GUEST BLOG: Seasonal Affective Disorder by Helen Dennett

GUEST BLOG: Seasonal Affective Disorder by Helen Dennett

Helen’s story is one of triumph over challenge. She has worked a lot out for herself with very little outside support; she knows what does and does not work for herself. Her story is one we can all benefit from – What can we do to help ourselves?

People usually talk about life as a journey. I’ve always thought of it as a boat ride. Generally we bob along getting from A to B as well as we can, occasionally there are periods of flat calm where not much happens, and hopefully, less often, there is the odd big storm which tosses us up and down, hiding the sunshine behind huge dark clouds that we can’t see beyond…until one day they clear and we continue on to the next port in our journey. My boat has put up with so much that I think I must be sailing in a great big transatlantic cruise ship! One day maybe I’ll tell you the whole story, but for now, I want to focus on just one of those big storms.

I’m 39 years old and I think I must be a hedgehog! I’ve always been the same…during the winter months, I want to hibernate, and I become prickly, very prickly, if I am made to go out into the cold. Lots of people hate winter, of course, there’s not too much to like really…Christmas, Halloween and Bonfire night perhaps, but it’s dark, cold, wet, and dreary. I wonder if it’s possible to be allergic to Winter?!? I don’t think I’ll ever like winter, but I can cope with it the same as most people…but that wasn’t always the case.

Let me go back to Sept 2002. My dad died suddenly. I found him, where he’d been for several days, alone. I had 2 young children (3 ½ and 18 months), so I had to get on with things for them. Dad and my Mum had divorced a few years earlier, but they were still friends, so I had to be strong for her too. She had a complete breakdown in the months that followed. My brother had lost his mum 11 years previously and now his dad too, so I had to be strong for him, after all, life goes on and falling to pieces wasn’t going to change anything, was it?

My husband had been telling me he thought something was ‘wrong’ for a while after our daughter was born, but I couldn’t see it. Then, just after the first anniversary of losing Dad, he came home after a night out, when he sat on the bed he misjudged where he sat; landing half on me. A red mist descended and before I knew it I was sitting on his chest with my hands around his throat!! The realisation of what was going on occurred within seconds and I was mortified. I realised then that there was something wrong…I was worried I might do something to one of the children. The next morning I went to see my GP.

I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I was asked to answer some questions. My answers were all given a value, if they totalled to 15+ I was clinically depressed…mine that day was 25. The GP thought it might be delayed post-natal depression, or perhaps related to Dad. I was given anti-depressants and told to come back in a few weeks. Six weeks later I discovered I was pregnant and told to stop taking the medication immediately. Pregnancy hormones seemed to balance me out again, for a while, and my baby boy was born in July 2004. Initially, I didn’t have any signs of depression, but in September 2005 I crashed again…and here started a pattern that would continue for the next 10 years.

Over the next few years, I would find myself back at the surgery in tears every September. I assumed this was normal, but hated feeling low all the way through to March/April, when I would quite quickly begin to feel better again. A locum GP suggested that perhaps I was suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD); although she didn’t give me much hope of getting a proper diagnosis or any help for it. I’d have to return at the same time every year with the exact same symptoms which cleared up at the same time the following year, only to return again a few months later. Even IF I got that diagnosis I could opt to take tablets or maybe buy myself a SAD lamp which may or may not help a tiny bit, I could try counselling, but it probably wouldn’t make much difference… Or I could think about moving abroad; apparently, this wouldn’t be available on the NHS!

By the end of 2013, I was convinced that SAD was what I have. I could feel my mood dipping and began to recognise when I’d been tossed completely overboard off my cruise ship. Some days kicking hard enough to simply keep my head above water was exhausting. There were days when I thought that my family would be better off without me, I constantly looked in the local paper at places I could move to so they didn’t have to live with me. My children, especially my oldest son, took the brunt of my mood swings. I’d snap at them for simply asking a question, as children do. I’d overreact at some minor thing such as a spilt drink and find myself wanting to lash out at them. Whilst I never went that far, at my lowest point, I understand how people snap and end up seriously hurting, or even killing their children. I didn’t like the idea of medication, I’d been given tablets for the second time in 2005 but they made me hallucinate so I stopped taking them.  Instead, I started looking at other areas of my life.

