I’ve been talking to strangers from foreign countries on-line. Wait. It’s not what you think. 

They have prevented me from falling into depression, helped me avoid perfectionism, boosted my productivity, decreased my loneliness and reduced my procrastination. 

Are they therapists? Nope. One has been a journalist, a computer programmer, another a business school student. Even more surprising we actually barely talk and they have no idea they’ve helped me in these ways. 

So how is this happening? With a free on-line tool called Focusmate.1

This is going to sound strange. Bear with me. In a nutshell you schedule a virtual on-camera co-working session with a stranger.

The tool wasn’t designed as a mental health tool, but as Taylor Jacobson, Focusmate Founder and CEO explains, “it was on our radar. Yes, it was designed with productivity in mind, but both myself and my friend who (first) tried this out have had mental health journeys.

It was created to “help independent workers break free of the shame and anxiety caused by chronic procrastination…(and) connect with like-minded individuals committed to holding each other accountable…for the actions contained in those to-do lists, productivity tools, and goal trackers.”

At the first signs of depression my head gets foggy and full, lethargy starts to seep into my body, and a feeling of isolation and dread places its foot on my chest. Perfectionism increases, as does self-critical thoughts which fuels the perfectionism which further drives avoidance. Working productively is difficult. Working period is. Focusmate unknowingly helps counter these things for me. 

Note: I am not affiliated in any way with Focusmate. I just really like the tool and thought you might too.

The Co-Working Model

It’s based on what’s called a virtual co-working model. 

What is co-working? Think back to when you were in school. Some of you may have had study buddies. This is the same thing, except we’re not 12 (or in a school library shooting spitballs through a straw).

Instead you’re in front of your computer for 50 minutes. Camera and sound on. A concrete task to complete (usually a dreaded one) and your “study buddy” from another country set up in the exact same way. 

Whoa…you may be thinking. Me too. When I heard about this, I thought about all the ways this could go wrong. Very wrong. A video session with a complete stranger to do what together? You know where I’m going. But of the 20 and counting work meetings I’ve had all of my work mates have been nothing but dedicated to getting their crap done. 

Jacobson has strict but friendly community guidelines. For some reason, it attracts similar people. Individuals who have work to do, who want to get it done and find it effective having someone working alongside them. 

A Typical Session 

At the start there’s a short but friendly introduction and declaration of what task or tasks each of you will work on. I often write mine in the chat box too. There’s usually some good luck wishes exchanged and then you’re off! 

I sometimes update the chat box when I’ve completed a task. But there’s no other talking. 

50 minutes later, a bell chimes. You check in: “How’d it go?” The answer may be “pretty slow” or it could be “great”. Doesn’t matter. You say goodbye. That’s it. Strange I know. But I can’t emphasize it enough how good this is for both my mental health and my productivity.

My Interview with Founder of Focusmate, Taylor Jacobson

I interviewed Taylor to hear from him how he would describe the sessions and the potential, though unintended, mental health benefits.

Mental Health Benefits I’ve Experienced

1.Combating Lethargy and No Energy:

The 50 minute length is long enough for me to get something done but not so long that I start to tire.

2. Reducing Isolation and Loneliness:

Working alongside a ‘live’ person reminds me that I’m not alone in our oh so very virtual world. The sessions aren’t for conversations, but the quick exchange of words at the start and the end of the call adds an encouraging human touch to my strong sense of isolation that creeps in when I’m beginning to feel depressed. Social contact has long been known to help alleviate depressive symptoms. See research at the end of this article.

3. Keeps me moving and out of bed (not to mention dressed and showered):

This may seem small – but in depression, getting out of bed and having a shower can feel monumental. Having committed to a specific time and to another person, I don’t want to let them down. The scheduled sessions motivate me to get up, get clean and honour my word. It’s only 50 minutes. I can show up for that and go back to bed if I want. But I haven’t yet. 

Note: It’s amazing – There’s no pressure to look marvelous or have awesome video quality. The objective is to show up and get one task done.

4. Teaches me Realistic Goal Setting and Sets Me Up for Success:

That brings me to the next reason I like Focusmate. It helps me set realistic goals and experience success. I’ve got 50 minutes. What task can I do in that time frame?  In order to create a little sense of success and help my lagging self-esteem, I aim to accomplish one or two very small tasks. When I accomplish it, I get evidence that counters all my negative self talk.

