How can we manage our mental health if we don’t talk about it? The media has been encouraging us to talk about mental health and reminding us that “it is ok to not be ok.” But is that the reality? How well do any of us understand what it is like to live with any disease or disorder? I don’t think we really understand until we have had the experience. Nonetheless, we can do our best to learn and to have empathy. One of the ways to learn is to share stories, facts, and read scientific literature. With that in mind I am sharing a small part of my story.
I have had depression for over 60 years. I didn’t get a diagnosis till I was in my late teens, following the birth of my second child. I have always continued to function, though sometimes with great difficulty, and while in the work force, I never missed a day of work. To be honest, I deserve an Oscar. For many years I have been successfully treated with anti-depressants. Over the last couple of years, I have been weaning myself off the antidepressants, with some guidance from my family doctor. I don’t want to get off my anti-depressants but to get off as many of my prescribed medications as possible. It is a slow process and sometimes I have had a backslide. But that isn’t the purpose of what I am about to share.
Though I am officially a senior citizen I am not old and believe I have many more fulfilling years to live. With that in mind I am on a journey to improve my health and my life. With a background in nursing, I am aware of the basic behaviours and lifestyle choices we need to have a healthy, vibrant life. I am an avid reader with a wide range of interests and like to keep up with the latest information.
I wanted to refresh my memory and explore any new options about what is recommended for personal care of my mental health. The National Institute of Mental Health provides these self-care guidelines:
- Get regular exercise.
- Eat healthy, regular meals, and stay hydrated.
- Make sleep a priority.
- Try a relaxing activity.
- Set goals and priorities.
- Practice gratitude.
- Focus on positivity.
- Stay connected.
These eight basic tips are the basics of all self-care. Remember, self-care is not selfish. They are not just for mental well-being; they are for overall well-being. Our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health cannot be placed in silos. What is happening in one area has an influence on all other areas. Just as each being on earth is connected, each area of our individual health is connected. You can’t have one without the other. These tips are a good start to overall good health.
There are several Toolkits available from https://www.nih.gov/health-information/your-healthiest-self-wellness-toolkits. I recommend you look because health is important to having a beautiful, joyful life.
As I go through a period of struggle with my mental health, I reflect on the eight self-care guidelines I shared above.
- Regular exercise: This is good but not always possible. I have some physical issues that have left me severely fatigued. Over time I learned to very slowly increase my activity so that I can do 30 minutes most days. I had been in the habit of extended periods in the gym giving it my all only to find that my physical health was deteriorating. Eventually I found the reason – autoimmune diseases. It took me years to figure out how slow I had to go to be able to build up my strength and endurance. I could not comprehend doing only 5 minutes of exercise to start and work up slowly. I could not grasp eliminating a second day, just because my body hurt, and I felt exhausted. I couldn’t comprehend that pushing through was not the way to go. But after getting downright ill with infections, and fatigue and pain so bad I could barely move I started to see the picture. I didn’t like it and I did not adjust well. These physical limitations played havoc with my fragile mental health. Though I have learned how to pace myself better, I still need to be incredibly careful as something like Christmas or putting on a dinner party can take all my energy and leave me fatigued and in severe pain for days. But I am figuring it out. I am learning to be gentle with myself and to rest when necessary, and to ask for help, or order food and skip cooking. I don’t like not being able to do everything I once did. But if I want to do some of what I once did I have to put limits on my choices. I often need to take 2 or 3 days to do what I once did in 1 day.
- Eat regular healthy meals and stay well hydrated. I have always been a fussy eater, but I know what is healthy and I learned the importance of hydration many years ago. Despite having a better than basic understanding of a healthy diet I have found that I must remain diligent at reading labels – packaged foods have become so over processed with salt, sugar, and other preservatives it is hard to stay on top. Once again though, I have learned to be gentle with myself and make adjustments one at a time and not rush. Did you know it can be easier to add one additional good thing to your healthy meal routine than to eliminate something? Add the good thing and have less of the not so healthy item seems to work for me. Small, consistent changes can lead to long-lasting improvements. When you are struggling, remember it is ok to just do your best, eat what appeals to you. You can get back to the healthy stuff when you get back on track. You might not feel much like cooking if you haven’t slept in days and are exhausted and crying – order in – aren’t we fortunate that food can be delivered. Or popcorn is always good.
