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Mental Fitness and Wellbeing – My Story

I am very privileged to be able to share this guest blog from one of my clients who wanted to share his story. He has been on a journey of self-discovery and development has been rewarded with the benefits and from this experience, he shares his journey in this blog and the elements that have made the most impact for him it’s full of valuable ideas, concepts and resources.

 

Mental fitness and well-being – My story

 

From the beginning

I had never really considered I had a mental health problem. I spent many years, starting as long ago as I can remember, with a pretty shabby opinion about myself. I would spend a lot of time being quite challenging, and criticising myself. However, I thought, I was just helping to identify issues to help make me a better, more successful me. Surely, that was normal and quite valuable?

It took an awful and painful experience with one of my children, about 5 years ago, to help me see my own situation in a different light and do something positive about it.

I have been very lucky to get some amazing help and to have access to some very useful material; I have learnt a lot and still have so much more to learn. I am in a much better place and I am very grateful I got this lightning bolt (though not for the how it happened). So, writing it down is part cathartic/therapeutic and part an example of what can be done.

 

Mental Fitness

For the last couple of years, my fundamental belief has become that mental wellbeing is precisely equivalent to physical wellbeing. We have a level of fitness , and we could all be more or less fit. Some people have a chronic illness (physical or mental) and some have episodes of illness (such as ‘flu or a broken leg). I also believe people naturally have a higher / lower propensity towards mental illness or a high / lower threshold beyond which they will become ill. Much about our lifestyles can impact where that threshold is set (later on, I reference Alastair Campbell’s very helpful “jam jar” analogy), and thus how serious and frequent episodes of mental illness will be.

My Background

From being as young as I can remember, I assumed the occasional periods of suicidal thinking were perfectly normal and something everybody probably had. I didn’t regard low self-esteem or low self-confidence as a symptom of an illness, more they were an “unfortunate” feature of my personality. For much of the time, I believed I deserved to have low self-esteem, as it correctly reflected my actual worth and how the world, in general, viewed me – so, if I felt happy and confident, this would be delusional and arrogant of me. This was simply part of me, my personality, who I was.

Until recently, if I had been asked what may have caused this way of thinking, there were a few things I may have trotted out: I was adopted at birth (I have never seriously considered searching out my “birth parents”); my father was seriously ill through significant periods between me being about 11 and 22 (when he, sadly, died); I only ever knew 1 of my grandparents (until I was 10, when she died); I moved into public school at about 10 and don’t think I ever really adapted; and at 17 I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (6 months before my A levels).

I can recall a few instances where parental support maybe wasn’t quite what I needed at the time. As an example, when I got my much-poorer-than-anticipated “A level” results; no possible correlation was made between them and my recent diabetes diagnosis, just an assertion that I clearly hadn’t worked hard enough. It was only when one of my children was ill just before A-levels, and people were very supportive and accommodating, that I could make the comparison between how I had been treated years earlier.

I can also clearly remember a mantra that used to ring round my mind: “You’re always afraid of what others will think”. I certainly grew up feeling like I didn’t really fit in, that I was a bit odd – too fat, not trendy enough (but then too fat to be able to be trendy). I didn’t try too hard either, as that meant I could reduce the risk of rejection or disappointment. I had developed the perception that I wasn’t really wanted or valued – and I think this led to the view that I didn’t offer much value and thus I deserved to be “on the outside”.

I have always had a very strong aversion to “arrogance” – both in others and in the fear that I may demonstrate it.

I knew even then these beliefs made some things harder, personally, socially and professionally. For example, professionally and at school, it was hard to feel like a truly worthy employee/pupil, and I realised (sometimes, at least) this must undermine my behaviour and performance. Of course, for much of the time, I believed this was only what I deserved; it was my fault because I was a fairly useless person and I was also sure no-one really noticed me or was impacted by my behaviour (positively or negatively). Now, I realise I was fortunate to cope with all this as well as I did.

Realising that there may be an “issue”, I did make an effort with many “self-help” books. Some topics such as NLP may be quite good theoretically but, I know now, was absolutely not what I needed at the time. It is also an interesting retrospective that the myriad of “airport books” on stuff such as “improve your confidence/self-belief/persuasion/influence” etc etc indicates a level of anxiety people have and our desire for a simple “quick fix” read. Suffice to say, these books had no discernible impact on me.

Later, when my first marriage failed in 2004/5, as part of the divorce counselling, our mediator insisted I have independent counselling as she was certain I didn’t have an adequate support network around me. Co-incidentally, this counselling undoubtedly helped me get partially through that episode. But, with hindsight, I simply did not ask enough questions to see what else was going on. And, unfortunately, over the next few years, things got more mixed up.

