photo of a oier

How to emerge out of Lockdown and find our Selves again…

On Thursday I went into Brighton and wandered through the North Lanes. I bought a coffee and sat outside at a café. Later I bought a falafel wrap from “I Love Falafel, an old favourite of mine.

As I sat at the café watching people go past, I felt part of myself returning. In the past, I would cycle into Brighton along the seafront daily to work.  My bike currently sits rusting in my garden….

I would go to the office, chat with my colleagues in between clients and wander the Lanes. I may sit in the Pavilion Gardens for lunch, observe the buskers and the street goings-on. I may take in a film at the Duke of York Cinema after work, or meet friends for a few drinks in a pub.

What I realised is how much of myself I have lost this past year.  I have predominantly become an Online Therapist and a Mum. Many are talking of losing their ability to make conversation, how our memories are foggy and it seems we need to relearn how to do those everyday tasks we took for granted. Our brains over this past year have processed those regular occurrences as past experiences and stored them as memories. We need to learn our way of being again.

How do we bring back those parts of our identity we have lost?

Our Self-concept is our personal knowledge of who we are, encompassing all our thoughts and feelings about ourselves physically, personally, and socially. Self-concept also includes our knowledge of how we behave, our capabilities, and our individual characteristics.

Our self-concept develops most rapidly during early childhood and adolescence.  As a baby we develop our sense of self by having it reflected back to us by our caregiver. If we receive love from our mother, we grow up believing we are loveable. The holder of the mirror then switches to our peers at school, hence that time of life for so many who have difficult experiences at school can be so crushing for developing a positive self-concept.

However, our self-concept continues to form and change over time as we have new experiences, and it changes as we develop new friendships and relationships with others. Our self-concept is dependent on the social situations in which we find ourselves and the feedback we receive from that environment.

Our isolation this past year has meant that many of our interactions with others has been very restricted.  We have lost our sense of self. 

This week I returned to CrossFit, an important community that I have been part of for the past 5 years. A place outside my four walls that I have a sense of belonging.  There, I am not “Mum” or “Therapist” but someone who does some crazy exercise routines, laughs and connects with others on all sorts of levels. I have missed that person. She needs to emerge again.

There used to be this person who would jump on a train to London Victoria and take herself off spontaneously to explore the delights of London. She would take that free spirit further afield and find herself on a solo trip to Goa, looking for new environments and connections with people from different backgrounds and cultures. That part of myself has laid dormant for this past year, rarely making it past the end of my road at times. I want her back.

So, as we start to emerge out of lockdown, is it safe for us to start to give fuel to these lost parts of ourselves? Can we allow ourselves the space to grieve their absence? For many of us, they may not return. Certain relationships and parts of our Selves are lost, and we feel irrevocably changed by this past year.

But just maybe…..as Spring is here….a new Self can now emerge and our Lockdown Self can take a backseat.

I’m off to get my bike fixed….

How is your nervous system coping with the news this week?

anonymous woman walking near waving sea

Watching the Harry and Meghan interview on Monday night, the emotion that stood out the most for me was fear. They both mentioned so many times that they felt that had no choice because their security was taken away and they felt unsafe. The fear had a sense of being historical as well as coming from the present. Women are raging about the abduction of Sarah Everard this week. Women want to feel safe and not feel scared anymore to walk home alone in the dark.

When we experience trauma, our autonomic nervous system can become mobilised, our heart rate increases, adrenaline and cortisol is released and blood rushes to our muscles and our body goes into its fight or flight state – ready to protect us from the danger. Sometimes when the danger feels too great, and we cannot fight or run our nervous system shuts us down it freezes. Our heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature decrease and pain numbing endorphins are released. However, these frightened feelings do not lay dormant forever, and they may be triggered by certain events, sounds, smells, and memories at later points in our lives.

Over this past year we have all collectively experienced Trauma. Trauma is what happens inside of us as a result of what happens to us. It is an experience, not an event. We have been told repeatedly that we are unsafe and that if we leave our house and make contact with others, we may catch a Virus that may kill us or may kill another. Our nervous systems have become hypervigilant, and we have been in a constant state of survival. It is exhausting. We are exhausted. Many of us are at tipping point. Our usual ways of managing emotional distress – whether it be through the gym, the pub, dancing, social interactions, travel – they have all been taken away from us. We have been left alone with our nervous systems – many of them hypervigilent and on the lookout for threat. A young mum recently told me how her two-year- old just automatically crosses the road now when she sees another person approaching. We have learnt to fear each other.

