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Mental Health Mates at Henley Literary Festival, October 2019

This was a space for the panel and the audience to connect to their own mental health experience and connect through a shared but very individual story. The panel was hosted by Bryony Gordon: journalist and author of several books including ‘You Got This’ which came out earlier this year. The other panellists were Melissa Helmsley and Poorna Bell.

Melissa Helmsley, is a chef and author of several books including ‘Eat Happy: 30-minute Feelgood Food’. As a guest on an episode of Bryony’s podcast she began to open up about difficulties in her past which led to them becoming friends and Melissa becoming an ambassador for Mental Health Mates.

Award winning journalist and author Poorna Bell has been an active mental health campaigner, especially after the suicide of her husband. She is the author of two non-fiction books, Chase the Rainbow and in Search of Silence. Having used power lifting to help her through the grief of losing her husband she has founded @seemystrong, a space to encourage others who do not see themselves in traditional fitness images to have a go.

It turns out this talk was in two parts: a panel discussion followed by a walk under the name of Mental Health Mates. The movement, started by Bryony, aims to encourage mental health walking groups across the country. There were representatives from the Reading group and I spontaneously decided to join them on the walk from the Henley Town Hall to the Riverside Museum.

I found the panel very open to sharing their mental health experiences, touching on various aspects of their past and present. This is not easy to do, and I really applaud their willingness to be vulnerable so publicly. Each member of the panel came across as individual and, to coin a modern word, relatable.

Because the panel were so honest it felt like a discussion between friends. I feel privileged to have been in the room and don’t think everything needs to be shared here, outside of that intimate setting.

Melissa was partly brought up on army bases in Germany whilst her mum sought to stay connected to her heritage as a Catholic woman of Filipino ancestry. This meant that she felt there was little space in the home to talk about the death of her father.

Poorna saw her apparently strong mother pushing through challenging situations with ease and thought that was how she should approach life. But this led to bad decisions.

Bryony has struggled with anxiety and obsessive compulsory disorder for many years. Years ago, she did not want to believe that her childhood affected who she became as an adult, but she’s eventually accepted the truth of this. We like to think that we were created the way we are now, but the circumstances and environment of our childhood must play some part in the adults we become.

All three spoke of becoming more self-aware, whether that is through therapy or taking time out to slow down and reflect. In different ways they all experienced families that did not encourage talking about feelings. This means they did not want to accept when they were upset and even more, did not want to upset anyone else by sharing how unhappy they were feeling.

Poorna could testify to how becoming stronger, through power lifting, has helped her to feel better and more capable. She also shared the importance of having someone who would help you stay accountable to looking after your mental health. In her case it is her sister. This person can check in as someone to talk to, but also to ask if you’ve eaten, slept, been outside etc. Other well-known beneficial activities include mindful breathing, meditation, journalling and fresh air.

Melissa shared the nourishing and comforting effect of hearty healthy homemade soups. This is brain food that can affect mood. She also talked of working with the imposter syndrome: when we talk down our achievements and believe we’re not good enough for something, even though objectively we are.

An engaged audience had several questions including parenting a child with OCD, the role of medication and the impact of austerity. The panel handled these well. On parenting the advice was to love without judgement, realise your child does not want to be like this either and try to help them find the right support. On medication the advice was to accept it if you need it and use it respectfully, as intended. Of course, financial struggles and political uncertainty have an effect on our mental health but in the context of human existence Bryony offered – “This too shall pass”.

The subsequent walk to the River and Rowing Museum provided an opportunity for audience members to get to know each other and share life stories. It was a warm and friendly gathering and a nice way to reflect on what was said by the panel with others willing to be real about life’s choices.

Shirley Anstis

Counsellor and writer @shirleyanstis on Twitter and Instagram

Conde Nast publishes many of the world’s most glamourous magazines and Nicholas Coleridge CBE has been Editor, Vice President, Managing Director and Chairman of various divisions since 1989. He is also the Chairman of The Victoria and Albert Museum, a position he has held since 2015. I attended his talk on his memoirs “The Glossy Years, Magazines, Museums and Selective Memoirs” at the Henley Literature Festival.

Nicholas was interviewed by Jo Elvin, editor of YOU magazine and, as Ex-Editor of Glamour magazine she was an employee and a colleague. Their warmth towards each other and shared knowledge of what it was like back then brought a certain cosiness to the room. Nicholas himself comes across as clever, energetic, charismatic, hardworking and focused.

