This week is Mental Health Awareness week here in the UK, hosted by The Mental Health Foundation, so I figured that this would be a suitable time to talk about my own mental health challenges. What I really want to focus on is the word awareness. I’ve come back to write the start of this post last because the process of writing it has given me a bit of a lightbulb moment about what Mental Health Awareness actually means. What it means to me anyway.
Firstly, we all have this thing called ‘mental health’, just as we have physical health, and we all need to think about it, to be aware of what state it’s in. This particular campaign focuses on stress which is a silent killer in so many ways and it affects EVERYONE. Aside from the mental strain, stress is also linked with all kinds of physical illnesses from heart problems to cancer. So you’re worried about your stress levels then go take a look – they have an easy stress test which you can take (I hit the low-moderate side of the scale which works for me!) If you live a stress free life then you are truly blessed and should be writing books about how!
On the surface, I always think awareness campaigns are about understanding the topic in an academic sense, but writing this post has made me realise that there is way more too it than that. I realised that mental health awareness is about understanding it as it relates to you, a real human being, not a text book or a case study. It can also enormously help you to understand loved ones who may be having a tough time, but this week I want to talk about our own personal mental health. For me it’s way easier to understand others, so today I’m taking some time to look in the mirror.
Let me rewind and explain what I mean…
Ever since I can remember, I have struggled with anxiety. I vividly remember the first time I experienced those intense feelings. I think I was about 7. But it was only when I got to my mid 20s that I began to understand that that’s what it was.
From the age at which I could make my own choices in life, I found that I would avoid certain situations which made me feel uncomfortable. Situations which other people didn’t bat an eyelid at. I could never really put my finger on why. I might be really up for something then decide at the last minute I couldn’t possibly do it. I would feel physically ill, cry off things with a stomach ache.
I remember walking out of school just before a mock GCSE because I had suddenly felt this anxiety attack come on out of nowhere, I didn’t know what it was, I just knew I had to get away. So I walked out before they took the register, got on a bus and went home.
It seems crazy to say now, but I genuinely thought the cause was physical, that something was wrong and ‘getting away’ to feel like shit in private would make it better. All those years I had no idea that feeling I had was anxiety.
If only I had known then what I know now, I could probably reclaim a good 10 years of my life wasted worrying! These awareness campaigns are so important to save other people that same confusion.
When I was about 24, I would say I finally started to get an insight into what was going on with my mind. I think that is when my real passion for developing my understanding of the human condition started. I always loved psychology but the way you look at something changes when it has personal meaning for you.
At the time, my relationship with my long term boyfriend was collapsing, I was in a constant fight or flight battle and had no idea what I should do. I desperately wanted to make everything okay, to keep the status quo. I hadn’t really recognised that I was deeply unhappy – both in the relationship and going through that awkward post university struggle where I had no idea what I was meant to do next. My boyfriend was a ‘nice’ guy, so I didn’t feel I could just end the relationship, even though I knew deep down it wasn’t what I wanted. He was my best friend, how could I walk away? I just thought if I could just pretend everything was okay then it would be. No one needed to be hurt, nothing needed to change.
What an idiot!
I can see now that that denial of my own feelings (because I was scared about where acknowledging them would take me) led to an inner termoil which nearly tipped me over the edge.
And all this was coming from someone with a psychology degree. Yep, I was meant to be the person that understood all this. It’s hugely ironic and kind of embarrassing. This is why awareness is about way more than informaition.
As Lao-Tzu (some ancient wise guy )said:
“It is wisdom to know others; It is enlightenment to know one’s self”
It’s all very well learning about the neurotransmitters which cause schizophrenia, or understanding why no one owns up to farting in a lift, but when are faced with your own demon, understanding how to beat it suddenly becomes a lot more important.
When the relationship finally ended the sense of relief was huge. I was desperately sad but I knew I could handle that, and having the space to be with my own thoughts was like this enormous weight had been lifted.
I slowly started to rebuild my self confidence (I didn’t even realise it was broken at the time), to learn that it was okay just to be me, to do what I wanted, that it was okay to put myself first.
I saw a counsellor once but then baked away because I didn’t want to cause a fuss, I didn’t want to admit that there was something ‘wrong’ with me. I was fine, I didn’t need help. I would take the beta blockers but no way I was taking that mind altering stuff, no way, that’s for crazy people. That’s what I thought at the time anyway!
People talk about the stigma surrounding mental health, but what does that mean. This might not be PC to admit but for me that is a stigma I attach to myself. I would never judge others who battle with their mental health but when it comes to myself I feel a sting of shame, like it makes me less of a person. I know rationally that this is bullshit, but my inner critic insists it’s right… as it always does! It comes back to my self-belief that I should be better, stronger, braver, saner than other people. It sounds arrogant to write it down, I mean why should I be any different?, but I know I am not the only one to hold myself to a way higher standard than I do other people.
