Bird Nerd I am.

I’m a bird nerd. They make me happy. Just watching them hop around, flitting here and there, puts a goofy smile on my face. I really love watching the ones in those small wee groups, like juncos, sparrows and robins. Oh and chickadees! Who doesn’t like chickadees? They’re so plucky!

And how cool is that to be named after the sound you make! Chick-a-dee-dee-dee, chick-a-dee-dee-dee. Wait that wouldn’t be so good for us humans, would it? The sounds we mostly make are burps and farts. Yes we talk, but our ‘organic’ noises aren’t our voices.

Anyway, moving on… I found this scientific tidbit about watching birds (see below to geek out on the research). It confirmed something I was already experiencing.

Simon Science Says: Just Add Birds!

Watch birds – any kind – from a window, in a garden or around your neighbourhood. Doing so is associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety & stress, according to a study from the University of Exeter in England.1

Everyday I work at my desk in my home office. I’ve purposely positioned it near a window that overlooks our back porch and old growth trees. Each morning I dribble a little bird seed on the railing. The aforementioned juncos, and others, enthusiastically gobble it up. See photo. Each time they jostle, doing their version of bird sumo wrestling to get access to the best feeding point, I smile. I feel like they’re my feathered co-workers. I don’t have to do anything except watch. I get this happy, present-moment-kind-of-feeling seeing them. Life feels simple and that feels good.

Try it out and see if you get the same benefit.

What does Simon Science Really Say?

According to a University of Exeter study which involved hundreds of people from both urban and rural settings, being able to see birds from windows, and on a daily basis around their neighborhoods, was associated with reduced rates of depression, anxiety and stress.

Drawing from the ‘attention-restoration theory’ which posits that being in nature, and even simply watching nature, promotes healing and lessens stress, researchers explored the potential benefit of nature to improve mood.

The researchers found no correlation between the species of birds seen, but instead the number, indicating that seeing common birds such as robins, crows and blackbirds on a regular basis is a key factor.

Evidence shows it’s not about identifying bird types, but instead, interacting with birds.

The UK Health Spectator rightly cautioned that “while the correlation between mood and nature was highly significant….(doesn’t explain) the cause of the relationship. For example, do happier people actively seek nature more or does a lack of exposure to nature lead to higher rates of depression, or is there some other factor?”2

As a fairly low effort and no-cost tactic that potentially could reduce anxiety and depression and boost mental wellness, it’s worth a shot, I’d say.

Do you already do this? What’s your experience? If you haven’t, try it out and see if you get any benefit. Email me or comment below and tell me!

For more Mental Health resources, tips & tools, sign up for my newsletter.

© Victoria Maxwell

References

1 https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/67/2/147/2900179

2 https://health.spectator.co.uk/just-looking-at-birds-may-help-to-keep-you-happier/

When I was a kid, Halloween scared me. Don’t get me wrong, I loved trick or treating (mini Oh Henry Bars in particular). I loved creating costumes from scratch. I loved making multitudes of Kleenex ghosts and hanging them in our front window.

What I didn’t like was walking home the weeks before and after the day. Why? Firecrackers. Those freakin’ things seemed to be everywhere. Local bullies took no small pleasure at lighting them near me and threatening to throw them my way. I didn’t have any confidence to stand up to these blokes. Nor did I have friends or siblings who walked home with me to help stave them off or at the very least to reassure me and steady my nerves. Nope. It was one long scramble uphill – the whole entire way no less – back home. If I had even one friend with me during the traipse back to our rented house, the string of those lightning snaps that gave me such panicked pause would have been easier to face.

Super Fan Steve

That’s why when I read an article in our local paper about Steven Guinter-Plank, also known as Superfan Steve, I was moved.

Steve travels to countless minor league hockey games and there, cheers on every kid by name – on both teams. He flips through the program or gets a roster from the manager to make sure he doesn’t leave any player out. He even cheers for the refs.

You’ll find him switching jerseys throughout a game and shouting chants for each side. He started in his hometown and was motivated to continue because of the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy that claimed 16 people’s lives and injured 13. In an interview, he says as he shouts “Good job! Here we go everybody!” he can see a little more jump in their step.

His enthusiasm is contagious. Hockey parents, supporting only their son’s or daughter’s team, once witnessing what Superfan Steve does, often start cheering for both sides.1

It’s this kind of social support that was key to my recovery from mental illness. It continues to be key to maintaining my mental health.

The benefits of social support to mental and physical health

Numerous studies show the benefits of social support to mental and physical health and the consequences of poor social support.2 Generally speaking, social support refers to the different ways in which we’re helped by others, both physically and emotionally and in particular, during times of need.  

Superfan Steve shows the big impact small but specific gestures of support can make.

When I was in the deep throes of depression early in my struggle to find recovery, it was spending even just an hour with my friend Kerry that made a difference. Having him walk alongside me, so to speak, talk about things other than how to feel better and instead talk about our favorite TV shows. THAT’S what helped me. I didn’t need any fancy answer or new fangled resource. I just wanted a friend to hang out with for a bit.