Even Piers Morgan could not withstand the debate on TV on Tuesday morning on GMTV and had to flee from what he may have experienced as an attack. This week, several have shared how triggered they felt listening to the wind blowing in the night. How it felt like it was coming to attack them.

So, how can we support ourselves at this time?

We can acknowledge how deeply traumatic this past year has been for us. How we have been living for over a year now in a place of extreme uncertainty. All that we thought and knew has been taken away from us. In Existential Therapy, we acknowledge that there are 4 givens of existence. These include freedom, isolation, the inevitability of death, and meaninglessness. Often when people come up against one of these it can lead to overwhelming distress. Collectively we have all come face to face with these givens over this past year and many of us have had to keep pressing on. Some of us have been trying to financially support ourselves whilst home schooling and parenting at the same time. Consumed with concern for children’s wellbeing, there is little chance to look after our own.

We can find ways to regulate our nervous system and bring us back into a grounded calm state by doing some of the activities below.

1. Have a break from the news. Stop scrolling on social media. It will keep you in a place of being repeatedly triggered.

2. Get out in nature. Look up, notice the trees, the birds. the beauty around you. Take your camera out and notice the colours around you.

3. Exercise – move your body. When we get triggered, we sometimes need to disperse the anxiety flooding us and going for a run enables our body to release the anxiety and gives us endorphins which lift our mood.

4. Call a friend. Share how you are feeling, so you are not alone with it. We are all struggling with isolation at the moment and it is essential to process your thoughts and feelings with somebody else to prevent them spiraling. We often mirror the state of those around us, so spend time with those who are calm and uplifting.

5. Do a mindful activity. Baking a cake, jigsaw puzzle, painting, yoga – something that engages your mind in the here and now. Gives your mind and body a break.

6. Gratitude. Write out daily three things you feel grateful for. It is easy to see the world as very negative at the moment and we need to remind ourselves of the positive things in our life.

7. If you really feel panicky, a useful way to ground yourself quickly is to go through your senses. Name something in the room you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste.

8. Affirmations. Tell yourself that you are Safe. Our nervous system can sometimes not differentiate between our unsafe past and new safe present.

If you feel isolated and feel you need additional support from outside your home, then seek support from a Counsellor. It can often be underestimated how supportive it can be to know you have someone alongside you, really present and listening and wanting to meet you where you are right now.

If you would like to sign up to my mailing list, to hear of further events or courses I may be runnning, please do so below.


How can we support our Teenagers?

It is getting harder and harder. For all of us. And the teenagers are really struggling. I work with several teenagers and have noticed feelings of apathy and depression really taking grip now.

“I feel flat.” “Numb.” “Nothing – I don’t know.” “Unmotivated.” “Hopeless.” “Bored.” “Isolated.” “Lethargic.” “Its like being in prison.”

Fed up of being at home, yet anxious about going back to school. Many of the teenagers do not turn on their videos on their online classes as they do not want to be seen. They are too self-conscious. They speak into an abyss. They are not having even the face to face contact we may think they are having in their lessons.

As we approach the anniversary mark of when Lockdown began, we are all aware that we have lost a year of our lives. In the life of a child, this has huge significance. Each year marks a huge developmental milestone that is essential they make for their wellbeing. A child in year 7 was unable to have the ending they needed to leave their primary school and move into Secondary School. They have been unable to make friends as they would do if they were regularly attending school and are instead stuck alone in their bedroom. Isolated.

Older teenagers have been unable to sit their GCSES and A-Levels and have lost that sense of achievement they may receive when they see their grades. A feeling of accomplishment and thus a boost to their self esteem. I heard how one child just felt flat on receiving her grades, despite them being good, she didn’t feel they were properly hers. Those who were sitting their A-Levels this year have had them whipped away from them, still unsure how they are going to be marked and by who. They have missed out on their whole sixth form experience. Do they bother going to University next year? Is there a guarantee they won’t be isolated in their room doing lectures online like this year’s unfortunate cohort. What about the parties, the socialising, the risk behaviour – all the things as parents we may dread, but all an essential part of growing up and separation that a child needs to do in preparation for adulthood.

How do we continue to support them?

