One of the positives (of which there were few) from the Pandemic was a willingness of more people to talk about their mental health.
Up to that point the conversation about mental health was often reserved for those who were struggling. Organisations would report about the constant challenge to get participants to mental health workshops as attending might be seen as a weakness or a cry for help. Thankfully the conversation has moved on with many volunteers stepping forward to be trained as mental health first aiders, with organisations reframing mental health supports as a programmatic attempt to build mental fitness across their workforce, and many overcoming the reluctance of men in particular to participate by rebranding attendance at events as simply being prepared to help a colleague who might be struggling.
However some still see mental health as a binary choice, for them either you are mentally healthy or not. But that is simply not the case.
The truth is we are constantly living on amental health spectrum and the sooner we recognise that fact the more chance we have of responding in the best way possible rather than sleep-walking our way to trouble.
If we have a spectrum with a scale of 1 to 10 with 5 being ok, 10 being bulletproof and general feelings of near elation and 1 being more akin to hopelessness. You can set the tags yourself that describe each of these scores, but the real secret is having the awareness to know where you are at any given time and to know what to do about it. It’s key to have the language at your disposal to articulate your feelings and undercover the drivers that have created them. This will also make it easier to solve the issues that may cause you to struggle with your mental health.
For people with low levels of self-awareness it may take others to express concern, “you don’t seem yourself today” or “you were very short with me earlier” and at that stage after probably some defensiveness and challenging back, you may concede that actually you were short or off-colour, “not my usual self” because you are very tired, “I didn’t sleep well, I’m worried about our finances or my relationships,”. Often you won’t realise that these factors are affecting how you interact with others and they might be damaging you and maybe you are better served to take time out and regroup.
Consider the extremes of your spectrum, on one side, you may feel strong in every way, with a real sense that you are invincible and nearly bulletproof alternatively the corollary is that you feel weak and fragile, that you are hanging on by a thread and that the simplest set back (for others a disappointment) might send you over the edge.
Fragile/Weak - Invincible
The next extreme to consider is your view of the future, are you happier looking forward or looking back. Are you optimistic or pessimistic? In Martin Seligman’s excellent book called ‘Learned Optimism” he contrasts the two types of thinking and their effects on us as humans.
Overly Pessimistic- Optimistic
Seligman invites us to view life events through the frame of an optimistic thinker versus a pessimistic thinker using three key aspects namely permanence, pervasiveness and personalization. Optimistic people believe negative events are more temporary in nature unlike the pessimists who believe they have a more permanent nature. Pessimists believe failure in one area of life will move to failure in a range of other areas. In contrast optimists tend to compartmentalise the negative event. Finally optimists attribute bad events to forces outside themselves and good events to forces within themselves while pessimists do the exact opposite. Therefore, the optimists see a bad event as situational and unlucky, not permanent in nature and just specific to the context. Therefore, pessimistic thinking can have a self-fulfilling prophecy nature.
So, within your spectrum are you more pessimistic or optimistic? Some will say that there is a genetic element to this and that may be the case, and while the one benefit of being a pessimist is that you can never be disappointed! all the evidence points to negative effects on your health and general wellbeing. It is healthier to be more optimistic and thankfully that is a thinking trait that can be learned.
Closely aligned to this is your view of change. If you are fearful of the future, you will probably be resistance to change in all its forms because your experience in the past has not been positive. Alternatively, today you may feel like embracing the world rather than trying to fight it, you may be very open to everything and everybody and you might view the world as a place full of exciting possibilities and opportunities to behold. These are two very different mindsets to approach your day and will playout very differently in your interactions with others. You may frustrate those who want to see change happen fast or maybe you will become frustrated with those placing barriers in the way of new ideas and approaches
Change Resistance - Open and Opportunistic
Your mood is a general coming together of all the emotions you are feeling at a particular time. These emotions are driven by a number of factors and can be affected by your personality and the environment you are in however biology is the biggest driver with hormones and chemicals playing a big part of your mood. Again, it is important that you stop to monitor your mood and understand why you feel the way you do. Being sad and generally feeling low are natural moods for most people at different moments in their life however when these are long lasting (over two weeks) and combined with a lack of lust for life, poor sleep, poor appetite, a desire to withdraw from social contact and difficulty concentrating then they can lead to feelings of depression. On the other hand you might be experiencing a very positive set of emotions leading to a good mood, you may feel extremely happy as if you are experiencing a high or a wave of elation. This can be described as being on a positive roll where like King Midas, everything you touch seems to turn to gold. Moods in most people will gravitate towards a regular setting after a number of months. Research has shown (Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts) that individuals who have positive events happen in their lives like winning the lottery or negative events like losing a leg in an accident will experience highs and lows at the time but it doesn’t last forever and generally within 6 months their mood will return to a normal setting.
