Meaning – one of the 10 keys to happier living

“People who have meaning and purpose in their lives are happier, feel more in control and get more out of what they do. They also experience less stress, anxiety and depression” Action for Happiness.  

We may find meaning and purpose in different ways, meaning is something that’s individual for example some people may find it through being a parent or their faith, others may find it through their jobs.  It’s about being connected to something bigger than ourselves.  It’s a vital component of happiness and wellbeing according to Professor Martin Seligman who is the founder of Positive Psychology.

So how do we find our meaning?

One way is to think about which activities, people and beliefs bring us the strongest sense of purpose and passion and then prioritise these things.  Sometimes it takes a new stage in our life such as becoming a parent or something that disrupts life such as trauma to think about what’s important. It’s never too soon or late to start putting the really important things first.  

How did I find my meaning?

As you may or may not know from my previous blogs it took a period in my life when I suffered with poor mental health to really take time to think about what was important to me.  My job gave me purpose and meaning, and it also defined me as a person.  I will never forget about 5 years before I had a breakdown which resulted in me resigning from my job speaking to a really wise and caring person who I was working with on a consultancy basis.

She drew two circles on a piece of paper one represented me, and one represented my job. 

She asked me to draw how much they overlap, and I completely overlaid the circles on top of one another.  I didn’t realise until this point how important my job was to me in giving me purpose and meaning and it wasn’t until I resigned that I felt the full force of losing that purpose and meaning. I felt absolutely lost as a person, I didn’t know who I was, I lost my identity and so I hid away as I didn’t want to engage with people around me because I felt they would no longer love and respect me because I wasn’t Lou anymore. I soon developed depression and after around 6 /9 months I finally realised that I needed to find new meaning and purpose in my life and that the amount of meaning I had placed on my job to the detriment to other parts of my life hadn’t actually made me happy!

The road to recovery and discovery

Whilst I came to accept that work will always and does continue to provide a huge amount of meaning for me it no longer defines me.  My meaning and purpose now also comes from relationships with my close family and friends which have strengthened as a result, exercise which is fundamental to me and my mental health and wellbeing and nature, although I have always loved walking and gardening I never really noticed the wider world around me and the beauty it holds.  Linking back to one of my previous blogs in this series around emotions, I mentioned my mum always says try to see the positives in everything and my breakdown forced me to re-evaluate my purpose which I can now see as a positive. Even though I am still on my recovery journey the acceptance of this and finding new meaning has in a lot of ways made me a more grounded, grateful and happier person.  

If we can find our true purpose it can fundamentally change our lives for the better. Action for Happiness provides some information on a simple way to articulate your life’s purpose developed by Neil Croft a coach, consultant and author. The steps include asking yourself:

  • What are your talents – 5-8 things you are good at that come naturally to you?
  • What are you passionate about – 5-8 things you love to experience, talk about or do?
  • What would you like to change in the world – the purpose is more meaningful if it contributes to wider social benefit or greater good so 5-8 things that anger you about how society operates?


  • Combine your answers to articulate your positive purpose – combine talents, passion and anger in a positive way
  • Think and talk about your purpose – think about and discuss your purpose with others, reflect on, is it how you are living now?  

I realise now in hindsight that undertook this process unconsciously.   It has led me to re-train in wellbeing and mental health as well as providing support and awareness to others in this area.  Because it plays to my strengths connecting with people, I am passionate about mental health and wellbeing after my breakdown, it angers me that there is still stigma and discrimination against people who experience mental health issues, I talked about moving into this area with family and friends and have never looked back.  If I were to articulate my purpose now it would be to use my experience and knowledge to look after my mental health and wellbeing and raise awareness and support others in how to look after theirs.  

Emotion – one of the 10 keys to happier living

The benefits of positive thinking 

Have you ever noticed that despite facing some really big challenges, some people always seem to see the positives?  My Mum has always said to me and my sister “try to see the positives in everything”, I have always admired her glass half full outlook.  If I am being honest, I don’t think I have always shared this approach and over the last 12-14 weeks, my glass has been a bit depleted.  So I thought as a way to help me understand why and to see if there is anything I can do about it, I would revisit the benefits of being glass half full and if there is a way I can top up my depleted glass! 

Looking at situations in a positive light when they are not ideal is a good trait. Positive thinking is a mental attitude in which you expect good and favourable results, it doesn’t mean you bury your head in the sand and ignore problems but approach unpleasant situations productively.   

Thinking positive and being glass half full leads to experiencing positive emotions like joy and contentment which broaden your mind to possibilities and can lead to:

  • Improved self-esteem
  • Improved life satisfaction
  • Increased wellbeing
  • Increased problem-solving ability
  • Help you be better able to cope with difficult life events

Glass half empty – “It’s not the things in themselves which trouble us, but the opinions we hold about these things” Epictetus. 

Our thoughts are vital to our wellbeing, they help us make sense of the world and influence how we feel and behave.  One of the most useful things that I learnt about during cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) was the impact of thought distortions.  I now help others become aware of thought distortions in themselves and others through delivering Mental Health First Aid Training.  

