Putting the ‘Resolve’ in Resolution

Why Do We Make New Year’s Resolutions?

Social convention plays a big part. A typical small talk topic leading up to December 31st is ‘Have you made any New Year’s Resolutions?’ 

At this point, many of us grasp at the first thing that pops into our heads that we find least desirable about ourselves and lead with that. Otherwise it’s an activity we think will be impressive if we express interest in perusing it, or, in desperation, we just vaguely mutter something about diet and exercise. 

Thus, the initial issue with New Year’s Resolutions is that they are non-committal, often vague and generic statements thrown about in the name of festive convention. We are not motivated or inspired, the intention is not there to make them thus there is no ambition to keep them and so they are unfulfilled before even being acknowledged. 

Why Does New Year Appeal for Sudden Goal Setting? 

It’s tidy. The first day of a new year sounds like it should be highly motivational, a neat new start, sweeping out the old and starting fresh.

Perhaps this Spring Cleaning tradition would work if the New Year still began in March, when the days are growing longer and the weather is improving, more of us would be able to maintain their enthusiasm and eat healthier and exercise more. 

But the middle of winter is when the majority of us are seeking for comfort from food and warm blankets. 

What Results in Repeatedly Making Resolutions We Never Keep? 

Most of us are self-aware enough to know that we have faults, accompanied by a desire to ‘fix’ them. 

This means one of two things: either we are trying to go cold turkey on undesirable aspects of our personality (my impatience for instance) and get tripped up by being disappointed in ourselves when we are not perfect and make mistakes like losing our temper over parking tickets or someone drinking out of our special mug at work; or we are trying to undertake projects that we simply do not have the time, year after year, to complete. 

Perhaps the first step with the latter would be to improve our ability at budgeting our time and learning to prioritise, and for the former, we need to learn self-love, not to never change, but to respect ourselves and trust our ability to improve overtime. 

Change is never instantaneous and to act like it is (something that is intensified at New Year) is to set ourselves up for disappointment. We should instead appreciate that change is slow, show ourselves the patience and encouragement we would give others when we experience momentary lapses to bad habits. That way, these slips would be short-lived set backs, not obstacles that holt our progress. 

Effective Change is Born of Positivity not Negativity

The core issue is our expectations; our desire to be our best selves, coming up against our idea of perfection and falling short. 

Too often we are focusing on altering rather than enhancing characteristics.  

One of my friends included among their resolutions (it was a long list) to ‘be kind’. This is, of course, coming from a kind person. People are kind, most of us just struggle to be kind to all people all of the time.

I guess we could look at the issue of this ‘be kind’ resolution as being a blanket statement – goals should have some form of measurement (otherwise you will always fall short because your moving your own finish line) and a way to hold yourself accountable, or else it is too easy to continue to perpetually put it off. 

There are also those resolutions that are driven by external rather than internal influences, mostly regarding appearance. Exercise, diet and fitness resolutions are so frequently the result of drawing comparisons, feeling judged and pressuring ourselves from perceived social expectations, rather than from our own desire to be healthier, fitter or live a more sustainable lifestyle. 

Whilst there is much to be encouraged in pursuing a healthier lifestyle, with balanced diet and regular activity, too often these resolutions stem from places of negativity which manifests as defeatist thought spirals. 

A Time for Reflection Not Resolution 

Instead, New Year should be a time of reflection, a relaxed evaluation of the year gone by, a chance to feel proud at what was accomplished and acknowledge anything that we would have liked to have done differently. (Do not dwell on the latter, acknowledgement is not the same as regret unless you give it more than the passing glance it generally requires).

Reflection is a slow methodical evaluation that enables recognition, instils self respect through acknowledgement, resulting either in acceptance and self love, or the establishment of a considered trajectory for positive change. 

So make this January a time of reflection, and your only resolution to be one of self-care, of acknowledging not regretting and of letting go of the past year to fully embrace your potential in the new one. 

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Be More Edison

Last year, I published a post about Thomas Edison. 2nd January 1879 was the day that Edison began work on his first generator, only to see his life’s work go up in flames in 1914. Yet was he deterred? Not at all. Almost 70, he simply began all over again.

For me this is what January, and New Year, is all about. It is a time of year when everyone is reflecting, looking back at the year gone by and making plans for the year to come. It is important to be aware that this reflection makes it a challenging time of year for many, especially if personal tragedies have occurred. I like the Thomas Edison anecdote because it is all about renewal and rejecting regret. Regrets, and the expectations that lead to them, are the biggest foes of mental wellbeing in January.

Be More Edison

This year, I too am starting over. Our little family has grown and new life has brought rejuvenation. The past year was filled with personal reflection and emotional exploration as I attempted to regain some past integrity I felt had been lost through traumatic experience.

