Some people skip through life, some people get dragged through it. I often feel I do both. At the same time.
A psychologist colleague of mine tells me that mental hygiene is a lot like dental hygiene. In other words, staying content and mentally/emotionally well doesn’t just happen, you have to put conscious time, effort and planning into it. I agree, although I would venture again, that some people just have to spend a lot more time than others doing mental ‘gargling and flossing’ to keep the rot at bay. Don’t ask me why. Genes? Upbringing? Maybe.
Besides this, I sometimes feel that what might be called ‘psychological problems’ (including mild depression or anxiety) can produce some of the most insightful, compassionate, creative, original and profound qualities in people, not to mention masterpieces through them. A little while back, the mental health charity MIND made this point incredibly powerfully through a poster campaign, featuring images of well known people such as Princess Diana and Winston Churchill alongside the captions, ‘what do you see? Bulimic or People’s Princess’? and ‘Depressive or great leader?’
Partly through my own experiences and those of family members, I got into the job I do now with MIND. Helping others through difficult times and encouraging them to work on their mental hygiene routines has been a steep learning curve for me too. I certainly don’t believe that feeling content and happy is all simply down to an individual and their attitude. However, here are some of the things that I’ve learned, and am learning, can make a difference:
1, The way you interpret and think about something is much more likely to cause your feelings about it than the thing itself. Two people can go through the same experience and feel very differently at the end. The difference is all in how they are thinking about the experience. You don’t have to automatically accept your thoughts and judgements as true.
2, The 3 main ways to make yourself depressed are to think badly about yourself, to view the future bleakly and to interpret day to day events negatively.
3, There are a whole heap of common thinking patterns/styles that make people feel worse. Try not to think in ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ but rather ‘I would rather he had……but’ or ‘I’d have preferred to do…… but’. Shoulds and musts lead to a lot of anger. Don’t be down on yourself or other people, don’t tell yourself ‘I can’t stand this’ or ‘I can’t bear it’ because you always can, and try not to catastrophise, ‘this is absolutely awful! It’s going to be a disaster!’ My other favourite is mind-reading, in other words, assuming you know what others are thinking/feeling – girls take note!
4, You don’t have to do things the same way all your life or be the same person. It may feel fake and weird at first but experiment! If you don’t normally go to that kind of event then try it. If you don’t normally wear that style of clothing because you think you’d look stupid, give it a go! If you’re not an out-doors person, are you sure? Or is that belief simply down to PE lessons 20 years ago?
5, The absolute only way to get through fear is to face it. Reassuring yourself nothing bad will happen doesn’t help. It might. But you can cope. So gradually take small steps to repeatedly expose yourself to what you fear.
6, Our emotions are simply chemical reactions going off in our body so they may actually bear no resemblance to reality. Just because you are feeling fear and horrible physical symptoms of fear, this doesn’t mean there is actually anything to fear. You can try to ignore your emotions rather than give them the time of day.
7, Why do you never approach people at a party? Why do you never dance at a party? Is it because you think others will think you are stupid or look silly? Is it because you think you’re terrible at conversation or can’t move to save your life? Well, maybe you could do with picking up some skills, but maybe you believe those things about yourself for no real reason, or at least for a reason that happened a long time ago. Try the things that scare you and that you’d never normally do. You may be surprised that you actually are quite a good mover! And if people do laugh, can you stand it? Of course!
8, Being assertive is not about being bolshy and pushy. It’s rather about saying what you really think and feel in a considerate way. Therefore, it’s actually being honest rather than deceptive. Not expressing ourselves might save conflict in the short-term but usually leads to a build up of resentment against people, an erosion of self confidence and occasional blow-ups with people we care about, which totally surprise them as they seem to come out of the blue. They have not had a chance to really know the real ‘us’.
8, A great way to tell someone assertively that they have upset you is called scripting: –
a, Tell the person exactly what situation you are talking about. Eg, ‘when you gave me that report late…’
b, Tell them the impact it had on you both in terms of your feelings and behaviour. Eg, ‘It meant I had to stay late to finish my work. I felt really annoyed about this.’
c, Tell them how you’d like things to change in the future to make things better. Eg, ‘Next time I would like your report to be with me by Thursday please’
d, Tell them why that would be good for you and them. Eg, ‘That way I can get my work completed on time and our working relationship will also be a lot smoother’.
Obviously it’s not always that simple, but it’s a structured start!
These are just a few of the things that have made an impression on me and my life.
If you ever go through periods of low mood or anxiety, have any other mental health needs, or are just interested in finding out more, then you’re definitely not alone. It’s estimated that 1 in 6 people at any one time is experiencing some form of a common mental health problem. There are some great on-line resources out there. and the best ones we encourage people to use at work are:
http://www.livinglifetothefull.com (an on-line course of various modules covering techniques to help yourself)
http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au (for all kinds of issues, including panic attacks, social anxiety, self esteem, assertiveness, depression, worry and disordered eating)
If you’re in the UK and are interested in having some free NHS sessions of guided self help (or possibly more in-depth CBT therapy) to help with things like depression, anxiety, panic, OCD, social anxiety, sleep problems and worrying, then you can go to your GP and request a referral to the Improving Access to Psychological Therapy service (IAPT). Not all areas have this service but many do now.
Personally, I think we could all do with using these resources at some time or other in our lives!