The coping strategies that have helped me.
Mental health difficulties came as a real shock to me after we lost Sam, in 2012. Despite supporting many people, professionally, through my work in education, and with supporting people charities in Wales and Ireland, who struggled with anxiety, panic attacks and a diverse range of mental health problems, I had no idea of the true reality in terms of how terrifying, consuming and debilitating mental health problems could be.
Most of all, I didn’t realise how much my mental health could change me as a person, when things weren’t right.
It took me 3 years to find the right help, and I am still learning, every day, how to control, overcome and live with the mental health issues that became a part of my life following the trauma of stillbirth and loss of our precious daughter, and multiple miscarriages, losing all her siblings.
So this is me now, and my experience so far, and the top 5 coping mechanisms that have helped me. The issues I battle include depression, anxiety attacks and PTSD.
Coping Mechanism 1 – Learning to breathe
When I started to struggle with anxiety attacks, I thought I was dying. I had no idea what I was experiencing.
They happen most commonly for me when I’m driving. I have realised the reason for this is that when I drive, I have time to think. Something that my lovely Counsellor taught me was that our feelings are guided by our thoughts, and it is our feelings that then dictate the physical reactions we experience. So the bottom line is that if we are aware of that chain reaction, then we can take control back of the scary physical reactions.
For me the physical signs of an anxiety attack start with my eyes. Naturally when you drive, you constantly look around you as well as at the road in front. At the start of an anxiety attack, I suddenly feel like I am unable to focus on anything other than the road in front, as if I have a pair of blinkers on, and I feel as if, when I try to widen my vision to the sides of the road, I am going to fall off it (ridiculous, I know). My upper body becomes rigid and my chest tightens and then I start to feel dizzy.
It took me years to realise what was happening, and that I was actually causing them myself. I found that the longer the distance I was driving, the worse it was. It was on a two and a half hour trip back from a team meeting about 18 months ago when I suddenly figured it out. I was experiencing rolling anxiety attacks, it became so bad that I had to stop every 5 minutes
and pull over. Every time I stopped and got out, I felt better within minutes. I really didn’t understand what was happening.
Something else my lovely Counsellor told me was that breathing was really important. As a biologist, I completely understood the basics of this, but I think I probably didn’t take it seriously. At the end of the day, I was still standing, so I must be breathing.
On my 5th stop after leaving the Team Meeting, the breathing thing suddenly popped into my head. When I set off again I started telling myself to breathe, out loud. “Breathe in, Breath out”. I just repeated this constantly to myself, and the weirdest thing happened, I managed to get home without another anxiety attack. Between telling myself to breathe, I was singing (kind of) to songs I knew on the radio.
I thought about all this when I arrived home, and it suddenly dawned on me that at times when I was driving and giving myself time to think, I was spending a lot of time thinking about Sam and our babies, and what had happened, and the more I would think about it, the angrier my thoughts would get “Why me?” “Why did it happen?” “Life is just unfair”, and the angrier my thoughts got, the angrier I felt. The angrier I felt, subconsciously the more shallow my breathing became, and at times I was even holding my breath, without even realising. What happens when you hold your breath? You reduce the level of oxygen into your body. Your body then moves into emergency mode and starts to shutdown to conserve oxygen, and stops functioning optimally. Ultimately you become light headed.
So by initially telling myself to breathe and really focussing on it, I broke the chain. 18 months later, it has now become second nature again, to breathe. Oh, and the singing, well no matter how out of tune you are, when you sing you have to breathe properly to belt out those tunes don’t you? So for me, if my mind turns to angry, unfair thoughts, I now put on the music, and focus on my breathing, and I have learnt to control my anxiety attacks when I’m driving.
Now this didn’t work for me when it came to motorways, but that is down to another bad experience, and took extra coping strategies, but with extra help, I have learnt to control that too, so it is possible!
Coping Strategy number 2 – Talk, let people into your life and let yourself be a part of other peoples lives.
When I first lost Sam, I chose to isolate and avoid, in order to cope. It wasn’t that I thought
I was the only person in the world who’d ever lost a baby, it was that, nobody was going to understand, and in the words of The Goo Goo Dolls, I didn’t want the world to see me, or the complete failure that I was, or the freak I considered myself to be.
Our head space, like computers, has a maximum storage capacity. Isolating, means that your head is filled only with the trauma you have gone through, and the more time you think about it on your own, the more out of perspective things become. It’s like blowing too much air into a balloon. It will firstly blow out of shape and then eventually, if you continue to fill it, it will explode.
At some point you need to offload some of those thoughts to free up some head space in order to function.
It’s a real balance, as I found out. To begin with, talking to other people, spending time with them, and letting them in just made me feel guilty, because I felt that I should only be focussing on the babies I had lost, and if I dared to smile or laugh, I hated myself. It took a long time to realise that actually it was ok, I wasn’t a bad mother for thinking about other things sometimes, and actually when I did, my depression subsided just a little, for a short time. I learnt to extend the length of time slowly, but I also realised that the new me had to balance my time now. I needed time to be able to talk about Sam, and the babies, but not just within my four walls, in a safe space, with professional support too, to enable me to offload but maintain a perspective.
Most importantly, I needed time outside of my grief and trauma, and that having that balance, actually enabled me to function and cope. Now its a two-way balance, as my counselling ended last year, and we took the stabilisers off, but it’s ok.