When asked about writing his memoirs he shared how he pondered the idea for a few days. He did not want to come across as vain, needed to feel it was the right time for him to write it and if he were to write it then it had to cover career, home and friendships. In the end, legacy and the desire not to forget helped him to commit to writing his memoirs.

I was struck by his clarity and focus in how he approached the writing. He decided to write thirty chapter headings to organise his 40 years of memories. This would be no easy feat. His many diaries allowed him to check that he had the correct dates for when things happened.

It’s a tricky thing including other peoples’ stories in your story without their permission. Nicholas joked that in the 10 days since his memoir had been out, he’d not received a writ as yet. There is no doubt he is brave to write about former girlfriends, politicians, business tycoons and celebrities in an age of personal brand.

Nicholas came into contact with what was then Harpers & Queen, now Harper’s Bazaar, during his teens. He remembers liking everything about them: the sheen of the paper, the images, the covers and having a mix of witty and serious writing. He would later send in an article – how to survive teenage parties – to have it published and bought! This seemed to seal in his passion for the genre.

His career coincides with a massive expansion in magazine publications and sales. Some of this growth reflects a changing world with more countries, such as Russia, China and Japan, growing a luxury clientele. Over this time Conde Nast has gone from 35 titles to 135. Vogue sales has climbed steadily from 128 thousand copies sold to 210 thousand.

From what was shared in the talk I know there will be many hilarious and insightful stories in the book. He shared details of being a weekend house guest at the same time as Bob Geldof and his then girlfriend, plus Conservative politician William Hague and his wife. It’s a funny story that surprises many in quoting Geldof as wanting the Conservatives to win the impending election. There were other stories involving the larger than life fashionista Isabella Blow and her sometimes poor grasp of reality, and “S.I.” Newhouse with his desperate desire to transfer air miles from one of his pug dogs to another! There are more glamourous stories involving Kate Moss and Princess Diana amongst others.

The book also includes more serious episodes. Nicholas shared the time when he was being sued by Mohamed Al-Fayed and how close they came to having a day in court. In the end, once the lawyers saw the affidavits, they realised it would be better to settle.

More recently Nicholas has been the Chair of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He painted a parallel universe between the world of magazine publishing and the world of museums. In both there are departments competing against each other whether for prestige or cash. In both, whether sales or footfall, public consumption is targeted and measured. So now, as he did then, he gets his key figures at the end of each working week and this will shape his decisions going forward.

When audience members had a chance to ask questions they were curious about his views on the future of magazines and the hiring of Edward Enniful. For his part Nicholas believes that magazines with continue in his lifetime with luxury brands holding their position. As in other business sectors however the success would be in the niche.

With regards to the editor of Vogue, Edward Enniful, he saw this as a wise choice and celebrates its continuous growth. He confirmed that the September issue edited by the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle sold “terribly well”.

It was the final question that seemed to bring the whole talk and Nicholas’ life into focus. He was asked what drives him? This is a popular question at many women in business events that I have attended but it was obvious that he’d never had to think of his career from that perspective. His answer was two-fold. If he wants to do something, he’ll put himself forward for it. If he gets to do it then he’s driven to do it well as he “doesn’t want to muck up or get it wrong.” And like Richard Branson, he is happy to hire and retain clever people who are “stimulating and make life easier”. Success simplified.

Shirley Anstis

@shirleyanstis on Twitter and Instagram

 

 

As a journalist with an interest in science David had worked for many of the quality broadsheets in the UK and US. He learnt a lot along the way and became curious about clever people who seem to make poor decisions. This led to him researching ‘The Intelligence Trap’ and the book offers his findings and suggestions. It is not just about pointing our finger at others but to recognise when and why we may make poor decisions.

He shared the story of Paul Frampton, Professor of Physics at the University of North Carolina, who fell for a fake glamour model and this led to him being imprisoned for drug smuggling in South America. Then there was Kary Mullins, winner of the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1993. Despite his science credentials he went on to deny truths in other fields such as psychology, in medicine around HIV and in environmental science concerning the impact of CFC’s on the ozone layer. He was however passionate about astrology and believed vitamin C could cure everything, including cancer.