That tendency to give myself way more shit than I would give to my worst enemy still lives on, even though I know that it makes me a complete hypocrite!
So instead of counselling, I discovered self-help books (this was when the internet only existed on dial up for the young ‘uns among you!). That’s when I first read “Feel the fear and do it anyway” by Susan Jeffers.(#aff). If you struggle with anxiety and haven’t read this before, then get on it. It’s probably over 20 years old now but it’s still incredibly relevant and useful. To me it’s the mother of all self-help books which came after!
Ever since those days I have carried on reading and developed strategies and tools for dealing with my particular brand of generalised anxiety. It’s the annoying kind where I can be absolutely fine until some utterly insignifcant comment or stray thought sews a seed in my brain about why something is going to go hideously wrong, which starts a chain of catastrophising, usually ending in me dying or being utterly humiliated in some way.
Sometimes those tools work a treat, sometimes the monkey brain is too strong and I let the anxiety dictate my behaviour. I may go through a few years where my anxiety barely touches me, then something will happen to cause a bit of a flare. And that something is rarely the big stuff, it can be a small argument with a friend which causes a bit of paranoia about something else which, left unchecked, can spiral to other situations. It spreads like a virus. Thankfully, now that I understand this, now that I have AWRENESS, I’m better at cathching these things earlier, before the spiral starts.
I have had counselling on and off over the years and CBT as well as the self -help stuff. It really is important to seek help when you need it, not matter how determined you may be to go it alone! For me, and I’m sure many others out there, asking for help is incredibly tough, but please know that it is worth it.
There are still certain situations and contexts which cause phobia like reactions in me but these days I’m a lot more honest with myself, and others, about what those are. I’m getting better at saying, “I’m not doing that, it scares the life out me” or “I’m too much of a control freak to do that”. It took a lot of time to accept this side of my personality rather than battle it. I hope one day more of those sentences change to “That scares the shit out of me, but I’ll give it a go”. The past few years has seen a definite shift towards that but I’m very much still a work in progress!
I’ve talked before, and no doubt I will again about the things which help me stay aware of what’s going on, but will summarise a little here.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) gave me some great tools and a new way to view my thoughts and understand the connection between thinking behaviour. The most important thing I learned from these group sessions was that Thoughts are not Facts!
Mindfulness works really well with CBT and the book I recommend more than any other book is Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world (aff), by Danny Pennman & Mark Williams. Its not an overstatement to say that book changed my life.
I won’t go into detail about what mindfulness is or how it works. Partly because I don’t really understand how it does, but I know that for me it has helped me to change my relationship with the anxious thoughts that plague my mind.
Mindfulness is awareness for me. Just as yoga helps me become aware of my physical body; where the aches and pains are, the mindfulness element also helps me to become aware of my mental wellbeing; what thoughts are tugging at my attention, what is it that’s stopping me from being present, or perhaps noticing that I am in a good place, that I can feel gratitude and hope and excitement.
Being aware of how you are feeling without trying to change it is key to not letting those feelings overwhelm you.
Flow activities, crochet being the big one for me obviously, are also great at just settling the mind. My mind gets to wander but not to dwell. It’s a really good balance. When I’m worrying about something it takes the right amount of attention to stop my brain spiralling, but not so much that it’s overwhelming. Anxiety impacts your attention and memory so something that is easy to do is a great way to counteract this. Doodling is another awesome flow activity, where the outcome is not really important – as demonstrated my by doodled illustration which heads this post (as I have told you before – I am not a natural artist!).
Journalling is a helpful way to stay aware of how you are feeling. I write in a note book every morning with my first cup of tea of the day. I write anything that comes into my head which is sometimes nonsense but sometimes it’s a way of identifying things which may be bothering me and working through those to get to the crux of what the issue really is.
Lastly, I want to pay tribute to sleep. The older I get, the more I understand the power of sleep. I know now that when I drive off somewhere for the day and get that paranoia that I have left the hair straighteners on and they will burn the house down, I just need to get some more sleep!
There are loads of studies which which advocate for it’s healing effects, both physically and mentally. I’m very aware that is a statement without any specific sources so I refer you to the awesome podcast on The Science of Sleep from the Infinite Monkey Cage show on Radio 4. It manages to be funny and mind blowing at the same time!
So there we have it.
My non-professional, anecdotal theory on why Mental Health Awareness matters.
Thanks for sticking with me through this epic post. It’s been a tough share but I hope it resonates with some of you out there! I would love to hear about your own personal journeys. It’s one of those topics where the more you talk to people, the more you realise how many of them get it – so get sharing!
If you’re struggling, please seek help in whatever constructive way works for you. I’ve added some resources below which you might want to check out.
Other Mental Health Resources
The books linked to in this piece are affiliate links, which means if you clock on the link link and go on to make a purchase I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. This has no impact on my decision to recommend the books! You can read more about my affiliate policy here.