December 10, 2018
Because this really hits home for me personally, because 1 in 4 people in the UK suffer from mental health every year*, and nearly 2 in 3 people with a mental health issue don't seek help from a professional**.
Whoever has struggled with depression or anxiety will know just how exhausting and draining it can be. It’s made even worse when you feel isolated, alone and ashamed about the way you’re feeling which inadvertently helps it grow bigger as you bottle it up.
It’s crucial that we talk about it.
We know it, but too often don’t do it, because there is still so much external and internal stigma we feel about voicing it to others or even to ourselves.
Ironically, even if I completely see the need of talking about it more, in writing about it, I still catch myself over-worrying and feeling vulnerable about sharing this.
To me, this is just more proof how deeply this stigma and discrimination is programmed in us and how much we still need to work on normalising the conversation.
But when you want to see a change, you start with yourself.
My story with mental health started with insomnia in my first year of university that I didn’t tell a soul about for a whole year. I made a big deal of it in my head, thinking that there was something wrong with me, fearing to go to bed at night, and feeling hopeless because I was in it all by myself.
Had I talked to a friend or my family sooner, I would have found comfort others struggle with it too from time to time. I would have learned more ways to try to manage this; from setting yourself evening routines and sleeping schedule, from giving up on trying to sleep and distracting yourself with an activity, to being okay you won’t have the best night’s of sleep on some or many nights in a row, to sleeping pills and so forth.
While I learned to manage my insomnia better, that year of internalised fear had great impact on my mental health, extending from sleepless nights, trickling down to other parts of my life - work, social situations and personal relationships.
That’s what mental health issues do, they rarely stay isolated, but start affecting your perception of yourself and your relation to the world.
Without me realising at first, I started living with an underlying anxiety.
Not learning from my mistake with insomnia, I yet again kept this in for way too long, letting my mind loop in negative reinforcing thoughts before voicing it and looking for help.
I wish I could say I am anxiety and stress free now, but that would be both a lie and a wishful illusion. What I’m aspiring to do is to normalise my reaction to stress and anxiety which can be adequate emotions to feel depending on situations. It is something I am managing to this day and have accepted it will be something to keep a close eye for the long run.
I love the parallel between mental and physical healths, and couldn’t agree more that just the same way you can’t stay healthy and strong unless you eat healthily and exercise regularly, you can't ensure yourself against mental health issues unless you take care of yourself, prioritise your mental wellbeing and keep an eye on what goes on in your mind.
We know that eating at McDonald’s every day without exercising will lead to physical health problems down the line, so why don’t we challenge negative, often irrational, thoughts - the “junk food” equivalent in mental health?
The state of our mental health is a combination of the belief systems we carry on from our childhood, any past traumas and big life events, and the way our thoughts and mind are affected by our social environment today: work/life (im)balance, (un)happy relationships and social networks, (un)fulfilling job, stressful(free) lifestyle, feeling purposeful(less), (un)healthy lifestyle choices.
Ignore these imbalances for a long time, and sooner or later they may start to catch up with you.
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in a healthy mental state, don’t take it for granted and let yourself be caught off guard - start doing your mental health exercises and mind that internal chatter to ensure you stay your own best friend.
Our mental health can be thrown off balance by big changes or challenges, which at least are easier to spot, but problems can also be slowly building up without us knowing - when we live in an imbalanced state for too long and don’t take time for ourselves, or lack the awareness to notice how we feel, slow down and reflect.
In the spirit of sharing what has helped me and continue to help me as I keep an eye on my mental health, here is some advice I keep reminding myself of:
- when it comes to mental health there is no guilt, no shame, no blame. Period. You are not to feel guilty, ashamed or blame yourself for the way you are feeling. Whatever you are feeling it is okay to feel, because you are feeling it. Guilt, shame or blame make you deny the situation you are in and contribute further to the internal conflict.
- be resourceful - there are innumerable ways you can help yourself, or things to try. Talk to your family and friends, turn to health professionals, try cognitive behavioural therapy, read self-care books, establish a self-care routine, find an exercise that works for you, running, climbing, yoga, meditate (try Headspace or Calm apps), do the things you know you enjoy(ed) doing: spend time in nature, take a hot bath, cook a nice meal, catch up with a friend.
- anxiety and depression make you feel hopeless and not want to look for resources or talk to others. It’s part of their narrative to convince you no one else feels this way, or will understand your situation or that it can ever get better. If you’re noticing yourself thinking this way, catch these thoughts and tell yourself this is my anxiety or depression talking, and remind yourself you don’t have to listen or believe them.
- there are studies showing that by simply labelling our thoughts, feelings and emotions we are able to reduce their intensity. So when you’re feeling sad, angry, anxious or panicked, acknowledge it and label it as feelings of sadness, anger, anxiety or panic, not that you are an inherently sad, angry, anxious or panicked person. Somehow the simple process helps to create a bit more space between you and your thoughts, and reduces that sensation of being overwhelmed.
- it’s very empowering to realise we are not our thoughts. Stop identifying yourself with your thoughts. They can spin into negative cycles and reinforce themselves, shaping the way you perceive yourself and the world, but they come and go, and change constantly. Which leads to the next point:
- impermanence - the only constant in our lives is that everything changes. It’s comforting to remind yourself that these emotions and thoughts, however helpless they may make you feel are also going to pass. You can be certain you will not feel this way forever, just as the feelings of joy, achievement, excitement and pleasure mellow out after big happy events in your life. It comes and goes, and neither positive or negative feelings are an accurate representation of who you truly are.
Let’s continue normalising this conversation so we can hold more space for one another and less people would suffer in silence.
Wherever you are, I hope that this letter inspires you to be more compassionate towards people around you and encourages you to speak up and look for help if you need it.