Intelligence quotient (IQ) is one of the ways we measure intelligence and although it’s flawed it does predict performance in the current education system. (There were comments on emotional intelligence later in the discussion). One of the approaches taken by David is to wonder if having a high IQ could backfire? Does the quicker processing for a clever brain lead it just as quickly to the wrong answer as to the correct one? He gives a good analogy of a car where being fast is only helpful if the terrain, steering and brakes are working well.

David went on to identify three ways in which intelligent people can make less than clever decisions. Firstly, ‘The Cognitive Miser’ who believes he is always right, does not second guess his own opinion and struggles with cognitive biases. Secondly, Motivated Reasoning is the tendency to apply our brain power only when it will suit our pre-existing beliefs (even if they are wrong). He gave a fantastic example here of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believing in fairies whilst not allowing for magic tricks, so much so that he lost his friendship with the illusionist Harry Houdini.

Thirdly, we have ‘The Curse of Expertise’. This is where we overestimate what we remember, feel we know it and become closed minded (earned dogmatism) and through automatic or intuitive reasoning we become entrenched in our views. I found this last point hard to write because although some are critical of experts the point, I think, is not to denigrate them but to encourage each of us to become more self-aware and explore our biases.

He goes on to list the serious consequences for our society if clever, and often powerful, people continue to fall into the intelligence trap. He links some of this to our fear and shame around being wrong. (This aspect reminds me of the work of the hugely popular and wholehearted social scientist researcher Brené Brown). Similarly, our schools and workplaces reward those who respond confidently and quickly – even though they may not be right. 

To avoid falling into the intelligence trap David has several suggestions. These include identifying our own biases, consulting our emotional compass and considering arguing the opposite viewpoint to see how that sits.

One of the things that came out in the question and answer time is that there appears to be a difference between men and women. The result is that mixed teams make fewer mistakes; providing more evidence for equality in the workplace. Some of the poor decisions are made when people are overconfident and believe their own hype. The audience recognised how difficult it would be for the lone dissenting voice in a team. The hope is that more sectors, particularly areas covering health and justice, become aware of how the intelligence trap plays out in their organisations and begin to take steps to mitigate it. Here’s hoping.

Shirley Anstis

@shirleyanstis on Twitter and Instagram

 

 

 

Women, Food and God

August 26, 2019

Women, Food and God

Can we be more present to how food connects to our feelings?

I’ve been reading WOMEN FOOD AND GOD by Geneen Roth. This book came out some time ago but I never got around to buying it. When my local library was selling off old books I thought I could give it a new home but wasn’t sure what to expect.

It’s been a really interested read. As I’ve become older, what I eat and how I feel in my body has become more important than it was. I have a busy life and need foods that energise me for long periods of time. Thankfully I’ve always liked healthy food and been of average size. But I’ve also liked large Caribbean portions and that is less forgiving as I age.

In my experience ageing is not just about the body but the added responsibilities which can become stressors. This inevitably leads to a reduction of downtime and leisure activities. This means that I need to be particularly kind to my body to stay well and feel at my best.

One of the key messages in the book is that weight is not so much about what we eat as it is about why we eat when we do. It’s about being honest with ourselves and recognising that sometimes we eat when we are not hungry.

We, or others, might tell us that we deserve a treat – even though too much of that thing could be bad for our body. We might also be judged for not wanting extra cake, coffee or alcohol. In my case, I enjoy dark chocolate and I know that there is diabetes in my extended family.
Every gathering, including churches and schools, now have an unhealthy food option. It’s not enough to choose what you eat in your home or what you pick up for lunch, but you need to be prepared to make, and possibly explain, your public choices from limited unhealthy options.

What is quite clear from this book and from life, is that if we do not get to our underlying issues, then weight, via aches, pains, immobility, leisure restrictions and travel restrictions, will become the issue. We use food to express any number of emotions as well as a means to avoid staying with uncomfortable feelings. Comfort eating could be an irregular occurrence or a daily one. Can we allow ourselves to experience the difficult feelings such as disappointment, frustration, loneliness, sadness, depression, anxiety and regret without using food to keep them quiet?

The other thing she raises in her book is eating because we are impatient with the progress of our life. Let’s say we expected to be somewhere and we’re not there yet so we’re eating to avoid being where we are now. But as she says if we can’t be in the present then when we get to that holy grail of future success, we won’t be able to be present to that either.

