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Calming the Mother Rage

Calming the Mother Rage

It was 5pm, in the kitchen on a Tuesday afternoon. I emitted a roar so thunderous that my toddler wailed and my sons abandoned the television’s glare to investigate. Next appeared my husband, clutching an open laptop whilst swiftly cutting off a colleague mid-sentence.

Eyes watched in confusion as I visibly shook next to a mound of pesto pasta that seconds before I’d envisioned hurling against the wall. I’d decided against it. The clear up wouldn’t justify the release. Heart galloping and adrenaline searing through my veins, I left the room and sank into the sofa crying shoulder-shuddering tears of failure.

I like to think of myself as a rational and nurturing individual. Yet this last year I’ve encountered rage like never before. It’s visceral, gaining momentum emotionally and physically until I am out of energy to tether it. If I’m not able to diffuse it, it erupts, leaving collateral debris of tears and shame in its wake.

I am not alone. ‘I have never had as short a fuse as in this past year’ shares a social media follower wishing to remain anonymous. The internet is awash with humorous motherhood memes about losing our rag, our minds and our willpower ‘not to drink tonight because I just can’t parent’. Whilst we laugh because it resonates, are we choosing to normalise rage and overwhelm because even in this age of ‘it’s okay not to be okay’ talking about the stark, messy reality of it feels too taboo? Perhaps, the true veil isn’t humour, but bitter shame and heavy guilt.

I’m lifting the veil, because what we don’t need more of as mothers is shame and guilt. And in a recent social media poll of 700 respondents, 93% mothers said they’d felt more rage and irritability in the last year than pre-pandemic. So, for the sake of our mental health, it’s time to start taking rage seriously and arming ourselves with tools to diffuse rather than repress it.

Rage as a symptom of burnout

There are many types of rage. Rage may be violent, destructive, compassionate, or motivating. There’s the rage against injustice that rises up when watching the news. Should my children witness an outburst, it provides a moment to educate, imparting something valuable. How disruptive or damaging rage can be rests on both the context and the safety in its delivery. The type of rage I am focussing on, is the rage that comes with the depletion of burnout.  One mother shared with me the physical nature of her rage: ‘I feel the irritability and rage coming up my throat and if I don’t compose myself, it floods out like fire’

We are a burnt-out nation of mothers who praise one another for being strong yet sit behind the closed doors of our ‘game faces’ feeling anything but. Burnout develops when we are forced to (or choose to) chronically deny our human-ness. We demote our own needs and overlook feelings in order to reserve what energy we can to keep calm and carry on for those depending on us to function. And us mothers, we tend to be skilled at looking like ‘we’ve got this’ as a member of my community admitted –  ‘I do such a good job of looking like I’ve got it together, that nobody asks if I’m okay’.

Often, I ask my Psychotherapy clients one deceptively simple question: ‘what do you need?’. After a moment’s thought, and commonly tears, the needs that arise are along the lines of ‘space, support and rest’. With those three things hard to come by, especially during the past year, burnout isn’t failure, it’s a human response to the circumstances. And it’s those very three things that will provide the antidote.

Much like a filling bladder or an old student loan, needs and feelings do not dissipate when ignored, they grow in size and urgency ‘I ignored my grief this past year, there just wasn’t time to cry. I ended up with this heaviness in my chest that felt suffocating. I broke and spent three days in bed unable to function’ – anonymous. Feelings and needs are energy in motion, they rise up like waves, and when we shove them deftly aside, they do not slink into nothingness.

Consider how physically you experience different emotions and needs, you may feel butterflies in your stomach, a need for connection as longing your heart, anxiety in your chests. So, when these physical forms of energy are chronically pushed down and repressed, the pressure builds and builds mounting, when unaddressed, to an explosive release.

The curse of the mother caricature

Rage is often portrayed in films as a masculine emotion. Whereas, the caricature of a mother is of the loving, kind, patient nurturer. She may be reduced to sobbing, but rarely do we witness red-raw rage. This depiction dangerously overlooks the complexity of human guilt and shame. And what do we often do in response? We pledge to try harder at being better, further shunting aside our needs, our feelings and, well, ourselves.

I am noticing, both in myself and other mothers, the strong drive to caveat anger and difficult emotions. An admission of rage, or finding something excruciatingly challenging is swiftly followed by a cascade of proclamations of love and gratitude for children. ‘It’s overwhelming, but I wouldn’t change it for the world/but I love them/but it’s good too’.

There is fear that the presence of anger drags love into immediate question. Thus a need to reassure whoever listening that we love our children. Love and anger can co-exist. So many times have I spoken to women who’ve concealed the truth of their post-partum anxiety, the extent of their low moods, and the reality of their intrusive thoughts out of fear that their ability to love and mother would be questioned, that their child might be removed from their care. One mother disclosed ‘I was sleep deprived and fantasised about being hospitalised just so I could sleep. I didn’t tell anyone as I was terrified, they’d think I didn’t love my kids’. So much of what we feel is a human response to the circumstances we are in, and in no way a reflection of how strongly our heart beats in love to our child.

I wonder perhaps, though we are long past the days of overtly emotional women being branded clinically ‘hysterical’, there is a deeply running unease in communicating the messier emotions of womanhood and motherhood out of fear of being gaslit by the very people we turn to for support. As these emotions are swept under the metaphorical rug, they build, they get lumpy and then one day, we trip over them, in the kitchen on a Tuesday afternoon. We have surely come along way, but we have a long old way to go.

Know your flags

With practice and reprioritising, it’s possible to avoid burnout before you find yourself sliding down the fridge, ending up on the cold tiles wondering how things got so bad.

Consider your red flags. One member of my community recognised ‘My burnout flag is that I just can’t be bothered to eat proper food. I snack all day on sugar, which doesn’t help’. It may be apathy, exhaustion or irritability. Perhaps it’s in the moments you proclaim ‘I can’t do this’ and then continue to do it anyway. You might struggle to make simple decisions or rationalise thoughts. Motivation slips away, taking with it the sparkle in your eye and the ease of your laughter. Perhaps they are a lack of desire to run a route you love, resentment for a family member who rests with ease, or feeling frozen as you open the laptop for work. Perhaps your flag is those nights adrenaline chases sleep out of reach, or a hypersensitivity to the normal sounds of your home.

To ignore burnout, is to fuel the very issue itself. Unmet needs do not slink away when ignored, they become more pressing. Rage is an adrenaline filled, reactive state in which rationality is hard to grasp. Whilst the other symptoms of burnout silently chip away at the sense of self, rage conflicts with how we see ourselves.

Your emotional and physical resources are a currency that you spend on your family for the benefit of their collective wellbeing. I am coming to realise that, for my own sanity’s sake, the replenishing of that very currency in order to spend it on them again, needs to be a collective family aim! Plan, strategies and diarise periods of space, rest and refuelling, whatever that may look like for you. Use what resources and support you have available to facilitate these things. And remember, small things, whilst they may never feel ‘enough’, are always better than nothing. They might enable you to find the strength to breathe your way through the next tantrum or curveball.

Dealing with the moment of rage and the collateral damage

If you feel the rage building, urgently prioritise calming your mind and body. Use a simple breathing exercise, step out of the room if appropriate. Switch on the TV for the children or hand out iPads like frisbees, delay dinner. Scroll, call, text, read, stretch, pummel a pillow, walk; do whatever you need to in order to calm your nervous system so that you can re-access your rational brain again.

If rage has erupted, take a moment to recalibrate whilst offering yourself words of gentleness. When rage is followed with self-criticism and shame, you are less likely to attend to the overlooked needs that led to it. Claim responsibility and talk the episode through with your family or child in a way that allays any resulting fear or confusion.

I recently apologised to my four-year-old for rage fuelled snapping. ‘It’s okay’ said his little voice in reassurance. ‘Being tired and grumpy is okay’ I said. ‘But shouting at you like that isn’t okay. I am very tired and I am going to find a way to help me try and be patient next time’. We can affirm the validity of feelings whilst acknowledging that how you communicated it wasn’t helpful. Just as I would let him know that the jealousy he feels at his brother having a toy he wants is acceptable, but hitting him isn’t a good way to outwork that feeling and perhaps next time he might stomp his feet instead.

Playing the long game

Acknowledging your needs isn’t guilt-worthy indulgence, instead it forms the foundations upon everything you love and enjoy can stand firm. Taking what you need to fend off burnout is not ‘me first’ it’s ‘me too’. Rest and seeking space often trigger feelings of guilt and inefficiency, yet it is the antidote to burnout and a building block to good mental health.

Prioritise these things as if your mental health depends on it, and as if your family depend on your mental health. Because, both are true.

Welcome the small things. One fellow mother shared ‘I need to see my mum. We speak online, it’s not the same but It gives me something’. Whilst you may fantasise about a week on a sandy beach devoid of all responsibility, an evening out might not cut the mustard, but it’s something. And when it comes to staving off burnout, something is always better than nothing. Cut corners, delegate, make space and lessen perfectionist standards where possible. Take your foot off the gas in whichever way possible and acknowledge that just like fuelling the car the more asking of yourself, the more you need to input.

