Yesterday I was contemplating what I would write about today - what aspect of mental health should I talk about? I decided that I wanted to convey the voices and experiences of the people I have met through my work as a psychologist.
In the States, it seemed that the kids I worked with as a mental health counsellor were given a mental health disorder diagnosis for insurance purposes. Labelled and boxed so the secure units would get payment for them. In the UK, I feel that it's different. I feel that people sometimes go in search of their diagnosis and have difficulty getting support. Others don't go at all; silently suffering and not knowing what's "wrong with them."
I believe services are now better for those suffering from anxiety and depression. There is more understanding and more openness. Yesterday, I noticed the title of a newspaper article - "I was floored with depression".
This made me think about other mental health challenges - the ones we don't talk about or aren't comfortable saying. We are okay with saying "I am OCD" or "I am a perfectionist" because we can see the positives. I ask my "OCD" friend to come over to clean my flat or when asked about a "weakness" in a job interview, to answer "I am a perfectionist."
What about borderline personality disorder? What do we know about individuals suffering from that?
I have a long standing client who I have asked if I could share a snippet of her experience. Let's call her Sally....
Sally is an elite athlete and was diagnosed with depression at 18 years old. I think for Sally, there were many contributing factors including feeling pressure to please her parents to have the 'perfect' life. Competition became harder in her sport and she was no longer "the best." Sally suffered immensely and began self-harming when the pressure got too much. When she felt like she had let others down, she engaged in risk-taking behaviours as a way of punishing herself. Sally had difficulties in relationships because she would push and pull, attach and dis-attach and would often feel unloved and empty. When others did not meet her expectations, Sally would feel hopeless and have suicidal thoughts. All of these are symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a mental disorder marked by a pattern of ongoing instability in moods, behaviour, self-image, and functioning. These experiences often result in impulsive actions and unstable relationships. A person with BPD may experience intense episodes of anger, depression, and anxiety that may last from only a few hours to days.
Sally was finally given this diagnosis last year. In working with Sally, I believe the diagnosis has helped her understand herself more and we work together to try to alleviate her symptoms and help her cope. Sally is doing very well at present - competing at a high level and travelling with her sport.
The foundations of yoga are ‘The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’ which provides us with a guide to reaching Samadhi - that state of bliss. This includes ‘Eight Limbs of Yoga’ of which each limb offers us guidance within our practice, both on and off the mat.
The first limb is made up of the ‘Yamas’. These are moral values which guide the best way to act towards ourselves and others. The first Yama is ‘Ahimsa’, which means ‘non-violence’ or ‘non-harming’. (‘Himsa’ = ‘hurt’ and ‘a’ = ‘not’). The body can hear what we think about ourselves and therefore Ahimsa is not only about physical violence, but mental violence. The practice to help the mental violence of self-deprecation - thinking negatively about oneself.
For Sally, she would often tell herself she was not good enough and not worthy of people's love. She would cause harm to herself both physically and mentally - berating herself when she did not meet her own expectations.
How has Sally been able to manage? By practicing self-care and non-violence towards herself. I have tried to teach her self-compassion and that she is worthy as a person. Through self-love and replacing negative self-perceptions with kindness and acceptance, Sally is starting to manage her mental health disorder.
Yoga helps to diffuse any violence you hold inside of you. By releasing negative energy through positive intentions, your mat is a great place to practice non-violence towards yourself.
Thank you 'Sally' for letting me share your story. Namaste!
Many of us spend time in "worry mode". It's 1 am and you can't sleep because your mind is racing. You are worrying about the next day and then you worry about not being able to sleep. You even worry about situations that have never happened before or are not likely to happen (the "what ifs?"). Some of your worries are rationale and based on previous experiences and other worries are completely irrational.
Even as a kid, I recall sleepless nights and not being able to switch off. My mind was in overdrive and I would try different ways to get to sleep. One way was watching TV (Prisoner Cell Block H....weird I know) and when my mum and dad would come upstairs I would quickly turn it off and pretend I was asleep. Otherwise, I would wriggle around for hours telling myself to go to sleep. Nevertheless, thoughts of saving the animals or worries about school would circle in my mind. Possibly a slightly odd child.
How does yoga ward off the worry?
Yoga is learning to just 'be' rather than focusing on how anxious and worried you are.
Since starting yoga, I sleep a lot better. I am relaxed after an evening class (particularly when Marci has killed my abs and we then do handstand practice). My mind still churns but I now tackle my overthinking and worrying with techniques learned through my psychology training and yoga.
If I can't sleep, I practice my breathing. Yoga breathing helps calm the sympathetic nervous system and therefore, helps to relax the body.
I find breathing the most difficult part of yoga. One day at Yogabomb, I was only person to attend the lovely Emel's class and she really helped me focus on my breathing. I was essentially holding my breath for many postures and not allowing it to work it's magic. This was the class I learned the magic of breathing. Savasana was priceless.
