After a long period of relatively decent mental health, I’ve noticed a dip in my mood and a spike in my anxiety. I’ve been here enough times before to know that soon enough, I will feel calmer. In the past, relatively small incidents have triggered much larger, more painful episodes. Because of my bipolar disorder, it’s vital that I recognise destructive patterns of behaviour and toxic thoughts. Right now, I have to practice self-care and ensure that I contain this little glitch and don’t allow it to escalate. I thought it might be helpful to share some self-care tips for anyone who feels like they are on the edge.
- Reach out. No matter what you are going through, it is vital that you don’t repress it. Secrets poison your serenity and something relatively small can snowball into a much bigger, unwieldy issue. To prevent it escalating you must tell someone but choose your confidant wisely – not everyone will be able to provide you with the support you need. This can be painful because sometimes the people most dear to you will be unable to help. Undoubtably, this will be because of their own issues that have nothing to do with you. When you open up to the wrong person, you can be left feeling rejected and that your worries are illegitimate. Don’t let this deter you; in my experience people who are able to be supportive are glad to help. They welcome the opportunity to be there for you because showing love and care for others fosters a sense of wellbeing and meaningful connection.
- Establish a self-care routine. This will look different for everyone but exercise and healthy eating are essential for me. I’ve lived with eating disorders since my teens so I’m very prone to using food, or lack of it, as a way of regulating difficult emotions. When my mental health is a little unbalanced, I have to be extra careful that I don’t fall into bad habits and re-awaken the disorder. I’m diligent about regular exercise and healthy food, as well as spending time in nature and staying connected to the people who ground me. For you, self-care might include long baths, watching Friends re-runs or doing something creative like drawing or painting. Whatever that soothing activity is, don’t feel self-conscious about it. As long as it isn’t destructive, make time for it and do it often. A part of self-care for me is wearing makeup and dressing in a way I find pleasing. It may sound trivial but it makes a big difference to me and so it’s valid. All this being said, I’m not always great at self-care and I sometimes do silly things like stay up too late, scrolling social media, and fall into a pit of compare and despair. If you find yourself deviating from self-loving behaviour, don’t judge or self-chastise. Guide yourself back on track with the same gentleness and compassion that you would with a small child. Sticking to a self-care routine will provide a safety-net and protect you when you feel vulnerable.
- Set boundaries and don’t drink too much. If you’re feeling anxious, depressed or very stressed, it will be necessary to learn to say no. You might have to turn down invitations, cancel plans and even avoid certain friends. This is tough if you’re a people-pleaser, but it’s so important that you shield yourself against things that can trigger an episode of poor mental-health. In the past, I drank my way through tough times and tried to distract myself by partying. Ultimately, all this did was compound my mental illness and make everything worse. This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t have fun, spending time with your mates can be very healing. However, remember that alcohol is a powerful depressant and if you’re not sure that you’ll drink moderately, you will be pouring petrol on the fire. Also, try not to get involved in other people’s drama; it’s important to have healthy boundaries at the best of times but when you’re feeling vulnerable, you can easily get tangled in someone else’s disfunction which will feed your own. This can be exacerbated when you habitually drink together. A more loving thing to do is to take care of yourself and make sure you’re as mentally healthy as possible. The old adage of being on a plane and putting your own oxygen mask on before you help those around you is a touch clichéd but relevant nonetheless. You’ll have more rewarding friendships when everyone has appropriate, sober boundaries.
- Name your feelings. We are not taught emotional literacy so sometimes it is difficult to know what is actually causing problems. Therapists and mindfulness coaches will suggest doing an emotional check-in with yourself, which basically means taking a quiet moment to assess what’s going on. This may sound a bit ‘woo-woo’ but it is actually an essential part of self-care. The way I do this is to figure out where I’m feeling the physical manifestations of anxiety or depression. For me, anxiety resides in my throat; I feel tight and short of breath, as though I’m being slowly choked. Depression sits on my chest like a dead weight, constantly pressing down and smothering hope and positivity. Naming the physical sensations helps me work out what the cause is. Unfortunately, we British are still somewhat inept and awkward when it comes to discussing our feelings. Most of us have been culturally indoctrinated to not say what’s really going on. In order to avoid a crisis, you have to find the vocabulary to name it.
- Don’t give up. I’ve been through the ringer a few times and, although it’s often been terribly painful, I’ve come out the other side with a dog-eared assurance that everything will be ok. When these photos were taken I was feeling really anxious and tempted to stay home. But I knew that I would feel better for having done something with my day. Of course, sometimes I am incapacitated by my bipolar and I have no choice but to surrender to it. When I feel like I’m on the cusp of an episode, I lower my expectations; I do the essential stuff, but after that I try to go easy on myself. Nonetheless, carrying on with life makes me feel more positive and empowered. Even if your mental health does becomes problematic, don’t lose hope. Keep going, whilst maintaining good self-care and healthy boundaries. We’re all prone to spells of poor mental health, even if you don’t have a diagnosed psychiatric illness. It may be something as common as having a lot of stress at work or a lack of sleep. These things can cause depression, anxiety and a list of other symptoms.Taking a little time out for self-care is not the same as giving in. In fact, when you take a break, you’re more able to carry on with life and make the most out of every day.