Seek friendship and support. Whilst someone may not be able to relieve you of stress, they can validate your feelings and offer vital compassion, lessening burnout-fuelling feelings of self-sufficiency. If you recognise that you spend life firmly sat on a seat of the burnout rollercoaster, seek professional support, because where there is help, there is hope.

Compassion ends the cycle

Just as those you care for; you are equally deserving of a life well lived.

Us mothers need mothering, and where we cannot be mothered we must learn to mother ourselves. We must coax ourselves to bed at a good time, encourage ourselves to pick up the phone to a listening ear, to walk, to breathe deeply. We must offer ourselves compassion for the moments we fall apart, gentleness as we brush our knees down and guidance as we seek ways to grow.

Sometimes I wonder if the raging mother-me who fantasises about throwing the pasta against the wall, is simply the acting out of my inner child, who is angered and hurt at the injustice of being so chronically overlooked.

Ruby in the Rubble – We shouldn’t judge what we are not, but we do.

Ruby in the Rubble submission by Lauren Kaighan

A note from Anna: Pleasing others and ensuring they think I’m a good person has been a driver for so much in my life, and also the reason I’ve held back. Address this (I’ve written a course called The People Pleasing Course to help guide you in doing so too), continues to change my life in the most healthy and freeing way! I loved reading Lauren’s reflections and realisations as she comes to terms with the fact that her needs and feelings are just as valid and valuable as those of others.

We shouldn’t judge what we are not. But we do. It’s so difficult, it’s a natural reaction to form an unconscious bias, at least. So even when we try not to judge, I’m certain that most people will do it, even if it is unconsciously and as much as we try not to. What really irks me though is when people think it’s appropriate to portray that judgement though it was fact. Or use it to try and pull down another person. Or to shame another person.

But, we do all do it, judge things that we are not, I suppose it’s a natural reaction.

‘Her house is so clean’, ‘Her house is so messy’. ‘He eats too much’, ‘He doesn’t eat enough’. ‘Did you see what so and so did/said’…

Her house might be clean because it helps with her anxiety. He might not eat enough because he has an eating disorder. There is so much judgement, more so right now.

At the beginning of the pandemic I was so guilty of it. ‘They aren’t from the same household’, ‘They shouldn’t have travelled that far’ and then one day I realised that actually they were from the same household, they just went to and from their other parents’ house (which was within the rules) and actually travelling to the countryside for a walk wasn’t a terrible breach of the rules either and something that later saved my mental health. And I also realised then, we shouldn’t judge what we are not, particularly when we don’t know the circumstances. These judgements, I realised, came from a place of fear.

I think that’s important to acknowledge that judgement does often come from a place of fear, the unknown or jealousy. In my experience anyway.

I had a baby during the pandemic, the week before the U.K. went into what we now know as ‘Lockdown 1.0’. I was petrified. For my family, the world, but most importantly my newborn baby. I spent weeks inside the house, scared to go outside, making excuses to not go for our daily walk. When I finally agreed to be dragged out for a walk, I was navigating my baby in her pram away from lampposts, cars and walls. I was that scared of touching anything around me in case I caught the virus, forgetting that actually, I could quite easily have gotten run over by a car when I was avoiding people by walking in the middle of the road. I was so focused on not getting the virus, I wasn’t enjoying my newborn baby. One night, mid breakdown, I knew I had to get better, to be better. I focused on my daily routine and the things we could do and enjoy as a family. Most importantly I stopped judging other people and what they were doing. I stopped worrying about whether people around me were following or not following the rules, that didn’t need my headspace. I needed to focus on my mental health and my family. I prioritised the things I enjoyed and switched off from the noise of the media and looked only at the facts. I also realised you have to focus on what you can control, not what you can’t and that until you know someone’s individual circumstances, have walked in their shoes, you cannot judge someone else and what they do.

It was this particular lightbulb moment for me that made me sit back and realise all of the things I’d not done for fear of judgement. The things I’d not said in case it was misconstrued or somebody didn’t agree. For some reason, I have an opinion that when I meet people that they won’t like me, and that I have to work for their approval. It’s a basic setting for me and I don’t know why. That probably will take a whole lot more than just writing to understand. But what I’ve realised is I now ask myself; ‘do I care?’ and ‘of what consequence is it?’. Am I so worried to be judged that I won’t do or say something that I want to? So, in the same way that unconsciously we may judge other people, we’ve got to accept that people may also judge us. But does it matter?

We shouldn’t judge what we don’t know. But we do. Why do we judge people on how they raise their children? Unless there is harm coming to that child, what does it have to do with us? Why do we judge people on what they do for a living? If it’s not stopping our bills getting paid, what does it have to do with us? Why do we judge people that either wear too much make up or not enough? If you were truly happy in your own skin would it bother you as much?  Why do we judge those that breastfeed, as well as those that don’t or can’t? A baby needs to be fed, no matter how you choose or need to do it. True, we all have our own opinions, and that is fine. But the minute you project that opinion to become a judgement onto a person or the minute you cast doubt over someone’s integrity with your judgement, it becomes unfair.

As I’ve said, of course, it’s natural to judge, and I’m not saying it’s wrong to have those thoughts and opinions (obviously!) but it’s just being mindful about what you put out into the world. Especially right now. It’s all such a learning curve and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been there, I’ve done it. And I still do it. But now I’m a lot more mindful and do you know what? I actually feel like a weight has been lifted. Why should I be worrying about what other people are doing if I feel like I’m doing enough?

I’m hopeful that this realisation is helping me on my way to not caring as much as what people think about me, to an extent. I’ll always care about some things and that can be a good thing too. I guess this realisation started for me when I finally started writing my blog (thirtyandfabulous.blog) I’d wanted to do it for so long and I put it off because I worried about what people would think or say. But so what. I enjoy writing and it’s like a version of therapy for me. This realisation has evolved so much over the last year, since having a baby, your priorities change, and through lockdown I realised going forward my energy needs to only go on things that I want to do. I’ve been so focused on what other people were doing and how they were living their lives, I forgot to enjoy my own (I say enjoy lightly there – we were/are in the middle of a pandemic after all!).

I’m working on letting go of things that no longer serve me and focus on the things you can control, and that certainly isn’t how other people will judge you.

I want to shout less. I want to drink less.

‘I shouted at Charlie. Like, really shouted at him. He cried. I cried, and now I feel bad’

Oh Anna, we all do that.
Don’t worry about it.
It’s tough.
Everyone loses it sometimes.
It’s not like it’s all the time.

‘I can’t remember the last day I didn’t have a drink. Just one the evening, but I need to have more booze free days’

Don’t worry about that.

Everyone is doing it.
It’s necessary, it’s needed.
You deserve it. What else do you have to look forward to?
It’s not like it’s a bottle.

I’ve uttered both of these things over the last few months, many times in varying ways. To friends on walks, on the phone.

Both are normalised, the shouting, the losing your rag. Oh those days when I gaze at the small, sleeping form of my child, stroke a cheek and promise to do better the next day. To be more present. Oh the days I climb into bed, my body softened by wine, promising to replace the next day’s pouring of a glass with the rolling out of a yoga mat.

But it’s all hard. Because it’s hard. And whilst my heart knows what I need, my mind and body are challenged by the upheaval of time, support, friendship, change in context, and adventures beyond my postcode.

So I swallow down emotions. I ignore a need for space because it’s not easy to find it, practically, logistically. I hold it all in, my edges taught and stretched like an overstuffed bin-bag. But sometimes it all comes pouring out, a broken damn, spilling everywhere, causing flood damage in its wake.

But those things require intention and intention requires discipline.
And discipline requires energy.
So I sink into habit, because it requires so little of either.
I continue. I fill up, I spill out.

Oh the release. Oh the guilt.

I flop onto the sofa. Knowing I need to talk, to be heard, to process. Knowing I need to rest, not scroll, talk not stare at yet another episode of a programme who’s plotline I have long lost. I need to wind down, to slow down, to calm my wired mind.

But those things require intention and intention requires discipline.
And discipline requires energy.
So I sink into habit, because it requires so little of either.
I pour a glass, I sigh, my shoulders drop.

Oh the release. Oh the guilt.

But in reaching out to friends, I get support. It all gets normalised. I am not alone, we are not alone. In the shouting, in the pouring of a glass. In all of the things.

Yet the guilt never softened with the utterances of ‘we’re all doing it’.

Because, underneath, whilst I know I am not alone, I also know we need to be gentle on ourselves, I am stepping beyond my own sense of what is okay for me. I do not want to let loose on my kids, I do not want to join them in their tantrums. I do not want to be reaching for daily wine as a means to a chaotic end.

In the normalising of things that deep down, I know aren’t right for me, I’m not falling to meet an unreachable bar, I’m lowering a valid one.

