Conversations with… Balance Life Well (Subject: Mental Health and Self Care)

I think it’s fair to say that right now the entire world is struggling with their mental health. We are in the middle of a global pandemic, there is economic uncertainty and people are worried for themselves, their livelihood and their loved ones.

Whilst it’s easy to feel alone right now, there are many people doing all they can to prove that this isn’t the case. All you have to do is log onto social media to read the abundance of inspiring, motivational messages out there and see people sharing links to organisations that can help.

Balance Life Well is one of those organisations. With a website sharing articles that offer reassurance, information and support and an Instagram sharing uplifting messages, I spoke to Balance Life Well this week about their own mental health journey and the support their pages offer.

Emily

You run a website and Instagram dedicated to helping people with their mental health. What is your own mental health journey?

My earliest memories consist of my family thinking that I was different and not in a good way. I was known as the ‘miserable sibling’ and my parents thought that I had anger issues when I was as young as 5. The feeling of being misunderstood and wishing to be dead was something I was used to throughout these years.

It wasn’t until I was around 12 that I decided to tell my mum that I thought something was wrong with me, that I didn’t want to be like this and that I need help. As this was around 2007, sadly there wasn’t as much of a focus around mental health as there is today. We went to see a doctor who recommended I wrote a diary (which I already did) and went for a run. That was it – no follow-up request, nothing.

I carried on feeling like this until I was 20 and my best friend, my nan, died. I went back to the doctor and basically said if I don’t get help I think I may take my life. I then went onto the NHS Improving Access to Psychological Therapies waiting list. When I was finally seen by a therapist, I was told we would only have 6 sessions and that she believed the help I required was more than what she could offer.

Luckily, once my NHS sessions came to an end, I had private medical insurance and was able to see a psychotherapist and a psychiatrist.

After almost 2 years of talking therapy, I felt better but I still didn’t feel happy. My psychiatrist informed me that as I had been suffering with depression and anxiety from such a young age, it was unlikely that my brain had developed the correct amount of serotonin and recommended I try medication. Medication is something I generally avoid – I won’t take a painkiller if I have a headache – so I was hesitant to try anti-depressants. Nevertheless, I was so desperate that I agreed to take them. Luckily for me, they worked a treat and within 2 days I was feeling happier and more optimistic.

Fast forward to today and I have happily been on anti-depressants for 3 years now. It is likely I will be on them for the rest of my life. There are still periods where I suffer from low mood and suicidal thoughts, but I now feel better equipped to deal with those days and I find comfort in knowing that mental health is finally starting to be taken seriously.

You sound like you have had quite the journey to get the help you need! Mental health is invisible so a lot of people experience stigma or a lack of understanding from others. What has your experience of this been?

My experience of this has been frustrating to say the least. I have experienced this throughout my childhood from my own family and I still experience it today from my parents and my partner. Thankfully, it is a lack of understanding from them rather than stigma, but it is still just as frustrating.

I often get unsolicited advice like “go for a run, that will make you feel better” which is the last thing I want to do when I feel like I am the worst person in the world. I also get told that “I am fine” and to “not be silly” which makes my blood boil. I understand that it can be difficult for people to understand something that they haven’t experienced but I strongly believe that well-intentioned comments like these are dangerous. They can make you feel more misunderstood and alone, which leaves you feeling even worse.

My mission is for everyone to understand mental health and mental illness.

One of the ways you tackle this mission is through social media and your website. How has opening up about your experiences on these platforms helped you?

I find that talking helps – especially when it is with people who have common ground. Even just taking the time to write out my experience of mental illness makes me feel empowered. I believe that when you express your experiences, you are able to take a step back and look at the bigger picture which puts you in better stead to be able to reflect on your journey and the progress that you have made.

Sharing my experience on social media was initially a bit nerve wrecking but all it has done is prove the philosophy that none of us are alone.

Sharing the content you do on social media is a brilliant way to open up much needed discussions on mental health. Do you think that society is doing enough to support people with their mental health?

No. This is something else that makes me angry and I recently posted an IGTV about a recent experience of mine when seeking support. I don’t think there is enough information or education out there for people to truly understand and appreciate what mental illness is.

Currently, our system provides limited NHS talking therapies or anti-depressants. If those two avenues don’t work then there’s not much else you can do except try again. This isn’t fair. If someone’s leg was hanging off, the GP wouldn’t say “oh well we tried the stitches and that didn’t work so there’s not much else we can do except from wait and see if your leg magically reattaches itself” – so why are they sending people who are reaching out for help away because we have exhausted limited avenues? Why does a mental illness hold less importance than a physical illness even though death by suicide is rapidly increasing?

