Categories
mental health Psychology

Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a complex diagnosis. It can be confusing to understand, I think because its traits can be observed at one time or another within the general population. The diagnosis is controversial because some people hold the belief that the feelings and behaviours associated with it are a reasonable, human reaction to difficult life experiences. Indeed emotional experiences like loneliness, fear of abandonment, excessive self-criticism and pessimism about the future have the potential to affect us all – especially so during difficult life events, such as romantic break-ups, bereavement or job loss.

Having said that, the mental health conditions known as personality disorders are some of the most stigmatised. BPD is a serious and debilitating condition that, unfortunately, still receives a lot of negative attention based on misinformation and inaccuracies. It is important to remember that for a diagnostic decision to be reached the criteria must be persistent (occurring within a substantial time frame), pervasive (spanning several life areas) and problematic (severe enough to cause significant difficulties). Some people find that getting the diagnosis helps them to name and understand their experiences and get access to treatment and support they otherwise might not. Recovery is possible, especially with the right treatment. These problems need not persist for a whole lifetime.

This is my summary of the Stronger Minds Podcast episode Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder. The host is Kimberley Wilson, a Chartered Psychologist and author of the book How to Build a Healthy Brain. In the episode she addresses misrepresentations of BPD through an expert appraisal, challenging the rhetoric that sufferers of the condition are deliberately manipulative or attention-seeking. This includes an excellent explanation of black-and-white thinking, also known as “splitting” – an often misunderstood term, even by professionals. Before you read on, it is worth noting that the diagnostic criteria discussed in the episode is from the DSM-5 – a diagnostic tool that is highly contested (which Wilson does touch upon). The ICD-11, which will eventually replace the ICD-10 (the diagnostic manual used by clinicians in the UK currently, in which Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder [borderline type] is one of the categories) will instead classify personality disorders along three levels of severity (mild, moderate and severe), with the option of specifying one or more prominent traits. Whether this will have much impact on destigmatising the label is yet to be seen – but the more stigma is reduced, the sooner people will learn about personality disorders and seek treatment.

With these technicalities about diagnosis now out of the way (no wonder it is confusing!), all that remains to be said is how valuable this episode is. It is the clearest, most comprehensive explanation of BPD/EUPD I’ve heard from a professional. Every point made is succinct, substantiated and well-illustrated, so I would encourage you to listen to it in its entirety.

In the meantime, here is my summary (all content is Wilson’s own).

BPD/EUPD: what is it?

BPD is a diagnostic label given to a group of overlapping symptoms that relate to a person’s ability to form relationships, manage emotions and behave in predictable or socially acceptable ways.

The name refers to living at the “borderline” between neurosis and psychosis. Some prefer to use the term Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (EUPD), as it is currently known in the UK.

A BPD diagnosis can feel fixed or condemning due to the name alone. The diagnosing professional must be very careful to explain the condition so the person does not leave the assessment room thinking there is something wrong with them, or that their personality is broken.

BPD diagnosis is more prevalent in women. Why?

In the general population the gender split seems to be about equal. But epidemiological studies from the early 2000s suggested that 75% of people diagnosed with BPD are women.

There may be a bias in diagnosis. Since society largely expects men to be more impulsive and engage in more risk-taking behaviours, these traits are seen in the context of “normal” behaviour – leading to under-diagnosis of BPD in men, or anti-social personality disorder diagnoses.

There is an element of sampling bias too because women are more likely than men to contact a doctor or therapist for help.

It could be something to do with the invalidating environment, specifically the greater tendency of girls to internalise their distress, combined with the social expectation for women to be compliant.

People with this diagnosis are disproportionately ending up in prisons.

It is rare for someone to fit neatly into the diagnostic criteria for one disorder.

People with a BPD diagnosis also present with mood disorders 80-96% of the time. In addition:

  • 88% present with anxiety disorders.
  • 64% present with substance use disorders.
  • 53% also have eating disorders.
  • ADHD is present in one third of people.
  • 1 in 10 people have co-occurring somatoform disorders (emotional distress manifesting as physical illness).
Diagnostic criteria

The criteria describe problems with one’s own sense of identity combined with problems relating with others. We would expect these two things to be connected. After all, it would be incredibly difficult to interact with others in a consistent way without a clear sense of who you are, or your own value. Let’s go into this in more detail.

Part One: Identity

Unstable self-image/identify issues: excessive self-criticism; chronic feelings of emptiness; and dissociative states during distress, experienced as a “checking out” psychologically and considered to be a protective mechanism of the mind (often in response to trauma).

Problems with self-direction: instability in goals, aspirations, values or career plans.

Part Two: Relationships

Difficulties in empathy, interpersonal hypersensitivity and perceptions of others selectively biased towards negative attributes or vulnerabilities.

Intimacy issues: intense, unstable and conflicted close relationships marked by mistrust, neediness and anxious preoccupation with real or imagined abandonment, often viewed in extremes of idealisation and devaluation and alternating between over-involvement and withdrawal.

This is experienced as not knowing what distance is safe or healthy. Sometimes close feels too close and sometimes separate seems isolating, to the point of feeling left and abandoned.

There may also be fears of rejection by and/or separation from significant others associated with fears of excessive dependency or complete loss of autonomy. This is sometimes described or experienced as a “push/pull” dynamic in relationships.

These difficulties can express themselves in the following ways:
  • Negative affectivity characterised by unstable emotions and frequent mood changes.
  • Emotions that are easily aroused, intense and/or disproportionate to circumstances.
  • Anxiousness: nervousness; tenseness; or panic – often in reaction to things that come up in relationships.
  • Worrying that the bad things that have happened to you in the past have tainted or corrupted your opportunities in the future.
  • Feeling fearful and apprehensive about, or threatened by, uncertainty.
  • Pessimism about the future.
  • Fears of falling apart or losing control.
  • Frequent feelings of being down, miserable and/or hopelessness and difficulty recovering from such moods.
  • Feelings of inferior self-worth and pervasive shame.
  • Thoughts of suicide and suicidal behaviour.
  • Impulsivity in response to immediate stimuli.
  • Difficulty establishing or following plans.
  • Self-harming behaviour and/or sense of urgency under emotional distress.
  • Risk-taking engagement in dangerous and potentially self-damaging activities
  • Hostility: persistent or frequent angry feelings; or anger/irritability in response to minor slights.
BPD and brain development

Brain imaging studies indicate that people with BPD have different patterns of activation in the amgydala – the threat recognition area of the brain – that could contribute to symptoms.

Trials have shown that people with BPD are more likely to see hostile emotions (anger/disgust/condemnation) in neutral faces, suggesting that they both anticipate and see more hostility in the world around them (known as hyper-vigilance). Wilson goes on to explain it like this: “the more you look for something the more likely you are to find it.”

There can be a history of extreme or prolonged emotional distress in childhood. This includes serious parental psychopathology, including extreme emotional abuse. Such interpersonal abuse and terror is not uncommon for people with BPD.

These environments are described as “emotionally invalidating”. In other words, children who grow up in such environments are made to question the reality or the validity of their emotions. For example, they may have been consistently told that they deserved the abuse or neglect they were receiving, or that their emotional reactions were silly or stupid (known as emotional dismissal).

Black-and-white thinking or “splitting”

Abuse coming from someone who is supposed to play a caring or protective role for a child is particularly harmful. This is because it forces the child to question or actively distort their reality in order to help them survive and create some semblance of a sense of safety.