I had worked for several years from home, as a childminder, and during this time my weight had crept up. It was very easy to snack on the little one’s leftovers all day as well as share a ‘treat’ with my children after school, eat big portions of the meals I made for my family, then enjoy another ‘treat’ in the evening in front of the telly. When we bought a Wii games console for the children I decided to get the Wii Fit board as well, and I started using that a little and trying to cut back on the treats. I stopped getting such dramatic highs and lows in the day, which had come from my blood sugar spiking and crashing. This helped me lose a little weight too, and I noticed that I felt more positive in general because of that. It’s amazing what a difference a compliment or two can make to someone.

The exercise was difficult but left me feeling on a high. It was an unusual feeling for me and I wanted to find out how to make it last. A friend suggested taking Vitamin D as I was always jollier in the summer. I noticed a difference after just a few weeks of taking it, and after researching how little Vitamin D we Brits actually get in winter compared to what we need, I decided I would take extra during the winter months too. As these things started to make me feel better, the crash in September became less. By 2013 I was back in a ‘proper job’ and being forced to be out of the house and around people also made a massive difference. Slowly I came to see that all these things together helped ease my symptoms. For the first time, I was controlling the SAD, not it controlling me. I can’t describe to you how that feels…for someone who is a total control freak in every other aspect of life, getting it back in my mental health has been like I imagine winning the lottery would feel. Now I can see just how bad things were and as cliched as it may sound, I realise that there really was a physically heavy feeling on my head and shoulders, and when that lifted it was as though all the colours in the world suddenly became brighter again.

My daughter called me out on the amount of exercise I wasn’t doing in 2015. Being aware of this with a by then 14-year-old girl watching me, I made a conscious effort to get moving again. Over the next 18 months I lost over 3 stone, and to my own surprise, found that actually I really enjoy exercising! Now I recognise how those endorphins help keep me on top of the depression and I also notice how my mood will fall if I go several days without doing something active. I’ve gone from someone who could easily sit and not move for 8 or 10 hours a day to someone that can barely sit still for an hour at a time unless I’m really engrossed in what I’m doing! Winter 2016 was the first one since 2005 that I have barely registered any lowering of my mood. The colours stayed bright, the clouds stayed mostly away. I’m still not a fan of winter, but I think this hedgehog may be losing her prickles!

In 2017 I did a lot of courses, qualifying as a fitness instructor, personal trainer and Sports and Exercise Nutritionist. I feel good. I’m still a work in progress and I think I will always be susceptible to highs and lows, but for now the cruise I’m on is full of music, laughter, dancing and adventure. I want to help other women to put themselves first and to use exercise and diet to improve both their physical and mental wellbeing.

Have I found a happy ending…am I ‘cured’? I don’t think so…I don’t think that will ever be the case. I do think this is something that I, and sadly, my family and friends, will have to live with. The one thing now though is that I have ways of dealing with myself when I feel that familiar darkening of the clouds and the waves becoming a little choppier. As long as I am able to recognise that and stay on top of things I’m positive I’ll be OK. If I’m not, I’ll head back to the GP and think again. I’d never rule out medication totally…after all I’d think nothing of reaching for paracetamol if I had a headache or following a specialists recommendation if I had a serious illness. Depression, of any sort, is simply an imbalance of the chemicals in the brain, so if at some point I need help rebalancing them, I’ll be sure to ask for and take the help.

Helen Dennett of You First Fitness

Helen Dennett of You First Fitness

To go to Helen’s website for nutrition and exercise advice and support click here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hidden Wounds

Hidden Wounds

A couple of years ago my local community was rocked by an incident. It is neither my right nor my intention to comment on that incident. Suffice it to say that it had a much greater impact on two people who are much loved and respected by the majority of our community. The impact eventually lead them to bravely reaching out for help. Their wounds were hidden wounds. The ones we can’t see. Written on their minds and in their hearts in indelible ink. These are the sort of wounds we don’t talk about. They may cause a shadow in our eyes or the dulling of our face in conversation. They also cause a heaviness of heart, a drooping of the shoulders and a blunted will that is unable to do every day anything.

