Further thoughts on mental wellbeing

See this post for the context. Please especially note: “None of these replace seeking medical help, which you should still do if you need it. Talking therapies may be harder to access than usual, but medication can still be prescribed if appropriate, and you should absolutely talk to your GP if you are not coping. These suggestions are simple things which may help all of us, whether or not we also need to seek medical help.”

Following that post, I thought of a couple of other things I wanted to mention, and some other people also made suggestions. So here’s a few more things you might find helpful

Pay attention to your physical wellbeing

Physical wellbeing has a significant impact on mental wellbeing. For me, one of the quickest ways to send my mental health into a downward spiral is to start eating lots of carbs. That might not be true for you, but eating heathily in general will help your mental health. So will paying attention to sleep and exercise patterns. That’s hard at the moment when all our routines are different, so it will be worth giving some thought to how you can best look after your body.

Be ruthless about your media consumption

One of the first things I noticed affecting my mental health, within the first 24 hours of lockdown, was the constant barrage of news, information and other posts. Trying to keep up with everything was making me anxious and distracted. None of us need 24 hour news and none of us need 24 hour social media. If our heads are constantly being filled with things to do with the pandemic, we will very quickly end up with unhealthy patterns of thinking and feeling.

Be ruthless with this. You can cut out as much of it as you need to. You don’t have to watch the daily briefing. You don’t have to watch every news bulletin. You can mute anything you want on social media. You can restrict the time spent online, watching TV, or consuming news in some other way.

It’s okay to be ruthless with who you are giving attention to at the moment as well. I have muted or hidden several people who I normally like to follow and engage with online, some of whom are offline friends too, because their feeds are currently full of posts that I can’t cope with. You don’t have to read everything and you absolutely don’t have to engage with everything, even the people who are Wrong On The Internet.

I have set up a Facebook group which anyone can join and post in, where the rule is simple: nothing coronavirus-related. It is a breath of fresh air in a world that is otherwise entirely saturated with it. But you can achieve the same thing by switching your computer off and picking up a book. Or playing a board game. Or digging the garden.

Treat yourself

Many of the things you might normally look forward to in life will be different or cancelled at the moment. Make a list of nice things that you can still enjoy. Pick up some treats next time you’re out for essential shopping, or order some things online, and put them in a drawer to pull out next time you’re having a bad day.

But also, lockdown isn’t about making life as miserable as possible. If you aren’t spending money on going out, what could you treat yourself to instead? Maybe get a Netflix subscription or Disney+. Now is a GREAT time to invest in a Kindle, if you don’t have one. If you’ve had to cancel a holiday, what about treating yourself to an inflatable hot tub for the garden instead?

Treat other people too! I love giving things to other people – it makes me happier as well. You can still send things in the post, and you can give treats online too.

Set healthy boundaries

We do need to be looking out for other people at the moment. Lots of people need physical help – doing their shopping, or whatever. And all of us need emotional support from friends and family. It’s good to be able to help other people in whatever ways we can.

But we also need to be able to set healthy boundaries. If I regularly spend so long on the phone to other people that I don’t have capacity to cook my own dinner, or get good sleep myself, that’s not healthy. There are some ways of offering support which are much more costly to me than others, and sometimes it’s okay to set limits on how much of that I can do.

Because there are limits to how much help we can be, anyway. We can’t be responsible for anyone else’s mental wellbeing, for example. We can’t solve all their problems. We can’t end the isolation of lockdown. We can’t promise that they won’t get coronavirus. We can’t provide the peace and security which only come from Christ.

Find something to laugh at

A proper, laugh out loud, gigglesnorting laugh is a wonderful thing at any time, but particularly valuable at the moment. I’ve been working my way through Twenty Twelve and W1A on iPlayer, but ymmv. Find whatever makes you really, really laugh, and get some of that into as many days as possible.

Mental health and ill-health

I was struck by a comment from a friend recently that she was finding it useful to have learned so many good strategies for managing and improving mental health, through various crises, which are helping her to cope well at the moment. Awareness and management of my mental health is second-nature to me these days, and as for my friend, it’s been very valuable in these past few weeks.