We all have familiar thought patterns – thinking habits and beliefs systems which have been shaped by our life experiences.  Thinking distortions are unhelpful thinking patterns, they can lead to distressing feelings and prompt behaviours which can maintain the distressing feeling.  We can be more prone to these types of thoughts when we are feeling upset, anxious or low (for example over the last 14 weeks since lockdown).  Learning to recognise and challenge thinking distortions can help reduce the difficult emotions that they cause or maintain.  Some common thinking distortions include:

  • Overgeneralising – making general negative conclusions based on one example or incident i.e. burning dinner once and deciding you’re terrible at cooking based on one example.
  • All or nothing thinking – Thinking in extremes or extreme possibilities and neglecting the more likely middle ground i.e. stumbling over a few words in a presentation and then thinking the whole thing was a mess.
  • Jumping to a conclusion – making a judgement and assuming its right with little or no evidence or facts to back it up i.e. waving to a friend you see across the street who doesn’t wave back at you and assuming they are upset with you when they may not have seen you.
  • Labelling – rating yourself or others with labels based on a situation or incident i.e. labelling yourself a failure when you burn the dinner.
  • Negative filter – seeing only the bad in something or dwelling on negative events instead of positive ones and or explaining away positives for no reason or down to luck i.e. not being successful in an interview focussing on not getting the job instead of giving yourself credit for coming so far in the recruitment process.

CBT helped me to recognise, challenge and address my own thinking distortions.  It is important to recognise the ones you struggle with before you can effectively change them.  Positive Psychology has a great resource that describes cognitive distortions to help you decide ones that you may be dealing with and ways to challenge them.  

Glass half full 

Martin Seligman suggests that we can learn how to become more optimistic and train ourselves to see the world in a more useful way.  He adapted Albert Ellis’s ABC model of adversity, belief and consequence and added disruption and energisation creating the ABCDE model.

  • A = antecedent (i.e. the situation that triggers the response)
  • B = beliefs (out thoughts/interpretation of the situation/event)
  • C = consequences (the way we feel or behave)
  • D = disruption (effort to argue and dispute beliefs)
  • E = energisation (outcome or effects from redirecting your thoughts)

We tend to blame A (the antecedent) for C (the consequence) whilst it is B (our beliefs) that make us feel the way we do. Once we can see this, we can then dispute the way we are looking at a situation.  Disputing our beliefs can help us see the situation in a new light and change the way we feel.  

So how can we put this into practice?  

During the next few adverse events, you face in daily life, listen to your beliefs, observe the consequences and dispute your beliefs. Try recording this. Once you have done you can go through the process in your head. Below is an example which may resonate with a few people:


You arranged a meeting online and couldn’t quite get the technology working at the start of the meeting


I am rubbish at using online meeting technology, I won’t use it again


You turn down invites to other online meetings for fear of the technology getting the better of you and you miss out on important social time with family and friends


I haven’t had much experience of using online meeting technology

The technology is new

Others also had some technical difficulties too

After the first 5 minutes, the meeting went well

There are 4 ways to make your disruptions convincing:

  • Evidence – show the negative beliefs are factually incorrect – most are overreactions. What is the evidence for this belief?
  • Alternatives – are there different ways to look at the problem which are less damaging to yourself, focus on changeable causes i.e. I was tired and specific or its only one time this has happened?
  • Implications – de-catastrophize, even if you struggled with the technology it’s not impacting on the rest of your life
  • Usefulness – question the usefulness of your belief  


Consider how you feel now you have challenged your beliefs.

This is an ongoing process that you may need to repeat and remind yourself of as I have through writing this blog, however, if you use these steps when facing a challenge eventually it becomes easier to challenge negative thoughts and approach challenges with greater optimism.  

Resilience – one of the 10 keys to happier living

Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. As much as it involves “bouncing back” from difficult experiences it can also involve personal growth. “Becoming more resilient not only helps us to get through difficult circumstances it also empowers you to grow and even improve your life along the way” (American Psychological Association).

There are many definitions of Resilience. I recently watched a webinar by the Association of Executive Coaching in partnership with Resilience Engine. They talked about resilience as our adaptability and a measure of resilience as our capacity for change. Robertson and Cooper describe resilience as a combination of personal characteristics and skills “The characteristics which are associated with higher levels of resilience are inherent in our personalities, however, resilience skills can be used to help us adapt our natural style and tendencies”. So, resilience skills can be learned and developed.  

So how can we measure our resilience? 

There are some really useful tools freely available to help you to measure and understand your resilience. They  typically explore 5 common themes including:

  • Self-control
  • Adaptability
  • Optimism
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Persistence

The Resilience Engine offers their Resilience Check – In tool which provides you with your resilience level in relation to their Resilience Dynamic and some top resilience enablers. The Resilience Dynamic details 3 levels of Resilience: Breakdown, Break-Even and Breakthrough.  

Robertsoncooper offers their i-resilience tool which provides you with a detailed report which covers their 4 key components of resilience which are: Confidence, Purposefulness, Adaptability and Social Support. Tools and resources focussed on these four areas for building resilience are available on the i-resilience portal.

So how can we build our resilience?

The College of Wellbeing offers great tools and tips:

The boat and water mapping tool is a simple and effective tool for mapping factors that influence our resilience. By identifying the negative and positive influences on our resilience we can develop ways to reduce the negative and strengthen the positive.  

