I thought for quite a while before writing this (well a good few minutes at any rate- I’m a bit impulsive), because I don’t want to present something that anyone who suffers from mental health problems might feel offended by. Nonetheless, I hope my slightly naive perspective should add to the debate in a positive manner.
Like pretty much everyone I know, I’ve been affected by mental illness. My father was bipolar and for years I lived with someone with a host of problems that stemmed from her depression and anxiety. I imagine that pretty much everyone in the UK has been touched by the effects of mental illness, and yet we all still would rather pretend that it didn’t exist or that it won’t affect us.
I’d like to share some of the things that have helped me and some of the people I care about get through some bad times. I will however caveat this by stating that I am not a mental health professional, and that whilst I know that my strategies for good mental health work for me, they might not work for you. (I bet they would though!)
Taking the time to look up
Throughout my adult life I’ve been through some bad times. I’m not unique in this, we all have ups and downs (actually ups and downs doesn’t really cover it – I’d say good times and utter catastrofucks). I consider myself lucky however, since I’m in good physical health and I’m married to a fantastic woman who is also the mother of my amazing and funny little three year old boy.
There’s been a couple of periods when I’ve felt so buried in my problems that I couldn’t see beyond them. These are the times in my life when I’ve wilfully abandoned my health, my friendships and ultimately my sanity.
When I look back at those times there’s a couple things I now realise helped me out of that dark place. One of them was forcing myself to consider those aspects of my life that were good. Frankly though, this is exactly the kind of smug advice I would never listen to if I was feeling really depressed, so I’ve evolved it into a lighter and more attainable action that doesn’t rely on me dragging out happy memories at precisely the time when such feelings are beyond reach.
I call it micro-optimism. Whenever I’m walking or cycling or even standing waiting for a train, I remind myself to look up and notice things that sadness or anxiety would otherwise prevent me from seeing. Done regularly and with no more effort than saying to yourself – ‘isn’t that amazing?’ – I now take a few moments every now and again to see something amazing, interesting or just plain beautiful. It’s amazing how quickly you’ll put your internal problems to one side while you let yourself experience something completely separate from you and your world. It’s a like a little holiday for your mind.
Every weekend I drag my children to the woods (and not in a Hansel and Gretel kind of way). They alway complain on the way there and they always complain when we have to leave, and if I don’t have the kids, then I go by myself.
Walking in nature, being near and among these giant living organisms (beech trees are my absolute favourite) listening to the wind rustling the leaves makes me feel like I’m getting a massive hug.
Sometimes I take a small stove and make myself a mug of tea, other times I just wonder through the trees with a stick and a penknife, whittling.
There’s a wealth of research about the benefits of being near trees…
…so even if you don’t live near a wood, I bet you have a park near by.
Walking it off
I am a huge advocate of exercise. My reasons for embracing a more active life are complex, but as with so many of my life choices, they stem from my fear that I might follow the same path as my father. As well as being bipolar, my dad was unfit and a smoker. He died at the age of 56 (just ten years older than I am now). Neither of my children ever met him, and to them he’s just a fuzzy face in a few old photographs. I am determined to play an active and positive part of my children’s lives, but more than that I just don’t want to spend the second part of my life miserable and struggling to breath.
Exercise isn’t just a physical thing. It has an almost instant effect on my mental wellbeing. It doesn’t matter how much I don’t feel like going for a run, if I force myself to go out for a 25 minute jog I know I’ll feel 100% better and much more able to deal with whatever is causing me stress. I genuinely believe that you can think more clearly and act more rationally after working up a good sweat.
It’s not just my experience either – Exercise has been shown to reduce the effects of ADHD, reduce stress, improve memory, improve sleep and boost overall mood (https://www.helpguide.org/articles/exercise-fitness/emotional-benefits-of-exercise.htm) Also check out https://www.thebabbleout.com/running/how-does-running-improve-health-and-mood/ for Zoey’s experience of running and how it’s helped her. In fact exercise can even stimulate the brain cell growth (neurogenesis)! (https://www.fastcompany.com/3054847/can-exercise-really-make-you-grow-new-brain-cells)
I’m convinced that technology and access to 24/7 entertainment and social media has reduced the value of indulging in a good old fashioned hobby.
