Conversations with… Kimberley of ‘Keep Real’ (Subject: Mental Health, Creative Outlets and Stress Management)

Sometimes it feels like we run on stress fumes and little else. We are constantly on the go. We’re expected to respond to this message and that text and those emails… all at the same time. We’re attached to a piece of technology at all times and we are judged for switching off from it whenever we dare take a moment for ourselves.

Every day we are expected to make time for an active social life, healthy relationships, a successful career, an intense fitness regime, endless beauty treatments, an exciting hobby… oh, and don’t forget the eight hours sleep that we need every night!

Our new normal is non stop, fast past… and exhausting.

Thankfully, Kimberley is working wonders to help us navigate this at times hellish new normal.

Kimberly describes herself as a ‘positively passionate Northerner’, a description I think you’ll agree with after reading this interview! She’s a twin (their eventful birth story made the cover of Chat magazine in 1994!), an avid bookworm and a huge Patti Smith fan.

She’s also the founder of Keep Real, a social enterprise that goes above and beyond when helping people. She’s changing the way people deal with stress. She’s providing creative respite in a technological, business dominated world. She’s reminding us all to slow down, to breathe, to just be.

In fact, she’s making the new normal seem not so overwhelming after all.

Where did the idea for Keep Real come from?

The idea of forming ‘Keep Real’ came from a frustration with the discontinuity in mental health support during my university years. My chosen degree in Counselling lead me to think of a career as an Art Therapist. However, I was struggling with my own mental health while studying and it took reaching breaking point for me to make an appointment with the GP.

I felt ashamed that, as a counselling student, I didn’t know where to turn to first when it came to reaching out for support. The GP was my first thought and they offered me medication, but for me it didn’t feel right to jump into easing my experiences medically.

Studying mental health disorders and therapeutic treatments at university was incredibly insightful, but I felt frustrated that the support in-between the waiting lists didn’t feel accessible. I had been offered medication and had a slot on a waiting list for students awaiting therapy, but that was all. I wondered where could I go in-between? How would I cope?

Art and playing guitar truly helped me during this time. I started selling my art at local craft fairs and art exhibitions and this is where the roots of Keep Real formed. Creativity had a profound affect on my wellbeing, so I asked myself ‘could I use my experiences and degree to help others?’

This is where Keep Real was born.

What does Keep Real do?

As a social enterprise, the brand provides accessible creative interventions to the community such as mental health workshops, events, live music shows and pop up stores. I run a lot of the mental health workshops myself due to my training and experiences, however when it comes to the live music shows, we collaborate with so many incredible musicians and local makers!

That sounds amazing! As well as creative outlets, self care is something that is promoted in order to help people feel better about themselves. However, there are some people who call self care selfish. What would you say to those people?

It’s not selfish at all. Think of it this way – we are currently trying to adapt to a world we have created that human beings were never really meant to function in.

Self care is crucial to our existence, now more so than ever. Our stresses thousands of years ago didn’t include the stresses we have now. In 2020, we have artificial lights that keep us awake longer, cities and streets adorned with advertising that tells us we need to work harder, play harder, buy the right phone, look great on social media and have the best career. It’s flipping hard!

You are right – life nowadays seems to have so many stresses and pressures! Why do you think that so many people struggle with these stresses?

An abundance of things. We as human beings are still trying to adapt to our surroundings. We are living longer, working longer and sleeping less. Our stresses have evolved into a prolonged list of worries that have been moulded by our environment, and our environment has changed so much.

Thousands of years ago, our basic instincts were to survive and form a tribe.

Now we are seeing an increase in mentally ill health. Western civilisations are the most stressed on the planet. We haven’t evolved as quickly as the technology we have created and are attached to. We need to take a step back from the non-stop digital world sometimes.

Regarding the digital world, it’s my opinion that social media is arguably one of the most stressful things in our life as it gives people the impression of a perfect reality and constantly provides us with something to measure ourselves against. What advice would you give to someone who is wanting to reevaluate their relationship with social media?

The online landscape has evolved considerably in the last couple of years, where algorithms and ‘likes’ determine what we see and how we see it. I’d advise people to keep reevaluating your use. Ask yourself how your usage makes you feel. Is it impacting your physical world? Do you click off your phone and feel happy or drained?

In a corny coin of phrase, we are the architects of our own online worlds. We need to look at the habits we have formed with our devices. We need to remember that they are just that – devices. The world worked before them.

Technology is a tool, not a permanent lens to see the world through. It should ultimately be making your life a little easier, not harder. Remember that.

Conversations about stress and mental health are becoming increasingly common. What do you think the impact of such open and frequent discussions around these topics has been?

Opening a dialogue is vital to decreasing stigma, so hopefully this will lead to further action in mental health support. Statistics are now hard-hitting headline news – suicide is the biggest killer in men under 45. That’s huge! It’s so sad and we need this to change.

It’s great to see conversations being had, but we need to see more access to treatments and services. Prevention is key and reframing therapeutic support in the UK should hopefully involve a surge in people accessing support quicker, not at crisis-point like so many of us do. We are seeing a rise in social prescribing services which is great! There’s so much more help out there than there has ever been.

What things would you recommend to people who are wanting to reduce their stress levels?

Here are some real sweet things you can do in the everyday.

We have all heard of having a ‘stress ball’ and we’ve all heard of mindfulness, but having a token or something to reduce feelings of stress is a proven way to give us a sense of relief. Whether it is a coin in your pocket, a ring on your finger or something that gives you a positive memory… Focus on that for a few moments.

Ask yourself – how does it feel between your fingers, is it smooth? Round? Makes you think of a memory or a feeling?

This is sensory self-soothing at its best.

If you’re struggling to sleep, I recommend doing a ‘body scan’ technique. The build up of stress can feel tense physically. We sometimes hold ourselves differently, particularly feeling tension in our neck and shoulders.

To release stress in your body, tense parts of the body for 5 seconds then release them. Start with your toes and work your way up through the body. Breathe in, tense up for 3-5 seconds then release while slowly breathing out. You can do this laying or sitting down. It’s great just before bed.

Another useful thing to do is to list your immediate deadlines or decisions you would like to make. Try rank your priorities by numbering each one. This will help you understand where to focus your mind first. Explore how you can complete your highest priority and plan backwards from your deadline. Focus on what you can do right now, not what you can’t.

Those tips are great – you clearly are great at what you do! Your role involves taking on other people’s problems, listening and helping them. How do you make sure that you take care of yourself when your role demands so much of you?

I absolutely love how diverse my work is, but I do realise that it takes a lot of energy. After a workshop or live show, I pre-empt that I will need a day to simmer down. The adrenalin keeps going long after the event, so it’s all about planning in some mental care. Whether that’s a shorter day, a walk or run to shake things off or my favourite – a long morning in bed.

Your hard work has recently been recognised through being named as one of the Top 100 Women in Social Enterprise. How did achieving this feel?

The experience has been surreal. It is so wonderful to be recognised for my work but it’s also a pure case of imposter syndrome. When I received the email inviting me down to the event in London, I thought it was spam! I hadn’t really opened it until I saw my name pop up online.

You deserve all of the success you get – the work you do is incredible! If you could sum up your outlook on life in one statement, what would it be?

Thank you!

My favourite quote of all time is from Patti Smith and it has stayed with me for years – “never let go of that fiery sadness called desire”.

Life itself is life. The desire to breathe and live, experience everything. Even the darker days. We are so complex, our lives are not linear and always positive- but that’s what makes life worth living. As much as we try to steer clear of it, don’t let go of that fiery sadness. Never let go – hold life tight.

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