Sleep is one of those things that when you’re getting enough of it, you don’t even notice it, but when there’s an issue with it (as any new parent will tell you), it can dominate your life.
There seems to be a little bit of conflicting evidence about how much sleep you need…is it 8 hours or 10 hours or is Maggie Thatcher’s 4 hour’s enough for the macho ‘super busy’ amongst us? Well, it depends on you and by the time you reach a certain age, you know how much sleep you need to make you function properly. There is even some thought that women need more sleep owing to the complexity of our brains 😉
For me personally, sleep has magical restorative powers like nothing else and one of the reasons most of us feel so good on and after holidays is the extra sleep and rest we allow ourselves; like the little afternoon naps…
You either love it or hate it and I’m a lover of a little afternoon nap. Indeed, I’ve got a little sunny napping corner in my house where it’s perfect to curl up for a 20 minute afternoon nap, but not quite comfortable enough to go for an all out sleep.
There’s plenty of evidence that an afternoon nap of around 20 minutes is great for your productivity and learning capacity. Winston Churchill apparently had an afternoon nap every day during the war, so if it’s good enough for Winston…!
Unfortunately sometimes sleep becomes an issue and most of us have times where we are struggling with sleep. This can often be due to something stressful or worrying that’s happening in our lives and a changed sleep pattern is often one of the first signs something’s not quite right. You might struggle to get to sleep, or have a consistently disturbed sleep, wake up super early every day or indeed be sleeping far more than usual.
What’s worked for me at times like these is going back to sleep basics and trying to accept that it’s a phase that will most likely pass. And of course, trying to deal with whatever it is that is stressing or worrying you if the most helpful thing, though sometimes that’s easier said than done. So what are the basics of a good night’s sleep?
You can read yesterday’s ‘wellbeing wonder’ post about exercise here.
This week is once again mental health awareness week (where has the last year gone?!). Last year, I posted a post a day for mental health awareness week and this year I thought I would again.
This year’s focus is ‘survive or thrive’. It’s a really good choice of topic as for many people even without a recognisable mental health problem, they are simply surviving in their life, rather than truly thriving. Often this is due to stress – work, family, financial (or sometimes all three) and there are many people using self-medicating habits to just get through the day or week, rather than truly living a life they love.
Learning to thrive is the cornerstone of positive psychology and something I’ve really been focussing on my own life in the past year and a half. It’s not always been plain sailing but it always makes a difference when I refocus on the things that matter and get back to the ‘wellbeing wonders’ that have helped me to live a life I truly love and thrive. I thought it might be helpful to share them with you as a good reminder to us all!
We all know that exercise is good for us. There is overwhelming evidence that exercise has a positive impact not just on our bodies, but our minds too; the NHS recommends it for mild depression and research is showing that the benefits to a range of cognitive functions can be significant.
I’ve always thought I was fairly active (walking lots with the dogs and walking around school as a teacher), but to be honest I was kidding myself a bit really and it wasn’t until I really stepped it up that I noticed a huge difference in my wellbeing (both mental and physical).
I started going to the gym most days and, alongside walking in the fresh air (hint: getting outside is also a wellbeing wonder!), it’s now my go-to stress-busting activity and an everyday priority. I work, sleep and feel so much better after my morning exercise and generally go about my day with a spring in my step.
I definitely underestimated the impact until I had to take a break from it due to ill health and could feel myself less able to deal with the daily stresses of life. It felt so good to be back to the gym and I’ve recently taken up ‘running’ (the couch to 5k app is great if you are thinking of doing the same).
The sense of achievement you feel over time is also great for your wellbeing and of course there are the social benefits too; I’ve made some gorgeous friends at the gym and my new ‘running buddies’ are such a lovely, encouraging bunch.
So, my tip is to find something you love to do, and if you don’t know what that is, then try different things until you do!
Today (and yesterday) are days in the calendar that I’ve come to know well. It was 4 years ago today that I glanced at my phone, got a sucker punch in my stomach and my world shifted.
The day before, the 3rd of March 2013, I’d been at Nottingham University and some attendees from Newcastle had been late as the trains were delayed due to a fatality. We all sympathised but little did I realise it was my lovely friend, Chris Allan.
In the days and weeks that followed those of us who knew Chris sought to understand the question that haunted us all – why. The guilt felt overwhelming at times; the thought that there must have been something more that I could have done, the horrible moments of realisation that at points he was trying to tell me something but just couldn’t.
