Anxiety, OCD and me

It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety to anyone who hasn’t been exposed to it themselves in some way. My own anxiety manifests in a constant, nagging feeling that I’ve done something wrong or am about to do so. Invariably, I then begin to dwell upon the feeling and what may have caused it and so begins a cycle of negative thinking. I worry intensely about what other people think about me, I’m persistently paranoid and will repeat events and conversations over and over in my mind, convinced that I’ve said or done something bad.

This leaves me feeling constantly on edge and hyper-aware of how I interact with people – having a knock-on effect on my concentration and enjoyment of life in general; thus impacting on my overall mood. I sweat, I shake, I fret and I ache, but time has enabled me to learn what the warning signs are and calm myself enough to function, for example, in a supermarket or other public place. It follows me everywhere and sometimes it gets so intense that it hurts my head, gives me a headache and keeps me awake at night. My OCD is even harder to explain!

OCD – Obsessive Conpulsive Disorder. Obsessive- Everything needs to be a certain way; arranged a certain way, done in a certain way – it’s all about order. Without order, bad things will happen, but I’m never really sure what those bad things are, I just know it will. I can’t really explain what the particular ‘way’ is either, it’s my methodologies that I believe are correct. It’s more to do with how they feel, certain ways of doing things feel safe, right and secure. How ironic that a DISorder is all about order!

Compulsive – I have plenty of compulsive behaviours, some rational and some ridiculous. The worst was a long-standing fear of urinating myself in public and therefore planning every aspect of my life around the availability of toilet facilities. It got so bad that I would go to the toilet for the sake of going, not because I actually needed to. Thankfully, over the last 3-4 years, I’ve managed to overcome this but there’s still a residual over-visiting of restrooms that lingers.

I combat anxieties with rituals that make me feel at ease. At the minute, I’m struggling with picking my fingers and with social media. I’ve always bit, scratched and picked for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, my fingers and nails are a bit of a mess and the skin on my face isn’t great either. I like to make lists and plan every aspect of my life, something explored further in this book. I call this ‘mapping’. This quest for ideal circumstance and perfection is pithy – I know that I can’t prepare for every eventuality, but it certainly makes me feel better. Birdwatching has been a marvellous coping strategy, distraction and relaxation aid. As you read further into the book and I share more of my positive experiences relating to mental health and birdwatching, I hope you are able to recognise how it has helped me and how I hope it may help others too

Antisocial Media Pt. II

In September I wrote a blog called ‘Antisocial Media’, about my negative and wholly unhealthy relationship with my Bird Therapy Twitter account. This week I found myself having another Twitter meltdown and once again it led to me questioning what it is about social media that I find so difficult to manage.

Fundamentally, it’s my obsessive tendencies and delusions of grandeur that start the negative cycle. I post something, believing that I have a given right for it to be popular and therefore, when it doesn’t prove to be – I take it as some kind of personal attack. This is a mixture of the paranoia and inflated sense of responsibility that come with my mental health issues.

I received some feedback on my writing that I perceived as negative (although principally it wasn’t) and this led to me rapid-fire posting on Twitter to seek reassurances on what I’ve been doing. I then couldn’t cope with the lack of response and interaction that I received and my mood and anxieties spiralled downwards.

I came to a realisation that I had become reliant on Twitter for social interaction and reassurance. This was the reason I came off Facebook five years ago and it just isn’t a healthy way to be. I kept checking my Twitter repeatedly – obsessively – so much, in fact, that when I removed the Twitter application from my phone I had an involuntary reflex to go to the space that was left on my phone.

So, I’ve made a decision to stop posting on Twitter over Christmas and spend this time re-evaluating why I’m writing and exploring the topic. I hope that this can help me to maintain a more positive approach to social media. Hopefully I will return stronger and more in control of it.

A moment with a Marsh Harrier

I remember a day last year when I sat on my own in the Fen Hide at Strumpshaw Fen RSPB – my only company being the gusting thirty mile-per-hour winds that were howling across the exposed reed beds. The Fen Hide is an altogether rickety structure at best and when you are sat inside it on a gusty day, the walls literally shake as they are buffeted by the wind. As it barrels over the reeds it presses them down flat, ironed out by the power of the wind. Between gusts, they sprang back to their erect position, only to be smoothed out by the next one. It was just as well that this hypnotic rippling effect was there for me to watch and enjoy as I wasn’t likely to see a great many birds that day.