An important thing to acknowledge and recognise is that we can’t make it all better. We can’t make the pandemic go away. We can’t be their teacher, be their friends. What we can do is be alongside them and just listen when they are feeling low. Give them a space to vent how angry and frustrated they are. We often feel helpless wanting to come up with ideas to make things better, but sometimes accepting we can’t can be really helpful.

Grief. They are dealing with a huge amount of grief. Loss of friends, teachers, grandparents, their freedom, who they were outside of the home. Grief throws up all sorts of emotions – anger, sadness, despair, rage and a recognition their life is out of their control. The path they thought they had has been changed and they have no idea what it looks like now.

Structure. Trying to encourage structure really is key. Getting dressed before online school. Walking round the block before the first lesson. Having 3 meals a day. Using their timetable to allocate mealtimes and snacks. Differentiating between weekends and weekdays.

Nature. Getting outdoors. Often such a struggle to convince them, but without a doubt the thing that lifts moods and can shift energy. Even if it is cold and wet, they then appreciate returning home to the warmth.

Empowerment. Be mindful of Tik Tok. Ask to see what is on their feed. I have been shocked by the trend for teenagers to list all the food they eat in a day and show their often very skinny bodies. If they are seeing this stuff, open up discussions about it. Wonder why girls are posting this and why they are placing so much importance on it. Eating Disorders often emerge as a way young people gain a sense of control in their lives. Their life feels out of their control at the moment so help them see what is in their control. Help them to feel empowered.

Other Adults. Having contact with other adults other than parents. Schools are their community and they have lost their community. Alongside their friends, feeling seen and important by other adults hugely impacts their self-esteem and worth. Drop your friends kids a note saying how well they are doing getting through this, knowing how tough it is for them. Let them know they are being thought about. Encourage your teens to send messages of support to younger kids so they feel they are supporting others. This encourages a feeling of purpose and wellbeing.

Screentime. As parents it can be hard witnessing the amount of time they spend on screens. Trying to get the balance right is really hard as this is often the only contact they have with friends and may be the only thing that is keeping them going at the moment. Make sure they have time off screens before going to sleep so their brains get a chance to unwind and slow down.

Photography. Getting outside and looking up and taking a photo is a wondrful mindful activity. Seeing what is around us. Finding the beauty in the simple things around us can produce serotonin.

Gratitude. Round the dinner table at night, encourage a conversation about what 5 things you feel grateful for today. It is important to bring in some positive thoughts.

S.A.D. The days are getting longer and the light is changing. Explain about Seasonal Affective Disorder and that it may be contributing to them feeling low, and that Spring is round that corner and it will feel better. Get them a Vitamin D spray or a lightbox may help.

Support Yourself. Essential to all the support you can offer is finding ways to support yourself. Unless you are well yourself and your own mental health is in check, you will be unable to support your children. Make sure you take time time out for yourself and do all you can to keep your own mood afloat.

I am running a 6 week online course offering support to those finding it hard at the moment to keep going, so please come along if you think you and therefore your family may benefit from you having that nurturing time for yourself once a week.

https://ameliawhitecounselling.com/therapeutic-support-group-for-women/

Exercise – Why do we really do it?

I passed a friend on the way back from the gym this morning at 7am.  She sent me a message saying, “I can’t believe you get up so early to go to Crossfit. “

I realise that to many it may seem like madness, some crazy fitness addiction, a punishing regime.  For many people, there is no doubt that it can become this and people can also use intensive exercise as a way to manage their anxiety and emotions. It can replace other addictions they may have used in the past such as drugs and alcohol, be part of an eating disorder and can work as a distraction or a form of control.  

I began running about 10 years ago and quickly noticed how dependent I became on it.  The run round the park became 5k, then 10k, a half marathon and then the Brighton Marathon.  Two weeks before I was due to run in the Brighton Marathon, I tore my calf muscle and was unable to take part.  I was gutted, but the hardest part of it all was being told that I couldn’t run for several months in order to give my calf the time it needed to heal. This took six months. I realised then how dependent I had become on running for my mental health.  How it had become an addiction that had helped me manage the difficulties in my marriage, my loss of self and my low self- esteem which had plummeted as a result of being a stay at home mum.  It meant that I didn’t have to focus on the lifestyle changes that I really needed to make, as each time I shut the front door I could leave all those worries behind me and get my fix of endorphins.  It was my substitute anti-depressant.  As a result of my injury, I had to take stock and work through all the emotional difficulties I was having at the time and make fundamental changes to the way I was living my life. I couldn’t run away from them any longer. Literally and metaphorically.