All of us are dealing with anxiety, uncertainty, isolation, and loss at the moment. None of us have lived through a situation quite like this, and none of us know what we’re doing. I think it’s pretty normal to be experiencing mood swings, to be struggling with motivation, and to be exhausted from it all.

Here’s a few suggestions I have about things which could help. None of these replace seeking medical help, which you should still do if you need it. Talking therapies may be harder to access than usual, but medication can still be prescribed if appropriate, and you should absolutely talk to your GP if you are not coping. These suggestions are simple things which may help all of us, whether or not we also need to seek medical help.

Track your mood

Awareness of a potential problem is the first step to doing something about it. For me, the tendency is to assume that a bad day automatically signals the beginning of a downward spiral back into depression. It’s VERY helpful to be able to see that, in fact, a bad day is just a bad day. It’s also helpful to see if there are patterns – do you always have a bad day on a Friday? Or a Monday? Or the day when you have to go to the supermarket? Or whatever. If the bad days are predictable, you may be able to find ways of dealing with them better, but even if not, at least you’ll know it’s just a bad day and it will pass.

The other thing that you can see by tracking, of course, is a trend. You can see if you are slipping down into depression, or whether your mood is relatively stable. And if it’s a long term thing, then you know you need to do something about it – talk to your GP.

You can track your mood simply – maybe once a day just stop and judge: have the last 24 hours been great, good, okay, meh, awful. Make a note of it in your diary.

There are more nuanced trackers. For a long time I used Moodscope, which asks you to assess 20 things and then calculates an average score for each day. It charts your progress and will send you a daily reminder. I’m sure there’s lots of apps doing similar things. Maybe now is a good time to start using one.

Have daily habits

There are several small things I try to do every day which I know have a big impact on my mood. Some of these are things which in normal life I don’t have to think about doing, but at the moment I need to make a conscious effort to include. Having some kind of routine is really valuable for mental health, because you’re reducing the number of choices you’re having to make through the day.

My list at the moment includes: get up and get dressed; spend time reading the Bible and praying; spend some time outside of the house; speak to another person; go to bed by 11pm; get up by 7.30am.

Interacting with other people is something I can easily let slide if I don’t include it on the list. I live on my own, and obviously at the moment, I’m not going out very often. Plus I’m naturally a strong introvert. So I do try to schedule in conversations. It can be a work meeting, a phone call with a friend, or even just a couple of minutes talking to the cashier at the supermarket. Talking to another person really helps to reset the internal monologue when it’s got into a negative cycle.

Your list might include: do some exercise, read a book, do something creative, write a journal, eat vegetables. Think about things which are achievable on a regular basis, which you might need a reminder to include, and which will make you feel better. Ticking these off each day also gives a sense of achievement which will help you feel better!

Set small goals

Which is my third point. There’s nothing which makes me feel better than ticking off a list. Getting something done. At the end of the day, being able to look back and see what I have achieved.

But if the goals are too big, nothing gets achieved. Long term goals are hard when the future is so uncertain. For the maximum mental health benefit, I recommend really, really tiny goals. And not too many of them. Three things a day is a good amount. Those three things could be:

  1. Get dressed
  2. Put the bin out
  3. Cook a proper dinner

Or they could be:

  1. Go for a walk
  2. Check blood pressure
  3. Ring a friend

Or even:

  1. Have breakfast
  2. Shower
  3. Wash hair

It doesn’t matter so long as they are achievable for you. Set the goals the night before and check in each day to see if you’ve done them. You can always do more things, if you get motivated!

Live by grace

It’s okay if you don’t manage any of your daily habits, or tick off any of your small goals. Some days will be harder than others. Sometimes the struggle will feel overwhelming.

But the next day will be better. You can start again. You can set smaller goals. You can re-evaluate your habits. You can mark down a bad day on your mood tracker.

And you can ask for help. Ask the Lord, of course. Ask your friends or family. Ask your GP.