What I take from this is that being in and with our present experience is the best that we can do. Being more mindful of why, when, how and what we eat gives us good information so that we can make better choices. Negative feelings are best dealt with rather than ignored. Therapy, journalling and mindfulness are just a few of many options to ease our difficult emotions. If we ignore one issue, we can easily create another one to add to the first – now we have two problems to work through. This is not about size or what other people think we should eat but about us – you and me – listening to our bodies as they are today. Does any of this resonate with you?

Shirley Anstis

Are you free to focus?

June 22, 2019

For a while I’ve been able to work on one thing whilst having several other things floating around my head. We’ve all tried multi-tasking but perhaps I’ve stretched that to my limit.  It no longer works for me.

There are too many incomplete tasks and they are beginning to distract me so that my focus is never fully on the thing I’m doing. There is a real risk of doing several things to a lower standard rather than giving focused attention to each.

I tend to have several different lists for different parts of my life and then I often fall back on memory to help steer me forward. I recognise that I need to make changes for things to be different. I know from my counselling that if we don’t adapt when change is required then we risk making things worse or becoming unwell.

This is why I sought out ‘Free to Focus’ by Michael Hyatt. I know I will always have varied interests that stimulate me and projects at different levels of completion. How do I set limits around quantity and quality of my work? How do I incorporate my wellbeing, client work, creative output and routine tasks in the best way possible?

How to be free to focus

Free to Focus by Michael Hyatt

In his book ‘Free to Focus’ Hyatt brings together several well tested ideas. Some ideas, like making good use of sleep and creativity, I already use. There are other things however that I’ve not made decisions on which I now need to address. I can’t and shouldn’t say “yes” to everything that comes my way.  Even if I am very efficient I will not be able to fit in everything, so I need to be able to say “no” to some things.

By not cutting out some things we end up with a list of things that we can never get to. But by being more realistic and making conscious choices about what goes onto our plates then things become achievable. That way things that matter, around values and goals, do not drop to the bottom, overtaken by easy tasks and distractions. The starting point, and a challenge for me, is cutting out some of the easy activities which do not align with stated goals.

But before we can cut out any extras we need to stop, decide what we want and evaluate our course.

As he suggests, big shifts can come from knowing when to automate, designate and delegate. I know that my answer lies in deciding to designate 3-5 hours at a time to big tasks (e.g. Writing or CPD) that require extended periods of focused work. Remembering to switch off notifications (constant disruptions) is another answer.

Routine is also essential, even for those of us who are self-employed creatives and often push against it. He suggests having a ritual for the start and end of each work day which then saves on the need for constant decision making and can be supported through better use of technology.

This book has inspired me to do things differently so that I can reduce overwhelm and maintain wellbeing. What about you, are you overwhelmed by it all or do you have an effective approach that leaves you fulfilled?  Please share and comment.

Shirley Anstis

@shirleyanstis

www.livingbeingdoing.com

 

Image by Larisa K on Pixabay

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #BalanceforBetter and it stems from a desire for equal outcomes between men and women. Equal achievement and life chances provides role models for others and allows everyone to celebrate the success of the many rather than a handful of women being outliers.

But how do we achieve progress that doesn’t take another 100 years? There’s a saying that ‘if you are not part of the solution then you are part of the problem’. This seems a bit harsh, but I guess it encourages influential leaders and employers to use their platforms to advance talented people from all genders and backgrounds. Of course, like many other awareness days/months it is helping us to focus on something we need to attend to all year round. Everyone has a part to play and as women our role is to encourage each other to try new things and celebrate each other’s successes. Sometimes we might even need to shield each other from harm.

Last weekend I attended an event looking at healthy female leadership. This used archetypal approaches and biochemistry to explain why, in order to remain healthy, a woman needs to lead through her feminine power. If she tries to lead through acquired masculine energies, she will eventually become ill or face burnout. The many case studies who shared alongside the psychotherapist, coaches and doctor were very convincing. We know so much more about the body-mind connection now that it is not hard to imagine that continuous acute stress will affect our health. If you are leading in any way, be sure to do it authentically and practice great self-care. Superwoman becomes ill.

But the truth is we all need a better way to find balance in our selves. Perhaps we can’t balance everything every day but maybe being aware of how we spend our time will help us. I’ve heard it said that women can have it all just not at the same time. Do consider what stage of life you are at.  There are different challenges and rewards at different stages.