I go deeper into much of this, like realistic goal setting and strategies for a balanced life and mind in my workshop Creating Wellness and Reclaiming Self-Care.

Some Science Behind My Experience: 

According to an article in Medium, Patricia Arean, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the University of Washington says: “People with major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder can find it difficult to motivate themselves because of what researchers call ‘cognitive burden’, when your brain is overloaded with distracting thoughts.” 2

I see this tool as a protective factor in preventing depression. Choosing to get up, keep my word and have a work session when I’d rather crawl back into bed is part of a DBT strategy called ‘the power of opposite action’. You take steps in the opposite direction that your depression is telling you to go. Despite your low mood, you still get on with your life and don’t let depression run your life. It’s a technique to help you change how you feel. 3

Research has shown consistently depressive symptoms can be alleviated by interventions that increase social support and contact. 4,5 

Some precautions: 

I suggest this is for those who noticed the warning signs of depression or mild depression. If you’re in a major depression this tool, I believe, wouldn’t be as helpful and could potentially backfire.

Research is needed: 

I have only my experience to go from and anecdotal experience from other users. Focused research needs to take place (sorry no pun intended) to determine if this is indeed true. 

Productive and Possibly Preventative

Focusmate can help us be more productive. But it may also alleviate mild depressive symptoms, act as a protective factor preventing depression from occurring at all, prevent relapse and improve our overall mental well-being. 

Whether you work at home or in an office, it could be a great asset. By increasing social contact, creating experiences of small achievements, and using the power of opposite action as described in DBT, Focusmate might be not just a productivity hack, but a recovery hack to add to our wellness toolbox.

© Victoria Maxwell


References

  1. Shout out to Marie Poulin of Oki Doki, who introduced me to this fab tool.
  2. Productivity Hacks Don’t Work When You Have Mental Illness https://elemental.medium.com/productivity-hacks-dont-work-when-you-have-mental-illness-4635239860c6 
  3. Opposite Action – Marsha M. Linehan https://vimeo.com/101373270 
  4. Feeling connected again: Interventions that increase social identification reduce depression symptoms in community and clinical settings https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165032714000573 
  5. Social group memberships protect against future depression, alleviate depression symptoms and prevent depression relapse https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0277953613005194

September is fast approaching. In light of this, I thought it apropos to write a post regarding accommodations for students with mental health issues in a post secondary setting. 

Creating accommodations help students who have mental illness reach their academic potential. Whether you’re advocating for yourself, or helping to advocate for someone else here are points to keep in mind.

1. Accommodations are a right, but are negotiated.

2. Determine what changes would be most effective for your specific illness or illnesses. It may take some experimentation.

3. Role-play asking for the accommodations to gain confidence before actually requesting them.

 With few exceptions, teachers and schools are very amenable and experienced in accommodating students with disabilities. As part of the American Disabilities Act and the Canadian Human Rights Act, they have an obligation to fulfill reasonable accommodations requests.

Dr. Sarah Helm, Diversity and Inclusion expert, cites “according to the National Center for Education Statistics, individuals with depression, mental, emotional, or psychiatric conditions now represent approximately 24% of college students with disabilities and have become the largest cohort of post secondary students who identify having a disability” (Helm, 2012; NCES, 2009).

Despite this, fellow students and teachers still can lack understanding, sensitivity and patience. The more comfortable you are with your mental health needs the easier it will for you to communicate with teachers. In the classroom, you are not required to disclose what illnesses or disabilities you have. But you will need to be able to discuss what accommodations will be helpful. You can, if you choose, to disclose voluntarily. But that is a decision that is very personal, and should be made carefully.

There are both informal accommodations (strategies students can implement on their own) as well as ones that are formalized through disability services on campus. Two people with the same condition may not need the need the same classroom strategies. Here are a few examples of formal accommodations:

– Due date extensions

– Time extensions on exams

– Quiet and/or alone place for taking tests

– Ability to complete work at home

– Advance notice of course expectations

– Study buddy or academic coach

– Alternative forms for assignments

– Alternative types of study resources

– Pre-arranged breaks to get fresh air and move around

Dr. Helm explains “counseling centers and disability services offices have been increasing their level of support for students with psychiatric disabilities; yet despite these existing support structures, students are not seeking assistance from disability services offices due to fear of disclosure and the negative stigma” (Collins & Mowbray, 2005; Helm, 2012).

So it is imperative students with psychiatric disabilities understand they have a right to reasonable accommodation as well as protection from discrimination stemming from stigma. Colleges need to recognize that insidious stigmatizing attitudes towards those with mental illness have subtle yet far reaching ramifications. On-going dialogues about mental health and mental illness on campuses are crucial so stigma and it’s consequences are lessened. In doing so, students can be propelled from the fear of disclosure and requesting support to the freedom of accommodation and academic success.

 An excellent resource is the Higher Education Support Toolkit: Assisting Students with Psychiatric Disabilities from Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation.article continues after advertisement

© Victoria Maxwell


 References:

Helm, Sarah PhD Career Development Experiences and Employment Concerns of Job-Seeking Students with Psychiatric Disabilities PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 2012 http://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_graddiss/1304

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2009). 2007-2008 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS: 08). Computed by the Data Analysis System (DAS-T) Online Version 5.0 on June 29, 2009

Collins, M. E., & Mowbray, C. T. (2005). Higher education and psychiatric disabilities: National survey of campus disability services. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 75 (2), 304-315.


Music plays a big part in my life. Sunday mornings you’ll find Gord, my husband, and I listening to Ramsey Lewis Trio, maybe Amee Mann or better yet, the sound track to Garden State. We’ll eat our French toast with (real!) maple syrup and I’ll be tapping my toes, savouring both the music and the company.

Gord has set up a great stereo system in our kitchen/living room so we can play our favorite vinyl while making dinner.

But music is important to me for a different reason as well. It’s one of the wellness tools I use everyday to help manage my mood and symptoms.

When I’m dealing with mild symptoms (what I like to call mental illness ‘light’) music helps alleviate said symptoms to a point where I feel back to myself. It helps grounds me when I’m edgy. It comforts me when I’m mildly depressed. It calms me when I’m anxious.

When I’m in the midst of severe symptoms, it doesn’t reduce them so much as help distract me while I’m enduring them. It’s a pleasant, adaptive distraction, rather than an unhealthy, risky one (such as drinking too much, sleeping too long or shopping on-line).

Distraction is an underrated coping strategy. It gives me a focus other than my rumination. It’s important for me to choose the ‘right’ kind of music however. Listening to sad, sloppy blues, or vitriolic death metal won’t lift my mood or shift my focus where I need it.

The music needs to be positive and uplifting. It needs to be something I enjoy – even if I can’t feel that enjoyment with the current state I’m in. Even if I did enjoy heavy metal or lonely emo, I suggest finding other genres to enjoy – at least for the time being.

Listening to music while I work doesn’t distract me, but ironically helps me focus. With mood changes, particularly the upswings, music keeps the beat and rhythm that I can’t stay in tune with.

My fave kind of music is old and new jazz crooners, both male and female. Think Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra, Julie London, Peggy Lee, Norah Jones and Diana Krall. I like the simplicity of the sweet 70’s like Hall and Oats, Las Vegas Turn-a-Round, Cat Stevens, Roberta Flack. It’s corny, I know, but I think it’s that naivety that gives me hope when I’m down. Coffee House music is another one. I also love yoga and meditation music, particularly if lyrics of any sort trigger me.

I subscribe to Spotify (a digital music service). It’s the best $10/month I spend. I’ve discovered multitudes of songs and artists I love. If you like a song, you can click to find the ‘radio’ associated with it that has similar music. Besides the typical genre search, you can use a search word like ‘comforting’ or ‘happy’ or ‘gentle’ and get a plethora of excellent choices.

I’ve downloaded playlists to my phone so I can play them when I travel. Pop in earbuds and voila – your very own portable wellness tool. Comfort on the go. Music you can listen to almost anywhere. Yoga – not so much – you can’t do that just anywhere. And frankly I don’t want to.

Here are links to four of my fave playlists:

Lazy Dazy Groovy music:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0y3LfKOgCtXgtwNJH3r6X5

You Make Me Swoon:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/562KCt3dddvASURiIZkm3N

Serenity Music with Water:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5WSFvC61QphFAg6JgQ6rsN

Happy Perky Music:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7vKTdfITavm97oQBLz545x

What’s your go-to song that gets you back to centre? Care to share? I’d love to know.

© Victoria Maxwell



Anxiety has been giving me a run for my money. Diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, I’m used to dealing with my uber easily triggered flight and freeze response. But in the last year anxiety has been screaming at a high pitch for long periods of time in my body and my mind. It is UNCOMFORTABLE. Side note: Having an anxiety disorder it’s rather ironic I chose to be a self-employed public speaker.

Working for myself, which consists of on-going financial uncertainty, and doing the one thing people fear more than death. However, that isn’t driving my current state of dread and sweat. Among other things, menopause has kicked me in the butt.  Since I’ve entered that oh so lovely transition, anxiety has spiked more than I’ve ever experienced it. I didn’t know anxiety was a symptom of menopause. I didn’t know a lot of things about menopause. It’s not exactly a sexy cocktail party topic. Regardless, my husband has been suffering through it with me.

Anyway…the big ‘M’ and other life ‘stuff’ has ratcheted up my adrenals and kept my system revved up for far too long. My usual wellness tools haven’t been working as effectively either. To find some relief, I signed up for a 6-week ACT group course at our local mental health and substance use centre. An ACT group. Sounds like it would be right up my alley, yes? ACT. I’m an actor (or actress depending on your preference) right? Well it’s not that kind of acting group. ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It’s developed from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (or CBT). Its basic premise is using mindfulness to become comfortable with (ie: accepting) your uncomfortable physical sensations and difficult thoughts and distressing emotions. Then use your core values to guide your actions so you can live the life you want.

What’s important to understand is that accepting them does not mean liking them. It means I give them room to ‘be’ without trying to change them. It was a mind stopper this one. Allow myself to be ok with feeling this intense anxiety? Not try to change it? Fix it? Fix me? One of the meditations recommended in the group was the 3-minute breathing space meditation. Three minutes of meditation. That I can do. At the outset it was wonderful. Each time after doing it, I felt peaceful, like a gentle parent holding me. But then weeks later, some proverbial crap hit the fan and I experienced unrelenting anxiety.

This 3-minute breathing space felt more like a 30-hour jail cell. I’d sit and immediately want out. Breathing, and allowing my anxiety, seemed only to magnify it. My heart beat faster, louder, or wait was that a skipped beat? No now all I could hear was the blood rushing in my ears and feel my stomach tighten – even more. I. AM. OFFICIALLY. GOING. CRAZY. Again!!! When the tail starting wagging the dog, and my anxiety overwhelmed me, this whole letting it be and noticing seemed like, well, a really bad idea. Until I listened to a podcast reminding me of one paramount ingredient I’d forgotten to include in my mindfulness practice.

A dear friend sent me a recording of a talk from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, and author of over 100 books. I’ve never been much of a fan of ‘Mr. Hanh’. Not that he isn’t wise, or walks his talk. He definitely is and he definitely does. It’s just that I’ve never quite jived with how he expressed his wisdom. Until this talk. Until, I guess, I needed it. Maybe it will help you. Using metaphor, he describes how mindfulness works. It broke open my heart and changed my practice.

Paraphrased from his dharma talk ‘You are Both Depression and Mindfulness’. This segment starts at around 18 minutes. “When depression manifests, we should invite mindfulness. The energy of mindfulness will recognize the energy of depression. There is no fighting between the two kinds of energy. Because the job of mindfulness is to just recognize things as they are. Then to embrace whatever is there in a very tender way, like a mother would embrace her child when the child suffers.” That is what got me. “The mother is working in the kitchen, but she hears the baby crying. She knows the baby suffers. She goes into the baby’s room and picks the baby up and she holds the baby tenderly in her arms. The energy of tenderness of the mother begins to penetrates into the body of the child. And after a few moments the child feels better. This also happens with the practice of mindfulness. With the practice of mindful breathing or walking we generate the energy of mindfulness. With this mindful energy we recognize the other energy (depression, anger etc.) and we can embrace the other energy with tenderness.

There’s no fighting. There’s only supporting, helping.” When I practice mindfulness, I simply watch what is going on inside of me. But instead of a clinical dispassionate watching, I add tenderness. The watching becomes an embrace of kindness. This way the sensations and thoughts are easier to stay with. A softening usually happens (not always, but often). This loving kindness I practice generating soothes those other energies within me. Like the wise ol’ Mr. Hanh said it would!

Try the 3-minute practice with the pointers from Thich Nhat Hanh yourself. Share your experience and thoughts. I always love hearing from you.

© Victoria Maxwell

Supporting a loved one with mental illness can be trying. I’ve witnessed the toll it takes on my husband. I’ve experienced it as a daughter of a mother and father who both had psychiatric conditions. A chronic mental health condition is like addiction. Even when well managed, its presence is still felt in the relationship.  

My husband has taught me a lot about what it means to support someone. With practice, I do it more and more for myself. Some I already knew, some I only discovered by being with him at my most vulnerable, my most messy.

Think psychosis. Think oozing self-loathing. Think unrelenting anxiety. I know. Yuck.

What Works

Someone who…

  1. Walks beside me on the journey
  2. Watches a movie with me
  3. Can stand my company even when I can’t
  4. Listens without fixing
  5. Listens and helps me problem solve
  6. Sets boundaries and let’s me know when he’s reached his limit
  7. Reminds me it’s ok to take my beta-blockers; that I DON’T always have to tough it out
  8. Talks with me about ‘trivial’ things that have nothing to do with how I feel
  9. Requires honesty
  10. Tells me to un-pretzel myself when I’m in my most challenging yoga pose. You know that one of navel gazing and head up my butt. It’s surprising how long I can hold that posture.
  11. Helps me name things I’m ashamed of – like when he asks ‘peeled grape’ day? Yes – that’s how I feel, frequently, more frequently than I’d like to admit.
  12. Explains naps are good medicine and gives him a break too!

What does your partner do that helps you when you’re in struggle mode?

What do you do as a partner to help your loved one?

© Victoria Maxwell



There are many reasons why people don’t accept a diagnosis of mental illness.

I received an email the other month from someone whose spouse had psychotic experiences and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, the spouse believes they had a powerful spiritual experience.

The spouse has agreed to see a psychiatrist, and continues to see their counsellor, but won’t take medication.

I’ve been in that very position, refusing both the diagnosis and medication. Understandably. The experiences I’ve had (two, quite recently) from a science approach typically are called psychosis. I like to call it non-shared reality. Regardless how you describe them, elements of these experiences are profound for me.

I’ve always had difficulty with the ‘either/or’ perspective. Either my experience is an illness as seen through the medical model OR it’s strictly a spiritual experience as seen through alternative perspectives such as the anti-psychiatry movement or transpersonal psychology.

What I experienced was more nuanced. To cavalierly categorize it as either only alienates me from potential help.

But what to do?

In my case, I encountered a brilliant psychiatrist who helped me understand what I experienced could be both. Or, more accurately, they could exist simultaneously.

I had undergone (and continue to undergo) spiritual experiences meaningful to me. While at the same time I have a mental illness that would benefit from some medical assistance.

I’ve come to understand the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, anxiety and psychosis does not diminish the importance of these personally transformative events. Mental illness and spiritual awakening are not mutually exclusive.

This was life-changing for me. It allowed me to embrace the spiritual path I held so dearly while also accepting much needed treatment for psychiatric disorders which were, in no uncertain terms, ravaging my life and relationships.

I am of the belief, for some people, we need to blend both approaches, spiritual and medical. If either one excludes or denigrates the other, it won’t be helpful. For me, the litmus test is this: does the person have the quality of life they want? Is the approach they are using causing them more suffering or less?

I wanted to be someone who didn’t need to take medications. But I’m not that kind of person. Some people don’t need to or can manage without. For me, I needed to be open to the possibility of needing meds and not needing them. I needed my support circle to be on board with that too. Or to be honest with me about any bias they had. That built trust. Trust in the end is the best bridge to help build a life worth living.

Allowing for ‘Both’ rather than forcing an ‘Either/Or’ stance made getting better, well…better. I am able to comfortably hold both my spiritual and medical model perspectives. It’s a fine line, but that’s fine with me.

The following are resources to help those of you grappling with the ‘either/or’ situation. Whether you are supporting someone who identifies only with the spiritual, even to their detriment, or for those of you given a psychiatric diagnosis and trying to reconcile it with your profound experiences, I hope these shed some light and offer insight.

1. Visions Magazine – This edition focuses on spirituality and how it related to mental illness. Visions is an award-winning magazine that brings together many views on mental health and substance use.

https://cmha.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/visions_sprirituality.pdf

The following I wrote or created in partnership with others. Each describe in different ways my journey integrating both a spiritual perspective and medical model approach to help my life come into balance so I could begin to flourish.

2. Bridging Science and Spirit – a 7-minute documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXq9B9a3sOI

3. Does God* Have A Place In Psychiatric Treatment Plans? – blog

https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/crazy-life/200910/does-god-have-place-in-psychiatric-treatment-plans

Note: I use the word ‘God’ but don’t mean it in the strictly religious sense, per say. I use it interchangeably with Love, the Divine, Universe, Spirit, Goodness, what-have-you. Please replace it with what you are most comfortable with.