The SSRI toolkit offers a framework for identifying the tools that we already have available to build our resilience. It is based on the concept that the choices we make and actions we take can have a natural anti-depressant effect. SSRI in this model stands for :

  • Strategies i.e. practical things we can do i.e. meditation or attention to diet and exercise
  • Strengths i.e. what you can draw upon internally in yourself i.e. courage and determination
  • Resources i.e. where can you seek external support i.e. friends and support groups
  • Insights i.e. can you look at things differently to help you move forward? i

Everyday Health offers an Everyday Health Assessment which provides you with a resilience score and 9 attributes that can help you develop to become your most resilient self which has been adapted from Dr Sood’s model of resilience. The attributes include internal factors i.e. skills we have or have learned and can better develop such as self-control and self-confidence and external factors such as personal relationship, purpose and meaning and communities and social support.

There are also some really useful guides for building resilience in the era of COVID 19.

An article in Psychology today suggests that acceptance (Hayes et al 2011), self-compassion (Neff 2015) and gratitude (Wood et al 2010) are approaches that can help face challenging times.  The author suggests:

  • Be open – accept thoughts and feelings instead or of trying to suppress or change them “this doesn’t mean resignation to these thoughts and feelings but recognising that we have those experiences and seeing them for what they are (a thought is just that while a feeling is just that)”
  • Be aware – being fully present in the moment instead of being caught up in our thoughts and feelings. One way to help with this is to take time and focus on breathing while noticing one thing with each sense
  • Be engaged and active – take time to consider what’s important and take action to bring what’s important closer to you
  • Be self-compassionate – be kind to yourself as opposed to judging ourselves “ask yourself what a caring friend or family member might say” next time you find yourself saying critical things to yourself
  • Practice gratitude – trying out approaches to gratitude such as journaling about things that you are grateful for can serve as a beacon of hope.  

A more recent article from June in  Science Direct  discusses the urgent need for a focus on resilience during the coronavirus pandemic as “resilience is pivotal to cope with stress and vital to stay in balance”. The authors emphasise that stress and anxiety are normal reactions to the pandemic and stress reactions may include changes in concentration, irritability, anxiety, insomnia, reduced productivity and interpersonal conflict. In addition to the threat of the virus, the quarantine measures increase the stress-related symptoms. To help adapt to the mental health effects they refer to several useful pieces of advice from the resilience literature including:

  • Promoting social connectedness as loneliness and social isolation is what makes the crisis different compared to many others
  • Planning routine day to day activities and promoting self-care
  • Increased attention to exercise and nutrition
  • Regular media breaks
  • Help people feel in control (one of the findings in stress and resilience research is that the higher the controllability of a stress situation is, the better individuals cope with the situation) for example measures people can take to reduce risk of infection and minimise the spread of disease.

Finally AOD who are experts in team based working have collated  some really great resources around team working and resilience. 

Over the past 12 weeks, I have found myself consciously and unconsciously adopting some of these practices, however reading about them to write this blog has been a useful reminder of how I can take back some control over my reaction to the multitude of emotions I have experienced and continue to feel during the pandemic. I hope that you find some of this useful too.  

Note the photo I have used for this blog is a photo I took early January of a Hellebore in my garden.  It  summed up to me how resilient they must be to be able to produce these gorgeous flowers through winter!

Awareness – one of the 10 keys to happier living

“There’s more to life when you stop and notice”

Learning to be more aware and take notice can positively impact on our wellbeing. The key to taking notice is mindfulness “Mindfulness is the quality of being present and fully engaged with whatever we’re doing at the moment – free from distraction or judgement, and aware of our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them” (1).  

There are numerous benefits associated with mindfulness on physical health, managing stress, psychological wellbeing, relationships, performance and happiness and a recent study in March (2) found mindfulness buffered the impact of COVID 19.  

As this week is Mental Health Awareness Week, it is also worth noting that research (3) has shown that mindfulness helps reduce anxiety and depression. “It teaches us how to respond to stress with an awareness of what is happening in the present moment rather than simply acting instinctively, unaware of what emotions or motives may be driving that decision. By teaching awareness for one’s physical and mental state in the moment, mindfulness allows for more adaptative reactions to difficult situations” (4)

In our busy worlds, it may not be something we practice naturally, however, I wonder how many of us may have had greater opportunity to practise mindfulness over the past few months? You can take a 15 item questionnaire to measure mindfulness called the Mindful Attention Awareness Score (MAAS). The higher your score the greater your ability to be mindful. If you don’t score as high as you would like then don’t worry through practise, we can learn to cultivate the state of mind that lets us be mindful. 

Reminding yourself to take notice of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations and the world around you is the first step to mindfulness and spring is a great time of year to start. There is so much in nature to see, hear and smell for example noticing the colour of the  flowers, the birds singing and the smell of new blossom. On my daily dog walk since lockdown, I have noticed ducks and birds that I have never seen before including mandarins, herons and parakeets (yes we do have bright green parakeets in Sefton Park in Liverpool!), flowers including gorgeous miniature daffodils, the smell of the amazing rhododendrons which are vibrant and colourful, all things that I have never really noticed before, despite walking in this park most days for four years with my dog, Indy.  