His family were (and still are) amazing. It’s easy to see where Chris got his loving nature, kindness, empathy, family values and huge sense of fun from. Chris was a brilliant person to be around. Knowing him changed me and 4 years on the memories that I have are of laughter, laughter and more laughter, talking for hours about how we were revolutionise education and change the world for our children, listening to music (he wasn’t so keen on my disco hits, I loved his indie stuff and Neil Young will always have a special place in my heart) and also the bloody awful films he was always trying to make me watch.
4 years on I’m also grateful to him for cracking open my awareness (as a friend so eloquently put it) about suicide and mental health. It had been on the outside of my consciousness before but Chris’ death made me realise the importance of it and that suicide could happen to ‘people like us’. And sadly in the last 4 years I have known more people – though none as well as Chris – who have lost their place in the world so much that they think that death by suicide is the best or only way out. It’s a truly horrible national statistic that in 2015 6,188 people died as a result of suicide, with the suicide rate for men around 3 times higher than women. Thankfully, the shift that is happening in our society as a result of campaigns like Heads Together and the wonderful work by charities such as Mind, is making it more it more acceptable to talk about mental health, though the stigma still lingers stubbornly.
Chris’ death made me face up to my own mental health – and we all have it. It started me on a journey to understand more about the brain and how it works. I now have an MSc in Psychology and that, together with the huge numbers of books about mental health, wellbeing and happiness that I have read over the past 4 years, have made me realise that there is so much we can do to look after our own mental health. And yet, many of us don’t really even know what we should be doing, or indeed prioritise it. Chris’ death, my studies and other people in my life since, have illustrated to me too keenly the consequences of not prioritising our mental wellbeing.
So, I started to prioritise my own wellbeing and have ramped that up in the last year and a half after as a result of another tricky time and it has made a real difference to my life. I’ve started to talk much more about mental health and wellbeing to others and have met some incredible people who have become great friends as a result.
And I’ve become a bit more fearless. There’s nothing like death to make you realise the fragility and importance of life and so pretty much every day I push myself to do something that is outside my comfort zone. I’m challenging myself to execute my ideas, to make things happen and Mind Moose is a direct result, so thank you, Chris. We used to talk for hours cooking up creative education projects and he was always my biggest cheerleader, urging me to put things into action and believing in me when I didn’t always believe in myself. He was a very, very lovely man and 4 years on I’m so grateful for knowing him and the impact he’s had on my life. I wish he was still around.
Starting back at school after a long summer break can be a welcome return to routine for some children and their families. For others, it can be a difficult time, especially if your child is worried or anxious about going back to school. Here are some tips to help ease your child (and you!) back to school.
It’s natural for back to school to be a shock to the system for everyone, especially if your child has been enjoying leisurely mornings over the summer. So, if possible, start to ease children back into things a few days beforehand. Ensure the basics are in place so they can manage the change in routine and their emotions effectively.
So, get them to bed a bit earlier and if necessary, get them up a little earlier a few days beforehand. Make sure they have good food inside them (no massive bags of Haribo the night before!), and that uniforms, bags and pencil cases are all ready to go so there’s no mad dash on the first day (note to self!).
If your child is going to school for the first time (a big step for you all!) you could practice the first day routine so they know what to expect.
Make sure you create some time and space to spend some relaxed time with your child before they go back to school. Check in with them and see how they feel about the start of the new term.
If anxieties surface, encourage them to talk about how they’re feeling and try to get to the bottom of why. Just doing this can often make children feel better – most of us feel a sense of relief having shared our worries with someone supportive and quite often that makes them disappear!
If possible or necessary, encourage your child to come up with strategies to help them deal with their worries. For example if they’re worried about a particular child being mean to them, discuss how they could deal with it if it happens. Having a practical plan can really help children feel that they know what to do if something happens. You could write both the worries and how to deal with them somewhere to refer back to if helpful.
While it’s important to talk to children about any worries they might have, it’s also really helpful to encourage them to focus on the positives – the things about school they are looking forward. This is helping them to understand that how they think about something can make a difference. It might also help to gently teach them that doing things we feel nervous about is both necessary in life and actually something to be encouraged.
It might be that they’ll enjoy seeing their friends, or get to play their favourite sport or with their favourite toy, or even that the school lunches are way better than your cooking! Whatever it is, find something that they can look forward to and help them to focus their attention on that.
Having something to look forward to as a family can also help. For example, you could plan a day trip at the weekend or to go to their favourite lunch spot. Do remember that they may well be tired after the first week back and you don’t want to have one of those ‘WE-ARE-SUPPOSED-TO-BE-HAVING-FUN!’ times (!). The important thing is to just some time together doing something a bit special. It will give you all something to look forward to and provide a great opportunity to chat about the first week back at school. It could even simply be a special weekend breakfast…pancakes anyone?! 😉
If your child gets anxious it can be really helpful to teach them some basic breathing exercises to help to calm them down – just some simple deep breaths will help. Your child’s willingness to do this will depend on their age, however basic calming breathing exercises can really help us all to stay calm if we’re starting to feel nervous or worried. Primary children really enjoy being taught ‘big belly breathing’ and it’s something you can do together.