When faced with the dilemma of parental abuse the child (whose psychological apparatus is not yet developed fully enough to comprehend that the problem lies in the adult and not the child) has to come up with some other solution for why this is happening to them.

That solution is often a process called “splitting” or black-and-white thinking. The child is forced to separate the good from the bad, for example: “my parent is good and I am the cause of all the problems”.

This black-and-white thinking, arising out of this conflict between dependence and fear, has potential knock-on effects for self-identity that continue to cause problems for the individual later in life. People with this diagnosis can behave as if their internal thoughts and beliefs are external objective truths, due to the inflexible nature of their thinking.

This all-or-nothing approach to the self and to the world becomes a template for all significant relationships and social interactions.  

For example, someone with BPD may be constantly worried that any negative thing they do will cause the other person to leave them – an experience known as fear of abandonment. They may engage in a pattern of idealisation/devaluation in close relationships.

Normalising “splitting”

It can be very hard for someone on the outside to see how a small disagreement about something tiny or seemingly meaningless can lead to self-harm or suicidal ideation.

But the symptoms of BPD become much more understandable when you get to know the psychological habits and environmental conditions in which they developed. And once you understand something you are in a much stronger position to intervene.

“Splitting” isn’t only seen in people with psychiatric diagnoses. We can all fall into the trap of black-and-white thinking. We even see this every day in two-party politics. Whenever you hear someone say “all of (group of people) are bad/evil”, this is an example of “splitting” by all-or-nothing thinking. We can think about splitting as positions you move in and out of rather than consistent states, which often happens when we are in unfamiliar or threatening situations. But rather than being an occasional trap to fall into, in BPD black-and-white thinking becomes one of the dominant ways of understanding the world and others.

The role of invalidating environments

Invalidating environments can be much more subtle than emotional abuse. The emotional dismissal may take the form of facial expressions, looks or behaviours that are designed to minimise the child’s emotional expression. Essentially the child gets the idea that their emotions are unwelcome or unbearable for the parent/teacher/friend – and that they have to deal with their emotional distress by themselves.

The cruel injustice of this situation is that we learn to manage our own emotions by initially having someone else help us to do it. It is the process of internalising repeated kindness and understanding that helps us to learn how to soothe ourselves later in life.

So there is this double whammy of not having your emotional needs attended to in the first place and therefore not learning how to take care of your emotions yourself later in life.

This is why we see a lot of the externalising behaviours in BPD, such as self-harm. With this developmental understanding, the risk-taking behaviours associated with BPD suggest someone who doesn’t know how (and perhaps never learnt) how to look after or protect themselves.

Understanding self-harm

The function of self-harm is dependent on the individual person and their particular developmental history, but here are four common examples:

  1. Emotional pain may feel much harder to address than physical pain. Self-harm is a more manageable alternative that may even symbolise emotional pain and self-care.
  2. People who grew up in environments that were actively hostile to emotions come to (unconsciously) link deserving care only with having a physical illness or injury. Often the only “real” or acceptable pain or injury is a physical one. Self-harm may be an unconscious adaptation that emerges as a means of getting some care from an invalidating environment.
  3. Occasionally self-harm is a pathological form of control in the face of suffering. This includes abuse that is so inescapable it leads to a decision that sounds like: “if I’m going to suffer, then I might as well be in charge of what that suffering looks like.”
  4. Sometimes self-harm is a manifestation of self-hatred and this occurs when someone has taken in the idea that they are unwelcome, unwanted, a burden or a problem. People may be driven to punish themselves for not being a “better person”.

In all of these examples we’re talking about self-harm as a remedy for, an escape from, or as a management of emotional suffering.

This is why many patient groups and advocates campaign against the diagnosis of BPD as a disorder in itself, but rather an adaptive response to complex trauma.

Advocacy

Some anti-stigma campaigners say that what is being called an illness or disorder is really an understandable response to trauma experiences.

They argue that someone who has already been harmed in this way should not be further harmed by what can be a very stigmatising diagnostic label.

But – diagnosis is often the key to opening the door to treatment. In the UK this is Mentalisation-Based Therapy (MBT) and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), which are group therapies developed specifically for people with BPD based on CBT and psychotherapy.

Self-help resources

Coping with BPD: DBT and CBT skills to sooth the symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder, by Blaise Aguirre and Gillian Galen. There are a few good self-help books out there, including DBT skills workbooks. This one is a practical, straightforward guide offering evidence-based solutions for adressing over 50 common problems experienced by people with BPD.

Borderliner Notes is a Youtube channel featuring short videos about BPD. Interviewees are people with lived experience of BPD and their families, as well as some clinicians – including psychologists Marsha Linehan (who developed DBT) and Peter Fonagy (co-founder of MBT).

Mind has some self-care ideas for Borderline Personality Disorder.

UK-based author Shehrina Rooney talks about living with BPD on her Youtube channel Recovery Mum. She was diagnosed at age 21.

Finally, there are two follow up episodes on Stronger Minds featuring talks with bloggers Rosie and Bryan about living with their BPD diagnosis.

Connecting with others who have similar experiences (such as through peer support) can be really helpful for people with BPD, especially for overcoming feelings of isolation and maintaining hope. If you cannot access peer support groups right now then hearing other people’s stories on podcasts or Youtube channels could be a helpful alternative.

Image: The Brooch / Eva Mudocci by Edvard Munch.

Categories
mental health Psychology

8 Ways to Overcome Fear of Failure

Fear of failure presents itself in all sorts of ways. Maybe our negative self-talk takes over. Or perhaps procrastination is our self-sabotage method of choice. Fear of failure leaves us feeling stuck and unable to step outside our comfort zone. My own fear of failure takes the form of negative thinking, lack of self-belief and resistance to change.

Resistance to change is part of being human, and fear is almost always the number one reason. Fear is a natural response to threat, either real or imagined. Anxiety is a type of fear that has something to do with the thought of a threat or something going wrong in the future, like fear of failure. Mental Health Foundation has this to say about it:

“Fearing failure can make you try to do well so that you won’t fail, but it can also stop you doing well if the feeling is too strong…Just knowing what makes you afraid and why can be the first step to sorting out problems with fear.”

Mental Health Foundation, How to Overcome Fear and Anxiety (online publication).

I have been thinking about my own fear of change. What about starting university makes me afraid? When I reflected on this question I realised that behind my resistance to change is a fear of failure. Here are my tips.

1. Remove fear of the unknown

Identify the possible outcomes (and obstacles), including the worst-case scenario. Ask yourself: “what would failure actually look like?” Make a contingency plan. This uses what is known in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy as our rational thinking or “reasonable mind”. It is possible to over-plan, though, so don’t let this stop you from taking action.

2. Take small steps towards your goal

Thinking about the end result is often too overwhelming. Break it down into smaller steps instead. Makes these achievable so that when you complete them your confidence is boosted. These small “wins” will promote positive emotion and increase your motivation to succeed. 

3. Stay in the present moment

Fear of failure can become a real barrier when we negatively evaluate the past (recalling times we have ‘failed’ in the past) or predict the future (imagining what could go wrong). Mindfulness teaches us to see these for what they are: thoughts (not facts). Learn to detach yourself from your inner critic; that voice is not you (and what it says is not true).

