My mental health tool kit
As it’s currently Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK this week (13 – 19 May 2019) I decided that I would use this blog entry to try and offer some help to anyone who struggles with mental health. I won’t go into my own struggles in a huge amount of detail simply because I’m not sure if that will particularly help anyone. I’m very open about it and happy to talk about it should anyone have any questions about my own experience.
A short summary is that I have struggled with mental health for at least the last 15 years, and probably before that to be honest, but it was undiagnosed before that. In the past I have had an eating disorder and in more recent years have been plagued by depression. Like many sufferers of depression I get good and bad episodes. The bad episodes often come seemingly out of nowhere, and have the power to be pretty debilitating.
I’m going to use this blog to give a list of the things that I find help me when a bad episode sets in. I was inspired to do this after reading Matt Haig’s brilliant book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’. Towards the end of the book Haig lists the contents of the “tool kit” he uses when his episodes occur.
After reading this I thought about and wrote down my own tool kit, and stuck it to the back of my mug cupboard door, as I knew both myself and my husband would regularly see it there. (I wanted my husband to know my tools too, so that he’d be able to prompt me to do them when I’m at the bottom of a pit of depression.)
I’ve found this tool kit incredibly useful. However, it’s not a magic cure. I don’t just do one of the things on the list and find that the cloud of depression has lifted, but I have found that if I keep checking the list and ensuring I do as many of the things on it as often as I can, slowly but surely that cloud does begin to drift away. Doing them when it’s all sunshine and rainbows is brilliant too, but I couldn’t say that doing that helps keep the clouds away for longer (I’m keeping it evidence-based here). I have a suspicion that it does though.
If you have your own mental health struggle, coming up with your own tool kit may really help you too. Make sure you take time to sit quietly to think about your own, as everyone’s will be different. Feel free to use some of my tools. And please let me know about other things you would have on yours, as I’d love to hear about them.
I hope this helps. Remember you’re not alone and it’s ok not to be ok. Be sure to go to your GP to discuss your struggles if you haven’t already.
As a personal trainer this is probably one of the more obvious ones from me. What’s probably less obvious is that even though exercise is a massive passion of mine, and a huge part of my life, in the depths of depression I often don’t feel like doing it. I have come to learn that when I least want to do exercise when I need to most. I remind myself that I’ve never felt worse for doing a workout, but I do feel worse when I miss one. Even if I drop the intensity down from what I would normally do, I make sure I get my trainers on and move and groove in one way or another. I know I’ll feel better for it.
I minimise my caffeine intake as I know it negatively affects my mental health. A warm drink of any kind is a comfort. Especially when it’s cold outside.
In recent years I’ve fallen in love with Audible and podcasts. I really like the fact that both have made the time spend cooking, cleaning and driving more productive. However I have learnt the hard way that constantly trying to be productive often does me more harm than good. When I’m not feeling great mentally, I have come to learn that instead using that time to listen to the music I love is better for me.
Simply being out and amongst the elements has a hugely positive impact on me. It’s one of the many reasons that I wanted a dog. My crazy pooch Rusty means I have to get outside whatever the weather, and I always feel better for it. As above, I used to try to make this time more productive by listening to a book or a podcast whilst out with him. I realised however that when I have my headphones on I feel disconnected from the beautiful countryside around me, so | now leave my headphones at home. I am increasingly trying to leave my phone at home too so I am not so tempted by it, but instead enjoy the world around me and daydream. As with many people my thoughts flow much more clearly when I’m out walking and I tend to have my best ideas whilst out in the fields.
Cooking from scratch with healthy ingredients
Again, as a nutritionist this is probably obvious from me, bit it’s as much about the process as the end result. Cooking is a mindful activity (take your mind off it and something gets burnt!) and I love the sense that I’m nurturing myself and my family when I create something delicious out of healthy ingredients.
Especially with lovely bubble bath, a lit candle, a warm drink and something to read.
Minimising screen time, especially social media
I definitely find that social media negatively effects my mental health. Given what I do I have been told repeatedly that I “have to” have a strong presence on social media. The truth is that I feel really uncomfortable with this as I know only too well how much our mental health can be negatively affected by being constantly bombarded with other people’s highlight reels, and by reactions (or lack of) to the content I put out. I try hard to ensure that I only ever put out content that might add value to other people’s lives. I know I don’t always succeed in this but it’s something I’m constantly working on.
My whole family has reduced it’s screen time, by observing ‘Screen Free Sundays’.
A clean and tidy house
Not easy in a busy family house with three kids, one dog and a messy husband, but my mind feels astronomically better when our house is clean and tidy.
As with music I have learnt to not try to use reading in a productive way when depression sets in. During these periods I force myself to stick to books I simply want to read, not books I feel I should read such as self-help or books related to my work.
As someone who finds it hard to sit still and even harder to relax, I find mindfulness practise hard. I have used Headspace in the past and am now using the Calm app and I find that both of these tools make mindfulness practise more achievable for me. Here are my top 5 favourite apps.
The evidence to support the positive effects of gardening on mental health is strong. I know I always feel better for spending a bit of time with my hands amongst the plants. Even spending 15 minutes in the evening watering makes me feel better.
Long endurance activities
By this I mean activities separate to what I think of as exercise sessions i.e. runs and time at the gym. I mean activities such as long walks (hours long), bike rides and paddle boarding. I love just being outside, moving, observing nature and feeling the effects of the elements on my skin. I also resist the temptation to use Strava too much as have found that doing so makes me more concerned about the stats of the activity, than the fact that it makes my head feel better.
I often struggle to fit yoga into my schedule but know I always feel better when I do. When I’m in a deep episode of depression it’s absolutely essential.
Time with “safe people”
For me safe people are people I can be 100 per cent honest with about how I’m feeling and know that they won’t judge me for it, like me less or think any less of me when I’m not the person I am when I’m “well”. I tend to socially isolate myself a lot when my deep depression sets in but seeing “safe people” always makes me feel better, no matter how much I try to talk myself out of it at the time. I have come to learn that’s just the voice of depression trying to get the better of me (see below).
Ignoring the “voice of depression”
I have come to learn that depression has its own voice. It talks to me and tells me things that I take as fact. It loves to tell me that I’m not good enough/thin enough/fun enough/attractive enough/strong enough/fast enough and that nobody likes me. This is probably the thing I have to work the hardest on, but I have to remind myself that this is depression telling me those things, they aren’t facts. This links back to my point on exercising. When depression is saying “I can’t be bothered” to exercise, me getting my trainers on and going for a run or to the gym is my way of telling depression to shove off. I like to think that the more I do this, the more power I gain over that voice.
Evidence on the negative effects of alcohol on mental health is strong, and I have only recently admitted to myself that I most definitely experience them. I’m not a massive drinker but a do like a few drinks a week, and the thought that I might have to drop them bothered me. I’m not teetotal but I have recently started restricting my alcohol intake more, especially when I don’t feel mentally brilliant, or when |’m in a situation that is likely to make me anxious. Alcohol seems to fuel the voice of depression and bring the voice or anxiety to the choir, meaning my mind goes into overdrive as I’m constantly bombarded with negative or frantic thoughts.
I will finish on this possibly controversial point, but the list would not be complete without it. Sometimes medication really helps me. At other times it doesn’t. Everyone’s different but that’s been my experience.
I really hope that list helps you. If you know someone else you think might benefit by creating a tool kit please send them a link to this blog post. Please feel free to get in touch and to let me know what your tools are.