Recently while experiencing bouts of intense anxiety, it’s been my husband who’s stalwartly and lovingly had my back. Grocery shopping together, a short walk around the neighborhood, a spontaneous hug during my workday, a surprise cup of coffee: these small deeds kept me glued together when I felt like I was falling apart.

The gestures don’t have to be grand or costly. Simple and personal work best – at least for me. Like Steve calling out the name of each individual kid – that’s what makes it special.

Imagine how I might have felt if I had a Superfan Steve of my own shouting ‘You got this Victoria! You can do this!’ on the sidewalk sidelines as I walked home while those firecrackers were exploding? I think I would have felt like a champion.

If you’re stymied as to how to show your support for someone keep it simple, keep it small, and personalize it. Does your friend love dark chocolate? A tiny bar left on her doorstep might be a good pick me up. Is your sister an avid science buff? Pick up a few National Geographics at your local thrift store. Does your neighbor enjoy hiking? See if they would like to walk through a local park. Maybe it’s saying hello and introducing yourself to the elderly man on the motorized scooter. You may be the only person he talks to today.

Your simple but powerful acts of kindness offer social support that has positive ripple effects in people’s lives. Science proves it. I’ve experienced it. Recovery, wellness and resilience are born from these small seeds of attention.3

Superfan Steve shows how easy it is to be a super fan and how important it is as well. You don’t have to travel to countless towns. It may just be knowing someone’s name. After hearing about Steve I’m now a superfan of his! I guess that makes me a ‘Superfan Steve’ Superfan.

How are you going to show your support for someone today?

For more Mental Health resources, tips & tools, sign up for my newsletter.

© Victoria Maxwell

References

  1. Bantam Bauer interview
  2. Ozbay, Fatih et al. “Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practicePsychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)) vol. 4,5 (2007): 35-40.
  3. Southwick, Steven M et al. “Why are some individuals more resilient than others: the role of social supportWorld psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) vol. 15,1 (2016): 77-9.

For the past month, I’ve been practicing a breathing meditation my Chi Kung teacher, Renate, gave me.

Each time, I’m amazed how calm, relaxed and alert I feel after about 5 minutes of this controlled deep breathing. Like really peaceful. And for someone who’s recently been as anxious as a hummingbird on cocaine, this is pretty cool.

Then just last week I went to see my GP, Dr. Yee, to get my medications renewed. While there, she also reminded me about Box Breathing (also called 4 square or tactical breathing).

“Tell me about it again.” I said.

“Pretty simple. Breathe in through your nose for 4, hold for 4, exhale through your nose for 4, hold for 4. And repeat it a few times. There’s good evidence it kicks your parasympathetic nervous system into gear and you’ll feel relaxed.”

Huh? A little light bulb went on for me. That’s almost identical to my 9 Breathings Tibetan Meditation.

I got home and went on ‘the google’ (as my husband and I like to call it).

Box Breathing, or controlled deep breathing, activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the ‘rest and digest’ system) and regulates the autonomic nervous system.

In other words, it helps get me out of the stress response when my anxiety is high, my trauma is triggered or I’m heading into a challenging work project even.

It’s called tactical breathing because, get this… Navy Seals are trained to use it. 1 Special forces, law enforcement and first responders use it when there’s a crisis or a threat is perceived. When their stress response is activated they need something that will bring them back to calm, and clear their head, so they can act effectively.

You’re probably quite familiar with the fight or flight response, yes? Or the lesser known “fight, flight or freeze” response. Heart rate increases, adrenaline and cortisol flood the body, eyes dilate, muscles tense and senses sharpen.

Military personnel, even athletes, learn box breathing to calm their system so they can think more clearly and operate effectively in high stress situations.

Who knew ancient yogis and Navy Seals shared a common practice to reduce anxiety?

The Mayo clinic has found deep breathing effectively helps with PTSD, generalized anxiety, depression, even insomnia and pain management.2, 3 It’s also been shown to decrease the release rate of cortisol, trigger the release of pleasure-inducing neurochemicals and eliminate toxins by bringing more oxygen into the bloodstream. 4

Box Breathing in a nutshell:

After some practice, it can be used anywhere, anytime if you’re feeling stressed, say before giving a presentation, about to have a difficult conversation, if you feel a panic attack coming on or feel yourself triggered.  Do this while seated comfortably.

  1. Close your eyes or soften your gaze. Inhale through the nose for a count of 4 until your lungs and belly are full.
  2. Hold for a count of 4. Try not to clench your jaw or muscles.
  3. Exhale through the nose for 4, emptying your lungs and belly.
  4. Hold for 4.
  5. Repeat at least 3 times or as much as you like.

Tip: If counting to 4 is too difficult, use a count of 3. If it’s too easy, increase to what feels right. As you get practiced, increase the length of the breath and hold.

