If the limit of your conversational prowess this past year has been to grunt through Zoom meetings, nag your children or make passive-aggressive comments to the cat, you may feel out of practice now large gatherings are in reach. Perhaps you’ve quite enjoyed this period of government-mandated introversion and dread the idea that you may be expected to socialise. Either way, if all goes according to plan, this era of social distancing may be starting to close. For those feeling a little daunted, here, MS-UK Counsellor Mark Howe explains how to ease yourself back in.
It is part of being human. We’ve all been socially deprived this last year, and when you haven’t done something for a while, it can feel a bit strange going back into it. The social rules may also have changed – do you hug? Do you need to wear a mask? Some anxiety is understandable, so we need to give ourselves a bit of a break.
We acquire most of our social skills between the ages of zero and seven. Sometimes they’re hard to remember and we may have to dig way down, but they’re there. It may take a reminder of what is socially acceptable, but your fundamental skills won’t have withered irreparably. Also, remember that the changes to restrictions can be gradual. You don’t have to brace yourself for something that feels like a tsunami.
Note down some small goals that you would like to achieve in the coming weeks. It could be reaching out to people online, or arranging to meet someone for a coffee, or doing an online course. If you feel you are struggling, there are effective treatments, usually CBT, for social anxiety. Social anxiety starts early in life – most people describe it starting in early adolescence – so if you’ve always lived with it, you often think it’s just who you are. But there are good treatments that can really change someone’s life.
It might seem the easier option, but it won’t help long-term. Avoidance incubates anxiety. It can also have negative consequences, such as missing job or friendship opportunities. The world may have shrunk around us and to some it feels comfortable, but it’s not always good for us. When you’re shy you have to, in order to move forward and experience life fully… be brave.
As restrictions change, it’s reasonable to establish boundaries. If you suspect your employer wants you back in the office five days a week, you could pre-empt that by coming up with a plan of why and how you could start with two. Then you’re not on the defensive. In the event you receive an invitation to a large gathering once they are allowed, such as weddings or a milestone birthday and you are unsure about accepting, smooth the way by meeting certain obligations, such as sending a present, but don’t offer an explanation other than saying you’re not ready. Will you ever be able to go to a big party? Of course, but you don’t know when and that’s OK.
People who feel more socially anxious tend to do so because they put a lot of pressure on themselves, and that’s probably going to be the case as life opens. Social interactions are not a performance, – they’re simply about being with other people. One of the most common fears people have is that they feel they should be interesting all the time. But many of us have had a pretty mundane existence over the past year. Simply sharing how bored you’ve been feeling in lockdown is probably enough, because that’s other people’s shared experience too. Don’t assume that being anything less than a dazzling raconteur is a failure. Having very high expectations of yourself – to always have something witty to say, or to never trip over your words – is a route to feeling socially anxious. These are totally impossible standards.
Social interactions are a two-way street. Other people do not go into social interactions expecting the person they are meeting to perform or entertain them. Social interactions are just about being together. When you over-analyse yourself, it gives you the impression that the other person is also doing that, when they’re not. The more we can get out of our head and lost in social interactions, the more we ultimately enjoy them.
Although it’s tempting to prepare topics of conversation, or one-liners, it’s actually counter-productive. It makes you more self-focused, more anxious. It takes you out of the interaction because you’re more in your head, thinking about your list of things to talk about, rather than just going with the flow of the conversation. It can unwittingly make you appear aloof or uninterested in the other person. Again, it puts way too much pressure on yourself and the interaction.
Perhaps you have enjoyed a quieter, less frenzied life, with fewer people making demands on your time, and want it to continue. This is also perfectly valid. To demanding friends, you could say: ‘I have actually found that I want to proceed differently now. I still really want to see you, but I won’t be going to big parties’, or whatever it is you want to say. Do you want loads of friends because it would make you happier, or because you feel you should? We’re so used to trying to gather ‘likes’ and followers, it’s been ingrained into us, but we don’t need hundreds of people around us. Introverts prefer deeper relationships with fewer people. There’s not one picture of success. Often, we’re shown this extrovert ideal, and we’re all supposed to aim for that, and actually, that’s not for everyone.
Ella Shaul explains how multiple sclerosis counselling helped her in so many ways
I decided to start counselling with MS-UK as I had a recent relapse, and have struggled for most of my life with depression, anxiety and mood swings. I have been experiencing multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms for about 10 years with no diagnosis until two years ago.
