being a genuine illness?

This situation is frustrating enough when you haven’t yet been diagnosed but know something is wrong. When you have endured years of distress before being diagnosed with mental health problems and still struggle to access help and support, facing people with this attitude is frustrating, exhausting and detrimental to your health. It’s awful being told there is nothing wrong with you by someone who hasn’t a clue, especially after your diagnosis has been confirmed by a number of mental health professionals.

Taking this attitude indicates that you think mental health is not as important as physical health. It also implies that you don’t think people with mental health problems are important, because you are refusing to listen to what they are saying.


3. Shut up, stop talking about your mental health problems

If someone feels comfortable enough to talk about their mental health either to you or around you, that should be celebrated. If it makes you uncomfortable, tough — experiencing the stigma surrounding mental health is more uncomfortable and you are perpetuating it if you try to silence people with mental health problems. Instead, try listening.

Be part of the effort to break down stigma by bearing witness to what people say about their mental health. Give them a safe space to talk about mental health problems. It is difficult to express how valuable it is to feel listened to when you have a mental illness; to have someone let you talk without judging you. You don’t need to say anything in return (in fact, giving unsolicited advice on mental health can be very unhelpful, especially if you haven’t experienced similar mental health problems): just be there and listen.


4. You’re lucky compared to so-and-so

Comparing someone’s situation to another person’s is rarely helpful. When you try to compare someone’s mental illness to another person’s problems, it is particularly injurious and offensive.

You don’t know how much someone is suffering when they have mental health problems. You haven’t experienced what they are going through. You have no right to assume that they are suffering less than another person, whether that person has a physical disability, a terminal illness or lives in abject poverty. Even if you happen to be right and they are suffering less than whoever you are comparing them to, they are still suffering.


5. You would feel better if you had a new job/partner/dog/holiday

Mental illness doesn’t discriminate: it can affect anyone, no matter how much they own or how many aspects of their life are desirable. Even if someone with mental health problems is able to gain whatever is suggested (which is difficult, considering how debilitating many symptoms are), it won’t cure their mental illness. At best, they might experience a short term boost in mood.

To check how ridiculous your suggestion is, imagine giving someone the same advice if they had a physical illness or disability. “You have cancer? You would feel better if you went on holiday.” “Your leg needs to be amputated? Get a boyfriend and you’ll feel great!” Mental illness cannot be fixed so easily — otherwise the NHS could save a fortune by giving dogs to people with mental health problems.


6. Go to the doctor and get some happy pills, then you will feel fine

The problem with this phrase is that there is a strong element of truth to it: going to your doctor is essential when you have mental health problems, however tempting it is to hope your symptoms will disappear on their own. However, going to your doctor doesn’t guarantee access to effective treatment. It certainly cannot provide a quick fix.

Most antidepressants don’t make people feel “high” — at best, they improve your mood enough for you to function a little more and use other methods to manage your mental health. It can take a lot of experimentation to find a particular type of medication and dosage which works fot you. Antidepressants can also take a while to work, so each variation needs to be tried for at least a few weeks to determine its effectiveness — unless you experience harmful side effects or a worsening of symptoms, in which case you need to go back to your doctor immediately.

Medication is one of the most effective tools used to manage mental health problems, but it is not magic. Most people will not feel “fine” through taking medication alone, without other therapies and techniques. Its efficacy can also vary over time — for example, one antidepressant I used to take stopped working after a few years, so I had to switch to another type.

Consider how someone might feel if they took your advice and then discovered you are wrong, that they don’t feel “fine”. If they are already in a negative mindset, they are liable to blame themselves and/or view the experience as proof that recovery is impossible. Characterising antidepressants as “happy pills” is incorrect and perpetuates a damaging stereotype.


7. There is nothing you can do, so just get on with it

People with mental health problems cannot “just get on with it.” They are experiencing debilitating symptoms which prevent them from functioning “normally”. If they try, their symptoms are likely to get worse.

There is also a lot which can be done for mental illnesses — the problem is that many treatments are difficult to access. The NHS can provide medication and talking therapies (although these are usually woefully limited and have long waiting lists). There are also many self-care techniques which can be useful, although factors like lack of motivation and anxiety can prevent many people from implementing them. Other people can also help those with mental health problems in a variety of ways, including simply listening and offering practical support.