Sometimes, our minds want to hear ‘It’s fine’ whilst our hearts are whispering ‘will you stand with me as I seek better?’.

When we are full, and tired, and stretched and wired, it’s easier to spill out and fall into our own cracks.

I spoke to my husband about my overstuffed bin-bag. And we planned and we juggled, and I battled with the guilt that rose when he pledged to take the toddler for a daily walk so we could focus on home learning. I coach myself to accept the offer of an extra ten minutes in bed, or head up for an early night even though we’re half way through an episode.

And I fight the guilt, and do it anyway, because half an hour’s reading in bed can be the difference between having a messy meltdown, and the ability to breathe through the stress instead.

And as for the daily wine, I found a couple of friends who said ‘me too’, who echoed my ‘it’s understandable but it’s not what I want either’. And we’ve been doing a month of consistent booze free weekdays and it feels good.

But it’s a dance, a dalliance between what I want and what I need. Where compassion and care collide with, zig zag and cross over ease and gentleness. But it’s a dance I’m glad I’m dancing, all the same.

If the relief of normalising no longer hits the sweet spot that silences guilt, then perhaps your heart is whispering ‘will you stand with me as I seek better for myself?’.

Sometimes our yearning for ‘better’ isn’t driven by perfectionism.

It’s driven by a deep desire for freedom from the things that keep the flames of guilt alight
And for someone to stand beside you as you reach for it.

A different way of seeing self-care

I think I’ve changed my mind about self-care.

Self-care is not a shower. It’s not peeing when you need to. It’s not hydrating or going to bed instead of doing another load of washing.

That is self-respect.

Does my husband think he’s engaging in ‘a little self care’ when he hops into the shower to wash the day away? Or pours a quenching glass of tap water? (I can’t imagine that the thought even passes his mind to de-prioritise those basic rights anyway).

Yet we approach them with the indulgence and logistics of a spa-day.

Self-respect is meeting your basic needs.

They bring me to some kind of base level.

The over-and-above are the things that are more likely to relieve us from teetering on the edge of overwhelm. The extra. The things that bring us back to ourselves.

It’s not the speedy shower, but the long bath with a page-turner novel

It’s not the gulped down cuppa, but the coffee catching up with a friend

It’s not the ‘gimme a minute’ it’s the ‘please help me work out how I can get an hour or two’

It’s not the message reply ‘yeah I’m having a hard time’, it’s the ‘can we talk?’

It’s not the grab’ n go lunch but the one prepared and enjoyed sat down.

But perhaps we can find small ways to offer ourselves more than just the bare minimum. Upping our standards for what we deem a treat.

If I promised my kids a special day out and took them to the supermarket, they’d be solely disappointed.

If we pledge to work on our sense of worth and then ‘treat’ ourselves with a glass of water or a wee, then….some part of us learns to believe that‘a the limit of our deservedness, and that everything else is a guilt-ridden indulgence.

Self-respect should be the very basic, non negotiable level. And then everything else goes on top, the extras, the nice stuff. Because….*sits on hands trying not to type ‘you’re worth it*….well, because.

Just a thought.

Three steps to letting go of guilt

Guilt for not being enough, doing enough, doing it well enough. Guilt for juggling, for struggling, or for thriving when others are surviving. Guilt for wanting space, for finding it hard when others have it harder. Guilt for not being present, for resenting, for wanting more. Guilt, guilt, guilt.

Guilt has become the soundtrack to many of our lives.

Unnecessarily.

When I feel guilty, my internal dialogue gets a little (ahem, a lot) more critical. I’m less likely to engage in the things that help me, and more likely to engage in the things that harm me.

Self-sabotage, self-destructive behaviours increase because I feel guilty, I feel bad. I feel less deserving of good things. Good things like rest, support, insight, compassion, empathy. And goodness me, wouldn’t we all benefit from more of those things?

So if you also have a habit of carrying guilt around like a heavy, sooty rock deep in the core of your belly read on, because…

It doesn’t need to be this way.

I want to share with you three small albeit mighty powerful steps to letting go of guilt.

This is an excerpt from The Week on Worth Course  I go into much more detail on guilt and self-esteem within the course, which will be a great next step if you want to explore this further.

But first of all, you need to know that guilt isn’t there to shame you. It’s there to prompt you.

Guilt isn’t there to point the finger, to brandish the whip, to turn up the knob on the gas burner of self-criticism. It’s there as a sensation, as a little flag that pops up to say ‘hey, something needs addressing’.

The guilt we feel often sits in one of two camps: Justified and unjustified. And determining which kind of guilt it is that you are feeling can be really helpful.

Justified guilt

This is the kind of guilt that comes when we have done something wrong. We have hurt someone intentionally or unintentionally; perhaps we have acted in a manner that we aren’t proud of; or made a decision that has come with negative repercussions. This guilt is felt because our actions conflict with our ethics.

Unjustified guilt

This is the type of guilt that comes when you haven’t done wrong.

It might be that someone has done something wrong to us, and we feel a sense of responsibility that isn’t ours to carry. A good way to test whether your guilt is unjustified is to consider how you’d respond if someone told you they were blaming themselves for the same thing.

For example, I felt guilt and shame for my period of post-natal depression and the fact that I wasn’t able to be the mum for that

I’d wanted to be for my kids during that time. Was this my fault? Had I done anything wrong? Or was it the circumstances I found myself in? If someone had told me that they felt shame for the same thing, I’d desire for them to feel the compassion for themselves that I felt towards them.

Regardless of what you feel guilty about, whether it’s justified or unjustified, guilt is there to prompt you to action, not to shame you. Here is my ACT tip for the next time you feel a wave of guilt or want to address the weight of guilt in your stomach:

Address it.

Imagine that guilt as a rock sitting on the palm of your hand. Look at it and ask yourself what it is about. Why is it there? What do you believe you’ve done wrong? Is it justified or unjustified? What would you say to a friend if they told you they felt guilt about this?

Compassion.

We ALL deserve compassion. If you did something wrong intentionally, find a way to inject some compassion into it. You may need to be a little creative, but it’s an important step as when we feel only shame, we stay stuck in a cycle of shame and criticism. It hinders us from developing healthy self-esteem. Introducing compassion doesn’t absolve you of responsibility, it just enables you to address it more constructively.

Perhaps I hurt a friend because I feared they’d reject me at some point, so I did it to gain a sense of control. The hurt is the action I feel guilty about, yet the fear deserves compassion.

Tweak.

So now you know what the guilt is, and you’ve injected some compassion. The final step is to make a tweak or action based on that insight. If you feel guilty because you’ve hurt a friend, talk with them about the fear you’ve identified. Apologise, and then let it go.

Maybe I equip myself with a technique, or I do some research to gain further insight into my own responses. Perhaps I feel guilty about

being on my phone too much, so I consider placing boundaries around my usage. I can then set the guilt rock down. I’ve addressed it. It is no longer of use to me. I don’t need to carry that weight.

If your guilt is unjustified, this process is very important. We sometimes direct hurt and anger towards ourselves as a way of making sense of difficult circumstances, or someone else’s treatment of us. If you feel you’d benefit from talking in more depth with a trusted friend or therapist, please take the step to do so. That is a statement of worth! You’re worthy of support in that process.

I hope this helps as you navigate the many feelings and demands that come with the pandemic. You need more of what you need to keep going, and unaddressed guilt is likely to stand in the way of you believing you’re deserving of that.

Just because you feel guilty, it doesn’t mean you are guilty.

Further resources:

The Week on Worth Course – Download now for £25

On Feeling Less Guilty – 10 Minute episode of The Therapy Edit

Counselling Directory

Mental health charities and organisations

Practical Ways to Protect your Mental Health in Isolation

You only have to glance the aisles of the supermarkets to know that people have been considering the practicalities of being isolated in their own homes. But how do we address the impact that isolation will have on our mental health?

Understandably, there is a lot of fear, trepidation and anxiety around the uncertainty of our global situation. It’s hard and worrying, because…it IS hard and worrying. Covid-19 is the term upon everyone’s lips, and many things hang in the balance. If you’re experiencing anxiety, read my article on addressing coronavirus anxiety here.

I’m going to give you practical tips to protect your mental health as we follow government guidelines for the foreseeable future.

Make space

Whilst the physical space that is available to us will be limited significantly to normal, ‘space’ is going be harder to come across. If you are living with others, find ways to create personal space and quiet away from the noise.

Perhaps you agree a set time in the day where you take it in turns to have half an hour on uninterrupted quiet, set your alarm so that you wake to stillness. You might find it helpful to retreat to a particular corner of your home and put your headphones on.

Increased emotions

This enforced slowness may well bring to the surface emotions that have been hidden in the busyness of life. As the pace slows, emotions such as grief, fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, trauma and sadness may emerge from the depths of where they have been hidden.

It is important to find ways to to verbalise some of these emotions. It can feel vulnerable, but the only way to process, and soften emotion is to give it appropriate space. If you can, speak to a trusted friend or family member. Take little steps of openness. You don’t have to tell them everything straight away, but it’s important to validate and respect what you are feeling. You might want to speak with your GP, or browse these helplines.