Big Belly Breathing
If your child is particularly anxious,you can read more about dealing with anxiety (written for adults but applicable to children) in this post I wrote earlier in the year. There are also some nice exercises in this article you could try with them.
If you child is particularly worried about something and it’s , it’s usually best to let the school know sooner rather than later. As a form tutor and class teacher I was always happy to speak to parents about their child and wanted to help where I could.
Yes, teachers are busy at the start of the year, but good teachers are never too busy to talk about a child’s worries and always want the best for the children in their care. A quick email or a chat will help them to understand what might be going on with your child and allow them to help if needed, or just keep an eye on things. It will make you feel better too!
This post discusses self-help strategies to help you deal with anxiety – strategies that work! As discussed in yesterday’s blog post, anxiety can be a debilitating condition. Sufferers may need to take medication to manage their anxiety, but there are many ways you can help yourself. Like many others, I’ve experienced anxiety at times in my life. This blog post gives practial, self-help ways you can deal with anxiety – all strategies I have used to manage my own anxiety. I hope it might be helpful for you or an adult or young person you know.
If you’re in the middle of feeling anxious, or indeed at any time you just want to feel a little calmer, belly breathing really helps to calm you down. Here’s what to do:
I first discovered meditation when having a period of anxiety after a friend had died from suicide. It helped tremendously and numerous studies have shown it can help with anxiety. The Meditation I do is really just an extension of the big belly breathing. I get up 15 minutes earlier than I used to, put on the brilliant Headspace app and go through one of the guided meditations. Headspace ‘teaches’ you how to meditate through a series of guided meditations (the first 10 are free). Learning to stand back and observe thoughts and emotions is a powerful technique. It’s a great way to start the day and I usually feel focussed, calm and ready for anything afterwards. If I don’t ‘Wake up with Andy’ (Puddicome who talks you through the meditations) I feel a bit ‘off’. I’ll write more about meditation in the future, but if you haven’t already, I really recommend giving it a go.
While anxiety can sometimes interfere with sleep, getting adequate, good quality sleep is helpful in managing the condition. Adults need around 8 hours per night and children at least 10 hours (there’s a great sleep table here). If that’s not happening, trying to find acceptance of the situation can help (see meditation above) alongside implementing good ‘sleep hygiene’. This ‘Ultimate Routine for Optimal Sleep‘ infographic from Huffington Post has some good recommendations.
There is some food and drink that can help with anxiety and some that can make it worse. I’ll be writing about what nutrition help the brain in another post, so I’ll focus on what to avoid here. I’m sorry to say but caffeine and alcohol are top of the list. While alcohol can often be used by people with anxiety to relieve the feelings, it can cause symptoms of anxiety to worsen and dangerous patterns can emerge which lead people further down the spiral.
Caffeine is another stimulant and the ‘wired’ state it gives can create problems for people who are anxious, exacerbating some symptoms. Best to go decaf or avoid if you suffer from anxiety. I’ve not really bothered with alcohol for some years now and drink one or two decaf coffees a day at the most. Peppermint tea is my tipple of choice these days – my 20-year-old self would find that terribly dull, but it’s how my 40-year-old self rolls (and I like it that way!).
More messages you’ve heard before here, but yep, exercise has been shown to have a plethora of benefits for mental health, including anxiety. This leaflet from the Royal College of Psychiatrists is helpful. They recommend 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise on at least 5 days of every week – either in one session or broken up into shorter 10 or 15 minute sessions. That’s pretty do-able for most people. My dog walks are some of my favourite activities of the day – and the dogs quite like it too!
As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post on anxiety, sufferers may naturally want to avoid the source of their perceived danger and enter into avoidance strategies. This causes patterns to become ingrained and fears to loom larger in the mind. Helping someone to overcome and confront their fears in a supportive, kind, managed way is a great way to help. Depending on how bad the avoidance behaviours are, it may need professional intervention or just someone to be there in an understanding way. Which leads me to…
One of the themes of Mental Health Awareness Week is nurturing good relationships. Good relationships are the cornerstone of good mental health. As I discussed in Monday’s post on Child Mental Health, having people to talk to can significantly reduce feelings of anxiety and other mental health issues before they become mental health disorders. I’m incredibly lucky to have a wonderful network of friends and family that I can talk to, and laugh with, about anything and support each other through life’s ups and downs. On the other hand, as many of us also know, having difficult relationships which bring added stress, can contribute greatly to feelings of anxiety. Having mutually supportive, kind people in your life is a great benefit for dealing with anxiety and mental health in general and Mental Health Awareness Week is encouraging us to pledge that we will nurture the good relationships we have. It’s sometimes a challenge with busy lives, but important that we do. This is a great free guide worth reading on relationships and mental wellbeing.
