Words of Encouragement (8):
*Can I feel happy and sad?*
In short, yes. This is a confusing, strange and distressing time. We are alive, we are surrounded by life, but also by continuous news of death and suffering on a mass scale, on a global scale, yet also right in our own towns and cities. We are all learning how to be happy with those who are happy, and to also mourn with those who grieve. We are surrounded by contradictions that we are all learning to hold in balance. We are trying to find ways to encourage and support each other, to enjoy the gift of life and be grateful for those in our lives, to make the most of ‘isolation’ and keep our spirits up, and encourage our friends and families and especially children, while at the same time living through wave upon wave of tragedy crashing in upon humanity. You might feel guilty for the times you smile, laugh and enjoy life in this strange season, and you also might feel a burden of grief at times as the world around you wails. It can be confusing, it can be tough, but there is no right or wrong way for you to feel, and your experience of this situation and your feelings are valid. Take time to just sit and be with your thoughts and feelings for a moment if it is all a bit much. Breathe deeply and try to find ways to be calm and relax. This is affecting people in different ways, and that’s ok.
Take care to try to maintain a balance. To know that even while it is a very dark time for many people across the world, it is ok for you to smile, and to share something positive, because those around you may just need that joy and that hope to be able to keep going.
According to popular culture, ‘Blue Monday’ is a day in January – typically the third Monday of the month – when many people feel low. I don’t use the phrase, ‘the most depressing day of the year’, as some do, because as someone who has clinical depression, I know that feeling blue and being depressed are and can be very different things, and I know other people who suffer with this very real medical condition would also not appreciate the term being used lightly to mean just feeling ‘a bit sad’.
However, on a lighter note, as far as ‘pop culture’ goes, this is one way in which trends are noted, trends which can be used by retailers and advertisers to sell things to make people act in a way that they think will make them feel better about themselves and their lives – through consumerism.
Yet, could there be something that we can actually learn from the idea of there being a ‘Blue Monday’ or the concept of the ‘January blues’? I don’t think there’s any particular significance about the day itself, but psychologically I can understand why people might feel low at this time of the month and year.
Typically, in many parts of the world, it is still winter season, and the communal festivities have passed, and spring is a long way from having sprung. People may have fallen short already in terms of living up to their ‘new year resolutions’ and with the holiday season passed, it is back to work for most people, while the weather is still fairly gloomy and without there being anything imminent to look forward to. Motivation may have dwindled and life may have become a bit ‘hum drum’ once again.
There are many ways in which we can avoid or overcome such negative feelings. For example, we can address our mind-set, thoughts, attitudes and so forth. We can also take care of ourselves physically by getting appropriate sleep, rest, exercise and eating healthily. We can try to stay interested with hobbies, and maintain contact with friends and family.
However, I did specify ‘one way’ in the title of this post, so I’ll let you into a little ‘secret’ of mine. Although the festivities may have passed, I approach each brand new month a bit like a mini ‘new year’. It is a fresh start, time to re-evaluate, to set new goals, and to see new possibilities. I personally like to ‘plan’ and decorate my diary / planner, so it means getting creative with a fresh new approach and new doodles and designs for that month. Sometimes I have a theme in mind for things I’d like to think about or explore or achieve for each month as I go through the year. It keeps things fresh, and it helps me to stay hopeful, rather than seeing an expanse of time stretching out before me with all the ‘new ideas’ falling behind.
If by the time January 20th, 2020 comes around, you are feeling a little ‘blue’, don’t worry. February will soon be around the corner and chance for another new start. So celebrate these mini new beginnings throughout your year, and stay vibrant, hopeful and blessed. x
Positive Distractions: Create a self-care ‘toolkit’ or list of your favourite things that you can go to that will serve as positive and healthy distractions when your mind is not in a good place.
Some ideas below:
Something tactile, soft and comforting, like a cosy blanket, a soft toy, etc.
A colouring book, pens and pencils.
Arts and crafts materials such as paper, card, stickers, pens.