I think mental health should be included in the school curriculum in the same way that physical or sex education is AND the Government need to properly fund mental health services before the mental health crisis gets even worse.

I think your ideas are right – we need more education and more funding. On top of depression and anxiety, you also have binge eating disorder. What is this?

Binge eating disorder (BED) is when you regularly consume large amounts of food and feel like you cannot stop eating, regardless of how full you may be. I personally binge on junk food. My binges are usually planed and I try to keep them secret to avoid being judged.

People say things like “I ate so much last night – I had a sharing bag of Maltesers”, but that to me would be a snack during a BED episode. I’m not exaggerating when I say I can eat 4 sharing bags of chocolate and 2 large sharing packets of crisps and still continue.

In the moment of binging, it’s almost like you are in a trance until you wake up the next morning and see the evidence of what you ate the night before. Then comes the shame, guilt and disgust, closely followed by negative thoughts about my image and my lack of control.

How has BED impacted your body confidence?

Body confidence is something I struggle with the most at the moment. I have gone up 4 dress sizes in the 3 years that I have been on anti-depressants (weight gain is a common side effect for some anti-depressants).

Whilst my BED does play a part in my body confidence, how I feel about myself is also closely linked with my mental wellbeing in that moment of time. If I have a positive day, I am much less likely to beat myself up for how I look or for eating the extra bag of mini eggs. Similarly, when I have a period of a stable mood I am much less likely to binge than when I feel stressed and overwhelmed.

My goal for this year is to work on my body confidence. Something that has been helping me is following a diverse range of people on Instagram who are all different shapes and sizes as well as knowing my self-worth. I know that I have so much more to give than just my body and if anyone doesn’t like my body, that’s their loss.

Even though you have your own personal struggles, you are incredibly positive and the content you share encourages others to embrace this mindset. Why is finding the positive something you focus on?

Positivity sparks hope and without hope we have no expectation that better days are coming.

In my opinion, hope is indispensable to mental illness recovery. Finding those pockets of positivity is one of the only things that kept me going when I was in my darkest moments. I want others to know that there are better days to come and there is hope that they will not always feel like this.

One thing I love about your page is that it celebrates every step a person makes. When struggling with mental health, why is it important to focus on achieving the little things as well as the big things?

I think celebrating every achievement, no matter how big or small, plays a huge role in our confidence, self-worth and emotional state which all link to our mental health. Acknowledging your achievements is especially important on the days you are struggling as the small wins give you hope that tomorrow may be better.

We all have days where the only thing we “achieve” is brushing our teeth. Those are the days we usually feel the most crappy about ourselves and our inner critic comes out – but why does our mind only see the things we didn’t do? Why can’t we see the 1 thing we did do? This is because of our negative bias. If we start to recognise that and question it, we can train our brains to question our negative thoughts rather than accept them as facts.

That is such great advice! Something that gets talked about a lot in regards to mental health is self care. What does ‘self care’ mean to you?

Self-care means different things to me dependant upon my mood. There are days where self-care means lying on the sofa in my pyjamas all day without speaking to anyone and there are other days where self-care looks like moving my body and doing something social. Essentially, self-care is about doing whatever you feel you need to become relaxed, happier and more productive.

There is not a one size fits all with self-care. I encourage people to do a trial and error of different activities and make a note whenever something makes them feel good. This can become a list that you refer to whenever you want to practise self-care or are struggling to remember what reduces your stress.

I also think boundaries are a part of self-care. The first self-care rule that I rarely falter on is Friday evenings. On Friday evenings, I do not see or talk to anybody. I have a lazy evening and an early bedtime. My friends know that I will not see them on a Friday evening so they don’t even bother asking anymore which is great.

With everything going on in the world at the moment, a lot of people are finding life tough. What would you say to someone who is struggling with their mental health right now?

  1. Remember that you are not alone. We are facing a global pandemic and we are all in this together.
  2. It’s okay to struggle with your mental health at any time, let alone during a period like this. The majority of mental health helplines are still open – utilise them when and if you need to. You can also still get GP appointments over the phone. Your GP can refer you to your local mental health team for professional support.
  3. Look for the silver lining. I promise you there will be one even though it might be difficult to see. My silver lining is being able to read my book each morning with a cup of tea, whereas before I would have been rushing off to work. That one small thing positively impacts my mood for the rest of the morning.

If you could sum up your outlook on life in one statement, what would it be?

“Turn your wounds into wisdom” – after suffering from trauma and mental illness this quote sparks hope whenever I feel down and reminds me to keep going. I even got it tattooed on me when I turned 18 (cringe).

Head to www.balancelifewell.co.uk for more support with mental health and self care.

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