It was interesting to see that the focus for Mental Health Awareness Week, 10th – 16th May, this year is Nature. Now, I’m not going to put it out there that nature fixes our mental health. It doesn’t.A good health service, access to mental health facilities and services, medication, diagnosis, experts, voting for parties that will increase mental health services and access to the assistance we need, and much more will help our mental health more, but nature does have its place in preserving our emotional and mental health.
There is a lot of scientific and medical evidence that shows that nature improves our mental health and wellbeing. Nature can offer a calming and soothing effect that lowers our stress levels and anxieties. Being outside and bathing in light, sunlight, or just daylight, can improve our production of serotonin and Vitamin D. Exercise increases endorphins, and just walking in woodland, alongside birdsong, or along a beach, listening to waves crashing, can significantly help your general mental health.
As someone who suffers from extreme anxiety and has been crippled by bouts of depression, I know nature is not a cure – it would be patronising to claim it is – but it does enrich my emotional state, and is part of my coping strategy.
It’s been proven that just looking at images of nature can lift moods, and can offer a boost of serotonin. So, to offer support and a moment of lightness I’m going to share some moments of nature that have helped me. I use nature, and pretty things, to keep my anxieties and panic at bay, maybe they can help you.
Please remember we can be there for each other, not just for walks in parks, but for the serious stuff, the times when darkness invades and our mental health is at the bottom of the pit.
Ask for help, seek out counselling (it helps, but believe me I know how long you have to wait for it!), find people who’ll listen and support you, accept help, and accept medication if that’s what you need. Watch out for each other, be kind, offer help when it’s needed, and for goodness sake, vote for the parties that want to help, the ones who want to increase mental health provisions and access to all. That’s how we change things, and that’s how we help. Nature is great, and it’s there for us all, but remember there’s more to fixing mental health than looking at pretty things.
Life is not easy, and even with all the support and love in the world sometimes you need extra help. Counselling can be a great place to start, and this is my journey.
I was a shy child, but the word shy was a misnomer for severe anxiety, panic, trauma, and low self-confidence. By fourteen, I also had an eating disorder and was self-harming. At eighteen, undergoing a breakdown, I finally asked for help, approaching the first female GP I’d had and sharing historic information which my mother hadn’t been able to cope with. My doctor was compassionate and sent me to a psychiatrist. He failed to ask or listen to anything, prescribed the antidepressant, Fluvoxamine, and sent me to a group counselling program.
Group counselling for an eighteen-year-old with huge social anxiety was a bad move. I sat among drug addicts and people with serious mental illnesses and made myself as small as I could. I did not say a word and didn’t return after two sessions. Nine months of antidepressants numbed me through the breakdown. I limped through my twenties, married and raised children, had a bout of post-natal depression, and pushed through with little recognition and without any attempt to ask for help.
I was thirty-three (2004) when I was sexually assaulted and the earlier undealtwithassault resurfaced. During this breakdown my husband, desperate to help, intervened and I saw another psychiatrist, but this one was a family friend and he listened. I took Escitalopram, and was referred to a private sexual health and abuse counsellor. She was amazing and took me back through my childhood and relationships. Through talking we worked through the assaults and I began to see myself differently, and to take back control of my life and who I was. She showed me that I was more than the sum of what had happened to me, that I deserved more, and that I was safe. I began to learn my own worth and how to overcome my demons. She helped me to conquer them by turning the perpetrators into sad pathetic creatures. After six months of counselling I felt much more in control and much happier. I wish I’d been able to find counselling on the NHS but it had taken private counselling and financial aid through my church to help.
Life moved easily with the heaviness lifted for several years then overwhelm and anxiety kicked in again, and in 2010 and 2011 I took six month courses of antidepressants, Cipralex and Citalopram, and in 2014, Amitriptyline, which was to combat anxiety and panic rather than depression, and I was sent on an Anxiety/Depression CBT course by my GP, who told me I’d need to do that before any one-to-one counselling could be offered on the NHS.
It turned out to be a group course, six or eight sessions, watching two hours of slides teaching about depression and anxiety. The two mental health nurses lecturing were lovely, and I can’t fault the information, but for me, someone who’d intensively researched both subjects, it was information I was already fully aware of. I used it as a reminder and tried to put it into action, but without one-to-one mentoring let’s say, I found it difficult. I knew all about anxiety and depression but was unable to put basics into action on my own. It was over ten years since my successful counselling and I now struggled to be able to put ideas and theories into action without dealing again with core issues and triggers.
In 2016, after a lovely day but a brutal year, I found myself at 2am standing on a local bridge wanting to finish everything. I’d been battling suicidal ideation for years and years, along with self-harm, panic, and anxiety. I was prescribed Sertraline, yet another antidepressant, by my GP and put on a counselling waiting list.