I myself have moved through various full-time combinations of working and study to my current position as a self-employed parent of a small child with a partner and petit business.

What about you? What are your current priorities? Your focus could be on your career; raising children; caring for elderly relatives; discovering the world or understanding your inner world. Whatever you’re doing, enjoy it fully, don’t feel guilty about not doing the other things, this too shall pass. The journey has many twists and turns.

Different life stages affect our capacity to fit in leisure and rest. Like you I am constantly tweaking my schedule to find the right balance between work and play. I encourage you to connect to your real life, what is really on your plate and make the best choices for you. I’m more alert to the fact that this changes over time; be sure to review if you feel strained, depleted or depressed. Small tweaks can have a big impact. Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

 

 

 

Writing your story

March 8, 2019

BOOK HERE

life writing

life writing, writing and wellness, mindful writing,

Time to Talk

February 7, 2019

As a practising counsellor I feel I want to encourage people to have better conversations about mental health. But the phrase ‘time to talk’ is so well used now that I wonder what we mean by it.

I remember when I first returned to live in England how I had to concentrate on the person I was speaking to figure out when they were genuinely interested in what I was saying and when they were just being polite. The difference between the two and the subtlety with which it is communicated affects us all.

So perhaps we can: –

Decide that – it’s time to talk

Create space – to talk

Choose a time – to talk

Communicate a desire – to talk

Show up, listen, empathise and not judge.  The people we connect to will appreciate it.

Most of us spend large parts of our day multitasking; at home, whilst travelling, at work, in meetings, with family and with friends.

What if we could create time to listen to ourselves? Is our self-talk supporting us or hindering us?

We too need the non-judgemental supportive space we create for others.

Through one-to-one counselling and writing workshops I try to provide this space for others.

I also provide such time for myself as often as possible. Whether I am walking between appointments or having a relaxing bath I allow myself space to be mindfully present and listen to what is going on inside me.

Let’s find ways to really talk to each other and to actually listen to ourselves. Each of us deserves to be heard.

 

 

(First published in TODAY Magazine, no longer online)

I bought this book around the start of 2018 when I try to face the new year and make decisions about what I’d like to do the next twelve months. Like many of you, I acquire stuff. At some point we need to look at our stuff and whether they are adding to our happiness. Many studies show that happiness is not about stuff but relationships and experiences.  With this knowledge I stumbled upon this book and decided to buy it.

 

Having read Marie Kondo’s book, I think it could help you if you have too much or even if you feel you don’t have enough. She has created what she calls the KonMari Method of organising where she asks her clients to really look at and touch the stuff in their lives and see how they feel. Her basic advice is to keep the stuff that brings you joy. Of course there are exceptions such as insurance documents, appliance guarantees and simple tools.

 

So why bother to do this life audit? Well the theory is that once we’ve let go of things we are carrying from the past we can free ourselves to live fully in the present and become clearer about our priorities. I found myself agreeing with this quote:” the space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming, not for the person we were in the past”. I know this through my counselling work where I  support people in discovering the person they envision themselves to be.

 

So what does she promise you will achieve by tidying? From her decades of doing this work and her hundreds of clients she has come up with some findings:

  • Put your house in order and discover what you really want to do
  • Gain confidence in life through the magic of tidying
  • Less attachment to the past or anxiety about the future
  • Learn that you can do without
  • Your living space affects your body – lighter, cleaner, fitter
  • Being surrounded by things that bring you joy makes you happy

 

KonMari Method promises that by using her method of tidying you will only need to tidy once and this will free up more time for living. Certainly the constant light tidying is what made me pick up this book because I knew I needed an idea that went deeper.

 

The method encourages you to discard stuff that are not important and don’t bring joy.  She knows that if we start with sentimental items then we’ll get side-tracked so she offers an approach that leaves the sentimental items near the end of the process. Clothes, books and paperwork are tidied, then komono (misc items) and finally sentimental items such as gifts and photos. You’d have to buy the book to check out her detailed guidance, including using shoe boxes for storage and tips for organise your wardrobe so you can find anything easily. This book is not for you if you are content to be surrounded by things you can’t find and don’t bring you joy. I’ve just taken my first steps with this. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

 

Shirley Anstis