Further thoughts on mental wellbeing

Forty women: 40. The Shulammite

When I started writing these posts, on something of a whim on Ash Wednesday, I wasn’t really sure I would make it to the end. It seemed rather risky to name the series ‘Forty women’, but here we are.

A couple of people have asked whether it was easy to find forty women, or if I was scratching around to make up the numbers. It’s been pretty easy. There’s quite a few women who were on an early version of the list, to be later replaced by others I’d forgotten but knew I wanted to include. I think it would be possible to find 52 women, to do a weekly version in a year, but I would struggle to make 365 for a year’s worth of posts, even if I did include the NT women.

But of course, there’s one woman who has been on every version of the list. The bride. The beautiful darling. The vineyard, the garden, the orchard of fruits. The stately palm tree, beautiful as armies, lovely as Jerusalem.

She’s one of just a handful of unnamed women on the list, and she’s the only one who probably isn’t a historical figure. She’s the Shulammite, that is, the Solomoness. She’s the wise woman who teaches the daughters of Jerusalem, how to love wisely but not too soon. She’s the bride of the king, brought up out of the wilderness on the arm of her beloved, who will be crowned on his wedding day.

She’s not afraid to go after what she wants, even when it takes her out into the dangers of the city streets. She’s not ashamed to bring her lover home to meet her mother. She’s proud to be the one beloved of just one man, unlike the many myriad wives and concubines of Solomon.

She’s in love, you see. She is her beloved’s and he is hers. She’s longing for his kisses and his embrace. Every moment apart from him is agony and every moment in his presence is deep rest.

For the first time since the curse fell on Adam and Eve, mutual desire is unencumbered with manipulative oppression. When she speaks, she no longer needs to say ‘My desire is for him but he rules over me’ (see Genesis 3:16). This woman can say ‘I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me’ (Song 7:10).

This is no ordinary woman, and her lover is no ordinary man. Their love does not belong in a broken, barren, sinful world. Their love belongs in a sanctuary. In a safe space, unthreatened by serpents and sin. In a place inhabited where the Lord himself walks among the trees and flowers.

She’s longing to be there, in that paradise, with her beloved, forever, with nothing to separate them.

She’s still longing.

Her book ends with her longing for her lover: “Come away, my beloved,     and be like a gazelle or like a young stag on the spice-laden mountains.” (Song 8:14)

We’re all still longing.

‘The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” (Revelation 22:17)

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Forty women: 39. Gomer

It seemed like the full on fairytale. It was the Pretty Woman happy ending for the prostitute and the prophet, when Hosea took Gomer, ‘the promiscuous woman’ and married her. They settled down. They had a family together. That should have been the happily ever after.

But, you know, that’s actually the first chapter of their story, not the last.

Because change is hard. External change is the easy part: the new home, the new husband, the new children. It’s the internal change that’s hard: the new mindset, the new patterns of thinking, the new beliefs about yourself and the world.

For Gomer, it was hard to believe that she was safe, secure, beloved. It was hard to stop herself catching the eye of any likely bloke who wandered past. It was hard not to flirt with them. It was hard to keep working at a relationship with the same man, day after day. It was hard to think of herself as a mother, with responsibility for others. It was hard to suddenly become a different person.

And so, inevitably, she failed: she was unfaithful to Hosea. She went off and lived with another man.

But that’s not the end of this story either.

‘The Lord said to [Hosea], “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” ‘(Hosea 3:1)

God loves his bride, despite her unfaithfulness, despite her adultery in turning to false gods. He doesn’t wash his hands of her and walk away. He loves her. He goes after her. He woos her tenderly, and heals her hurts, and forgives her sins, and restores her in their marriage.

Hosea is to love Gomer in the same way: he is not to wash his hands of her and walk away. He is to go after her, to woo her, to heal her and forgive her, and restore her in their marriage.

I don’t know how many times Hosea had to do that for Gomer. I don’t know how many times she had to forgive him, too. But I do know that this is the kind of love which lasts: the kind of love which doesn’t expect or demand perfection, the kind which extends grace and forgiveness.

