Don’t Worry, Be Happy

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I am a born worrier.

It’s in my nature, it’s how I am programmed.

If worrying was a competitive sport I would be a regional champion. Think of any possible misfortune and the chances are I have worried about it at some point.


As a teenager I really lacked confidence so I mostly worried about what people thought of me. At uni I worried about being single. Then I got a boyfriend and started worrying about our relationship. Then that turned out fine so I worried about my health, and that we wouldn’t be able to have kids. Then we had kids and I worried about all the terrible things that could happen to them. The kids are fine so currently my biggest worries tend to be about being in some sort of accident whilst travelling.

Sometimes I tell myself that worrying makes me more cautious, which means bad things are less likely to happen. This might be true, occasionally. But for the vast majority of the time, worrying has been an utterly pointless exercise which has often stopped me from actually living my life.

Jesus knew that worrying gets in the way of living. For obvious reasons, this is one of my favourite bits in the whole Bible:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

…Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

(Matthew 6:25-27, 34)

Life is short, and I have already wasted too many of my days worrying about things that could, but probably won’t, happen. Worries often still buzz around my head, but I am learning to swat them away before they land – they are not worth the time and attention.

Living in the Now

When I catch myself worrying about something, I remind myself of this and it really helps. There is absolutely no point living in an imaginary future, or in the past; the only thing we have any control over is this moment right here. Now.

This is what the Buddhist practice of ‘mindfulness’ is all about – awakening our senses and becoming fully aware of the world around us. It’s become so popular recently because lots of people are realising the power of learning to live in the present moment.


I have had a fantastic life so far, nothing really awful has ever happened to me. So every time I have felt low, my mind has been somewhere other than the present. Either dwelling on something that already happened (that seemed far more serious than it was) or worrying about an imaginary future.

The very happiest times in my life all take place when I am fully in the moment, soaking up and enjoying life as it unfolds.

Feeling awestruck by a night sky or a sunset over the sea; eating a meal so delicious I can still taste it now; laughing so hard and for so long that I forgot what was funny in the first place… these things all happened when I was fully present and fully alive. And since I have learnt to stop my mind dragging me away from the ‘now’, these moments have become a lot more frequent.


Children are experts at living in the present moment. 

I don’t often catch my two-year-old daughter fretting over what someone said at playgroup, or worrying about what’s happening tomorrow. When something bad happens she cries, but then it’s very quickly forgotten and she is once again fully immersed in whatever she is doing. She chases Daddy round the garden or Grandma pushes her on the swing and she is utterly delighted. Her whole face lights up and her world is full to the brim with joy. I am slowly learning to be more like her.

Jesus said that the Kingdom of God belonged to little children, and that anyone who wants to enter it would have to become like a child.

I wonder if this is what he was talking about.

If you’d like to discuss with me any issues raised in my blog posts but would prefer not to write a public comment, you can email me at musicineverysound@gmail.com.

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Moods, Mountains and Muddy Windscreens

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There is something about human nature that makes us virtually incapable of appreciating what we have.

We in 21st Century Britain have better living standards than the vast majority of people on Earth and throughout history. We have more food than we could ever need. We are free to do what we like, go where we like, say what we like. There is no real threat to our lives from war, corruption, famine or natural disasters.

Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation fought to the death for the freedom we have today. And as recent news stories have demonstrated, a very large number of people right now are literally giving up everything in the hope that their families might be able to live somewhere like this, free from the horrors of war. Not to have a slightly better house or higher wages, but so they can feed their newborn babies until their bellies are full and they stop screaming from hunger. And for the privilege of being able to watch their children go to school without the fear of seeing them shot in the street.

We are SO lucky. 

So why does it hardly ever feel like it?

It makes me really ashamed actually. But I don’t think we are really any different to anyone else, I think if the Syrian refugees were in our position they would be the same. It’s just a weird part of being human; a sort of blindness, an inability to see things in perspective. Everything is relative and we quickly lose sight of the bigger picture.


Muddy Windscreens

It’s like we are all driving in our little cars around the edge of this astoundingly beautiful crystal clear lake surrounded by breathtaking snow-capped mountains beneath an endless azure sky… but we’ve been driving so long that the windows are completely caked in mud and we can’t see a thing.

Occasionally something happens that wakes us up, we drive under a waterfall (because lakes have waterfalls) and suddenly we can see reality in all its glory. Often it takes something bad to happen – someone getting seriously ill or being involved in a serious accident – to make us wake up, stop examining the specks of dust on our windscreens and appreciate the things that actually matter.