So, I was rushing about trying to balance all aspects of my life: being newly “single” and with two pre-teen children, work (a lot of which was away from home), trying to create a new “personal/social life” (not very successfully). My mother sadly died in 2009, she had been quite ill and unhappy for some time and I had probably not been able to be as supportive as I could have been (both she and I told me that, anyway). I was probably constantly shattered, and I was certainly often isolated and lonely, but I never consciously thought about it.

The feeling I can really recall, quite physically, is the pain on a Sunday evening of dropping my two children “back” with my ex-wife. I see fathers alone with children now, especially on Sundays in places where families should be, and it can still sometimes bring back those anxious feelings.

While my personal life was rather difficult at that point, at least my work life was reasonably stable. And then, in 2012, work got more complicated. I was working for a big company for a boss who was basically a bully. Two of my peers were diagnosed with depression and had months of sick leave. One took him through a grievance process and won. I decided to bail out, volunteering for redundancy; happy my mental health had been strong enough to endure his undermining behaviour.

In retrospect, I got this very badly wrong: I was simply successfully suppressing things. The next 2 or 3 years became a bit of a blur, basically a series of unsuccessful relationships and unsuccessful interim jobs. I did try to be as good a dad as I could be and what I had always wanted to be, but I suspect there were times when I was a bit rubbish, and very “stressy”.

I can recall often feeling angry and believing everyone would be better off if I was far away and out of reach.

Diagnosing the problem

I started to understand more about what had been happening to me when my daughter was ill, suffering with mental health issues and anorexia. She did have a definite mental illness (a lot more than being a bit mentally unfit) and it was horrible and scary for quite a long time. Her consultant was very concerned about her suicidal thoughts and, of course, I was very anxious that she should feel this way. The inconsistency with my own beliefs then dawned on me – just maybe my long-standing suicidal thoughts and low self-esteem/low self-confidence was a bit more serious than I thought and was not just an unfortunate, or even deserving, aspect of my character.

I went to see my GP, who prescribed an anti-depressant (Sertraline) and referred me for CBT therapy. Having seen the unfortunate lack of mental health care available for my daughter via the NHS, I decided I would find my own support. Luckily for me, in November 2015, I got in touch with a local CBT therapist, Sarah Rees.

Psychological Therapy

There were two very significant things that Sarah introduced me to. Both have had and continue to have a massive impact on me:

a) Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT): This is Dr Paul Gilbert’s evolution of CBT. One simple diagram changed my understanding of how my mind worked and thus how I needed to behave towards myself. Sarah first showed me the diagram in Mary Welford’s book “Building your Self-Confidence”, but Mary credits it to “The Compassionate Mind”, by Paul Gilbert.

This diagram has 3 boxes, showing the 3 emotional regulation systems: Drive, Threat & Soothing. It struck me instantly that I did not have and had never had an active “soothing” system. The concept of “liking” myself or thinking anyone else would really notice/care about me, was a totally alien concept, just weird. In fact, I perceived the idea of thinking this way was rather arrogant. So, the realisation that I should have one or that I needed one, and that other people had one presented a genuine paradigm shift. This diagram is still pinned to the wall above my desk at home.

In about 2012, I had read The Chimp Paradox, by Steve Peters. Initially, it had a major impact on me. I thought the chimp/human model presented, and the link to physiological theory was really powerful and I still like much of what this book says. However, I felt there was something missing that was stopping me really embracing the concepts. I realised as soon as I saw Paul Gilbert’s simple diagram that the soothing system was missing from the Chimp model, and this was precisely what I was also missing. The Chimp model has two elements (where “Drive” equates to “Human” and “Threat” equates to “Chimp”).

b) Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR): As I have described above, for many years, I was very clear that people thought I was useless; they would not notice if I just faded away and if they did, it would be because an irritant had been taken away; my parents, both in heaven, looked down and were dismayed by everything I did. Obviously, none of this was especially positive or healthy.

Sarah felt there was evidence to suggest an almost traumatic association and recommended we try EMDR. I will not pretend I understand how or why it works, but the effect was staggering: EMDR took all this negativity away. It improved my thinking and my mindset to a huge degree and astonishingly quickly. It is only now, several years later that I am more familiar with such an association to trauma in childhood from the work of experts such as Johann Hari & Gabor Mata.

The work I have been doing since late 2015 with Sarah has had a phenomenal impact, my mindset has been totally reset and my underlying belief systems are now far more objective and positive. Bad days can still happen, when the “gremlins get prodded and fed”. On these now much less frequent occasions when I do feel negative/anxious, then I am now far better able to rationalise and recover, without being overwhelmed by the insidious gremlins or goblins of old.