I was full of tears, panic, and overwhelm, unable to vocalise or help myself. I paid and saw a private counsellor (through my church) who listened to what I’d been going through over many years. She showed a desire to help and validated the pain and overwhelm that I felt. I’d tried asking my church for financial aid to get counselling, but been turned down, however the attempt on my life changed that, and we got financial aid to see another private counsellor closer to home through church social services.
Seeing a counsellor whilst on antidepressants is always weird for me. It feels difficult to be authentic because medication balances and numbs, so I was worried she wouldn’t see the real me through the deception of meds. I felt I would look too normal, undeserving of counselling, and she wouldn’t see my inner turmoil. However, I felt really comfortable with her, she made me feel understood and validated, and it felt like spending time with a friend. I looked forward to my weekly sessions.
We talked about my trauma, family, the difficulties life threw at us, and I learned ways to ground myself, to cope with my sensory issues, and ways to try and deal with my self-harm. I talked a lot about my family and how deeply my emotions were interwoven with their needs, more so than my own. We looked at anxiety and how to deal with it, we used mindfulness, meditation, ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and she helped me talk about my fears, concerns, and anxieties. After six months I felt much more secure within myself and we stopped counselling, but have become friends.
This period had been positive and taught me a lot. I used grounding and sensorytools to help cope with anxiety and had an ACT textbook which I could work through. This began a much happier time in my life.
I was offered counselling through the NHS whilst receiving private counselling, but I had to turn it down due to a conflict of interest, it would be unethical to see two therapists at the same time, and I felt I was doing well with my counsellor.
Two years later, and due to a resurfacing of trauma, I was struggling with anxiety, panic attacks, self-harm, and intrusive thoughts again. My doctor prescribed Duloxetine, trying a SNRI antidepressant rather than the usual SRRI, as I wanted to avoid feeling like a zombie. Duloxetine wasn’t for me after I’d spent two days vomiting. I tried Propranolol, a beta-blocker, to deal with anxiety attacks, which worked in the moment. I turned down antidepressants, this time I didn’t want to stop feeling, I didn’t want to be numb anymore, I wanted counselling, something concrete, something to continue to teach me how to deal with my anxiety and issues. I wanted to learn rather than just cope or mask. I was offered another self-referral to my local NHS counselling service.
As I tried to cope with huge anxieties and panic, overwhelm and sensory issues, my daughter who was on the ASD waiting list (She was later diagnosed with ASD) asked whether I thought I might have Autism too. Another visit to my GP and he placed me on the assessment waiting list after agreeing that it was a likely possibility.
Whilst waiting for referrals I began going to a local pottery class for carers and those with mental and emotional health problems. Art therapy offered relief that inspired, calmed me, and spoke to my inner creative. It was a huge release each week, somewhere I could go and not be disturbed, and lose myself in creativity.
Finally, after nine months of numerous panic attacks and anxiety, at the end of 2018, I got six weeks of counselling through the NHS. My counsellor was nice, quiet, calm, relaxed, and friendly, but the weekly sessions held in a hospital room were clinical and one way. I talked and shared, but the counsellor didn’t respond much. It was ambiguous. She asked about me, what I’d done in the week, and how I felt, but didn’t offer much in the way of advice – or counsel. I felt very frustrated that again the answers were things I already knew, but didn’t know how to initiate in my life. I left feeling more frustrated than before counselling.
I got more help from friends online who shared their experiences with me, and I learned that I was catastrophising, and their encouragement pushed me to ask for further help. I knew from my counsellor that I needed to reprogram my brain, to create new neural pathways, but I had no idea how to do it, and she wasn’t forthcoming.
I asked my GP to refer me for CBT, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, because I had no idea how to change my problems with sensory issues, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and catastrophising. Three months later I saw a Primary Mental Health Care Worker/Assessor who listened intently and agreed that CBT might be a good fit for me. She referred me on.
October, four months later, I had an assessment at Psychological Integrated Therapies Services and saw a Mental Health Provider. He listened but kept correcting me, telling me I wasn’t having realpanic attacks, I was only having anxiety attacks, and downplayed my intrusive thoughts and suicidal ideation saying it was perfectly normal… a part of life for the average person. He told me I had Generalised Anxiety Disorder, something I’d been painfully aware of for about thirty years. I felt embarrassed and small after the assessment, but none of that measured how bad I felt when one week later I got a letter informing me Psychological Therapies couldn’t offer me anything because I did not have a diagnosed mental health illness. It felt like a kick in the teeth from somewhere that I’d felt was my last port of call. I actually phoned the department and they apologised, but told me I’d be fine, and that they had no funding to treat anyone without a mental health diagnosis. I wondered if depression, generalised anxiety disorder, self-harm, etc were just not counted as mental health disorders? I felt invalidated and despairing.
At the tail end of 2019 I wept with my doctor and she agreed to refer me again for counselling after seeing if there were options beyond the NHS six week sessions. I waited. Then in 2020Covid19 hit us and we all went into lockdown. It was October, almost a year after referral, that I got an assessment for New Pathways, a charity run counselling service, via the NHS, and they offered me three options: one-to-one counselling, a support worker, or group therapy. I chose one-to-one counselling and asked for it to include help dealing with sexual assault, anxiety, and methods to cope. Two weeks later I began counselling via Zoom.