“Don’t it always seem to go…?”


Moods

In my day to day life I now notice what a massive impact my moods have on me, and it’s quite scary. When I’m in a good mood I feel like my windscreen wipers are on and  I’m able to see things in perspective. I feel relaxed, thankful and open minded, and I am understanding and sympathetic towards others. Life feels easy and if I hit a bump in the road I laugh it off and carry on.

When I’m in a bad mood I am impatient, irrational, irritable and closed minded. I can’t see out of the car at all so I try to fix the problem by examining each speck of dust on the dashboard and in the glove compartment. After a while it rains, the windows clear a little and things start to look brighter again. It genuinely feels as if the world has changed, not just my mood.


Around the time I got engaged I was massively freaking out about nothing in particular; one minute I was enjoying the scenery and everything seemed wonderful, and the next minute something ridiculously trivial would trigger a huge emotional breakdown. I wouldn’t be able to see out of my own bad mood at all, and naturally I would want to pinpoint the reason, analyse it and try to fix it.

I gradually became better at understanding the nature of moods and learnt not to take myself so seriously during bad ones. This, along with recognising that my thoughts aren’t real, is one of the most important things I’ve ever learnt to do, and has helped to lift me out of some really dark places (all entirely imaginary of course).

I feel I am coming to the end of the road with the car analogy so let’s try another one…

Storm Clouds

I started to imagine that when I was in a bad mood a big dark cloud was surrounding my head, pelting down negative thoughts like giant hailstones. If I paid too much attention to them they would usually grow even bigger, but if I managed to ignore them long enough eventually the storm cloud would pass over and everything would feel OK again.

It is really, really difficult to ignore your own thoughts, particularly if you feel like the storm cloud has been following you for months. But I’ve found that with practice it really does get a lot easier, and the sky gradually becomes clearer. At the moment my best moods tend to occur in the morning when I’m fuelled up on coffee. (This is basically the same as taking mild anti-depressants, and as there is no sign of a coffee shortage, I’m fine with that.) I will have a dip in mood between about 2pm and 5pm (when the caffeine’s worn off), where I will start thought-swatting again until teatime when everything starts looking better.

I actually started writing this post two days ago at about 3pm, as it was the only time when both kids were asleep. I was struggling to find inspiration, and getting frustrated as I wanted to publish it that evening. I started wondering why I was even writing the stupid thing in the first place, surely no-one was interested and everyone would think I was weird. I felt determined to get it done though, surely I was feeling bad because I wasn’t writing well enough and just had to try harder. I was doing this for about an hour before I realised I was trying to write about bad moods whilst in a bad mood. I started again this morning and it feels completely different and so much easier. This afternoon I know I will feel a bit pants so I will do something else, get on with thought-swatting and wait for my bad mood to pass like I would a headache. Minus the paracetamol.

The world hasn’t changed, despite what my mind is telling me – it’s just that sometimes I can’t see through the clouds.


If I was rich I would buy all the printed copies of Dr. Richard Carlson’s books and send them to everyone I know. He’s probably not the only one to talk about this sort of stuff but that’s where it started for me. I still go back to his books every time I start to lose my way and feel rubbish, and they always make me feel better.

If you’d like to discuss with me any issues raised in my blog posts but would prefer not to write a public comment, you can email me at musicineverysound@gmail.com.

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Happiness and Fly Swatting

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There is this idea ingrained deep in the British psyche that feelings and emotions aren’t important. Stiff upper lip, hold it all in, keep calm and carry on. We just don’t have time for all that foolish emotional nonsense. Well whoever came up with that was an idiot. Our emotions are how we experience the world – if we become emotionally detached and unable to feel the right things at the right times (which is what mental illness does) then we are not really living our lives.

Happiness

We are living in a world that is perpetually trying to convince us that happiness is something we should be striving for, that we can achieve if we just do everything right. If we meet the right man, get a good job, lose that weight, buy that car, wear those shoes, have a baby, go on that holiday… THEN we will surely be happy. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but this doesn’t work. Time and again we reach our goals only to find that the goalposts have moved, that we are still not happy and now need to do something else to achieve happiness. In my previous post I told the story of how I got myself depressed because I was so terrified of being single forever. Three years later my dreams had come true and I was engaged to my perfect man, but the goalposts had moved; my situation was completely wonderful but I was definitely not happy.