I wanted to talk through how I was feeling with someone who would understand, and start to feel that I was making a step forward to feeling better and facing my condition and my depression. I wanted to find an acceptance of my illness.
It was fantastic having Jaz to talk to each week, especially through the difficult times – what with the pandemic and the uncertainty of MS and the world around us.
I had a really good sense of wellbeing after my counselling sessions. I also realised I was enough just being myself, and not focusing on what I can or can't do anymore. I learnt to put my health and wellbeing before other things so I was then able to manage life better. I stopped putting as much pressure on myself to be doing everything.
I found it was easier to ask for help, and be more upfront when I was struggling, instead of just carrying on and making myself feel more unwell. I have been able to stop criticising myself, or if I do, I am able to change the way I’m thinking before it spirals.
Family and friends have noticed a difference in me lately. My son has even said how calm I am and much happier I've been.
I have started to connect with others with MS and it’s been really positive. It's been great knowing people who have the same struggles and discuss the similar tools that we all seem to have to help ourselves.
I would recommend counselling to anyone. At first I was unsure about it all, especially being in lockdown and having to home school – I thought I wouldn't be able to manage it all. I found taking the time out to speak with Jaz so beneficial. It's definitely a non-judgmental, safe place to offload and navigate ways to help yourself. Also I like that you can speak again with your counsellor again after six months to check how everything is going.
MS-UK Counsellor Kerry Trevethick shares her words of advice on how to manage the easing of lockdowns across the UK, as the end of restrictions is in sight and how to be kind to yourself during this time.
Across the UK, lockdown is easing and whilst many people can’t wait for restrictions to be eased and be able to socialise with friends and family again, many others may feel anxious or apprehensive about returning to things we haven’t done for a while and our old routines. Lockdown may have been difficult for many reasons but it provided a level of certainty and clarity on the rules and what we were to expect. However the easing of restrictions is less clear cut, and this can be stressful and anxiety provoking.
There are a range of different emotions that you may be experiencing such as:
It’s important to acknowledge that these feelings are valid and reasonable, and just like it may have taken time to adjust to going into the first lockdown, it may take time for us to adjust to life post-lockdown. It is okay if it takes time to adjust to life changing again.
Some people may find it very difficult in making decisions about how to keep safe now, who they should see or avoid, where should they go or not go - this is normal. For a long time, these decisions were made for us. We may feel that the responsibility of this decision making is too much, but you can take things at your own pace and remember there is no rush to get back to your old routines – you can be in control of how fast things move for you but be wary of avoidance as this can help maintain anxiety.
For some people, life post-lockdown will look very different. Maybe you have been bereaved, lost a job or had a relationship breakdown, and it is okay to feel this grief and there are organisations that can help you.
There are things that we can do to help ourselves manage our feelings as lockdown is eased and these are outlined below:
To commemorate Random Acts of Kindness Day 2021, we have designed a pack of postcards to help spread kindness far and wide.
In 2019, we began to research the issues of loneliness and isolation in the multiple sclerosis (MS) community. We found that 71 per cent of people affected by MS in the UK experience these issues, or have done in the past.
Our findings from this research also told us that the MS community believes in the power of kindness and friendship, and we should be sharing this message widely. So, whenever we have a chance to do this, we will!
There are many organisations in the world promoting kindness. Here are some we have found - do let us know if you think of any more we can add, just contact us with your suggestions...
MS-UK Counsellor Mark Howe shares some tips for getting through the long winter lockdown
We’ve all been in lockdown for a large chunk of the past 12 months. It hasn’t been easy for any of us. When the lockdown was first announced, a number of people may have thought, this will be OK… I can cope. It soon became apparent, however, that a lot of people were starting to struggle.
This post is to talk about the little things that can be done to enable us to keep going. A lot of people are by no means OK… whatever that even means anymore. But it’s OK not to be OK during these challenging times. So what can we do? I hope by sharing my thoughts of lockdown with you it might give you some ideas, or some hope. We all need a little bit of that.
Maintaining your wellbeing is important. Sleeping, eating, exercising, routine… it’s all good. It’s the ultimate goal if you’re able to do that. But some individuals were on very unstable ground before lockdown. Some people have lost or have experienced a reduced support network. Some of us have taken a harder hit to our mental health than others. Some of us are just surviving and I want to assure people that that’s OK. That’s more than OK. If you are surviving, that’s fantastic.