The initial ambition when I created this blog was to find solace, and perhaps provide some too, along the way. Now, I feel refreshed, thanks to you dear reader, I have persevered and gained confidence.  Like Edison, I have begun rebuilding, forming a disposition that I recognise from before my mental health broke down and becoming suicidal. Recovery, especially from an emotional injury, is a long journey, but I do believe it to be possible, however long it takes.

Take your time.

Where to Start?

Mental illness can be all consuming and because it is invisible can take longer to recognise, diagnose and understand.

Identifying the triggers for episodes of mental ill-health is an important place to begin. The trigger is the connection between the symptoms you experience and their root cause, most frequently a past experience. It’s working backwards to move forwards.

If you have been following my blog for a while, you will be aware that the trigger for my depression and suicidal thoughts was a series of negative relationships and intense academic anxiety. However, my anxiety is much more ingrained and has a root buried much deeper in the past.

Over the last year, I have begun to mentally excavate around the root. This began by assessing my panic attacks and identifying when the latest one started, working back from the obsessive behaviour to its trigger.

This is a good place to start because it does not require going outside, getting dressed, or even leaving the safety of a duvet cocoon.

Once identified, triggers can be used during grounding to re-centre and gradually gain control over mental illness, instead of feeling that it is control of you. It took me years, but I can now identify activities that are more likely than others to affect my mental wellbeing. As a result, I can be selective in my actions. This does not mean avoiding triggers outright. But it means that I can choose to engage with a stressor and feel in control or disengage from it if I am already feeling overwhelmed.

This isn’t about ‘Saying No’, which so many people find difficult. This is about self-awareness and being able to use that awareness to cope with the things you say yes too. Personally, I think it is generally good to say yes. Yes is positive, it makes you feel capable, because you are capable. If you didn’t know that on some level, you’re subconscious wouldn’t have jumped in and said yes on your behalf before the rest of your brain had thought it all through.

Have faith in yourself and your abilities, even if, like Edison, you have some rebuilding to do.

 

How Work Helped Me Understand My Anxiety

I love my job. I feel very privileged to feel fulfilled by what I do.  However, at times, I feel I’m in completely the wrong place. I have anxiety and my job is all about performance.

Almost everyday I am standing in front of strangers, telling stories, trying to engage the public in the history of the city where I lived for the past 5 years. I love the city, I love the past and it might surprise you to hear that I quite like people too. I like being part of a stranger’s holiday, showing them the best bits of where they are visiting and revealing stories they might otherwise have missed. But I feel sick almost every time.

Anxiety at Work
Sickness and nausea have always been prominent manifestations of my anxiety (and this post is going to talk about sick a lot!). My heart beats so fast that it feels it is propelling itself up my throat and into my mouth. I feel choked and hot and desperate to get away. But I don’t.

I am not sure whether fighting my natural flight instinct is actually positive. In the past I have known people be very disappointed to learn that I am a nervous, sensitive, really quite vulnerable human being. They have been shocked, sad, even very insulting. It has, occasionally, prevented me from getting the help that I needed (please, never let anyone, anything or any opinion, stop you from asking for help or seeking medical assistance, I did and it nearly killed me). Yet, if I didn’t fight my flight instinct, then I wouldn’t be where I am, or have done half of the things that I have done in my life; including starting this blog, taking part in poetry slams, or travelling alone to archaeological excavations abroad.

Anxiety in Childhood
I didn’t consciously try to overcome my flight instinct. It was a natural result of not knowing that there was a reason (termed anxiety) that I constantly felt sick. All I knew was that when I started school, I couldn’t continually tell my teachers, my friends or my parents that I felt unwell. Even at a young age, I realised that not everyone was physically sick every day of their lives. So I became very aware of how I felt. For instance, I knew that if I felt choked up by feeling my heart beating away in my throat, I wasn’t going to be physically ill, just very uncomfortable. If I felt sick in my stomach, that was a good time to mention something.

As I grew up, this learnt behaviour had become my normal. It helped me know that when hormones kicked in, my dad became ill and teenage romances inevitably ended, that how I was feeling in that moment, was not permanent. That tomorrow was a new day, it would have its own troubles, but it also had the potential of being a whole lot better.

I am grateful for this learnt behaviour. When I became an adult, it gave me the assurance that I would go to sleep and wake up feeling differently to how I felt when I went to sleep. I view sleep as resetting. Having a way to reset is really important if you have an illness that means that you do not always feel in control of your own mind. It is always harder to escape the bullying of your own brain, but even if I am already in bed, I find rolling over is another way to reset. I imagine it works because I am taking action. I am physically disengaging with that thought process. I can’t always mentally tell my mind to shut up, but I can physically send signals to my brain which distract it so I can break the thought spiral.