That is not strictly true though and as I sat in the Fen Hide on my own, reflecting, I noticed a beautiful male Marsh Harrier sitting out on a bare tree. He perched, still as a statue as if he were the gatekeeper of the reed-bed – seemingly unperturbed by the crosswinds blowing into him. Bright yellow legs gripped the wiry branches, smooth chestnut brown up his breast moving into a lighter-coloured head and small, sharp bill. Reflecting on this made me recall a survey respondent who had written a lengthy passage about their own positive experience with Marsh Harriers, I think it’s apt to share here;

“After a torrid few months last year (close bereavement, work stress, probable mid-life crisis) I felt a real, specific need to watch Marsh Harriers. We booked a holiday cottage in Suffolk and saw some great birds, but two or three days in I went off on my own and found a local reed-bed that had breeding Marsh Harriers and sat there watching them for about an hour. Not something I’d experienced before but it felt like I was fulfilling a deep physiological need, a bit like drinking cool water after a long, dry day in the sun, and when I returned to the cottage my wife said that my face was “shining” and I looked well for the first time in months.”

I found this to be such a profound sentiment and as they went on to describe the ‘wildness’ in a Marsh harriers eyes, I was struck. What a beautiful way to describe a Marsh harrier and to epitomise their wildness. Furthermore, the places that you encounter them – the rolling reed-beds they call home, are the very embodiment of wildness and wilderness. I have written several times about the feelings invoked by views across reed-beds, their openness and beauty. Throw in an exhilarating blast of cold, fresh air that often accompanies such a view, and I’m reinvigorated. A survey respondent made a delightful comment on the wind, saying that it “helps to clear my mind of worries”, a sentiment I certainly connect with myself.

Thanks to Les Bunyan, volunteer at Titchwell RSPB for the exquisite picture of a Marsh Harrier.

Returning to the heath

My homeward journey passed the entrance to the heathland part of the old patch. As I approached I asked myself “Why not?” and decided that I had enough time to just have a short walk round it. I jostled down the access track – the familiar bumps and scrapes of my car serving as a reminder of bygone birding days. I remembered the layout of the lumps and ridges as though they were literally the back of my hand. There appeared my own private parking spot, a passing-place adjacent to the horse paddocks, a third of the way down the track and the starting point of the looping path I had established the previous year.

It felt fantastic to be back as I stepped out of the car. The paddock was stocked up with birds; a trio of Pied Wagtails’ ‘chizicked’ their way around the horse’s ankles, a Linnet whirred and buzzed on the wooden fence and Chaffinches bounded along the hedge-line, escorted on their way by energetic Blue Tits. Elation! I was energised by renewed positivity and motivation, banishing the memories of winter walks where not a bird was to be seen. I hopped the fence, powered by the positive experience of revisiting this place – how I’d missed this alien landscape, peppered with scrub, stark and open. How could somewhere so vacant seem so inviting?

I walked out into the centre of an open area of short grass, almost directly in the middle of the new heath. From here I beheld a 360-degree view of the entire site and here is where I stopped, breathed and filled my mind and lungs with the beautiful air of serenity – I felt like I had returned home. My meditative state was broken by a coarse ‘chack’ call directly above me, a bulky black thrush was flying low towards the distant treeline. It landed atop a small conifer – the scaly wing and remains of a white bib were irrefutable. I hadn’t been here for months and I was being welcomed by a bird that I had seen here more than anywhere else, a Ring Ouzel. This place always had a magic feel – a magnetic pull – and it always seemed to hold Ring Ouzel’s at the right times of the year.

After spending some time at this viewing spot, I decided to return to my car and as I prepared to move, I disturbed three birds from the ground nearby. They flew cautiously up to the gorse that had grown up around the southern fence-line, delivering yet another unmistakable call – the ‘tzeep’ of Redwing’s. How I had longed to hear this Autumnal arrangement again. I had expected this moment to occur at the Norfolk coast as they streamed in overhead in a strong east wind, not inland on a spartan heathland. Fantastic thrushes, welcoming me back to this special place. I couldn’t believe I had spent so long away from here, I was jubilant – positively buoyant, and my connection had just been plugged back in again.

Mapping ~ Map reading week 2017

On several occasions during my Bird Therapy musings, I have written about how much I enjoy mentally exploring a map to try and seek out new birding and nature sites – and I have learnt so much about my local area through doing this. When I see my surroundings laid out in front of me ordered in a grid, I feel safe and reassured. My eyes are drawn to blue and green smudges and blotches -representing open water, woods and grassland. I love the familiarity of a map of the local area and these smudges of colour. I love the thrill and anticipation that each prospective new site brings. A greater thrill is found in visiting these sites, exploring them and unlocking their potential.