Beautiful pictures or postcards of calming scenes such as nature scenery, animals, or photos of friends and loved ones that don’t ‘trigger’ you but only bring about positive and helpful emotions.
Some mood lifting songs.
A journal where you can write out and express your thoughts.
A book of puzzles or mind teaser computer games such as cards or word games (avoid anything with too much noise, visual stimuli or emotional content).
A favourite or sentimental object that makes you feel happy.
A stress ball, children’s play dough, slime or putty, that feels relaxing when you hold it.
A book of beautiful pictures.
A bar of your favourite chocolate, dark chocolate is good for you (in moderation like everything of course) so if you like that maybe you can choose a bar of dark chocolate.
Some calming scents, such as a fragrant wax lavender candle, something that gives of a calming aroma without you having to light it, some essential oils which you can also get in the form of a room spray, lightly scented hand cream, etc.
A book to ‘doodle’ and draw in.
Cosy socks / slippers.
A cosy cardigan or jumper.
Stencils to create patterns.
A favourite book that has a positive message.
A DVD of your favourite film – preferably something uplifting or light-hearted like a comedy.
Audiobooks (that will not be ‘triggering’ for you).
Encouraging, inspiring and uplifting podcasts, Ted Talks, etc.
Anything else that you know will help, calm and soothe you in those difficult moments.
Life often presents us with seasons of unknown tomorrows. Sometimes we barely have the breath to be able to live in such a way as to think that there can even be a tomorrow, or we simply struggle on with our heads bowed because of the painful challenges we face. Sometimes we look around us and see other people in seasons of fulfilment and we wait, we pray, we feel disheartened, we hope and wonder if we will ever come to our own seasons of joy and blessing…of our heart’s desires.
Proverbs tells us that “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life”.
Do you know that feeling? The one that is somehow always just under the surface, but you try to wish it away, or to wish your unfulfilled dreams away? Well then you’re not alone. I am sure every human being at some point in their lives has felt this, and some of us go through longer and more protracted periods of waiting, anticipating, hoping, grieving, focusing on the here and now, wondering and beginning again. Hope deferred does make the heart sick, so should we go on hoping?
I suppose we need to ask ourselves at the deepest level, where we are putting our hope, and what are we putting our hope in?
What are you waiting for?
Throughout life’s seasons we wait for things. As a child, you may wait for a toy, for your birthday, to see your best friend, a parent you no longer live with, or you may wait for a holiday.
As a teenager, you may wait for your exam results, to know if you’ll ever fit in at school, for romance, to find out what on earth you are good and what you should do with your life.
As a young adult you may wait and work to pass your driving test, to get the grades you need to get into university, college, an apprenticeship, etc. You might wait for your parents to understand what you are all about. You might be waiting to figure that out yourself. Maybe you are waiting once more for exam results, to find out if you will graduate, for your first job, flat, home and for direction in your life.
Maybe you are single and waiting, looking and praying for a spouse. Maybe you are waiting for test results and for a breakthrough in your health. Maybe you are waiting to save up enough money to travel or to get out of the place you are in that you are longing to leave behind so that you can start afresh. Maybe you are waiting to find out who your birth family are and whether they might want to know you. Maybe you are waiting and trying and praying for a baby. Maybe you are waiting for someone who has left you to come back, for reconciliation with estranged friends or family, for that career break, the pay rise, the new job opportunity, the love of your life, the thing right now that your heart desires.
It can be hard can’t it?
What are you in control of?
At least when we have some sense of control over our lives, our futures, our destiny then we can get to work on making things happen.
You’re waiting for a career break, but you know what steps to take and what training courses to do, and it is within your means to do it, so your hope is now a goal and you are excited about achieving it, even though there is a lot of hard work to do.
You’re waiting for the holiday you’ve always wanted, but you know how to plan for it and make it happen.
You’re waiting to publish your first book but you’ve been writing for a while, so at least you can do something about it and figure out the details of how along the way.