Sad/Low/Depressed - Happy/High/Elated
Finally, sometimes in our lives we may see the future as a very dark place and feel a sense of hopelessness this is often aligned with a pessimistic mindset as mentioned above. In addition, we may perceive that our decisions don’t really matter and that we have very little control over what happens to us. We can feel inferior to almost everybody around us and believe we have very little value, sometimes we feel like a burden to others. In contrast we may feel that we are absolutely in control of our own destiny and our decisions are crucial to our future. We are driven by a real sense of purpose and meaning, we have clarity about what we want to achieve and how we will achieve it. Our life has a sense of excitement and we can wait to make it happen.
Hopelessness/Helplessness - Self Directed/In Control/Confident
Spiral of Despair
For many, they are living life in the middle not experiencing the extremes either way. Their life is ok when they compare their lot with others. (Often it is not the actual that matters but more the comparative nature of our lives that concerns us most). At times people can slip across to what we might call the dark side and it often doesn’t take much to make that transition sometimes its nearly imperceptible, however how we respond is critical.
Often people don’t want to experience the pain that comes with the dark side and they run to find something that will ease the pain. This can often be alcohol, drugs, chocolate, binge watching a box set on the couch, constantly scrolling on social media or anything else that might distract them from their plight or take the edge off the pain that they are feeling. While this is completely natural it can have disastrous long-term effects. If something tragic has happened in their life it can be natural and appropriate at times to hide away from the world and try to find things that let you escape the reality while you let time heal some pain however the problems begin when this is your go to solution to deal with the normal up’s and downs of life.
The reality is that for most life is tough and is a struggle. Often this is a fact that is hidden from us as most people’s social media is full of the aspects of their lives that they are proud to share, the success, the good times, the fun moments and that gives us an unrealistic view of how life should be for us. That comparison can have detrimental effects on our self-esteem, self-worth and general health. We face a real struggle if we become dependent on our crutches of alcohol, comfort food, drugs (whether prescription or not) etc. to deal with our everyday challenges and that can lead us into a spiral of despair and down a very slippery slope.
Dealing with the Dark Side
People often say, ‘mind your mental health’ and that can frustrate as many don’t possess the tools to process the information they need to ‘mind their mental health’. Comments like that actually start to make someone who is struggling, feel even worse. Because now they don’t just feel bad, but they feel bad about feeling bad.
Instead it’s important to understand yourself and watch for the signs and respond in a defined way that will work for you. It’s useful to do this in advance because in the moment you can become overwhelmed by the reality that you are trying to deal with, and you can lose perspective. It’s like trying to find a way out of your house at night in a fire where there is lots of smoke and confusion. It is better to have an exit plan prepared in advance. It’s the same when you think about what routines work for you if you hit a low in your mental health and start to head to the dark side in your thoughts. Here are some tips that may work for you.
Try to quieten your inner voice that is awfulizing – this is easier said than done. But one of the techniques is deep breathing and controlled breathing. Learning how to breath and the effect it has on your body is crucial – telling someone to calm down when they are anxious, or panicking is useless – helping them control their breathing is better.
Many people experience a low mood when it is caused by exhaustion – in today’s demanding world many people face near constant exhaustion and most are not getting enough clean sleep.
Sleep is regenerative, it gives your body a break and time to mend. It also allows us to dream and that allows us clean out our emotional dustbin. When you have a problem – sleep on it. For many reasons, after a good night’s sleep, things don’t seem as bad or at least they seem more manageable.