The material I have read recently, specifically “Lost Connections”, by Johann Hari and several podcasts by Gabor Mata, suggest that some of the things I outlined earlier about my childhood experiences were possibly tantamount to “traumatic”. Initially, this was quite a shock and still sounds far-fetched and illogical: my parents were nothing if not loving and believed they were doing as much for me as they could.

Thinking about this, and recognising Hari and Mata are very clear there is no blame associated with people who only had your best interests at heart, even if this wasn’t what was achieved, it does make sense that this unhelpful self-beliefs and perceptions resulted from some of the things I, unfortunately, experienced as a child. It also makes more sense that, with that back story, when things become more frantic in about 2012, I was liable to overload.
And, this finally helped me to realise why the EMDR that Sarah had recommended had worked so spectacularly. It attacked all these underlying perceptions that made no logical sense and had been so damaging for so long.

What I have learnt

I have developed a keen interest and energy for reading and accessing much more material about this subject area and I have learnt an awful lot since about 2016.

An initial thing is a realisation that there is an awful lot of material out there and so, unfortunately, there must a huge demand. Over the years, I have sometimes assumed the negative things I felt were normal things everyone felt (e.g. suicidal thoughts) or at other times that I was pretty much alone. Over the last few years, there has become far greater public awareness and acceptance of “mental illness” or, more accurately in my view, mental unfitness. People such as Princes William & Harry, Matthew Haig, Alastair Campbell, Mark Austin (about his daughter’s battles), Sally Brampton (very sadly demonstrating there is not always a happy outcome) and many more, are doing great things to highlight and publicise this. I absolutely recognise that my experiences are nothing compared to what countless others have gone and are going through.

In addition to the people referenced already, there are many others whose work I have accessed and valued for their insights and perspectives. They include Dr Alan Watkins, Daniel Pink, Dr Rangan Chatterjee; James Clear; Matthew Syed; Matthew Walker; Ruby Wax; Jordan Peterson and Simon Sinek, and many more.

Below are some of the lessons I have learnt and are changing my attitudes and behaviour; sort of my condensed version of “12 Rules for Life”, well 15 Rules in my case. (with apols to Dr Peterson!)

  1. You need (and deserve) to have a self-compassionate mindset

Having a compassionate / self-compassionate mindset (or a “soothing system”) is an essential part of your make-up. I had lived too long without realising there was such a thing and believing an approach of “liking yourself” was plain weird. When I realised that I did have one and I switched it on, it has had an amazing impact. [Dr Paul Gilbert]

  1. Treat yourself as you choose to treat others

Think about how you would feel and react if a child / your child (or your 15-year-old self) was very unhappy or sad if they thought they were not liked at school or were struggling with homework. You would help, support and encourage them, coach or advise them. You would not yell at them, criticise them or tell them they are useless. So, why do we often think it is okay to talk to ourselves like this? Even when we are struggling or are behind on a work deadline, this type of self-aggression is hardly likely to be a positive motivator. [Several sources]

  1. Invest in yourself

to enhance your mental fitness you need to take time to switch off and to re-energise and re-build.

So, enough of the right sleep, food, exercise, connections etc are critical.

[Dr Rangan Chatterjee / Matthew Walker…]

Alastair Campbell, after meeting Jehannine Austin (Canadian genetics specialist) described having a personal “jam jar”. The sides of the jam jar become higher when he does the things that are important to him (e.g. playing the bagpipes, so clearly preferences can be very personal!); and this makes it harder for the “crazy stuff”, the sediment that resides in the bottom and you can’t wash out, get to the top and overflow. Great imagery!

  1. Be responsible

You are able to choose your response to any given situation or stimulus. If you hardwire this into your mindset, you can prevent, or at least reduce, the incidence of inappropriate or unhelpful reactions. For example, if someone is rude and angry with you, remember that is their choice and their issue. Being responsible means that you can mindfully choose an appropriate response and that way you retain control of your actions/outcomes [Steven Covey]

  1. Define you’re why

This issue of “defining your purpose” comes up so often that it really must be true. Simon Sinek has a hugely successful career based primarily on this precept. Whether the analogy is your why, your vision, your epitaph, what you would say to your grandchildren on your deathbed – the point is the same. And it isn’t easy to do get this right – as an individual or as an organisation (which probably explains why there is so much published material about it). I have spent quite a lot of time on this and haven’t really got to the end of it,

though I am better than I used to be.