My meditation includes additional elements: hand and finger postures (mudras) and visualization with colour, but the basic framework is the same. As are the results: clarity and calm.

I highly recommend using this practice when you feel generally stressed, or for more acute stress if a traumatic memory has triggered reactivity or panic.

Try it yourself or share it with your clients. Tell me if you found it effective. I’ll be practicing most mornings as part of my meditation and prayer practice (and if my computer crashes or I can’t find my cell phone! 😊).

For more Mental Health resources, tips & tools, sign up for my newsletter.

© Victoria Maxwell

References:

1. https://thepreppingguide.com/box-breathing/

2. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321805.php

3. https://ritualize.com/box-breathing-military-secret/

4. https://unbeatablemind.com/7-tangible-benefits-of-breathing-exercises/

Watch Mark Divine, former Navy Seal, teach his version in this video here.

 

The attitude of gratitude – yes, yes, we’ve all heard how it’s a good thing. But what if it’s not always easy to feel, especially if you’re in the midst of a depression?

Oh yeah, I can quickly rattle off a list things and people I’m grateful for. You know do the ‘Oprah Winfrey’ thing. Apparently, every night she lists 5 things she’s grateful for in a journal. By the way, if I was Oprah, I’d be grateful too.

What I’m saying is, it can be challenging to really feel and sustain the glow of gratefulness. What does it mean to feel grateful? Feeling being the operative word.

I know the things I’m grateful for. I know I’m fortunate (extremely so in comparison to the vast majority of people on the planet) to have enough food, housing, clothes, warmth, friends, to name a few. But knowing my blessings, is different than feeling blessed.

Real gratitude, what I call ‘affective gratitude’ (affect as in emotion) goes deeper than intellectualizing and moves into a physical experience of gratitude or, more accurately, into appreciation. So how can I get out of my head and into my body to experience appreciation? 

I did what most people do when they don’t know something. I ‘googled’ it. Guess what? There is scientific research on gratitude. Dr. Robert Emmons is the preeminent scientific expert on all things grateful.  Seriously – he’s like a gratitude scientist. That’s got to be an oxymoron. But no, he empirically studies gratitude: its benefits, power, how it’s cultivated. To watch one of his fascinating talks click here

His studies found that keeping a gratitude journal really does work. But for me, sometimes at least, it can fall flat. I wanted more than just the ability to list my blessings and redirect my thoughts. I wanted to learn ways into feeling more grateful.

Then I asked myself what does gratitude mean to me? What does it even feel like for me? Do I know how to recognize it?  

I allowed myself not to know what gratitude means, to have no idea what it even feels like and to go from there. The aim was to explore, not necessarily to find. I gave myself 100% permission to be completely inept at counting my blessings. And off I went.

First a note of hope: When I’m not feeling grateful, it’s like the switch to that cluster of gratitude kind of emotions has been turned off and the power to said switch has been hijacked. But that’s good. Really. Stay with me. Even though I’m not feeling grateful, the switch and the source to experiencing gratitude are still there. It means it’s not being accessed, not that it can’t be.

The following are the steps that help me find the actual experience of appreciation, even if only in small doses. See if they work for you:

1) Close your eyes. You probably already got this but don’t do this while you’re driving. Sit (or stand) somewhere when you have time on your own. It can be in your home, or while waiting for the bus even (I don’t recommend the grocery line, it can be a bit unnerving for the cashier and other shoppers). 

2) Take a deep breath in (and out in case you’re wondering). 

3) Say or visualize the word ‘gratitude’ or ‘appreciation’ in your mind. 

4) Focus on your body – watch, is there tension when you focus on one of those words? That’s ok. 

5) Breathe and relax a little deeper. 

6) Mentally review things, occurrences, people, places that you have experienced in the last 24 hours, the last week or two, or even the course of your life. Ask yourself, what or who do you feel gratitude for? This is the tricky and sneaky part: let your mind review items you ‘think’ you’re grateful for and then as you see the item in detail, see if that translates into inklings of gladness, some small bubble of positive emotions or sensations of comfort in your body. Note where those sensations are, what they are.

Example: My “affective gratitude point” is this canvas my husband recently painted for me. A block of pure orange that now hangs in my office. When I think about it, I feel thankful he painted it for me. I feel a little burble of joy, usually near my navel and spreading out to my ribs and chest, when I see it in my mind’s eye. I feel a goodness about it and my husband.  However, I also feel vulnerable. Vulnerability comes with offering thanks. I recognize I am cared for by him, which underscores my interdependence with him. I feel this fragility with him and with others in my life, if I am courageous enough to go there.  Vulnerability is one reason why feeling gratitude can be scary and a reason why we (okay I) sometimes avoid it. Envy, jealousy, bitterness – way easier.