Seek physical comfort

I don’t think we realise how much small gestures of touch positively impact our mental health until they aren’t possible. A hug, a handshake, the brush of an arm or the pat of a back – all work to make us feel accepted and appreciated. For some, the lack of touch is going to feel prominent.

If appropriate (strictly following guidelines relevant for you), increase physical contact with pets and those in your home. More hugs with kids or drag the cat upon your lap as you watch TV. If you are alone and isolated, wrap a heavy blanket tightly around your shoulders for a feeling of containment. It’s not the same, I know, but it’s something.

Hold house meetings

Your home is likely to be used differently now there may be more people there. Hold regular meetings in order to delegate responsibilities. With lack of commutes, and the home doubling up as a workplace, you may need to set new boundaries and adapt roles. Unclear boundaries, confused roles and mismatched expectations can cause resentment and frustration.

Be intentional not passive

Let’s face it, whilst we can hazard a guess and make speculation, we don’t know exactly how long we will be isolated. Our government are constantly assessing and amending guidelines.

Don’t put life on hold. We have a choice on how we view this period of life. If we see it as a waiting room, we may become passive, letting the days slip through our fingers as we wait for some kind of familiarity to resume. Or we can use this time to learn, grow, develop relationships and invest in things that have been on the back burner! There is absolutely time and need for quiet and rest, but being intentional about the way we choose to live could mean that we learn and grow positively as individuals and families.

Maintain the weekend

It could be so easy to forget what day of the week it is, but finding ways to maintain the structure of the week can be really helpful. Having the weekend to look forward to gives us something to lean towards as we complete another week. In our home, you’ll find relaxed rules, pyjamas at breakfast, a little more tv and more exciting snacks!

Combat boredom

Boredom is something that we have long avoided with busyness, and filling every moment with a scroll or a soundtrack. Boredom isn’t a negative thing, yet it has been something we have tried to avoid at all costs.

Boredom gives our brains space to process feelings and experiences. It allows us to daydream and get creative. Remember the pre-technology days when sitting on a train or a plane meant looking out the window, thinking, remembering. That was valuable time.

Boredom is uncomfortable when we feel anxious, or have suppressed emotion because the feelings and thoughts y come forward when space is found. Once we begin to find techniques that help us productively acknowledge and address our anxiety and any trauma, we can start to enjoy those moments of boredom.

These next few weeks are a great opportunity to do this. See my home based Reframing Anxiety Course (use discount code ra-save15), or my post on coronavirus anxiety to help with this.

Gratitude for the small

Grab a piece of paper and write down a list of 30 things that you are grateful for. Note how you feel beforehand, and how you feel afterwards. Gratitude is a powerful tool, it calls us to look at what is right and good in our lives, bringing balance and perspective.

Bringing balance into confusion

I’m going to tell you a personal story to illustrate this.

I remember being ten. I was with my younger brother, rolling sideways down a steep, grassy slope in our little village. We were laughing hysterically, swaying dizzily as we stood. The thing was, we were rolling down the slope of a graveyard. Short weeks after we stood there burying our sister.

It wasn’t that grief didn’t sit like an elephant on our small hearts, or that our cheeks weren’t stinging from the salty tears we cried. It was that, in that moment, there was joy. And we didn’t know to strip the richness of the laughter by focussing on the aching confusion and pain. We just let it be. Sure there were tears that came after. Confusion, vulnerability – it was all there. But there was also laughter and joy too.

There is pain, hardship, uncertainty. There are tears, grief, fear. But when we let ourselves see and experience the joy, or pertinence of the moments that we walk through, it brings balance. It brings perspective.

No feeling is out of bounds. You may find yourself feeling a multitude of conflicting emotions and that is okay. Remind yourself that you can feel frustration AND relief. Fear AND happiness. Grief AND joy. Feelings may sound they are contradicting one another, but we are multi-layered beings, the more we try and dictate what we should or shouldn’t be feeling, the harder it makes them to process, and therefore pass!

Seek support

If you are living in a situation in which you are in emotional or physical risk, or living in relationship dynamics that are harmful in some way. Please seek support. You’ll find details on how to get support for domestic abuse here, and relationship support here.

If you are concerned about your mental health, you can find some tips for anxiety here, along with some contacts for support. You might find it very helpful to connect with people who are in similar situations to you. Mind has an online peer support community called Elefriends .

Monitor digital usage

We are going to be leaning on technology and the online world more to entertain, connect and support us. The internet can be both constructive and destructive, and it’s important to monitor how we are utilising it. Scrolling to feel connected is one thing, but if we find ourselves embroiled in a cloud of unhealthy comparison that makes us feel worse, then it’s not so helpful.

Consider using apps to help monitor and guide your use of social media and how long you spend on it. Before you pick up your phone, consider why and whether you’re going to benefit from the way you may be intending to use it. If you want to explore this further, this page is helpful.

Find light relief

Watch or read somethings that make you smile and laugh, or pick up the phone to someone who never fails to raise your spirits. Laughter brings a welcome dose of happy endorphins, seek it and enjoy it.

Do something for others

Altruism is good for mental health. Helping others gives us a sense of purpose and accomplishment. What might you do to support those around you in any way, big or small? Perhaps calling an elderly neighbour, or dropping some groceries on the doorstep of a family who need them.

Instil routine

Building routine can be really grounding. Even though we cannot plan our days around the things we usually do, you can still benefit from the predictability of routine by creating your own. However, ensure it is lose enough so as not to increase stress. Ensure plenty of flexibility to allow for fluctuating mood and feelings.

I’d recommend getting up and going to bed at the same time you usually do. Get up and dressed and make the bed. It may be a good chance to tweak routine to benefit you, adding in things you don’t usually find the time for such as exercise or hobbies. It’s still good to do the things that make you feel yourself – like wearing clothes you enjoy regardless of who sees you.

Get fresh air

Regardless of what restrictions are placed on spending time outdoors, ensure that you are getting a dose of nature every day. It is known to improve mood and reduce stress. Get outside if guidelines allow can or sit on your doorstep with your morning cup of tea if you are able. But regardless, open the windows daily even if it means wearing an extra layer. Bring the outside in – bring a pot plant indoors, lie or sit and listen to the sounds that come through your open window.

Be productive

Feeling like we’ve accomplished something is so rewarding and enforces a sense of purpose. Consider what you might be able to tick off the to-do list each day. Maybe there is a drawer you’ve always intended to clear out, or the kitchen has been begging for a thorough clean. Perhaps your digital photos need sorting, and you’ve always meant to map out some photo books!

Stimulate your brain

Have you always wanted to learn a new language, master crochet, or have a pile of industry magazines that have sat gathering dust? Now is the time. Regardless of whether you are working at home or not, keep your brain stimulated, however don’t pressure yourself to have to do it all!

Setting yourself a task or a project gives something to work towards and it’s always really enjoyable to see progress in your skills! There are lots of apps that help your learn languages, podcasts to give insight into different topics. What’s more the FutureLearn and OpenLearn websites offer some free online courses!

Keep connected

Pick up the phone and have voice to voice discussions with friends and family. It’s easier to simply send messages, but visual and voice calls give more of a sense of being with that person. It’s not the same as physically being with someone, but it’s beneficial in maintaining relationships. Text messages can be easily misunderstood too, so seeing and hearing someone adds context as you can hear tone of voice and see expression.

Seek at least one voice-to-voice conversation per day, especially if you’re alone. If you’re not able to do this, listen to talk shows on the radio to provide a sense of verbal company.

Get creative

In stressful or worrying times it can be a welcome relief to get respite from our own thoughts. Flow activity examples are colouring, jigsaws, painting, sudoku, playing board games or cards and other activities in which you lose track of time! The world around you quietens and stress is calmed.

Increase self-care

Our main excuse for not engaging in self care has been that we are too busy. But now the busyness has been stripped away, if you still find it hard, it’s often because you don’t believe you are worth acts of kindness towards yourself. Address your internal dialogue. Living in a home with an internal bully isn’t going to be helpful at all. Start to introduce a more kind and compassionate voice, and hopefully you’ll then find it easier to engage in acts of nourishment.

Move

Whatever your experience of exercise, now is a good time to routinely engage in it at home. We are so fortunate that the digital world offers many free workouts for all levels of experience and fitness.

Whether you engage in some gentle movement, or something more intense, all you need is space for a mat. Exercise is brilliant for both mental and physical health as they are inextricably linked. Find something suitable for your fitness level, and perhaps find an app or Facebook group that encourages a sense of community and

Eat well

In stressful times it’s increasingly tempting to comfort eat. However, this is such a good time to consider how you might eat well for mental health. Eating well has a positive impact on both our physical and mental health, whereas consistent overindulging makes us feel sluggish. If you struggle with this, and would like some further support, visit the BEAT website.