On a map, these smudges are just blocks of two-dimensional colour, but on the ground and in the field, they transform as they become three-dimensional. Each of these areas represents a pocket of habitat, a source of life which will invariably contain several smaller, concentrated habitats. A perfect example of this is the humble bramble patch that we are all familiar with, perhaps along a country lane or deep within some woodland -often found smothered in a shaft of sunlight in a darkened glade. If you look closer you can see the dazzling array of life that one plant can support. Bees busy collecting pollen, nectar-supping Butterflies, a myriad of flies and other insects will be present. Avert your eyes to the canopy above. A family of Blue Tits is busy roving through, led by the inquisitive and yellow-washed young. The Wood Pigeon looks on -bemused or confused- it’s impossible to tell.

The way that nature and life itself are intrinsically connected becomes clearer when you spend more time immersed in nature. One soon realises that they are an inconsequential part of this grand scheme. No matter how bad you think things are -the connections within nature are strong and ever-present. My desire to find out more about all these interconnected habitats, often referred to as wildlife corridors, only adds to the benefits of bird-watching in a wider context. The more biodiversity found in one location raises the chances of it meeting the criteria for a restorative environment that I have also written about before.

All this means that I have learned where the best places are to seek out certain bird species at certain times of the year. I understand the birds in my garden, at my local gravel pits, the fen-land heath -the list goes on. This all stems from experiences and observations and only serves to reinforce the experiential qualities of bird-watching. Yes, my explorations often throw up a duff site or a missed bird but this is all part of the learning experience. By sticking with the basics and my local area I have been able to start with a nucleated approach and then expand my range outwards as I feel more balance and stability in my life. If I feel like I need reassurance and comfort I tend to stay local and use the familiar sites as my safety net. I enjoy my forays outside of my comfort zone and love birding in new places and with different people, but I will always feel the magnetic pull of the places I know and love.

It’s good to talk…

The self-obsessed narcissist within me, started writing this post with an intention to try and promote my Bird Therapy talks to a wider audience. However, at the third attempt at sitting down to write it – I have had plenty of time to reflect on my first local talk and I’ve realised that it isn’t about me and my talks anymore and that’s what is so very important now.

Back on the 14th of September, I gave a Bird Therapy talk at Cley Marshes NWT. What better place to talk about the therapeutic benefits of birdwatching than one of Norfolk’s flagship nature reserves. As I set-up inside the glass-fronted education room, my eyes followed down the watercolour-like wash of the scrapes and reedbeds all the way along to the shingle ridge and the sea. Stunning.

Only three of the twenty-one people that came to the talk identified themselves as birders. The majority were genuinely interested in the wellbeing benefits of birdwatching and my own mental health experiences. I realised that I had become obsessed with promoting Bird Therapy in birding circles and neglected the other sphere it operates in – mental health. In-fact, during a Bird Therapy talk, I openly discuss: depression, anxiety, OCD, medication, self-medication and suicide. Obviously birdwatching is the running theme throughout, but mental health is THE key theme.

Several people approached me afterwards to talk privately, and all of them thanked me for talking plainly and openly about my own mental health. It was a privilege to be provided a platform to discuss such pertinent topics and I was struck by the power of talking about and sharing experiences with other people. I no longer feel a desire to push my talks in the way I had thought I should. They are a powerful way of raising mental health awareness and sharing what has worked for me. The time and platform to talk will hopefully come.

In the meantime, I have written an article for Birdwatch magazine this month, on my five ways to well-birding. https://www.birdguides.com/store/latest-issue/birdwatch

I also have some writing in the beautiful publication ‘The Curlew’. http://www.the-curlew.com/store/product/4-populus-special-price

The Countryman magazine also has a small feature on Bird Therapy in their October issue – http://www.countrymanmagazine.co.uk/the-benefits-of-birdwatching/

Finally, I still have a load of Bird Therapy t-shirts available. Black tees with a white Bird Therapy logo. Message me at birdtherapy@hotmail.co.uk if you are interested in one.

Antisocial Media

How many of you reading this would readily admit that you are obsessed with social media and your representation on it? How many of you have posted something and then deleted it because it didn’t get as many ‘likes’ as you wanted it to? Yes, many if not most of you may not relate to this or perhaps you may not choose to accept that you’ve behaved in this way, but I know I have and frankly -it freaks me out. Continuing with my recent approach of being open and honest with myself I wanted to write it down and try to get my head around it.