It is the kind of love we all, desperately, need.

Forty women: 38. Esther

God loves beauty. God has, after all, made everything beautiful in its time. He’s made beautiful sunsets and beautiful mathematics and beautiful music. Because he loves to look on his beautiful creation which reflects his own beauty.

And he’s made beautiful people. And, let me be clear, not just people with the inner beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, though that is beautiful, too. He’s made people with beautiful eyes and beautiful hair, with beautiful smiles and beautiful figures. That outer beauty is not something to be sneered at or disdained. It’s something to be delighted in and celebrated by us, just as it is by God.

God made Esther very beautiful indeed: “This young woman, who was also known as Esther, had a lovely figure and was beautiful.” (Esther 2:7). She was beautiful enough to win the Miss Persian Empire beauty contest circa 482 BC.

She was beautiful in herself, but she also spent 12 months becoming even more beautiful: “Before a young woman’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics.” (Esther 2:12) Beauty was a serious business back then, just as it is now.

God made Esther very beautiful in order that she would have the opportunity to enter the palace, to win the ear of the king, and thus to save the Jewish people in exile. Beauty was not the only quality that Esther needed: she showed courage, wisdom, faith and loyalty as well. But without her beauty, she would not have had the chance to show any of those other qualities.

When God made Esther ‘for such a time as this’, he made her beautiful enough ‘for such a time as this.’ (Esther 4:14).

God has made you beautiful, too. You are beautiful enough that he delights to look on you. You are beautiful enough to be able to fulfil his plans for you.

So, celebrate your God-given beauty, delight in it. Seek an outer beauty which honours the beauty of God’s glorious creation, and reflects the inner beauty of your spirit, so that, both outwardly and inwardly, you will display the beauty of God himself.

Forty women: 37. Vashti

It’s been quite a party, all told. Six months worth of pomp and ceremony celebrating all 197 provinces from India to Ethiopia, culminating in seven days of solid feasting in Susa, the capital city. Ahasuerus is showing off, big style.

Because he is the most successful person to be the king of the biggest empire. No one’s ever been more successful than him. He’s showing off his huge financials. He’s making sure they all know that his IQ is one of the highest – they don’t need to feel stupid or insecure, it’s not their fault. Some people would say he’s very, very, very intelligent.

And he will be phenomenal to the women. I mean, he wants to help women. Of course, they all flirt with him – consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected. And you know, when guys tell him they want women of substance, not beautiful models, it just means they can’t get beautiful models. Ahasuerus can get the beautiful models.

He’s a winner, for sure.

It must be fabulous being married to a man like that.

While he’s having his feast for a week, his wife is hosting her own banquet for the women. But Ahasuerus is showing off. He wants to show everyone that he can get the beautiful models. So, “on the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha and Abagtha, Zethar and Carkas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of King Ahasuerus, to bring Queen Vashti before the king with her royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was lovely to look at.” (Esther 1:10-11)

Just what any woman would want: to be paraded in front of a hall full of drunken men, with your own drunken husband grabbing you by the pussy.

Vashti does the unthinkable.

Vashti says no.

Vashti knew her husband well enough to know what would happen, no doubt: “But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command delivered by the eunuchs. At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him.” (Esther 1:12)

Let us be clear: if a woman cannot refuse her husband without provoking him to rage, that woman is in an abusive marriage.

He’s so enraged that not only is Vashti herself dismissed from the palace and stripped of her royal status, but a decree is issued ensuring that all women across the empire are compelled to obey their husbands. Every man is to be master in his own household. They are afraid that other women will follow Vashti’s example, because the royal household is the model for all households.

This isn’t godly sacrificial leadership of a husband for his wife, or godly sacrificial submission of a wife for her husband.

This is a license for domestic abuse.

It matters who our leaders are. It matters how they conduct their personal life. Modern politicians may not be literal emperors, but nonetheless they have influence through their example, as well as through their policy making. Let us be careful who we choose to be our exemplars.

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