Cooking itself can be therapeutic. If you’re a sofa eater, challenge yourself to head to the table for some mealtimes. If you don’t have people to eat with at home, try a FaceTime dinner date. With online supermarket deliveries in high demand, batch cooking healthy, warming, balanced meals will get more out of your order.

Pep talk

I just wanted to finish with a pep talk. I so wish I had the answers, but I don’t. So see this as a metaphorical hand on your shoulder. This is a tough time of unchartered territory. The ground on which you stand has been shaken and we are all stumbling around trying to find ways to navigate the constantly changing guidelines and rules. There is collective grief, grief for the things that are no longer as we know them, fear for the health of those we love. Be kind to yourself, there is no map. Lower your standards of what you ‘should’ be achieving. You will get into a groove in time. The forced slower pace will become a new kind of normal, the and jarring sense of uncertainty and fear will blur. Focus on today, this moment. Use all the support mechanisms available to you. Anchor yourself in the things you know to be true so that they bring balance to the unanswered questions. It’s hard because it is hard. It’s tough, because it’s tough. But so are you.

 

 

Dealing with coronavirus anxiety

(My Reframing Anxiety Course goes into significant depth on health anxiety, but I’ve been asked numerous times a day to write about how to handle Coronavirus anxiety, so I am putting some of my tips into context).

Perhaps you find yourself obsessively checking the news for fresh articles on Coronavirus or scouring updated statistics. Maybe you are constantly symptom checking, washing your hands until they are raw, feeling consistently fearful or tearful, and playing potential scenarios through in your mind. Perhaps you have gone through trauma or grief that is heightening your fear of the virus.

There is an air of anxiety and fear around coronavirus due to the shared stress and uncertainty it brings. It is dominating conversations, lining news shelves and flooding social media feeds. Supermarkets are being swept and diaries cleared.

Anxiety likes a focus, to ruminate on specific things. Anxiety mainly focusses on circumstances out of our direct control that have potential, unpleasant consequences. If you have experienced anxiety around health previously, Coronavirus is understandably going to be a trigger for you. In addition, your anxiety may well be raised due to being or knowing someone who is vulnerable or considered to be within an ’at risk’ group.

 

What you want.

Anxiety is exhausting isn’t it? When we fixate on the things that trigger it, we find ourselves less able to rationalise our thoughts and ground ourselves. Anxiety occupies headspace, and casts grey shadow over the more enjoyable emotions that make you happy! If your anxiety about coronavirus is impacting your ability to enjoy the things you usually do, or you’re finding yourself pre-occupied with concern, this article is for you.

I could research and reel off a ton of statistics about the likelihood of you or someone you know being impacted by the coronavirus, but the reality is, you’ve probably seen many of those stats. And just as the theories do, the stats are often conflicting. Leaving you wondering who or what to trust, and where to turn.

What you want is reassurance. Someone to take you by the shoulders and promise you that all will be just a-okay. However, just as with anything in life, nobody has the ability to make truthful statements based on an unknown future.

Nobody can reduce their risk of illness to zero, just as no amount of money in the world could secure a future without any illness. Therefore, the most helpful thing for me to do, is to help you find ways to deal with the uncertainty we live in.

However, there is hope! Anxiety doesn’t have to rob you of your enjoyment of your health, or the times you share with your family. It doesn’t have to have you awake at night pondering the possibilities, and ruminating repeatedly over contingency plans.

 

How to help keep your anxiety at bay:

Be kind to you

Firstly, have compassion for yourself. When we feel fearful, we need compassion and guidance. Ridicule or criticism coming from others or yourself isn’t helpful. Whether those around you understand how you feel or not, try and cultivate some compassion towards yourself because it’s not your fault that you feel heightened anxiety right now.

It might be that you or someone close to you are immunosuppressed, at higher risk. Maybe you know and love someone who’s health is already challenged, and you feel terrified that this might impact them. You may have a history of trauma or anxiety, or a fear of losing someone close to you that has rushed to the forefront.

Whatever your experience, whatever is causing your anxiety, shaming and berating ourselves keeps us stuck. Not everyone will relate to your experience (although many will), but it doesn’t mean that your anxiety is less valid or your feelings less valuable and worth addressing. If you find yourself feeling frustrated, consider how you would reassure a friend, and try to use that supportive and understanding voice towards yourself.

 

Limit your exposure to news

At the moment, it’s hard to wade the reams of coronavirus articles to learn of other newsworthy topics! You may find yourself glued to the TV or flicking between news apps, on the hunt for something that will reassure you.

However, when we feel anxious, we are less able to rationalise what we read, and more likely to overemphasise the negative. Nobody has specific, certain answers about the prognosis of the coronavirus, so many articles are full of conflicting speculation. You might find it helpful to abstain from watching or reading the news, and asking someone trusted to relay any pertinent messages to you verbally instead.

Constantly checking for updates and theories fuels anxiety. As you find yourself opening a search window, pause, and ask yourself what you’re going to gain. Knowledge isn’t power when we are overwhelming ourselves with it. Searching for too much information, or searching in the wrong places can be disempowering, confusing, conflicting and frightening. Cut out the noise by choosing to stick to the facts:

https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-coronaviruses

 

Stick to guidelines

Out of care for our own health, and respect of the health of those around us, it’s wise to educate ourselves on recommended protocol. We cannot sterilise our environment, but we can take simple preventative actions that are statistically known to reduce risk of experiencing any infectious illness. These are good techniques to instil regardless of what bugs are circulating at any time of the year.

Current advice: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-51711227

If you are someone who is at additional risk to infectious illness, please do follow the official guidelines set for you.

These are the actions we have been advised to take by those acutely experienced and knowledgeable on how infectious illnesses spread. They will be looking to neither under-advise us, or over-advise us. Their overwhelming focus and aim is to halt the spread of infectious illnesses.

 

Make plans and then tuck them away

It’s always wise to have a contingency plan in place. Whether you have a plan for remote working, or what you’d do if you needed last-minute childcare. It’s helpful to consider these things regardless of what illnesses are around. Life is certainly known to throw the odd curveball every now and again, so having considered things like this will help reduce stress should you ever need to put things into action.

The important thing is that once you’ve considered your plan, tuck it away in the back of your mind, or on a piece of paper in a drawer. Look at your plan like the war bunker. It’s there, it’s available for when it’s called for. Let it be a reassurance that it’s there should you need it. Revisiting it, adding to it, playing it out in your mind like a film, extending it with ‘what ifs’ and overthinking will add to your anxiety.

It’s always good to keep medication up to date and your medicine cabinet well-stocked, just as it’s good to keep fuel in the car and change in your purse. Follow what is in line with current World Health Organisation and NHS advice, and question when you might be pushing that boundary out of fear and anxiety so that you can apply some supportive techniques.

 

Limit discussion

When discussing coronavirus with friends or family, some people’s opinion and approach will fuel your anxiety and some will calm it. Limit how much you talk about it and when you do, choose to speak to those who are supportive and ground you. If you feel your anxiety levels increasing when discussing the virus, make an excuse to end or step away from the conversation. Discussing it with those who are also experiencing anxiety will likely reinforce your fears and increase your own feelings of anxiety.

 

Maintain healthy routine

Eating well, giving yourself the best chance to get good sleep and adequate rest, and exercising in whatever way you most enjoy is brilliant for both your mental health and your immune system.

Consider any habits that could benefit from a bit of a tweak because perhaps they add to feelings of anxiety (e.g drinking too much caffeine or alcohol) and get support in addressing them if needs be. Again, this is a good thing to do for your future, let alone the current climate.

 

Ground yourself in the present

Feelings of anxiety are triggered when we focus on negative, future unknowns and uncertainties. The difficult thing, is that we aren’t creating stories about alien invasions, they tend to be fears based in potential realities, that have not, or may not happen.

The more we think about a fearful scenario, the more our body and nervous system will respond with physical symptoms of anxiety (such as increased heart rate, stress hormones, panic attacks). We can interrupt this process by stopping the whirlwind of our thoughts in their tracks.

There are many techniques that can help halt overthinking by shifting our focus from the unknowns of the future, to the realities of the present moment. Some of my favourite techniques are:

  • Count backwards from 100 in 3’s.
  • Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.
  • Take a walk outside, breathe deeply and pay close attention to the things you see
  • If you have any physical feelings of anxiety, do ten rounds of grounding breaths to calm your nervous system. Breathe in deeply for four, and steadily exhale for a count of 6-8 (dependent on what feels most comfortable)
  • Utilising a guided meditation app such as ‘Headspace’ or ‘Calm’

Use these techniques as soon as you feel your mind begin to overthink or catastrophise. Practice them as you fall asleep. Use them when you don’t need them so that when you do, they feel familiar and instinctive.

 

Check in with your decisions

Note the decisions you might be making for yourself or your family. If you notice that you are taking steps outside of the advice recommended, then consider whether the motivation is based on facts or fear.

Maintaining your normal day-to-day life where appropriate promotes a sense of normality for yourself and those around you so stay connected with others. You might find it helpful to increase contact in an appropriate manner with those who have historically had a positive impact on you and your mental health.