I noticed recently that I’ve become so obsessed with my Bird Therapy tweets getting liked and re-tweeted, that I’ve been doing what I described above. However, after deleting them I’ve tried to reinvent and post them again in the hope of people noticing. Not only that, but I then spend literally hours checking and re-tweeting my own tweets. I’ve even convinced myself that there are tactical times to post things just because there will be high-volumes of traffic. Not only is it weird, but it’s hugely antisocial and not particularly conducive to my overall well-being.

I apologise to the people and organisations that I constantly tag in pictures; hoping to make raise my profile – Team4natureUK, The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, Chris Packham, Robert Macfarlane, Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Butterfly Conservation, Mark Avery, Birdwatch and Birdwatching Magazines to name the main ones. I’m sorry that my narcissistic attention-seeking has essentially ‘targeted’ you.

In any sphere, when you first start out trying to make some sort of name for yourself, you may publicise yourself. Social media can be an excellent platform for doing this but social media can also be a horrible place. Sometimes I take a photo on my phone, not because I want to capture a moment in memory, but because I want to post it on social media. These are behaviours that ultimately are detracting far from my mindful birding ideas – such as physically being on my phone, on twitter, when I’m outside and really should be enjoying nature and/or bird-watching.

I feel a million times better for writing this down and now feel I can make some positive changes regarding this social media ridiculousness. I hope that if you can relate to any of this, that you recognise it isn’t a helpful way to conduct oneself and perhaps, this kind of social media/online impact on well-being will become more prevalent as we become more reliant on technology.

 

Thanks for reading.

Frets of grey and salty spray ~ a sea watch

When one uses binoculars, their peripheral vision is cocooned in binocular barrels so that everything else is blocked out. As most sea watching is performed through a birding ‘scope, with periodic scanning of the sea through binoculars in-between, this honed focus can be even more apparent. The tumultuous sound of waves crashing onto shingle coupled with the seemingly endless view of the churning sea makes for a very insular feeling when viewed through a ‘scope, and you almost become at one with the situation. This feeling of connection is enhanced further when you are wrapped up warm against the cold and can feel the icy blast of the wind on your cheeks and the occasional splash of salt spray. This makes a sea watch a truly multi-sensory experience, salt speckled lips, foamy white wave-crests and the sound of the seas power as it pounds the beach -it really is beautiful.

A few weeks ago, I spent six hours sea watching from the beach shelter at Cley in Norfolk. It was a murky day with intermittent heavy showers that rendered visibility down to almost zero at times. For anyone familiar with the beach shelter at Cley, the showers were angling over the shingle beach and hitting our legs at knee-level. I was thankful I’d put wellies on but less impressed by my ‘waterproof’ trousers that had clearly been wrongly branded.

IMG_0914

For someone who doesn’t sea watch very often, it was a good day -although I only have a few sessions to compare it to. We saw 117 Manx Shearwater, 15 Arctic Skua, 11 Great Skua, an adult Little Gull and loads of Scoter. All this amongst other commoner waders, gulls and terns. The sheer multitude of birds that can be seen in the ‘best’ sea watching conditions is akin to those you may experience in ‘fall’ conditions on land.

It is also a great bird-watching approach to facilitate connecting with others -I had a really good time chatting to my two friends I was with; especially when a sea fret would come in and smother us in greyness for a short while. This is another example of the self-insulating qualities of a sea watch and in the time that I spent focusing on the sea and the passing birds, I was able to separate myself from the worries and trappings of everyday life and lose myself in the wonder of the sea.

Seawatching Mugshot no spot

Joe

Clipping my wings ~ a difficult decision

Anyone who has been following Bird Therapy will know that for some time now I have been exploring how to start an outreach project using bird-watching therapeutically. I’ve been planning and researching this for the last year and recently I was granted some funding to help get the project started. I even had sponsors in place, a range of donated resources available and a venue to work out of.

Then everything crashed down around me. I decided to change my job as the uncertainty regarding the future of my employer was impacting my wellbeing. I was offered some interviews and have now accepted a new role which I’m really excited about. However, my new role although in education, is not ‘term-time only’ and my future plans for Bird Therapy centred around this availability.

Cue the realisation that I just can’t do what I want to do at this stage of my life. Obviously this brings with it some darkening thoughts of disappointment and letting people down which in-turn impact on my mental health. I have had to prioritise and compartmentalise what I can realistically achieve otherwise things could mentally get ‘out of hand’ in the long-term.

