Dear My Previous Self…

Dear my previous self – getting personal

– Ruth Beacon

The post you are about to read is a little different from the rest. This is a letter that I wish I would of read at the beginning of my recovery. It is written to my former self, not knowing where or what was happening. These are things that I now know and have learnt.

This is for all those in recovery- inpatient, outpatient, discharged from adult eating disorder specialist, those freshly diagnosed with an eating disorder; at university or home.

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Dear my previous self,

You may feel completely lost, confused and lifeless. That is the reality of an eating disorder. It isn’t a glamorous illness. I know you are cold (from the bone), constantly hungry, and lonely.

I want you to know that the pain you cannot describe does fade. The bigger your life gets, the smaller anorexia becomes.

There are a few things that I want to tell you, remember:

  • Recovery is worth it: Every tear, mouthful and psychology session is going to be worth it. Once you experience life again you will realise that there is more to life than anorexia. Having the freedom to think beyond rituals and rules feels liberating, living a ‘normal’ life seems in reach.
  • You are amazing just the way you are: Think about all those people that love you; send you encouraging texts, messages and cards. They love you for your personality and all your quirky bits. Inner beauty shines out.
  • Scared? Nervous? Fearful? That is ok: These feelings are natural and are to be expected. Change is scary! Change means facing your fears, talking about feelings that you want to hide and gaining weight. Recovery is worth it! as who wants to fear food?
  • Listen to medical professionals and those around you: Medical professionals have had years and years of training, they know what they are talking about. LISTEN and TRUST them. You are not the first anorexic they have seen and the medical professionals have watched people recover and live their lives. Family and friends only want to see you get the help you need, so take on board their advice. Ultimately, it is up to you.
  • You can live without anorexia: Anorexia holds you back, lies, manipulates you, stops you living your life and it dominates completely. You probably think you cannot live without it, but you can, there are coping mechanisms that really really help. It’s power over you diminishes and you become more in control of the eating disorder (and not the other way around).
  • You are not alone: I know you feel alone and the only person there has ever been to suffer with an eating disorder. However, there are lots and lots of people who suffer with eating disorders,  you are not isolated in this (side note: I have made lots of new friends from being an inpatient and there is a bond because we have all been through the same thing and kept each other strong).
  • This experience is not wasted: You may not believe this now but you will be grateful for all you have been through. It has made you realise what is important in life and you can empathise with people who are going through similar situations. You may be the one giving advice in the future!
  • Hope: There is a light at the end of the tunnel, life becomes brighter again. You realise there is hope. People teach you this and you realise this for yourself. Hope is what drives you to keep going. It is a beautiful feeling.
  • You are strong: Only one person has got you through this and that is YOU. You are the one who has worked so incredibly hard, you deserve happiness and you are STRONG.

Love, Ruth x

This blog was written for Eating Disorders Awareness Week. You can find other inspirational stories of recovery on the Student Minds website, as well as information about where to get support if you are experiencing an eating disorder at university.

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How I overcame my depression

About this time last year, I was depressed and had recurring suicidal thoughts. I had a difficult time finishing my degree and felt like failure. Today I am full of energy, mainly because I read the works of Aaron Beck and Martin Seligman on depression and happiness, after which my depression disappeared entirely and my level of happiness increased 60%. Beck popularized the ABCDE model that I use every time I face a setback. Seligman provided a series of strategies to do every day to become happier.

Aaron Beck and the ABCDE model to counter sadness

Beck found that we react more to the stories we tell ourselves after an even that to the adversity itself. An Adversity (A) has the Consequence (C) of a sad feeling. Between the Adversity (A) and the Consequence (C), Beck found the Belief (B) to be hugely important. With the same adversity, different beliefs lead to different consequences. Beliefs are a set of thoughts so automatic that we hardly recognize them. Unlike the adversity, which is set in stone, the belief is something we can Dispute (D). The best way to do so is to prove that it is factually incorrect and offer hard evidence against it. This Disputation may lead us to feel Energized (E).