You have to do whatever it takes to just survive this and come out the other side.
Do what your body and your mind needs. If you can’t go out for a walk, just open the curtains at least. If you can’t get dressed or wash, simply praise yourself for getting up at all and facing another day.
If you previously went to a multiple sclerosis (MS) support group but can’t do so now due to the restrictions, continue doing a journal as if you are still attending. Every day write things that you’re grateful for, the things you’ve struggled with most, what you’ve learnt from it, and the things you’ve achieved. Try and maintain that feeling that the group still exists, even if it’s only you in it!
Speak to people on the phone, or connect to Skype or ZOOM. Many people are self-isolating. Speaking to people who are on their own offers support to others – it also helps us to feel better… like we’re doing a good deed.
Helping other people can often help you too.
If you have family around you then board games can keep you sharp mentally. But if not then online games are good too.
Walking is good if you’re able to. Our anxiety of encountering people who have no regard for social distancing can put you off, but still set yourself walking goals each week, weather permitting.
Listening to music, learning to play a musical instrument and singing can all be useful. It’s good to make noise and get pent up feelings out into the world through sound.
The biggest thing that’s helped me during lockdown has been using my creativity.
Creating music, art, any kind of craft, writing poetry, writing in general… it’s all useful for getting through times like this. Pour all your feelings into something productive, so you can have something at the end of it, something that you can be proud of.
There are many things you can do to keep well. But just getting by is enough. Whatever it takes. You’re doing the best you can.
And one day I hope this will all be a shared memory, and we’ll be together again with loved ones, living life again, and recovering again. For now surviving is the goal. Be kind to yourself, stay safe, keep well and do whatever you need to in order to get through.
Christopher Burdett on improving his mental health through counselling
I chose MS-UK Counselling because I felt I needed to talk to someone independently to discuss my situation living with multiple sclerosis.
I was able to talk to someone openly and discuss my feelings and what was bothering me. I’m a positive person with a lot of faith. My counsellor listened and was helpful, didn’t judge and gave me guidance and suggestions to follow.
They made me believe that I should think about myself, be kind to myself, and accept help. That was the hardest thing to do. But I learnt to accept help when I needed it. I also learnt to say no.
I had shut out and hurt a close friend because she was going through her own issues and I didn’t want to burden her with mine. I deeply regret that. But, since, we’ve talked about it and we are OK now.
I’d definitely recommend counselling to anyone. It’s an important and valuable service. If I could go back and speak to my newly diagnosed self, I’d say to take each day as it comes, and talk to someone.
To find out more about MS-UK's Counselling service, click here
Thank you to everyone in the MS-UK community who got involved with our World Mental Health Day event on Saturday 10 October. We just wanted to bring all the resources together in one handy place, so anyone can access them in the future.
Here's a list of links for the resources. If you would like any support, please get in touch. MS-UK is here for anyone affected by multiple sclerosis (MS) and you can reach us on 0800 783 0518 or by contacting us via our online web form.
This year we commemorated World Mental Health Day by sharing the findings of our Loneliness and Isolation Report. You can find out more about this piece of research by reading the full report below or visiting the web page.
Across the UK, there are a range of mental health charities and organisations offering support and information. Here we have listed some well-known organisations which you may find useful.
For a longer list of organisations that specialise in certain areas, visit the NHS website.
The NHS urgent mental health helplines provide 24-hour advice and support for anyone living in England. You can find a helpline number using the NHS website.
If you feel you or someone else is at risk of serious harm or injury, please call 999.
The Mental Health Foundation aims to help people understand, protect and maintain their mental health. The offer community and peer programmes, undertake research, give advice to people affected by mental health conditions and campaign for change.
Mind provides advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. They also campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding. They run an Infoline, a Legal Line and produce publications about a wide range of mental health issues.
Across the UK, Mind have a network of independent local Minds that are run by local people, for local people. They provide support like advocacy, counselling, housing advice and more.
Rethink Mental Illness offer a network of 140 local groups and services and they offer expert information via their website. They also campaign to make sure everyone affected by severe mental illness has a good quality of life.
