My family knows about my depression, although only my parents know how bad it really gets. This weekend I was hanging out with my family and we got into a discussion about mental health. My mum is a GP and one of my sisters is in her final year of medicine and is currently working on a psychiatry placement. Between them, they have a lot of medical knowledge and experience of mental health and various ways and means of dealing with mental ill-health. Myself and my partner have both suffered from depression, and my mother, too, has struggled with her mental health. The discussion was fascinating and insightful, as well as helpful for all of us talking about mental health from our different perspectives.
From a personal perspective, what I took away from it was the concept of having a mental health action plan, or toolbox, that can be put into place to help deal with mental health issues before they get out of control.
My mother talked about how, for most medical issues, there are action plans that are put into place for dealing with situations that arise as a result of the medical issue becoming a problem. For example, if you are someone who suffers from high blood pressure, you take medication. If your high blood pressure is stress related, then you will have an action plan in place for when your stress levels get too high. This might be taking time off work, doing deep breathing exercises, or activating CBT exercises that help manage the stress levels. For a lot of medical issues, there are many aspects of taking care of the body, from managing diet and exercise, to taking medication and following a specific treatment plan. With depression, this isn’t always the case.
So, I’ve decided to figure out the items in my ‘toolbox’ that I can draw upon to assist me when depression sneaks back in. The key thing, for me, is not to ignore the initial signs of depression. I always do this, and it always ends up with me having to battle my way out of a really dark place. I don’t want to let myself do this anymore, but I need to have a plan in place, something that I do to help myself deal with the early signs of depression.
I need to figure out how my depression initially manifests itself in order to be able to identify the early warning signs. I then need to figure out what I can do to help myself before it starts to get out of control. This is action plan 1. I also need to have an action plan 2 as a back-up in case I don’t catch the initial signs of depression on time. This will be my plan for when the depression is already dragging me down and I’ve missed the warning signs. Action plan 3 will be for those times when I have missed the first two warning stages, and my depression is fully blown. For these times, I a very basic strategy in place to help me pick up the pieces at my lowest point. I also need to have a daily strategy that I use all the time as a preventative plan. This will help me to avoid needing to use action plan 1, 2 or 3.
Here are the tools in my toolbox.
- Mindfulness – I have a great book for this, which I have to start using properly. More about this another time.
- Going to yoga class – I go to Vinyasa Flow Yoga, and I find the smooth movements help me to reconnect my mind with my body, and calm me down, making me feel peaceful.
- Meditation – I can do this at home and at the Buddhist centre (I’m not Buddhist, but they do run great meditation classes). At home is usually best, but the effort to do it is hard.
- Deep breathing exercises for when I’m out and about – counting to three breathing in, counting to four breathing out
- Exercise – I find taking part in regular exercise, whether it’s a walk down the riverbank, turning up for basketball training or circus training, both of which take place once a week, or simply working out in the gym, all help to take me out of my head. Obviously, I generally don’t do all of these things when I’m feeling down. The gym is my fallback when I’m really low because I can lift weights alone, so social skills aren’t required.
- Being in Nature – whether sitting on the grass, smelling the flowers, watching the birds or the leaves in the wind, nature is just there all the time and can be the only thing that helps when I’m really, really low.
- Sleep – I have a lot of trouble sleeping, and I’ve found that my depression is better after a good night’s sleep. Various things, such as eating before 9pm, avoiding caffeine after midday, eating complex carbs rather than sugar, switching off all electronic devices two hours before I go to sleep, taking a long hot bath, lighting a lavender candle and drinking sleepy/night-time tea, all help. This leads me on to my next few points.
- Diet & Caffeine – By diet, I mean the type of food that I eat, not the losing-weight style diet. First of all, I eat a lot when I’m feeling down. I tend to eat a lot of ice-cream, chocolate, biscuits and other unhealthy food options that exacerbate my depression. Sugar gives me massive highs and lows, as does caffeine, when I’m not feeling good. I can eat a bar of chocolate and my mood will shoot through the roof, but this will be followed by a massive drop afterwards. So avoiding sugar and caffeine are key. This means that I need to be prepared. I need to have meals that I’ve pre-cooked, and for this I need to make sure that I have easy recipes that I can draw on when I feel low. I also need to have snacks, such as bananas, apples and nuts that I can eat before trying to cook. I also have caffeine-free teas, and caffeine-free coffee, so that I can still have the drinks that I like without the side effects of the caffeine.
- Baths – I have found that a hot bath works wonders. It doesn’t have to be full to the brim, it just has to be hot, and the light has to be turned off in favour of a lavender candle. I use Epsom salts, which relax the muscles. As the mind and the body are intimately connected, when your muscles relax, so does your mind too.
- Switching off electronics 2 hours before bed – Most electronics, from laptops, to TVs, to phones, create a light that is designed to mimic daylight. Our bodies have evolved to cope with firelight at night, but not daylight. Light from electronics prevents our body clocks from switching to night-time mode, which can make it much harder to switch off and go to sleep.
- Body language – this can be the hardest one to do. I attended a fascinating lecture by a guy who specialised in body language and how it can change how we feel. He made us all slouch, drop our heads and lose the smile. Then he got us all to sit up straight, put our shoulders back and smile. As much as I didn’t want him to be right, the change in my posture changed my mood for the better. So, when I’m feeling rubbish on the walk into work, I try to use some of this wisdom to alter my mood. I force a smile on my face. I try not to slouch so much. And I hold my head up. Even if I only do it for 5 seconds, it can help a little bit.
- Being Alcohol-free – This is crucial as alcohol is a depressant. As an ex-bartender and alcohol-lover, I found going alcohol-free really difficult. It’s how people socialise. It’s expected that most people who are sociable will have a drink after work. When it’s someone’s birthday, there’s alcohol. During holidays, there’s alcohol. When you go out for a meal, there’s alcohol. And for some reason, it’s always necessary to explain why I’m not drinking. People will badger and persist – when can I get drunk with you, why aren’t you drinking still? Initially, I was hoping that I’d be able to drink when I started to feel better. But this isn’t the case. Every time I drink, I feel shitty afterwards. If it’s only one bottle of beer, it will just be a low level of anxiety or irritability. If it’s a few, I can feel like I want my life to end. It’s just not worth it.
I’ll figure out my action plans in my next post, drawing upon these tools. Until then, I’ll leave you with these words of wisdom:
“Think of each thought as individual snowflakes. Don’t let your thoughts snowball out of control, acknowledge each thought as separate snowflakes and let them drift safely out of sight. They’ll eventually melt away.”