Mental health and ill-health

I was struck by a comment from a friend recently that she was finding it useful to have learned so many good strategies for managing and improving mental health, through various crises, which are helping her to cope well at the moment. Awareness and management of my mental health is second-nature to me these days, and as for my friend, it’s been very valuable in these past few weeks.

All of us are dealing with anxiety, uncertainty, isolation, and loss at the moment. None of us have lived through a situation quite like this, and none of us know what we’re doing. I think it’s pretty normal to be experiencing mood swings, to be struggling with motivation, and to be exhausted from it all.

Here’s a few suggestions I have about things which could help. None of these replace seeking medical help, which you should still do if you need it. Talking therapies may be harder to access than usual, but medication can still be prescribed if appropriate, and you should absolutely talk to your GP if you are not coping. These suggestions are simple things which may help all of us, whether or not we also need to seek medical help.

Track your mood

Awareness of a potential problem is the first step to doing something about it. For me, the tendency is to assume that a bad day automatically signals the beginning of a downward spiral back into depression. It’s VERY helpful to be able to see that, in fact, a bad day is just a bad day. It’s also helpful to see if there are patterns – do you always have a bad day on a Friday? Or a Monday? Or the day when you have to go to the supermarket? Or whatever. If the bad days are predictable, you may be able to find ways of dealing with them better, but even if not, at least you’ll know it’s just a bad day and it will pass.

The other thing that you can see by tracking, of course, is a trend. You can see if you are slipping down into depression, or whether your mood is relatively stable. And if it’s a long term thing, then you know you need to do something about it – talk to your GP.

You can track your mood simply – maybe once a day just stop and judge: have the last 24 hours been great, good, okay, meh, awful. Make a note of it in your diary.

There are more nuanced trackers. For a long time I used Moodscope, which asks you to assess 20 things and then calculates an average score for each day. It charts your progress and will send you a daily reminder. I’m sure there’s lots of apps doing similar things. Maybe now is a good time to start using one.

Have daily habits

There are several small things I try to do every day which I know have a big impact on my mood. Some of these are things which in normal life I don’t have to think about doing, but at the moment I need to make a conscious effort to include. Having some kind of routine is really valuable for mental health, because you’re reducing the number of choices you’re having to make through the day.

My list at the moment includes: get up and get dressed; spend time reading the Bible and praying; spend some time outside of the house; speak to another person; go to bed by 11pm; get up by 7.30am.

Interacting with other people is something I can easily let slide if I don’t include it on the list. I live on my own, and obviously at the moment, I’m not going out very often. Plus I’m naturally a strong introvert. So I do try to schedule in conversations. It can be a work meeting, a phone call with a friend, or even just a couple of minutes talking to the cashier at the supermarket. Talking to another person really helps to reset the internal monologue when it’s got into a negative cycle.

Your list might include: do some exercise, read a book, do something creative, write a journal, eat vegetables. Think about things which are achievable on a regular basis, which you might need a reminder to include, and which will make you feel better. Ticking these off each day also gives a sense of achievement which will help you feel better!

Set small goals

Which is my third point. There’s nothing which makes me feel better than ticking off a list. Getting something done. At the end of the day, being able to look back and see what I have achieved.

But if the goals are too big, nothing gets achieved. Long term goals are hard when the future is so uncertain. For the maximum mental health benefit, I recommend really, really tiny goals. And not too many of them. Three things a day is a good amount. Those three things could be:

  1. Get dressed
  2. Put the bin out
  3. Cook a proper dinner

Or they could be:

  1. Go for a walk
  2. Check blood pressure
  3. Ring a friend

Or even:

  1. Have breakfast
  2. Shower
  3. Wash hair

It doesn’t matter so long as they are achievable for you. Set the goals the night before and check in each day to see if you’ve done them. You can always do more things, if you get motivated!

Live by grace

It’s okay if you don’t manage any of your daily habits, or tick off any of your small goals. Some days will be harder than others. Sometimes the struggle will feel overwhelming.

But the next day will be better. You can start again. You can set smaller goals. You can re-evaluate your habits. You can mark down a bad day on your mood tracker.

And you can ask for help. Ask the Lord, of course. Ask your friends or family. Ask your GP.

Further thoughts on mental wellbeing