- Make sleep a priority. Just try this when you wake up in a panic every hour. A night or two of not being able to sleep because of anxiety and panic can tip you over the top into a spiral of weeping, sadness, and depression. Keep sleep a priority but know that sometimes our bodies sabotage us. When that happens, call for help and do what you need to do to get turned around and bring the downward spiral to a stop. If you are having anxiety and panic when you try to sleep, do whatever you have to do to let your body rest. Then when it is ready, you will sleep. This might be a set-back for you on your journey to mental wellbeing, but you will get back on track. I can’t say this enough “Be gentle with yourself.” And remember, you don’t have to do everything alone – get support.
- Try a relaxing activity. You can meditate, paint, garden, do yoga, read, or even watch tv – you know what you find relaxing. Make time to do this daily. If you find yourself in a flare this becomes even more important. You might have to do the activity or activities for shorter periods but then do more of them. I don’t know about you but when I am going through bouts of anxiety, panic, and depression I can’t concentrate for more than a few minutes. I can only read a few pages, when watching tv I need to watch something I can rewind to catch what I missed when my brain wandered. During meetings I speak up and let others know that I’m having trouble concentrating and ask them to be patient with me – you don’t need to go into detail as it isn’t always appropriate to do so.
- Set goals and priorities. I encourage goals and priorities to be set in alignment with values. This has been my practice for several years and I find by doing so my life is aligned with what is important to me. We can set long-range goals, goals for the year, the month, the week, and the day. When life is challenging, we can set goals for the next three minutes or the next hour. Examples: I will drink one eight-ounce glass of water every hour while awake. I will get up and move for two minutes every hour while awake. Be gentle with yourself when you are being challenged; set yourself up for success. And when you succeed, celebrate. Today I had two small scoops of ice cream and will stay within my calorie goal. And if you or I should not succeed at reaching a goal today, that is ok, we did not fail, tomorrow is a fresh start. We can start over as many times as we need to. We can also re-examine our goals and priorities. If you are having trouble achieving what you have set up for yourself, maybe those goals aren’t for you, re-examine what you genuinely want and need to be doing.
- Practice Gratitude. Though it is 40 below be grateful your car started or that you can stay inside beside a fire in the fireplace. Be grateful for food to eat, clean water to drink, your loving family – we all have much for which to be grateful. Write down three to five things for which you are grateful. Example: today I am grateful that I was able to talk to my doctor and they helped me choose my next steps to getting through this difficult period.
- Focus on Positivity. This is similar to gratitude. But you might need to work on this a bit more. Not everyone is a glass half full type of person. How can you reframe your negative thoughts? A good starting place might be how you talk to yourself. Example: “I’m such a loser, I don’t know how my partner puts up with my depression.” Change that to “I am so glad I have someone who loves me even when times are tough. Afterall, we both know this will pass and I will be happy and smiling again soon.”
- Stay connected. Humans are social beings; we aren’t meant to do everything on our own. Some of us are homebodies and don’t relish the thought of big parties, even so we need to have other people in our lives with whom to share our lives. Whether this is in person, over the phone, or with the use of social media, find a few people with whom you connect regularly. It can be hard to reach out when you are down. If you are like me trying to talk leads to tears. However, I attended two positive online meetings today where I turned my camera off, and just put a quick note in the chat that I was having a rough day, but wanted to listen in. I got great well wishes with love and hugs sent to me. I truly value those relationships. If there is someone else in your home with you, ask for a hug or to have them just sit with you and watch a show or listen to a song. Just be with someone for a brief period – let their positive energy flow into you.
Staying healthy is a work in progress. There is always more to learn and do. As I said earlier, each area of our health is connected, when one area is suffering the other areas will be influenced. Make yourself a priority. You do not have to do any of this alone. I am a life and leadership coach who loves to help guide others to a joyous and beautiful life. I also have several coaches who help guide me to have a joyful, beautiful life and I value their wisdom, compassion, and empathy.
When I first saw the list of eight self-care tips under the “Caring for Your Mental Health” (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/caring-for-your-mental-health) site I was a bit taken aback till I gave it further thought. My first thought being “this is too general.” Expanding on each of the eight tips has helped me to understand something clearly at last that will shine again and has helped me recognize the importance of taking each tip and figuring out how that tip can work for me. You can do this too. Though one size does not fit all, each tip gives you the power to adapt it to suit what you need at various times of your life. A day of rest, rather than your usual work out, comfort food instead of green, extra sleep, or a day to wallow and feel your pain and hurt so that you can move on tomorrow, or a day to just ignore everything you usually do, knowing you will figure out what you need tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. Be open and accepting of yourself. You will figure it out.