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Three things that (often seem impossible but actually) help me manage my mental health

More days than not, I experience low mood, excessive worry and difficult intrusive thoughts. My illness (some kind of combo of anxiety & depression & OCD) seems always present, although some days are better than others. Today is a good day, as I feel quite calm, despite today being identical to yesterday (literally, given lock down) which was terrible with day-long constant nausea, a physical weight on my chest coupled with an aching feeling of dread (about what I don’t know).

Why are some days so different when nothing in my external world has altered? My perspective and perceived capacity to handle what life throws at me changes massively day to day, sometimes week to week and is often triggered by internal thoughts and feelings. Living with my symptoms has made it hard to sustain consistent employment and build solid relationships with others as ‘worry about my worry’ frequently overwhelms me and depression kicks in.

I struggled with parts of my illness in secret for almost two decades. Finally seeking a proper diagnosis led me again to a crisis point and I spent some time as a day-hospital patient a few years ago. I learned quite quickly that I was lucky enough to have more support outside of services than was available within. I am fortunate to have a very supportive husband and now my son Harry. After a tricky start to our life as a unit of three, the boys have both learned to support me when I need it with hugs and kindness.

Their confidence and love have enabled me to rebuild a life with positive experiences and a supportive structure. My strengths of creativity, love or learning and caring for others have motivated me to seek ways I can shift myself, little by little to gain perspective on my internal rollercoaster and manage my moods and overwhelm. In particular three things help me to do this, if you are still with me, I will run you through them

1. Planning the day, the week and the month ahead.

Having a flexible routine addresses my fears about the future and lets me set out how I will handle activities, tasks, events and interactions with people etc.

I use a bullet journal, which is like a freehand type of diary where you are free to set up pages as you like.

I make it as creative as I have time to do, sometimes it’s just using a black pen and a single highlighter with a focus on trying to write legibly. Other times I spend an evening colouring or planning new layouts on its blank dotted pages.

Getting creative if I don’t feel up to planning ahead also seems to lead to me feeling more hopeful, so try to I carve out time in my routine to do something arty or expressive that I enjoy for it’s own sake.

Both planning ahead and looking back at the journal helps distract me from endlessly dwelling on the past and also means I can use this record of my daily life and small successes to challenge some of my bleakest intrusive thoughts about myself.

2. Staying connected

When I most feel like hiding away, this is when I have learned I can gain the most from making a connection, however small, to someone or something I care about.

For me this is asking for a hug or texting or calling a loved one and just letting them know I care. I am very selective now in the relationships I invest in as I have learned I need to be authentically and wholly myself and not just try and fit in.

These days I am open about my struggle with ongoing anxiety and depression and I am so grateful that my close friends now know that when I occasionally reach out whilst I am in the midst of a bad patch, I am not expecting sympathy, for them to resolve my problems or make me feel better.

Sometimes my openness about my health means others confide in me about their own struggles and it’s important that I too have boundaries and have learned to empathise and signpost as needed. Basically I've shown myself that I can make authentic connections with others however I feel about myself, although this is the last thing I feel like doing at the time!

3. Peer support volunteering

Finally, I have found that building and belonging to a peer support community to be irreplaceable in terms of supporting my ongoing wellbeing within the context of my illness.

The perfect antidote to my shame and self-stigma, has been finding others like me, people who have sought (medical, psychological, social) support for their mental health and are seeking a space to talk about it. There is something magical that happens when people who are open about their (perceived) vulnerability get together. I find the natural empathy, openness and acceptance we provide each other helps validates my lived experience as a thing, and demonstrates it is a resource I can learn from. It has helped me see my ability to talk about my experiences as a kind of superpower, to be used wisely and well.

I have found that being part of a community of people who find it as normal to talk about mental health as to chat about the weather an absolute tonic. I know I can bring my whole self and have a safe and non-judgemental space to talk about the highs and the lows. We are all volunteers in the group, all open to listen, empathise and encourage each other. Helping others and feeling helped, I feel compassion reflected back onto me and I start to see that I too can be compassionate to myself.

In my most difficult times these three things have kept me going. How about you? I wonder if it's often the very things we are most fearful of, that seem impossible in that moment, that are the very things that will probably help us (help ourselves) the most.

I volunteered to set up a peer support group in my local area (Mental Health Mates Bucks) as there was none. At the moment we have moved to online chats but we hope to meet again soon in person for our monthly Walks and Talks. There are groups all over the country and you can find out more about the movement here

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