4. Practice radical acceptance

Radical acceptance means accepting the situation for what it is without judgement. Fear is painful. Suffering is optional. Resistance only leads to further pain, so don’t add the pain of non-acceptance. Acknowledge the reality of your fear and don’t fight it. Accepting the presence of fear reduces its intensity, meaning we are more likely to move forward. We might say something like “this is where I am right now. Now what?” Avoiding or denying our emotions delays healing, so this is worth practising if we want to make progress. Acceptance leads to change.

5. Accept impermanence

Impermanence, or the philosophical problem of change, is a concept in Eastern philosophy that has been shown to attain mental balance. It teaches us that attachment is the root of suffering. Much like practising radical acceptance (which also draws inspiration from Buddhism), accepting impermanence encourages us to appreciate the present moment and overcome resistance to change. Dr Paul Wong is a positive psychologist specialising in Chinese traditions whose summary of impermanence demonstrates its relationship to radical acceptance:

“Attachment to possession and achievement invariably leads to disappointment and disillusionment, because everything is impermanent…Failure to embrace life’s experience in its entirety is at the root of suffering.”  

Dr Paul Wong, Chinese Positive Psychology: Future Directions (2014).

In other words, we must accept the reality that everything is temporary. The sooner we do this, the sooner we will reduce our suffering – allowing us to adapt to change with more mental clarity and calmness.

6. Focus on the good things

Highlight your achievements and things you are grateful for by keeping a journal. Find three good things each day that have gone well and write these down, including your reflections on why they went well (this is known as the Three Good Things exercise). Try this every night for a week. Focusing on the good things like this increases positive emotion, decreases negative emotion and helps us to cope with difficulties. It even has the potential to increase our ability to achieve our goals.   

7. Embrace imperfection

Failure is not final. Yes, it can be painful, but it offers valuable insights. It helps us to learn and grow, leading us towards success. Persisting in the face of setbacks and adapting to failure is known as adopting a growth mindset (what do I need to do differently?), rather than a fixed mindset (which tells us to give up). Practice your willingness to fail.

8. Try taking action before you feel ready

Don’t wait for the perfect moment to start something. If you are prone to perfectionism this will challenge you, but persevere. Your self-esteem could be dented (on the floor, even) and you don’t feel confident enough (yet). I am rooting for you! Do it anyway and the confidence will come.

Categories
Creativity Music

7 Brilliant Podcasts for Mental Wellbeing

plus 4 more featuring music or comedy (or both).

Podcasts have got me through some tough times in recent years. Hearing a good podcast episode can bring with it the feeling of being understood and supported, I think, without the pressure to respond. If we are feeling low or anxious then podcasts demand very little of us.

“[In LA] I had the idea for the How to Fail with Elizabeth Day podcast…I had been downloading a lot of podcasts, because listening to music post-breakup made me feel sad, but listening to nothing made me feel alone.”

Elizabeth Day, How to Fail

Listening requires less attention than reading, but engages the brain more than television. Playing podcasts can motivate us to complete activities we might find challenging – such as cooking, housework, or gardening – or we can play them while we are running. Podcast conversations connect us with other people at times of self-isolation, a term that has taken on a new meaning this year, despite being a symptom – and a self-preservation tactic – for social anxiety sufferers long before coronavirus. Such podcasts have the added benefit of challenging self-stigma too. Hearing others open up about their experiences of mental illness helped me to find the self-acceptance, courage and language needed to share my own.

These are my favourite podcasts featuring mental health content, plus four more that don’t. I have included my personal selection of the top-ranking episodes and their runners up; and, since they all feature authors, poets or lyricists, I’ve added some book recommendations too.

1. Made of Human with Sofie Hagen

Winner: Harriet Dyer – We’re all the weirdos on the bus.

Sofie Hagen talks to fellow comedian Harriet Dyer about making comedy from mental health issues, childhood abuse, bereavement, being bipolar, creating community, (literally) thinking she was Kat Slater from Eastenders, establishing boundaries and having a lovely home-life.

Runner up: Jo Brand – I was surprised the heroin addict was unfaithful.

Sofie talks to comedian and former psychiatric nurse Jo Brand about mental health, heroin addict boyfriends, drugs, depression, psychopaths, politics, teenage mentality, Scandinavian dramas and friendship.

Read: Born Lippy by Jo Brand; Happy Fat by Sofie Hagen.

Bryony Gordon’s Mad World.

Winner: Matt Haig.

Bryony Gordon is a journalist, broadcaster, author and marathon runner. I referenced her latest memoir, called Glorious Rock Bottom, in my essay on running and sobriety. In this episode Bryony talks to fellow author Matt Haig about his own memoir Reasons to Stay Alive.

Runner up: Fearne Cotton.

Because Fearne is such a skilled interviewer herself, it is refreshing to hear her on a podcast as the interviewee (she also makes an appearance on Elizabeth Day’s podcast How to Fail, see below). She has come out of the mental illness ‘closet’ slowly but surely and as a well-known mental health ambassador she continues to share her struggles publicly.

Listen next: Frank Bruno, Jade, Mandy Stevens, Mel C.

Read: Reasons to stay Alive by Matt Haig; Happy by Fearne Cotton.

3. How to Fail with Elizabeth Day

Winner: Marian Keynes.

Marian and Elizabeth discuss many things, including writing, feminism, low self-esteem, depression, alcoholism and sobriety.

Runner up: Lemn Sissay.

Poet, author and broadcaster Lemn Sissay talks about searching for his birth family, the power of human resilience and why he gave up drinking.

Read: My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay; Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes.

Listen next: Black Sheep by BBH (featuring Marian Keyes) and Katie Piper’s Extraordinary People, whose guests talk about how they turned incredible adversity into powerful positivity, just as Katie did herself.

4. Happy Place

There are so many brilliant guests on Fearne’s podcast it’s impossible to choose a winner. Here is a selection: Bryony Gordon; Catherine Gray (author of The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober); Alicia Keys, Davina McCall; Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert; Glennon Doyle (author of Untamed); Megan Jayne Crabbe AKA bodyposipanda; Stephen Fry; journliast and memoirist Poorna Bell; and Russell Brand.

Listen next: Under the Skin with Russell Brand, in particular How to be a Loving Man with Karamo Brown from the US TV series Queer Eye.

5. The Happiness Lab

Yale professor Dr Laurie Santos takes the listener through the latest scientific research and shares some surprising and inspiring stories that will forever alter the way you think about happiness. Start with Episode 10: How to Be a Better Ally, in which Laurie looks at the psychology underpinning the reluctance to act in the face of injustice and the ways in which we can match our moral beliefs with concrete actions.

6. What Makes Us Human with Jeremy Vine

In this BBC Radio 2 podcast series, guests deliver their thoughts on the essence of human existence, reflecting on their own lives.

Winner: Akala (on art).

Runner up: Stephen Fry (on language).

7. Have You Heard George’s Podcast?

George the Poet delivers a fresh take on inner city life through a mix of storytelling, music and fiction. Popcorn (episode 2) is especially good.

More music…

8. Song Exploder

Song Exploder is a podcast where musicians take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made. Start with Meek Mill “Trauma” or Robyn “Honey”.

9. Distraction Pieces Podcast

The Distraction Pieces Podcast is a weekly conversation between Scroobius Pip and a wide range of guests, discussing all sorts of things. His conversation with wordsmith Kate Tempest is wonderfully deep, made all the more interesting because they know each other personally.

Comedy…

10. The Adam Buxton Podcast

These “rambly conversations” are described by comedian and host Adam Buxton as being “sometimes funny, sometimes more serious with funny bits.” They are very, very funny.

