What maintains these mental health issues?
Generally – if you don’t get help, the issues will continue! Many mental illnesses require medication, as well as some form of counseling or therapy, which can really help someone to cope with what they’re going through. So, just trying to ignore the issue can result in it sticking around and often getting worse.
It’s important to understand that it’s generally no one’s fault for having depression and anxiety, just like it’s generally no one’s fault for getting physically sick, BUT, there are things that we can do which can make it better or worse.
Can you give us an example of things that make it worse or better?
For both depression and anxiety – if you continue to just avoid how you’re feeling, keeping everything bottled up inside, or maybe drinking or getting high to escape the thoughts and feelings – THIS WON’T WORK! It will most likely make the feelings a lot worse. Especially because alcohol, weed and many other substances are downers – making you more depressed and anxious!
It will also mean that those around you can’t help you, because they CAN’T READ YOUR MIND and won’t know what is going on with you, unless you tell them! And believe me, when you’re suffering from depression and/or anxiety – you NEED support, because it’s very hard to manage these mental health issues on your own! Reaching out and telling someone that you’re not okay can make the BIGGEST difference in getting out of that stuck feeling. Remember, #itsokaynottobeokay!
Staying in bed all day, not sleeping properly, not eating a balanced diet, not speaking to anyone about what you’re going through, not exercising can all maintain these issues. Having no goals or routine can maintain these mental health issues and leave you feeling even more helpless and hopeless.
What could we do to make it better?
It’s understandable to not feel like doing these things (because the mental illness DOES affect these aspects of your behaviour), but it’s important to still make an effort to do them! Once you start getting out of bed, following a normal sleep routine, eating a balanced diet etc., you may find that it becomes slightly easier to not get stuck consumed by the thoughts and feelings. This isn’t the cure, but it can definitely make a huge difference!
How is the Coronavirus Pandemic affecting our mental health?
Well, the coronavirus pandemic has placed us all in a situation where none of us are in control and no one really knows what’s going to happen, other than expecting the worst because of what we’ve seen happening elsewhere in the world. Situations like these can cause a lot of anxiety – as humans we don’t like not being in control and (as I explained earlier), when we don’t KNOW what’s going to happen, we focus on all the worst possible outcomes, which will definitely affect our feelings. Think of the paragraph at the beginning.
Currently, the situation of coronavirus has left many of us with thoughts that something bad is about to happen – which will very possibly affect us, our families, our country. Many people are thinking “Is my family going to be okay? What if I can’t get through this? What if someone I love gets sick or worse? So many people are going to die! They’re probably going to extend the lockdown period. What am I going to do if I can’t make any money?” etc.
Can you see now, how similar these kinds of thoughts are to the types of thoughts someone with depression and anxiety has? So, because many people are sitting with these thoughts running through their minds, it makes a lot of sense that they may be feeling down, low, sad, anxious, scared, angry etc., right?
Added to this we have the lockdown, which has limited our ability to continue doing what we normally do AND has removed our ability to connect in person with our support systems (e.g. family and friends) or therapists – which is what people should do when feeling depressed or anxious. For many, their source of income has also been disrupted (which in itself can cause depression and anxiety), their ability to exercise has possibly been disrupted and many many other aspects of “normal” life have been put on hold. Which, as I just explained, can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety continuing, or getting worse.
Like I said earlier, one of the biggest signs to look out for when checking people’s mental health is significant changes in behaviour. Now, normally the changes are as a result of the mental health issue, but in this case, the changes are forced on all of us, and thus can impact our mental health. Also, unfortunately, this pandemic is very serious and will affect many of us, so to feel anxious and possibly depressed right now makes sense – even though we don’t want to feel these ways, it’s okay to not feel okay!!! In fact – it’s expected that you don’t feel okay right now!
What can you do to manage your mental health effectively?
So, this is possibly the most important question – after my last answer, you guys might be thinking, why is this psychologist telling us we must all be fine with not feeling okay? Isn’t she the person who’s meant to make us feel better?
The way I see it, is like this – we are NOT in control right now of a situation that is bad and scary – so for me to tell you that you must all just feel better wouldn’t make sense at all! Of course none of us are feeling okay – it’s not our fault! So, instead of focussing on things we can’t control (the situation and in turn how we feel about it), we all need to focus on what we CAN control – which is how we REACT to our thoughts and feelings and what we do to manage them.
Life would be very simple if we could just “take bad feelings” away, but as I’m sure you’re all aware – that’s not how feelings work. They stick around and can end up controlling how we behave. So, instead of focussing on trying to just not feel the way you’re feeling, I wonder if you could consider accepting these feelings, without judging yourself for them… without trying to push them away or ignore them… just let them be?
Again, you may be thinking wt…? Why should I accept feelings that are scary and feel really bad? I know it sounds weird, but the thing is, when we DON’T accept how we feel, when we judge ourselves or try to push the feelings away, we just end up getting more and more stuck in them… AND we end up adding difficult feelings to the mix, too!
I like to think about it like this – imagine you’re cooking something in a pot on the stove. Say the ingredients inside are feelings of sadness and anxiety. If you leave the lid on the pot on the stove, it starts to boil over. The liquid inside spits out, and can often burn those standing around. This is kind of what happens when we keep all the “bad feelings” locked up inside. When the lid is kept on the pot, the boiling doesn’t go down, it gets more intense – just like feelings. Eventually you can lose control of how you behave, which can result in even more “bad feelings”, such as guilt, shame or frustration. Now, instead of just sadness and anxiety in the pot, you’ve added guilt, shame etc., which are even worse feelings to have, right?
