Managing your mental health: How to take care of yourself

Mental health blogger Fiona Kennedy looks at how trying to solve your problems can make them worse

Managing your mental health: How to take care of yourself

Lauren Rushing (Flickr)

I’ve been writing about managing my mental health for 4 years now.

Over that time, my understanding has grown dramatically, both of the reasons why my mental health hasn’t always been as robust as it could be, and the various ways to address that.

I’ve moved from believing depression wasn’t real, to being very firmly convinced it was, and right the way back again, although in a substantially different way.

Initially my belief that it not was real was based on the conviction that I simply wasn’t trying hard enough.

Then I was swayed by the chemical imbalance argument. This gave me some relief in that it freed me from the certainty that everything I was experiencing was my own fault.

But, it went a long way towards absolving me of any responsibility for managing how I felt. Believing faulty chemistry to be the source of my issues also exacerbated my sense of powerlessness and how hopeless the situation seemed. That’s a really scary place to be.

I’ve since come full circle and realised that depression, the feeling, is very, very real, but not in the way that I thought.

While everybody’s circumstances are different, I know that in my case, it’s nothing to do with out of control chemicals, and there’s huge comfort in that. I touched on it in my last article:

I’m no longer worried about depression coming back.

It’s quite likely I’ll experience it again at some point in my life, few of us won’t. But it no longer scares me, or feels out of control, because I understand that it happens for a reason. It’s telling me that there’s something I’ve been ignoring, something I need to process and accept, or address or change. I don’t need to recover from depression. I need to listen to it, and transform.’

If only it were so simple.

Focusing too much on the problem

If you’re anything like me, when confronted with a problem you will want to fix it. I think that’s a pretty natural desire and one we can all identify with.

But what about when the problem that needs fixing, or the change that needs to be made, takes over and becomes the singular focus of our attention? How many other aspects of ourselves get ignored?

Life is a series of happenings, big and small, many of which are largely out of our control. How these happenings impact on our well-being has a lot to do with our thoughts around them and our attempts to control and shape them. Things change all the time, for each and every one of us.

Sometimes that change can be anticipated, other times it catches us completely off guard. Sometimes it’s a welcome change, sometimes it’s the last thing in the world we want but can no longer avoid.

It’s so easy to get bogged down in thought and detail, trying desperately to get to the right decision as quickly as possible, that we can actually stall the process of change entirely.

The importance of self-care

Something I’ve long been guilty of, and I very much doubt I’m the only one, is focusing on a given problem to the exclusion of everything else. Fixing that problem becomes my single biggest priority, thinking about it occupies more head-space than anything else.

It becomes more important than all the self-care that I need to keep practicing, which is a glorious irony because without maintaining a good level of self-care, I lose the ability to trust my judgement and make decisions at all.

The problem doesn’t get solved, and if I’m not careful, I’ll end up chasing my tail until such a time as it either resolves itself, or is taken out of my control entirely.

For me to successfully navigate change or circumstances that are out of my control, I have to be disciplined, which is far from my strongest trait. Rather than trying to force the issue, I have to be patient. I need to recognise the impulsive desire in me to get to a solution NOW, and resist acting on it.

I also need to be aware that frustration at not being able to get a resolution can lead to unhelpful coping strategies such as alcohol, food, Netflix, and ignoring what makes me feel better – walking, yoga, time alone, eating well.

It’s so easy to resort to old habits, and like any difficult situation we face, the desire to hide can be overwhelming. But it can also be overcome.

If I’ve learned nothing else this last few years, I know for sure that how I manage my mental health can be articulated in just a few short sentences. There’s no great mystery to it. The challenge is keeping it going, particularly in more troubling times.