Music and comedy…

11. Hip Hop Saved My Life

A comedy podcast about hip hop presented by comedian Romesh Ranganathan. Start with Kano, Little Simz or Tinie.

Honourable mention…

Under the Skin with Russell Brand

I adore Russell Brand – and I love his podcast. I’m not sure why this hasn’t made it on to the list, actually. Maybe because its in a league of its own. It does communicate some complex ideas, which is why it might not be the easiest of listening if you are struggling with your mental health – unless you would appreciate the intellectual stimulation. Under the Skin asks: what’s beneath the surface – of people we admire, of the ideas that define our time, of the history we are told. Russell is an excellent host and conversationalist – and if you’re not already subscribed to his Youtube channel, watch this endorsement of his podcast by Eckart Tolle. Among its distinguished guests are Brené Brown, David Eagleman, Elizabeth Gilbert, Julia Cameron, Marianne Williamson, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, Sam Harris, Sharon Salzberg, and fellow comedians Mae Martin, Simon Amstell and Ruby Wax.

Photograph: The Next Web.

Categories
Health and Fitness Psychology Writing

6 Bullet Journal Ideas for Runners

Several people I’ve spoken to since publishing my essay on running and sobriety have expressed a desire to start themselves. Either they lack courage as a complete beginner, or can’t find the motivation to make a comeback. Even if you don’t use a bullet journal, these tips can help.

There is a reason that self-monitoring is a fundamental tool in cognitive-behavioural therapy. It informs our goals, holds us accountable and facilitates change, increasing our awareness, determination and agency. By tracking our efforts, we are more likely to succeed – and enjoy the process.

Here are some ideas to get you started, help you stay motivated and maintain your momentum.

1. Set goals.

These can be daily, weekly, or monthly goals. They can be small, such as a five minute run around the block 3 times a week, or big, like running a half marathon. Be specific. When setting monthly goals, think about breaking them down in to more manageable targets to hit along the way. Just making the effort to achieve our goals can lead to a sense of satisfaction. We feel a sense of pride and fulfillment when we finally achieve them, so it is important to make them realistic. Starting small is the key to success.

2. Start small. 

This is about creating small steps along the way to achieving our longer-term goals. A complete beginner would not normally run a 5K straightaway (check out the Couch to 5K plan as an example of this). Don’t run before you can walk! My strategy has been to set myself much smaller goals than I think I could manage. That way, I always exceed my target. Go easy on yourself – especially at first – with lots of encouragement and positive self-talk. You will get there. Slow and steady wins the race. (OK, I wonder how many more running-related proverbs I can sneak in to this..?)

3. Keep an exercise log. 

This can take a variety of forms. For example, you can focus on specific types of workouts (mine are usually boxing, running and yoga), or you could track your activity on a month-by-month basis. I choose to log my exercise in an annual calendar spread using four different colours – one for each exercise type – because I find that creating an overall visual gives me motivation. You might choose to log your strength training or running activity on separate pages instead – or do both! Personally I like having an annual overview, plus a detailed running record so I can see my progress.

4. Time yourself. 

I would say that this one has helped me the most with motivation. I use an App with GPS while I run, which tracks my distance, pace and time. I get feedback about my progress, which is helpful for motivation – especially if I’ve taken a few days off. I then record this in my bullet journal. I listen to the App mid-run too (it reports my time and pace at each kilometre); but this might add undue pressure. Either way, I recommend timing yourself if you can – even if it’s done the old fashioned way with a watch and a map.

5. Get your groove on. 

Create a running playlist you can associate with energy and positivity. Generate a good rhythm for yourself and maybe try running mindfully, paying attention to what happens in the mind and body in response to each track. Put your playlist on shuffle to mix it up and keep updating it to keep it interesting. Maybe choose a ‘track of the week’ and keep a note of it in your bullet journal. Some might prefer podcasts or audio books, which you can list in your bullet journal too. Whichever you choose, the idea is to associate running with good feelings. This leads me on to…

6. Celebrate your wins. 

It is so important to congratulate ourselves and celebrate our achievements, no matter how small. Running releases endorphins – nature’s natural pain-relief – and dopamine, the neurotransmitter (or ‘chemical messenger’) affecting motivation, mood, attention, learning, sleep and pain processing. There is much enjoyment to be had from accomplishing things that challenges us. As we strive towards our goals it is important to focus on the sense of pride and fulfilment we feel when we achieve them. The benefit of emphasising these positive emotions is twofold: it helps us to remain constructive and optimistic; and it pushes us to thrive and flourish (this refers to the ‘P’ and ‘A’ in the PERMA model of wellbeing, developed by positive psychologist Martin Seligman). Focusing on feeling good and cultivating a sense of accomplishment will encourage you to stay on track with your running. Savouring the moment can increase positive emotion. If you use a bullet journal, try noting down one achievement each day – even if they aren’t all related to running. Here are some of mine:

  • Left the house to go for a run, even though I was feeling terrible.
  • Exchanged smiles with everyone I passed on my morning run.
  • Ran a personal best on my 5K.
  • Completed a half marathon!

Finally, talk about running! Share your reservations, your fears and your challenges. Exchange tips with one another and allow people to support and encourage you as you pursue your exercise goals. Remember, the surest way to build a lasting habit and become a runner is to enjoy it.

Photograph: BBC Bitesize.
Categories
Health and Fitness Psychology

In praise of… Running

Recently I participated in a panel discussion on the topic of dependency in relationships, where I shared my sober status publicly for the first time. Although this was daunting, spoken words can be taken back or forgotten. Expressing this sentiment in writing is more permanent. Sharing it makes me accountable for my sobriety; but at the same time, it is a personal thing to open up about online.

My anxiety and binge-pattern drinking have run side by side for a long time. I would not call myself an alcoholic, but I am in recovery. In the past, when afflicted by an obsession with alcohol and compulsion to misuse it, I have thought about assuming this label. Would it help or hinder? Am I deceiving myself by choosing not to? Does it even matter how I define it? I am not the only woman to question the stereotypes of sobriety This internal conflict is confusing and challenging to articulate. I need to accept the grey areas and let go of my self-consciousness. There is also an analogy about ‘desire paths’ in the penultimate paragraph that I wasn’t sure would fly, but I’ve decided to run with it (see what I did there?). This is my experience after all. I do also involve the experiences of others in this essay, which I hope does them justice. So, in the spirit of honesty and creative risk taking, I decided to publish it.

I was meant to write about running and creativity. This had been my intention ever since goal setting with bullet journaling helped me run a half marathon. Having formulated the surprisingly simple equation for unlocking my own creative potential (running + bullet journaling = creativity), another achievement followed and I created and published this website. I began to notice the meditative qualities of running, which until now I had not tapped in to. So I thought I would write about the creative output of my mind on running. But when I tried to express these ideas, I couldn’t. Somehow the sentences I constructed felt fragmentary. I wasn’t telling the full story. Why did I run in the first place? I did it for better mental health, that was a given, but I realised I was also running as a replacement for drinking. I had achieved sobriety because of running, and I loved running because I was sober.

