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Ten Things I've Learnt About Mental Health
Posted by dirkgently1066
6th Nov 2015

10. It’s Never Too Late

At 35, I understood that I still had a significant portion of my life to live. But I figured that my personality and values had been set. For better or worse, this is who I was for the rest of my life.

Then I entered therapy.

It is not overstating things to say that I am a fundamentally different person now to the one who entered the Priory in 2013. I learned to feel, to share and express myself. I learned to be sad, to be angry and to not hide from fear. And I learned that I could be happy.

A nugget of advice from a doctor many years ago, when first discussing my prescription to anti-depressants, still rings true; you hopefully live to be 70-80 years old. Taking a couple of years to sort out your mental health is a pretty decent investment no matter how old you are.


9. When You Are Down, Get Up

It is almost a cliché that those suffering from depression are recommended to exercise. But then there is a reason some things become cliché. It is because they are true.

You cannot exercise away being depressed. Try as you might, you cannot literally outrun the Black Dog. Indeed my own flavour of depression was caused by thought driven anxiety rather than any underlying chemical imbalance.

But there is a fundamental truth in getting up and trying, even, and perhaps especially, when it is the very last thing you feel like doing.

Depression feeds on low energy, low motivation states. So get active, clear your mind, see the world around you rather than just the one in your head. Let life in and let the dog out.


8. Trigger Happy

A key aspect of recovery is developing an understanding of your illness. What are your triggers? What events, words or situations cause you anxiety?

Once identified though, that is not a reason to avoid them. Avoidance leads to isolation which in turn leads down the road to depression.

Instead, be understanding and kind to yourself. Or if it is easier, think what you would tell a loved one if they presented with the same symptoms you are suffering.

If social events triggers your anxiety, start small. Maybe meet with one or two friends, ease yourself in to the company of others, then gradually build up the circle until you feel able to cope with a larger setting.
Does decision making cause anxiety? Do you feel like you are constantly at risk of making the wrong choice, always fearful of living in regret of the path not taken? Challenge the thought, find a healthier way to look at it. Did you miss out going left because you turned right? Perhaps, but turning right was pretty awesome too.


7. It’s All In Your Head

One of the most difficult aspects of depression in particular is the lack of outward visible signs. Depression and anxiety are illnesses of the mind, like walking round with your very own doubt squad, constantly telling you what you are doing wrong.

The outward signs that are visible are easily dismissed. Tiredness, irritability, lack of enthusiasm, dietary changes etc can all be attributed to other, less serious complaints. Tired? Must need more sleep. Irritable? Don’t be so grumpy. Eating too much? Have a salad.

And so sufferers will often put on a mask in the company of others, becoming adept at hiding their true feelings and emotions, less to protect themselves and more to meet the expectations of others. It is a crushing irony that those most in need of help go out of their way to avoid hurting the feelings of others.
Depression and anxiety might be all in your head. That’s what make them so frightening.


6. A Problem Shared

The core driver of anxiety is fear of the future whilst the core driver of depression is rumination or regret of the past. Contentment comes from finding a way to walk the middle ground of acceptance.

One tool to help is to share your feelings. This can take many forms. If you have a network of friends and loved ones, talk to them about your thoughts and feelings, be honest. They may help you see the problem in a different light, find a new way of looking at things that your anxious mind could not see.

If you are not comfortable with this approach, or do not have such a network, consider writing your feelings down. Explore them, understand them, demystify them and in so doing take their power over you away.

Talking or writing about your issues is not an excuse to wallow. The desire to share or explore a problem should be driven by a desire to overcome it, not simply to find a sympathetic ear. Procrastination is simply another driver of depression and anxiety.


5. You Are Not Alone

Depression can cause us to feel isolated from the outside world. As it tightens its grip, you start to feel apart from the world. Happiness appears meant for someone else but not for you, as the song once said. Whatever you portray as an exterior, on the inside you begin to retreat within yourself, wanting nothing more than to shrink out of sight, wanting to be left alone and yet craving attention. If you could just curl yourself up into a small enough ball in the corner, maybe nobody will notice you.