Exit Strategies
I started my first job when I was 15, washing dishes in the local pub kitchen. It was at this time that I started learning about exit strategies. Now I have one for everywhere I go. As I mentioned, my anxiety makes itself known by making me feel incredibly sick. Even with my learnt behaviour of knowing that I will not actually be sick, having an exit strategy is always reassuring, especially if I am in a cinema, theatre or performing in front of people. In such instances, feeling sick makes me worry that I will actually be sick, and therefore feel sicker. A good example of one of those thought spirals I was on about.

As a result, when I began to feel anxious and unwell, I would start running through all the options I had if I finally felt like I really might be sick. The toilets weren’t really an option as they were on the other side of the restaurant and I would cause a huge scene dashing across. The idea of causing disturbance or drawing attention was not conducive to reducing anxiety.

The alternative exit was out into the pub garden though the back door of the kitchen. No one would see me and it would have fresh air but given that I was frequently too anxious to tell what exactly might happen when, it could result in many unnecessary trips to the garden which would look very strange and not impress my employer when I was meant to be in the kitchen washing up.

The sink were I washed up was beneath a window which would often help me take a pause and calm down by momentarily removing me from the situation. It was also located two paces from the bin so that any food scraps could be disposed of quickly without interrupting the washing/drying chain. This was the strategy I had in place to try and keep my anxiety low-level. It was the simple reminder that if I was taken by surprise, a suitable receptacle was right there, drawing the least about of attention and causing limited disruption. Having an option in mind meant that I could once more feel in control, calmer and therefore the anxiety and nausea would disappear.

I still carry on this idea. Just remember that although having a receptacle in mind in case I am suddenly about to be sick may sound repulsive and gross, I am very rarely physically ill, it’s just a little trick I use to calm my mind and keep my anxiety in check. I try to sit in the aisle on planes and trains so that I can have easy access to the toilet, or, if I am travelling with my husband then I will sit next to the window with him between me and the next person so I can be discreet if necessary. On buses, I always have a bag or a jumper on my lap so I can bring it up to my face, and at my current work I always have a huge stash of tissues in my pocket.

At Work
It was during my time with the company I currently work for that I developed depression. This was in no way related to the work that I did, in fact for a long time my place of work doubled as being the space I would use for grounding when my anxiety reached unprecedented levels.

Some days I was in work for hours after my shift, I was just there, avoiding the world beyond that was making me feel stressed and overwhelmed. I would often take on additional shifts to give me an excuse to be there. It was very noticeable at university, the rest of the student staff would be swapping shifts or taking leave to complete assignments and revise for exams and it was usually me picking up their unwanted work.

With this in mind, it is probably not surprising that my anxiety went through the roof during my final year of university, and that was without everything else that was going on. My dissertation became the trigger. In the end, I never finished it. It was handed in but the discussion was underdeveloped and there was no conclusion. I was lucky that what I eventually submitted was considered good enough for me to pass.

The doctor who diagnosed me made the relationship between my history of anxiety and my comparatively sudden development of depression make sense. As I mentioned before, anxious had become my normal, I could appear completely calm despite being almost permanently tied up in knots on the inside. However, my dissertation had resulted in so much adrenaline that my body stopped being able to produce it. By this point my body was used to being fuelled by adrenaline and when it suddenly dipped because I burnt myself out, my mental wellbeing imploded.

Applying Psychology to Experience
My A-level Psychology class taught that there are two main ways that stress is processed: escape avoidance and positive reappraisal. The terms are very descriptive but in short, escape avoidance is actively avoiding the trigger, whether that is a task, a place or an environment, whereas positive reappraisal is strategizing and working through or around the stressor.

During the first three years of university I lived with a friend who copes with stress in the complete opposite way to me and this led to an very enlightening conversation. I am very much an avoider of things that stress me out, so I fill my time with other things and get on with the trigger task when I absolutely have to, at the very last minute. My friend on the other hand, develops strategies and works on the task almost continually until it is completed. This made our lifestyles look polar opposite, and sometimes we did wonder what on earth we could possibly have in common (we are still friends so it wasn’t just flat-sharing which meant we got along). What I learnt from the conversations we had was that our responses to stress were normal and natural for us.

Whilst habits can be learnt, broken and changed, we should not beat ourselves up because we are naturally predisposed to act in a way that is opposite to the habit we are trying to develop. For example: I read David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. I really enjoyed the book, it’s easy to read and full of great advice. Most of the techniques are what my positive reappraisal friend naturally does. For me, as an avoider, I have put some the strategies in place and had instant results, and others that, although they have been simple to implement, have just fallen by the wayside. Do I think that I can learn these strategies in time, sure, why not? But along the way I have realised that some behaviours take longer to learn (or unlearn, depending on your perspective) than others.