When I lived in London I took up running as a means of travelling to work. My office was located just off Piccadilly Circus and I lived a few minutes’ walk from Lambeth Bridge, so I would pass the Houses of Parliament and St James’ Park on my way. The Tube intercepted such sights and I avoided it anyway due to claustrophobia; however my run-commuting was short-lived. Navigating an inner-city running route had its challenges. Hordes of tourists, relentless traffic, rushed commuters and aggressive drivers all conspired against me by barring access to the restorative benefits of running. When my knees objected to the hardness of the pavements I swiftly switched to cycling instead.

Not one to admit defeat willingly, I persisted with running – but I was inconsistent. I ran to stave off anxiety, which wasn’t present all of the time. Even then I only ever reached for my running trainers out of desperation, often by the time depression had moved in. This happened in 2016, as I was approaching the end of my employment contract with the NHS. I had left my office job the previous year for a postgraduate training programme in mental health practice. The pressure of workplace demands and coursework deadlines had increased my stress levels, and now my own mental health was suffering. My sleep was affected and I experienced panic attacks for the first time. Heart palpitations and a deep, pulsating sensation of pressure would creep in to my chest at night, accompanied by an overwhelming sense of dread. Only a change in my physical environment would break a run of sleepless nights spent in my own bed, blighted by nightmares. A friend would sometimes host me at her flat for this reason and I would get some respite. Our evening ritual combined three basic self-care practices: running; cooking; and sitcoms. Then I would retreat to her spare bedroom for an early night. At its worst my entire working day would be spent in a dissociated state. On better days I felt chronic agitation, not helped by my reliance upon caffeine and nicotine to cope. I remember my muscles aching from tension. It was necessary to expend some of this agitated energy, but gym sessions added more stress. Running was uncomplicated and felt gentle enough on my body. Intense worry still whirred in the background, churned out by the internal chaos I felt, but the instructions presiding over them were straightforward enough: breathe, swing your arms, put one foot in front of the other – and keep going. Having a running buddy helps; they will motivate us when we cannot do it for ourselves. It is comforting that our memories of kindness, shown to us by strangers as well as friends, survive long after the suffering we endure.

One of the advantages of living so centrally was my proximity to Westminster – and the London Marathon’s home stretch specifically. On marathon day I would make my way over to Parliament Square to soak up the atmosphere. I liked the mixture of emotions I felt watching the competitors and hearing the crowd cheer them on. It would stir my own tentative desire to cross the finish line one day, never mind that 5K was the longest distance I could envisage myself running at the time.

By far the most inspirational marathon runner I know is the journalist and author Bryony Gordon. Much-loved by her fans for her honesty and humour, she has been a columnist and writer at the Telegraph since her early twenties (she is now 40). I first discovered her when I stumbled across her Mad World podcast two years ago. She has hosted high profile guests such as HRH Prince Harry and Stephen Fry, but also people like 18-year old Jade, who talks about her personality disorder diagnosis, and former NHS mental health director Mandy, who discusses what it’s like to go from practitioner to patient. These are important conversations to be broadcasting. As a mental health campaigner, Bryony writes and speaks about her own mental health issues, which include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, bulimia, drug dependency and alcoholism.

There is a theory of addiction known as the self-medication hypothesis, which suggests that people become addicted to substances to relieve, change or control overwhelming psychological pain. Drugs and alcohol provide a habitual, short-term solution for managing strong emotions or, at the other end of the spectrum, emotional numbness. In other words, they offer us a way of coping with our distressing thoughts and feelings. No matter how destructive the consequences, substance abuse will be serving a purpose of some kind.

For Bryony, alcohol drowned out the negative voices and intrusive thoughts associated with her depression and OCD. In fact, she was still drinking during her training for the Heads Together London Marathon in 2017. That August Bank Holiday weekend she had her last drink. She wrote a book about it: Eat, Drink, Run: How I Got Fit Without Going Too Mad. This followed her memoir Mad Girl: a Happy Life with a Mixed-up Mind, so enjoyable I read it in one sitting. She ran the London Marathon again the following year – this time with friend and model Jada Sezer; they decided to run it together in just their underwear and trainers, to celebrate positive body image.

I appreciated hearing Bryony’s story. For the first time someone was talking about a toxic relationship with alcohol that resonated with my own. Those in recovery from addiction usually talk about hitting their rock bottom: the point at which they decided they could go no further in their addiction. This is a traumatic experience for some, but also a powerful catalyst for change. Bryony’s latest book, which comes out in August 2020, is called Glorious Rock Bottom. It is a sobriety memoir about how hitting rock bottom saved her life.

Experiences like Bryony’s illustrate the deep connection shared by addiction and mental illness. Marian Keyes is another writer who has spoken publicly about going to rehab for alcohol addiction. Aged 30 at the time, she thought: “if I am able to not drink, everything is possible.” (She says more about this on the BBC Radio 2 podcast What Makes Us Human?) Wonderful things did happen: she left rehab in 1995 and her first novel Watermelon was published that same year (she is now one of the most successful Irish novelists of all time). She has since opened up about her major depression, which came on abruptly in 2009 and left her unable to write. Alcohol was “the love of her life”, having helped her cope with low self-esteem and self-loathing since she was a teenager. She learnt she was an alcoholic whilst in rehab, realising at the time that alcohol was the real cause of her distress. In this excerpt she describes what it was like reaching her own rock bottom:

“I felt very depressed and very hopeless. And I was so grateful to alcohol. Because I thought, ‘my god, this is helping me. Because I am so unhappy and how would I manage if this was taken from me?’ And any addiction is progressive, like it gets worse and I continued to normalise the abnormal. I ran out of road. And it was the best thing that could have happened to me.”

How to Fail with Elizabeth Day: Marian Keyes (S7, Ep6).

According to the alcohol education charity Drinkaware, drinking heavily and regularly is associated with symptoms of depression, although it can be difficult to disentangle cause and effect when the two go together. Some people depend on alcohol to alleviate symptoms of depression (a short-term solution that increases them in the long run). This didn’t apply to me. There is no doubt that drinking affected my mood – wreaking havoc on my health, relationships and routine. When I was happy, I drank to get happier. But in the depths of depression I was immune to its intoxicating effects and would instinctively avoid it.

If you asked what purpose alcohol served me, I would say I used it to feel more at ease with myself, especially in the company of other people. And I enjoyed drinking. I really enjoyed it. Confidence was easier to fake in social situations and I cared less about others’ perceptions of me. But it was always much more than a social lubricant; drinking went hand in hand with social anxiety. It created an opportunity for me to escape into my own head, which I welcomed all too often. Nothing else seemed to matter with a drink in hand. On alcohol my anxious feelings made way for the warm, fuzzy dopamine release and rush of endorphins that would take the edge off any discomfort or undetected emotional pain. It suited my over-sensitivity to the environment by dulling the senses, shutting out the sensory overload that prevented me from joining conversations. Drink dampened the noise in my head too. I would feel pleasantly detached from my self-critical voice, as if it held less authority – enough to convince me that alcohol had some semblance of control over my anxiety (whereas in reality it only pushed the difficult thoughts and feelings away).

This was a comforting experience, until it wasn’t. It is common knowledge that alcohol induces two phases of intoxication: stimulation and sedation. This is known as a ‘biphasic’ effect (interestingly, someone who is sensitive to this may be at greater risk of developing alcoholism). For me, alcohol was an unreliable social crutch that could give out at any moment. The elation and extroversion it offered in the first phase, which facilitated new connections and closeness with others, became a barrier to forming meaningful friendships. It was in the second phase that my mind would check out. Friendships formed in the presence of alcohol felt inauthentic, as if mediated by a third party whose only motive was to drive a wedge between me and the world. The emotional fluctuations caused by alcohol would linger long after my last drink – and my social identity was equally unstable. My self-loathing had not gone, as I had hoped; it had simply been buried – and withdrawal would dig it back up again. The more typical hangover symptoms – headaches, dizziness, lethargy and brain fog – were damaging to my mental health too, compounding worry and rumination. Negative thoughts returned with a vengeance. Still, I normalised it. Surely everyone reacts this way after having a drink? My relationship with alcohol was becoming dysfunctional, but I was not prepared to end it just yet.