7) If you can’t seem to put your finger on a sense of appreciation, keep going. Keep exploring. Continue gently reviewing. Notice any resistance in your body, take a breath, then return to nudging out appreciation possibilities.  Start with things that you like, that even might seem trivial – trust me they’re not. Could be as simple as a piece of music you heard. Even in the midst of dark depression, push yourself, just a little, to lean into the places you think you might feel appreciation. When I’m in the thick of a depression, when all things seem forever bleak, it’s the feel of my duvet against my skin that I’m grateful for. One, because I’m spending more time in bed and two, if I give thanks to a comforter, it won’t ask for anything in return. It’s a duvet after all. It’s doing what duvets do best, keeping me warm. 

8) When you do hit upon something that gives you a sense of gratitude, notice what it is like: the emotion, sensations, the changes in your body. Do you relax a bit, or feel a sense of comfort? Do you notice your stream of negative thoughts stop for a split second? Be with that, for as long as you like or as long as you can tolerate.  

9) Take a breath, wiggle your toes (to get your bearings) and open your eyes. And give yourself a pat on the back. You just went into unknown territory – alone.  

I do this little practice either in the morning or as I tuck in to go to sleep, sometimes both and sometimes in the middle of the day. Because, even when it comes to something as ‘spiritual’ as gratitude, I need to make it concrete too. I need to make it a practice. I aim to find 5 things that I FEEL grateful for, not just know I’m grateful for. I started with 1, then 2, now 5 – give or take. Oprah can’t be all bad, right?

Like any other skill, it takes practice and a bit of effort to develop it. So that’s what I’ve been doing. And I’ve discovered, surprise of all surprises, when I focus (for 5 minutes even) on finding the feeling of grateful (‘affective’ gratitude) for one person, or thing or happenstance, my world shifts, just a tiny bit and I feel better, even if momentarily.   

Try it and see what happens. Leave a comment below to let me know. I need to hear other people’s experiences, or non-experiences as the case may be with gratitude. Thank-you! No really. I mean that. Thanks.   

© Victoria Maxwell

Warning: possible triggering content. This post deals with suicide.

We lost two high profile individuals by suicide in the last couple weeks. But there are thousands of people who will die by suicide today who we won’t hear about on TV. Those people mattered too. There are millions more who are suffering from the pain of mental illness in silence.

I was struck by something a colleague said to me, “we’re talking publicly about mental illness now, but we still don’t know how to help”. It’s true. We are talking about mental illness more; suicide even. But many of us, including me, are still sometimes unsure about how best to help a person in distress, or a person in pain who doesn’t want help. I don’t want to offer trite advice to them. I sometimes don’t want to say “it’ll get better” – that seems so vapid and ineffectual.

When I was suicidal, I could barely hear what people were saying to me. Literally, it’s like my brain couldn’t untangle the meaning of their words. And I was SO uncomfortable in my own skin. But frankly, most times it did help when someone told me it would get better or at least it would pass.  Just having someone present, and willing to sit with me made a difference. Because eventually it did get better. Eventually it did pass.

Before I go further, I want to add many people, particularly families, do everything they can to help their loved one. Parents, siblings, relatives and friends reach out in every possible way. Sometimes it’s enough. Sometimes, tragically, it’s not. That’s the reality. And the result is tragedy for everyone involved. If you’ve experienced that, I don’t have the words to adequately express my feelings. ‘I’m so sorry’ seems empty, but it’s all I have. This post is not meant as a panacea or about saying you should have done more. Not. At. All.

It’s meant to offer some resources and perhaps some guidance for those unsure what to do or for those in pain.

If you are suffering:

Know this: YOU matter. If you feel like no one cares, NOT true. I care. I don’t care what your mind is telling you. Please reach out. Please talk to someone.

If you don’t have people to speak to or you don’t want to call people you know, call a distress line. That’s what I did. There were times when I couldn’t stomach the idea of admitting how I felt to someone who knew me. So I called our local crisis line where I could remain anonymous. It helped. It did.  Click here for crisis line numbers.

If you can’t bear the thought of talking with a person please look at http://unsuicide.wikispaces.com for online suicide prevention help. ‬

If you are suicidal:

Read this first.

If you think someone you know might be suffering:

Please reach out to them – even if you don’t know what to say or how to say it. When I was in pain it was so difficult to share how desperate I was feeling. You might save a life. Ask. Tell them you care. Talk to them. Call them.

My fellow Psychology Today blogger Deb Serani offers excellent suggestions in this Psych Central blog interview on Psych Central about how to be there for someone in emotional pain.

Please also visit my website for a downloadable Mental Health Resource e-guide.

This post from Dr. Sandra Hamilton offers further tips.

When I was struggling, my friend Kerry would have me over for a bowl of borscht soup with fat dollops of sour cream. We’d just sit there, slurping soup. We munched on these heavenly white doughy buns and had deceptively uneventful conversations. But having him there, willing to be with me while I felt like I was in a dark hole gave me reason to hang on until the shadows passed.

His presence helped me feel connected to Life and to be honest, to Love. That was more important than anything he said or did. Don’t underestimate the power of your presence.

Please forward or share.

© Victoria Maxwell

I went off my meds to be more spiritual. There, I said it.

