For anyone who has suffered from depression, anxiety, PTSD and more, those trite memes or messages we see on the internet for improving mental health are often flooded with overly simplified bullshit that simply doesn’t cut it when you are down in the deep darkness of a manic episode or when you’re avoiding the world due to social anxiety.
But there are ways to improve mental health even during the darkest roads we walk on. My own experience shows how incredibly important it is to do the following and I hope they go some way to help you too.
1.Stop Thinking That You Owe Anyone Anything At All!
The greatest gift someone gave me recently, when I was in a state of overwhelm from life’s pressures and my anxiety was heightened, was when he said, ‘Kelly you don’t owe anyone anything’. Something in the way he said it soccer punched me in the gut and mind and I suddenly realised that much of the pressure I was feeling was because I felt I ought to do something for someone else that I didn’t want to do. Perhaps we make a commitment to someone, but our mental health is not great and we need to change plans. We can either cancel the plans and move on, or we can cancel the plans and beat ourselves up with guilt for not following through, or even worse we can continue the plans knowing that we don’t want to and thereby punishing ourselves instead of listening to what our authentic needs are.
Once we stop trying to please others, we take ourselves out of the self-made prison cell and feel a sense of freedom. I did that this week I had a feeling in my gut I was not to talk to someone, and every obstacle came my way to confirm this. Eventually, after much resistance, I cancelled. The relief that swept through me was palpable and from that moment on those obstacles in front of me disappeared. It was my resistance to cancelling and feeling that I owed this person my time that caused my life experience to back up and get blocked.
2.When Overwhelm Hits, Do Whatever You Need To Survive
If depression has you curled up in a ball on the floor or your anxiety has you in deep panic, stop whatever you are doing and practice whatever self-care you need to survive this day. You are valuable and needed on this planet, regardless of what the mind may be telling you today, so do what you need. Rest, relax, see a friend, get a hug, eat a piece of chocolate, wrap yourself in a blanket and binge-watch Netflix, retreat from the world into a book or close the curtains and be a hermit for a short time. And if the darkness is making you feel like ending it all, reach out to your mum, your family, a friend, a mental health helpline or your doctor. Don’t feel you have to go through this alone.
3.Rest and Nap When Needed
The power of rest is amazing. During times when I have felt really low, during dark periods, or really anxious when I felt overwhelmed, lying on my bed hugging my teddy (yes I have a teddy at age 42!) and putting a blanket over myself and napping has made a world of difference to my mental state. Even if the nap included me wailing like a baby for over an hour, when the thoughts had become just too painful. I always find once I have moved through that phase I feel better. It’s not always going to work, but it can be a way to take time out and find a relief that helps us to find a better way of viewing our life and our world.
4.Get Your Gut Balance Right
Food, food, food. During depression I would eat lots of cake, biscuits and stodgy food for comfort. It was my go-to way of coping. I would also have 2-3 strong coffees to try and lift my mood, but little did I know that much of what I was putting in my body was making my mental health worse. Dr Kelly Brogan, a psychiatrist and an expert in mental health and diet, states that it’s not so much a lack of serotonin that causes depression, but a problem in the gut. She says there is a definite connection between the brain, how we feel and our gut balance. So as hard as it can be, simply reducing the amount of sugar we have in our diet, to removing inflammatory-causing foods like gluten-rich breads and pizzas and cutting the coffee back, can make a huge difference to our mental health. If you have a sugar addiction, if for example you drink litres of coca cola daily and you quit for a week, you will soon see how much that affects you. It is like a drug and not a helpful drug. Try doing this in a small way to begin with. Don’t put excess pressure on yourself.If you are feeling really mentally challenged, just reduce one thing and replace it with something healthier. If it’s coffee, try jasmine tea. If it’s bread, try a gluten-free version and if it’s sugar, try eating more fruit and getting the fibre from that which slows down the absorption of sugar, instead of drinking highly sugared fruit juices, or eating cakes and biscuits.