The following year I conquered a different addiction: I gave up smoking. Running didn’t seem so bad after this, so I signed up for the Hackney Half 2017. I had recently left a much-loved but highly stressful job in health and social care and I was taking a break from alcohol due to burnout. This was my particular pattern: take a break when things get tough and resume drinking when life is fun again. I spent the best part of my twenties yo-yoing back and forth like this. The day before the Hackney Half I had met a friend in my favourite North London pub garden and got stuck with a miserable lime and soda, while she enjoyed a cider in the sun. On race day I remember being offered a sip of beer by a spectator and feeling deeply irritated by his joviality. I was envious that he was enjoying an alcoholic drink, so relaxed and carefree he was heckling half marathon runners on a Sunday morning. If it were not for my running buddy I would have given up (the race, that is; I celebrated with a pint once it was over), who encouraged me towards the finish line. I remained in this on-off relationship with alcohol for two more years, until I realised for various reasons I had reached the point of no return. So in August 2019 I celebrated my 30th birthday in the pub, and then travelled solo to the Greek Island of Kefalonia for a yoga retreat – taking my new sober identity with me. Back in Oxford I gradually informed friends of my decision to quit alcohol. I avoided pubs for the first six months. And I started running.

Running might act as an antidote to addiction initially – activating our drive system as we strive to achieve that elusive ‘runner’s high’ – but it has so many mental health benefits, it soon takes on a life of its own. I had not appreciated this before sobriety (I did not make the connection between my anxiety and alcohol use until much later). It is a common phenomenon to substitute an addictive behaviour for another one – known as cross-sensitisation. Substances like alcohol and nicotine prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs, which is the logic behind abstinence-based recovery. It also explains my current obsession with non-alcoholic alternatives. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) recommends that people who have become dependent on alcohol do not drink non-alcoholic alternatives, as they do contain some alcohol (up to 0.05% ABV) – which could be enough to trigger the desire to drink more alcohol, or relapse from a recovery. This is why it is far better to substitute healthy activities, like exercise, for behaviours from the past.

Sobriety feels more achievable when combined with running. In fact, so does leading a healthy and happy life in general. By combating things like avoidance, inertia, procrastination and fear, running makes way for confidence, motivation and joy. It works wonders for our mood and energy levels. Physical activity can help to manage stress and anxiety, reduce the risk of depression, improve sleep and increase self-esteem. The mind-body connection is clear and running is a case in point. Furthermore, we benefit most when we are focused on feeling good, rather than looking good. Body positivity champion Bryony wants to remind people that exercise is for everyone. She runs for “the gains and not the losses” – for the way exercise makes her feel, “rather than losing weight or inches around [her] waist.” This distinction has led her to truly love exercise. She says: “I don’t always want to go out for a run, but I never regret going.”

As I sit here writing this and thinking about running, I can hear the objections by my own inner voice: “it’s too cold…it looks windy… you’ll struggle… just stay indoors, sit on the sofa and drink tea.” Finding the motivation to run is challenging, especially in extreme weathers. Waiting around for motivation to magically appear would usually disappoint me. Instead I try to treat my runs as appointments with myself. The act of putting on my running trainers is like a little nod of self-respect; it is when I stake my claim to all those feel-good chemicals that reward us with good feelings. My returns are higher levels of motivation, determination and sometimes, if I’m lucky, a natural high. I am so busy assembling my list of things to give up – alcohol, caffeine, sugar and shopping sprees – that I rarely stop to consider what I gain as a result. Energy, focus, resolve and self-belief: these are the qualities to have in abundance, not the external matter feeding our addictions (and keeping us stuck).

Alcohol does not serve the person who drinks to anaesthetise their feelings or alleviate distress, not in the long run. This may sound obvious, but in my case the suggestion that alcohol was unhelpful took a long time to sink in. Besides, I needed to find my alternative coping strategies. Sobriety unleashes emotions that have previously remained dormant, tamed by whichever substance we have reached for to numb ourselves. It is necessary to find alternative ways of coping with distress, because giving up drugs or alcohol opens up the floodgates to our feelings. Radical acceptance of those feelings is the prerequisite to change. Self-reflection can pick up the pace, but it requires courage – it must be motivated by self-compassion, not self-criticism. If, instead of being kind, we are harsh on ourselves, we run the risk of relapsing back in to bad habits.

Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is an exploration of her addiction to heroin, unhealthy relationships and grief after the death of her mother, intertwined with the personal revelations she experienced during her solo hike along the PCT. “How wild it was, to let it be”, she writes. Being in nature is a powerful way of grounding ourselves in the present moment. It is where we find the time, space and silence for self-reflection; Wild is testament to that. Why else did I escape to Kefalonia before choosing sobriety, if not to experience its sunrises, sunsets, sandy beaches and calm waters?

Now I surrender to this intuitive need to be in nature as often as I can. I am lucky that my half marathon training can take place in green spaces. Being able to run in nature is a form of escape; a forest, for example, can be a natural place in which to run. My running route, less than ten minutes from my house, begins with a woodland trail leading me to farmland and grazing fields, where I pass rabbits, cows, horses, sheep and alpaca. During a trail run, a well-trodden path is the easiest kind to follow. The course is clear because the ground has been worn down, having been used countless times before. To me these paths represent my negative thinking patterns. They have been tried and tested many times and the destination is always the same. Sometimes the paths go round in circles; others lead to dead ends. Desire paths, however, emerge as more efficient or easily navigated shortcuts. They are created naturally, as a consequence of erosion caused by foot traffic. Andrew Furman, who is a professor in interior design and architecture at Ryerson University in Toronto, believes they tell us something about “the endless human desire to have choice. The importance of not having someone prescribe your path.” Similarly, author Robert Macfarlane calls them “free-will ways”. Freedom of choice is important when it comes to running; we can choose where, when and how to do it. Part of the pleasure is having something we can truly control, which is not always true for the thoughts in our head. For me, desire paths represent the new neural pathways I am creating when I engage in my latest running challenge. Like desire paths, their formation is based on our habits and behaviours. With each repetition of my run the pathways grow stronger and my running habit becomes more established. When I come across a desire path I am reminded of this – and my desire to surpass myself grows stronger too.

Previously, I wrote about how the act of logging my running activity has increased positive emotions by supporting my goal attainment. I was so happy after completing my first 10K that I filmed myself doing a victory dance, which I shared with friends (why, given everything else I’ve shared, does this disclosure feel shameful?). Celebrating the small achievements like this might feel awkward at first, but it will keep you motivated. I enjoyed building up steadily to a half marathon distance because it felt gratifying to achieve each goal along the way. This step-by-step approach made it pleasurable, meaning I was more likely to stick to my training. I never thought running would become a habit, but in 2018 I ran the Oxford Half marathon and I am hoping to run it again this year. Try it. Engage in some healthy competition with yourself. The desire to win will know no bounds.