If you had initially been able to accept the feelings that you had, the sadness and anxiety, and found a way to let them out, like when you take the lid off the pot, what do you think could happen? Well, for those of you who cook, you’ll know that the liquid starts to simmer down, it may still be bubbling away, but it’s not spitting out and burning others… and eventually, it will cook down/decrease. Once the feelings have cooled down a little bit – it doesn’t mean they’re gone, but do you think you could be more in control of how you then behave? Most of the time – yes!
We CAN’T CONTROL what thoughts pop into our heads, and thus what we feel, BUT, WE CAN CONTROL how we react to them and what we pay attention to!
How can we control our reactions? By learning to notice what you’re paying attention to! Often, we’re lost in thought, without even realising it! It’s not on purpose right now, that MANY of us are focussing a lot of attention on all these thoughts about the situation we can’t control and what might happen – but is it helpful to continue paying attention to something that you have no control over? NO – as it will only keep you stuck feeling overwhelmed!
These thoughts WILL pop into your head, but remember NONE OF US can KNOW what’s going to happen in the future – because none of us have superpowers! Just because you think you know what will happen, it doesn’t mean that thought is true, and it certainly isn’t helpful to believe it to be true, before it’s even happened!
The most helpful thing you can do is to just notice the thought and then, instead of getting stuck focussing on the thoughts or believing it as true, refocus your attention to the present moment. We can only ever be in control right now, in our present moments, which is why it’s SO NB to start noticing where our attention is going – most often we’re focussing on the past (which can leave us feeling down and depressed) or the future (causing feelings of anxiety), yet because we don’t have control over the past or the future, these feelings become very overwhelming! Because we can’t change what happened or what will happen, we can’t change the feelings, leaving them in control over us. This isn’t helpful!
This is easier said than done, ESPECIALLY because most of us don’t realise that we’re doing it!
I agree, it’s NOT easy to take control over how and what you pay attention to, BUT, I do promise you that with practice, it gets easier!
The practice of bringing your attention to the present moment is called Mindfulness, which means – paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It’s important to pay attention on purpose, as often when we’re paying attention to various thoughts, we don’t even realise we’re doing it! The second important aspect is the present moment – as we’ve already discussed. Lastly, and arguably the most important aspect of mindfulness, is to do so in a non-judgmental way.
The reason this is SO IMPORTANT is because your mind WILL WANDER to difficult feelings, sensations and/or thoughts about the past, the future and situations you can’t control (like COVID-19). That is what makes you a human, it’s completely normal. Thus, it’s important to try and just notice, without judgment, when and where your mind has wandered to, and then just gently bring your attention back to something you can focus on in the present moment.
Like I said, it can be challenging to keep your attention focussed on the present, but that’s okay, because there are multiple ways in which you can practice this and numerous things you can try to place your focus of attention on.
Things you can focus on in the present moment
- Your Breath
- Your Senses
- Reduce Information Intake
We are always breathing in the present moment, so if you’re struggling to focus on something happening right now, just pay attention to your breathing. The air going in through your nose, and out through your nose… or paying attention to the rise and fall of your belly as the air goes in and out. It can be helpful to place your hand on your stomach as a way to keep your attention on the rise and fall of the breath. An example of a breathing exercise is Five Count Breathing.
Use the star below to control your breathing when you’re feeling overwhelmed or panicked. Follow the prompts on the star, while tracing the star on the palm of your hand. Remember, to pause and hold your breath at the points of the star, before breathing out/in.
If you focus on what you can hear, see, taste, feel or smell, you’re focussing on the present moment! Try really paying attention to what you’re sensing, the next time you eat or brush your teeth!
When we keep ourselves busy with an activity, it can help us to focus on what we are doing. When we’re just sitting doing nothing, it’s hard to not have our minds wander. There are LOTS of activities you can do to help you practice mindfulness:
- Art – drawing, painting, colouring in (lots of free templates online)
- Music – singing, playing, listening, dancing
- Hobbies – e.g. sewing, knitting, baking etc.
- Relaxation and meditation – three free apps I recommend are Smiling Mind, Insight Time and Calm. Doing gratitude and self-compassion meditations is especially helpful – because I am guided to focus my attention on the things I feel grateful for and to remind myself to be kind to myself – which can really help me feel some “good feelings”, which is a great way to balance out the feelings of anxiety etc.
Reduce Your Information Intake
Another thing we are in control of right now is what information we’re taking in and how we are looking after ourselves. It’s very NB to be staying informed at the moment, but this doesn’t mean reading or talking about coronavirus all day – especially if the info isn’t all true! Make sure to find a balance – taking breaks from talking about corona or reading about it can be really helpful. Taking a break from social media and maybe certain whatsapp groups etc. as it’s especially important to take breaks when waking up and falling asleep!
When taking these breaks, it can help to not feel so overwhelmed, which can in turn help you to focus on the activities you can do at home… when focussing on these activities, it helps to take your mind off of it, so in general it’s a much better cycle to be in!
Keeping a routine is another thing you can control and which can be very helpful. This isn’t so easy, as most people’s routines have been completely disrupted, but perhaps there is a new routine you can come up with, which resembles your normal routine as closely as possible.
Where can we go for help?
SADAG are great for free help – they will be able to assist you or your loved ones who are struggling to cope. Call 0800 456 789 or sms 31393. These are other helpful numbers and this is the link to another helpful website
We will be running another whatsapp webinar, where I can share more information and provide some more support to you guys!
Follow us on social media to find out about upcoming webinars!