May is almost at the end! There is a part of me that cannot believe the speed at which the year is flying by. As you may be aware, May is Mental Health Month. I had plans all month of writing a blog post about my personal journey with mental health. However, this month has flown by, and I am only now sitting down to write it. But better late than never!!
Part of the reason that I wanted to write this post, is because I have had my own journey with managing my mental health. There have been times when it was less than ideal and I needed a “top up”, and there have been times when I was having an outright crisis. This can be such a taboo topic, but the truth is that all of us want to have good health - and this includes our mental health. It often seems perfectly acceptable to talk about our physical health, and the steps we are taking to make improvements - nutrition, exercise, rest, water etc. However, I know many people feel uncomfortable speaking about the steps we take to improve our mental health. The irony is that in many cases, these steps can be similar. I am concerned that the longer it remains taboo, the harder it will be for people to tackle when they need to improve their mental health and well-being.
There are two factors I will talk about today which have played into my own mental health journey. However, before I talk about the experiences themselves, I want to tell you a bit about what my struggles actually looked like. I have experienced situational depression - which has happened when I have lost loved ones, and when I have had difficult experiences. One example of this is when I fractured my ankle - I struggled with losing my independence, and relying on people for everything from simple supermarket trips to taking a shower. It really was a low point for me. But I also had longer term struggles with depression and anxiety - around work, around relationships, and about life in general. Several years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and I spent some time dealing with that. Even that is something that I never told anyone about, and just kept it hidden as best as I could. During these times, I felt sad sometimes, but for me a big part of how it showed up was the loss of motivation. I could not be bothered to take make much of an effort around the house. I stopped cooking and my diet consisted mainly of cereal. I could make myself go to work, but it was hard to find the motivation to do anything else. I was exhausted. The irony was that I lost the motivation to do the very things that might have improved how I was feeling - eating healthier, exercising and staying connected with those close to me. For me this is what made that time so difficult - I knew these things would improve how I was feeling, but I could not bring myself to do them and I spiralled. Later in this post, I will mention what helped me to get out of the worst times, and what also helps me keep things on track now.
There are two factors that I will talk about that affect my own mental health. The first one is my career. Many people who know me personally know that I am a dentist! As a student early on in my course, I learned that dentists had the highest rate of suicide as a profession at the time. I know that currently this statistic may vary from country to country but in all cases it is still pretty high up on the list. In fact, I remember writing a psychology essay about dentistry and mental health and relating to this statistic. There has been much speculation as to why this is the case and dentists are susceptible to poor mental health. Perhaps it is a personality pre-disposition, or the fact that people spend all day telling you that they hate you. Perhaps it is physical strain, or increased levels of stress. It is hard to determine causes when looking at statistics like this, but the one thing that I felt they were making clear to me in that class was that I needed to place high importance on caring for my mental health, especially in my chosen profession - a lesson I am still learning today.
The second experience, I had more recently - within the last few years when I got diagnosed with underactive thyroid. This is a condition that can predispose to depression, if undiagnosed or not managed well. How I actually became aware of it was that I went through a period of feeling very depressed, exhausted and unmotivated, and when I went to my doctor about it, she sent for a series of tests where this was diagnosed. I have a fantastic doctor, and she was able to refer me to other professionals to have the imbalance corrected, but she also recommended that I see a therapist - something which I found incredibly useful.
These experiences, along with others have taught me the importance of looking after my mental health. There are many scenarios which can affect our mental health on a short term or long term basis. As I said before, sometimes I like to think of my personal mental health the way I think of my physical health - there are times when I don’t feel 100% and I take steps to improve it. And there are times when it is a more chronic problem that may require more aggressive change or intervention. For me I have found 3 steps that have allowed me to better manage it at both of those times, even in the face of the factors mentioned above.
I have a good team. This is number 1 on my list, and I cannot overstate the role it has played in my health. For me this looks like a team of professionals which I trust, and in a space where I feel safe to be vulnerable. Over the years, this has included my GP, and other specialists, as well as therapists and coaches. This has also included wonderful friends and family support. Having a good team has been invaluable to me. Having trusted people around me has always been amazing. At those times when I start to go downhill, they can call me out, and rally around me.
I know my triggers. I also know that there are a number of things that can affect my mental health. When I lived in the UK one of the big ones was the short day in the winter. Being an island girl, I struggled to get used to the lack of sunlight, and I did NOT want to sit inside my apartment under a daylight lamp. So I started going for a walk at lunchtime - rain or shine - even in the winter, and I found that made a big difference. Other triggers for me - overwork and overstress. I have started doing something I call - automating self care. Having observed my patterns at work carefully, I know that I do better with more frequent breaks, and so at the beginning of the year I book a week off each quarter, and don’t wait until I get washed out and exhausted to look for time off - because then I have to wait several more weeks. Overstress comes when I don’t include enough activities in my life that are fun, and meaningful. If I don’t include enough gratitude. If I don’t laugh enough. And conversely - managing my mental health when I get triggered looks like laughing. Like watching the sunset. Like serving my community. Like knowing when to call in my support system. Self reflection and knowing my triggers means that I can interrupt the pattern before I spiral into full on depression.
I write! You must have known that I would include this somewhere. A part of writing for my mental health is the fact that it is a really enjoyable exercise for me - and I definitely found that learning about what I enjoy and doing more of that has helped me maintain good mental health. But also - there is a lot of research into the benefits of writing on our mental and physical well-being (I wrote more about it here). Different types of writing can reveal where we can reframe our thoughts, and can allow is to express our feelings without judgement, and can give us enough distance from our thoughts and feelings so that we can reconcile them. (I am about to run a free challenge where we ReWrite our week - click here for more information!) So writing is a great exercise for improving our well-being and it has been a wonderful tool that I have used on my journey.
Looking after our mental health is so important - and I hope that by sharing my own experience, you feel inspired to take a step today to improve your own mental health. I would love you to comment below and tell me what works for you! And I would also love you to join me in my free challenge. And until then, I leave you with one of my favourite well-being views - a beautiful sunset - even when its just outside my window.
And I send you big love from a small island.