 

Introduce gratitude

Challenge yourself to write a list of ten to thirty things you are grateful for. You might start off with the fundamentals such as family and your home, but the more you jot down, the more you are called to reflect on the things we take for granted, such as movement, sight, warmth, sunshine.

Return to your list when you feel like your mind is leaping ahead into the unknown. Gratitude draws our attention away from what could go wrong, to what is currently right.

Gratitude brings perspective. It ushers us to look at the things in our life that give us joy, and when we think about these things, it makes us feel good! It helps anchor ourselves in the present moment, distracting our busy minds from getting carried away in the torrent of ‘what ifs’.

You might find it enjoyable to re-engage in an old hobby, distract your mind in the pages of a novel. Either way, explore ways to put your energy into what’s most important and what makes life worth living for you. Anxiety takes up so much of our energy, so it’s helpful to find other ways to use and distract this energy if we can, in things that feed and energise, rather than take from us.

 

Be mindful of assumptions

Be mindful of your assumptions. Assumptions that aren’t based on fact or rationality feed our anxiety. It might be that you find yourself feeling that everyone who has a cough or fever has coronavirus. Of course, exercise caution as advised. However, if your assumptions are negatively or unnecessarily impacting your decisions and feelings, then deal with them as anxiety fuelled thoughts.

 

Find a mantra

Personally, I find it really helpful to have a phrase, sentence or ‘mantra’ that I can recall at times of anxiety or stress. I find it quite anchoring and comforting.

My current favourite mantra is: ‘Everything is okay now. And ‘now’ is the only thing that is real’.

Here are some other ideas:

I let go of fear

I return to now

I am here

Feelings aren’t facts

 

Anxiety support

If you are experiencing overwhelming levels of anxiety, or notice a strong link with trauma, please seek additional support.  If  isn’t the first time you have experienced it, it is worth addressing. Here are some websites or resources you may find helpful:

My Reframing Anxiety Course

Read details and reviews here.

This is a 3-week guided course you do at home, taking no more than 5-10 minutes per day. It addresses all types and levels of anxiety, including health anxiety. Use the discount code ra-save15 if finances are a hurdle for you.

Mind

A charity offering information and support for mental health. Read more about anxiety and how you can help those struggling here.

NHS website

Find information on anxiety and facts on coronavirus here.

GP

How can your doctor help you with anxiety? Find out more here.

Sane.org.uk

A charity offering support for mental health, including a helpline and peer support. Find more here.

 

 

Dear Charlie – Letters on Motherhood

I’m sharing this letter in honour of Gi Fletcher and her beautiful book, Letters on Motherhood.

I wrote this to my son Charlie, when he was 5 months old. It was typed through tears as  I spent New Years Eve of 2016 alone on the sofa. It’s a stark reminder of how things always move and change, even though during the tough times, you fear it may last forever. It wont.

As this year closes, I sit alone on the sofa, full of last night’s dinner reheated, and a miniature bottle of bubbles. Just because, you know, it’s ‘New Years Eve’. The clock will chime and I will be asleep. At least, I hope I will. You, my restless babe lie upstairs in your cot; our wanted child, our second.

I’ve eschewed a family get together because I am empty. I’ve spent myself. I have nothing left to offer besides tears held behind heavy eyelids. Maybe you can trace them down my cheeks; the little telltale tracks of makeup not yet reapplied. Those that escaped earlier, as a friend gave me a hug.

This year has been the hardest one thus far. I feel a pang of guilt as my fingers chase the keys of my laptop. My mind begins to verbalise what my heart has been feeling. The guilt settles like an unexpected snowfall. I’ve known death. I’ve known death of a sibling, as a child. Cancer. So, how can I call this year the hardest yet? It was not full of prognosis and CT scans. Nor final words of ‘I love you’ uttered down a hallway. How can I negate the loss of a loved one, for a year of tongue-tie and colic, of restless nights and reflux?

Because with grief, I had my ‘self’. I knew myself. With grief, there was a cause, a reason for escaping tears and guttural cries. Missed functions were excused, explained. My heartache had a name. It was understood.

You, my wanted second child and I, we’ve been on a journey this year. Your birth bought with you a whirlwind of why’s and what’s. Why are you not feeding, or sleeping or seemingly content? What am I doing wrong, what do you need from me that I cannot seem to give? You can have my all, yet I am not enough for you.

Up and out of the house. I have two children. I am a ‘coper’. Makeup on. Sunglasses on. For they hide the fact that the smile on my lips is a lie that my eyes cannot sustain. I am tired. I am scared. I am drowning in pretence, desperation to hold together the very thing that I wished for.

You screamed and you cried. You clawed me. My thin-lipped smiles became increasingly translucent, as fat tears would escape beyond the rim of my wide framed sunglasses, no longer able to contain the swell of dew that lined my bottom eyelids. What else do you want from me? You want sustenance and comfort, yet you scratch my chest, now displaying scrawny, pink scratches at various stages of healing. Who are you? You do not know me nor like me, and you resent me for bringing you into this world that seemingly makes you so distressed and tormented.

My birthday is marked on a green prescription for antidepressants. Penned by a concerned GP who asked me to return to ‘check in’. I never took the tiny white pills. Promising a happier mind-set but a terrifying list of side effects. They still lie in their foil blisters, un-popped. It wasn’t the chemicals of my body that saddened me, just the fact that you seemed to fail to find your home in me; a simple sadness that my baby will not be loved nor comforted by the very one that grew him.

Tongue ties, snipped twice upon my living room floor. I held you tight. Blood shed. My desperation to encourage you to find comfort at my breast. I found myself taken aside by well-meaning friends and family. Try a bottle they said. But no, in my stubbornness, I sought to continue. I needed you to want me amidst the screams. I needed you to find solace in my arms. I needed you to feel like mine, and I, like yours.

So now, we find ourselves half a year in, at the year-end. Finally a diagnosis for your discomfort. Syringes of sweet, sickly liquid administered into your cheeks. Reflux. Seasons take no notice of the years. Desperate for this season to draw to an end, I know full well that I will wake tomorrow and again, you will scream at my breast and I will cry in exhausted despair as I spoon puree into your puckered mouth. They say it might help. But really, only time will.

Reflux is a bitch. Six months passed, undiagnosed. It has unknowingly taken me to the very edge of myself. Chipping away at my self-assuredness, my self-confidence. Never have I second-guessed myself so many times, so much so that the self-doubt is written upon my face each time you cry. The persistent discomfort, the screams of pain teemed with a whining two year old that have led to a splintered door and pummelled pillows paired with raucous roars of frustration. The roars of a mother who does not know how to comfort her child. A mother who is exhausted, and still seems to find something left to give despite claiming herself empty.

Your older brother was easy. Kisses fell from my lips, wonderment in my eyes. You, my precious, second child, are my labour of love.

I’ve never used such bad language. I’ve never felt despair and frustration so physically. I’ve never denied myself so much so that I regularly forget to eat.

I’ve never loved so desperately and so furiously. We are growing together, you and I. We are finding each other and falling in love. One day, this will all be but a distant memory, and the months of screams and frantic Google searches, will be but echoes. But for now, I wish that the clock chime would usher in overnight relief.

But no, the years take no notice of the season, and ours is not yet over, but it will be soon. And you will smile more easily, and you will laugh more readily. And the joy will come.

And you’re teaching me that. The wild, ferociousness of love. My heart will never be the same again.
Charlie, this is just the beginning of you and I.
You are worth it all.

I’m sick of it! The fear of vomiting and how to address it

Me: ‘ I can’t stand people being sick’

Someone else: ‘yeah, nobody likes people being sick’

 But does everyone else..

Wake with a racing heart after repeated nightmares about vomiting?

Replay historic sickness scenarios through their minds like unwelcome horror films?

Experience a sharp rise of panic when someone coughs loudly on a train?

Feel intense fear when someone announces they don’t feel well?

Avoid social occasions, certain foods or travelling because of the increased likelihood of sickness?

Leap off public transport at an unknown location because a fellow traveller looks a little green?

Fear two of the year’s most beautiful seasons because of the sickness bugs that hover like the grim reaper ready to plunge you into a vortex of Dettol and washing cycles?

Approach pregnancy with trepidation out of fear of morning sickness?

Feel like a failure as a mum because they have to work hard to comfort your own sick child

The night I ran across three lanes of busy traffic with my hands over my ears and my eyes half closed, to escape someone vomiting….

I knew I needed to address the emetophobia once and for all.

It had had enough headspace, it had dictated too many decisions, tainted too many social occasions with anxiety. It had robbed me of enough. My fear of vomiting, and others vomiting, had been the background buzz of my life for as long as I could remember, and it was unrelenting. It showed no sign of subsiding.

There is hope. I promise you.

 

What is emetophobia.

Emetophobia is a fear of vomiting, or seeing others vomit. It’s very prevalent and is experienced by 1.7-3.1% of males, and a huge 6-8% of females (anxietyUK). It’s often unspoken about because people feel concerned about being misunderstood or dismissed as overreacting.

