Managing Our Mental Health
Be Kind to Yourself this Festive Season
A colony of troublesome sprites live inside my brain. These sprites hold my thoughts in their spindly fingers, and they have sprinter’s legs which can run so fast, and in such unexpected directions, it takes me all my time to control them.
I need to be able to manage where my thoughts go for my own mental health, but it’s a pretty tricky business. Times when everyone else seems to be celebrating can trigger these sprites to run wild.
Am I wrong to believe that many adults spend a significant amount of energy trying to manage the inside of their own heads — the thoughts and emotions which, if left to their own devices, can trip off down dark paths?
I like to think of myself as a happy and optimistic person. I was that way as a child, and I presumed that would continue into adulthood. Little did I know the time, effort and expense it would take to keep the mind-sprites of adulthood in check.
If I’d known when I was younger that the management of my thoughts would be so crucial for a stable life, I would have learned strategies earlier. In the same way I wish I’d developed a sustainable exercise regime (puts that back on the to-do list), I should have put a mental health action plan into place. I think we all should.
Two friends have recently admitted to me they’re seeking help for mental health issues. I use the word ‘admitted’ because that’s how it felt. They seemed to be almost guilty about the revelation, as though it was something to be ashamed of. It’s not.
Why is it that we can describe a pimple in our armpit with impunity, but don’t tell anyone that we can no longer force ourselves to be downstairs alone for fear of burglars? How can it be that a hernia in the groin is open for inspection, but a panic attack in the middle of the night goes undiscussed?
Anxiety seems to be the most prevalent condition, but depression, addiction, compulsive behaviours and eating disorders all present themselves in my friends and loved ones, and we rarely seem to address these issues until they’ve become ingrained and drastically impede our lives.
I am a fervent believer in getting things fixed. If you have toothache, go to the dentist. If your anxiety is affecting your day to day living, see an expert who is trained to help you make it more tolerable. It should be viewed as the normal, obvious thing to do, not a shameful admission of weakness.
Therapy has a bad name in the UK. If we were in the States, we’d all be on a couch openly sharing our problems — but I suspect that’s part of the blockage — we think that therapy is an indulgence, or just about talking issues through, getting to the agonising root and working through the pain. That’s certainly not my experience.
For me, therapy was about finding strategies to cope with the shit that life inevitably throws at us.
There’s a vast array of therapy options out there, and since we are all individual, different processes work better for different people. I didn’t get on too well with hypnotherapy (I think my control-freak side rebelled against it) but Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) was right up my street because it taught me how to recognise and manage my thoughts and the emotional and physical responses to them.
My husband recently went on a meditation retreat, and I sincerely hope that learning to manage his stress will not only help him live longer but be happier and more relaxed as he chills his way into dotage.
NHS waiting lists for therapy are eye-wateringly long and paying privately is often not an option, but Doctors will advise which books or free tutorials give the best practical advice whilst you wait. Not ideal, but at least a pro-active start.
I think the very best solution, is to start a mental health care plan for the young, even if it’s just within our own families. Awareness is key. My husband and I already discuss anxiety triggers, catastrophising and addictive behaviours with our children. We practice breathing techniques, visualisation and go through the CBT process. I’m pretty sure the kids have no idea they’re doing this, I’m sure they think it’s just Mum and Dad banging on, but I will continue to bang on to help them recognise what makes them feel unsettled and how to do something about it.
The mental health care available on the NHS is pitiful (despite the relentless work of the incredible NHS staff), and whilst the need and want for improvement is there, the money isn’t. There is an increased awareness that children need more help in schools to deal with managing their heads, but it’s unlikely to be enough to make a real difference.
It’s down to us to make a change, Gang; we have to try to help ourselves and those around us. We have to recognise those pesky sprites running around our brains, causing havoc, and treat them like naughty toddlers. They need gently but firmly taking in hand and teaching appropriate and inappropriate behaviour.
We need to talk to our children about looking after their minds, and always sharing their anxieties, so we can help them to learn strategies to deal with the obstacle course of modern living.
Most of all, we need to be kind to ourselves, especially at this time of year. We should stop expecting to be able to cope with everything out there. It’s hard and we can’t always do it on our own.