Often we are so socialised into looking to ‘professionals’ for their expertise that we forget that, prior to the boom in professions, we did a pretty good job of taking care of ourselves and one another. Family, neighbours, community, aunts and uncles, grandparents: all of these community bonds have been eroded by massive shifts in geo-politics, globalisation and a movement away from authentic relationships into escapism, money-making, and pre-occupations with material goods. This, in turn, worsens the conditions that create and sustain mental illness and the many difficult personal experiences that each of us struggles with in today’s world.
So, I wanted to really turn to real people and away from the textbooks, manuals and ‘professionalised’ wisdom in order to invite you to share your experiences of what specifically has helped you manage, cope with or overcome mental distress in whatever form it may have taken in your life, however mild or severe. For who knows better the internal landscape of mental anguish than those who have travelled through it themselves? Having spoken to many patients over the years, this kind of feedback is very valuable for me as a psychotherapist who has gone through a fair amount of it myself, and I think it could also help many other people who may be struggling in themselves for answers.
If I make a start with some of my own strategies and observations:
1. Low mood/ depression. It depends on what is causing it, but very often low mood in my case is the result of:
- fatigue, chronic pain and/ or insomnia. If I identify these as the causes then going to bed and sleeping as much as I can definitely helps. Long-term I need to create a lifestyle that gives me regular, sufficient rest periods and good sleep in order to help prevent my mood dropping too far.
- I also have a simple scale of -5 > 0 > +5 that I use to monitor where I am if I’m in a low mood period. 0 is pretty even, +5 would be as happy or optimistic as I could imagine being. -5 is as low, pessimistic or unhappy as I’ve ever felt. The more you use a scale like this, the more accurate and meaningful it can be.
- As described in my last post, engaging in some form of loving kindness towards another person, animal, pet or any kind of wildlife has, when done regularly, quite a profound effect upon mood at a deeper level that simple ‘positive thinking’.
- Shifting from worry to preparedness. If anxiety or worry are behind my low mood then shifting out of the circular pattern of worry – going round and round in my head and creating more and more anxiety – is the best thing I can do. Getting a bit of paper out and writing out what I will do if something I’m worried about actually happens, helps me change my mental state into one of being prepared for anything. The act of writing the solutions down also means that you give your head a break and now have an external reference that you can consult instead of going round in mental circles.
- Affirmations. Making a self-supportive statement that I repeat over and over again, particularly at times when I feel insecure or shit about myself or I’m anxious or I start thinking about something troubling from my past. “Every day I try to be the best person I can possibly be”, “I let go of the past and breathe here and now”, or the original affirmation that started the phenomenon: “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better”.
2. Insecurity or feeling off-balance. I usually look at how I’m managing my time each day. If I feel a bit off-balance it usually means I’m over-doing one thing to the exclusion of something else. I’m not great at routine, but I do know that if I don’t have a little bit of routine then I start to wobble. So balancing my time between ‘doing stuff I can’t really be bothered doing’ and ‘stuff I enjoy doing’ helps. I see it as a balance between ‘doing what feels good’ and ‘doing what is good for me’.
3. Camping and being in nature. This is probably one of the most healing things I can do. When I go camping I prefer to do ‘wild camping’, which in Scotland involves finding a water supply, building your own fire etc. It’s still enjoyable at campsites – like the ones around Loch Lomond, where you can pitch your tent right on the edge of the loch. But camping out in the wild is so much more rewarding and helps me face any inner complications with the simple tasks of focussing on food and shelter in the simplicity of the natural world. Getting out in and connecting with the natural world when we feel isolated, low or rejected is also a way of saying ‘it’s my world too’.
4. Troubled by the world. I’m often troubled by our world and what is happening in it. I feel upset by injustices, exploitation of people, animals and the environment; by widespread greed, corporate misconduct that harms the world, politicians who are causing harm and stirring up hate and fear. Signing petitions, writing letters to MPs and others, and doing what I can to help out a local campaign group are all simple ways to contribute to resisting the harm and doing something better. This is a way to channel anxious energy into something good for the world and for me.
5. Medication. Medication can have its place in supporting us through mental distress. I personally haven’t, however, benefited from anti-depressants for depression. But for insomnia-related depressions, a short period of sleep meds have: temazepam, zopiclone, for example. Just knowing I have them as a back-up can be reassuring so that I know I can get a night’s sleep if all else fails. Pain-related depression has been helped to a limited degree by analgesics: Tramadol, co-codamol, aspirin etc. Tramadol has also helped my mood for short periods of time. Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN) has had, by far, the most beneficial effects upon my sleep, pain and mood of any pharmaceutical.
6. Someone you can trust and turn to. A good friend, a loving partner, a decent therapist: having someone in your life you can turn to, talk to and rely upon is really crucial I think. I go for walks with my partner and we talk about things that might be bothering us. The act of walking as you talk, especially in natural surroundings, is very helpful to me. Loving someone and knowing they love you is perhaps the best medicine of all. I’ve experienced long periods of time on my own with no-one to turn to, so I know how fortunate it is to have someone in your life who is there for you in a real way.
7. Not relying on the world for validation. This is a big subject, but one that can be helpful in preventing highs and lows in mood, disappointment and experiences of disaffirmation. In our current society the increasing reliance on social media and ‘being noticed’ or ‘trying to be popular’ can actually be ways we can set ourselves up for mental distress by investing our efforts in online activities that seek social approval. Turning to real relationships, self-care, activities that give us experiences of self-validation, activities that involve helping others without seeking a reward – all of these things can be healthier and more substantive ways of feeding ourselves and keeping our mental health in good shape. Finding a meaningful spiritual path and genuine relationship with God can also be a much more reliable source of meaning than the fripperies of social media validation where one day the world seems to love you, and the next it seems as if no-one gives a damn!
These are just some of the things that help me maintain balance or get through difficult times. I could write a huge list of things I do as self-support and mental hygeine techniques, and will maybe add a few more as I go along.
In the meantime it would be great to hear what works for you and also anything that really hasn’t helped you.