A few years later, a friend encouraged me to put my name into the ballot for the London Marathon.  Many people try year after year, so it was a complete surprise to get a place. This time I did it differently. I trained slowly and gently, listening to my body and what it needed.  When I had a twinge I rested, I had sports massages and a few weeks before the event, I took myself off to a yoga retreat. Running the London Marathon was one of the best days of my life. The atmosphere was electric, the sun was shinning and I crossed that finish line in disbelief.  I think I was in shock for a while.  Everything worked.  Nothing was injured.  I know that the reason I was able to do so was because of the way I had looked after my body and mind in a completely different way than I had those years earlier.  This time I wasn’t running away from anything or pounding the pavements in desperation to get that fix I needed to make my life more manageable.

Exercise for me now is incredibly important in maintaining my physical and mental health but is no longer the coping mechanism it once was. I go to Crossfit three times a week, regularly sea swim and try and do some yoga.  In this morning’s session, I lifted some weights whilst we swapped stories about what posters we had on our walls as teenagers (Pamela Anderson and bikes seemed to be a popular theme for the men). We discussed music and shared our nostalgia for gigs and the loss we feel with their absence at the moment. We discussed Freddie Flintoff and his documentary on Bulimia that was shown this week. The causes of Bulimia and how it is such a hidden illness for men, despite 1 in 4 sufferers being male.  We stretched. And we ate cake on the way out that someone had baked.

The physical fitness is important but equally as important for me is the connections, the laughs, the conversations, and spending time with a group of people in my community made up of different genders and ages that I may not mix with in other parts of my life.  As we all discovered in Lockdown, Social isolation has a huge negative impact on our mental health. Having an excuse to go and hang out with others regularly, check in how we are and discuss weekly topics under the guise that we are all only there to get fit, is an essential part of my self-care and wellbeing.

September – A Month of Transition.

I noticed how the long-awaited relief of children returning to school was entwined with a feeling of loss and sadness this week. My mood dipped and I started to recognise this feeling as a familiar tone that sets in year after year in September. The sea suddenly becomes less inviting, I notice the evenings start to draw in and that abundant energy I had in June and July is no longer present. As the leaves start to fall from the trees and the seasons change, so do I.  The familiar feeling is one of grief.

As a child I was sent to Boarding School, so each September my trunk would be packed and off I would go, leaving behind my mum, my cat, my house, my bedroom and have to quickly make the transition to being one of 30 girls sleeping in an open dormitory. There was no space for grief and transition then as I had to adapt quickly with a brisk goodbye at the door to my mum and a goodbye to the summer holidays and the time I had spent outside of this institution.  As an adult I have always viewed September as a new beginning and am able to see how I have developed a pattern of often shedding jobs and relationships in the summer months, preparing for this new term to start. 

However, these days those feelings of grief show up and I am no longer able to push forward as I have in the past.  This has shown up in a cough in recent Autumns that I have struggled to shift.  As a child in that first year at Boarding School I developed Asthma out of the blue. Many of us associate sadness and grief with the heart, but In Chinese Medicine your lungs are seen as a repository for these emotions. We have all encountered so much grief in the past six months.  We may have individually experienced the physical loss of a loved one, we may have lost the job we cherished, the financial security we had, our space away from our children, our routine, our holidays, physical touch and our freedom of movement.  We have all collectively experienced the loss of the lifestyle that we once knew. The ground that once felt solid beneath our feet is now like sand as we move into Autumn uncertain whether another Lockdown is on the horizon and we are still unable to plan for the future.

 So, as the leaves have started to fall this week, and my energy levels started to droop, I have stopped in my rush to push forward and decided to be kind to myself.  To give my body and my mind what it is asking for.  Nourishing food, warm baths, and plenty of rest.  I have started giving myself a massage each evening before bed with Bergamot aromatherapy oil, known for its mood balancing and uplifting properties. So often our minds can race ahead of our bodies with all these intentions and plans, and our bodies then crash with burn out / depression or a physical ailment that causes us to stop.  Hopefully this year, I have spotted the signs early on and have started to slow down into Autumn and give my body and mind what it really needs and deserves. We are unable to fully go forwards and transition unless we make space to let go of our grief. We have all had to adapt so much these past six months and we are incredibly resilient to have done so, so make sure going into Autumn you give yourself the nurture that you need and deserve.