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Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Beat It: The Real Deal on Coping with Mental Illnesses

I imagine and hope that tomorrow will feature a fair amount of press coverage of 'Time to Talk' day which +Time to Change Campaign has promoted as a day where they are asking people to take 5 minutes to talk about mental health, with the hope that they will achieve a total of 24 hours of conversations in total.

So what will you be talking about tomorrow?

The three most common types of mental illness (or issues associated with mental illness) are stress, anxiety and depression. The NHS and many other useful websites promote tips on how to counter feelings of stress and anxiety (and depression, though anxiety and depression are somewhat opposite in the way a sufferer experiences them). I'm going to look at the tips, and my response to what this means for someone (me) who has suffered from all three of these conditions at one time or another:

Okay, so pretty much no one looks like this or has a sunsetting beach to run along. And she looks like she's in a female hygiene products commercial.
 Plus I bet the sand is stinging her feet. But getting active can help. 

1.  Be active:

I think physical activity is a wonderful idea. Fresh air helps and getting out and about can lift your spirits by taking you out from where you were and helping you to relax.

“BUT, I don’t think I can get out of bed. I feel terrible today. I just want to stay here and sleep.”

I've felt this often. If you can, take a shower and get dressed. That counts. And there’s a lovely feeling about feeling clean, even if you go straight back to bed afterwards. Even if you don’t have a shower but make it to the kitchen you’re doing really well. Don’t be hard on yourself if you can help it. What you're feeling and experiencing is hard enough without beating yourself up about it.

I do love a shower. Don't listen to my husband saying that northerners are unclean. We do wash. Well, sometimes. 

2.  Take control

The NHS says ‘There’s a solution to any problem’. This is true, for the most part, but you do need to read the tips on managing your time and calming yourself before you can do anything.

“BUT how can I take control when everything is overwhelming. There is no solution to my problem. I don’t know what to do and I can’t stop panicking.”

If you’re massively stressed or anxious your brain cannot think straight to do this, so it’s time for deep breathing and water first, and calming yourself down, before you start to think about taking control or the steps to do so. Again, take care of yourself. You're not well enough to start addressing the things in your life that feel out of control if your anxiety/depression is 8-10 on a scale of 1-10. 

If only this button did what we all really wanted it to do...

3.  Connect with People

Talking can definitely help.  The NHS says: 'A good support network of colleagues, friends and family can ease your work troubles and help you see things in a different way.'

“BUT, I don’t feel like leaving the house to talk to people and I don’t want to talk to anyone right now.”
“BUT, I don’t have anyone I can talk to about this.”

It can be hard to reach out when you feel dreadful. I have been there. It still happens to me now. But talking does really help even if it’s hard to get started. And if you don’t feel like you have anyone to talk to / anyone you can talk to, organisations like the Samaritans are there and someone you don't know, but has been trained to be there for you in hard times can help. The main thing is, do try not to let all the negative feelings build up inside you. Sometimes I just say to my husband: "I'm having a bad day," and nothing more. But it means I have stopped feeling like my feelings are choking me from the inside because I have given them a voice.

Yes, your Facebook page is fascinating. 
Now can you help me? I've got third degree burns from holding my tea cup all this time.

4.  Have some 'me' time. 

Apparently we UK inhabitants work the longest hours in Europe. And it’s true, we do, and it doesn’t help. The NHS recommends doing what you can do to take time out.

“BUT, I’m worried I might lose my job if I want to work shorter hours to take time out for me. I need to check my emails even outside of work to make sure I stay on top of things “

You do need to take time out even if it’s sitting on the loo for 5 minutes. Continuing to be stressed or feeling bad without giving yourself some sort of break (even if a short one) to change your scenery and remove yourself from difficult situations is crucial. You can also get outside at lunchtime. And leave your phone. You wouldn’t be able to answer it if you were in a meeting, would you? So give yourself a break. You may not always be able to relax during ‘me’ time, because learning to relax is another thing you will have to master gradually if you're used to feeling tense all the time. I'm not great at relaxing - and I used to be dreadful at it! Try not to give yourself to hard a time about this.

Even if you're having 'me time' on the loo. 
Which obviously I'm not going to post an image of here.

5. Challenge Yourself

The NHS recommends setting yourself goals and challenges. In some cases I think this is a great idea. Ask yourself, what do I want? Is there something different that I could do to make my life more worthwhile to me?

"BUT, I'm overwhelmed as it is. I cannot deal with adding more challenges. I just cannot take on anything more because I can't cope. Please don't ask me to add more to what I'm going through."

