Today I finally woke up feeling free of the demons that have been plaguing me for the last few weeks. Demons is a harsh word - to use another overused explanation, I'll go with dark cloud. It was a feeling of nothingness. I got out of bed every day, I went to my classes and I showed up to all my commitments - it definitely wasn't the worst kind of suffering, but it certainly wasn't fun. I struggled to find the joy in anything, I couldn't sleep for more than two consecutive hours, and I was abusing exercise and caffeine to make up for it all. I am now paying the price with my second head cold in a month.
This past week I've been learning about how we see and theorise mental health, and it's still a bit backwards. Most of us see being mentally healthy as the opposite of having a mental disorder, but do we still see physical health that way? Is being physically healthy simply not being sick? I think most people see being physically healthy as actively seeking out activities that move us closer to good health and further away from illness. I want to talk about the continuum of mental health, where on one end we are living our best life, looking forward to the future and on the other end we are just going through the motions, waiting for happiness to materialise. What if we all worked on our mental health just like we did our physical health? On the rare occasion I drink alcohol, my mind instantly jumps to the physical effects it will have on my body; the dehydration and it's status as a carcinogen. What if I taught myself to make the impact on my mental health the first consideration? This could be a game changer.
As I mentioned in the last blog, I have been to see professionals, some of which were utterly useless. I was pretty damn lucky to find one in the end that wasn't. What she gave me was the ability to recognise my own feelings. I have a tendency to take on the worries and responsibilities of every person around me, and internalise it, suffering in silence until the cracks start to show. Then there is almost always a catastrophic meltdown. Over the years it has culminated in physical fights, shaving off part of my hair, binge drinking, getting a tattoo, right down to more mundane things like crying in public. What I learnt how to do in my months of counselling was first to acknowledge that suffering is relative. You're allowed to cry multiple times a day for as long as you want about having your cat put down (me, last week). I used to tell myself that other people go through worse things, and I'd been through worse things, so I needed to just get on with life. While the first part of that statement is true, I now see that this was terrible for my mental health, and it's something I've really been working hard to combat.
Following on from this, the second strategy I learned was to identify the early signs of a downward spiral. By not allowing myself to feel upset about things, I wasn't able to see how they piled up and eventually crippled me. I remember telling my psychotherapist about my latest episode, when I felt physically incapable of getting out of bed. She wrote every thing that had been happening in the week leading up to it, and it was glaringly obvious. I was burning the candle at both ends and not appreciating how much energy I was depleting, both physically and emotionally. We devised a plan; a personalised list of things that help me to reset and get me back on track. There is a lot of psychological research about priming yourself to feel a certain way and simplistically, this draws from that research. I find doing these things particularly important when I'm feeling out of control, they keep me afloat long enough to find my way out.
Believe it or not, the first thing I do is watch Legally Blonde (and I will delete anyone's comment who says they don't like that movie. BYE). There's the scene where she decides she's going to prove everyone wrong, studies hard and wins at life. Basically, it's like a cheesy fitness motivational video for me; it gets me pumped about being the best version of myself. When I was going through a really rough time I even made my alarm tone the theme song to illicit those feelings as soon as I woke up. I cannot count how many times it has gone off in public and I've had to sheepishly explain how much I like that movie. There were weeks where I watched it every. single. day. Ask Gordon, he knows every line.
Alongside this, I try to keep a mental note of how things make me feel. I already keep actual notes of how I feel during training and how I react to certain foods, so why not take strengthening my mental health as seriously? So here's my list so far...
Things that are good for my mental health:
- exercising for fun
- striving towards achievable, but challenging goals
- being around people I like
- listening to music
- writing (this one is new)
Things that are bad for my mental health:
- being around people I don't like
- being polite when people are rude
- saying yes to everything
- allowing negative self-talk to dominate my thoughts
I'm not suggesting you print out these or a generic list of things to do make yourself feel happier and scribble out each check box with every flower you sniff and beach that you stroll. Just make sure you take some time to figure out what elevates your mental health and keep working towards finding what sets your soul alight.
Disclaimer: 1) I am not a professional. 2) Just like physical health, with mental health there is obviously a biological component, and we cannot separate environmental and genetic influences, I won't be getting into debates about chemical imbalances and medication. 3) If you or someone you know needs help, please check out www.lifeline.org.nz or call 0508 828 265. The Mental Health Foundation also have some good resources as well as links to more help www.mentalhealth.org.nz