Some herbal remedies have been shown to help with anxiety, such as St. John’s Wort, Valerian and Passionflower. Others include Rhodiola and 5HTP. Each of them works differently and trials are often mixed, however they might be worth a go if you are struggling and want to avoid conventional medication.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Although not really a self-help strategy, as you would usually to a practioner to learn CBT techniques, there are some excellent books that will give you the ideas of the basics which really involves amending our ‘faulty thinking’ to help to see things in a more realistic way. If you would like to find out more I can recommend Change Your Thinking with CBT by Dr Sarah Edelman. There is also an online course used by the NHS called Beat the Blues which is based on CBT and offers 8 self-help sessions for £49.99 which is a pretty good investment as NHS waiting lists can be long for CBT.
Further Help for Anxiety
So, there are some self-help strategies that you can use to manage anxiety, or maybe pass on to someone who could use some help. There are plenty more and some of these may not work for all people, but they work for me. It’s important to find your own way. If you are trying to help someone else, one of the best things you can do is to find out more. There’s good advice available from Anxiety UK if anxiety affects you. Their advice for young people is particularly helpful for teachers or anyone working with children or adolescents. The Young Minds and Mind websites also have practical tips and helpsheets.
Everyone experiences some anxiety in their life at some points in response to situations such as public speaking, interviews, exams, starting a new job or school, or another big life change. Mostly the feelings of unease, worry, fear or even panic will stop after either the event is over, or a short period of time. However, if the feelings can’t be calmed and continue over a longer period of time, then anxiety disorders can develop that may impact on living a full and healthy life.
As discussed in yesterday’s blog post about child mental health, many mental health problems including anxiety disorders start in childhood and adolescence, so it’s important that parents and teachers are aware of the signs and can help young people deal with their anxiety before it becomes a disorder.
There are some very physical signs of anxiety that sufferers may feel. Recent studies have shown that the Amygdala, the area of the brain associated with anxiety which alerts us to danger, may become overstimulated. Sufferers can become stuck in ‘fight or flight mode, feeling vulnerable and perceiving a ‘danger’ of some kind. The body meanwhile gets ready to fight that bear or tiger and as the adrenalin courses through our bodies. Some of the physical signs of anxiety include:
The psychological symptoms of anxiety vary from person to person, though they can include:
Clearly anxiety is pretty unpleasant to live with for any length of time. Anxiety becomes a disorder when the feelings are long-lasting, more severe than the norm and start to interfere with work, school and relationships.
Sufferers can understandably want to stay away from the perceived threat and therefore avoidance behaviours are common. Unfortunately avoidance can lead to greater issues as the threat looms larger in the mind and the cycle continues. If anxiety continues for a prolonged period, anxiety disorders can develop.
There are a number of different anxiety disorders including generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety, phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Anxiety disorders are common with up to 5% of the UK population thought to suffer from Generalised Anxiety Disorder, with women between the ages of 35 to 59 being the most common sufferers. The last UK wide survey on mental health reported in 2009 that 4.7 in every 100 people suffer from anxiety problems with 9.7 in 100 people suffering from anxiety mixed with depression.
If you are worried about someone suffering from anxiety, or indeed you recognise that you may be suffering from anxiety yourself, there is a lot of help available. Good websites include:
Coming up tomorrow…ways to treat anxiety
I thought I’d mark mental health awareness week by writing a blog post a day on a mental health topic. First up, a blog about child mental health.
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”. Fredrick Douglass (1855)
The above quote illustrates perfectly why child mental health matters to us all. The first signs of mental illness are usually seen in childhood or adolescence, with nearly half of all lifetime cases of mental illness starting by the age of 14. Early intervention at this stage can prevent more serious adult mental health issues developing.
So, it was disappointing to hear last week that despite the government pledging £1.25 billion to improving child mental health, they’ve axed the recently appointed School’s Mental Health Champion Natasha Devon, due to her expressing her views that the over-reliance on assessment was damaging to children’s mental health.
At least Child mental health is being discussed with increasing frequency in the media; The Times has been running an influential campaign based around the recommendations made by Professor Tanya Bryon and National Mental Health Week is receiving high profile coverage. National projects like HeadStart, have the potential to improve our understanding, but just how bad is the situation around child mental health and does it matter?
As pointed out in this blog post, the existing statistics around child mental health are well out of date – the last National study was over 12 years ago. Indeed the top recommendation by Tanya Bryon’s report is that the government commission a new survey, which they consulted for earlier this year – it will make interesting reading.
The youth mental health charity Young Minds gives the following stats which are rather sobering:
So, while the claim that “3 children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health disorder” is misleading – is should at least say that the total figure equates to around 3 children in every classroom, the general message is clear – more children than we may realise have a mental health problem and this is confirmed by anecdotal evidence from child mental health professionals.
While we all have mental health issues at times in our lives. It’s when they turn into mental health problems and disorders, that there is an issue. 75% of mental health problems in adult life (not including dementia) start by the age of 18. Early intervention when a mental health issue starts to show prevents the personal, social and economic issues that mental health problems in adults and as Prince Harry stated at the opening of the Invictus Games this week, many mental health issues get better simply by talking.
As a society, finally we are getting more aware of mental health issues in general and campaigns such as Time to Talk and The Heads Together campaign fronted by William, Kate and Harry show that we are willing to discuss mental health and working to end the stigma around it. It should be no different for children.
So we can argue about the current statistics, but it doesn’t really matter. If as adults we can help children and adolescents feel better about themselves and prevent their normal feelings turning into a more serious mental health problem, then we really should. And talking to them is a really good place to start.
The first (enlightened) school I worked at as a teacher and Head of Year had a very caring pastoral team in place who were given significant time to deal with the wide range of issues that arose. The vast majority of the issues were to do with how pupils felt about things that had happened to them and encouraging them to talk, really listening to them and helping them come up with some possible ways forward really did make a difference.
There was a clear system for escalating issues where further intervention was needed and a school counsellor was in place long before it became de-rigour. And yes, it was a happy school. Pupils knew that staff would take time to talk to them and help. I have no evidence, but equally have no doubt, that this made a difference to pupils’ mental health and well-being.
It came as a real shock to my system when I moved schools and the pastoral support, let alone pupils’ mental health, was far down the list of priorities. Pupils were definitely not encouraged to talk to staff (and many staff sadly liked it that way). It was like a totally different world and, despite the fact that it was a more affluent and ‘successful’ school, there was a lot more stress and unhappiness amongst pupils and staff. Funnily enough, I left teaching soon afterwards.
The whole school culture makes a difference and while teachers cannot be expected to be ‘mental health experts’, I’ll reiterate that many of the issues that children have can be helped simply by having someone listen to and talk to them. This is why schools are key as teachers are often seen as trusted adults and they do not have the same emotional ties as parents.
Such relationships are often easier to form in primary schools, perhaps as teachers develop deeper relationships with their pupils as they tend to see them every day, but all teachers have a role to play in simply being aware, noticing and raising possible concerns with more experienced or specialist colleagues. This article gives some excellent advice about talking to children about their feelings if you think there may be an issue.
It is important to note that most children will exhibit one or more of these symptoms at some point in their lives – it just means they may need someone to talk to rather than being too quick to label them as having a ‘mental health problem’. But having someone to refer them in school to is a good first step.
Giving some willing teachers in schools training in mental health, can help them to be more aware of mental health issues from a child’s perspective but also, and really just as importantly, recognise issues with their own or colleagues’ mental health…but that is another blog post
Courses such as the Mental Health First Aid training gives staff an overview of Mental Health issues and recommends steps they can take to promote mental well-being in their school. Staff who’ve had this training are then in a stronger position to help colleagues support students or to make referrals to professional services where necessary.
Sadly, in February the NAHT found that two thirds of primary schools could not deal with mental health issues in their pupils effectively, feeling they lacked the resources needed. It’s always been difficult to get CAHMS referrals or access to an educational psychologist and CAHMS services have lost out to austerity cuts, although some would argue that schools do now have greater freedom with how they spend their budget, so getting in an Ed Psych or a school counsellor more regularly can be done.
Organisations such as Place2Be provide counsellors in schools to help to deal with pupils needing professional intervention. The government has pledged that every school should have access to a counsellor and are running a pilot to improve school’s access to CAMHS.
Such services are vital to help those young people for whom talking and supportive relationships are not enough. There is of course an irony that the government has cut the funding for such services at the same time as it pledges support for child and adolescent mental health. This of course places more pressure elsewhere and sadly it’s children who have mental health problems that suffer most. However, making sure all children have someone to talk to about their worries and concerns can make a difference and prevent them from developing into more serious mental health problems. And that’s what the best schools do without even thinking.