It is tough to face the future, even the next few hours or the next day, when you're very low or anxious. The negative thoughts can be overwhelming and goals and challenges do seem hard. I find this one horrendous sometimes because I already feel overwhelmed. But even if it's only a goal to get across the road to the newsagent to buy yourself a chocolate bar, getting up, or picking up the phone to call a friend, try to do something. That something is a goal. Or maybe a holiday to look forward to. If you can do it - great. And again, just don't give yourself a hard time if you can't. You might need to calm and soothe yourself first. I know that's how it is for me.

Sometimes getting out of bed feels like this. 
But luckily with fewer ice picks and more blankets. Brrr!

6.  Avoid unhealthy habits

The NHS says: "Don't rely on alcohol, smoking and caffeine as your ways of coping."

"BUT, a cigarette / a glass of wine helps me calm down at the end of the day. I like having it. Why can't I do it?"

The NHS is right - these are temporary releases which won't actually help in the end. Caffeine will make you jumpier if you're already anxious. I've given it up because it interferes with my medication and I'm tired of being so jumpy. I don't smoke, but I used to drink nearly every day. Now I've radically cut down on the alcohol because I've realised it is dangerous for me to mix too much alcohol with medication. Unfortunately I like wine and food in equal measures. And for goodness sake we are only human. But take care of your health in these matters - because adding to your existing problems with potential health problems or addiction will not help. 

7.  Help Other People

I really believe in this one. I've found that helping other people in some way, even if it's only holding the door and getting a thank you in return, would make me feel better momentarily. It's for this reason also that I've tried to volunteer for Mind and Time to Change: helping to raise awareness of mental health is important to me, and the thought that I might help other people is something that can lift me in my darkest times.

"BUT, how can I help other people when I'm in this state? I can't even help myself!"

Even the smallest things like putting a duvet over your partner in the middle of the night when it's fallen off and he's cold, feeding your cat, making a cup of tea for someone, is being helpful. Try to remember that and give yourself a break.

We can all help in small ways. Some ways are very cute. Like this.

8.  Work Smarter, Not Harder

Good time management is not something everyone has, but the NHS reminds us that "You have to get a work-life balance that suits you."

"BUT, I've got so many other commitments, I can't possibly work 'smarter' because I just have too much on! You don't know what it's like for me."

It's great to try to be efficient, to consider what really matters. However, when you're ill sometimes you can only do so much. Just try to work out - with help from others around you - what is important for you to get done now, and where you can get help for this, and make a note of other times that you can get done the most pressing things, again with help from others. The most important thing is to try to alleviate some of the pressures that you're feeling. Mind has some great tips on this. It's hard to generalise on this one: if you're a city banker or lawyer you likely feel you can't take any time out at all, but remembering that you got hired for a reason and that you are a smart person is important. Take a breath and reflect on that. And do take a break (even if just for five minutes) to do deep breathing before you try and tackle that mountainous 'To-Do' list.

9. Be Positive

"Are you serious? How can I be positive at a time like this? I feel so dreadful. Everything is awful and I just don't want to be here anymore. It's all too much."

The NHS says 'People don't always accept what they have.' Yep. That would be true. I am not thinking about my house, my husband and my great job when I'm miserable and ill. I doubt even people with a cold aren taking time out to feel grateful for any of these things when their noses are snotty and they're coughing and spluttering with a killer headache. Whatever the illness, we're all in it together feeling like crap and how on earth can we get ourselves out of it? Again, it's important to calm or soothe yourself first before you can try to think positively. This isn't easy at all. I have needed help from a therapist and a good psychiatrist to help me to see myself and my outlook more rationally and more positively. And I can't do it quite a lot of the time. It takes work, so start this kind of thinking, using techniques like mindfulness when you are feeling a bit less ill so that you can actually participate in them.

You can't always get what you want. But if you try sometimes...

10. Accept the things you can't change.

"Changing a situation isn't always possible," the NHS says. Again, Yep. 

"BUT, I can't do anything about my work, I can't change my family situation."
"I'm stuck and I can't get out."

I think the NHS is right here. There are going to be things you can't change and hard as they are to accept, we just have to try. We just need to make it to the next day (or the next hour). And then the next. I think acceptance, particularly self-acceptance is the most important step in dealing with mental health.

Above all, we can all play a part in continuing to talk about mental health de-stigmatising mental illnesses. It's not something to fear, to shun, to avoid, to pretend it doesn't exist. It doesn't mean you can't do a great job, be a great parent, live a good life, make a difference. It doesn't even mean you can't be happy.

Mental health illnesses are complex and difficult. But not talking about them worsens the condition, so please think about that and talk about it tomorrow and the next day and the next. Let's keep talking.

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