Helen McGillivray is a psychological therapist with over 28 years of clinical experience, including 14 years providing psychological therapies. She specialises in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Helen is accredited with

The BACBP, the leading organisation for cognitive and behavioural therapies in the UK.

In this blog, Helen explores our nervous system, what our automatic responses look like, and how we can work towards slowing down and recovering.

As restrictions ease how do you feel?

It might be helpful to pay attention to our finely tuned system

Moving towards normal life after this extended period in lockdown will stir up many thoughts and feelings. Our finely tuned nervous systems have certainly been put through their paces, and will continue to provide useful information as we navigate the months ahead.

The Automatic Nervous System consists of two parts:

  • The sympathetic nervous system - fight or flight

  • The parasympathetic nervous system - rest and digest

Our sympathetic nervous system, prepares the body for a perceived threat or danger, commonly referred to as fight or flight. This efficiently prepares our body to act quickly to the threat by generally making us more alert and able to react, and much less able to be reasoned and rational. The flight or fight response kicks in automatically. Feeling your mouth dry up and your heart racing just before you’re about to give a big presentation – this usually happens in response to thoughts, and although its unpleasant, it can be helpful.

Obviously this response is key to survival of our species, but the less time spent in fight or flight mode, the better.

Prolonged and repetitive stress can take a toll on our body. If you can become more conscious of the way that your body reacts to stress, it will pay enormous dividends.

Our parasympathetic nervous system -rest and digest- has an equally important role in our health. This is the body’s way of slowing down and recovering, which is important to lead a healthy, sustained life balance. Rest and digest response doesn’t happen automatically, which is why awareness of our body and how we respond and react, enables us to take steps to slow down a little and be kind to ourselves.

When we activate the rest and digest response, the body responds in various ways:

  • Saliva is increased

  • Digestive enzymes are released

  • Heart rate decreases

  • Muscles relax

  • Energy is conserved

This function seems even more important in today’s pandemic and threatening world. Anything we can do to tone down our “fight or flight” response and promote “rest and digest” mode is worth the effort.

Deep breathing exercises are helpful as they can stimulate the parasympathetic system to tell it “all is safe and well”. Mindfulness is a tool which, with regular practice, will help us to notice “mind threats” and become more aware of physical sensations in our body. We can learn to pause, shift our awareness and take a step back – like a pressing reset button.

Find practices that work for you within the OK Positive app. Whatever it is, pay close attention to your feelings and thoughts in moments of calm, and try to recreate that mental and physical state (e.g. slower breath) whenever threat is detected.

Thank you very much to Marina Moreno for providing the image for this blog.

Anna Maplesden is a Counsellor and Training Facilitator specialising in trauma, change, loss and bereavement.

In this blog, Anna explores difficulties of loss and grief and some habits to try and from which may help.

Living through the pandemic may have brought you unexpectedly closer to feelings of loss and grief. These feelings are a shared human experience that do not discriminate against age; gender; cultural background or status because in living a life its natural not to feel like your ‘normal self’ when distanced or separated from something or someone that you care about. The way forward may feel daunting.

Losing a friend, colleague or loved one can be one of the most difficult experiences to adjust to, and likely to provoke a whole range of familiar and unfamiliar reactions in you, known as grief. These feelings might include numbness, worry, anger, disbelief, guilt, sadness, longing and loneliness which can also be felt physically in the body through tiredness, lethargy, aches, pains, sleeplessness, reduced appetite and headaches.

What often gets hidden is the similar feelings felt in response to ambiguous losses where there is uncertainty:

  • lack of safety

  • threats to job / financial security

  • relationship difficulties

  • caring for someone

  • managing mental or physical ill-health

Regardless of the situation, the feelings can be hard to explain and difficult to understand so some people will use metaphors

'It is like being a small boat pounded by waves in an unrelenting storm'

It's important to find your way with your experience as there is no definitive timeline or rights and wrongs. You may be an intuitive griever who can express how you feel more openly eg: talking or crying about the situation so it may be important to keep connected and have the time and space to talk. However, you might be an instrumental griever preferring to be more private, thinking things through and focusing on problem solving activities. Ensure that your solutions are in manageable steps taking one day at a time. You may move between both styles but whichever you can relate to it is a fact that you are going to need different things practically and emotionally at different times.

