Mental Health Awareness Week passed me by last week, ironically enough, in a haze of anxiety. Yeah, newsflash: I deal with this stuff too.
So many of us, from the everyday knitter, painter, writer or sewer to the celebrated household name, accept a terrible imagined bargain… that we must pay for creativity with our sanity. But despite my own issues, I have come to believe that I don’t have to take this crap lying down.
Having been there before and made it back to reality, I find these days that I know what to do. So here it is, for what it’s worth, my tried and tested grab bag of tools for maintaining good mental health (or regaining it when it’s eluding me), in no particular order. Borrow any that speak to you, and add your own in the comments.
Obviously, I am not a medical professional, I’m just sharing what’s worked for me. If you are experiencing issues that are seriously affecting your ability to function, GET PROFESSIONAL HELP – and do so without judging yourself any more than you would if you caught the flu.)
Change the way you breathe, change your life. Whether I meditate with an app like Headspace, or I sit quietly and practice mindfulness, or I just do like we did as children and get completely absorbed in watching a bug climb a blade of grass for what seems like hours, there are many, many ways to get present.
About fifteen years ago I had a mental health breakthrough in the middle of a quiet residential street. As my breath quickened and my mind spiralled into a frenzy, I suddenly had this thought… “oh RIGHT… this is my mind doing that thing again, when it tells my body to be anxious for no good reason.”
That tiny moment of clarity gave control back to me, and derailed an anxiety attack. Ever since, I’ve looked for that feeling of control. There’s a part of me that’s eternal, a part that the illness can’t touch. That part of me is stepping back, watching and going, “Oh yeah, this is my brain doing that thing again.” I’m bigger than IT is, and sometimes, when I can grab a hold of that, it’s enough to begin pulling myself out.
If I’m getting weird after a time of being way too busy, it’s time for aggressive rest. I mean, I prescribe SLEEP. LOTS of it. Nine, ten, eleven hours a night, whenever I can. There’s no need for burnout to make your life hell. You have my permission to look after yourself.
Conversely, if I’m in that place where I feel like I’m already sleeping 23 hours a day and still feeling like crap, it’s time to energise myself. I once took a bunch of fabric scraps and made a really low quality quilt (modelled in the photo above by my ex-partner Demi). The patches were huge and none of the corners matched up, but it didn’t matter. I got out of my head and made something of my own. It gave my mind something to grab on to.
“Hey Cathy, do we need to go and get ice cream right now? Let’s go and get ice cream.” Be the kind of loving caretaker you know you need.
Speaking of something to focus on, if I am getting anxious and need to make it stop, I listen to complex music – like Scott Joplin piano rags. There’s so much going on in there that I end up listening intently and trying to figure out how the pianist even does that with only two hands. Meanwhile, if I’m depressed and need to change my mood, I can lead myself out by the hand by listening to a playlist that can take me anywhere. You can engineer a soundtrack that develops gradually from simply comforting yourself through to lifting up, to inspiration and action. Movie makers know the power of the soundtrack to manipulate our emotions. We can use that too.
It’s hard to heal when I’m not getting the fuel I need to make the journey. However, that doesn’t mean that I need to be a monk, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I need to beat myself up about the imperfection of my diet. Those of you who know me know that I can be a kickass green juicing demon… but I can also put away an extraordinary quantity of chocolate in a single sitting. You know what to do here. Ninja trick: just add the healthy stuff in, don’t try to deprive yourself of anything.
When I’m not doing well, the unpleasant feelings get stored in my body. In my neck, in my shoulders, in the top of my back, in the pit of my stomach. So I walk, I swim, I trampoline, I dance. I get that crap out of my system. This is not about getting fit as such… but it *is* about energy. Exercise changes how you’re breathing – which totally changes how you feel.
You know I love the woods. It amazes me to get out in nature and discover how relaxed, how happy and how patient everything is out there. I love to be in the trees, between the dirt and the sky, looking back at humanity and considering how ridiculous we all are. Sit in a tree for a while, and listen to what it has to say.
Again, if you are having serious issues, medication may be right for you. I chose not to go there (first). My personal choice was to find out whether I could heal myself with natural and herbal remedies first, before going towards pharmaceuticals that I’d heard bad things about. To my relief, the herbal stuff works well enough for me and I never made it to the doctor. God bless 5-htp, kava kava, and chamomile tea, which I invite you to look into if you feel that they might be appropriate for you.
This is my personal Achilles heel. Ever noticed how anxious you get before seeing people, and yet afterwards you find that you had a mostly awesome time and feel much better? Yeah, me too. Let’s do more of that.
I’ve recently discovered betterhelp.com, where I have been able to talk regularly with a counsellor online, at a significantly lower cost than private healthcare can be. Yetunde is giving me additional understanding of where I am at, and an additional toolbox full of strategies. Highly recommended.
Heard all this before? Me too. Are you doing all these things consistently? Me neither.
It’s worth covering this topic again and again, however. To remind each other that we’re ALL in this place sometimes. To acknowledge that your most embarrassing behind-the-scenes mental health disaster is not comparable to someone else’s Instagram highlights.
Add your own mental health tips and tricks below, and let’s all stop trying to fight this alone.