Like someone who is prone to chest infections or tonsillitis, I am prone to depression and anxiety. And like someone prone to chest infections, I’m more likely to get ‘a dose’ if I haven’t been looking after myself.
If I go out too much, stay up too late too often, get stressed at work, eat too much rubbish and stop exercising I will, almost inevitably, start to feel terrible. It usually starts slowly so I don’t catch the signs. It’s different for everyone, but with me it usually starts with trouble sleeping – I can’t fall asleep or I wake early. Then, like dominos, everything else starts to fall down.
Once I’m in this spiral it can take some time to get out of it and become well again and it’s an eye wateringly slow and frustrating process. However, each time round I learn something new that I’m able to use the next time to help catch it sooner and break myself out of the spiral more quickly. I now view it (when I’m well) as a gift – because each time I realise that it was bringing my attention to something negative in my life that I needed to address and it forces me to take action. It’s like a friend that specialises in tough love – it is horrible hearing what they have to say, but you are always better off after getting the kick up the arse that they give.
When are you feeling terrible you will do anything to feel better. ANYTHING. Inhale a muddy puddle through a straw? No problem. Perform an exorcism? Call the priest. However, when I’m feeling bad my judgement has usually also taken a knock and in desperation, I have found myself buying and agreeing to all sorts of things that I would normally only laugh at.
So over the years of trying every piece of whackery to come my way I’ve developed two hard, fast ground rules that I try to apply no matter how bad I’m feeling. I simply ask myself can I access this thing locally without bankrupting myself and am I absolutely certain that it won’t cause me harm. If I can answer yes to both, I’ll probably give it a go. This system has seen me try A LOT of natural, holistic remedies – and saved me from the certain horrors of a turmeric enema.
So whackery and turmeric enemas aside, what has really worked for me?
- Talk therapy is the number one thing that I have found works. It is not a quick fix – it’s more of a long game strategy – but it is worth every minute and every penny and not only has it saved my life, but every part of my life has been improved immeasurably by it.
- Exercise It is said so often that it has become a cliché and people worry that it means they need to become very fit – which is a tall order for someone when they are feeling so terrible that getting dressed is an ordeal. So it is important to know that it means different things to different people at different stages. It can mean getting a 20 minute walk in the day light every day (that is what I started with). It can mean gardening or jogging. The key thing is that your body is moving and your heart rate is raised. What is working for me at the moment is a wonderfully fun Zumba class which combines exercise, dancing, loud music and the company of other people who enjoy the same thing I do.
- Diet is also key. Not in the sense of restricting what you eat or counting calories – but in the type of food you chose and how often you eat. Eating regularly throughout the day is important so that your blood sugar doesn’t dip. Depending on how you are feeling, this can be a very hard task, but vital nonetheless. Unfortunately, all the boring things we’ve ever been told about food are true – fresh fruit and vegetables, plenty of fibre, protein and good carbs (sadly, cake doesn’t count) are all really important. Very interesting evidence is coming out that links intestinal and gut health to good mental health so a good probiotic can help enormously. Make fish and cashew nuts a regular part of your diet also. This is not to say that chocolate and cake can’t be part of your life too – but just make sure that they are not the only things you eat each day.
- Sleep. Regular, good quality, deep, restful, unbroken sleep is absolutely essential to mental and physical health. Everybody has different ideal sleep patterns that suit them – but in general it is important to make sure that you are getting 6-8 hours of unbroken sleep most nights. If there is a baby or children in your house, it might be months, or even years, since you got a few nights of uninterrupted sleep. I found that sleep deprivation of that magnitude plays havoc with every aspect of your life, health, relationships and wellbeing and is absolutely devastating to your mental health. Solving this requires creativity, ingenuity and in my case, the blissful uninterrupted silence of my mother’s spare bedroom once a week.
- Other people. We are social beings, programmed to need other people. There is strong evidence to show that our brains are wired to release oxytocin – the happy hormone – when we talk to people, share our upsets and participate in group projects. However when we feel bad it can become very difficult to be around others and maintain contact with people. The very time when we need other people the most, it can feel impossibly hard to be around them but it is vital that we build regular social activities into our lives. The time that you feel you can’t face it, is the most important time to make sure that you do.
- Stress is linked to almost every conceivable type of ill-health and its impact on mental health is enormous. A key element to health is to remove or minimise stress as much as possible and build in relaxation and down time into your daily schedule. As well as making changes to reduce stress, a short session of breathing, meditation or mindfulness each day can change your life. There are a lot of great courses running all over the country that will get you started and also provide excellent opportunities to meet people with similar outlooks. However I would also recommend a great website and smart phone App called Headspace (headspace.ie).
- Fun. So many adults I know – very often myself included – go weeks and months without having ‘fun’, without laughing madly and hilariously and really enjoying themselves. What feels like fun is different for everybody in the world – but we need to make sure that we have something small that we look forward to EVERY.SINGLE.DAY and that every week has something that we find ‘fun’ built into to our schedule and that we give it absolute priority.
When I work with clients – and when my own therapist works with me – the first thing we do is look at what is happening in these seven areas. On the basis that our depression/ anxiety ‘friend’ is trying to tell us that something in your life isn’t working for us, these areas can be a great starting point and relatively small changes can make a big difference.
While talk therapy (with a good therapist that you connect well with) is very expensive (but worth every single penny) a lot of the other things that work are free or low cost. However, very often they require us to make an enormous change in the way we prioritise ourselves and ask us to start putting our own needs and health first. This is something that we are often very poor at doing. Good mental health, like everything worth having, takes time, effort and tough decisions.
To sum it up – Eat, walk, sleep, talk, laugh, put yourself first and avoid turmeric enemas like the plague.