Mental Health Week 4: Self-Care

Today’s theme for Mental Health awareness week is winding down. Over the years of being in and out of various forms of therapy & counselling I have had lots of advice for how to take care of myself. Self-care is critical – even when something doesn’t seem to actually improve the situation just the very fact that you are taking care of yourself, doing something nice for yourself can have a really positive impact on your state of mind.

Today is my birthday, so I’m not in the office, and I’ll be doing a lot of nice things for myself today and over the next few days. Here is a collection, in no particular order, of some of the things that I have tried, with various success, over the years. Some may work for you, some won’t. The trick is to try until something does.

If you’re in a very low place, it can sometimes help to try to shift your reality by getting involved in a different reality:

  • Try a movie that brings a smile to your face – for me, that’s something that requires almost no concentration and has a happy ending. Maybe it’s a Reese Witherspoon thing but both Sweet Home Alabama and Legally Blonde work perfectly for me, everytime. Afterwards I might still be low, but for the 2 hours or so that the movie was on, I had forgotten my reality
  • Music can work too – it’s cheesy, but 80s pop tracks, or ABBA, or something equally wrong, can do wonders to make you want to sing a long, dance and forget the world
  • Friends – sometimes you really don’t want to see anyone, sometimes even the thought of seeing someone is really overwhelming. But actually, once they are there, with you, they are awesome. It’s an absolute fallacy to think depressed people can’t laugh. You can, and it helps, only for the moment, but when you’re low, each moment conquered matters

If you’re feeling really stressed and anxious, it’s important to try to find a few moments where you can have some respite and take time for you:

  • A long bath with bubbles, and candles and some calming music can work wonders. Put some lavender oil in the water. My go-to music for this is the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Don’t judge me, it’s beautiful and just transports me to another reality.
  • Creating a little oasis of calm where you can in your home is really useful – light a tea candle, put some flowers in a vase, and sit quietly watching the candle burn. Whilst you’re doing this, you can also try –
  • Meditation – I’ve had mixed success with this one, it’s very very hard to quiet the mind and not let it run off on one! If you can just observe that your mind wants to think about other things, without judgement, and just try to concentrate on your breathing, breathing in good, breathing out bad stuff, then it helps. And you can also try –
  • Affirmations – saying something positive to yourself again and again. It’s important that it’s phrased just as a positive (i.e. not I am not stupid, but instead, I am bright). My own affirmation was given to me by a friend who is also a life coach (oh, I’ve tried everything!) and it is “Whatever I do, I totally & completely accept myself exactly as I am right now.”
  • You can also get Angel cards or other affirmation cards which will give you a new one every day
  • And there are loads of meditation apps (& you tube videos) which are worth trying until you find one that works for you
  • With my current psychiatrist, I have worked through a very detailed visualisation for my safe space, which is what I focus in on whenever I need to now. I imagine myself walking down the lane, opening the gate, and sitting in the bright yellow lawn of daffodils, the birds overhead, the breeze on my skin, the dampness of the grass, the dogs & ducks in the distance… Pick a happy time where you felt really safe and calm and peaceful. Add detail. Close your eyes, transport yourself there. It’s a wonderful resource, an oasis of calm in a noisy world.
  • Yoga is a great way to relax & unwind; you need to focus on your breathing which helps with stress, and you can do it at home so you don’t need the added stress of being around people, or leaving the house.
  • And, if you’re up to it, then exercise does have some benefits – it helps to clear the lungs so they have to breathe more deeply. As I’ve said, I don’t believe that exercise can make stress or depression go away – and if you’re in a deeply depressed state, exercise is just going to tip you over the edge. I’ve tried running when depressed and it’s made me feel even more low because my body and my mind just wasn’t ready for the jolt. So, don’t do too much, listen to your body, and do what’s good for you.
  • And tea. We’re British after all… (or not, but, tea).