But what of the things that we can’t control, or things that involve a bit more heartache through the process? Like trying for a baby, hoping to find a spouse, the love of your life, hoping to get married and settle down and have a family? What about waiting to know whether your diagnosis will be favourable? What of the things that are not so much in our hands?
Our hearts sometimes ache, and sometimes we become jaded by our current realities especially if contrasted with people around us whose longings have been and are being fulfilled, and we put it down to something being wrong with us, and we want to wish away our hopes and our dreams because at least then it won’t hurt if we don’t have them.
There is no simple response to explain away the depth and intricacies of the human heart. But if you are facing hope deferred right now, just know that you are not alone. That doesn’t necessarily make it easier for you in your situation, but hopefully it will bring at least a little comfort to know that people throughout the ages and even now experience the heartache that you are feeling and those feelings are valid.
As to where to put our hopes, most people spend most of their lives putting their hopes in things that are transient, fleeting, imperfect and will inevitably disappoint. We put our hopes in other people, in romantic love, in families, in success, in money, in positions of authority, in children, in travel, in achievements. These as wonderful as they can be will inevitably disappoint in some way or another. Even the most ‘picture perfect’ life will have its pain hidden beneath the surface. Because these imperfect things simply cannot fill up the human heart.
I have learned that the only true fulfilment and True Hope that will *never* disappoint (and I know that that is a bold claim) is to put my hope in the One True and Living God. Only in Christ Jesus can I know the deepest needs of my heart being healed and met, and only God can bring to pass the fulfilment of His plan for my life, and show me what I need to do that is ultimately for my best and for His Glory.
Without Him I was merely lost, in pain, and unfulfilled, feeling always ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired’, but now I have this liquid love within me, around me, and my hope is in the Perfect, the Eternal, in Pure Unfailing Love that cannot and will never disappoint.
Without Him, what hope is there? I wonder what your answer is in your life?
However, even for those of us who walk with Him, in this life there will still be disappointment, and He more than anyone knows what that feels like in this broken, fallen, sin stained world.
We are in the Presence of the Perfect, and yet our human hearts long for the temporal and temporary pleasures of this life. And you know what? That’s normal. And we don’t need to walk through those longings, hurts, feelings, disappointments or worries alone – we have, or can have Someone by our side always, Who will never leave us, fail us nor forsake us, and Who will constantly love us perfectly and carry us through.
And yes, sometimes God does make us wait. Sometimes for a very long time. And for some their dreams may not be fulfilled this side of eternity. But for some of us they will and we still have to go through the difficult but worthwhile heart lessons that are found in seasons of waiting. Waiting for a child, for marriage, for our calling, for healiing….but while we wait, even if we doubt whether what we hope for will come to pass or not, we wait for and with Someone Who Is Perfect, Who Is Trustworthy, Faithful, Perfectly Loving, Compassionate and Who will never let us down. We wait with Him and we hope in Him. We already have the Best thing Life can offer us in Jesus Christ. And He knows the desires of our hearts, and He will perfect that which concerns us, in His perfect way and time. Regardless of how things turn out – we have HIM. x
Helping others is often very good for us too. As the winter season draws in, it is not uncommon with the drop in temperatures, the low light levels, and shorter days for out mood to also drop.
We can become sluggish, lethargic and inwardly focused if we are not careful. Offering to help someone else can help us to keep an outward focus, think about the needs of other people, feel more productive and be more active.
You don’t need to overstretch yourself, but if you are in the position to, why not offer to help someone else with something?
Does your mum need help to organise a family event? Would your wife appreciate your help cooking dinner? Can you pick up some things from the shops for your elderly neighbour while you are doing your own shopping? Can you help a younger brother or sister prepare for their nativity play? Can you help with organising a particular event in your community, or babysit for a friend so that they can get a bit of a break?
