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Sunday, 21 June 2015

Self Help Tools: BeMindfulOnline

Rather than trying an app this time, I got my hands on the free intro to a new online course about Mindfulness. If you are living in London and use the Underground, you may recognise this poorly captured poster:

These are adverts for a new initiative called Be Mindful which has been produced and run by Wellmind Media and the UK charity the Mental Health Foundation. The initiative is all about raising people's awareness and the availability of mindfulness in the UK and started up around Mental Health Awareness Week which was earlier this year. The website itself is a great resource of information about mindfulness, therapies, how it works, and whether it would be beneficial to you the consumer. I recommend taking a look if you're interested in the subject.

Part of this initiative is a four-week long course by the same name, which was developed "to cover the core elements of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)" as explained by the website. According to the site, this course is "recognized by leading teaching institutions including the Mindfulness Centre of Oxford University and the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice, Bangor University".

You have to first register to start the course, after which you will be shown a short introductory video by the two specialists who will be running the course. It's a good introduction to what mindfulness is, its benefits, and what the course you're about to embark on will be like, that there will be specific mindfulness-oriented tasks to do week by week, that you will be able to complete the course at your own pace rather than be held to a strict schedule as you would be in, say, face-to-face therapy sessions.

A screen grab from the website: I appreciate them acknowledging that this isn't a fix-all therapy, that there are situations in which it can be unhelpful or not useful.
The subjects of each week
After the explanations of mindfulness in general and what the course is about, you are then given a test which measures the levels of stress, anxiety, and or depression you may display. If you've done IAPT counselling you may recognise a lot of the questions. They're all about your daily life, moods, beliefs, and habits with multiple choice answers. It then gives you a graph measuring the severity of each of the issues for you. I didn't manage to get a screen grab, but the information is pretty interesting and it's something you are suppose to come back to at the end of the course. That way, you can measure and see the differences in how these things affect you before and after mindfulness.

My only issue is probably the price. The full course is £60, which I personally feel is quite cheap in comparison to something like private therapy sessions or classes. However, it's expensive when you consider that there are cheaper options to learn about and practice mindfulness via the internet. Whether it's podcasts, ebooks, other mindfulness websites or YouTube for example. Even offline there is the option of IAPT for many people.

If you're looking for a tested, researched, proven method to combat stress, anxiety, depression, or similar ailments then this does have the credentials, and if this were to be someone's first experience with mindfulness or therapy in general, this is a great quick option as opposed to paying much more than that for four hours of therapy sessions.

For me, it would be a waste of money since I've done a mindfulness course of sorts already and would be hearing a lot of the same information over again. For someone with little experience with mindfulness, or therapies in general, this seems like a comprehensive and potentially very helpful way of dealing with stress and anxiety. I would also recommend just doing the introduction if nothing else, so you are able to take away a quantifiable image of how things like stress, anxiety, or depression are affecting you.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Eight More Disjointed Thoughts

I'm fascinated by the Rachel Dolezal story - a lot of people are saying the story has come out now to distract the public from the McKinney pool part incident, and it probably is honestly, but I am just so curious as to the way her mind works. I want to know what spurs someone to fabricate a whole life, fake a son, fake a father, fake hate mail, fake an appearance...having a strong sympathy for or empathy with the black struggle is one thing, but I think her whole web of lies (implying, of course, that all the allegations are true) is so perverse and crazy and inadvertently disrespecting the culture she so much wants to be a part of. 

People have been throwing around the term "transracial" to describe Ms. Dolezal and others that may be like her. Firstly transracial is already a word, so using it to describe someone born one race and identifying as another is incorrect. Secondly, I find that whole concept pretty racist and a little diminishing of the transgender struggle. The idea that one can "feel" black on a non-cultural level makes no sense to me and on a cultural level there are huge numbers of people of all races that identify strongly with various black cultures. 
Ethnicity is inherited, gender is not
Ethnicity only affects who you are as a person if a) there is a culture, stigma or something related to that ethnicity and b) you're exposed to that culture, stigma, or something.
Being transgender vs. being a man that identifies, empathizes, and enjoys being around women are very different concepts. 
(I might be a huge bigot, and in 30 years this may end up being a completely common concept. For now though, I can't understand it at all.)

Although I'm getting more and more used to being single, I'm also beginning to miss certain aspects of being in a relationship right now - a lot.
I suppose I can just try and put it out of my head, but it's difficult, difficult and dangerous.

I have a lot of shit to do that I feel like I'm putting off.
I can't tell whether I'm putting things off or giving myself a break though because I've recently been quite productive. These are the kinds of things my anxiety wrestles with, causing me to be stuck in the middle and do nothing.

