Living with mental illness: It's time to slow down

Mental health blogger Fiona Kennedy talks about learning when to slow down and take it easy

Slow down. Relax. Take it easy.

What comes to mind when you hear those phrases? Does it involve watching TV? Reading? Scrolling through social media on your phone? Eating? Drinking? If you’re anything like me, most likely a combination of all of the above in one form or another.

Here’s another question. Does it ever involve doing nothing? As in, just sitting, quietly, with your thoughts? Again, if you’re anything like me, most probably not, in fact the mere thought of it sends shivers down my spine. Why is that? What happened that made us so scared of being alone with ourselves? When did ‘doing’ replace ‘being’?

I’ve done a lot of therapy the last 7 years in an effort to find peace of mind, and the last 6 months of that quest have been particularly intense. There’s so much that I’m learning, so much that I didn’t know - about myself, about our minds, about where we fit in the world, about why we think the way we do, and about the immeasurable impact the experiences we have every single day of our lives have on us. It’s quite phenomenal.

We think we know ourselves, but do we really? We know how we react to people and events, but do we know why? And if we experience a difficulty, how do we get ourselves through it? Do we give ourselves time to think about the impact it’s having on us? Or do we rush to put it to one side and move on to the next thing and the next thing after that?

What I’m coming to realise is there is only so long we can afford to ignore all the little things, because if we don’t make time to understand and process them, they don’t go away. Ever. They stay there, locked in our minds, influencing everything we do and everything we feel about ourselves. Even as I’m writing this, the enormity of it, and yet at the same time, the simplicity, is almost impossible to get my head around.

I was recently asked to sit in silence with my thoughts for an hour, in the hope of trying to fill some significant gaps in my memory. No phone, no book, no distractions of any sort. Just sit, let my mind wander around a brief snapshot of a memory, and see what comes up. My initial reaction was to laugh. How could I possibly just sit for an hour?? What would I do? The mere fact that I had to ask that question shows how difficult a concept it was for me to grasp –‘doing’ would negate the whole point of the exercise. I gave it a go. I put the phone away, sat down... And fell asleep.

Image: Shutterstock

Just sitting and thinking is an alien concept to me. I can’t fathom what it would be like to go into a café and just sit, by myself, without a screen or a book to occupy me. They’re shields to hide behind. If I’m reading, if I’m on my phone, I’m distracted. If something is bothering me, that distraction stops me from thinking about it. It also make me feel safer, like I blend in more. What would people think if they saw me just sitting?? Would I look strange? It would certainly feel strange, and I know I’d be extremely self-conscious.

I’m slowly, so very slowly, coming to realise that the frantic pace at which we live our lives, the endless distractions we surround ourselves with, are not exactly what’s best for us and for our minds. We need breathing room, literally and metaphorically. We need to allow ourselves time to slow down and feel. Feel our emotions, feel our reactions, understand them. We’re so scared of what are often perceived as ‘negative’ emotions – sadness, loneliness, grief, anger, frustration – but those emotions are with us for a reason. They’re trying to tell us something.

We can ignore those messages till the cows come home, but if I’ve learned nothing else the last 7 years, I’ve learned this: ignoring pain doesn’t make it go away. It masks it, it hides it for a bit, but nothing more. The next time we have a gap in our jam-packed schedule, the next opportunity our brain has to think on these things, it will. So what do we do? We distract some more, and the cycle continues, with all of the difficult emotions staying right where they are, ready to pop out again at a moment’s notice.

I’m still very much at the beginning of trying to understand all of this, and there’s no doubt in my mind I’ve massive learning yet to do. But what I’m finally realising is this – emotional pain is hard. It doesn’t feel nice, it can be overwhelming, it can feel out of control. But if I don’t let myself feel it? That pain will never go away. It may dull a little, but it will stay there, influencing and impacting on everything.

I don’t want to medicate pain away any more. I’m learning to listen, to let it tell me what it needs, and I hope ultimately, to let it go.

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Fiona Kennedy writes regularly about mental health issues on her blog sunnyspellsandscatteredshowers.org. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Samaritans free any time from any phone on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.ie to find details of your nearest branch. You can also find online information at www.yourmentalhealth.ie