Helping others ‘survive’ and thrive this winter can also go a long way to helping ourselves too. x
Those long, cold, dark winter nights can be particularly challenging if we struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), depression and low mood. They also might just get us down generally, as with less opportunity to stay busy outside, we may find ourselves in a bit of a mental and emotional ‘slump’ or fugue, as we are sometimes forced to stay away from our regular activities, and as such the ‘winter blues’ might get a hold of us.
We all too easily can become passive consumers of information, spending hour upon hour in front of the TV for example, and our minds can suffer for it. Without positive distractions and mental stimulation where we are actively involved rather than passively consuming, we also may fall into a state of rumination which can negatively impact our mental health.
One thing we can do, especially if we find that we are spending those long, cold, dark winter nights on our own is to actively engage our minds, train our brains and keep mentally fit and active. You could read, study, engage in new or old hobbies, for example and I will come to these in turn later. However, a fun and relaxing way to keep mentally fit is to play ‘mind games’ – no, not the kind of negative mind games in relating to other people – but games that will challenge you mentally.
These could be, for example, card games on the computer, word challenges, puzzles, board games or chess if you have company, riddles and such like. Something which you actively need to think about and engage in. Never underestimate the importance of looking after your mental health, and remember that there are fun ways that you can do this too!
What about you? What would your ‘go to’ mental health activity be?
It may only be the beginning of November, but soon we will be made more aware of the festive and holiday season approaching. If you live in America there is ‘Thanksgiving’ in November, and among other Western countries you may be approaching Christmas, New Year and / or other faith-based or holiday celebrations.
The most wonderful time of the year?
It certainly can be ‘The most wonderful time of the year’. But if we’re all honest with ourselves, we know that it isn’t always the case. Sometimes the most wonderful time of the year can serve to highlight the pain and difficulties of life all the more starkly because of the sharp contrast with how we feel things ought to be.
Reflections and moving forwards:
This year I’m looking forward to and trusting God for a happy, Peaceful and healthy Christmas with family and friends and as a Christian, celebrating my Wonderful Saviour. However, Christmases haven’t always been bright for me. I won’t go into details but there has been light and shade over the years, and it hasn’t always been easy. A few years ago, I was at the point where I just had to open up to my family about how bad I was feeling – and I faced the guilt of telling them, on Christmas day that I was having suicidal feelings. I felt like I had spoilt things, but they were so loving towards me and to cut a long story short it was the beginning of some very difficult steps for me to get professional help with severe clinical depression, and to be diagnosed with complex PTSD, and Generalised Anxiety Disorder. The joureny over the next few years proved to be very tough, but with perseverance I got help, support and am here feeling much better and more purposeful today. Without God moving in my life to hold me and support me and move me forward one painful step at a time, I wouldn’t have got to where I am, so I am very much looking forward to a blessed festive season after some not so good times.
Where do you find yourself?
Perhaps you find yourself looking joyfully ahead. However, I know that many of you are probably having to just put on a brave face and you are feeling pretty low about things, or maybe you do have happy times ahead but you feel stressed about the effort and organisation that will fall to you in making them happen.
Take a moment to reflect upon how you feel and what your thoughts are knowing that this time of year is approaching once more. Give yourself time to feel and to think what you think and to ask yourself what changes you can make to make things better for yourself and for others.
Burdens come in many forms:
We can learn to look at our challenges as opportunities, however, for the most part hard times are just that – hard times, and we somehow have to struggle through them. You might be facing anxiety, family problems, depression, bereavement which may be particularly poignant at this time of year, separation, loneliness, ill-health, loss of some sort, poverty, homelessness, broken relationships and friendships, isolation or a whole host of other pressures and painful things.
Maybe you have more than one of these things weighing you down.
What can you do?
From what I have learned in my life, my encouragement to you would be to start getting into the mindset of preparing yourself to ‘cope’ if need be, right now. That way you will have some time before things get really ‘in your face’ about how happy you should be and before you are unable to avoid the constant stream of conversations, advertisements and shop window displays.
