This feels like an update on the past few years. A few years ago I wrote a piece accepting that I have mental health challenges. It talked about that perception you can create about yourself. That view that people see of someone calm and serene – dare I say happy. But as I have explored more around mental health you can see that this is almost an atypical scenario that hides the truth. I have always liked the vision of a swan. Graceful on the surface yet under that surface furiously paddling through a lagoon of insecurity, anxiety and dread.
When I was diagnosed with anxiety a key step was looking back at some seemingly normal behaviours (to me). I was the individual who worked hard at work, had other roles outside of work involving charities and the local community. I was there to help everybody. On the outside I don’t look like I have any mental health challenges. I was happy and positive and able to really focus on others when they needed it the most. The outside can be a deception. I struggled to sleep, and I kept busy to keep the mind at bay because if it wasn’t busy the thoughts would creep in: Am I a good person? Do I have the right relationships at work? Am I raising my children correctly? And, well, you get the idea!
So, you have a continual struggle between working hard but worrying you’re not working hard enough. Keeping busy to stop that pause because you’re afraid of the pause. A life that really needs to slow down and show that actually you are smashing it even then!
So, what have I learnt. I have learned that as I get older, I have come to realise that the alarms my body sends me can only be managed, not switched off. I have tried saying to myself I am enough, but I just don’t believe it. I always worry I overshare by writing blogs like this, but I also know it may help someone. I accept who I am. Everyone finds their own way to help manage anxiety, but I find these five areas really help me – and anxiety aside, make me feel mentally and physically healthier:
Sleep – Get a good night sleep. You hear it a lot and until I started getting consistently higher amounts of sleep, I didn’t believe it. But irregular sleep does impact the body and disturbing that sleep with alcohol and screen time in advance won’t help too. I now have a bedtime routine involving blocking my phone from a set time, reading and general unwinding before heading to bed. Yes, some nights will be an exception due to a late night but where possible I make it work.
Power of water: I have found that a cold shower first thing or a swim (open water or swimming pool) is a great way to kick the body off in a morning and relax me. Sounds odd to say a cold-water shower will lower stress levels but it seems to – from reading more into these apparently cold-water triggers dopamine release – which makes us feel good and increase positive feelings. Just like magic.
Caffeine – I can’t take credit for reducing my caffeine consumption but for once I listened to my doctor and cut back on quantity and looked at timing. It is a stimulant and therefore naturally is not going to bode well when it comes to ensuring we get sufficient sleep in the rapid-eye-movement stage – which is our restorative stage of sleep. Probably linked to this also is alcohol consumption. Clearly moving alcohol consumption earlier in the day isn’t going to be the right answer so thinking about quantity and frequency of drinking, given its depressant properties, is a consideration as well.
Mindful exercises – I joke with my wife around yoga. All these “silly” named poses but I was advised to take up to help my flexibility and to provide a form of stress release. I have been amazed at the benefit of focusing on some breathing exercises – basically slowing down the heart rate (which reduces the production of stress hormones).
The great outdoors – Yes, I love gardening. I didn’t need telling it was beneficial for my mental health. Just getting fresh air has real benefits for us all. Taking some time to potter and tender to plants can reduce tension and fatigue meaning less likely to be angry and depressed. But it’s not just mental health it has benefits for our physical health so an all-around winner.
So, the lesson is that we all need to find ways to manage our inner self. It will come in many forms, but the ultimate starting point is acceptance of who you are.