A Matter of the Mind

Today is World Mental Health Day, a day on which we pay particular attention to the mind and recognise that it requires the same level of care as our bodies. But even if we acknowledge that society is getting better at addressing mental health, there is arguably still a degree of unconscious bias that can make it feel awkward to talk about. Yet every day is a mental health day. This year, as we face a pandemic and the many challenges it poses, it feels all the more important to be open about what we’re going through. For what it’s worth, these are my thoughts, which I share in the hope that they may resonate with others.

When the Covid situation started to unfold and the country went into lockdown in March, I didn’t think that we would still be in such dire straits 7 months later. Perhaps if I had been a scientist I would have been less naive, and maybe the knowledge that we were in it for the long haul would have prepared me for what was to come. But, honestly, I was not prepared, and based on my conversations with others, I’m not alone in that.

At first, there seemed to be a prevailing sense that we all just needed to knuckle down and get on with it. Once the initial panic had begun to subside, we had to try and return to some degree of normalcy. Go about our lives, cook real food, continue to function at work, care for children/relatives etc. We were expected to approach being shut up in our homes with a stiff upper lip, to just accept things for what they were and cope with it.

In the short term, maybe we could have done that without too much difficulty. We could have been resilient and stoic and all of the other qualities that one is expected to assume in a crisis. And maybe some people are still in that frame of mind and have able to sustain it. However, suppressing all of the feelings that arise when the world is (both literally and metaphorically) on fire can have a really negative impact on your mental health. It’s stressful to have to put on a front, to be fine when you’re not, to function when you can barely get out of bed because you feel buried under the weight of your feelings.

The other day I read an article from Aware NI entitled Navigating the ‘New Normal’. I struggle with the concept of the ‘new normal’ because there is nothing normal about our present state. It’s also a flat-out rejection (on my part) of the idea that this situation has no end; if something becomes normal then there’s the implication that we accept it, and I do not accept this half life I’m currently living.

Title aside, the article was a helpful read. I appreciated the following segment in particular:

Good or bad, change requires an adjustment of some kind. This takes energy. If the demands are too great, it can drain you and create stress. Unmanaged stress can cause symptoms of anxiety and depression including:

– An unusually sad mood that doesn’t go away
– Loss of enjoyment and interest in activities that used to be enjoyable
– Loss of confidence or poor self-esteem
– Feeling guilty when not at fault
– Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
– Physical symptoms such as headaches, tiredness, lack of energy, weight loss or gain.

I looked at that list and nodded to myself. I reflected on the sustained periods of sadness and loneliness. I thought about my lack of desire to do activities that usually pleased me, the comfort-eating and the weakening of my already paltry confidence when I inevitably gained weight. Headaches, tiredness, insomnia, and an overall lethargy that sapped me of energy and took away my motivation. Lastly, the overwhelming sense of guilt. Guilt for being needy, for feeling sad when others were coping with so much more. Feeling guilty that I didn’t want to immediately move back home to my family, even though I loved and missed them. Guilt over having days out (alone) when maybe I should’ve stayed inside. Guilt over my anxious brain misinterpreting messages from friends and sending me into a spiral of worry, internally questioning our friendship and irritating them in the process…

To deal with all of these things on top of the daily grind is a lot. It takes its toll and, in my case, brought out characteristics that increased the negative feelings I had towards myself. I was (am?) cross with myself for struggling and frustrated that my mind was causing me to feel like I was unravelling. I share these truths not to gain sympathy but in the hope that if you look at that list and nod to yourself, you don’t feel so alone. In a year marked by isolation and loneliness, connection is ever more vital.

The article saves the most important idea until the end, urging people who are struggling to reach out. As a friend once remarked to me, the dark days when you want to shut yourself away and hide from everyone are usually the days when you most need contact.

Now, more than ever it is so important to keep connected to others. If you are struggling, reach out to someone you trust and let them know how you’re feeling. They will not judge you and may be able to offer a different perspective. Knowing there is someone there who will listen will really help you process any negative thoughts and help you cope better with what you are going through.

If you feel you have no one to turn to, know there are people who are trained to listen and help.

Talking to people has been the only way that I have been able to get through this year. Sometimes, when you’re at your lowest, you might not feel like there’s anyone there to talk to. Perhaps you’re afraid of burdening friends, of feeling like a stuck record, or of being knocked back. But if this year has shown me anything, it’s that it’s twenty times harder to get out of a dark hole on your own. Sometimes you need someone to reach down and pull you up, back into the light. Someone to tell you that you’re ok, you’re loved, you matter, you’re missed. And, if you find yourself wondering whether it might be worth talking to someone more qualified than those who love and know you best, don’t be afraid to seek them out.

We’re in this together and together we’re stronger.

Take care. 🧡

P.S. There are a lot of sites out there that will give you advice on how to deal with stress, anxiety, or depression, but I thought I’d share a few things that have helped me during the pandemic:

  • Set up a routine and try, as much as you are able, to stick to it
  • Text/email/call a friend, even if it’s just a ‘Hello’ / ‘Happy Tuesday!’ / ‘Love you!’
  • Factor some exercise or outdoor time into your day
  • Try and set up a couple of scheduled Skypes during the week with friends. Having these loosely fixed catch ups gives you something to look forward to
  • Be mindful of the amount of time you’re spending on social media
  • Consider keeping a journal or diary, even if it’s just somewhere that you offload your feelings about the day (think Dumbledore’s Pensive, if you’re a HP fan.)
  • Teach yourself a skill/new hobby, like how to knit or paint, as positive distraction. (Youtube will be your friend here.)
  • Send a card or letter to someone
  • Read, listen to music, have a dance
  • Batch cook nice food for days when you can’t be bothered to cook
  • Be kind to yourself (this one’s hard.) Take one day at a time. Accept that there are days when you just cannot push yourself and just need to eat carbs and watch Netflix.

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