Photograph: Forestry England.

Categories
Creativity Psychology Writing

In praise of… Bullet Journaling

Despite the challenges of life in lockdown, this “new normal” has presented some unexpected opportunities. Previously, I’d been an intermittent diarist. Each January I would resolve to record daily my every negative thought and feeling, resulting in very little progress. As meditators and neuroscientists alike will tell you, “where attention goes, energy flows.” Attention has the potential to change the structure of the brain (ever considered the less catchy ‘where attention goes, neural firing flows and neural connection grows’?). I didn’t look forward to diary-writing and after a few half-hearted entries I would soon get fed up and leave the remaining pages untouched. One issue was uncertainty about my diary’s purpose. Should I be writing down the content of my dreams, or focussing on my waking life? Do I want to record my day, or forget it ever happened? How do I make my goals SMART – and do I even want to?

When this pandemic was in its early stages I found myself aimlessly browsing my local library’s creative writing section. I came across a book entitled How to Bullet Plan: Everything You Need to Know About Journaling with Bullet Points by Rachel Wilkerson Miller. I had heard of bullet journaling – a creative colleague I had worked with uses it (she loves Ali and Finn’s Positive Bullet Diary*) – but I still didn’t really know what it was. Is it a planner? A to-do list? A diary? It turns out it’s all of those things.

Bullet journaling, so-called because it uses bullet points as its core structure and utilises dot grid paper, was devised by Brooklyn-based digital product designer Ryder Carroll as a personal method of organisation to manage his ADHD. Encouraged by a friend, in 2013 he began sharing his method online. By the end of 2018 it had been the subject of 3 million Instagram posts. As Carroll explains in his book The Bullet Journal Method, it is an individually-customisable system: a way of tracking your past; ordering your present; and planning your future. And, as I’ve recently discovered, it is excellent for promoting and maintaining wellbeing.

During the past three months I have dedicated more energy to running, recording my distances and times in my bullet journal – leading me to run a half marathon. My mood has improved massively, which I attribute to this newfound love of goal setting (meditation, healthy eating and early nights have helped too). Imagining how I’ll feel looking back over this diligently-kept document of my past accomplishments, or dreaming up topics to devote future journal entries to, brings me joy. I actually look forward to opening my beautiful, brightly coloured journal every day and leafing through its thread-bound pages. Selecting the perfect pen and colouring in each square has become a daily ritual I relish. I am a true bullet journaling convert.

If you think this sounds overzealous or fanatical, there’s a reason: bullet journaling works. Here’s why. It’s a quick, simple form of regular note-taking (Carroll calls this “rapid logging”) that you’re more likely to stick to, because it’s flexible and uncomplicated. You make space to record all your appointments and important tasks in such a way that you can’t miss them, meaning you actually stay on top of things (imagine that!). Consider the principle that nothing need be lost if it is written down. You create one single place to list all those films and TV shows you’ve been hearing about, or those books you’ve been meaning to read. All too often my smart phone gets in the way of good sleep, so I prefer putting pen to paper before bedtime. It’s also very beneficial to get creative. And some have suggested that writing, as opposed to typing on a laptop, allows you to better organise your thoughts and can even boost memory.

Getting Started

The first step is to arrange your calendars, known in the bullet journaling world as ‘spreads.’ These are commonly broken down into annual, weekly and monthly. You can include daily spreads too, if you decide to use your bullet journal more like a diary (I’ve chosen to keep a separate reflective journal for this kind of thing). Then you start adding in your other sections. A key one for me has been my mood tracker (which I prefer to call ‘mind and body’). I also record my workouts, circling the dates on a one-page annual calendar spread using different colours to denote each different type of exercise (fancy). I log the good habits I want to stick to and the goals I’d like to achieve. I set a main focus every week and then review it at the weekend. You can even log when you do your chores, last visit the dentist, or take your car for its MOT – called a ‘when did I last…?’ log. At times when life is particularly hard this becomes an invaluable resource. It’s an approach that focuses on achievements and prioritising your values, rather than denying yourself or giving things up. By focussing your attention you create the right intention.

If this all sounds a bit too much to contend with, I can assure you it isn’t. I use about half an hour every Sunday to review my week and set up next week’s pages. It then takes five to ten minutes at the beginning and end of each day to fill in. The secret is keeping it simple; only keep the sections that work for you. Finding that you’re not filling in your daily diary? Write a weekly summary instead. Not sticking to the habits you’re tracking? Throw them out and set new ones. Mine went through three or four different setups before I settled on its current layout. And when things are more normal and I can hopefully return to work, I expect my system to change again. Unlike a traditional diary (which I found to be too rigid), you can purchase a blank grid page notebook that includes an index and page numbers, making your journal simple to navigate. The beauty of the bullet journal method is that you can change your system to suit you as you go along.

The Science-y Bit

Increased self-awareness can bring about change. This is a central tenet of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), a type of talking therapy developed by psychology researcher Marsha M. Linehan for people who experience strong emotions. By tracking your mood, sleep, exercise, energy levels and physical health status you can increase your awareness of thoughts and feelings in relation to your activities – and hopefully begin to see patterns. Goal attainment can increase positive emotions – and we will reach our goals sooner and more easily if our emotions are positive. Positive psychology pioneer C. R. Snyder first began theorising about this in the 1980s, going on to write six books on hope and its relatedness to optimism. He demonstrated that clearly conceptualised goals provide direction and an endpoint for hopeful thinking. His “hope theory” comprises three components: having focused thoughts; developing strategies to achieve goals; and being motivated to make the effort required. We can apply this theory to our own bullet journal method. Its four subcategories are goals, pathway thoughts (the routes we take to achieve our desired goals), agency thoughts (our motivation) and barriers (which make it difficult for us to attain our goals). Goals that are valuable but uncertain are described as the “anchors” of hope theory. This is because we need to reevaluate our strategies along the way. Barriers offer an opportunity to strengthen new pathways; when faced with barriers we can either give up, or use our pathway thoughts to create new routes.

So, when we use our journal to review our goals each week, we are looking for new ways (via pathway thoughts) to reach them. Snyder says it helps if you ask yourself things such as “what is going on?”, “where do I want to go?” and “what is stopping me?” These are typical pathway thinking questions. Research on brain plasticity has shown that we can increase our neural growth through our actions, such as asking questions and deploying good strategies. This is what is also known as the “growth mindset”, a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck to describe a type of positive attitude that, crucially, can be learnt and practiced to increase motivation and achievement. By recording and reflecting on our progress we activate agency thoughts, thereby increasing positive motivation. According to Snyder, if we view barriers to growth as challenges to overcome, using these pathway thoughts to plan alternative routes to our goals, we are said to have “high hope”.  High hope has been associated with many benefits, including increased wellbeing and academic achievement. Reflection is the foundational principle of bullet journaling as a practice. It declutters the mind, cultivates curiosity and helps us to remain focussed over time (for more on this see Carroll’s Tedx talk).