I know plenty of people whose lives are fantastic by the world’s standards but who are not happy. I have also met people who have very little and whose lives are very difficult compared to mine, but who are genuinely content. If happiness was something you could achieve by having lots of money and stuff, then judging by global standards, most people in Britain should be ecstatic all the time. The media is constantly telling us lies trying to get us to be more, do more, buy more, when in actual fact most of us have all we need to be content right where we are. I am getting pretty fed up with the negative, cynical mindset I encounter so often which makes people incapable of appreciating what they have; instead they spend their lives moaning and assuming everyone else should be moaning too. Happiness is not a place to arrive at, but a state of mind. A cliché for sure, but I would rather be eternally swimming in a sparkly rainbow sea of clichés than be cynical and miserable.

Paul expresses this same idea in his letter to the church in Philippi:

‘I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.’
(Phil 4:12-13)

This counter-cultural, upside-down way of thinking is still extremely relevant today, if not more so. I am approaching this from a psychological angle – how we can practically retrain our minds to achieve this state of contentment, but in doing so I don’t feel like I am undermining the God aspect. I think God gives us tools and techniques to help keep our minds healthy, just as he gives us hospitals and medicine to keep our bodies healthy.


I have come to believe that everyone starts off being happy, and that our natural state continues to be one of contentment and peace. In this state we respond to things exactly as they happen – we feel sad/angry/scared when bad things happen but we don’t let them get in the way of our appreciating the good things. Children are really good at this. It’s just that as we grow up our minds become filled with thoughts and feelings that cloud our view and prevent us from seeing and experiencing things as they actually are. Some people’s minds are so “clouded” that they believe that is their natural state. As a Christian this directly links to my belief that a fundamental goodness lies at the heart of reality and existence, and that all the bad stuff – however real – will not have the last word.

Thoughts are not real

When we feel bad, it is almost always because of a thought we’ve had, whether we can pinpoint it or not. Our minds are creating thoughts constantly, all the time, and have the amazing capacity to make us feel, believe and do almost anything. One of the most important things I’ve ever learned is that my thoughts are not real. They are just thoughts, and I am creating them – it is how my mind processes what I see and experience. When I have good, happy, positive and loving thoughts I embrace them and use them fully to my advantage. When I have bad thoughts I notice them, but choose to discard them as not worth dwelling on. A lot of the time I can do this before those bad thoughts start to affect how I feel. Sometimes this is really easy, sometimes it takes all my willpower and attention to discard what my mind is trying to convince me is true. I cannot emphasis enough how much this apparently simple and obvious realisation has helped me – realising for the first time that my thoughts weren’t real immediately took away some of their power.

Fly Swatting

It is a very difficult thing at first to learn not to trust your own thoughts. Our minds are very good at convincing us that they represent reality. I think of it as a bit like swatting flies. When I’m in a fairly good mood, some thoughts that I would swat away might be something like:

– “I don’t like how I look, I wish I looked more like…”
– “I wish I didn’t have to work later, I really don’t enjoy it”
– “She is a bit self-obsessed, I don’t like her”
– “I wish I was back in …, that was so fun and this is so boring”
– “I’ve always been rubbish at that so I won’t bother trying”
– “I might have a car crash today” (slightly more alarming but I do think this fairly often)

When I’m in a particularly low mood I will be swatting away thoughts such as:

– “I hate living here, it’s so depressing”
– “Everything’s hopeless, why bother”
– “I thought I was happy before but that was an illusion, this is reality”
– “The world is a bleak, meaningless place”

At the moment I’m pretty good at thought-swatting and rarely let them bury themselves in my brain and make me miserable. They are just minor annoyances that I have learnt to ignore. Of course sometimes I do take my negative thoughts seriously and start to feel rubbish, and I then have to backtrack to see where I went wrong. Moods are a natural part of life, but it is possible to learn to recognise them and not take the bad ones too seriously (more on that later). Life is good at the moment so I find this pretty easy. When I was feeling really low I would have to be putting far more effort in – the thoughts were more like seagulls than flies and I would be swatting them from all angles with a baseball bat. Gradually, though, each time I was able to discard the bad thoughts and start to feel more positive – to return to my natural state of contentment.


So there you have it – the first principle I use every day to tackle my over-active mind. I don’t know much about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) but I think it is loosely based on this principle. I learned about it through an American psychologist called Richard Carlson whose books I happened to stumble across when I was feeling particularly low and desperate. My favourite is called ‘You Can Be Happy No Matter What’, but he wrote quite a few based on the same common-sense principles – I would recommend his books to anyone, struggling with mental health or not.