And before you know it, you have drifted out to sea. The isolation you feared come true from your own actions. Nothing matters. Life has no meaning. No one understands.

And yet they do. Mental illness affects 1 in 4 people. Yet for some reason a stigma persists such that we can tell people all about how we broke our leg, how we had the flu or even show people some disgusting rash you’ve developed. And yet still we are wary of admitting that we find it difficult to cope with stress or that we have low mood.

Well it is time to stop the stigma. Mental illness is real. It affects people on a daily basis. It destroys relationships, it blights lives. Sometimes, it even ends them.

You are not weak and you are not alone.


4. This Too Shall Pass

In the midst of depression, or when the howling winds of anxiety are blowing a gale, it can be tempting to think that this is all life has to offer. Mental illness can feel like a vortex with you at the centre, no hope of escape.

It is important to remember that these are moments in life, not life itself. Since leaving therapy, I have felt happier and more free than at any time I can imagine. I have also been wracked with anxiety and been stuck in the depths of depression.

But no matter how dark these moments seem, I have come to understand that they are fleeting. I know I can be happy because I have been happy, and so can be again.

No matter how heavy the storm, even the darkest cloud must soon give way to sun.


3. Life Is A Journey

There can be a tendency in life to think that we must achieve a certain set of goals or metrics to be judged by. I should be earning x amount of money. I should be thinner. I wish I was more attractive.

And so it is with mental health. I should be happy. I musn't worry so much. I should be better by now.
But life doesn't work that way. There is no right or wrong, no set path. The joy of life is to be found in making our own way, sometimes stepping off the beaten track to smell the flowers by the side of the road.
I haven't found the dream job. I'm still a couple of pounds heavier than I would like. My kitchen could do with a clean and I never did get round to putting that picture up on the wall. It doesn't matter. I do not have to judge myself. This isn't a test to be passed or failed, it is an adventure to enjoy.

Sometimes you will stumble and fall. Sometimes you'll head off in completely the wrong direction from where you planned. Sometimes you'll just sit down and get your bearings. Sometimes you'll get lost. You might not ever get to where you were trying to go. It doesn't matter.

Life is a journey, not a destination. Just try to enjoy the ride.


2. You Are Not Your Illness

It is very common for people to assign labels to behaviour, especially our own. 'Oh that's so me!' we might say. Or, 'I'm just like that.' Perhaps even, 'I'm not that type of person,' or ,'I'm no good at that.'
Often these comments are meant in jest, some typically self-deprecating British humour. But there is an undercurrent to them, especially as it pertains to mental health.

We come to define ourselves by these statements as if that is all we amount to. Our lives, so complex and involved, boiled down to a few words captured in a meme.

Depression and anxiety will always be a part of me. In many ways, they have helped shaped the person I am today, good and bad. But they do not define me.


1. You Can Change

It took me a long time to accept the fundamental truth behind my recovery. But once I did, it was liberating.
I could change.

Acknowledging that you are suffering from mental illness is a bold step. Seeking help is one of the bravest things you will ever do. The key to a sustained recovery is accepting that you are not apart from your illness, you are inextricably entwined with it.

Part of this may involve making changes. But change is hard and many of us resist. It becomes easier to remain where we are, endlessly procrastinating, forever pedalling the cycle of resentment rather than accepting the truth.

You can change.

The oak tree casts an imperious shadow, standing tall and stout. It is to be admired for its strength and its resilience. Yet in gale force winds the oak, so rigid and fixed, finds itself toppled, ripped from the ground and broken.

You are not an oak. You are not fixed to one spot. You are free, you are flexible. In the winds of change, learn to bend like the reed.

You must become the change you want to see. It is your life, go and live it.

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