Have a plan:
Start now, in early November, with some set-aside times of self-reflection. While the month is still pretty quiet (in terms of societal pressures as I realise that you may have a lot going on in your own life right now), find a way to carve out some time for yourself to do some thinking. With the pressures in your life you may feel like you have ‘no time’, but you do – it’s all about finding something that will work for you. Perhaps if you only have five or ten minutes at a stretch you could get a notebook and over a few days or weeks whenever you get the chance begin to think and plan how you can look after yourself during these challenging and maybe painful holiday seasons.
Meditation, quiet time, journaling and knowing your triggers:
Ok, so now you have some time set aside, what do you do with it? Here are a few ideas to get you started. Silent reflection / meditation and listening to how you feel. Journaling to express your thoughts and feelings and to externalise what is going on with you and maybe even to figure it out. And very importantly, learn about what your ‘triggers’ may be (things that can ‘set you off’ on a negative emotional or cognitive decline).
As to meditation, quiet times and journaling I think you can find what if any of these works best for you so I won’t go into more detail on those. Knowing your triggers is crucial and I encourage you to take some focused time to really think about what these may be and plan ‘safeguards’ around them. Spend time observing your own moods, thoughts, behaviours and make a note of what kind of things make you feel bad, brainstorm, write them down and come up with a list of the most prominent triggers that you foresee yourself having to deal with.
A list of triggers, noting how you ‘cope’ and creating a wellbeing plan:
Now that you have established the things that could trigger you into falling into a bad place, it is important for you to take time to reflect upon some of your unhealthy ‘coping mechanisms’. Be really honest with yourself and write down what these might be. For example, maybe you turn to alcohol, comfort eating or something more harmful to ‘numb the pain’. Maybe you isolate yourself, ruminate, allow yourself to sink further into depression, sleep a lot or self-harm or push people away. There could be a whole host of damaging and unproductive ways that we find to deal with the most painful things in our lives and it is important to know what these are. It is also so important to commit to choosing a healthier way of dealing with things and making a plan and a strategy of getting through.
Where do I start?
This may all sound well and good in theory, but maybe you feel overwhelmed by these suggestions in and of themselves. Therefore, I am going to use some real and hypothetical scenarios to illustrate how you may go about coping with things and you can use this as a template for your own self-care and wellbeing plan.
An example of a wellbeing plan.
Ok, so imagine that you are facing a difficult situation this year of having health challenges, facing loneliness, anxiety, depression, change of circumstances, and the breakdown of a friendship or relationship.
You’ve given yourself the kindness of time to think about what’s really going on with you and to process some of it, as well as to think about what might be your ‘triggers’.
Some of the triggers you face include the following:
Crowds and busy places make you feel anxious and unwell.
You don’t have anyone to talk to about how you feel and you feel like you ‘ought’ to be happy or you’ll ruin the mood for other people, and so you try to cope with the depression on your own.
Things have got worse for you health-wise and you feel overwhelmed and alone.
You are struggling with the breakdown of a close friendship or relationship and don’t know how to deal with it, you know that you’ll soon be surrounded by all of the ‘picture perfect’ scenes in films, advertising, social media and among your friend or acquaintance circles who are in a happy place in their lives.
You are having to deal with stressful family situations and don’t know how you’ll cope with the enforced times together that you have to be a part of.
You know some of the things you turn to that aren’t helpful for you. You know that you’ll want to escape and so you isolate yourself, you indulge in negative coping mechanisms and isolate yourself all the while these things make you feel worse.
A better way forward:
You know that you don’t want to fall into the slippery slope of negative emotions, thoughts and reactions, and so you plan some ‘self-care’ and contingency plans to keep you safe and even enable you to enjoy some of this season despite what you’re facing.
These contingency measures will be very specific and personal to you, but to help as many people as I can in a general way, use this ‘Checklist’ that I’ve come up with as a guide:
Health: Give yourself time to get the healthcare and professional medical advice that you need. Listen to your doctors and those who have your best interests at heart, and ask them for their help and advice in what you should do and how you might be able to cope better.