Samaritans offer a 24-hour helpline that anyone can contact if they are struggling with their mental health. You can call them any time, 365 days a year, on 116 123 for free. Samaritans also accept email enquiries, letters and have a self-help app on their website.
SANE provides emotional support, guidance and information to anyone affected by mental illness, including families, friends and carers.
You can read our Choices booklet about MS and mental health online today or order a printed copy.
Saturday 10 October 2020 is World Mental Health Day. Here at MS-UK we are reflecting on the findings of our Loneliness and Isolation Report, hoping to bring these important issues into the light.
We are also sharing mental health resources live throughout the day on our Facebook page (join us on Facebook between 10am - 3pm).
There are a number of health professionals who can help to support you if you are experiencing mental health issues.
This is often a good starting point if you are feeling anxious, having trouble sleeping or beginning to worry about your mental wellbeing. It can be difficult to start this conversation but your GP will be able to offer advice and refer you on to mental health services if they feel it is needed. Your GP may mention the IAPT programme, which stands for 'Improving Access to Psychological Therapies. You can find out more about IAPT on the NHS website.
MS nurses are familiar with multiple sclerosis (MS) in a way that means they can spot signs of low mood or depression, sometimes before you notice them yourself. Talk to your MS nurse if you have any worries and they will be able to signpost you or refer you on to other support.
Counsellors do not offer advice and will not tell you what to do but can help you to talk about your experiences to make it easier to find a way forward. MS is an unpredictable condition and learning to live with this uncertainty can be challenging. Counsellors can help you to explore how MS may be affecting your wellbeing and how you are adapting emotionally.
MS-UK Counselling is a telephone service that is available to anyone with a diagnosis of MS. You can register online for MS-UK Counselling or ask a health professional to refer you. If you would like to try face-to-face counselling, check if your local MS Therapy Centre or local MS Society group offers this. You can also search for a therapist through the BACP website.
You can read our Choices booklet about MS and mental health online today or order a printed copy.
Mobile phone or tablet apps can be really useful for supporting your mental wellbeing, so this World Mental Health Day we take a look at what is available in the app store at the moment.
At MS-UK, we believe in offering people affected by multiple sclerosis (MS) as much information as possible, so you can make your own informed choices. That's why we have listed as many apps as possible, but which ones you try out are up to you. Where we can, we have also included links to the app websites.
You can download any of these apps via Google Play or the apple store straight to your smartphone or tablet.
This app helps people manage their emotions and get a restful nights sleep. It gives options to subscribe for personalised mindfulness meditations as well. The idea behind the app is to find strength and rest through using Aura when you feel stressed or anxious. Visit the Aura website.
This app is all about managing your breathing to reduce stress. It features instructions and practice exercises to help users learn the stress management skill called 'diaphragmatic breathing'.
This is a free app that helps you manage feelings of anxiety and depression by turning negative thoughts into positive ones.
Another free app, Chill Panda measures your heart rate and suggests tasks to suit your state of mind. Visit the Chill Panda website.
This app is all about developing a mindful approach. It includes guided exercises, videos and meditation. Find out more on the Headspace website.
This is a free meditation app, with paid features you can subscribe to as well. Visit the InsightTimer website.
This app has simple learning modules to help you manage fear, anxiety and stress and tackle unhelpful thinking. It is free, but has some in-app purchases as well. Visit the My Possible Self website.
This is Mind's online community, which used to be called Elefriends. It is a forum where you can listen, share and be heard thorugh posting, commenting and private messaging. Visit the Side by Side website
This is an app that offers a free eight-week course to help you manage anxiety and stress, designed to be completed in your own time and at your own pace. You can find out more about the course on the SilverCloud website.
This app lets you track your mood for free and access targeted mindfulness practices. The app suggests you spend 10 minutes a day to help bring more balance into your life. Visit the Smiling Mind website.
This is a free online community, offering digital mental health support for anyone aged 16 and over. You can find out more about the forum on the Togetherall website.
This free app aims to help you take control of your worries, one at a time. It helps you record, manage and solve your worries based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques. Find out more on the WorryTree website.
On Saturday 10 October, MS-UK is posting live on our Facebook page to commemorate World Mental Health Day. This year, the theme for the day is 'mental health for all' and we are sharing the findings of our Loneliness and Isolation Report to highlight how important mental health support is for people affected by multiple sclerosis.