A friend told me I should sit back and look at what I have achieved in such a short space of time and then reassess where I want to get to. So in 2 years I’ve; been asked to write numerous guest blogs, had my first magazine article published with two more on the way, recorded three ‘tweets of the day’ for Radio 4, been interviewed on local radio, spoke to a hundred people at UCCRI about Bird Therapy and met Sir. David Attenborough… That’s a ridiculous achievement for a few years and enforced a total reality check.

The nature of my OCD means that in striving for unachievable perfection I have a propensity to run away with ideas, promising things that I can’t deliver and overselling myself to try and influence people to accept me and what I want to achieve. Bird Therapy started out as a writing project and seemed to be reaching out to a wider and wider audience. I have decided to focus on this aspect of the whole ‘project’ and deliver what I CAN deliver – the book ‘Bird Therapy’. Sometimes I feel that even calling Bird Therapy a project oversells it.

I hope to do a few talks here and there like the one I am already booked to do at Cley Marshes NWT on September 14th (more info here; https://www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk/whats-on/all-events/2017-09-14-bird-therapy ). I also hope to lead a few bird-watching wellbeing walks before the year is out but that will be it.

The Greatness of Garden Bird Feeding

There are many things that you can do to attract more birds to an outdoor space and in doing these things you can give something back to birding and to birds in general. My first piece of advice is to spend some time getting to know your ‘bird neighbourhood’, as this foundation knowledge can help you to provide the right food for them. For example, if your most abundant bird family are finches then seed mixes are the best food to be providing. I learnt quickly that although most of the birds that visit my feeders are partial to a seed mix, they also love to tuck into a suet block or ball.

After realising the popularity of suet-based products with my garden visitors I decided to stock up on them. I felt this was a nice way for me to give the birds something back and to strengthen my connection with them. I put out three ‘fat’ balls in a plastic-mesh feeder and bought a cage for a suet block with a few different ones to try out in it. The following morning I was woken by an absolute cacophony of screeching and cackling from my back garden. I ran down the stairs to see what it was, clutching at my dressing gown as I whipped it round my shoulders.

There were eleven Starlings writhing across my feeders and feeder poles – fighting and snapping at each other as they decimated the suet block and balls. I watched them in amazement as they devoured every bit of it and fought over every crumb that dropped to the floor. It was great that they were using and accessing the food I had provided for them but at the same time I became very wary of the cacophony they were making at seven o’clock in the morning on a Sunday. Thinking about my neighbours, I opened the patio door and as I did so the Starlings all took flight at the same time in a flurry of wings, speckles and iridescence. This gave me an opportunity to rapidly remove the offending suet items and stow them away indoors. Ok, so suet products would have to be used sparingly in my garden from that day on.

I was speaking to someone once about their own garden bird feeders and they regaled me with some fantastic tales of Marsh Tits and even a Great-spotted Woodpecker visiting them. I asked what I should put out to attract such exciting visitors and they said “peanuts and sunflower hearts”. Shortly after when buying some bird feed I decided to try out some different products and I took their advice, filling up one feeder with peanuts and one with the hearts along with my usual seed mix. The peanuts didn’t prove to be particularly popular and stagnated in their feeder for a few weeks before I decided to remove them.

The sunflower hearts, on the other hand, would be full in the morning when I left for work and then empty upon my return. It took several refills until the weekend when I could stake out and identify the culprit(s). I sat on a dining room chair, cup of tea in hand and watched the feeding station from my front row seat by the patio door. A handful of House Sparrows, two Blue Tits, a lone Great Tit and then a Coal Tit that I have written about before, seemingly appeared from nowhere, deftly extracted a heart, popped up onto the fence and seemed to stash it inside a woody crevice. I watched it repeat this action three times before zipping off over my next door neighbour’s garden. Watching and sharing this moment was beautiful and was one of those little nuances that one doesn’t often get to see. I thought to myself about what a fantastic and intelligent way of preserving food this was and respected the moment even more because of this observation.

In 2016 feeding birds in your garden was ‘formally’ recognised as an activity that benefits your wellbeing. Daniel Cox, a researcher at the University of Exeter published a paper that researched the very topic. In his research he found that his participants overall wellbeing improved when they noticed birds in their garden. He also discussed feelings of ‘connectedness with nature’ through doing this. Another aspect he looked into was whether maintaining and watching bird feeders over time could help with reducing stress levels. His research pointed towards increased self-reported feelings of relaxation so yes it could be interpreted that garden bird feeding does in fact help reduce symptoms of stress. Interestingly, when asked on social media how they felt they gave something back to birding – from sixteen respondents eight of them discussed feeding birds in their gardens and providing a water source for them.