Criteria to define success are important. You need to be mindful about what you want to achieve, who you want to be, and what you want your “purpose” to be. I found writing down, what really is and isn’t important helpful. Finding your “why” requires you to be honest about your success criteria: for a long time, my criteria were probably more defined by perceived status and that by material things. This was a real blocker to an honest appraisal of value but, apparently, it is quite a common symptom. [Simon Sinek / Alastair Campbell]

  1. Find a game where the odds are in your favour

There are some things you are naturally better at than others. Sometimes, annoyingly, you do not have a natural aptitude for the thing you would like to be. It still annoys me that I did not pick up a guitar, or piano or drums and instantly play brilliantly. I have learnt and, more recently, accepted some of the things I have a talent or ability at, and the things I don’t. I did a psychometric test a few years after I graduated and was told the only way I got a decent degree in electrical engineering was through sheer hard work and application – I have, apparently, little aptitude for the subject. [James Clear]

  1. Life is not fair and bad/unfair things will happen to you

This statement is one of the most critical “truths of life”. If you can try to deny it, you will become very disappointed and disillusioned. For a long time, my expectations of life / (some) people / the world were misplaced: I expected principles of fairness, integrity and openness would apply in most situations. Principles I like to believe I apply. Also, there are no rules stating that “nice people win” or “fate favours the principled”. I have now accepted that this was too optimistic or idealistic. [Dr Steve Peters].

  1. Process over outcomes

In my business work, I try to focus on outcomes over outputs, clarity of project urgency objectives and benefits. I recently came to understand that maybe personal life should be different. Yes, I “want to lose weight” or “be fitter”, however, the targets you set need to encourage, not demotivate. This is described in some detail in “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. The concept is focused on the process, establish the right habits and the outcomes will follow. Focus habits on the type of person you want to be – so, look at what you eat or how many times you go to the gym and maybe how you feel rather than how much weight you lose. Also, make good habits easier and bad habits harder. [Dr Rangan Chatterjee / James Clear]

  1. Life more in the “now” and enjoy it!

While this initially sounds a bit contradictory to the notion of setting your purpose / why, I have found it an important balancing mechanism, and it does correlate with habits, not outcomes. And I am still working on this. I used to feel a bit guilty wanting to be (too) happy when there were so many issues and suffering in the world, it felt rather irresponsible and arrogant of me. I realised a while ago that you need to be happy and confident to be able to do anything positive and constructive.

We should think less about what we need for the future we think we want (or allow ourselves to be led to believe we want). The focus here is on “material” objectives – it is important to recognise that we are all bombarded with “material incentivisation” in advertising and more subliminal promotion. Very often, the future “goal” of a new car, new job title or whatever doesn’t deliver what we anticipated and worked hard / sacrificed good times for and so, we become disappointed. For me, this is definitely “work in progress”! [Johann Hari]

  1. Be mindfully grateful

There are really two principles rolled up here: be mindful and be grateful. I have found that being “mindful” is much more than “mindfulness” (which is also very good). I try to be mindful / “in the now” as much as I can. I have found brushing my teeth or eating breakfast is good (focusing on the sensations, flavours, textures etc).

Also, I try more now to be mindful about things at work, decisions and things we do as a family. This leads directly to being better able to be more grateful for the things around you – I try now to focus more on the things that I used to take for granted but which are actually very good and positive. And then I can feel more grateful. And I also try now never feel sorry for myself (still w-i-p!)

Haemin Sunim has a saying “Your (monkey) brain cannot deal with thinking and sensory experiences at the same time”. This is true: so, counting your breathing or focusing on the wind rustling in the trees really does reduce your ability to focus on negative thoughts.

Being mindful also helps me to improve how I learn from the things that do not go well (and accept that such things are inevitable (see 7 above). This helps me choose better if I react positively (and grow) or negatively (and wilt).

  1. Measure

There is a business adage that “you cannot manage what you cannot measure” and I believe this is true. You do need to be mindful about what you measure and how you use the data. Things that have helped me include my Fitbit and also recent advances in how I measure my Type 1 diabetes (and that links closely with monitoring my eating habits). From here, I have been able to make and refine changes to eating, sleeping, exercising etc.
I also find the concept of keeping a Journal is very good. I have been, to date, much less competent at making this a habit.