5.Exercise Even When You Feel Like Shit
I used to do very little exercise. During my most depressive episodes, I wanted to sit indoors, play on my computer, eat and drink and do little. The day I said to myself I am going to change my habits was the day my life started to change too. I started very simply by walking 20 minutes each day, around my local urban area. It’s not a pretty area to walk in, but for me it was more about moving my energy and not feeling so stuck in life. As I continued this, not only did my physical energy shift and my mental health improve, but I also found that my choices and the way I viewed life moved too. It’s true that if we want something to move and change, we need to physically move too.
Your exercise may not be walking; it could be as simple as walking up and down your stairs 10 times a day or going for a swim in your local swimming pool, or doing some gardening. You need to find what works for you and what appeals. Sometimes combining an interest with the exercise can make us continue it. I love nature, so even though my area is pretty urban I would look at all the trees I managed to find and appreciate them. I would listen to the birds in the trees and look at the sky. I really started to take in the world around me in a more wholesome way.
6.Commune with Nature If You Are Able
As I said above, I love nature, mainly because it doesn’t ask anything of me, it is pure and lifts my spirit. There is reason why a walk down the beach makes us feel better, the negative ions in the air and the sound of waves scientifically improve the mood. Forests and trees can do the same. Spending time with animals can help us focus on what really matters and going for a walk along a river can help to become more present and when we are more present, we are not dwelling so much on the past or the future, which helps our mental health hugely.
7.Start Asking Positive Questions
How many times do you ask yourself negative questions? For example, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ ‘Why am I such a loser?’ ‘Why am I such a failure?’ ‘Why doesn’t anyone like me?’ The list goes on and on. I had many of these questions and more going through my mind every day for over 30 years. When I started asking myself, ‘What’s right with me?’ ‘Why am I such a success?’ ‘Why do people like me?’ I started to understand the power of questioning. Now I didn’t necessarily go through the questions and find answers, no. Often when in a mental health challenge we don’t know the answers to positive questions and if we did, we probably wouldn’t be feeling that way. What happens is that asking these questions is like doing a search on Google. Before, you were searching for what was wrong with you, for example, and so Google, being the good search engine it is, finds all the reasons to reinforce this belief. Your inner Google is your subconscious, your inner child, so why not ask your subconscious to bring you reasons why you are the opposite? It can’t hurt to try and you don’t have to do very much, just ask the questions regularly and let life bring you reasons they are true. No major effort involved.
Mindfulness is a popular word nowadays, thrown around like confetti at a wedding, but it is very valuable when done properly. Many courses, classes and workshops are becoming available throughout the world and many are free too. Find out more about how to be mindful, how to practice mindfulness meditation and you will find a new way of managing the painful thoughts and emotions that come up when suffering from mental health issues like depression. Alternatively, an excellent book I found really worthwhile was ‘The Mindful Way Through Depression’. Check it out. It comes with a free audio CD with short meditations to help you learn to find a great sense of inner balance.
9.Take A Tech Time Out
Social media and the internet has value until it doesn’t. We can connect, learn new things and get to know a world we may not be part of, but there comes a time when we are using social media for example as a distraction from dealing with our mental health issues in a more wholesome way. So take regular tech breaks. Weekly shut off your phone, disconnect your computer, remove Facebook from your mobile (cell) phone. Taking a day or more away will give you time and energy to do other things, give you the motivation to make whatever small change you need to make. You can’t take those simple steps if you are surfing Facebook all day or checking out Instagram. Social media also breeds a dangerous comparison junkie in us which can make depression and anxiety worse.
10.Remember To Take Only One Step At A Time
Don’t try to do too many ‘new’ things at once. Remember whatever mental health issue you have took time to develop, so moving through and out of it is not an easy quick fix or walk in the park. Give yourself the time needed for change to organically happen. Know you can only ever take one step at a time and go easy on yourself.
Additional step if needed: If you need professional help or are suicidal go see your doctor. You may need therapy to help you manoeuvre life challenges or medication that can bring you through a health issue. While meditation is great for some, not everyone needs this, sometimes medication is needed depending on the type of mental health issue you are experiencing.
What are your best and most worthwhile mental health activities that genuinely have helped you?