Getting physically tired from exercise can often break a trend of poor sleep. Physical activity is often the best solution for mental challenges. This doesn’t have to be a visit to an expensive gym but you do have to get your heart pumping to get the positive endorphins releasing all over your body.
Next is diet – food and mood are closely aligned. Reverting to green vegetables and some fruit (not too much) often make you feel better. Avoiding excess sugar, alcohol and reducing coffee intake can help. Fresh rather than processed works a treat.
The Spiritual Side
Whatever your beliefs it is important to turn to your spiritual side at times for mental distress to gain solace and comfort. For some that will be mindfulness or meditation, for others it will be praying.
Being able to turn to good friends at low points in our life is a joy that not everybody possesses. For those that are lucky enough to have that sort of support they should use it. The ability to have a good listener in your ranks who has a non-judgemental disposition is useful but sometimes it is also good to have some who will call you out particularly if they feel you are misreading a situation or maybe wallowing a little. As in all areas of life, balance is everything.
Distraction is a technique that can be useful – when you are in the middle of a situation where negative thoughts keep running around your head and re-presenting themselves to you and you are finding it nearly impossible to stop thinking, distraction can be a winning technique. When you have a a child who have become obsessed with getting a particular object or simply getting their way – you change the focus of their attention and soon they forget the thing they were obsessing about. Distraction for you could be a really good film or to join a group of people you don’t know and connect and chat about something completely different, the more unrelated the better. It can get you out of a negative spiral of thoughts.
Count your blessings
First world problems, yes, we can get wrapped up in ourselves and blow stuff up out of all proportion. However, sometimes small things really do matter and can cause us huge negative stress but now and again we do need to stop and realise just how amazingly privileged and lucky we are. To live in this day in age, to live in the part of the world we do. Many of us are extremely blessed to have family and friends and to be doing what we are doing. We may have no idea what tomorrow holds but right now we need to be really appreciative and grateful for everything we have, it can be great to appreciate this moment.
The second last tip to exit the dark side spiral is to try and make someone else’s life a little better. Volunteering can be the answer.
It can be a random act of kindness or calling up someone who you know needs a lift. And yes, sometimes you say to yourself that you have your own problems that are bringing you down but changing the focus from yourself to others really works. The truth is that you get so much more in return by giving, than you do from receiving and it just makes you feel an awful lot better.
Time out helps, and a change of scenery is even better. Getting way and spending time with family as they are growing up so fast in front your very eyes. It is really important in life to have something to look forward to and few things are better than the anticipation of a holiday, to see new places, have new experience, share a laugh, do some sports and generally hang out in each other’s company and if the sun happens to shine, that is the icing on the cake. Not everybody can afford a foreign holiday but a few short day trips to somewhere new can do the trick and break a negative cycle.
This list is pretty universal but please work out what works for you to get yourself out of a negative spiral. And please do it before the house starts burning so it becomes nearly automatic. When you are feeling better and more ‘yourself’ that is the time ‘in the cold light of day’ to review and assess what caused you to slip across to the Dark Side and start making changes to stop it happening again. If there are people and relationships that are causing you problems – reassess – ask yourself are these people good for me or not. If your job is causing your stress – reassess – see if you need to make a change. If your environment is causing your mood to change – reassess – is it time to change. Sometimes even small steps and changes can make a significant difference.
Sometimes people face greater challenges that they simply cannot deal with alone and at that point it is important to seek the advice and support of an expert. A skilled counsellor can assist you back to strong mental health.
The Tough Times Make US Stronger
Life is tough and we need to be nice to ourselves. Accepting that we are doing our best. Life can throw tough things at us. At times it feels unfair, but I think we should let go of the idea that life was ever meant to be fair. Resilience seems to be the order of the day. Resilience is the capacity to recover from trauma and stress and to develop coping strategies for life. It helps to reframe the tough times we go through as opportunities to grow. It’s not through the good times that we build our resilience but through the tough times. If you haven’t been tested by life you may not be strong enough when you need to be and when it matters most.