  1. We need to invest more in Connectivity

I have said above that, during several periods when I needed support, I didn’t have the right people or networks available, for various reasons. So, I was more isolated and more vulnerable. This, obviously, became a vicious circle. And it was very easy to spiral down quite merrily.
For most of our existence, humans have lived in troops or tribes. Until recently, we still had communities. Our brains have been wired up for relatively small and highly collaborative and interdependent groups. Today, such groups are becoming more diluted; we have fewer close dependent relationships (even if we have more “online” connections). Without support from a troop/community, we risk being lonely and susceptible. Animals that get ostracised from their troop generally do not survive. Less collaboration equals more competition and conflict. It cannot be surprising that the prevalence of mental unfitness is rising dramatically. [Johann Hari]

  1. Perception is reality

Two perspectives on this:

Your view of the world is your perception of reality; you can choose to make this either more or less useful to yourself. For a long time, I decided I was “useless” and so that was my reality, and I assumed it was how everyone saw me (and I tended to make my observations fit this narrative– with or without supporting evidence). EMDR / CFT did a lot to help me change this narrative.
Other people’s reality is also actually their perception and so they filter their opinions, attitude and decision making through this perception. And, it seems to me, some people have some very warped perceptions of reality. Consequently, a lot of decisions are taken through a very skewed filter. I believe that I am quite analytical and so I find this hard sometimes. Not fair, go to point 7.

Too much focus on perceptions not facts – not fair, just true!

  1. Do not be self-deprecating. Not ever.

My sense of humour and several other things used to be founded on a sense of self-deprecation. I guess I did it as a sort of “apology” (“look, I realise that I am a bit rubbish”) and, socially it could be engaging. Someone made a big point of telling me to stop it. And I have. [Susan Wedgebury].

  1. Success is a journey

We are always going to be “work-in-progress”. However, I now make a big effort to focus on where I am now, what I have to be grateful for and also how far I have come in the last few years.

What happens next?

I feel very pleased with the progress I have made and with the new approach and attitude, I have towards many things. Far from perfect, I still have off days, but these are now less frequent, less unfathomable and are easier to manage and recover from, Mindfulness makes it much easier to rationalise things. I have also learnt a lot about mental health in general and I seem to have an enthusiasm and energy for learning more about it and applying it into more of my work activities. [Rules 5 & 6 above].

It is obvious that technology innovation and change will continue to make huge differences in how we all life and work. The rate of change is already rapid and is going to continue to accelerate dramatically. Digital technology change is everywhere, continually raising our definitions and expectations of “normal”. Biotech innovation is also all re-defining the art of the possible.
While science and technology innovates, invents and progresses, currently human behaviour, culture and politics are being left behind. It is accepted that many of the jobs that we take for granted now will become obsolete.

How society deals with this is rather less well understood. This challenge exists in both our work/professional lives and our home lives.

How we support people to adapt to new ways of living and working are going to become ever more critical: how we get people to think about career expectations is radically different than it was for my parent’s generation; how we approach education needs to change dramatically to give current and future generations the skills they will need (and the main skill in the future will be the ability to adapt and be agile to learning new skills. If we do not address these issues, then the recent rise we have seen in mental health issues will continue to increase and people fail to adapt and feel more isolated from the mainstream.

My working life has related to digital transformation programmes for some years. The big technology and professional service companies claim to take a human-centric role, but I have seen little evidence to suggest many (if any) are taking this very seriously – they are driven by financial targets and rewards, not by a benevolent desire to make the world a happier place. And a key life truth is “you get what you incentivise”, so we should not be shocked when this is what happens.

I am trying to work out precisely how to mould together my working experience of helping people adapt to and exploit new technology with my interest in finding ways to better embrace change and mitigate risks to mental well-being. I am certain this subject matter will increase in importance, as the impact on people’s mental fitness is, at present, very seriously undervalued and underestimated.

I want to get closer to what Dr Alan Watkins pronounces. He has a brilliant approach to the impact of physiology on results, performance and behaviour. He also has a powerful model for “vertical” development, which he sums up as “upgrading the human operating system, rather than adding new apps”. This could well provide my next developmental paradigm shift.

I am also keen to make further use of Daniel Pink’s material on intrinsic & extrinsic motivation and Jordan Peterson’s forensic analysis and clarity of thinking (you don’t have to agree with all the topics he applies this to, incidentally!)

The outline and direction of travel is now set for the next part of the journey.

Let’s see where this can take me.

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Comments

  1. Wonderful courageous work that is such an inspiration thank you so much for sharing

  2. A very interesting read. Thank you so much for sharing this with us! I am inspired to help myself even more.

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Sarah Rees

Sarah is a fully accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and mental health writer delivering Modern Mental Health for you and with you in Mind. Sarah is the author of ‘The CBT Journal’ which helps you write for your wellbeing incorporating CBT techniques. For more information and to keep in touch have a look at sarahdrees.co.uk.