Lou says:

“Help for Heroes gave me my Dad back.”

When Louise became worried about her dad’s mental health, it started to affect her own wellbeing. She got in touch with our Hidden Wounds team, and it’s brought their family back together.

Lou and Norman share part of their story here.

If you have hidden wounds be encouraged, there is hope, there is help, you do need to ask for it. The Help for Heroes Hidden Wounds service can be contacted here.

React or Respond to a Challenge?

React or Respond to a Challenge?

We ALL face challenges in life, this is common to the human condition. Some of those challenges are greater than others. We may view barking our shin on a piece of furniture as a low-level challenge and being diagnosed with cancer as a very high-level challenge. What counts, and what makes the difference for us is whether we respond to a challenge or react to it. Let me explain.

Let’s use the barking of our shin on a piece of furniture as our example:

  • If I react to the pain in my shin I may swear, rub my shin, shove the offending piece of furniture away from me, yell at the children for moving the piece of furniture out of position, complain to everyone who will listen about the lump on my leg and how much it hurts, refer back to it often and give the children dark looks for the rest of the day.
  • If I respond to the pain in my shin I may rub it, cry “Ouch!” check my shin and realise it was only bruised, put the piece of furniture back into position, enquire if the children had moved it and discuss how the accident occurred, how it could have been much worse and ask them to ensure furniture is returned to its place whenever it is moved (even if accidentally). Then I’d get on with my day as it has been dealt with and no one else needs to know.

What happened when I responded to my bruised shin is I REFRAMED what had happened to a positive learning experience for the children. When I react negatively to something like this everyone is left feeling miserable, including myself.

Looking at the photo I have used for this post – when you climb to the top of the one pinnacle do you react by climbing down and complaining about it or do you respond by jumping the gap? We may not be able to control what happens to us, but we can control what we do about it.

Respond or React

Respond and jump, react and climb down. You choose.

A special friend of mine Sophie Personne, author of Your Other Half (a book about relationships I reviewed here) had a pretty awful year in 2017. Sophie has worked hard turning the negatives of 2017 into positives. She shares some great lessons in her talks and workshops and you can learn more here.

It doesn’t matter what challenges we face, we have the choice to react or respond. Which would you choose?

 

Anxiety

Anxiety

We all have mental health and there is no health without mental health. As part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2017, I am presenting a series of articles covering a variety of issues on mental health subjects to increase our knowledge.  These have so far covered:

  1. What is Mental Health?”
  2. The Impact of Mental Ill-Health
  3. When is a mental health problem a problem
  4. Balancing the Risks around Mental Ill Health
  5. Stress

Continuing with the illnesses coming under the banner of “mental ill health”, let’s now take a look at anxiety.

There have been times when understanding anxiety has been challenging. The thought that something we are “merely” anxious about can be to the extreme and become a disorder – as in an Anxiety Disorder and have a debilitating impact on a life may seem extreme. But, when we look at the types of anxiety disorder, it suddenly makes a lot of sense.

Anxiety Disorders include:

  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – different types include locking and checking of windows and doors, hand-wringing, hand washing (to the point of rawness), counting windows or lines or light fittings, never stepping on a crack in the pavement, hoarding, etc
  • Phobias – I have a list of 100 different phobias from arachnophobia (a fear of spiders) to zoophobia (a fear of animals)
  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder – anxiety about anything and everything
  • Panic Disorder – also called panic attacks
  • Acute Stress Disorder – the result of a traumatic event, usually fades or dissipates over a few weeks
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – the trauma from an event is still being experienced more than two months after an event and often includes flash-backs
  • Social Anxiety Disorder – also called social phobia, affects our ability to meet and talk to people, eat and drink in public, etc
  • Body Dysmorphic Disorder – all or part of our visual appearance to the affected person is very stressful, others may not notice but the affected person dwells on it. For example, people may say we have a “normal” nose but we view it as utterly hideous and stress over it.

