As I lay in the recovery room, oxygen, cannulas, medical staff a blur – after the initial surge of pain, lovely dose of morphine and then a rather snazzy inflatable hot blanket to stop the shivering, my initial reaction to all of this was – please can I see my mum, then… how lucky am I to be surrounded by such kindness. A smile from my surgeon, a kind touch from a nurse, my care was exemplary, and I remain truly grateful; genuinely happy for a successful op, for exceptional medical professionals, for having a non-critical condition.

But as the days pass and the antibiotics, painkillers and abundance of other chemicals still surge through my body, the reality is I feel horrid – physically. And when you feel physically unwell, as we have talked about many a time at the Happynesshub, it is tougher than ever to stay mentally strong. And when you feel physically and mentally weak, it’s just really tough to be ‘happy’ (whatever happiness is, see numerous other blogs!).

“The evidence shows that the things that matter most for our happiness and for our misery are our social relationships and our mental and physical health,… This demands a new role for the state – not ‘wealth creation’ but ‘wellbeing creation’.” 

Lord Layard, Emeritus Professor of Economics, LSE

I can only concur wholeheartedly from my personal experiences with Lord Layard’s findings (I am currently reading his excellent book, The Origins of Happiness).Social relationships have always been the driver for me when it comes to happiness… but so too has been the challenge of living in good health. Physical and mental wellbeing, I think, are so closely intertwined. Certainly, my most recent poorliness and ensuing op has delivered slightly challenging times. And as hard as I have tried to stay positive, there have been moments when I have just felt downright miserable, despaired and wishing things were different. But, I can honestly say from the bottom of my heart, these feelings have not taken hold for long as they used to. Firstly, because I am lucky enough to know things will pass and I will be stronger soon. This has not always been the case, and isn’t for so many people out there. Yet, very importantly, after years of poor health, I have managed to get together a toolkit of things that can help when you just feel horrid. And if these tools are there, ready and waiting, tried and tested, when you’re weak, you grab them with ease. I know they’re harder to implement when ill, and the resulting positive impact may be lower than normal – yet there is still a shift, an improvement, a ray of light that delivers perspective, hope, connection.

So Hubbers, in no particular order, here are my top ten tips for helping yourself when you are physically and mentally unwell, perhaps unable to get out of bed or the house, feeling isolated or alone, hopeless or sad.

  1. The Happy List. I am going to add to this further when I am well again. It should be long, and varied, full of things big and small that make you feel better. They may not make you feel fully happy immediately if you’re ill, but if they just make you feel one tiny bit better, that is a start. Some things for me… a shower (I can’t tell you how amazing my first shower was post surgery!). Then a bath with candles when I am stronger. A Charbonnel et Walker rose or violet cream chocolate (given to me by TimD for my recovery!). Clean sheets (thank you Mariana). A happy song (morning 3 I put on Gregory Porter when I got up… I knew I was on the right track). A good hand cream (sorry boys, this is very girly I know, but wow did it make me feel better). These things are all very personal and yours will be very different, but make sure you have your ‘happy list’ always at hand!
  2. People who care. Having those people around you is all-important, if only just one or two. A partner, parent, friend or loved-one. But whoever they are, it’s better if it’s someone who ‘understands’. Someone who you know will make you feel better, about you, your life, the world. Someone who empowers you to be really you, ill or well, happy or sad, who makes you feel comfortable in your own shoes and who whether you get a small message from them, or a longer visit enriches your life. These someone’s are like gold dust – hold them close, cherish them dearly, and allow them to help you in times of need.
  3. Try not to compare. I find this one tough when I am ill, especially if I watch too much TV. This person has the perfect life, that person is never bed-bound and in pain, they would handle this situation better than me. None of these thoughts help, and are most likely untrue. I tried watching Sport Relief to remind myself how lucky I was, but actually that just made me feel more guilty that I had felt sorry for myself! So, my advice, as hard as it is, try to take control of your mind to stop comparing – it’s one of the greatest causes of unhappiness and does none of us any good.
  4. Be kind to others. When you are a patient, or in pain, depressed or down, you can feel like you have nothing to give to others. And if you are someone who likes to give, this makes it even worse. But you can always be giving, however small it may feel, the ripple effect will kick in… a smile, a kind word, a compliment, a touch. Give it a go!
  5. Be kind to yourself. Now sometimes this one is the hardest of all. We can be so tough on ourselves. Maybe we can be impatient or a bit short-tempered. Forgive yourself, you’re ill. Maybe we feel weak and pathetic. Forgive yourself, you’re human. I try to do something that shows self-compassion, like giving myself a facial or mini-manicure. Or reading a message from a friend that is uplifting. However small, whatever it may be, do something for you.
  6. Surround yourself with positives. Avoiding the doom and gloom in the world can really help when you’re struggling, as can filling your life with positives where possible. A funny film, a happy book, positive people. This can truly make a difference. (Thanks Nik for your Netflix recommendations!).
  7. MoveAs someone who can’t exercise most of the time due to my health, it is very frustrating when you are continually told to exercise and what a difference this will make – I have always struggled with this, since I would if I could. But what I learnt from my physio in the hospital is that if you move your muscles in any small way this can be beneficial. You can do this lying in bed (I circled my ankles at first!), sitting up if you are stronger, and then of course whatever you are capable of given your physical state. There is no doubt exercise is beneficial, but again it’s not about comparing; find what’s right for you, however small. As I watched Sport Relief this was hard, but I reminded myself of my physio’s words and remembered to stick with what was personally appropriate.
  8. Change of Scenery. This may just be moving from your bed to the sofa. For me walking into the corridor of the hospital with the sunlight shining through the glass, made me realise that the world was alive, and so was I! Putting on a different pair of jim jams you wouldn’t normally wear when you’re sick. Or if you can, just getting a breath of fresh air and sunlight. Even if it is a walk in the garden or a ride in a car with the window open. Feel the air!
  9. Breathe. This was my most useful tool before and after the operation. Breathing in slowly through the nose, and out through the mouth. To calm me, to reduce the pain, to help me get moving. And when you feel up to it, if only for a minute or two try meditating. It can really help.
  10. Be Grateful. I know, I know – I am on about it again. But expressing and focusing on gratitude can really help. I am so very grateful to my parents, my family, my friends and all of those who have supported me, including all you Hubbers who sent my kind words! To my surgeons, the medical staff and their teams – their kindness, caring and professionalism has truly moved me.

Finally remember, Everything Changes, nothing stays the same. There is always hope, there is always kindness, there is always love. Even if you can’t feel it at this very moment, know that is there.

So surgery complete, lessons learnt, I am on the mend. As my physical strength returns so too does my mental. Sometimes it’s the other way round. Whichever, it matters not. What does, is that when I am fighting fit I shall be building upon my toolkit again, re-filling my bag of emotional and mental supports so that it’s full and flowing for future times of need.