The benefits speak for themselves, and you can start practising mindfulness right away in the comfort of your own home (handy in our current climate!) so why wouldn’t you try it? Positive Psychology has lots of great information which includes 10 tips for practising mindfulness which include:

  • Take a few moments to be aware of how your breath flows in and out, how your tummy rises and falls with each breath you take.  
  • If you are walking somewhere focus on the here and now. Rather than letting your brain drift into thought, bring them back to the physical act of walking. How do you feel? Pay less attention to where you’re going and more on what you’re doing as you step and how your feet feel. This is a nice one to try on sand or grass.  
  • If you notice yourself turning back towards thinking just focus once more on your breathing. You can return your focus to how your breath comes in and out of your body, and if you can feel your muscles relax as your doing so even better.
  • Understand that your mental processes are just thoughts, they aren’t necessarily true, nor do they require you to take action. Mindfulness is about simply being and about being relaxed in accepting things around you as they are. This implies internally too – it’s part of knowing your mind.   
  • Let yourself notice when your mind drifts back towards judgement. Remember this is only natural and doesn’t have to be part of yourself. Part of mindfulness practise means freeing your mind from practices like judgement. You may find that this becomes easier with time and practise.

As well as practising mindfulness in daily life it can be helpful to set aside time for a more formal mindfulness practice such as meditation. There is a lot of great support to help you and  Action for Happiness and NHS have some great guidance on Mindfulness and how to get started.


GREAT DREAM – 10 Keys to Happier Living

The 10 keys to happier living describe the areas in which scientific research suggests we can take practical action to boost our wellbeing. They are based on a review of research from psychology and related fields by Vanessa King and Action for Happiness. The first five keys GREAT are based on the Five Ways to Wellbeing and are about how we interact with the outside world in our daily activities, the second five keys DREAM come from inside us and are influenced by our attitude to life. 

I thought it would be interesting to explore the 10 Keys for Happier Living and see how we can apply them in our current climate after previously writing about the positive impact that the Five Ways to Wellbeing had upon my mental health recovery.  

Taking action to maintain and improve our well-being has never been more important. One of the classic positive psychology experiments asks people to write down “three good things” and why you think those three good things happen to you each night for a week. After six months they found people were happier but also noticed a decrease in depressive symptoms. Mental Health First Aid England suggests that the strategies contained within the 10 keys for happier living are:

  • Positive steps to suggest to anyone with a mental health issue, and
  • Positive steps for self-care for carers, and
  • Positive steps for all of us to improve our own mental health.

The 10 keys to happier living are:

  • Giving – holding out a helping hand makes other people happy and will make you feel happier too
  • Relating – the people around you offer a valuable pool of support so it’s important to put time into strengthening those connections
  • Exercising – regular activity will provide endorphin boost and increased confidence
  • Awareness – taking time to switch off autopilot and be in the moment is a great tool to combat Stress
  • Trying out – learning new things is stimulating and can help to lift your mood
  • Direction – working towards positive realistic goals can provide motivation and structure
  • Resilience – although we can’t always choose what happens to us, we can often choose our own response to what happens
  • Emotions – positive emotions can build up a buffer against stress and even lead to lasting changes in the brain to help maintain well being
  • Acceptance – no one is perfect. Longing to be someone different gets in the way of making the most of our own happiness
  • Meaning – people who have meaning in their lives experience less stress, anxiety and depression

Over the next 10 weeks, the Health and Wellbeing Inspiration team will be reviewing each of the 10 keys to happiness and providing tips with how they can help and be applied in our current climate. You can find them at

So why not make a start today on “three good things”? Being grateful can help people to cope with stress but it’s something that we need to consciously learn to get into the habit of doing.  So why not give it a go:

  • Every night – before you go to bed think about your day and remember three good things that happened went well, you enjoyed or were grateful for – they may be small such as hearing the birds sing, making a new recipe and note them down
  • Think about why – for each thing you are grateful for, write down why it happened and why you feel good about it
  • Look Back – after a week look back at what you have written – think about how it makes you feel and consider any patterns
  • Keep it up – keep trying it can become a habit

At HWBInspiration we are quite a visual bunch and find that some of these tools are helpful to capture and track:

Thanks to Su Fowler Johnson for the photograph

Bring your whole self to work

Bring your whole self to work…wherever that may be at the moment…

“In 2020 we shouldn’t have to leave parts of our identity behind – be that our cultural or ethnic background, sexuality, or health – when we work. When we’re empowered to be our whole self at work, we can build deeper connections.  This helps us to be more understanding of our colleagues, so we can work better together, whether online or in person” (MHFA England)  

I pondered over writing a blog around this given the current challenges we are all facing and thought it’s probably more important than ever.   Because people will be worried about the impact this is going to have whether it be around physical health, finances, mental health etc.   I have found it interesting the different perspectives and concerns people have, whether it be around catching the virus, passing it to a loved one, their job or business, losing a much needed holiday or having enough food and toilet roll.  The point is they are all real concerns, they are real to the individual, you may not share their concerns or agree with them but to the person who is experiencing  them, both your and their perspectives will be influenced by many factors including:  

Our frame of reference 

The way we make sense of the world, of other people and ourselves including our feelings, beliefs and behaviours are unique to each of us.  They are shaped by a range of factors including upbringing and experiences.  So, we see things slightly differently and therefore can treat ourselves and others differently too.  Sometimes this can impact on our ability to listen and support one another. 