Here are 5 habits:

1. Accept the situation

Although you may feel numb and in shock to start with try to accept the situation has happened. Understand that you are going to be changed by this experience but that you can learn to adjust.

2. Acknowledge your feelings

Try not to deny or push your feelings away as leaving them unattended can lead to other difficulties for your mental health such as anxiety and depression. Complicated grief occurs when someone has become stuck in their feelings; becomes more isolated and is finding it hard to do their usual day to day activities. This may be a sign that you need to check-in with your GP.

3. Re-evaluate your expectation

Bring awareness to how you talk to yourself about loss and grief by avoiding “shoulds” and “musts”. Aim to give yourself time and be your own compassionate friend – what do you need to offer yourself that you would probably find much easier to offer another?

4. Plan ahead

If you know that a trigger such as a key date; anniversary; important meeting is looming consider what you need on that day; who’s in your support network and what you can do to respond to your needs.

5. Give time to self-care activities

Consider keeping a diary about your thoughts and feelings; de-stress by maintaining physical movement; invest time in continuing to do the things you enjoy; keep connected with those who bring comfort; you are going to need energy to get you through so hydrate and attend to your diet, taking additional rest if needed.

Helen McGillivray is a psychological therapist with over 28 years of clinical experience, including 14 years providing psychological therapies. She specialises in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Helen is accredited with

The BACBP, the leading organisation for cognitive and behavioural therapies in the UK.

In this blog, Helen explores the journey to practicing psychological flexibility and some of the challenges you might be facing.

I wrote about psychological flexibility in a previous blog post - maybe you have been looking around the app and finding your way. You might be working your way through some of the ‘Look after your mind’ exercises in our Resources area. If so, what do you notice?

Are you becoming more aware of your inner world and how you show up in the world you live in? How you react and respond to the world around you? Are you noticing frustration and thinking “what’s the point in tracking my mood”? Either of these are fine - I might say “good noticing” and “keep going” – so what do you need to do to keep going?

Just like improving your physical fitness, this requires patience and of course practice, practice, practice.

We were born into this world as curious mindful beings, keen to explore the world around us. We have successfully evolved to survive and thrive. However in the modern world we live in, surviving sometimes means that we lose that sense of curiosity and playfulness that we once had. We become more focused on the fast paced, exciting, and sometimes threatening, world around us - our external world. At the same time we are less tuned in to our inner world – of thinking, dreaming, memories, noticing our emotional state and how our body feels. We are on a mission to be happy and we compare ourselves to what we see in the virtual ‘Instagram’ world. With the ongoing pandemic it is more important than ever to build our mental fitness.

If I was a personal trainer and you approached me to improve your physical fitness, I might enquire about your motivation to change and we would discuss goals. I would then prescribe you some exercises and set you off on a regime aimed at progressing towards these goals, checking in now and again to enquire about progress and tweaking the regime to progress and growing muscle. What happens is up to you. If you persevere, and are consistent and willing to put in the work, you will see results.

If I was a music teacher and you wanted to learn an instrument, what would the process be? To become more skilled with the chosen instrument would require commitment to ongoing practice before skills develop. Do you see where this is going?

In both these scenarios there would undoubtedly be good days, bad days and frustration. There may be thoughts about giving up, self-criticism, and perhaps joy as we progress. If we don’t practice, there will be no progression and we will remain stuck in the place we started. That’s our choice.

So, to improve mental fitness we need to pay attention to our internal world, notice thoughts, feelings, how our body feels, how we speak to ourselves in our minds, and consider how we want show up in the world we live in

As we practice these psychological skills, we become more in tune and are then more able to take action towards the things that matter most to us.

  • In your OK Positive app, go to Resources, pick one or two resources and do them regularly. Notice how each time is different and practice some more

  • On days where frustration takes hold, notice what your mind is saying to you and practice alternative responses. Be kinder to yourself, let yourself off the hook.

  • Be aware of your personal values and what matters most. Values can be your ‘life compass’ to navigate when things get tough.

Lastly, remember to have fun. Find exercises and resources that work for you. Short 5 minute practices are good, but be consistent. If you struggle to sit in front of your computer then perhaps walk around or lie down. Just like physical fitness, find the sport or activity that works for you. If it’s workable for your lifestyle, you will be much more likely to stick at it.