I have lots more to say… but that’s all for now!

If you’d like to discuss with me any issues raised in my blog posts but would prefer not to write a public comment, you can email me at musicineverysound@gmail.com.

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The Story Of My Own Mental Health Wobbles

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This seems like an odd thing to want to shout from the rooftops about. Part of me thinks it is incredibly self-indulgent and no-one will really be interested. Another part (the English part I think) wants to stop all this fluffy, melodramatic nonsense about feelings, swallow it all back down and get on with pretending to be normal. But another part, the part that is shouting loudest, thinks that this sort of stuff isn’t talked about enough, and that a few years ago I would have found it really, really helpful to read something like this. So in the spirit of talking about mental health (see previous post), and on the off chance that there is someone out there who might benefit from reading about my wobbles and what I’ve learnt from them, here goes.


I am a really happy person, probably irritatingly so at times, and have been for a while now. I have my ups and downs, I am human after all, but for the last few years the ups have far outweighed the downs. Clearly this has a lot do with having a lovely husband, two wonderful children, a nice house, etc. But during the first half of my twenties my life was pretty wonderful too – I certainly had nothing to complain about, yet I spent a large chunk of those five years suffering with various forms of depression and anxiety.

As mental illness goes, I have definitely got off lightly. Some people will read this and think it sounds like a walk in the park compared to their own experiences. But I do feel like I have had a few small glimpses into what depression and anxiety are like, and those glimpses were so awful that I would go so far as to say I would choose a serious longterm physical condition over a serious longterm mental illness any day. No contest. However, I would also say that I am genuinely grateful to have had those experiences as they have taught me so much about how my mind works, and how a lot of the time it can’t be trusted. Left to its own devices I’m pretty sure my mind would make me utterly miserable. Over the last eight years I feel like I have learnt to recognise when my mind is playing nasty tricks on me, and a lot of the time I am now able to stop it in its tracks.

In my next few posts I will explain some really simple, seemingly obvious and yet profoundly effective principles that have dramatically changed my life, and taught me that it actually is possible to be happy no matter what life brings. To begin with I will set the scene by telling the story of my most significant wobbles to date, and what they felt like.


My First Big Wobble

When I was 20 and in my first year of university, I had “depression” for about 3 months. This is a retrospective self-diagnosis, as I never saw a doctor and at the time was too terrified of that label to accept it. But having done a fair amount of Googling recently I am almost certain that if I had gone to a doctor at the time they would have said I was depressed. Thankfully this lifted gradually of its own accord, and being depressed in those few months is by far and away the worst I have ever felt. Since then it has returned at various times and in various disguises, but has never been quite as bad as that first time.

I kept detailed journals between the ages of about fifteen and twenty-four (something I would definitely recommend doing). Looking back over my journal from 2007 I can see now how my habit of over-thinking things led to my mood spiralling dramatically downwards. Embarrassingly, it was to do with my being single. This sounds really silly and it is. I had never had a boyfriend, and in the back of my mind had always assumed I would meet my husband at university like how my mum met my dad. After a few months of university and no obvious boyfriend material, I began to wonder what would happen if I didn’t find a husband at university. Looking back on it now it seems so ridiculous to even be thinking that aged 20, but back then that prospect was terrifying. I began to try and be OK with the possibility of longterm singleness, and kept imagining future scenarios without a husband and family, hoping to get to a point where I was happy either way. It was this obsessive thinking about an imaginary future that really started to knock my already very shaky self-confidence and lower my mood.

Within just a few days of starting this obsessive future contingency-planning, I was deep in the worst depression I’ve ever experienced. I felt like I was carrying around rocks in my chest. I tried to go out, hang out with friends, do work, but wouldn’t last long at all before I’d give up and go back to bed. I couldn’t eat, crying felt like a release so I did that a lot. Sleep was an escape once I finally got there, but waking up the rocks would immediately come slamming back down. My head was swarming with tortured thoughts, the world seemed a grim and horrifying place. I felt so emotionally detached that I forgot how to laugh, and often found myself sat in my bedroom longing to be able to cry so at least I was feeling something. I actually think that sort of pain is worse than physical pain, because it is incredibly real but invisible; you don’t know why it’s there but it’s inescapable, and makes you lose all perspective and meaning in life. I never once had thoughts of harming myself (probably because I was lucky enough that the depression didn’t last very long) but I can totally see how those feelings can lead to that. My mind was convincing me that there was no escape – any happiness I had felt before was an illusion, this was reality.