There will always be people who feel uncomfortable with the new version of me, and that’s ok, because there are also the people who still see just me. So it really does come down to the old saying “A problem shared….”. No, it won’t halve it, or fix it, but it will allow enough headspace to breathe and cope. I still have bad days, but now they are days, rather than months.
Coping Strategy number 3 – Manage your social media the best way for you.
Social media has been my best friend, and my worst enemy all rolled into one.
Anger is a very natural and normal emotion. It is the emotion we use when we feel under threat, to warn off dangers. A threat may not be a physical danger, it can be an emotional danger that causes pain as a result of our experiences. Anger is a very normal part of the grieving process, and in a controlled environment, it can help us reduce the pressure of pain that we are feeling as a result of loss or trauma.
Social media has become a story board for people’s lives. In my periods of self-induced isolation, Facebook was my one form of communication with the outside world, which was positive in it’s own way. However, it also formed a communication with the outside world for other people too. Therefore, pictures of scans, babies and happy families were very common. Ouch!
To start with, and even now on my bad days, the pain that other peoples pictures of their beautiful babies and families causes me, is immense. In the early days, Sam’s Dad will tell you how angry I would become in response to other peoples happy pictures. I have lost count of the number of Facebook posts I have written and deleted either just before or just after publishing, as a result of my pain and anger. It would be wrong of me to tell people not to publish their pictures, despite my pain. It would also be wrong of me to expect people, who haven’t been through baby loss, to understand that pain and anger.
I have now learnt to manage my social media to protect myself. On good days I have actually been known to write complimentary responses, so I know my coping strategies have improved. However, often, rather than exposing myself to the pain, I now hide certain posts. It’s ok to do that. I am also gradually learning to explain to people that I am hiding their posts, to prevent me looking as though I’m being ignorant or not interested in the pictures that are most precious to them.
I will now post the very occassional picture of me and Sam, but I understand that some people struggle with that too, just the way I struggle with theirs. It’s ok to do that, and feel that way from either side. The most important thing is that you are doing what is right for you. So, if like me, you have to manage your social media, then just do it, it’s ok.
Coping strategy number 4 – Tiptoe through the tulips! (Or run through them if you’re feeling energetic)
As a biologist, I can stand on a soapbox and give you all the physiological benefits of coping strategies 3 and 4, but I won’t. Having 2 dogs and the ponies, I am lucky in that I have no choice but to exercise, and they give me all the motivation I require. They also give me a routine, which is so important when I am at my worst, because I would not need an excuse to stay in bed, away from the world on my bad days. Having two dogs with built-in alarm clocks, and ponies that cannot be left in their stables, or without food or water, I have no option to stay in bed.
In the very early days after losing each baby, the only points of those days that I wasn’t in excruciating emotional pain, were when I walked the dogs, or sorted out the ponies. We are designed as moving animals, that’s the reason we are built the way we are, with muscles, tendons and a skeleton. When depression creeps in, it frequently takes away the motivation to do anything and we
become sedentary couch potatoes.
Not only does this affect the function of our bodies, but it keeps us stuck in our own headspace.
Walking, running, skipping, anything really, not only helps my body, but also gives me a distraction, just for a short time. It works for me.
Coping strategy number 5 – We are what we eat.
Mental health issues often have an affect on appetite and our digestive sytems. For me, at my worst times, I tend to stop eating, and when I do finally eat, I will just eat easy to reach junk food….pies, cakes, crisps, chocolate. The thing about sugar is that it gives you an instant hit, a quick boost, which is great, but what goes up must come down, and the thing about a sugar hit is that you come down with a bang, as a result of insulin desperately trying to control blood sugar levels. High sugar foods don’t satisfy the appetite or body in any way.
They provide little benefit to vitamin or mineral requirements and generally just convert to fat which stores itself within our cells. The overwhelming effect on mood is to increase depression. Those are the facts behind it, and I certainly feel it. If I don’t balance my diet with protein and fruit and vegetables, very quickly, not only do I feel worse physically, and emotionally, but then with excess weight gain, my already fairly poor self image suffers too.
The other thing I have found is that when I feel anxious, the most terrifying part for me is the palpitations, when my heart suddenly beats very rapidly, or very hard for no apparent reason.
I have found that when I eat a very sugary diet, that gets worse and happens more frequently. I also decided to cut out any obvious stimulants, such as anything containing caffeine, that would on it’s own speed up my heart rate. Also drinking more water helped me too. I am very bad at drinking enough water, but definitely notice a difference when I do. I am not perfect when it comes to dietary intake, despite my knowledge, but I strongly believe we are what we eat and what we eat in turn plays a significant role in how we feel, particularly at times when life is difficult.
So that’s it for me, well, some of it anyway. I know coping strategies don’t fix everything for me, but with each one I discover, I improve the quality of my life a little bit more. Mental health issues are a nightmare, and scary and have a far bigger impact on life than this cynical scientist ever imagined, until they hit me like a runaway train. I now realise how much I used to take it for granted and underestimate its impact and importance, in the easy times before we lost Sam. Mental health, like social media, can be your best friend and your worst energy and needs management, and respect.
Mental Health is for life…..not just for Mental Health Awareness Week.