Emetophobia can be related to other fears and forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Symptoms can range from mild fear to brain tiring rumination and life-impacting apprehension. Sufferers may find themselves avoiding travel, social situations or public places. They may avoid certain foods out of fear of food poisoning, or they may avoid food altogether. In fact, emetophobia can sometimes be wrongly diagnosed as anorexia.

You may or may not be able to pinpoint when the phobia began. It might have been a traumatic event such as food poisoning or a stomach virus as a child. But it may have been simply that you felt scared and out of control at some point when unwell.

There IS hope.

 

My experience

Emetophobia dominated a lot of my life for many years. I can think back to the acute panic, from as young as age 6. For decades, I’d constantly scan the ground for vomit, my eyes would sweep corners and curbs like I was looking for something of value. I don’t even know what I wanted to achieve by that. I think it was the fear of being taken by surprise, it gave me an illusion of control over something which made me feel terrifyingly out of control.

I’d replay scenarios over and over in my mind from as much as 10 years before. My mum recognised it when I once ran away in panic as a young child vomited in the crowd of a local fair. It has manifested in varying ways and to varying degrees along the way. For ten years my body wouldn’t allow myself to be physically sick. But then I was (short story – too many speedily downed vodka redbulls), and I could.

In later years I experienced hyperemesis in two of my three pregnancies and was sick around ten times per day for months. It became commonplace. I was desensitised to my own sickness. But it’s a different kind of sickness to the one that is thrusted upon you for no reason other than a little spiky virus.

I don’t need to go into detail of the impact emetophobia had on my life. You know the drill. You’re here because you know the drill too well and you want out. You want hope.

 

How did you get it?

I’m not entirely sure. But if I could hazard a guess, I’d say it might have had something to do with memories of sickness being tied up with my sister’s brain cancer diagnosis and treatment. It was a turbulent time in our lives, one that was ruled by radio therapy appointments and side-effects. Our family life felt like a handbag that was upended and rigorously shaken as the contents tumbled out, clattering and rolling upon the floor. There was no control. We had no control. Cancer had control. It was terrifying, and seeing my sister sick both punctuated that journey and reminded us of the pressure inside her tiny head.

 

How did you make it go away?

I didn’t.

It’s still there.

Sorry.

That’s not what you wanted to read.

BUT don’t stop reading.

Yes, my anxiety might spike when I hear of the winter bugs doing the rounds. My eyes might sharply dart when I hear someone coughing violently on public transport. My heart momentarily races when the kids complain of stomach aches. I may swiftly make excuses and remove myself from certain scenarios if I safely can.

HOWEVER

I do not live in fear. Emetophobia no longer robs me of my grounding. It no longer has me wishing the winter months of life away, or turning down invitations, or lying awake with anxiety that we will be next. It no longer dictates my menu choices or has me grappling for alternative methods of transport.

I live with emetophobia. But my life is not ruled by it. It nudges into my headspace, but I have the tools to deftly kick it out again.

 

How did you make this transition?

(I write about this a LOT in my Reframing Anxiety Course. I use my Emetophobia as an example of how we can work with and through phobias by truly understanding what happens within anxiety, and by utilising certain tips when we are triggered. I really encourage you to engage in the course if you want to address your Emetophobia. If money is tricky, use ra-save15 for a discount).

For me it was a number of things I worked on over numerous years, things I implemented and encouraged myself to do, trusting that the outcome would benefit me somehow. It’s the the increased self-compassion and self-coaching. The quest to understand myself regardless of whether others can understand me.

Here are the things that helped…

1 – I learnt exactly what anxiety was and how it worked in my body. Get to understand the process of the different hormones at play. Equant yourself with how the adrenaline and the cortisol interact, how your fight or flight response is triggered and why. Knowledge is so important. You experience a sense of control when you realise that you are bigger than the habitual processes that happen within your body.

2 – I found some brilliant techniques to lessen the physical and mental impact of the phobia. Good grounding and breathing techniques will tell your body that you are not at threat. Breathe in for 4, out for 8 as soon as you feel your anxiety rising. It switches off your sympathetic nervous system, and enables you to access your rational brain. The more you do this, the earlier you’ll be able to implement it.

3 – I became sensitive to my overthinking. My thoughts would spiral at any trigger – be it seeing someone sick in a film, an image, a joke, or a real-life scenario. I’d spent time ruminating over the fear, which would then kick off my fight or flight response and induce physical feelings of panic. The further down the spiral I flew, the harder it was to rationalise. Simple grounding techniques such as counting back from 100’s in 3’s can halt that cycle, because you cannot overthink whilst doing maths.

4 – I find mantras really helpful when faced with sickness, or thoughts of sickness. These are little sentences to encourage and bolster confidence. I often tell myself ‘We’ve come through it before. If we need to, we can do it again’. Or ‘I have the resources I need to make it through’. ‘I am bigger than these feelings’. Mantras are like warrior cry’s. They ground me and act like the kind parent, bringing rationality and encouraging me that I can make it through.

5 – I sought therapy to deal with the traumas behind the phobia. There often is a story behind a phobia that deserves listening to and processing. Even today, I came off the phone to my therapist after talking about the death of my sister, decades later. There’s still stuff I need to process because I tucked it away for so many years. Our histories are alive in our present, and when they are unprocessed, they fuel anxiety, fear and phobia. As I continue to give my past space, it slowly loses power over my present. My past is still there, it still happened and it still has value, but it has less control.

6 – I mimic the reactions of those around me. At university, my friends would often be sick due to over-indulging in alcohol. I’d see the nonchalance of the people around them, and I’d try to channel their attitude. They were caring but not terrified. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But every time it worked; it bolstered my confidence a little.

7 –  Now, this is the biggy. This is the most important point.

I tried not to flee situations immediately when I felt triggered. Now, this was the biggest challenge for me. My body and mind fought extremely hard to remove me from any situation in which I was triggered. A train seat, a party, a busy street, a car. I’d look for the nearest exit opportunity and I’d bolt. Sometimes it’s possible to up and leave, sometimes it simply isn’t.

I reminded myself that anxiety peaks and falls. Like a labour contraction, anxiety cannot continue to rise and rise forever, otherwise we’d explode. Anxiety is a mechanism designed to keep us safe. Panic is a mechanism to keep us alive in which our senses and awareness suddenly fire on all cylinders. But it is not sustainable. Anxiety and panic will fall, even if our trigger isn’t removed.

The most pertinent moments in disempowering my emetophobia, are the times in which I utilised my breathing and grounding techniques throughout the triggering experiences, endured them, and emerged the other side triumphant.

Imagine that you really want to ride a rollercoaster, but you know it has a scary drop. Every time you reach the peak before the drop, you feel the fear, the risk and the apprehension. So you press the emergency stop button and you use the emergency ladder to escape. Your anxiety falls, you feel safe again.

Should you find a way to ride through the drop, to cope somehow, to breathe your way to the bottom of the terrifying peak, you’ll no longer purely associate the ride with fear. You’ll be able to think beyond the drop, to the sense of accomplishment and empowerment you get at the end.

8 – I question my response. Shall I Ride it out? Or Run.

I ask myself if this is something I can ride through using my grounding and breathing techniques, or whether it’s something I can give myself permission to run from.

For example, when I find myself making assumptions about vomiting – such as, that person is pale, therefore they are sick. Or, my child has a tummy ache, therefore he certainly has norovirus. These are not always discovered to be truth! Perhaps that person is tired, or my child has mild constipation, or ate too fast. I must also ride through times that my children are sick, because I am responsible for them!

Riding these situations through can certainly be anxiety provoking, but using the right techniques, I come out the other end feeling tired but accomplished! Like I’ve weathered a storm. I’ve exercised a muscle that will make me stronger for the next experience because I have lived through it and survived, yet again. It rewrites the old, repetitive story.

Can I run? If I am out and about and someone looks as if they are about to be sick, or someone is sick, I ask myself whether the best thing is to ride or run. Am I making assumptions about the situation? Is it safe and convenient for me to leave, are they safe? If so, I see no harm in removing myself and using techniques to calm myself.

 

So what can I do?

I hope my own experience has offered you some hope and tips.

You are not alone. You are not broken. You do not have to deal with emetophobia to this intensity forever. Absolutely not. You are worth more than a life buzzing with an undercurrent of fear of the next episode.

This wintery season can be triggering for so many people, but you’ve got this. You’ve been there, you’ve done it before and you’d make it through again if it happened. Lean on your tools, hold onto them like trustworthy lifeboats in a stormy sea.

Not everyone will understand how you feel. It can be really hard when you’ve made yourself open and vulnerable to someone and felt misunderstood.  Educate those around you so that they can best support you, whether it’s reminding you to breathe or by helping ground you through helping you rationalise things when your head is in a spiral. Maybe send them this blog article!