I had this constantly for probably about three days, and then for the next three months I was feeling OK and able to function about half the time, but the other half my mood would swing back down and all those horrible thoughts and feelings would come flooding back. Looking back now I can see that it was an illness – self-inflicted by my over-active brain but still definitely an illness. I should have gone to the doctor, who would probably have recommended I talk to someone regularly and maybe try something like CBT. I didn’t even come close to going to the doctor because I was absolutely terrified of being told I had depression. I didn’t know anything much about depression except that it was really hard to get out of, you had to take medication and it meant you were crazy. So instead I spoke to my friends (who probably thought I was crazy but hid it well), and tried to pray and read the Bible to regain some sense of security and peace. These things undoubtedly helped, but in my mind the issue was still my singleness, and how I either needed to get a boyfriend or be confident enough in myself to survive being single. I can see now that the issue definitely wasn’t my singleness, it was that I was depressed and my mind was constantly playing tricks on me.


The Next Few Wobbles

In my second year of university I was much more confident and my singleness didn’t bother me any more. I had lots of friends and was enjoying the student life. So my next big wobble was about something totally different, but equally embarrassing. I can’t remember why I started thinking about this, but I became absolutely terrified about global warming. Now global warming is a very real and terrifying thing and in some ways this was not an irrational fear. I am a natural-born worrier anyway, but this anxiety became crippling – I couldn’t stop thinking about end-of-the-world scenarios and it seemed to me like they were imminent. I stopped enjoying things, couldn’t concentrate on anything and it was affecting me physically. I suspect this was in a way part of the growing up process – the realisation after my lovely cosy upbringing that I wasn’t immortal and that bad things could happen. That lasted a month or so.

Fast forward two years and I have just got engaged to my dream man. We’d met in my third year of university, he was incredible and I was completely besotted. We started going out about a month after we first met, and getting to know each other in those first few months was a wonderful, exciting, romantic whirlwind. In 2010 we started talking about getting engaged, and my mind started going into meltdown. I became fixated on tiny things about our relationship that are so ridiculous I am too embarrassed to be specific. I would have extreme mood swings where one minute all was fine, and the next minute the tiniest thing triggered a huge crisis, everything felt wrong and I was in turmoil and blind panic. When we got engaged I was utterly miserable, and this was made worse by the guilt of not feeling what I felt like I ought to be feeling. Strangely, at the time I knew I was being silly. I knew that there was actually nothing wrong, and for that reason the thought never crossed my mind that maybe the relationship wouldn’t work and we should break up. But this didn’t stop me from feeling really, really low a lot of the time. I told my fiancé everything I was feeling, and he would have been fully justified to walk out then on the grounds of me being unstable and completely bonkers a lot of the time. But credit to him, he stayed. I remember really hoping that once we were married this craziness would stop, and thank goodness – I was right. Almost the minute we walked down the aisle all those huge “problems” mysteriously disappeared, and in the four years since our relationship has been wonderful.

Since then I have noticed that the times when I feel lowest are when I’m not doing very much. When I was working as a secondary school teacher, almost every holiday and even at weekends, my mood would come crashing down. I started to be able to predict it but it was still horrible, every time I would feel those rocks in my chest and the world would seem like a bleak and hopeless place. I remember walking around a supermarket during one half term thinking how lucky the people around me were to be able to feel normal. Not even happy, just free from the invisible turmoil and pain I was in.

When we first moved to Plymouth I had six months of being in a new place with no job and very little to do, and predictably my mood swings returned. Generally I would feel fine in the morning, then feel really depressed for a few hours in the afternoon, and feel OK again in the evening. I have no idea what caused this but it became a part of life – not fun but manageable. Sometimes I’d feel so low I was unable to do anything except try to sleep until the bad feelings went  away. I began seeing these low moods as similar to a headache or a cold – something that I had to endure but that would eventually pass.

That was nearly three years ago and since I’ve had children I’ve had no wobbles at all.


So that’s the story of my mental health thus far. I hope anyone reading this who is going through anything similar can be encouraged that it’s probably not as bad as it seems, and that there are ways out.

I’ll be referring back to these experiences in my next few posts, where I will talk about a few basic principles I’ve learned that have had a profound impact on my life. I promise they won’t be depressing at all!

If you’d like to discuss with me any issues raised in my blog posts but would prefer not to write a public comment, you can email me at musicineverysound@gmail.com.

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