Well, okay – let me qualify that. I reduced my meds because I believed I would have more access to my spirituality and spiritual gifts. Now, I didn’t say this was a smart choice. And you’d think, since this ain’t my first rodeo with mental illness, I’d know better. I’ve lived (and lived quite well on the whole) with bipolar disorder, anxiety and psychosis for over 25 years and for most of those years I’ve taken medication.

Though this has been the case, there’s always been this niggling feeling that if I could just reduce (and eventually not take any) medication I’d be better off for it. More spiritual – closer to the divine, more peaceful, more at one with the world, able to become more self-realized, liberated and enlightened.

Who can blame me? I don’t know of any spiritual teachers on psychiatric medication. Not any who admit it anyway. Dali Lama? Not that I know of – maybe meds for high cholesterol, but even that’s a guess. Eckhart Tolle? Doubt it. Byron Katie? Not likely. Though, they might be. Perhaps I’m just imagining what spiritual celebrities are all about.

Regardless, stigma about mental illness in general and psychiatric medication in particular runs deep. More accurately, misinformation about it runs deep. Really deep: “threads-of-steel-around-the-roots-of-a-tree-and-into-the-magma-of-the-earth” kind of deep. Even for me, who has experienced relief by taking medication.

Somehow, I think medication stops me from being all of me, clogs up my energy systems, makes me foggy. When I or others are overmedicated, yes – that’s definitely the case. But I’m taking a dose that doesn’t do any of those things. Yet I still feel I could have more spiritual growth, faster growth, if I wasn’t on medication. Somehow though, in my mind, this didn’t apply to the birth control pills I took. Hmmm?

So a few months ago with the guidance of my psychiatrist I began to reduce my meds. Over six weeks I began, very slowly, to decrease the amount of both my antidepressant and mood stabilizer.

I was honest about the reasons. I told him, one: I have so many effective self-management tools, maybe a lower dosage would be okay. Two: I’d like to be on as little medication as possible due to potential, negative effects of being on meds long term. And, three (most importantly): I had started a spiritual practice in earnest over the past few years and was concerned the meds might be interfering with my spiritual development and awareness.

He said okay. Yup, I know. Very progressive and very good he is. I thank my lucky stars I’ve had the privilege to work with him.

Over the next month and half, little by little, I started reducing. Week one, things are going fine. Week two, the same. Week three, four, five – all good. Then, week six – a bump, well more like a shadow – you know a black, creepy, blur fraying the sides of my life and the inside of my mind, turning my thoughts dark, melting my energy limpish, figuratively bruising my body purple. This wasn’t good. I stepped up my spiritual practice, exercised more, regulated my sleep. The gloomy lump lifted – for two days. Then it was back, in full force.

I was scared. The dark silhouette adhered to my shoulders, behind my eyes, on the bottoms of my feet. It didn’t matter how much exercise, how much sleep or how much light I got into my eyes, it didn’t budge.

I didn’t feel spiritual, I felt wretched.

I meditated, practiced Chi Kung, prayed, ran every day for short spurts, but still depression wedged in every cavity it could. I didn’t know between my fingers could ache so much.

I went back to my psychiatrist.

“Isn’t it true, even if I go back to my old dose, the meds might not work? I’ve heard that. It’s true, right? Right? My old meds aren’t going to be effective. I’ve f%*ked myself.” Why didn’t he stop me before I tried this insane experiment?  

“Nooo…,” he said slowly shaking his head, “that’s not true.”

“Oh,” was all I could say.

So that same day, back at home, sitting at my vanity table, I opened up my two pill bottles.  I picked out the dose of pills I’d taken before said spiritual experiment and washed them down with water in the hopes with the health habits I was still practicing I might regain a feeling of wellness.

I did. Over the next couple weeks I slowly started to feel myself again. After taking my medication (medicine really) and continuing to practice my wellness tools, I started to feel back to my good ol’ Victoria: grounded, clear seeing, content and at ease with the natural ebb and flow of emotions that just a few weeks ago seemed locked away forever and doused with dollops of severe depression. Taking the right dose of medicine, I actually felt more spiritual, not less.

What did I learn? It was something I remembered actually about my journey with creativity.

Years ago, when psychiatric medication was suggested (very strongly) as an additional support to my recovery, I was afraid it would take away my creative spark. I was an actor, a writer – creativity was my life-blood. I couldn’t afford to live without the passion that kept me alive and added meaning to my life.

At first I was prescribed lithium. It had worked wonders for my mom. Yup, bipolar disorder is a family affair. Me, I felt like a walking piece of chalk. Not dampened emotions, just NO emotions. The only thing worse than feeling suicidal, is not feeling anything at all.

But then 2 years of sampling different medications, I was given something else to try – and lo’ and behold, this particular combination of anti-depressant and mood stabiliser helped raise my bottom and gave me a roof to curb dangerous stratospheric spikes in my emotions.

I didn’t feel medicated. I didn’t feel high. I felt like me. Me.