I haven't called IAPT yet. I know I have to, but I am finding it difficult to bring myself to do it.

This whole post is me forcing myself to keep this blogging habit, honestly. I'm going to make it my uninspired series, for when I can't think of what to write. It's a good way of helping me to unload what I'm thinking rather than my normal habit of bottling it up.

As pro natural hair as I am, I still don't feel totally comfortable with my afro hair. I think part of the reason I like having braids in so much is because I can hide behind them in a way. With an afro, my hair is up and out and my face is entirely too visible for my liking. I'm holding onto that last vestige of my emo self, I suppose?

The older I get, the less and less I know what I want to do with my life, and people always say there is plenty of time but I still feel like that time is running out. It's daunting, and I think it weighs me down pretty substantially.

(In fact I know it is, because I feel lighter for writing it down.) 

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Self-Help Tools: The S.A.M. App

There is a fair selection of apps or websites based around self-help and meditation for stress, anxiety, insomnia and other mental health issues. I'll be going through and trying out some of these from time to time for the blog and also to find out how many work for me, if any.  One of these many apps is one I've already experimented with before, so I'll do a little run down of it today about its features and what I managed to get out of it.

The SAM App

The SAM  or Self-help for Anxiety Management app is being developed by the Department of Creative Sciences and Computer Technologies at the University of West England in Bristol, and in conjunction with MyOxygen and in conjunction with MyOxygen mobile apps. It's purpose is as the name states: to be an on-the-go tool to facilitate self-help for anxiety management in your everyday life. This is what the User Interface looks like:

Each button on the screen relates to a different tool you can use for managing your anxiety.

The "Working with SAM" button gives you information about the app and how it came into being, and the "Help for Anxiety NOW" button gives you access to breathing exercises and images to meditate over. It allows you to create a calm mind space for if you're having an anxiety attack in that moment. It even has a reassuring message about panic as the first thing you see. I've found that in sitting in a situation when I'm already with my phone and I'm having an anxiety attack I can use this to get myself to a more comfortable level. It's useful in social situations where you can look at your phone without drawing too much attention to yourself.

The "How's My anxiety right now" button allows you to measure how you're feeling at any given moment with various sliders to measure any physical sensations, avoidance, worrying thoughts and other things. This then related directly to the Anxiety Tracker below, so I'll talk about this more with the tracker.

"Self-help with SAM" is kind of the main function of this app. Within it are various exercises, pieces of food for thought, relaxation and anti-anxiety techniques which you can test out and use to see how they work for you. One of my favourite anti-anxiety methods offered is a thing called "Stop that thought" which allows you to write an anxious thought you're having into a bubble on the screen, then tap the screen to blow it up. As odd as it sounds, it's cathartic watching that thought which has been terrorising you just be reduced to nothing.

It also has daily quotes or ideas to reflect on. For example, today's is "Can I be Flexible?"

 "Things that make me anxious" is just that, a place where you can list all the things that make you anxious for whichever reason. You may want to show someone like a partner or therapist so they casn get a better insight into you, or you can use it for yourself to know what things you need to work on. "My anxiety toolkit" is my favourite tool, because you're able to pick and choose exercises from the "Self-help with SAM" button and add them to your toolkit. What you're left with is a list of anti-anxiety methods tailored to suit you, and you can dip into it and find what you need at any moment.

So, the "Anxiety Tracker" is a line graph measuring your feelings of anxiety at different intervals, so if you do the "how's my anxiety now" measure at regular intervals you can end up with a very interesting and very telling picture of how your anxiety affects you daily or weekly, and also a picture of what your most prominent anxiety symptoms are. The problem with this is, in moments of high stress or anxiety you're not going to be thinking about tracking how you're feeling. It takes some dedication to figuring out a pattern. It's the kind of thing that might work better in conjunction with therapy, or maybe the app could prompt you about the tracker when you open it? It requires some kind of enforced structure.

Finally the social cloud is a place where people using this app can make comments on the different anti-anxiety techniques anonymously and look at other people's experiences. It's fine, if a little basic, I would just with there were more opportunity to interact with people and give advice, or even something as simple as liking a comment to show solidarity with a person. It feels very much like talking into the void without any real feedback.

The app also comes with links to organisations in the UK that offer therapies for anxiety, acknowledging that for some people self-help is only one part of the process and professional help can be just as vital. The links are for AnxietyUK, British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, Mind, Royal College of Psychiatrists, NHS D-I-Y Therapy, and Triumph Over Phobia, most of which I had never actually heard of.