Our stress vulnerability 

In the stress container model, the level of vulnerability a person carries is represented by the size of the container into which everyday stress flows.  The lower the person’s vulnerability to stress the larger their container. The size is down to many factors including our background.  The smaller the container the more likely it is to overflow leading to stress. There are some helpful coping strategies which can help let stress out such as getting adequate rest, asking for help and making time for valued experiences.  

So, what can we do? 

I was thinking about the approach we take as  mental health first aiders.  If we want people to bring their whole self to work at the moment (even if it is virtual), then it may be helpful to be open to and encourage people to talk about their perspectives and concerns. Especially given that people may be feeling more isolated than ever working remotely and practising social distancing….so maybe we could try the following steps:

Check-in with each other and initiate a conversation 

Now more than ever if we feel able it’s important that we check in with each other and see how we can support one another.    Simply initiating a conversation and listening can show that we care and encourages people to be themselves.


Listening non-judgementally allows the listener to hear and understand what is being said and makes it easier for the person to feel they can talk freely about their concerns without feeling they are being judged.  Coming back to our frame of reference, it’s about putting aside any preconceived judgements about the person or their situation and avoiding expressing them. 

Give support 

It could involve practical support with for example attending a virtual meeting for someone and emotional support such as recognising and accepting how the person feels. 

Encourage professional support

You may be able to discuss options that may be available and signpost to professional help and support such as legal, financial, health. Exploring options may help identify any barriers or challenges about accessing support and help identify where you may be able to assist as well as helping the person take some control back of their situation.   

Encourage other supports 

Encouraging other support such as the support of colleagues, family, friends and others are important (even virtually).  

Care for yourself 

It’s important to remember to look after our wellbeing also and MHFA have developed the following useful resource for supporting your mental health while working from home. 

So why am I writing this? Because I have found the advice, support, approach from different people interesting, from  “stop reading the news it’s making you worse”, “stop looking at Facebook it’s heightening your anxiety”, “I can’t wait for time off work to get the decorating done” “we all need to try and be positive”.  Whilst well-meaning and practical options are great, let’s not forget that whilst we can and will get through this time people also need to be able to be their whole self, share and talk about their concerns and have someone to listen to them…

Dancing in the rain…

13.9% of the population will experience an anxiety disorder at any given time, Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders than men (Mental Health First Aid England).

However, recovery from mental illness is possible and very likely. Recovery means different things to different people. Nigel Henderson, President of Mental Health Europe’s notion of recovery personally resonated with me “It isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s learning to dance in the rain”. Recovery is much more than the absence of symptoms.

The mental health continuum can help us to understand this notion. Initially, people described the state of mental health as being on a continuum from mentally healthy to mental illness (medical language).  The favoured approach is to now think of two continua on a different axis.  The second axis (social language) can be described as minimum mental wellbeing/fitness to maximum mental wellbeing/fitness. This model allows for people who have a diagnosable mental illness and who are coping well with the illness (for example they may have good coping strategies, a good medication regime, supportive friends etc) to have positive mental health. They have “learned to dance in the rain”.

There are many factors that can influence the recovery journey including:

  • availability and access to treatments such as medication or psychological interventions
  • having supportive social networks (colleagues, family, friends)
  • playing a meaningful role in society (for example through education or employment opportunities)
  • lifestyle (including eating well, exercise and sleep)
  • stability (including home and financial) 
  • acceptance and control (focussing on what you can do) 

Some other important features of the recovery journey can be described by the acronym CHIME (connectedness, hope and optimism, identity, meaning and purpose and empowerment).  

I like to think of my own recovery as a journey because it isn’t for me a linear process, I have had setbacks and I honestly don’t know when and if I will reach a destination. However, through increasing my knowledge of mental health and wellbeing and understanding of myself I  too have  “learned to dance in the rain”.  This has involved many of the factors listed above including:

  • Professional support – my GP has been amazing; she has given me choice and control over my treatments acting as a professional partner in my recovery journey.
  • A caring network of family and friends – who have increased their own awareness and understanding of mental health and walked beside me on my journey. They have helped me to set new goals and aspirations and pursue them. 
  • Redefining my goals and aspirations which includes writing and talking about mental health and wellbeing which has given me a purpose and a new drive and passion  
  • Lifestyle changes – including exercise and eating healthier and growing new skills to support my wellbeing 
  • Control – which has been fundamental to my recovery. Control over my treatment, control over finding ways to help myself and my wellbeing (CBT has been instrumental) and control over how and when I choose to work which enables me to cope with the symptoms of anxiety.  

However other factors can impact on a person’s recovery journey.  Nearly 9 out of 10 people with mental health problems say that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives. People don’t recover in isolation, social inclusion (i.e. being involved with society)  is key and through increased understanding and discussion of mental health, we can help to reduce the inequalities experienced by those who have a mental illness.  