The point is that there is hope, even if the person concerned doesn’t believe it, and telling someone that nothing can be done is both untrue and detrimental to their health.


8. Go on then, if it’s that bad, kill yourself

Why would anyone say this? Do they think it’s helpful or are they just callous, evil people? In my case, it was yelled by a (now ex-) neighbour when I was having a meltdown and if she had really wanted to help me kill myself, I would have taken her up on the offer at that time. I’m sure my shouting and screaming was annoying, but I was in distress and was suffering much worse than the neighbours.

You may think you are playing devil’s advocate or just letting off steam, but you are making a difficult situation worse if you ever tell someone to kill themselves. You are devaluing their life, providing them with more evidence that they are worthless. It’s cruel and unforgivable.


9. All you need is a life plan

Another case of “I wish it were that simple”! There is a grain of truth in this, since setting goals can help improve your mental health, but when someone has mental health problems they might not be able to make plans. When you believe your life is not worth living, making plans is pointless.

Setting goals can also be damaging — if you fail to achieve them, it becomes another stick to beat yourself with. More proof of how awful your life is and the impossibility of ever changing it. If someone is going through a bad episode of mental illness, making long term plans might be best avoided. Assuming they are even capable of making plans in their situation.

Plans and goals may be helpful, but it depends entirely on the person, their situation and the symptoms they are currently experiencing. However, a “life plan” is not a magical spell (notice a pattern yet?) and it will not cure mental illness, even if it helps some people with mental health problems move forward. I have plans and goals at the moment, but it doesn’t stop me from experiencing fluctuations in my symptoms — it’s simply one of many tools I use to help cope with my mental health problems.


10. Nothing (especially when they talk about their mental health)

While saying nothing is better than saying any of the above phrases, it makes people feel unheard.  Acknowledging their mental health problems is incredibly helpful and validating — you don’t need to say a lot, just let them know you are listening.

Say “that must be difficult for you” if someone talks about their symptoms, ask how they are doing when you see them, take an interest and ask questions about their mental health. However, be aware that some people might not want to talk about their mental illness and some people might want to talk sometimes, but not others.  Don’t be insulted if someone doesn’t want to talk about their mental health — it’s not personal and mental health can be difficult to talk about, especially when you are experiencing certain symptoms.

Talk about mental health in the same way you would physical health — be empathetic without getting too personal. Don’t ask for all the gory details unless the person concerned offers. Be guided by the person you are talking to; everyone has different levels of openness and only they can determine how much they are comfortable with saying.

The worst kind of situation for someone with mental health problems is when you refer to your mental health and are met with silence, or a hasty change of subject. Mental health is worth talking about and it should be talked about. If you don’t know what to say, say that! Any response which shows you are making an effort to understand and offer kindness will be appreciated.


Talking about mental health and mental illness is vital. It’s the key way we will be able to break down stigma. One of my goals in writing this blog is to help society reach a point where mental health is discussed in an open and honest manner, like physical health.

For constructive ways to talk about mental health, please see this post on how to talk about your own mental illness. If you are wondering why I’m so passionate about speaking out, read Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Mental Health.


7 Ways to Deal with Anxiety When You Are Getting Out More

Recovering from anxiety enough to get out more and do more activities presents a paradox: you feel more anxious when you are pushing yourself to do something different. It is tempting to give up and go home. However, the only way to move past anxiety is to face it head on. These tips and techniques are for anyone who is trying to push his/her boundaries, but finds anxiety gets in the way.

1. Control your breathing — before you get too anxious

There are lots of breathing exercises which are said to help anxiety, so it’s worth experimenting to find out which work best for you. In my experience, the main criterion for choosing a particular technique is convenience. Most of the breathing exercises I have come across are effective, but what makes a difference for me is finding one I can do easily. I like counting breaths because it’s easy to remember what to do and I can do it without anyone else being able to tell what I’m doing. My favourite is 7-7-11 breathing: in for 7 counts, hold for 7 and exhale for 11.

The key to using breathing exercises effectively is to practice them when you are not feeling anxious. Start doing them when you are at home and feeling comfortable. Practice until it feels natural. Don’t wait to try a breathing exercise until you are freaking out — it’s bound to feel weird when you have never done it before.