By focusing on the breath, you lose the focus on your thoughts. Lou says "acknowledge your thoughts and then let them go - drop them onto your mat" I like this. I often suggest similar techniques to my clients; Practice not attaching energy and emotion to certain thoughts and take them as they are.
I often match breathing focus with a mediation video from YouTube. I particularly enjoy the chakra cleansing ones. When I was going through a rough time, I went to visit my uncle, a former professional footballer and now a calming yogi. I didn't need to tell him what I was going through. He spoke to me about 'being still' and about learning to love yourself. He told me to listen to this (see below):
Obviously, in my tender state, my eyes cried and I started to feel a bit "fuller". I now use this video to help 'let the love in' whenever I am feeling a little low or overthinking situations.
"If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it's not fixable, then there is no help in worrying" Dalai Lama
Breathe. Let the love in and let the worry go. Swap the worry for the warrior! Namaste 🙏🏽
Today I will tell my story of cancer.
In my last blog, I focused on perfectionism and the stress that it causes. I spoke frankly about my own experience with anxiety and overthinking.
Although this week is dedicated to mental health, I believe poor mental health can impact on physical wellbeing. I believe my self induced stress as described yesterday is what led to a large vascular tumour.
To cut a long story short, it was September 11th 2008 and the nurse told me "there appears to be a large mass in abdominal area. This could be your ovary - you will need a full hysterectomy"
Three blood transfusions later, I am sure it was very clear to the surgeon that it was not my ovary. He was right about it being a large mass - it was a 11 inches by 13 inches tumour ('the size of a basketball' he said).
Fortunately, they managed to remove most of the large tumour which had attached itself to my bowel and behind my abdominal muscles.
I was told I would need further surgery as the cancer was still attached to my bowel and it would have been too dangerous to attempt to remove it.
Doctors and surgeons couldn't agree on a diagnosis. Among the suggestions was hemangiopericytoma (a rare vascular tumour). I researched medical journals and I could only find an article about an 82 year old lady who had the same 'diagnosis'.
In search of answers, I flew to New York, to Memorial Sloan Kettering, one of the world's largest cancer hospital.
There I was told that I would need another surgery to remove part of the bowel. This would mean a colostomy bag. What?!? Then came the next bombshell- the hospital couldn't treat me nor could my surgery be completed because my insurance company said my cancer was a 'pre-existing condition.' I was told I would need to pay the $55,000 medical bill myself and was no longer entitled to treatment unless I paid this. My blood pressure still rises recalling this! At the time, whilst also studying for my Masters, I was working for the University as an advisor for international students about health insurance. Thankfully, my boss went absolutely berserk and fought the insurance company on my behalf to reduce my bill.
Shortly later, I received a phone call from the specialist at Sloan Kettering who told me I needed to go to Scotland immediately to have another surgery as the scan showed large quantities of fluid in my abdominal area. I booked my flights immediately to go home. I soon received another phone call "apologies, we were looking at the scan straight after your surgery, it is not as urgent as we thought - it would be best to go anyway!"
I returned to Scotland during Spring Break to see a consultant and then flew back to USA to sit my exams for my Masters. The day after my exams I flew back to Scotland for my second surgery. They removed part of my bowel to remove the remaining cancer. This was 8 years ago and I am still all clear. Thank you NHS!
What causes this type of cancer? One in which the tumour feeds on the blood vessels allowing it to grow quickly? The specialists did not know - perhaps a fall?
I believe the cause was psychological distress. Although I presented as outgoing and happy, I was often crippled with an internal turmoil of anxiety and stress. After I got my degree, I spent a year working in the USA as a Mental Health Counselor and running different soccer programs and coaching different teams. I was out of the house from 530am until 10pm. I dedicated every waking minute to helping people that I quickly forgot how to help myself. I was stressed, tired and didn't feel like myself but I continued to push myself everyday without rest.
When I got cancer, I found myself again. I started to remember what and who were important. I spent the summer travelling Europe with friends and it was during this time I realised that life in the USA wasn't for me anymore. I needed more balance in my life. I had to learn to relax and not let stress get the better of me.
I am not saying that I don't have the tendency to slip into being a "workaholic" but I now set aside time every day for my yoga practice and take time at the weekend to switch off and spend time with the people who are important to me.
I fortunately recovered quickly from both of my surgeries and I believe that this was due to being physically fit and having amazing and supportive people around me. I believe if you find a yoga community like at Yogabomb, you can gain both of these - fitness and being surrounded by great yogi's. Teachers inject positivity into the studio and you leave feeling stress-free and liberated. Yogabomb is a place which helps me both physically and mentally. Namaste 🙏🏽
Tracy Donachie, MSc in Performance Psychology.