So, let’s make mental health everyone’s business and take personal responsibility to look after our own as well as the mental health of others #eachforequal

If you would like to find out more about anxiety, ideas around how to look after your own mental wellbeing, or how to raise awareness of mental health within your organisation  please find some suggested links below:

Information about anxiety 

Your Mental wellbeing

Workplace Mental Health and useful Resources to raise awareness 

Time to Talk

Thursday 6th February is ‘Time to Talk’ day, so its an excellent opportunity to choose to talk about mental health. Talking about mental health is really important because it has the power to change lives. There is a dedicated website with loads of great resources, hints and tips on how to start a conversation.

Time to Talk? It’s your choice

It’s essential that people make a personal choice about whether they talk about their mental health. I decided I would share my journey explaining how talking has helped me.

Here is a quick synopsis of my lived experience. In essence, I was a successful leader working in Housing and Education until the age of 43, when I resigned due to severe anxiety which later developed into depression. Talking has for me been a vital part of my continuing road to recovery.

At my lowest times, I isolated myself from everyone, including family and friends, (which was very unlike me, I’m usually quite extravert and sociable) so my talking journey started with writing. I found keeping a diary of my feelings and experience strangely cathartic and therapeutic (I say ‘strangely’ because I had never written a diary, even as a teenager). Writing helped me to clarify my thoughts and feelings and make a little bit of sense of the alien world in which I felt like I had entered. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I would later use my diary as the basis of sharing my lived experience with others… I will come on to this.

In some ways, I suppose writing helped me realise I needed more professional help to fully make sense of my new world (which I was increasingly becoming frustrated and resentful about). In summary, my new world consisted of struggling to get out of bed, failing to wash my hair and put on my makeup (really not like me), crying sporadically throughout the day. On better days taking the dog for a walk but then having a panic attack and having to quickly get home, unaware of the days and weeks that passed and panicking about when I will get better because I need work and have an income! Yes, I needed a bit of help, so the next stage in my journey was realising it was time to talk to a counsellor. The benefits of counselling are endless and can quite literally be life-saving.

Despite the emotions and pain, I have gone through, counselling has helped me make sense of and accept my new world. It has equipped me with the knowledge and skills to take back control of my feelings and emotions in a way that I can now live with my illness and navigate my new world. In reality, this has meant setting up my own business, slowly starting to take on some work and living my life again. The most important thing it has done is give me the confidence to re-engage with family and friends whom I missed dearly. Interestingly, it also gave me the courage to talk about my illness with them. Not only has this been beneficial for me (I feel accepted for simply being Lou) but it also helped them understand why I needed to shut myself away for a while and that, it didn’t mean I loved or cared for them any less. How they felt about me avoiding them was always something I struggled with. I felt a massive sense of guilt about the impact I thought I was having on my loved ones and still did until recently when I was talking to someone about the impact mental health has on family and friends. I explained I wanted to write a blog about it because it shouldn’t be underestimated. She said she loved the idea about a blog on the role of family and friends in supporting recovery (an interesting interpretation of what I was saying) as long as I don’t give myself a whole load of guilt about it (lightbulb moment!). She explained people who love you will simply want to help and walk beside you on your journey. Metaphorically, I realised that this equated for me to the little text or the weekly card I would receive, the phone call to my husband to ask how I was or the little presents I received. It was their way of letting me know that despite not being in each other’s company they were still all there walking beside me and I hadn’t offended them by my actions, they understood. I had never thought about it in this way and needless to say, it led to shelving my original blog idea and writing this one!

So after writing, talking to professionals, talking to my family and friends, (I also started to speak to strangers in the park while walking the dog) I found myself delivering my lived experience to complete strangers (maybe 25 or so people in a room). This led to blogging (you will see from the first one how much courage it took me to “talk to” Linked In). As I get asked more often to share my lived experience, and as I write this post I have been reflecting “Why do I talk about one of the darkest and hardest times in my life with potentially 1000’s of others”? Because, being honest, I find it helpful to talk, but also do it in the hope that my lived experience and blog provides hope for others. If my talking and writing can help just one other person to gain the courage they need to talk to someone about their mental health, then its totally worth it.

Visit the official ‘Time to Talk’ webpage at here.

So, who looks out for the Senior Leaders and what can we do to support their Mental Health?

This is the question that I have been asked several times and most recently at a Health and Wellbeing Event, where I shared my lived experience. When I started to consider this, I found quite a stark headline:

“Two-Thirds of business leaders have suffered from mental health conditions including anxiety, stress and depression with work often cited as a contributor to this” – Bupa 2018 (

Bupa’s study conducted with 1556 global business leaders found:

  • 58% of business leaders say that in their position it’s hard to talk about mental health 
  • 1 in 4 people feel less support for mental health issues since becoming more senior 
  • Sufferers fear that talking about mental health would affect perceptions of their capabilities and career prospects 

So, who looks out for the Senior Leaders, and what can we do to support their Mental Health? I posed this same question at the start of the year to a prominent Professor and leader in wellbeing, and he too came to a similar conclusion. He found that there was literature that explores the impact of leaders on follower wellbeing. However, there was nothing that focuses on the support that is specific to leaders.  