Here is an example of the ABCDE model:

– Adversity: I got a bad mark in a test

– Belief: I am a bad student, will probably fail the exam, and have little value

– Consequence: I feel sad

– Disputation: let’s look at the facts: I got into Cambridge, got good marks in the other tests, and have an internship for the summer

– Energization: I do have value after all

Martin Seligman and the daily practice of happiness

Unlike most psychology research in the 1980s, which studied mental illnesses, Seligman decided to study happiness. Similar to Beck, he found that two important characteristics of beliefs: whether we see things as permanent versus temporary, or pervasive versus specific. For example, if you get a good mark in a test, you may think that you were “lucky in this course” (temporary and specific), or that you are a “good student in any field” (permanent and pervasive). Optimism and hope consists of interpreting bad events as specific and temporary, while seeing good events as permanent and pervasive

Seligman also recommends these exercises to increase your level of happiness:

(1) what-went-well today (or three-blessings): every evening before sleep, I sit down and look for three things that went well during my day and why. I try to find permanent and pervasive aspects of those three good things. (Seligman warns that “it may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier. The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.”)

(2) gratitude letter: every so often, I find someone I never properly thanked, such as my mother, a close friend, or a mentor, and I write a gratitude letter. I reflect on what they mean to me and why I am grateful. Then I contact that person, ask for a face-to-face meeting, take out the letter, and read it slowly.

(3) signature strengths survey: I took the Values In Action survey and found 5 signature strengths among 24 universal qualities (judgment, discipline, spirituality, etc.). I grin every time I see the result from the survey, try to use them often in my day-to-day, and feel invigorated when I do so, thinking “try and stop me now!”. (Go to Seligman’s page at the University of Pennsylvania, click “Questionnaires > VIA Survey of Character Strengths”, create an account, and answer the questions for about 10 minutes.)

To learn more about both of these models, I recommend reading:

Martin Seligman, “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment”

If you are interested in contacting the author of this article and learning more, fill out the contact form below!

 

Don’t forget to look after yourself too!

~ Lauren Gasser

Just like any physical illness, a mental health condition can leave you feeling weak, exhausted and detached from the world around you. Unlike physical illness, mental health problems often cause sufferers to blame or punish themselves, adding anger, guilt and self-loathing to all the other symptoms they are already experiencing. The phrase “look after yourself” has somewhat lost its true meaning in recent years, but these simple words are so often forgotten or underestimated. We all have people we care about, people we care for, so why not apply the same care and kindness to ourselves? Here are a few very simple ways that you might care for yourself when you are feeling unwell:

A pampering evening: both men and women can benefit from a few hours of pampering. For men: a hot bath, a shave, clipping your nails, all the things that you might neglect to do, but that make you feel a little more human. For women: a face-mask, painting your nails, putting on some sweet-smelling moisturiser and other small ‘treats’. For those with forms of body dysmorphia, the physical process of being gentle and kind to your body, the act of rubbing in cream or brushing oil through your hair, can encourage a sense of connection with yourself that is often lost. You may find that these small actions are harder than they sound, but just spending five minutes being kind to your body each day can help that uncomfortable feeling ease.

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Gentle exercise: if getting out of bed is a struggle, the last thing you want to be told is to go for a run, yet it is an undeniable truth that movement and deep breathing are very important ways of maintaining well being. As a first step, try some gentle stretching: lying on the floor and stretching your arms and legs until you are as long as possible; sitting cross-legged and leaning forwards until you feel a stretch. Each time you get into position, take a deep breath in through the nose and as you breath out sink gently into your stretch. If you have access to the internet, Youtube has some great yoga and mindfulness videos you can follow. You can even download guided meditations for free and use these to help you relax.

A special meal: for many, eating and appetite can be hugely affected by a mental health condition and meal times can become stressful. It can be hard to remember what food you even enjoyed before you started to feel unwell, but if you can, go to a supermarket or grocers and buy two or three items that you really like to eat. This may be beautiful ripe strawberries, or some fancy cheese, or some special dark chocolate – something that you can savour and enjoy. Eating little and often can help take some of the strain off meal times, and prevent your day being broken-up into breakfast-lunch-dinner.

So this week, remember to take some time to yourself to relax and unwind. Do you have any tips of your own? Comment below or send an email to rosanna@studentminds.org.uk.

Managing Anxiety

~ Lauren Gasser 

Anxiety, in any of its innumerable forms, is a challenging and overwhelming emotion; one that ignites without warning and often grows in intensity if you do not tackle it directly. Anxiety can feel as though it is stealing from you – stealing your social life, stealing your sleep, stealing life’s pleasures, and it is easy to feel as though you have lost control. No matter how overpowering this feeling becomes, it is important to remember that you DO have control; you have control over your actions and your choices, which can directly impact upon anxiety and eventually quench it entirely. It is also important to recall the now clichéd phrase, ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, because the realization that you can still walk, and talk, and pretty much do anything even WITH anxiety is one of the biggest steps towards overcoming it. It may not be easy to ‘accept’ ones fears and find ways to live with them, but remember how much you have to gain. Yes, you have to be brave, but we’re all capable of that.