Isolation / Loneliness / No one to talk to: You may feel like there is no one to talk to, but try making a ‘contact list’ of people you can turn to for general support and in case of an emergency. You might feel bad being at the stage of having to do this, but believe me I had to do this for a long time, I’ve been there and eventually you will get stronger so don’t feel bad if you need to lean on people from time to time.
Think of the people in your life who care about you. Do you have a trusted friend, or a few good friends, a family member, pastor, colleague, relative that you can turn to and confide in? You may find that they in fact care a lot about you, your well being and will be there for you in whatever capacity they are able, so please reach out to such kind people of noble character if you are blessed to have them in your life. If you don’t have this, then please know that you are never alone. I have also had to turn to ‘crisis helplines’, phoning the Samaritans and talking to doctors during tough times – they may not have been ‘friends’ as such but they were a lifeline for me, and sometimes you need someone to talk to and those in the caring professions are often a good and safe source of support. Make a list of contact numbers you can call and reach out to, and also be aware that nowadays with technology there are a wide variety of ways you can contact professionals such as by text, email and video conferencing.
If you are a bit stronger in yourself maybe you can reach out to others in similar situations or even those who are in greater need such as through volunteering, meeting groups of likeminded people and seeing what’s going on in your community.
Be sure to plan in some ‘happy times’ even if you don’t necessarily feel happy inside, create opportunities for positive experiences as far as you can manage. This may be planning a lunch, dinner, cinema outing with friends or a friend. It could be going for walks in the park or getting away somewhere refreshing by yourself. There are so many possibilities but you may have to plan ahead before things get busy to ensure you have something in place.
Diet and exercise: Plan in ways that you can stay well and healthy as much as possible as what we eat and how we use our bodies has a big effect on our mood and mental and emotional wellbeing.
Know when to say ‘no’: You may have certain social and familial obligations to deal with. There may be commitments you need to uphold. But there is likely also to be a lot of things going on that will simply drain you, so you need to know what these might be and how to keep yourself well – you don’t need to say yes to everything.
Practice gratitude: even in the hardest and most challenging of times you can find something to be thankful for, a lesson to be learned for the future, and a lesson that will someday help someone else if you choose to learn and grow from it. So try to find the silver linings rather than allowing yourself to be oppressed by the clouds.
Positive distractions: For when things begin to get on top of you, know what positive distractions you can turn to such as hobbies, a musical instrument, a favourite TV show, a walk in nature, painting, art, writing, blogging, journaling, exercise, chatting to a friend on the phone, model making, etc. Do something that will absorb your focus and help you move forward that one next step at a time.
Plan ahead: You may have a lot of practical things to consider, from organising festivities to managing finances, paperwork, and other ‘grown up stuff’. Plan for these so that they don’t get lost or forgotten when you are perhaps struggling emotionally and mentally. Break things down into smaller, clear, focused and manageable tasks and check them off as you go. Keep your list somewhere where you won’t lose or misplace it, and this will help you stay on track and not get into further challenging situations because of something you may have let slip or forgotten to do.
Next steps: Ok, so life isn’t quite how you hoped it to be. You’ve felt like giving up and giving in, but you’ve chosen the better way – you’ve chosen to keep on living and looking for a way to cope, to survive, to move forward and ultimately to get stronger, to thrive and to see good come out of these challenges. One of the positives about this time of year is the opportunity to embark upon a ‘New Year’. You may look upon this as a flimsy human-made demarcation of time, but you will be in amongst a lot of other people seeking to improve their lives, their wellbeing and their circumstances. Try to thrive from the positive vibes that are encouraging this forward thinking and goal setting and look at the bigger picture of your life. Ok, so you’re not where you want to be but faith tells you that you can be in a better place, so spend some time figuring out what you want moving forwards, what you need to do and to change and what the next practical steps might be and take this forward with you to a hopefully better and stronger year ahead.
Be blessed, and stay strong friends. You are loved and you are never alone. xx