And, what happened to my creativity? It came back to life. My creative output was sustainable, of good quality and I flowed with it instead of being led hurly burly by it.

When I wasn’t on the right medication, the right dosage – my creativity was squelched, lost to the pharmaceutical stew of overmedication or ineffectiveness. When I wasn’t on medication at all, I THOUGHT I was creative. I actually was prolific. I was writing copious amounts of poetry…but, really, really BAD poetry.

When I wasn’t on medicine to reign in the fire that touched my brain, the creativity I had ran amok and was awful. Mania led me to create a lot, but create poor quality. While depression stopped it in its tracks.

Surprisingly (at least to me) the same course of events happened with my spirituality. When on the wrong kind, wrong dose or no medication at all, my access to spirituality and sense of the divine was warped and draped in a painful fog or hysterical mania. The depth of despair was not a ‘dark night of the soul’ it was a cemented state of being that wouldn’t budge. My manias were not wisdom unleashed, but euphoria skyrocketing into heights of dangerous behaviour.

When I am on the right medication (as I am now), the right dosage (as low as possible, but enough to help), I am connected and aligned to what I define as spirit and the divine. I feel the joyful (not manic) flow of life and I rest in trust and ease. Seriously. This is how I feel when I have the correct dose of medicine as well as consistently practice my many self-management wellness tools. Medication is a small, but important, recovery tool.

I can’t shirk any of them. I am adamantly, furiously committed to enacting my wellness tools daily (which includes taking my trusty anti-depressant and mood stabilizer). I can’t afford not to.

Both my creative and spiritual life depend on it.

Do you or someone you know take psychiatric medication? Does one of your clients? What are your thoughts on medication and spirituality? Does it help or hinder? I want to hear about your experience. Please leave a comment below.  

© Victoria Maxwell

If you liked this post, you may enjoy this podcast interview where Victoria and Chris Cole of ‘Waking Up Bipolar’ discuss naked psychosis, imperfect bodies, medication and spirituality.

Over the past few months, I’ve been experiencing episodes of anxiety, way more than I have in the past. Bouts of anxiety with a frigging capital “A”. And I mean ugly, massive, whole body, language robbing, focus stealing ANXIETY.

Like all of us, I still had responsibilities to fulfil: family to do’s, business activities (like writing this post for one), household duties. You know, life.

But if you, someone you love or a client is seriously anxious and/or depressed, taking action can seem impossible. It’s especially difficult because the very nature of anxiety tells us: “it’s not safe. I can’t do it”. While depression convinces us there’s no point, so why bother?

So how on earth, when these gremlins are running through our lives and minds or in some cases, running our lives and minds, do we find a way to take action to help ourselves?

PS: This tool is also especially effective as an antidote for what I call perfectionistic procrastination paralysis (aka P3). If you’re already flourishing, it can move the needle to more wellness too.

Practice taking SPACE:

I practice a technique I call SPACESmall Positive Actions have Cumulative Effect.

I call B.S. on the “Go Big or Go Home” kind of thinking. It’s not true! Tiny efforts do not result in tiny results. Tiny is big. Slow is smart. Applying microscopic yet consistent positive measures yields BIG positive changes over time.

The Low-Down on How to Practice Taking SPACE to Reduce Anxiety and Increase Wellness

1. Make a series of small, sustained healthy choices (the tinier the better).

2. Make ‘the tiny’ something you can successfully do, but also pushes you a bit.

3. Do NOT wait until you feel better or feel like taking action. Take tiny action NOW. Feeling better results from doing healthier things first, not the other way around.

4. The accumulation of repeated, gentle, positive actions will slowly improve mood and increase wellness.

5. When you make choices towards wellness the world around you will respond with care and concern. Your new choices will draw in helpful resources and people.

When I’m running up against the wall of depression or anxiety, I set intentionally ‘itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny’ achievable goals.

Since I know exercise is excellent for reducing my anxiety, but I’m feeling like I just want to hide indoors thank you very much, I start like this:

I commit to walking to the mailbox. Seriously. Then usually I end up walking a bit further just because it actually feels good to be outside. The next day, I ‘rev’ it up to 5 minutes of walking. Then I keep doing that. Over the next 7 days, before I know it, I’ll be walking or back to running for my usual 20 – 30 minutes three times a week.

Neuroscience and research shows tiny actions work.

There’s neuroscience to back up this phenomenon I call SPACE. Dr. Alex Korbe author of “The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time”1 explains that small, positive life changes, actually trigger positive neural changes which contribute to good mental health. “Any tiny change can be just the push your brain needs to start spiralling upward,” he writes in his book. Positive actions are self-reinforcing and build momentum for more benefits.

He describes how practicing gratitude triggers serotonin production which lifts mood and helps improve quality of life which helps you feel better. Exercise, he goes on to say, changes the electrical activity in the brain during sleep which decreases anxiety, improves mood and gives more energy to exercise.

How tiny is tiny?