What is most notable is that the severity of the symptoms is greater and they last longer (than “normal”). I think it is worth noting that the response to the trigger issue is debilitating and impacts life. As an example a person with OCD may take an hour and a half to leave the house to go to work in the morning because they are repeatedly checking their home security such as door locks, window locks, water taps, gas taps, electrical switches, etc, are all securely turned off, and doing it many times over before feeling secure enough to actually leave the house and go to work. This is debilitating and may affect their work, home and social lives to the point of not wanting to make the enormous effort required to leave the house in the morning (which in itself may have another impact).

Whilst on the subject of OCD, I have heard people say (business managers in particular) that they are a little bit OCD by insisting they want something done in a particular way or to their standard. This is not OCD, it is not debilitating and ruining their day (at home, at work or socially). These are people with high standards and blaming apparent OCD for having high personal standards. Their high standards are what got them to the place they are in their job and they expect the same high standards from others. People impacted by OCD are so involved with their own issues that they are not able to look much beyond that. Don’t confuse OCD with having high standards or use OCD as an excuse for your own insecurities.

What are typical symptoms of Anxiety Disorders?

  • Restlessness – physical restlessness, the “fidgets,”
  • Worried – expressing worry about
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Dizziness and/or fainting
  • Palpitations*
  • A feeling of doom, unease or apprehension when not in imminent danger
  • Nausea
  • Muscle tension

*It must be stated that if a person has palpitations, has no idea what is happening and no previous history of heart disease that an ambulance should be called. I am sure anyone working in emergency services would rather check on someone having a panic attack for example than being called in late to attend a person having a heart attack because it was thought to be “only a panic attack.” If in doubt ask the person if they have had this before and what happened or what helped them then. If in doubt – call the emergency services.

Remember – the symptoms of an anxiety disorder last longer than normal, affecting many areas of life and can be quite disabling. There is an overlap of stress into the anxiety disorders.

The next article in this series will look at depression, both in general and in the workplace.

Balancing the Risks around Mental Ill Health

Balancing the Risks around Mental Ill Health

We all have mental health and there is no health without mental health. As part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2017, I am presenting a series of articles covering a variety of issues on mental health subjects to increase our knowledge. The first article answered the question “What is Mental Health?” The second explored “The Impact of Mental Ill-Health” and the third posed the question of when is a mental health problem a problem. Before we look at some of the individual mental illnesses let’s try and get a balancing perspective. Are there risk factors that presuppose mental ill health?  Can it affect anyone?

There are a variety of risk factors around mental health and if we have enough of them, if their impact on us is more than we can cope with and if they affect several areas of our life we may be set up for mental illness at some point.

We all have several areas in our life. For example, I have my work area, my social area, and my family. You may have other areas that are important to you and could include looking after elderly family members, or if you are in a formal learning environment there is the area of your education, or you may be a volunteer at a charity that is important to you or the organizer of a local sports event. These are all important parts of our life and overlap in a give and take as we place more or less emphasis on them at different times. Sometimes the overlap between the areas may be slight, at other times it may be significant.

Let’s now consider what may be risk factors for mental ill health.

* Nature – We cannot choose our genetics and on occasion, our genes give us a nod in a particular direction. There is no particular one gene for any one mental illness. The genetics of mental disorders is complex involving many genes and these can be directly affected by our environment.

* Nurture – or the environment we live in and how we were raised, what’s around us; our non-genetic factors are also important to the occurrence of mental illness. Timing has to be included in the mix as a certain mix of nature and nurture may result in mental illness in one person but not another.

* Gender – not being sexist, but I think we can accept that women may present more often with mixed anxiety and depression and men, on the other hand, may present with more alcohol and drug dependence. These are generalizations and not cast iron specifics.   

* Temperament – our nature, disposition, character or personality.

* Childhood experiences – what we learn as children from life events and how they are handled/treated/supported may determine how we respond to events in later life.

