Tell us about yourself and your experience with Mental Health.
My name is Natalie and I’m a resident wellbeing specialist at OptiMe, I have numerous wellbeing qualifications and I also have anxiety.
I first experienced anxiety when I was around the age of 7. I would experience dizzy spells, sickness and stomach cramps and would fear attending things I had previously loved, such as school or social activities.
My parents often took me to my GP regarding my sickness, but I was given sickness medication instead of psychological assessment. I struggled with my mental health and anxiety from this point onwards, particularly throughout my teenage years.
Throughout my time at Sixth Form my mental health deteriorated and I found it hard to go a day without vomiting, feeling panicked or having low mood. In response to this I took it upon myself to research my symptoms and condition to present this to my GP. It was at this stage, over 10 years on from my first appointment that I was diagnosed with anxiety.
How did you deal with these challenges?
From my diagnosis at the age of 17 I was referred to 6 various counselling services in order to find a service suited to me, taking part in CBT, phone counselling, young person’s counselling services and then finally weekly counselling meetings. This made me aware of the wide range of help that is available to those who are experiencing negative mental health, if they are able to be proactive in reaching out for assistance.
During this time period I also suddenly lost my father, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Due to this, I spent a month off Sixth Form and decided to end my counselling sessions. I have found that when it comes to recovering from a dip in mental health it is best to opt for coping mechanisms which feel best to you alone, and although counselling is something which is very effective in helping people, at that age and time in my life I found it more disruptive than helpful.
It was at this stage that I decided to channel my energy and thoughts into productive and proactive ways to help myself. I found ways to motivate myself to learn to distract myself from negative thoughts and achieved my A-levels to go on to attend university. I also continued my extracurricular activities such as Dance and attending fitness sessions, which helped me express myself creatively, keep active and release endorphins to lift my mood. The coping mechanisms which I created during this period are ones which I have continued to use throughout my working life, encouraging myself to work and learn wherever possible, as well as stay active to boost my mood.
The link between maintaining physical wellness to improve my mental health paired with my desire to learn to distract myself from negativity, has helped me now gain my role at OptiMe as an in-house specialist. I now have a range of wellbeing qualifications including a Diploma in Mindfulness and Diploma in Laughter Therapy as well as other qualifications in exercise, mental health, and counselling.
What advice would you give to others?
With 1 in 4 people experiencing a mental health problem in their life (prior to COVID) dealing with periods of negative mental health is now something which can be considered to be a normal part of life, rather than something to be ashamed of.
Dips in mood, stressful periods, heightened worry and even panic can happen to the best of us, and for the most part, can’t be entirely avoided. So, the importance lies in your response to these triggers and emotions. It is in recognising these feelings as they begin to happen and putting steps in place to prevent them from escalating.
As many people do with time and experience, I have come to terms with which situations will trigger my anxiety and developed coping mechanisms to best approach these with. But with COVID vastly changing many people’s lives, wellbeing and mental health very quickly, many have found themselves at a loss of which new techniques and solutions to try to lift their mood and improve their mental wellbeing through an unpredictable time. In response to this I’ve collated my own personal experiences, wellbeing knowledge and tips which have resonated with me over the past 12 months to share my top 7 tips for managing anxiety:
Manage your expectations
The suggestion that lockdown has brought about unprecedented productivity implies that we should raise the bar, rather than lower it. Do not underestimate the emotional load that COVID brings, or the impact it may have had on your productivity. Difficulty concentrating, low motivation and distraction are to be expected. Adaptation back to normal work and life will take time. Go easy on yourself. As we settle into new rhythms work, we need to be realistic in the goals we set, both for ourselves and others in our team.
Proactively manage your stress
Try to lay a foundation for your mental health by prioritising your sleep, and practise good sleep habit (avoid blue lights before bed, and stick to the same sleep and wake times). Eat well (be conscious that you might be inclined to lean on alcohol to manage stress). Exercise, it will lower your stress levels, help you to better regulate your emotions and improve your sleep.
Identify your red flags
One way to manage distress is to identify key thoughts, actions and physical sensations that contribute to you feeling overwhelmed. Our thoughts (Why can’t I concentrate?), feelings (frustration, worry, sadness), physical sensations (tension, upset stomach) and actions (such as constantly checking the news) each feed into these negative emotional spirals. Addressing one aspect of this loop by, for example, actively reducing the physical symptoms (I use box breathing: breathe in for four counts, hold for four, breathe out for four and hold for four, then repeat) can de-escalate the cycle and help you regain control.
Set a Routine
Setting a routine helps to manage anxiety, and will help you to adapt more quickly to changes in your current reality. If you’re working from home create clear distinctions between work and non-work time, ideally in both your physical workspace and your head space. Find something to do that is not work that brings you joy. Working in short bursts with clear breaks will help to maintain your clarity of thought.
There is a lot that we can’t control right now, but how we talk to ourselves can either provide a cushion to difficult circumstances or increase our stress. Feeling overwhelmed often be paired with thoughts, such as “I can’t do this,” or “This is too hard.” When this occurs, try to shift your mindset to what can be learned from the experience, or any positive aspects you can find about it. There are undeniably times when you will undergo a lot of stress, and we can’t be our best selves all the time. But we can help ourselves by showing compassion towards ourselves.
Even the most introverted of us need some sense of connection for our mental and physical health. Many online groups have created virtual forums where you can contribute or just sit back and enjoy the chatter. Look out for virtual coffee groups, online book clubs and co-working spaces where you can work in the presence of others. If we are in social isolation, we need not feel alone. Remember to reach out to those who might be particularly isolated.
Stay in the present
Take each day as it comes and focus on the things you can control. Mindfulness and meditation can be great tools.
For more information on our Mindfulness virtual workshops click here.
There will be stressful times ahead for all of us, but by embracing good mental health and wellbeing measures, we can protect ourselves and our future health.