While there appears to be an overwhelming lack of literature, I found some reference to:

  • Challenging perceptions around mental health and leadership
  • Ensuring there are services available to support senior people
  • Creating mentally healthy open workplace cultures where senior staff feel able to access support 
  • Business leaders sharing their own experiences which can help to remove the stigma 

It got me thinking about my own experience in an attempt to try and find some answers.

As you will know from my previous blogpost, I resigned from my job as a Managing Director. I didn’t realise or admit to it for a very long time, but I was suffering from severe anxiety and had been for about two years before resigning. The organisation I left had a clear commitment to mental health, visible leadership and support services that were accessible, fast and efficient and this created a culture of openness and acceptance which helped me find the courage to acknowledge I needed help and seek support. Despite the support I received (which was brilliant), I felt I could no longer continue working as a senior leader. I was absolutely exhausted. I felt unable to shoulder the responsibility that comes with a senior leadership role and unable to continue as a good leader should protecting the mental health and wellbeing of others when my own mental health needed more dedicated time and attention. 

So why did it take me so long to do something? I was reluctant first and foremost to acknowledge that I was struggling with my mental health and secondly to ask for help. Why was this? We will all have our reasons. For me (not justified) I felt like I had to wear an “I am doing great” badge constantly. I was the leader, and people looked to me for direction and support, I couldn’t possibly acknowledge I was struggling and ask for help because people would question my ability as a leader. So, I basically tried to hide the fact I was struggling. When I did finally acknowledge and seek support and take time out while the side effects of my medication subsided and returned to work, the response was quite overwhelming. My absence due to my mental health had not negatively impacted on people’s views of my ability as a leader; in fact, it almost seemed to encourage more open conversations with my team and colleagues. I believe this was because first and foremost, they saw me as a human being. 

So, is looking out and supporting senior manager any different to what we would do for anyone else in our organisations? I have concluded that the answer to this question based on my own experience is NO. I agree that it is essential to challenge perceptions around mental health and leadership, provide accessible services, and if leaders feel able and want to disclose it can have a tremendously positive impact on an organisations culture. The organisational culture was absolutely at the heart of giving me the courage as a senior leader to acknowledge I was struggling and seek support. As we know, it is leaders who create the culture of an organisation. And so, maybe we need to pay more considerable attention to the role of Boards? How often do Boards consider Mental Health and Wellbeing? What culture are they creating for the Senior Leadership team around mental health?

Similarly, I believe that colleagues and peers can play a vital role. We often work as senior leadership teams on some of the most challenging and wicked issues our organisations face, we come into regular contact, we share experiences, and this puts us in a great position to look out for one another. So, as Board members, leaders, colleagues, peers and human beings let’s look out for and support one another, as doing so could have a significant impact on our colleagues’ lives. 

Aspiration vs reality in workplace mental health

Thank you to everyone who supported my first ever blog, it has inspired me to continue to writing and sharing my journey in the hope will help others to reach out and seek support if they need it and encourage leaders and managers to take action around mental health.  I recently read a report by Business in the Community.  They found a gap between aspiration and reality for workplace mental health:

  • 58% of senior leaders and board members think their organisation supports its staff but:
  • 42% of employees with no managerial responsibility believe that their organisation supports its staff and:
  • 20% of employees feel that their manager is not concerned about their wellbeing (BITC Mental Health at work report 2018).

In my experience…

Having spent the last 16 years working as and alongside managers and leaders I have been reflecting on this and what it was that helped me when I was struggling with my mental health while in work and crucially came to the conclusion that leadership is absolutely key because it creates the workplace culture.  I personally:

  • Felt able to disclose and discuss my mental health with my manager and other senior leaders in the organisation (which being honest was slightly scary – but provided a firm basis of understanding and trust when I did need support)
  • Felt able (for a period of time) to manage my mental health through support that was easily accessible and available. Being able to access counselling within 2 days was one factor that enabled me to continue in my role for a further 6 months (My wait for Counselling from the NHS was 4 months for computer based and 8 months for face to face and this is not a criticism in anyway, I will always be grateful for the services and support I have received)
  • Retained my dignity and respect from the continued belief I received in me as a person

And this was created by leaders in the organisation.  Because when you have leaders:

  • who demonstrate time and commitment to wellbeing and mental health
  • who make themselves available and accessible to talk to about it
  • who lead and champion wellbeing and mental health initiatives
  • who by their own behaviours lead by example and show it is acceptable and more than that important that you have a work life balance
  • who ensure that there is a focus on prevention and support is available 
  • who are aware of warning signs, confident to talk about mental health and aware of and can access organisational support available
  • who genuinely care because they ask you how you are doing and listen to you

…. it makes a huge difference

….it creates a culture of openness, acceptance and trust. 

This may not come easy to some of us and if I am being honest it didn’t to me (I wasn’t great at the work life balance – my own decision, drive and perfectionism) …. that is why I believe it’s so important that we:

  • Increase awareness and understanding of mental health across the whole organisation (not just senior leaders and boards)
  • Help develop leaders and managers confidence to be able to have discussions about Mental Health

So, what can you commit to doing in your organisation to close the gap between aspiration and reality? 

Lived experience

Caveat – I agonised over writing this blog. How to pitch it.  How much to include about the really difficult times I have had. Do I add humour into what is an absolutely horrible place I have found myself.  