I began this new course with trepidation caused mainly by having to use Zoom, but my new counsellor was proactive and friendly, beginning by getting to know me and finding out what my worries were. I was agitated, tearful, nervous, shaky, and scared to be myself, but I was also keen to make the most of whatever I was offered. You don’t wait for years and years and then sit back and expect counselling to work without putting in the effort.
It was emotionally overwhelming to talk about my feelings of trauma, responsibility, feeling neglected and consequently overcompensating with my own family. We discussed my avoidance tactic, something I’d never recognised before, and I realised that when she asked me pointed questions I always deflected. I suddenly started to see myself differently as my counsellor gently coaxed me into talking about myself and not everyone but myself. It was uncomfortable to talk about me, and slowly I opened up. It was a symptom of putting myself last for almost my entire life while I checked that everyone else was okay.
This was emotional and frightening. Pushing myself forward was something I wasn’t used to and talking about what I felt was overwhelming. Instead of talking about how I thought everyone else felt, I talked about how I felt. Then we dug into my past. I’d dealt with these issues way back when I was thirty-three and I thought I’d put them in a box and sealed it up, now at forty-nine these demons had risen again. We worked with art and word association, talked about grounding and techniques for my anxiety toolbox.
We concentrated more on my overcompensating with my children, and how feeling that my needs hadn’t been met as a child meant I felt an urge to fulfil every need and whim to an unhealthy extent. We also talked about how mine and my children’s emotional and mental health needs had been let down by the health service and schools, and how that had framed my anxiety and panic responses. I realised that the trauma and neglect had become an anchor to me, a metaphor I understood and was able to work with. I felt constantly burdened with responsibility to take care of everyone’s emotional state and an inability to let go, care for myself, and do my own thing. My counsellor asked me to go away and make a piece of art representing the anchor, to be as free as I wanted with the idea and see what happened.
Art is my thing and I don’t go into it lightly… It had been a difficult week and I shut myself away with my watercolours. I sketched and used masking fluid (experimenting for the first time) and allowed myself to disappear into the ocean, creating a wash of sea blue, and pooling and flicking blues, indigo, green, pink, and purple across the wet paper. The next day after it dried, I rubbed off the masking fluid and painted the anchor and its chain. I coated it with peridot algae and flicked white bubbles.
Using art is a way to break through barriers and walls, and it showed me much about myself. I’ve been anchored in trauma and anxiety and the weight is heavy, and that weight has held me back. I have a tendency toward the aesthetic and beauty, even if it’s painful to bear, maybe that’s a martyr response? I’ve tried to lift the anchor in the painting to give a sense of movement, which could be a positive step, but the chains are still heavy and oversized for the anchor they carry. I called it Let It Go, and I hope I can.
I emailed the painting to my counsellor and I think she was surprised at the piece, the work that had gone into it, the new technique I’d used when I hate change, and the free flow and movement, and the colours that echoed hope and positivity. I shared it online with my friends and got a mass of interpretations, all of which were insightful and emotional to me. Art is very therapeutic and can translate what you feel so well, allowing you not only a catharsis but a way to try and analyse your feelings.
I concentrated hard on trying to channel what I’d learned in therapy, I couldn’t bear the thought of wasting the very resources I’d waited so long to use. New Pathways relies on charity and government grants. I’d waited a year for my twelve sessions and I was going to do damn near everything I could to appreciate and respect the time and words shared with me by my counsellor, and to transfer what I learned to my life.
My counsellor noticed the change in me as we met each week, and my family have too. My confidence and happiness have grown. My understanding of myself, my trauma, and my life became clearer to me, and my desire to change and embrace it got stronger every week. After a two week break at Christmas I worried I felt reliant on my sessions, but I quickly realised that changes I hadn’t noticed in myself, had actually happened. I knew that I could finally give myself permission to be myself. The blog posts I’ve written in the past show the importance I place on being yourself, being authentically you, but giving myself permission to practise what I preached had never been easy. It will still be a work in progress, but it’s one I’m now actively living.
I have a healthier outlook, more coping strategies and tools, I am overcoming my insecurities and learned behaviours to be able to see my own worth. I am leaving the unconscious behind and moving forward with conscious decisions for the future.
My message is this. Keep on. Don’t give up. Sometimes you won’t be offered what you need, and you’ll plough through help that doesn’t help, but sometimes you’ll find what you need and it can change your life. I have had three amazing counsellors in my life, who have been there when I needed them and they’ve each helped me change my life for the better.
I am under no illusion, I know I will continue to suffer anxiety and many issues, but I am better equipped to deal with it now, and for that I am grateful to my family (who learn with me) and to every professional counsellor who has given me their valuable time and expertise.