One observational study of 416,175 Taiwanese found that just 15 minutes of low-volume, moderate intensity exercise extends life expectancy by three years.2

Lead researcher Chi Pang Wen of Taiwan’s National Health Research Institutes found the benefits apply to everyone, all levels of health, all ages and sexes, not just for those people who are sedentary.3, 4

“The tiny” is whatever you can manage to achieve but that also pushes you just a bit.

For example: Say the desire to sleep all day is upon you like a cat scrambling on your shoulders to avoid a bath. “The tiny” in this case might be committing to get up at 11:30am instead of noon. Repeat that the next day. Then the day after, set your alarm for 11:15am and so on.

If you’re feeling well, but want to make a good thing better, tiny changes make that easier to do. Like drinking more water. Choose to drink one glass or one more glass of water as soon as you get up. And make it habit paired with brushing your teeth.

Reminders

1. The beneficial effects won’t result with the first or second action completed. It will take a few days or, yes, even a few weeks, but through the consistent, gentle effort, improved mood and wellness will happen and will reinforce itself.

2. Enlist others to help if even the tiniest of tiny steps feel insurmountable. Have a family member or a peer support worker text or call you to give you extra energy and a little push.

3. Your actions declare to the universe the readiness to change and a willingness to move towards more health and it will respond in kind. Even in my most manic or desperate moods, when I made choices towards wellness the world around me in at least one area of my life responded with care and concern.

It is in the pint-sized, but courageous acts of, for example, texting that friend when you’d rather not, that gives a small boost of confidence and helps move you out of your comfort zone of habitual isolation and into territory that is laden with potential healing.

Choosing to practice SPACE means you’re in your own corner fighting for your wellness. Slowly, just as spring always returns, recovery comes into focus and with it more vibrant wellness. It takes patience and time, but with tiny healthy actions “shift does happen”.

Tell me, what’s your ‘tiny’ for this coming week? Comment below to let me know.

© Victoria Maxwell

References:

  1. One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way Paperback by Robert Maurer (2014) (page 5)
  2. Minimum amount of physical activity for reduced mortality and extended life expectancy: a prospective cohort study, Wen, Chi Pang et al., The Lancet , Volume 378 , Issue 9798 , 1244 – 1253
  3. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-exercise-taiwan-idUSTRE77E69L20110816
  4. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110816112130.htm

Creativity is one of my go to wellness tools. It breaks me out of ruminating if I’m anxious. Gets me inspired when I’m craving sunshine and there is none. When things are going well, it keeps that fire going.

Science Shows Small Simple Acts of Creativity Help us Flourish

There is a LOT of science to back creativity as an effective tool to improve well-being. In this recent study researchers found individuals engaging in small daily acts of creativity experienced more “flourishing and positive emotions like energy, enthusiasm, and excitement the next day”.

For people struggling with mental illness, flourishing may seem out of reach. But the scientific definition of flourishing is at the heart of recovery. Flourishing is defined as “an overall sense of meaning, purpose, engagement, and social connection”. Recovery is about a good quality of life despite the presence of symptoms. It’s about having a reason to get out of bed.

‘Everyday creativity’ it isn’t about talent, quality or quantity. It’s about bringing something into being out of nothing. It’s about making different choices, instead of excuses. Like adding a new twist to an old recipe. Small victories of creativity. Learn more about ‘everyday creativity’ in my Psychology Today post.

Use Free Writing to Help you Flourish (difficulty level: easy / time: 5 – 10 mins)

Try the following simple creativity exercise to boost your mental health. If you’re a health professional, share it as a wellness tool with your clients. As a corporate leader, try variations of it at staff meetings to creatively find solutions. Shout out to Natalie Goldberg, writing coach, author and Buddhist, who I learned this from in her book, Writing Down the Bones.

Basically, these are the ground rules: keep your pen/fingers moving. Don’t correct mistakes. Let yourself go. For a fuller outline of guidelines, check out my The Crazy Naked Truth Cheat Sheet for Writing with All Your Heart.

  1. Check in with how you feel before you start. Jot that down. Or rate the intensity of your anxiety if that’s what you’re experiencing.
  2. Set a timer for 5 – 10 minutes.
  3. Begin with the prompt “I know with my whole heart that…” or “I remember…” and let the flood gates open. For finding solutions, craft a tailored prompt that relates the challenge at hand. Keeping your pen moving and see where it takes you.
  4. Stop when the timer goes off.
  5. Check in with how you feel now. Record anything you notice that different.

You may find free writing can be as good as power nap, a piece of fruit or cup of coffee to wake you up and recharge you.

Suggestion: Do this for 5 or 10 minutes every day for a week. Try any number of prompts. Start with a word, like blue and go!  Track how you feel before and after. Jot down if you notice improvements in energy, sense of purpose, less anxiety or more positive thoughts. If you do, try if for another week. Maybe it can be a part of your wellness toolbox too.

This exercise and every day creativity helps shake up your thinking, gets your energy moving and helps you meet yourself in a way you never have. It paves the way for more wellness patterns in your life.