If I was writing this blog one month, 6 months, 1.5 years ago it would have been totally different, I wouldn’t have been able to include any hope or see any positives from my situation.  But the way I have written this reflects the place I am currently in and I wanted to be myself (something which my illness has I feel prevented for a long time) and if possible  give other people hope that things can and will get better and that you can take positives from a difficult period in your life.  My approach is not to make light of mine or anyone else’s experience of mental illness, but it is a genuine account of how I feel about it currently…the unexpected and turbulent nature of my mental illness may make me feel differently were I to write this again on another day.   

So, after agonising some more (possibly due to my illness) I have decided to go with the first version I wrote of this blog – this one – as  it includes a chink of my personality,  which is slowly creeping back.  

Hopefully this caveat also gives you some insight into how my mind works at the moment – check, double check, triple check, check again, worry, worry some more, apologise in advance  before or incase I upset someone , give a full justification and explanation for what I am about to do incase someone doesn’t like it……which hopefully I have now done! So, after that  tiresome cycle which is part of my everyday life at the minute,  here goes: 

Today is World Mental Health Day, a great day to take positive action and start to look after our mental health and wellbeing. That’s what I did nearly a year ago, when at the age of 43 due to chronic and debilitating anxiety I resigned from my Managing Directors job.  

This wasn’t part of my life plan by the way, a couple of weeks before I resigned, I went on holiday and started to keep a diary and I wrote:

“Well I made it after a week on the medication (Sertraline – anti-depressants that is) shakes, feeling sick, constantly yawning and looking an off grey colour, I am on the plane to Greece. Kefalonia to be exact. I didn’t think I would make it, I did need to take two days off work with the side effects but I left in the hope that after another week I will feel better again and be able to cope with everyday life which if I am being honest hasn’t been easy for at least one and a half years now”. 

Little did I know at the time that this would be the start of which I can honestly say has been a roller coaster of a journey for which I haven’t and may never reach a destination. It’s taken a very long time, various forms of therapy, coaching, medication, and some very very low points however I am starting to learn to live with the unexpected and turbulent THING called anxiety. One year on I have been reflecting on my journey, what has helped and the positives I have taken from it (my mum has always said you have to find the positives in everything) so here we go:

I learnt to be in the moment – when I really wasn’t feeling well, I just wasn’t present. I walked around in a daze and literally lost days, weeks and months of my life. I didn’t want to spend time with anyone, I didn’t notice the world and people around me and hid away in my own little bubble. The first thing I really noticed again were the birds singing, I started to listen and sing along to music again (well only on my own I wouldn’t inflict that on anyone else!). I even started to notice the rain on my windows which reminded me of happy memories when I was young and used to go camping (yes, we were one of the  posh ones with a touring caravan (hence the windows) and yes it did seem to always rain). 

I learnt new skills – when I was working my regular 60 hour week, I just didn’t have time or capacity in my brain to think about trying something new. While it has been a slow process, with time I have felt like doing more and have learnt some useful (well some more than others) skills. For example:

  • Cooking – my repertoire now extends past the obligatory chilli much to the delight of my partner who usually did all the cooking
  • Internet buying and selling – now this is an interesting one, it’s been a great way to declutter and recycle. However, what I quickly learnt was that just like when you did a car boot as a teenager you have to try really hard not to be offended at the frankly rude offers people give you for your most prized and loved possessions.  
  • Dog grooming – unfortunately, there have been some down sides to this, Indy my beloved pooch no longer looks like a Bedlington terrier, I couldn’t quite get the top knot right (do a google search on Bedlington terrier!) and we did have a mishap with a floppy ear in the early days

I learnt to love exercise and be more active – I never thought I would say this after never stepping foot in a gym until the age of 42.  I no longer get a strop on at the thought of the gym and prioritise everything and anything else instead of going! The impact that exercise and in particular cycling has had on my mental health has literally been lifesaving and I think I may be one of the minority who actually gets value for money out of their membership.

I made new friends and strengthened relationships with others and my family. The response I have had from people when I have talked about my mental health has been amazing, from the girl at the gym who I talked too and never knew her name, to colleagues I worked with in the past to the relentless belief and support from my family and friends. My biggest learning – people don’t stop loving you for no longer being a Managing Director they loved you and continue to for being Louise. My job no longer defines who I am, and with that knowledge comes  self-acceptance and more meaningful relationships.

I gave something back – I never had the energy to do anything other than work. However, with more time on my hands I was able to climb Mount Snowdon (think I underestimated the word mountain before I did it!). I also had time to train to do 50 and 75-mile bike rides. And the added bonus? It gave me a purpose and a tremendous sense of wellbeing to give something back to some fantastic charities.  

As I was writing this, I thought AHA (not in the sense of the 80’s pop band)… these are all part of the Five Ways to Wellbeing. Whilst we may not immediately associate them with recovery from mental illness they totally are.

We all need to look after our mental health and wellbeing whether we have a mental health problem or not. So, on World Mental Health day, why not pledge to start to look after your mental health and wellbeing? It may bring you some unexpected surprises.

There are lots of useful tips and practical steps you can take to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing. The links below are just a few examples, including the including the Every Mind Matters website launched yesterday: