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/

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.