When you are accustomed to using a particular technique, you can use it when you feel anxious. The trick is to start controlling your breathing as soon as you begin to feel anxious. Don’t wait until you are heading for a full-on panic attack: do your preferred breathing exercise  when you are a bit jittery and it can prevent your anxiety from escalating.

2. Leave the room

If your anxiety is getting worse despite your best efforts, exit the situation. Go to the toilet or out for some fresh air. Give yourself time and space to calm down.

Most of the time, nobody will notice your absences. If they do and you are uncomfortable with explaining that you feel anxious, just say you needed to cool off or have a bit of a headache. Don’t make a big deal out of it and no one else will.

Actually, a lot of people regularly leave social situations for a break — and for a variety of reasons. Some just need to be alone for a while and away from the noise. It’s fine; it’s normal.

3. Tell people you feel anxious

I have had a lot of success with this trick, partly because it means I no longer worry about whether everyone can tell I’m anxious. How much you say is up to you — I have previously explained that I have bad anxiety, but nowadays I’m more likely to say I feel a bit nervous. It’s up to you. Most people will be understanding (and even those who can’t empathise won’t berate you) and help to put you at ease.

If you are in a situation where elaborating on your anxiety can help, do so. It’s okay to say ‘when I get anxious I hate being fussed over, so don’t be offended if I need to be alone.’ In fact, it pre-empts issues which may arise. I recently had to explain to my gym instructor that when I get out of breath my anxiety can kick in, so when I stop exercising to control my breath I’m not having an asthma attack or anything. The result: I feel less self-conscious when I need to take a break and my gym instructor knows I don’t require medical attention.

4. Take a friend along with you

There is no shame with having someone there for moral support. I do modern jive classes with a friend — something I would probably have never gotten around to by myself. Friends like to help and will be flattered to be asked. Taking  a friend for the first couple of times you go somewhere new can help you to feel confident enough to go alone in future, so it doesn’t need to be a big commitment for them — you can use them as a stepping stone.

Give your friend guidelines before they accompany you — do you expect them to sit beside you all night or would you prefer to spend a proportion of the time building your solo social skills? Would you be pleased or terrified if they introduced you to people? Do you prefer your friend to order from the bar rather than get tongue tied yourself? Often, a close friend will naturally know how you wish to proceed, but discussing guidelines can help you to feel more at ease and lets your friend know if you plan to experiment with pushing your boundaries.

5. Try essential oils — or perfume

Having some lavender oil on a tissue available takes the edge off my anxiety. Apart from its relaxing properties, focusing on a sense which often gets overlooked (unlike sight and hearing) helps me to be more mindful. It forces me to get out of my head, however briefly.

Wearing perfume I love helps me feel more confident and less anxious. I have no idea whether my favourite scents have any relaxation properties and it doesn’t matter: it helps me stay grounded and reminds me of all the great times I have had when wearing that particular perfume. It’s a subtle trick, too — it took me years to realise that my perfume helps me feel less anxious!

6. Focus on other people, not your anxious thoughts

Watch other peoole, listen to them, pay attention. As long as you are doing this, you aren’t worrying about yourself. As soon as you are in a new situation, look for people you can focus on without drawing attention or seeming odd. In classes, this is obviously the teacher/instructor. People dancing, singing karaoke or otherwise performing are great to watch, too. If there are several people between whom you can divide your attention, that’s even better.

Truth is, unless you are extremely creepy and obvious, people tend not to notice being watched. Most of them are too busy chatting, having fun or worrying about themselves. The advanced version of this (which I’m trying to work towards) is to engage in conversation and really listen to other people. Find out three interesting things about each person you meet. Keep a list (mental or literal) of fun questions and conversation starters. Just keep your attention on others, not your mental chatter.

7. Have an escape plan

If all else fails, what will you do? Knowing how you would leave a situation helps you to feel more confident and secure — regardless of whether you put the plan into action. Who could you call to pick you up? Where could you walk to? Have you got money available in case you need to take a taxi?

Even noting the exits can help — when I know the location of the nearest door, I can visualise walking out of the room and it emphasises the fact that I have options. I don’t have to succumb to anxiety, because I know I can walk away if it all gets too much.

Leaving earlier than planned isn’t ideal, but don’t berate yourself if it’s necessary. Tackling anxiety isn’t easy and you deserve credit for getting outside your comfort zone. Leaving an unfamiliar situation isn’t failure — it’s a successful attempt to expand your boundaries and when you keep expanding your boundaries, your anxiety gets easier to control.



Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Mental Health

  1. We all have mental health. Just as we all have a state of physical health, we have a state of mental health. You might be lucky enough to never have to think about it, because your mental health has been good all your life, but you ought to be aware of your mental health.
  2. Anyone can become mentally ill. As with physical health there are various risk factors, but the bottom line is that nobody is immune. If you are aware of your mental health and discuss it regularly with friends and family, you will be better equipped to realise if/when your mental health is in decline and to take action.
  3. You will get more support if you need it — and can give more support to others. When mental health problems are shrouded with secrecy, it’s difficult for sufferers to get help and support. On the other hand, if everybody talks about mental health in the same way physical health gets discussed openly, it is easier for people with mental illness to express their thoughts and emotions. Instead of suffering in silence and feeling alone, we could connect with other people.
  4. There is nothing shameful about mental illness, but not discussing it implies otherwise. Secrets always have connotations of shame. Even if you are not ashamed of your mental health problems, refusing to talk about them creates a wall of silence that makes it harder for everyone to discuss mental illness — even when they want to talk about their experiences. Talking about mental health doesn’t mean you have to expose every symptom and facet of yourself; just as you can talk about your physical health without going into the details, you can talk about mental health in as much (or as little) detail as you wish.
  5. It’s the only way to end the stigma. To stop people with mental health problems feeling ashamednd isolated, we all need to talk about mental health. To stop prejudice against people with mental illness, we all need to talk about it.  To educate people and break down their ignorance about mental health, everybody needs to talk about mental health.

Should You Get a Pet to Help Depression?

I will start by pointing out the obvious: hoping to help depression should never be the only reason to get a pet. I’m also assuming that you like animals, are capable of looking after a pet and are looking for other benefits of pet ownership, like companionship. It’s also preferable to rescue a pet from a shelter, but I refuse to judge anyone who buys pets from responsible breeders. I’m assuming that readers would also take practicalities like finance and work hours into account when deciding whether to have a pet and when deciding on which type or breed of animal to get. However, this post is not about the pros and cons of pets in general – it’s about pets and depression.

There is considerable proof that pets are good for mental health. There are groups who arrange to take dogs (and sometimes other animals) into hospitals and residential homes because interacting with animals has many benefits for humans. Every so often, you will come across news reports saying that a new study has discovered that people with pets are happier/less stressed/in better mental health. There is also the intuitive feeling, present in all animal lovers, that having a pet will improve your life.

Full disclosure: although I had wanted my own dog since I was a very young child, a major reason for my getting one was that I thought it would help my depression. Which is why I feel qualified to write this post.

The most important thing to bear in mind is that a pet is not a miracle cure. You can’t expect a cute puppy to dramatically improve your mental health overnight. You should also consider that the responsibility of pet ownership puts a lot of pressure on you, which can be detrimental to your mental health. I advise anyone with mental health problems to ensure that they have a strong support network in place before they think about getting a pet. If your mental illness worsens, who will look after the pet? In my case, I live with my parents and could rely on them for practical and emotional support.

In my experience, receiving the unconditional love of a dog is invaluable. Taking care of my dog, Roxie, gave my life a sense of purpose and – in the long term – boosted my self-esteem. During the darkest times, she gave me a reason to live. But there were still dark times. Roxie did not cure my depression. She improved my life in general, but the effects on my mental health are difficult to determine.

When she died in September 2013, the day before her 10th birthday, my mental health was better than it had been since I was a young child, but Roxie can’t take all the credit: antidepressants, drama therapy, a depression group and great friends all helped. I was devastated by her death, but strong enough to cope. If she had died when she was much younger and my depression was worse, I dread to think what might have happened. That’s something else to bear in mind when you consider getting a pet: you will have to deal with their death.

I can’t, in all conscience, recommend getting a pet as an effective way of helping depression or any other mental illness. But neither can I say it’s a terrible idea. Just over a month after Roxie’s unexpected death, I got a puppy – another springer spaniel, in fact. While my mental health has improved enough to make me less reliant on my dog as a reason to live, he certainly forces me to make positive changes in my life. Even having to leave the house every day to walk him means a lot – especially when I faced my anxiety and took him out by myself earlier this year, something I had not done since Roxie was young. He is sweet and very affectionate, which makes me feel loved and valued. When I wake up or come home from somewhere, he is ecstatic to see me. These things mean a lot.