4. I Went Off my Meds to be More Spiritual: Spiritual Growth and Psychiatric Medication – an oxymoron?  http://victoriamaxwell.com/i-went-off-my-meds-to-be-more-spiritual/

5. Crazy for Life – My theatrical keynote (aka one-person stage show) focusing on my struggle to reconcile the mental illness diagnosis with profound spiritual experiences. In it, I describe how medication, for me at least, needs to be part of my wellness tool box. Not the only one, but one nonetheless. View a clip from the show here (watch at 1min 25sec): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-CU5DaOl74&t=7s  Also available for download purchase. http://victoriamaxwell.com/product/crazy-for-life-a-story-about-accepting-help-for-mental-illness/

Have you had spiritual experiences within your mental illness? Do you think it is one or the other? I’d love to hear from you to learn about how you made sense of it.  

© Victoria Maxwell

I do it. You do it. Even birds do it. No, not that. I’m talking about sleep.

Anyone with depression or bipolar disorder, including loved ones of those with the conditions, knows how important consistent good night sleeps are to staying well1. They cultivate equilibrium in mood, mind and heart. Sleep is important for everybody. But, doubly so for anyone with a mood disorder.

Lack of sleep (or irregular sleep patterns) can both trigger a mania or be a warning sign of one.2

With Spring, worm moons, new moons, time changes, and solar flares, along with everyday ups and downs, good nights rests have been hard to come by for me lately. Not a good thing.

When I’m hypomanic (I prefer my personal term: the “Spazzy-McGuinty”* phase) I sleep only five or six hours a night. and still I wake up all bright eyed and bushy tailed. But if that goes on for too many days (more than three) it’s a red flag. Luckily, Spazzy McGuinty usually calms down on her own accord within a couple days. *The exact origins of “Spazzy McGuinty” remains unknown. However, I do know it is a ‘special’ term of manic endearment created by my husband Gordon and I.

When dank depression hits me, I sleep too much. I easily log (not necessarily sawing logs) 10, 12 even, 13 hours of sleep each night but still awake leaden and lost. It’s awful. Sleeping too much is part of atypical depression, which ironically, isn’t atypical at all. It’s actually very common. For others, insomnia is the beast of burden when their depression descends.

So how can sleep become a balm, instead of a bomb in your life when you’re living with a mood disorder?

Commonly referred to as “sleep hygiene” (good sleep habits), below are some of my tricks for consistently getting a good nights’ rest. For the record, I never thought my sleep was all that dirty. Who knew? Okay, well maybe the occasional dream, but still…

 Tips to change your sleeping from a bomb to a balm:

 1) Go to bed and wake up approximately at the same time every night and morning. I usually turn out my lights at 9:00 or 9:30 P.M.(sometimes even 8:30 P.M.). Yes, I proudly embrace my inner grandma. I wake up around 5 or 6 A.M. 8 – 9 hours is ideal for me. I can manage on 7 hours but only for a few days. This may seem like a luxury to sleep that long. But, trust me, it’s a necessity. I also don’t have kids – so it’s actually realistic.

 2) Create a pre-sleep ritual. As is the nature of rituals, I do mine in much the same order every night. These cues tell the brain that sleep is coming and accordingly, the brain begins to wind down.

 This is my pre-sleep ritual. Around 8:00 P.M.:

I change into my jammies, take out my contacts, take off my make-up (on a good night), put on my glasses, floss then brush my teeth and take my medication (mood stabilizer and anti-depressant). Then I snuggle into bed with my hubby. I write tomorrow’s to do list, jotting down anything I need to remember or do the next day so I don’t have it in my head to prevent me from falling asleep. I read for about an hour. Then I turn out the lights around 9:30 P.M. If I’m lucky, and I usually am, Gord gently strokes my forehead or arm as I fall asleep. My hubby probably doesn’t know this but he’s the most important and best part of my sleep hygiene.

 3) Keep the room cooler than normal. We keep a window open, just a crack, even in winter.

 4) Block out as much light as possible. Even light from under a door or from a clock radio can make going to sleep more difficult.

5) Use ear plugs and/or an eye mask. Put them on before you turn out the lights or if you wake up in the early morning when you need to get back to sleep. In hotels when I travel, I turn the clock away from me so the glare doesn’t disturb me and unplug the bar fridge so it’s as quiet as possible.