So that was my run down of the SAM App, it has its flaws but ultimately I've found it to be incredibly useful for me in stressful situations when I'm out and about and can't reach for a book or find a quiet room to meditate. Hopefully you'll all find it to be a useful tool also, and if you want to try it out it's avaialable on the Apple Store or Google Play Store for free!

Monday, 1 June 2015

Mindfulness Week 8: The Rest of Your Life



So, here I am at the end of my Mindfulness journey with the biggest, most important task so far: to live the rest of my life. A very interesting chapter, this week all the book talks about is attempting to go through the rest of your life with a mindful outlook. No scheduled meditations, no tasks, just sort of contemplating my journey up to this point. This week I've just been very lax with myself, observing how the way I regularly live my life has changed through these eight weeks of practice. From these observations I will be able to judge what I need to focus on for...well, I suppose for as long as I want.


It's pretty intimidating, the idea of no longer having a regimented amount of meditation or things to ponder. The interesting thing, however, is that the idea of meditating is starting to become my default reaction to a stressful situation. I've observed that when I feel myself becoming stressed or tense at work I'll do a quick Breathing Space when I get a quiet moment. If I realise I've been in my head all day, or I'm anxious and can't quite unpack my feelings to find the root of my self-focus I'll think "okay, when I get home today I'll do an Exploring Difficulty meditation and figure out these emotions". I'm sort of working out which meditation work for what and when, and slowly getting into the habit of understanding meditation as a tool for not only relaxation, but for understanding myself and my anxiety better.

P.s.: I never actually meditate like this


Unfortunately, the lack of regiment has made me lazy and sometimes reluctant to meditate, preferring to stay in the bad feeling because it's familiar in its discomfort. I'll know that I need to do an Exploring Difficulty meditation for example, but as soon as I get home there's something else I want to do, or I feel too tired (isn't that funny - too tired to relax) or drained to focus on a meditation. I don't seem to have as much drive to push myself as I did when I had goals. I think the solution to that, however, is to give myself goals in relation to mindfulness and self-help. Maybe to-do lists, maybe rewarding myself - I'll figure out a system that works for me.
Image credit: Jillian Ditner

Final Thoughts and What's Next

I honestly think I've done well - I'm proud of myself for making it to the end of this programme. It was tough, rigorous at times but always provided what I needed when I kept up my side of the bargain. The list I started working on last week, with things to aid in balancing nourishing and depleting activities in my everyday life, has made progress. I do walk to work now, using that as a mindfulness bell to remind me to observe and take in my surroundings, I read a little bit more often, I use meditation in high-stress situations, but I'm still having difficulty not doing the little things in a more mindful way.

Another thing I'm proud of myself for is my change in attitude. I'm saying yes to things, going out, making plans, taking risks. Sometimes all I want to do is curl up and be still until I have to go back to work because my assumption is that the less I do the less stress I have. As we saw last week, that is entirely incorrect. Now it seems like going out with a friend, for a walk, or to the gym is helping me feel better about work the next day. I get to carry some of that buzz around with me all day and use it as fuel.

The fact that I can even congratulate myself and appreciate what progress I've made rather than dwelling on my mistakes and problems shows that this programme has had some kind of effect on me and my outlook.

So there are two things that I know are next for me now that I've completed this course, other than attempting to always be more mindful and to regularly meditate. The first is more research into self-help: new books, new concepts, new things to learn about. The myriad of different approaches to dealing with anxiety and stress are really interesting, and there may be some things I can learn and talk about on this blog site, things that might help one of you more than Mindfulness.

The second thing is going back for more therapy. That might sound strange because it probably reads like I'm in a good place emotionally, and actually I am. I'm a lot better than I have been, the problem is that when I finished my IAPT sessions I knew I had a lot more to learn and get to grips with. The thing with therapy is you don't have to wait until you're at rock bottom to seek treatment - just because I'm in a good place now doesn't mean I will be in a month or two's time, and what I can learn with IAPT, using it along with my Mindfulness training, will help me deal with those highs and lows and learn about what triggers my low moments at a deeper level.

Image is from the blog of Julianna Swaney

Thank you for following me on this unexpected journey! I've enjoyed this little project, and it seems other people have too. I will attempt to keep my posting schedule as regular (ish) as it has been but with new, different things! I have an if you have questions or suggestions, you can follow me on twitter @JaxxOLantern for updates and strange things, and I am working on re-launching my old fiction blog! I thought it would be better to have a space specifically for writing fiction and a space specifically for blogging, and I may do little commentaries or blog posts about my stories or about aspects of writing so there can be a nice connection between the two places.

I'm excited for the future, and for doing better, but I shall be mindful for right now and appreciate this good feeling, this here and now.