Find some good, solid breathing and grounding techniques, and practice them when you don’t need them, so that when you do need them, they are easy to implement and you can do so at an earlier point.

I encourage you to seek therapeutic support if you can. You can get a counselling referral via the NHS. The Counselling Directory is my first port of call for finding local practitioners. Also there are local charities and training institutes that may be able to offer low/no cost therapy options. Sometimes phobias are rooted in experience or trauma, and talking it through whilst addressing some of these thoughts, can really help.

You’ll find more in depth insight, techniques and support through my Reframing Anxiety Course if you’d like them.

 

Other support:

Anxietyuk.org – https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/anxiety-type/emetophobia/

NHS – https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/phobias/

Counselling Directory – https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk

 

 

 

 

Tips for the parenthood-rollercoaster ride

(Sponsored post by Waterwipes)

What a rollercoaster parenthood is! However, a quick scroll through social media would often have us believe that we’re the only ones sitting on this hair-raising ride. It seems like comparison is king and we often feel like we’re the only ones winging it. I’m going to share my top parenting tips, both as a Psychotherapist and as mum of three.

In May, I was honoured to be asked to host and talk at a parents breakfast organised by WaterWipes for its new #ThisIsParenthood global project. Not only have I used WaterWipes’ super pure wipes for all three of my children (bye cotton wool and water), but I was really touched by the #ThisIsParenthood documentary, produced by the talented BAFTA nominated Lucy Cohen. Have you watched it? Here’s the link if you haven’t – grab a cuppa and a spare 15 minutes. The documentary shows a rare and candid insight into the realities of family life with a newborn, detailing some of the challenges that punctuate this crazy, special and map-less time. When WaterWipes showed us parents the footage during the breakfast, there wasn’t a single dry eye…I think due to the fact that, ultimately, we are all just trying to do our best! Sometimes we feel like we are scrambling around in the dark, sometimes we’re winging it, sometimes we’re smashing it (momentarily for me at least), but #ThisisParenthood.

WaterWipes yearns to shift the conversation around parenthood by encouraging us parents to be more open about the highs and lows that come with it. As a Psychotherapist, I am hugely supportive of this initiative as openness and honesty are the turning points to every single one of my clients’ stories.

A global study by WaterWipes revealed:

  • 55% of parents feel like they are failing within the first year (British parents being the second highest country (62%)
  • Almost a quarter (24%) feel like film, TV and advertising contribute to this
  • Nearly half (42%) of UK parents feel the pressure to be a ‘perfect parent’ on social media
  • Nearly half (41%) of UK parents feel they can’t be honest about their struggles due to fear of judgment
  • A huge 50% of parents admit to putting a brave face on rather than being honest about their experience
  • UK mums are twice more likely than dads to feel pressure to be a perfect parent from social media (51% vs 27%)
  • 49% of UK parents feel as though they cannot relate to the parenting images they see on social media
  • Across the world. 68% of parents wish there were more honest representations of parenting on social media

If only these results could shock me…but sadly, they didn’t. I receive messages on social media from 200-400 parents a day who feel like they are failing, or like they are alone in their struggles. Like WaterWipes, I am desperate for us to call a truce on this whole pretence. Yes, of course we will continue to share the highs, the smiles and the cute snaps. However, in order to shift this culture of toxic comparison, we all need to be a little more mindful that what we see, isn’t all there is.

Working with WaterWipes for #ThisIsParenthood was such a pleasure, and for those of you who couldn’t join us on the Instagram live, I thought I’d share the words I spoke:

 

My story

After my textbook pregnancy, birth and then newborn experience with my first little boy, I enjoyed the coffees and the relatively calm play dates. We laughed about our incessant Googling (ps. Dr Google is NOT your friend) and shared our thoughts on routines, and our moans about lack of sleep.

However, my experience with my second was vastly different. He came hurtling into the world wailing, and didn’t stop for a solid nine months. Undiagnosed silent reflux, tongue-tie, and less sleep at night than a nocturnal mouse – I fell into a messy post-natal depression. As a therapist myself, it challenged me greatly that despite all of my training, I couldn’t seem to find the strength to pull myself out of the black hole. It was at this time, during our largely wakeful nights, that I downloaded Instagram. I scrolled mindlessly through images of happy mothers, seemingly thriving newborns with scrumptious chubby legs. I compared their lives to my grey eyed, constantly crying (him and me), chronically sleep deprived (him and me) existence, and the sense of failure felt even greater. With my first, I felt like I was winging it. With my second, I felt like I couldn’t put a single, faltering step right.

I made it through, and the key to that was the moment that I couldn’t hold up the pretence any longer. It was the moment I put my hands up and said #ThisIsParenthood for me. This is MY parenthood. And I found that my openness inspired the openness of others, and suddenly, I wasn’t alone anymore. And that changed everything.

So, I’ll share the words I shared at the breakfast. Why do we often feel like we’re failing? And what do we do about it?

 

Why?

Why do we often feel like we’re not enough? Why do we get so drawn into the half-stories of other people’s portrayal of their parenting experiences and feel led to believe that in comparison, we’re not doing quite so well?

From the conversations we had around the breakfast table at the brunch, I was so reminded of the truth that we’re all just trying to do our best at this parenthood lark, yet we all feel like we’re failing. Why? Expressions like ‘I hated myself for working’, ‘mum guilt’, ‘mummy fail’, ‘helpless’ were thrown around under pictures of our plates of pancakes and greek yogurt, as if they were permanent fixtures of our vocabulary. Are we really failing? Or are we just trying our best but being insanely hard on ourselves?

We are hardwired to compare ourselves with what we see in others. If we don’t have an inbuilt belief that we are ‘enough’ as parents, then we will naturally look outside of ourselves to get a measure of how we are doing. The issue is, what we see around us is often isn’t the full truth. We compare our behind the scenes, with what other people curate and share of their lives. If I compare my wobbly morning with someone’s #blessed photo of a serene breakfast with spotless kids, of course I’m going to find myself lacking. We so easily see other people’s snapshots and assume that that’s how their life is.

I remember that during one of my hardest parenting times, I strolled down the street pushing a double buggy towards a playgroup, wearing super-sized sunglasses in the blazing July heat. Any onlooker might have thought ‘Wow, look at that mum of two small children. She’s smashing it!’ The reality was that my glasses hid my tear-stained eyes, and nobody witnessed the conversation I’d had with my husband moments before. As I sat on my kitchen floor with two screaming children, I told him that ‘I can’t do this’. I meant it.

If we’re all in the same boat, how can we make sure that we stop feeling like we’re sailing alone? I’m going to share three tips that could shift this for ourselves. Because, really #ThisIsParenthood. It’s brilliant, and hard, and messy and wonderful.

 

What now?

Openness

Openness inspires openness. I remember meeting with my antenatal friends. The first time someone said that they were finding it hard, or arguing with their husbands over night feeds, or finding the bonding a struggle…it opened up a conversation. Sometimes there was an actual visible air of relief as people started to talk about the not-so-fun, challenging parts of parenting. One person’s disclosure gave the rest of us permission to share our true experiences.

Take little risks of openness. Be the conversation starter if you can. I always encourage my therapy clients to engage with at least two friends, family members or professionals who understand the reality of their circumstances. Talk to those who have a history of being kind and understanding towards you. It can feel challenging to start the conversation at first, but it gets easier, and often it inspires others to open up too.

 

So often, we fear that if we portray anything other than the highlights, we’d become a burden to people. Think of how honoured and how much closer to someone you feel when they open up to you! It’s an acceptance of love and friendship, and you’re just as worthy of the support of others as they are of yours.

 

Accepting support

Ask for help where you need it. Whether it’s practical, emotional, professional, online, offline, paid, unpaid. Asking for and accepting support is a statement of worth. You have to believe that you’re worth the support of others, which is why I encourage people to take little steps with this. It gets easier. It’s vital to thriving. Sometimes it really does take a village.

 

Self-care

Self-care is important. It’s not always about the huge gestures – the manicures, the long workouts, the massages. It’s also about attending to and meeting your basic needs. Listen to your body, look after it when you’re hungry. Drink water, get an early night when you can. It’s the little gestures that build up your self-worth. You wouldn’t let your child go hungry or thirsty, because you value their needs. You also need to value yours.

Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s about fuelling the car and respecting that it can’t function if it’s empty. Neither can you. I used to feel that self-care was indulgent and I didn’t feel worth it. Now I can clearly see how my family fully benefits from me not being burnt out and resentful of anyone who gets to pee alone!

 

So.

#ThisIsParenthood: it’s a wild ride, but we’re in it together. We really are. Sometimes it might feel like we aren’t and it might look like we’re the only ones covered in baby goo, with bags under our eyes, but we are not alone. The more shoulders we find to lean on, people that we can share the highs and the lows with regardless of how different their experience may be, and the more we talk openly about the realities of OUR parenthood journey, the more we will start feeling part of something bigger.

I’ve shared my #ThisIsParenthood story on Instagram. Have a search of the hashtag on Facebook and Instagram, and join in the project!

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