 6) Make it a TV/cell phone/computer free bedroom. This is a hard one from some people. But believe me. It works wonders to not have any electronics in the room. Some say even reading in bed is a no-no. But I’ve found it relaxes me.

 7) Don’t drink caffeinated beverages (if you drink them at all) in the evening. This includes black tea, soda like Coke and energy drinks. I rarely drink soda but do drink decaf coffee, rooibus or peppermint tea. I usually have only one cup per day. If I have more, I don’t have it any later than 5:30 P.M.

8) Exercise, even if only for 10 minutes a day. I do some form of movement every day. I practice yoga, go running or walk to the mailbox. Whatever I can muster depending on the day.

Experiment with these suggestions. See if any work for you. Put them into practice and do them consistently. When you do, your mood and energy levels will become more stable. If however, you’ve been struggling with insomnia or hypersomnia for some time without relief, please see your doctor. Remember: Poor sleep can wreak havoc in the life of someone who is trying to manage a mood disorder. More importantly though, is to remember that establishing regular sleep patterns can also be a heavenly balm.

© Victoria Maxwell

1. Kahn D., Printz, D., Ross, R., Sachs, G., Treatment of Bipolar Disorder: A Guide for Patients and Families; p. 6; Postgraduate Medicine Special Report, April 2000

2. Helmer, J. Slumber Solutions (add hyperlink: https://www.bphope.com/slumber-solutions/ ), bp Mag/ bpHope.com, Winter 2011

 

Feeling powerless over symptoms often goes with the territory when you live with mental illness. At least it can for me, particularly with anxiety and depression. This isn’t just the case for those of us diagnosed but also those who love and support us. They can feel at the mercy of these debilitating conditions when they’re at their peak.

Like a ragdoll in a tug-o-war between two kids or one in the washing machine (the ragdoll, not the kids) I can feel like I’m at the whim of my symptoms: negative self-talk, extreme fatigue, racing heartbeat, racing thoughts, incessant worry, rumination, lack of focus, aches and pains, hopelessness, emptiness – and those are just the pleasant ones. Kidding.

I enjoy feeling in charge of my mental health. Most weeks I am. But not always. Not by a long shot.

So what do I do? What can you do if you feel like this?

This is a strategy I’ve set up with my husband. It’s not a miracle solution, but it can help lessen the blows of bipolar disorder, psychosis and anxiety that I live with. It can help my husband better weather them too.

Let your loved ones help you. Enlist them into your wellness journey:

My husband knows me well. He catches signs of things shifting up or down better than (and before) I can sometimes. We all have our blind spots.

He’ll see me filling the Britta jug over the top line, or I’m getting up earlier (much earlier) than usual. Or like today, he’ll catch me making a grocery list and doing laundry at 5:00 in the morning. We’ve created a code word so to speak to signal I might be hypomanic. With kindness and enthusiasm, he’ll say ‘Oh. Spazzy Maginty is visiting us today!’

Another day, I fidget a lot in my favorite chair when we eat breakfast together. Or I won’t look him in the eyes when we talk. He might gently ask me ‘How are you doing?’ or more specifically ‘How’s your anxiety?’.

A different instance, he mentions my complexion looks grey and I’m sleeping longer than usual. Or he might recognize I haven’t run in a couple weeks. He’ll smile, look at me and ask if everything’s ok, knowing that likely it’s not.

His comments aren’t criticism but instead observation. Facts that I’ve changed from my baseline of wellness. It’s meant lovingly and delivered that way. It’s information I can use to my advantage. If I take steps to care for myself, I may prevent the anxiety, depression or hypomania from blossoming further. It’s not guaranteed, but it can reduce the intensity.

I’m not to blame for my conditions, and he’s not saying I am. I am however responsible for my health and reaching out for help when I need to.

My next steps are to be on the alert. Revisit and perhaps double up on my wellness tools. I check to make sure I’ve taken my meds and taken them properly. I’ll review and adjust my sleep patterns. Ask myself if I’m putting too much on my plate and if I need to, take things off. I’ll look at my exercise and aim to do a bit more, or do any if it’s fallen off the radar. I’ll call a friend and spend some quality time with them – phone or in person, doesn’t matter to me. As the incomparable Julie Andrews sings (sort of) these are some of my favorite (‘wellness’) things.