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and in a state of high anxiety, or feeling panicked, then you can try:

  • Grounding yourself – feel your feet on the ground, your back supported by the chair, straighten your back, relax your shoulders. Be aware of your body, in the present.
  • Using your left hand, grip your right wrist, just lightly… be aware of how it feels. Pat up your arm, to your shoulder. Do the same right hand, to left wrist. Do the same with your left hand to your right ankle and up your leg. And vice versa. This gives you a sense of being in the present, your body is here, attached to you. Very useful if you’re starting to feel that floating out of body experience which is common with panic attacks.
  • Orient yourself to your surroundings. Notice the colour of the carpet, the walls. Say to yourself, that is a chair over there. Notice if the sun is shining. What are the noises you hear? Just focus on the things, the noises, the tastes, the smells. This will give you time to not be thinking about what’s panicking you.
  • If you find yourself being panicked at your desk (or in your home) have something that you can focus on that brings you calm. On my desk I have some postcards, one is of Vancouver where I love, and some sunsets. Also Pooh with some honey.
  • Similarly, you can keep something in your pocket to hold onto – a stone perhaps, which just grabbing in your fist can help to ground you. Or a piece of jewellery. I have a bracelet which I focus on, and also a necklace which I wear most days which actually symbolises the grounding chakra.
  • Smell is the quickest sense to adjust – I carry rosemary oil with me everywhere I go, it’s quite an energising smell and it’s one I now associate with being safe. Choose one that you like and inhale whenever you need. By my bed, I keep lavender oil, as it has a soporific effect too.
  • If what someone is saying is making you feel either stressed or triggered, then try visualising them with a goldfish bowl in front of their face. Focus on the goldfish swimming around. Their face will be distorted through the glass. It’s surprisingly effective 😉

If you’re having trouble sleeping, which tends to go hand in hand with stress, it can be a double whammy because when you’re feeling tired, everything is worse. I can’t say I’ve cracked the insomnia code yet, but some things I’ve tried (and trying):

  • Keep a pad by the bed (and a pen or pencil) – if your mind is racing it will try to stay awake to remember things. Write them down so you know you don’t have to keep them in your head.
  • Diffuse some peace & calming oils / lavender so that the air in the room will help you sleep
  • I suffer from night terrors sometimes – I’ve got a self-made calendar thing (not sure what to call it really) that tells me what day it is, what year, where I am, how old I am. That way, when I wake up in a panic thinking I’m in a bad place, I can orient myself quickly to the present and know it was only a nightmare
  • Don’t keep your phone by the bed, Twitter & Facebook can be too distracting
  • Have a bath before bed
  • Don’t do exercise in the late evening – your body will be too energised
  • Meditate or do some of the calming activities before bed
  • Chamomile tea is very calming and can have a soporific effect
  • If you’re in a cycle of insomnia it can sometimes be helpful to use sleeping tablets to kick-start the body back into its natural cycle. Sleeping tablets can be really unhelpful too though, and even the non-addictive ones can prove to be quite addictive, making you believe you need them. And, take it from me, it’s not very good if you take a sleeping tablet, wake up in the night and in your half-drowsy state think it’s a good idea to take another, oversleep until mid-morning when you were supposed to be at VCCP to give a stratcom presentation, get there late and then explain to the group about it not being a good idea to take too many sleeping tablets…. They’ll think you’re crazy. They might be right, but it’s not a great outcome.
  • I’ve also tried Valerian as a natural alternative to sleeping tablets – tastes awful but a few drops in grapefruit juice can do wonders. Tend to still wake up feeling very zombiefied though. Nytol can work too but I prefer the herbal versions. And nothing (over the counter) beats Night Nurse.  

I know this is work, so probably not very appropriate to focus too much on some of the less healthy winding down techniques but I don’t think that it would be honest to discuss mental health and fail to mention that those of us who suffer from mental health issues are more likely to fall foul of things like alcohol or drug abuse. My biggest failing is comfort eating and carbs are my enemy. When stressed, anxious or depressed, it’s important to be kind to yourself – but that doesn’t always mean another macaroni cheese or glass of red wine. Everything in moderation. Except breathing, always remember to breathe.