I didn’t find childhood the easiest, and I grew up in a family dotted with undiagnosed mental health problems. As a result I've always felt a little on the back foot with mental ill health; that it's possibly lurking just around the corner and I’d be wise to do what I can to help protect myself. I'm not sure if that's the right or wrong way to view things, it's just how I felt, but I guess it's no different to avoiding the midday sun to protect against skin cancer. I chose to follow a career in psychology so have probably read more on the subject than many, and thankfully over the years have picked up a few things that genuinely help me feel well.
Recently I was offering advice to a close friend with severe anxiety and OCD when it dawned on me that I sounded like a preaching health professional, churning out the same suggestions that she’d heard a hundred times before. It was falling on deaf ears, so instead I talked about me. I explained that everything I was suggesting was actually stuff that I do on a daily basis to help myself. I don't have the same level of anxiety as her but, like everyone, there are times when I feel mental illness knocking at my door. For me keeping that door shut takes some effort.
The idea of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is not to focus on mental health problems, but on mental health and what helps us thrive, so I thought I would share some of the things that help me in case they are of any use to anyone else.
Cliché it may be but I try to eat well. There are a million research articles I could read I'm sure, but to me it's logical…feed my brain cells the nutrients they need and they will probably fare better. I don't do anything ground breaking; I cook from scratch, sling turmeric and seeds in just about everything, and I try and eat the rainbow. I'm not perfect – doughnuts and Coca Cola are my vice - but I do notice that if I eat rubbish for too many days my mood really suffers. A week of piling my plate sky high with vegetables seems to reset me. Alcohol, a depressant, gets the boot when I start to feel low.
I exercise, a lot. I've done yoga at least once a week since I was 18. If I don't do it my body feels scrunched up and my mind feels cooped up - I wish I was poetic and could describe it better but I can’t. Yoga just helps me feel better. I exercise most days. An outsider probably assumes I exercise to stay fit or lose weight, but nope. I've lost count of the number of trainers that have shouted at me because I'm not pushing myself hard enough or I'm not throwing up by the end of a session. Truth is I just don’t care...I'm not here to vomit; I'm here for the endorphins. If I get more toned in the process then that's a nice bonus.
I'm a terrible sleeper. Always have been but far worse since I've had children, and if I sleep badly my mood takes a nosedive. Handily, I studied sleep during my degree and learnt a lot about sleep patterns and sleep hygiene. There are some principles that have stayed with me: 'Hours before midnight are worth two after' - I go to bed early. 'Avoid blue light' - there are no TVs, phones, or digital clocks in my room. 'You only need to make up 25% of lost sleep' - this last one stops me worrying too much when I've had a shocking night as it reminds me it's not that hard to catch up.
I'm lucky to have had various stints of CBT throughout my career (theory being if I haven't done it myself, how can I expect to teach people - fair point!), which has meant I developed insight into my personality and the way I think. I've spent years analysing and correcting my thoughts and for the most part I now have control of them. If my mood starts to darken I can usually apply some CBT principles and start to pick myself up again.
Despite banging on endlessly about the importance of talking I don't actually do it that often, as I naturally prefer to listen. If you ask me the right questions a tidal wave will come out, but most people don't ask the right questions so more often than not I will stay quiet about my problems. However, I'm a thinker who analyses everything and I can drive myself round the twist if I don't articulate those thoughts. If I need to talk but don't want to talk to a human then I talk to myself. I have conversations with imaginary people, I will happily rant away to myself, and I will talk a situation and my options through to myself until I feel at peace with it. I appreciate it might sound mighty weird to some, but talking to myself really does make me feel better me so I’ll stick with it!
6) The news.
I avoid the news. I might give the headlines a cursory once over but my knowledge of current affairs extends only as far as where the latest terror attack occurred, and I never read the details. Similarly I can’t watch violent films, and much of TV is a no go for me. When I watch something distressing, it seems my brain is unable to compartmentalise it. I’m not able to dissociate and the distressing information will stay with me for days, weeks, or even months. I know that horrendous things happen in the world, but to know it and to see it are two very different things. Yes it can be embarrassing not having a clue about politics, and my friends and family despair that we never go to the cinema or watch anything other than The Big Bang Theory on TV, but I’d prefer to spend my life embarrassed over distressed.
7) Social Media
Comparison is the thief of joy and social media is just one long comparison. A couple of years ago I was following hundreds of fitness people on Instagram. I found myself spending half my day looking at beautiful people doing yoga up a mountain in Peru with a perfect sunset in the background, or watching someone make yet another kale based 'supermeal'. Then I woke up one day and realised I was anxious…really quite anxious. If anything I have a propensity towards feeling depressed so anxiety was a new one on me, and it had crept up on me slowly. I was anxious about whether I was exercising enough, I was anxious about my figure (even though logically I know you cant compare the body of a 37 year old mother of two with that of a 21 year old yoga teacher, all logic had gone out the window), and I was anxious every time I ate anything other than an avocado or chia seeds. I deleted my Instagram account the same day, and after the initial withdrawal symptoms subsided I felt a million times better. That’s not to say I don't use social media, because in some ways I love it - I use it to talk to my friends and I read fascinating articles through FB/twitter. But I now remember to see social media for the highlight reel that it is. I dip in and out, and if I feel rubbish I swerve it altogether.
It took me a long time to learn this about myself but I usually don't find situations or events that stressful, it's people. I used to dread going into work because of a difficult colleague, I used to leave dinner dates with friends feeling drained or insecure, I used to put off making phone calls because I knew I’d end the call feeling terrible. I have since learnt not to spend time with people that bring me down just because of a sense of duty or history. Social support is a huge protector against both mental and physical illness, and I really notice that when I spend more time with the people that make me happy, and less time with people that don't, I am far more content.
So there it is, a few of my personal self-help efforts in a nutshell. This list is by no means exhaustive, I just picked my top few as otherwise it could have been a very long blog. There are many other things I do on a daily basis, some big some small, but when it comes to staying well I really believe it all adds up. Every little helps.