Ideally this will result in the levelling off of my symptoms. This isn’t rocket science. But it’s amazing how if I don’t see my warning signs early enough, and make the needed adjustment, how off course I can really go. And I’ve gone off course. Really off course in recent months. Think psychosis (twice) and major anxiety. But with the help and delicate diplomacy of my husband and my own willingness to accept assistance, getting back on more stable ground is possible.

3 Step to Help Prevent Relapse of Mental Illness

Note: Do these steps with your loved ones while you’re well, not when you’re struggling with acute symptoms.

To set the stage ask yourself:

What are your cues? Be specific. Ask your friends and loved ones to chime in about the warning signs they see. Compare notes.

Who do you want to be your ‘cue companion’? How do you want your loved ones or friends to approach you? Decide who and what’s most comfortable for you. You don’t need a husband, or even someone who lives with you. Just someone who cares.

What will your next steps be when they mention something? Have a list of your most effective wellness tools that you’re willing to commit to. Then pick one and do it. Be honest and clear about what you’re willing to do when warning signs start to rear their heads. Set yourself up for success Think tiny adjustments.

Then:

  1. When warning signs arise, your ‘cue companion’ has permission to mention what they see.
  2. Review your wellness tool list (with your loved one if you like)
  3. Take action: add, adjust said tools as needed.

Sometimes I worry, even feel ashamed at times, how much focus it takes to ‘manage’ my mental illnesses; that I might be a burden with all my mental health problems. But Gord has told me when he’s asking me about them, he wants to know. It’s ok, more than ok to talk about my mental health. Go figure?!

I’ve come to realize that this little 3-step system is as much of a sanity saver for him as it is for me.

Try this out with your loved ones and let me know how it goes. Or, if you have a similar system already in place, let me know how that works for you!

© Victoria Maxwell

Happy 2019! I don’t know about you, but I have mixed emotions about the New Year.

Yes, yes, it’s a chance for redos, starting over, goals, the blank page spread out before us. But I also love the idea of doing absolutely nothing different for the coming year, except for one thing.

This one thing was inspired by  listening to one of my favorite podcasts: CBC Radio’s ‘Now or Never’.

This particular episode was all about New Years and resolutions. Let me be accurate, it was about saying NO to New Year’s resolutions. They posed this question: “January brings with it a lot of pressure to change. But what if the thing you need to do in 2019 is just… Be you?” I loved it immediately.

Just. Be. Me. O.M.G. Yeeeessss! What a relief! Relief. I could use me some of that. I think my husband, Gord, could use some of that. I was up and down and all around in 2018 and he was, well, a rock for me.

Not having to do anything, but be ourselves? What a great forkin’ concept! (TY to the TV show “The Good Place” for my new fave euphemism).

Being in recovery from mental illness (or life for that matter), living with mental illness, and managing my mental health, sometimes feels like I’m supposed to be doing more, better, different. Always growing. Also expanding. How exhausting!

We are inundated by messages from society and the media to focus on growth and personal development.

Whether it’s for a small business you run, a family you take care of, a job you have, a home you keep, a relationship you’re in, your fitness level and health, the quality of your friendships, the hobbies you partake in, your chakras, your yoga practice (ok wait maybe I’m taking this a bit far). But, generally, ours is a culture that has an insidious but pervasive bias on improvement.  

I’m not saying self-improvement is bad. I’ve read my library-sized share of self-help books and gone to counselling for years. And it helps. Most of the time.

What I AM saying is personal growth can backfire and do the exact opposite of what I’m trying to accomplish.

Uhem – like a couple months ago. I was trying so hard to find inner peace. But all the things I was doing, all the things I was trying to change about myself and my life, kept the goalpost of serenity moving further and further down the field. The more I TRIED to find peace, the less I had it. I was constantly seeking with no finding (so to speak).

I ended up feeling less happy, more worthless, really tired and combustibly anxious.

So when I heard the call to arms, or rather the call to lay down the arms, from the hosts I jumped at the chance!

TY CBC Now or Never and you fabulously honest hosts Trevor Dineen + Ify Chiwetelu!

I loved hearing on radio (that’s NATIONAL radio, folks) a host admitting he too has a (sometimes not so) little voice that says “I’m not enough”.

A radio segment that rings in the New Year by celebrating our unique messy lovely selves with a particular partiality on self-acceptance. That’s my kind of resolution.

My no-resolution resolution: the only thing I need to do this year is be me.

Write me and let me know how it relates to you and how it changes how you see this coming year.

© Victoria Maxwell

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/