It has occurred to me that some people may feel excluded from my content around mental health, as not everyone has a mental illness. However, I would suggest that taking appropriate care of one’s mental health is helpful for all of us. You don’t have to have a diagnosable mental illness to suffer from poor mental health, in the same way that you might not have a physical disease like cancer or diabetes, but you still do what you can to take care of your physical wellbeing.
Life will inevitably present challenges that will threaten your equilibrium, whether it’s the death of a loved one, the collapse of a marriage or the loss of a job. There are also less dramatic, more humdrum stresses that comes hand in hand with increasingly unmanageable work loads and family commitments. It’s inevitable that with such hectic, exhausting lives that our mental health might suffer. Then there is the dreaded spectre of social media induced inadequacy; the negative comparison that comes from scrolling through someone else’s highlight reel. Of course, we all know that the images on Instasham do not reflect reality, but it’s hard not to feel inferior when confronted with images of polished perfection, usually viewed late at night during the fretful small hours.
It’s natural to seek out coping mechanisms in order to manage daily pressures. This is where we enter the complicated territory of self-medicating vs self-care. It is generally agreed that self-medicating refers to the use of a substance or behaviour to alter an undesirable emotional state. This includes eating, shopping, self-harm, drinking, having sex or taking drugs, to name but a few. I know that I’ve often reached for the bottle when I’ve been trying to handle something uncomfortable or heartbreaking. There’s nothing quite like the first sip from a glass of red after a stressful day and in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not here to spoil anyone’s good time. However it’s useful to recognise when habit is formed in order to cope with difficult emotions. If left unchecked and un-analysed, these behaviours can escalate into addiction, which will cause yet more distress and turmoil.
Self-care, on the other hand, is intended to promote one’s health, both physical and mental. There is not a one size fits all approach to self-care; meditation, yoga and green smoothies may work for some, but it’s not for everyone. For me, exercise is essential, but I have to make sure I don’t get too obsessed about it, which might trigger the old eating disorders and body dysmorphia. However, some might associate strenuous exercise with punishment which is not helpful or therapeutic. This in itself can be confusing, because the impetus for these activities is to alter one’s emotional and mental state for the better, thus the line between self-medicating and self-care can be blurred. The general rule of thumb is self-care is something that makes you feel better, but that won’t cause bankruptcy or damage your health.
I think it’s important to examine one’s motives when it comes to assessing whether a behaviour will be helpful or detrimental. Take a few moments to be quiet and ask yourself, is this going to make me feel emotionally and physically nourished? Or will I regret this later? For example, will going out with my friends tonight make me feel connected and valued by people I love? Or will I find it hard to drink moderately and wake up tomorrow morning with a savage hangover, a head full of regrets and long for the sweet relief of death? You might decide to go out anyway, knowing you’ll feel rough tomorrow. I wouldn’t judge you for it; I’ve done it too many times to count. Letting your hair down and burning off steam on the dance floor can be a form of self-care, but it’s essential to know where to draw the line and understand your motives. If a behaviour becomes a compulsive need rather than a choice, you may be self-medicating. Remember that the western world is stuffed full of addictive substances and behaviours. In a consumer society we’re constantly encouraged to believe that the next hit will be the one that fills the void; an addicted consumer is a loyal one. It’s no surprise that many of us turn to destructive habits to sooth our troubled minds.
Also remember you that you have a right to wellness. You are entitled to feel nurtured, accepted and loved. Friends and family can help with this to a certain extent, but ultimately it comes down to how you treat yourself. Searching externally for genuine wellbeing will lead you down a dark and co-dependent alley. Ultimately, you have to self-parent and satisfy your own needs. You probably have people who rely on you but will be no good to anyone if you fall apart because you’ve not taken adequate care of yourself. I’m reminded of the old cliche of oxygen masks on the plane; always put yours on first before helping those around you. Self-care takes many forms and it may be a while before you figure out what works. But it is imperative that you take time for yourself, even if it’s just an hour a week, where you can do what ever you need to do to manage your life in a constructive, self-loving way.