In conclusion, pets can have positive effects on your mental health – but that should be just one of many considerations. Don’t decide on a whim; take your time planning and researching. Discuss the idea with people close to you. Borrow someone else’s pet to see how you get on. Above all, never set out with high expectations when you get a pet – it’s not fair on the pet and it’s not fair on you.

Learning to Be Vulnerable

A lot of our fears and anxieties centre on one key fear: that of exposing ourselves. No, I don’t mean literal nakedness – that’s a cinch compared to what I’m talking about, emotional vulnerability. It’s natural to keep our emotions, feelings and thoughts hidden; in many circumstances, revealing them does leave you vulnerable to harm. From an evolutionary viewpoint, revealing fear is dangerous and exposes you to predators. It makes sense for a caveman to pretend he is fearless and act aggressively when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger. It’s a sensible approach in some circumstances nowadays, especially when you can’t trust the people around you. However, in some situations it is better to show your vulnerability.

It’s essential to let your close friends and family see that you can be vulnerable. It’s exhausting to pretend to be confident and self-assured 24/7 and does no favours for the people you care about, who may feel that they can’t show their own vulnerability. It’s natural to feel fear, doubt, shame, sadness, embarrassment, anger, disappointment, etc. By expressing these emotions in an appropriate manner, you teach others that their own feelings are validated and that they can deal with them.

On a wider scale, you are vulnerable whenever you take a risk that exposes you to potential criticism. You aren’t in any physical danger, yet you might get hurt emotionally. However, the alternative is to never take this type of risk; to stagnate. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to your career: success in most fields depends on putting yourself in vulnerable situations, like interviews and submitting work. If you opt out, you don’t progress.

Learning to be vulnerable involves accepting that vulnerability is necessary if you are to grow. It means you start to embrace the benefits of emotionally exposing yourself, such as gaining constructive feedback which you can use to improve. You can start with a few forays into showing your vulnerability and gradually increase the frequency. You will notice a paradox: the more vulnerable you become (or rather, the more you demonstrate your vulnerability), the more your confidence grows.

Vulnerability is linked to confidence because it cultivates self-acceptance. When you come to terms with your vulnerability, you begin to see that your flaws and failings are often mirror images of your strengths. You will also realise that most people accept your vulnerability – and many welcome the opportunity to interact with you on a “real” level, which is only achieved when you show yourself to be vulnerable. You will gain pleasure from situations which depend on exposing yourself to emotional danger, because taking the risk and being human is preferable to the alternative.

Think about dating: if you are to form a real connection, you must open yourself up and be vulnerable. Sure, your date might not like you or they might criticise you, but so what? You aren’t right for each other and need to move on to the next person. The alternatives are to never ask anyone on a date, which might get very lonely, or to put on a false front which will protect your feelings but also prevent you from interacting with others in any way that’s not superficial. The same is true of other situations – if you submit a piece of work which is important to you, for example, it might be rejected but at least there is a chance that it will be accepted. The alternative in this case is to never submit important work, which is pointless.

Being vulnerable can be painful. Criticism hurts more when you care: I can cope with rejections for stories which don’t mean much to me, but every rejection for a story I love cuts me to the core. But the pain is worth it because being vulnerable is the only way you can invite anything meaningful into your life. And it’s less painful than stagnating and never achieving your goals or forming close relationships.

See also: Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway

Make Kindness Your Superpower

The power of kindness is often experienced, but under-acknowledged. We tend to think of kindness as something that might brighten our day, but has limited impact on our lives. Wrong! Kindness can have huge effects: in the darkness of mental illness it can provide a light to help us find our way out. Performing acts of kindness can also help mental health problems, enabling us to reconnect with other people. Kindness can transform lives in small ways and big – look at the various charities who have provided people with clean water, basic healthcare, education, etc. And the best thing about kindness is that it benefits both the recipient and the person performing kind acts.

That’s why I want to invite you to make kindness your superpower. Use it to improve your life and the whole world.