Counselling is a great way of working through the causes of your anxiety, and creating a personal action plan can help you overcome your fears in small, manageable steps. Here are a couple of top tips for commonly anxiety-provoking situations:

Panic Attacks: The chemical cause of these frightening episodes is the ‘fight or flight’ response, during which the brain releases adrenalin in order to keep us safe. A primitive neurological feature (designed to protect us from saber-tooth tigers and the like), it is unfortunately rather misplaced in the modern mind and leads to hyperventilating, sweating, dizziness, tingling extremities, and of course an intense feeling of fear.

Breathing Techniques: Panic attacks manifest themselves in various ways, but the great news is that they can be managed, with increasing ease, when you realise that they are simply a result of breathing in too much oxygen. The old paper-bag trick is a bit obvious if you’re on the bus, so a useful technique is to visualise a brick (two long sides, two short) and to focus your breath around this shape, breathing out along the longer lines, and in along the short. It might be difficult at first, especially as panic attacks often feel as though you can’t breathe, but if you concentrate on making your out-breaths longer than your in-breaths, the feeling will pass much more quickly. Moreover, the mantra ‘this will pass’ can be comforting while you are getting to grips with your breath.

Social Anxiety: The idea of entering a room full of people might make you feel incredibly anxious, but there are ways to make the experience a little easier. It’s a good idea to tackle social anxiety in stages, by creating a list of situations that you can tick off one by one, starting with the easiest. Start really easy: invite one other person for coffee, or sit next to someone in the common room and start a conversation. A small group dinner might be the next step, or a cinema trip, but increasing the fear-factor slowly will help to make the process less overwhelming.

Group Interaction: Attending events with like-minded people can also be useful, for example a college club or society meeting in an area that you have some knowledge or interest. Remember, sometimes the loudest and most outwardly confident people are covering up nervousness or insecurity, so there is nothing wrong with being quiet and actively listening to others (in fact, this is a fantastic skill which many extroverts lack!) The breathing technique described above can also help if you feel you are becoming overwhelmed. Even if you are feeling very nervous on the inside, the people around you don’t know that. You can still walk around, talk to people and laugh at jokes whilst feeling anxious. The distinction lies between feeling the emotion and experiencing it – knowing it is there, but not allowing it to dictate your actions. The more we ‘do’ while feeling anxious, the less powerful the anxiety becomes, and the quicker it will dissolve completely. In fact, you may well find yourself forgetting the anxiety is there and having a good time!

Charity Feature: Body Gossip On Tour

Body Gossip

~ Charlotte Gatherer, Body Gossip On Tour

Body Gossip challenges common perceptions of body image, promoting the recognition and acceptance of natural bodies. We encourage people to think more about their bodies so in the future they will worry about them less. Body Gossip on Tour follows the same philosophy as the central campaign but takes it into university settings offering students a platform to share their body stories. The writing competition gathers a truthful picture of how individuals within the university view their body; these stories are then recited by actors in a performance. The campaign engages students in many ways as writers, actors and audience members.

Body Gossip on Tour events give students the opportunity to reflect on their life and values whilst being more open about their experiences. It empowers students to make positive changes in their life and gives new insights into the issues and stigmas surrounding body image.

The first Body Gossip on Tour event was held in Bath in 2011 and since then students from across the country have engaged in this essential campaign.

To find out more, go to www.bodygossip.org/what-we-do/body-gossip-tour.

Students Get Eating Disorders Too

~ Hugh Smith, Men Get Eating Disorders Too

We all know what eating disorders are, who gets them, and why. They’re extreme diets used by teenage girls who want to look like supermodels.

Right?

Wrong.

Just as we at Men Get Eating Disorders Too are working to raise awareness that eating disorders affect men as well as women, we also work in alliance with other organisations and activists to shine a light on the reality of eating disorders as severe mental illnesses that take on many different forms ranging from binge-eating to excessive limitation, and can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, class, or sexuality.

You can read about the true nature of eating disorders at any number of blogs or in a library’s worth of books and journals, but we’re here today to focus on students.