Tell me! Tell me!

When you’ve tried your hand at it, or pen in hand as the case may be, share what your experience was like in the comments below.

© Victoria Maxwell

Recently, I was standing at the check out line at my not necessarily so friendly local 7-11. I usually giggle at the Hollywood tabloid headlines: ‘Oprah Delivers North America’s First Alien Baby’ or ‘Brad Pitt Is Really a Girl’. But what happens? Nothing. Instead, I cop an attitude; surreptitiously buy 4 jumbo-sized Snickers bars and a family sized bag of Doritos so I can lay into a self-induced carbohydrate coma.

Then worse: I’m watching my favorite rerun of ‘Friends’ – the one where Joey screams and scrams because Monica’s dancing with a frozen turkey on her head. And I don’t laugh. I always laugh when Monica has her head in a frozen turkey. Crap…I laugh if anyone has their head in a turkey. Or I thought I would.

My shrinking sense of humor is the canary in the coalmine – the alarm signaling clinical depression is slithering around me.

I have to get to work. Find humor in something, anything or risk falling into the ‘no laugh, no color, everything tastes like cardboard, not just chicken and who cares anyway’ kind of zone. Because humor is my lifeline to my vitality, to hope, to the idea tomorrow will be better or at least not worse.

Interestingly, it’s the foraging and fighting for my sense of humor that’s the remedy. Not necessarily finding it. Rediscovering my sense of humor is a by-product of my willingness to look for it. Something about looking for ‘the funny’, that act of faith there is some, somewhere, though I can’t sense it, expels bits of cemented depression from within. The rummaging around allows a little light in, and slowly, very slowly, my funny bone moves back into place.

First? Seek out what I call ‘memory or phantom laughs’. Those times when I know normally I’d be giggling but instead, I’m just remembering I would; that ‘if I weren’t so depressed I’d be laughing’ feeling. Bittersweet insights, but helpful ones. Memories of laughing are better than no laughing at all.

Second? Size doesn’t matter. I don’t worry about the BIG guffaws. I’m on the lookout for anything making me remotely smile, just want to smile. What makes the corners of my mouth stir slightly; my cheeks subtly lift?

That’s my body telling me I’m near my funny bone. And bones don’t disappear; they just get weak. The solution? Fortify them, anyway I can.

So I rent my favorite movie: ‘Big’, watch ‘Two and a Half Men’, flip through People magazine’s issue of ‘Worst Dressed Stars in Hollywood’. (How can anybody with that much money, dress badly – don’t they all have stylists?)

When I do this, it doesn’t mean things all of a sudden seem hilarious, but it’s a distinct advantage over curling up on the sofa, listening to weepy Vince Gill songs about a cowboy who looses his woman, job and dog. That’s definitely not a humor ‘honer’.

When I feel inklings of depression or even when I’m deep in its clutches, I set aside time every couple days to give myself a chance not to laugh outright, but to witness things I know are funny to me. Eventually the lighter side gets the better of me. Not right away, not for long, but it’s a start.

Implementing this ‘laugh-able’ strategy doesn’t eradicate depression of course; I’m not that naïve but it can make it more bearable.

Once I’m out of the darkness, I fortify that funny bone with some kind of humor every day. It may sound simplistic. But to this day, my relentless pursuit to find something, even marginally humorous everyday is one of my best coping tools to date. My sense of humor is as valuable to me as the medication I take and the therapy I do to stay well.

I get heartbreaking messages every week. Parents email me because they desperately want to help their adult child who has a mental illness, but refuses help. A teacher who’s struggling with bipolar disorder but doesn’t know where to turn. A manager sees one of his employees grappling with anxiety and depression and wants to know how to best handle the situation.

This is all excellent. I don’t mean it’s good people are suffering. But it’s good people are reaching out for help more. The shame and stigma of mental illness is still present to be sure, but it is diminishing, if only because the pain people are no longer willing to endure.

I’m not a therapist or doctor, but I am an expert by experience. Over the course of the past 20 odd years (and trust me, some years were really odd), I’ve learned to manage the symptoms of bipolar disorder, anxiety, psychosis and recovered from disordered eating.

There are thousands of mental health websites and resources available. The ones I’ve put in this downloadable mental health resource and tips e-guide are the ones I trust most. They have been a crucial part of my wellness journey. It’s important to me that you have the same tools to lean on and have some next steps to follow to help you on YOUR way. You will also find it available on my resource page.

Some are region specific, many are not. Not all will be applicable to your particular situation, but many will be. Some are for loved ones searching for effective ways to support their family members. Others are for individuals living with a mental health issue who want to find guidance to build a better life. I encourage you to explore and then reach out to the organizations or people listed below that fit your needs.

In addition, you may want to read my post Psychology Today post “How to Find Help When the Person You Love has Mental Illness” to learn concrete strategies to navigate the confusing mental health system.

Things may feel heartbreaking, but it’s never hopeless. I know. I’ve been there.