Random acts of kindness have attracted a lot of attention over the past 10 years or so, celebrated for their eccentricity as much as their effects, but I prefer targeted acts of kindness. Targeted acts of kindness have more inherent meaning because they involve strong feelings about the recipient and/or the specific act of kindness. You might want to treat a friend who has stuck with you through the hard times, or who is going through a hard time herself. Perhaps you decide to donate to Amnesty International because you are passionate about human rights. Maybe you know a teenage boy who is always helping others and want to help him achieve one of his own goals. Targeted acts of kindness might not have the tabloid appeal of random acts of kindness, but I believe they are infinitely more awesome.

If we make kindness our superpower we can change the world, but we all have to start with a single person: you, yourself. It makes sense when you think about it – how can you access the full power of a value if you refuse to let it radiate in all directions, including inwards? When you are kind to yourself, you increase your ability to be kind to others. How many more acts of kindness could you perform if you look after yourself instead of beating yourself up all the time? How much more effort could you put into being kind to others when you gain the energy that comes from being kind to yourself?

Another awesome thing about targeted acts of kindness: they are accessible. Anyone can begin by doing something for a friend or loved one. Even if you are unable to leave the house, you can send an email to a friend thanking them for their support. You can make lunch for your parents if you can’t afford to treat them to dinner at a top restaurant. If you’re short on time, it takes seconds to send a charity donation via text message. Targeted acts of kindness cannot be quantified; when you are depressed, cooking dinner for someone is a massive act of kindness and the recipient will realise this, even if it seems insignificant to an outsider. A cheap surprise gift from a friend is more valuable than an expensive birthday present because it shows that your friend is thinking about you, without being prompted by a special occasion. Do whatever you can and remember that acts of kindness, in whatever form, are always important and effective.

So venture forth and have fun with your new superpower. Think of creative ways you can help someone achieve their dream. Aim to target acts of kindness at as many people as you can in a single day – then try to beat your record on another day. Shower a single person with kindness. Form a league of kindness superheroes with your friends or colleagues and use your combined power to bombard a local neighbourhood or a faraway nation with kindness. Don’t worry if you can’t do something “big” – just do whatever you can and let us know about it in the comments.

How to Talk About Your Mental Illness

It’s important for everyone to talk about mental health. Discussing mental illness without shame is vital if we are to break down the stigma. The trouble is, talking about mental health problems is difficult – especially if it seems you are the only one talking. Here are some tips to help your conversations flow a little more easily:

  • Choose the right audience. Some people don’t want to listen to you and aren’t worth the effort. They have their reasons for not wanting to hear about your mental illness – they might be scared of what they will hear (i.e. that they could easily become mentally ill, too) or they could just be selfish and nasty. These are not good reasons, but don’t bother wasting your breath by telling them so. Unless you enjoy arguments, in which case go ahead!
  • Be honest but don’t reveal more than you are comfortable revealing. You have a right to privacy and can talk about your mental health without going into all the gory details. You don’t need to explain your issues and it probably isn’t appropriate to, unless you are talking to close friends.
  • Take your time. Such an important topic deserves to have time taken over it, so don’t rush. Give yourself time to think about what you want to say and how to express it in the right words.
  • Be open about your struggles. It doesn’t mean you are seeking pity or attention. Be matter of fact about the worst times, if it helps, but don’t keep quiet about them just because people might think you are looking for sympathy.
  • Don’t be afraid to have a sense of humour. Laughing about the awful things in life can be empowering. I once read (sorry, but I can’t remember where) that Mel Brooks thought he had a duty to make fun of subjects like racism and Nazism because it diminished them and took away their power. Let’s do the same with mental illness: you can still acknowledge its devastating effects while poking fun at the ridiculous aspects. I do.
  • Use analogies and metaphors to describe, explain and illustrate your points. Writers use devices like simile, imagery and metaphor to help people relate to what they are talking about. You can help people relate to your experiences in similar ways. It’s useful to draw such comparisons when dealing with something as complex and variable as mental illness.
  • Don’t stereotype yourself or others. Laugh at yourself by all means, but you do nobody any favours if you constantly refer to yourself as ‘crazy’ and use your mental illness as an excuse to behave however you wish. It’s also unhelpful to rank mental illnesses or pit them against each other; unfortunately, I have heard people say things like ‘at least I don’t have schizophrenia – those people are really mental’ and ‘she only has depression, not something serious like a personality disorder.’ Talking in such a way does not break down the stigma surrounding mental illness: it strengthens it.