* Socio-economic factors – according to the Oxford Dictionary this relates to or is concerned with the interaction of social (our society and its organization) and economic factors (sources of finance, disposable income, type, quality and quantity of goods purchased, housing, etc).

* Being a long-term carer – it should come as no surprise that being a long-term carer for a chronically ill or disabled parent or child can be a factor in our own mental health.

* Some medications – the side effects of some medications may include, for example, depression or paranoia.

* Some medical conditions – having one mental illness can presuppose another; having a long-term medical condition may presuppose a mental illness. For example, someone affected by OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) may also be diagnosed with depression or someone confined to a wheelchair may be affected by anxiety.

* Trauma – a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, particularly as a child, may lead to mental illness in later life, particularly if inadequately treated or supported originally.

* Adverse life events including: separation, divorce, bereavement, moving house, changing job, childbirth, accident, or witnessing a traumatic event, etc.

 

Now a person may have good coping mechanisms in all areas of their life but if overwhelmed by a number of (risk) factors become unable to cope and develop mental illness. Similarly, a person may not have very good coping mechanisms and anyone risk factor could be too much for them. This explains why the comments sometimes used “Pull yourself together” or “Snap out of it” have no meaning and do not help. The overwhelmed person is just that, overwhelmed, not coping and quite unable to pull themselves together nor snap out of it. Similarly, a person coping well may develop bad coping mechanisms due to the stress in their life, become increasing unable to cope and become ill. Another person may cope remarkably well with a strong risk factor at home as long as work is going well. But should things at work take a downturn they cease coping altogether.

 

The rest of this series we will be looking at various mental health illnesses and what symptoms to look for. The first will be stress.

Book Review: Rise – Surviving and Thriving after Trauma by Sian Williams

Book Review: Rise – Surviving and Thriving after Trauma by Sian Williams

Much of Sian William’s story is my story; Rise – surviving and thriving after trauma is about surviving the trauma of and treatment for breast cancer and rediscovering how to thrive afterward. Surviving is the glass half full adage, whereas thriving is that glass overflowing.

In 2011, I too was diagnosed with DCIS, three tumors (as an A cup on a “fat day” I wondered how we missed them until they hurt). The treatment plan was a mastectomy, 25 doses of radiotherapy followed up with 5 years of Tamoxifen and 2 years of Megestrol. It was an emotional roller coaster. Every twinge caused a panic – was it back? Was it secondary’s?   Last week I was drug-free for a year; discharged from medical care; permitted to rediscover my life; for now at least. A relief, to live again. It is important to remember, to note, that thriving is at a higher level than surviving.

Post-cancer Sian and I have our lives back. They are different lives from what they were. We are on a new journey, and ought to enjoy the ride. But everything has changed, everything we were, everything we knew and understood has gone. Our lives, our loves, our priorities are different.

Like Sian and I, you progress from the trauma of the diagnosis and treatment, through to surviving – a numbed existence, a going through the motions. Slowly we move to the “other side” wherever that is. We rediscover our voice, our identity, our compassion; we find new words and coping strategies and get back to actual personal growth. We relearn how to breathe, to be happy and to laugh again, to write and talk, to sleep and eat, even to move. We finally get to pull it all together and live again.

Sian brings in some excellent biographical stories of others’ trauma, including PTSD and their journey through to living again. She draws on her knowledge of psychology (she is working on her Master’s degree) and her work experiences with journalists and film crews in war zones at the BBC. Reading Sian’s story I related, I understood and I finally felt understood.

If you want to know what it’s like to survive and thrive after breast cancer or what it might be like to thrive after a trauma, and what resilience is and how it might help you and can be bolstered to support your through then this book is definitely for you. If you have been there and done that and are wondering about getting your life grounded again, then this book is also for you.

If you are just plain curious what it’s like for those who’ve been there and come through that or if you need to understand for counseling or therapy training, then this book is also for you.

Thank you, Sian, for your honesty and frankness in writing this book, it is liberating to at last know that I was not and am not alone.

The paperback copy can be obtained here.