In years gone by, when all people had was Morecambe & Wise to look forward to on Saturday night, hobbies where what you did. My mother experimented with basket weaving, jewellery making and dolls houses. My dad, in his time, tried restoring a vintage car, making a canoe, flying model planes, letterpress printing, bowling, model railways, sailing, diving, motorcycles, 4×4 off roading, computer repair, fishing, writing and breeding budgerigars (he was bipolar remember).
What this has left me with is recognition of the value of creating something with my hands.
I work in a highly technical industry, where my days are spent creating powerpoint presentations and exploring the latest technology (like VR and Internet of Things). Consequently the last thing I want to do when I’m at home is spend time even more time on vapid and intangible activities.
In recent years I’ve built a pizza oven from scrap materials, planted a vegetable garden and started building a shed. I’m pretty rubbish at all of these things to be honest, but I never feel more satisfied than after a long afternoon of getting my hands dirty making something.
Dr Conner of the University of Otago says – “There is growing recognition in psychology research that creativity is associated with emotional functioning. However, most of this work focuses on how emotions benefit or hamper creativity, not whether creativity benefits or hampers emotional wellbeing,”
They go on to say – “this finding suggests a particular kind of upward spiral for wellbeing and creativity – engaging in creative behaviour leads to increases in wellbeing the next day, and this increased wellbeing is likely to facilitate creative activity on the same day.”
So making stuff, and being creative makes you feel better and in turn makes you more likely to want to do more stuff the following day!
One of my favourite quotes, and the central premise from Matthew Crawford’s book – The World Beyond Your Head is “Skilled practices serve as an anchor to the world beyond one’s head”.
When you immerse yourself in an activity that requires attention and a degree of skill, you can take a break from the stuff that’s whirling around inside your skull.
Make something. Feel better.
Put the tech away
I struggle with this. I have a phone, an iPad, a MacBook, a smart watch, an xBox, a FireTV, a Kindle… So I’m certainly no luddite.
We all know we spend too much time buried in these things, and if we’re honest most of the time spent isn’t productive, it’s spent pacifying ourselves with the endless scrolling of Facebook or the curating of someone else’s [unattainable] perfect life on Pinterest and Instagram.
There are any number of articles and research papers on the negative effects of social media use on mental health and self esteem – so I’m not going to go into that here. You know you spend too much time on it, and if you’re totally honest you’ll admit that you have a behavioural addiction to your phone. No? When was the last time you left it at home – or even on your desk while you nipped to the loo – without feeling anxious, like a part of you was missing. I’ll hold my hand up to this. I find myself checking the feeds automatically, unconsciously even.
Now, we’re not going to give up our tech. Hell, we need it to participate in modern society! But here’s something I try and do. Leave the phone in the kitchen. Don’t take it to your bedroom (alarm clocks are cheap!), the lounge or the loo. Make it slightly more difficult to use it and you’ll be surprised how much less you do.
Have less stuff
Some people call the latest trend towards minimalism a fad, I disagree. I would suggest that the drive to own all the trappings of visible success are the fad.
Since making a conscious effort to reduce the amount of stuff in my life (spurred on by the excellent documentary Minimalism) I have found that I get great comfort in knowing that the things I own give me value rather than simply occupying space. Whilst I have a long way to go, I definitely buy less stuff – aided by the questions I ask myself – will this thing add value to my life? Did I need it yesterday and will I need it tomorrow or in a month’s time?
Relying less on material possessions and on the acquisition of stuff helps me concentrate on the the things in my life that add real value – the people I love, exercise and my actions.
To steal a line from the makers of the documentary – Love people, use things. Because the opposite rarely works.
All the rest…
There’s no one answer, no ‘one size fits all’. This list is not exhaustive – I haven’t talked about food and cooking, meditation, writing and reading or the importance of seeking help from people who care.
Some people will feel that this is all hippy bullshit – but I’m no hippy, I’m just a bloke who’s tried a bunch of stuff and found it to be helpful in anchoring himself to a more satisfying and intentional life.
I believe that mental health in part stems from recognising those elements of your life over which you have control and those over which you have none. Stress, depression and mental illness can be exacerbated by trying to exert control over things you can’t and by not taking control over those things you can.