Mental health is a tricky subject for some reason. We tend to think about mental health in terms of illness rather than something that is an intrinsic part of our humanness, in the same way that our physical health is known to be. When we think of mental health we imagine acute illnesses that frighten us, like psychosis and bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia and severe depression. This kind of thinking is a bit like equating physical health in terms of severe disease like cancer, heart attacks or brain aneurysms.
We all have a spectrum of physical health with genetic, environmental, lifestyle and age influences, and where we are on that spectrum varies from time to time depending on all of those things. We all know that there are things that we can do to look after and nurture our physical health, and we are aware that there are things that we do that negatively impact our physical health. We can take charge of our physical health at any time.
The same is true for our mental health. Even if we don’t have a visible mental illness, it doesn’t mean that our mental health somehow doesn’t exist, or that our actions somehow don’t affect our level of mental wellbeing; if you’re a thinking, feeling person living on Planet Earth, then you exist on a mental health continuum, extending from healthy to unhealthy, and that spectrum is broad and subject to rapid change according to your circumstances, genetics, upbringing, experiences and resilience. We are just as capable of taking charge of our mental health as we are with our physical health, but for some reason we wait until the mental health equivalent of kidney stones or a heart attack before we pay attention. What’s that saying again?
I was listening to a Conversations podcast the other day, where the host, Richard Fidler, asked his guest, a woman who suffers from post-partum psychosis, how she looks after her mental health now. She replied that medication is essential, and then said that exercise is just as important as her medication, as is getting enough sleep, not spending time in dysfunctional relationships, having a supportive network of friends and family, as well as attending regular sessions with a mental health specialist. This woman has type one bipolar, and is an extreme case, but something really struck me about that list – I do those things too.
Let me share a story about my own mental health. I suffered from shyness and anxiety as a child, probably exacerbated by a family breakdown when I was very young, then a big move from the city to the country when I was 5. Then, my anxiety manifested as asthma, which is terrifying in itself, and then later, as my asthma symptoms eased, morphed into anxiety about the weather, then the environment generally. I was frightened of storms, wind, and extreme weather events, and then when I found out about global warming and the hole in the ozone layer, my anxiety took on a global aspect. I worried for the whole world, constantly.
This went on until I was about 16, when I just got sick of myself. I remember a conversation with my grandfather around this time, where I expressed my concern about the world, and he pulled me close and said, “Darling, we humans are always worried about the world ending. When I was young it was World War Two and then the cold war; when your mother was young it was the threat of nuclear war. Yet, here we are. We can’t worry about those things that we have no control over.”
I decided from that point on that I wasn’t going to worry about things that were out of my power anymore. If I had the ability to do something, then I would, and if not, I would let it go. Little did I know, that I was putting in place a fundamental building block for mental health.
Not long after I left home and went out into the world, and I had a bunch of new lessons to learn about self care and mental health, and these were lifestyle related. I soon found out that I couldn’t treat myself in the same way that other people my age did, and bounce back from it like they could. I experimented with drugs, which were sometimes fun, but sometimes not, and after a while decided that I didn’t like that feeling of being affected by something so unreliable. I couldn’t drink alcohol like other people, and I couldn’t get away with not getting enough sleep and eating badly. It would take me all week to recover from a big night out. At the time I thought of this as a weakness, but now I know this sensitivity was a gift, because it stopped me from experiencing the suffering other people did, who didn’t listen to their body’s whispers.
I know that some things impact my mental health more than others – big changes like moving, a new job, surprise endings, relationship stress, and big role changes (like becoming a mother for instance). When I’m under stress like this, I withdraw, get very irritable and lose my self-confidence and motivation. Whenever I find myself thinking, ‘what’s the point?’ or wanting to disappear into my bed, social media or some other distraction, then I know that it’s time to up the mental health self care, which, by the way, looks very much like physical and spiritual self-care (hint: it’s all the same).
So, what do I do when I feel wobbly? First of all, I commit to some kind of daily practice. At the moment that looks like a 20 -30 minute meditation as soon as I wake up, followed by morning pages, a type of journaling. I am also doing yoga almost daily. I remind myself that I am loved and valued by connecting deeply with my soul tribe. Nature and lots of alone time are incredibly restorative, as are writing, reading and tending to my home and family. I try to conquer my desire to eat every type of carbohydrate that comes my way, and to not waste too much time in distraction. I try to remember to be honest and vulnerable with my loved ones instead of shutting them out and pretending to be perfect and untouchable, which is my fallback position. I remind myself that I am a work in progress, as we all are.
Mental health, like physical and spiritual health, is not some destination you arrive at, and then put down your oars. It requires daily effort, awareness and commitment. It is not a set and forget situation. For me, making good choices that look after my mental health is not a philosophy or an idea, but a necessity borne from experiencing what it feels like to suffer, and not wanting to go there again, or if I do go there, refusing to stay.
All of my blog posts are essentially just field notes to myself on the lifelong excursion that we all find ourselves on. So, if you are reading this, and you are a thinking, feeling human being that sometimes finds themselves on wobbly ground, guess what? Welcome to the party 🙂