If eating disorders can affect anyone it follows logically that they can affect students, and they do. But a male student with an eating disorder doesn’t fit the student archetype of the hard-drinking, kebab-gorging, perma-snacking man-child. Just as the public perception of eating disorders is too simplistic, so too is the idea of the 18-year old who goes to uni, discovers take-aways, and casually puts on the ‘freshman 15’.

To understand the ‘student experience’, it’s useful to look at it in context. Being a student is a lot of people’s first experience of living away from home, which coincides with a lot of life-changing opportunities and pressures: to cultivate a new personality, to make new friends, to compete with peers, to get a good degree, and even to choose a direction in life. All this at a time when most students have only just got out of the most volatile period of adolescence, are far from completely mature, are immersed in a highly stressful environment, and – for most – have substantial financial concerns.

So there we have stress, anxiety, neuroses, isolation, pressure, self-doubt, and a whole host of other conflicting feelings flying around. Is it any wonder that while some people take it in their stride, others need mechanisms to cope?

I developed an eating disorder when I was a student. I discovered that self-discipline in what I ate and how much I exercised was a shortcut to achieving an illusion of control over my life at a time when so much around me seemed so chaotic.

What do eating disorders in students look like? Honestly, a lot like eating disorders in anyone else. Look up the symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, orthorexia, or obsessive exercise disorder, and you’ll find behaviours that students exhibit as much as any other part of the population. The only difference will be in the detail: the methods used to hide food, the excuses made for skipping meals, the times and places used to binge, or the facilities used to exercise.

The most important thing to understand is not what eating disorders look like, but why they’re there in the first place. Then it’s possible to address the causes of the disorders rather than the symptoms.

So what can you do if you think a student – classmate, flatmate, friend, sibling, son, daughter, tutee – has an eating disorder? Here are a few golden rules:

  1. Conduct any conversation in a non-confrontational manner. It won’t help anyone if you scare them away.

  2. Try to understand how they feel.

  3. Be aware that the conversation will be very difficult for them.

  4. Only explore possible solutions once you’ve taken some time to empathise.

  5. Tell them that you don’t think less of them.

  6. Acknowledge how difficult it must be to admit to having a problem.

If you know someone who has an eating disorder, or if you have one yourself, there are four main ways to get help: your GP; your university’s student support service; your local peer-support group; and online peer support through websites such as Big White Wall.

Finally, a quick message to any student struggling with an eating disorder: getting this at such a pivotal point in your life can feel like being dealt a rotten hand in a high-stakes card game. Just remember there are always people willing and able to help. In spite of everything you can achieve remarkable things. This doesn’t have to define you. It’s within your power. Good luck.

Why Peer Support?

~ Elisabeth Gulliver

Have you ever been to the dentist and heard the words ‘I’m afraid you need a filling?’

Unfortunately, I have. In the moments after being told the in’s and out’s of my upcoming procedure by the dentist, I immediately picked up the phone and called my Mum. Why? Well she’s had to endure one or two dental procedures in the past and I wanted to hear her experiences, as well as her advice on how to get through it.

Peer support, or in other words the help and support that people with lived experience are able to give to one another, is important, comforting, and encouraging. No matter what experience we extrapolate this to, be it a sky dive, a medical procedure, dealing with heartbreak or becoming a parent, I’m sure we would all agree that speaking to someone who has lived through a similar experience to us has enormous value and provides us with a deeper level of encouragement and support. Don’t get me wrong, professionals are important. The dentist fixed my tooth in a way that my mum couldn’t, but my mum gave me the encouragement and support I needed to get through the event.

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Unsurprisingly we’ve found that when facing mental health problems, students are most likely to turn to their friends or peers for support with over 90% of students surveyed saying they would turn to their friends and over 80% saying they would access peer support (Student Minds research 2012). Not only can students access that deeper level of support from their peers, but they can talk to others without fear of judgement or ignorance, confident in the knowledge that others in the room have had similar experiences to themselves. There’s an informality and vulnerability to peer support which makes it an easier context to share personal stories and experiences. Another benefit of peer support is that it’s a two way process – it allows us to speak and listen, to give and take, to be the encourager and be encouraged.

Why peer support? Because peers are facing similar life challenges and stresses, because peers can offer insight and understanding that others may not have, because peer support makes us feel less alone and quite simply because talking changes lives.