The “father of positive psychology” Martin Seligman has spent his life’s work researching wellbeing and happiness. His Three Good Things exercise, explained in his most recent book Flourish, invites you to write down three good things that happen each day. Next to each positive event, you answer one of the following questions: “why did this good thing happen?”, “what does this mean to you?” or “how can you have more of this good thing in the future?” These questions encourage us to really reflect on and immerse ourselves in the good event, which increases our degree of positive emotion. It’s possible to incorporate this exercise into your bullet journal – and you should, because once you start you’ll want to keep going. Alternatively you could keep a daily gratitude list or note down one achievement each day. These exercises may even support healthier thinking patterns, the same way Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) seeks to do. For example, by keeping a record of your achievements you are building evidence to challenge negative thinking biases. Another CBT intervention that is very effective is Behavioural Activation, which focuses on behaviour and environment, rather than thoughts. By tracking good habits and logging your daily activities – known as Activity Scheduling – you increase the amount of positive reinforcement you experience. This helps to reduce the negative behaviours that may provide temporary relief, but ultimately maintain your anxiety or low mood. Become your own therapist!

Why else do I like bullet journaling? Because it is associated with positive emotions, not negative symptoms. Our brains have a natural tendency to focus on what goes wrong in our daily lives, as my previous diary attempts had illustrated. Using a bullet journal for wellbeing encourages us to dwell on the good things instead. It’s not a CBT worksheet with a mysterious acronym. Or a mnemonic that’s actually not so easy to remember. Or a digital calendar on an app. It is a holistic tool: something you can choose to build and create according to your own unique agenda. And that’s very empowering.

Books

The Bullet Journal Method: Track Your Past, Order Your Present, Plan Your Future by Ryder Carroll (2018)

Flourish: a New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being – and How to Achieve Them by Martin Seligman (2011)

Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression: Self-help Strategies to Build Strength, Resilience and Happiness by Miriam Akhtar (2018)

The Right to Write: an Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life by Julia Cameron (2017)

Online

Action for Happiness: Find Three Good Things Each Day

Bullet Journal: the Analogue Method for the Digital Age.

Mental Health Bullet Journal by Rachel W Miller for BuzzFeed.

The Positive Bullet Journal by *Positive Planner (AKA Ali and Finn) can be purchased here (you’ll be supporting the amazing arts charity Arts at the Old Fire Station too!).

Getting Started

How to Bullet Journal, by Ryder Carroll. Start here.

Journaling vs Bullet journaling. How to add long-form journaling into your Bullet Journal practice and why it can help.

How to Declutter Your Mind – Keep a Journal by Ryder Carroll, TEDxYale (2017).

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the wonderful people at Restore and Oxfordshire Recovery College for their encouragement.

A big thank you to Ruth for reading earlier versions of this essay.

Photograph: Leuchtturm 1917.
Categories
Creativity Writing

In praise of… Writing

We should write because writing yields us a body of work, a felt path through the world we live in.

Julia Cameron, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life
Why do I write?

Writing has always been my preferred form of expression. Articulating my thoughts as an essayist is one of my favourite things to do. I disappear behind the words I write and come alive with them too. I realise this sounds paradoxical, so let me put it another way: it’s as if writing reveals certain aspects of myself I wouldn’t recognise without it. Writing helps to crystallize my thoughts and examine my feelings. Seeing my ideas spill out onto the page – transported from the mind at their inception (via hours of highly concentrated attention), before finally taking shape in their written form – is therapeutic for me. This process of translation, from ideas to words, prompts intense focus and a ‘flow’ state of mind. I am completely involved in the activity of writing for writing’s sake.

The act of writing also directs my awareness towards the reader. Publishing initiates a two-way process. “The Queen of Change” Julia Cameron, who brought creativity to the mainstream following the publication of her book The Artist’s Way, says this of self-publishing:

“I believe that our desire to write is a deep-seated human drive to communicate and that it is answered by an equally powerful human drive to be communicated to. In other words, for every writer there is a reader – or many readers.”

Julia Cameron, The Right to Write, 156-157.

In an existential-phenomenological sense, reading and writing are transactional; they evoke intersubjectivity. Many features of existential therapy (honesty, relationship, understanding our internal selves and accepting reality) play out between the reader and writer – with the page as intermediary. Both reader and author take benefit from its reflective powers and potential for introspection. If the goal of transactional analysis (TA) is to ‘re-write’ our ineffective existential life positions, perhaps through the physical act of writing we plant that first seed of change.

Writing connects us to our values. Essays can be carefully crafted in such a way that they make clear what is important – and this promotes self-direction and agency. The process of essay writing encourages balanced arguments too, so it tends to help with black-and-white thinking. I love vlogging as a medium (my lengthy list of Youtube subscriptions can attest to this), but I appreciate writing because it allows me to express myself in a subtler and more considered way than video would make possible. Producing shareable online content allows me to build connections with others and form a community of like-minded people.

Creating something out of nothing to publish online lets me practice the craft of writing. There is a part of me that wants to develop a ‘voice’, for want of a better phrase. In this sense taking up blogging is a creative opportunity – one not afforded by academic writing. It is also a learning exercise, for myself and others (apparently there is even such a thing as ‘blog psychology’). If blogging can bring some clarity to my experience, distilling my own self-care practices and personal insights, then it will (hopefully) validate your experience too.

Writing serves as a marker for mental health and wellbeing. When I’m feeling low or anxious my writing is effortful; it seems impossible to weed out the waste thoughts from those that have value. A practice called stream of consciousness journaling helps with this (I suggest you start by trying Cameron’s creative recovery tool Morning Pages). When I am well I write with more ease. Some sentences I arrive at spontaneously. Something suddenly awakens and my writing becomes vibrant and determined, just as flowers flourish in springtime. Like a mental muscle memory, my writing practice grows stronger and I am able to achieve a more natural, creative state of being (it is in this ‘flow state’ that I produce flowery descriptive paragraphs such as this one). However – and here comes another paradox – it is also delicate and needs nurturing. Those closest to me are all too aware of the extent to which I am prone to perfectionism. I can commit to an endless series of edits (in fact, this sentence is an edit!) if I do not enforce a deadline. I tend to overexert myself without consciously exercising some caution. Sometimes this is possible; at other times I must simply ride the productivity wave until it crashes. Either way, in ‘flow’ my mind is calm, clear and content. You could say my writing is in full bloom, because my mind is doing exactly what it is designed to do. By channelling my creativity through writing I am challenging my mind, which rewards me with a lasting sense of happiness.

What will I write about?

My intention is to write about things that support good self-care, health and happiness, with this theme of wellbeing woven throughout. I want to shed some light on the connections between mental health and other disciplines, such as philosophy and the arts. I will be considering my own interests from the perspective of popular culture and abstracting the lessons in relation to self-care and recovery, drawing upon insights from psychology and psychotherapy too . This is why I’ll be discussing topics such as as creative writing, films, health and fitness, literature, meditation practice, philosophy, photography, music, psychology, psychotherapy and visual arts. I wish to explore the common threads and create a coherent collection of essays that when stitched together can form a comforting blanket to warm the heart, soothe the mind and uplift the soul.

To that end, so it stays somewhat coherent, I have summarised my aims for this site in the following statements.

Vision

I want representations of mental illness to be more visible. I want to hear discussions about mental health sound more authentic and nuanced. I want them to come up naturally in everyday conversation. I want mental illness to be acknowledged as both complex and commonplace.

Mission

1) To create an online community based upon common connections (with one being an interest in mental health). 2) To promote wellbeing and recovery by bringing psychoeducation and peer support together.

Values
  • Creating content of value by sharing knowledge that supports awareness and self-care.
  • Contributing to the conversation by expressing my personal experience authentically and honestly.
  • Honouring my experience and the experience of others, recognising that they may not be the same.

Thank you for reading. Rosie xox

Photograph: Interflora.