This (very long and detailed!) guide is supposed to be something to dip in and out of according to what interests you, and is a compilation of my on-going and long-term research into staying afloat in a hectic and overwhelming world. I’ve kept lists, links and ideas buried in journals for too long – who knows, someone might appreciate my findings. There is much more work to be done on this document, so please see it as a work in progress :).
Everyone’s experience of depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges is undoubtedly very unique. However, that doesn’t mean that we are all fighting alone – I hope that, by bringing up my experience of how to deal with certain topics, others may find common themes and some new ideas about how to deal with them. Or at the very least, realise that there are others out there, going through stuff too.
This is by no means professional advice and I’ve linked many external sites here, so please use your personal judgement when deciding what is right for you to do, believe or take on board.
This ‘toolkit’ has been divided into a number of thematic sections:
Distract Yourself | Start to Look After Yourself | Learn About & Understand Yourself | Find a Safe Space to Take Refuge | Not Being Alone | Motivation to DO Things & Making Your Personal Plan
Just Keep Busy! The days are long but the years are short (if you don’t like aphorisms don’t worry, I’m not going to overdo it!). What I mean is that when you’re feeling down, a few hours can feel like a lifetime (especially in the middle of the night, in my case). But there is an alternative to focusing all your energy into anxiety, or worst case scenarios, and I find that keeping busy is essential. And the ‘years are short’ part… well it’s oh-so-easy to say, but what I have learned from being depressed in the past is that if you ride out the storm, it will pass. It may take some time, but I have a great friend who always says to me, at some point in the future – you will feel better! It’s a helpful reminder, especially when I imagine her in my head, authoritatively telling me ^_^.
Volunteering. It may seem like a cliché to say that helping others can take you out of your own problems, but at the very least volunteering is (often) less stressful than finding a paid job to fill your time, and it just keeps you busy & distracted, also helping you to meet new people, plus you may get a boost from people appreciating the work you are doing.
- Ideas based on my own experience include: searching www.vinspired.com or www.do-it.org.uk with your postcode for local ideas, working in a charity shop, baking cakes for fundraisers, stewarding at festivals (where your salary goes to Oxfam for example), using any skills you have (e.g. design, marketing, filming, driving etc.) for a local charitable cause.
Finding ‘Flow’. Is there an activity which takes you away from all of your thoughts and mental commentary on your existence? If you don’t know what activity this could be, you could make it your goal to try out a few ideas until you find some that work.
- For me personally these activities include: drawing, pasting images + writing in my journal, cooking a meal (ideal – I get to do this daily!) or baking cakes, watching quirky films, reading blogs on the internet (I discover them & keep a list using www.bloglovin.com), and even projects like restoring old bits of furniture while listening to Radio 4 documentaries!
- If finding motivation to do these things is your biggest hurdle, it may help to join a group, club or society. I also love reading, but when feeling down find it hard to concentrate on the written word – I joined a local Shared Reading group called ‘Make Friends with a Book’ which introduced me to short stories, poetry, and gave me an opportunity to listen to the stories of other people’s lives – something which always took me beyond my own thoughts.
Even if you don’t feel like it. It’s hard – sometimes you really don’t feel like doing anything, and maybe that’s because you really need some space and down-time. Recently however, I was feeling a bit down over New Year and my family announced that a day of ‘Muppet-Making’ would be a good idea – even though sewing & gluing complicated puppets was the last thing I felt like doing. And yet afterwards it felt good that I’d completed something, my brother appreciated us helping him with his project, and now I look back and smile on that crazy family day.
Start to Look After Yourself
Eat Right. Mental health issues often do strange things to our eating habits – making us control them, neglect them (this is me!), or overindulge them. The problem is the more our eating habits are upset, the more this directly impacts on our physical wellbeing and as a result out mental wellbeing.
- Things that work for me: Cook a BIG meal when you’re feeling up to it and freeze it in portions for when you’re having a bad week, so that you have ‘home-made ready meals’. Avoid foods that will give you a big high & a crash (sugar & caffeine). Maybe replace caffeine with either decaf or herbal substitutes – I get jittery & anxious after too much caffeine (even in tea) and have become a big lemon & ginger tea fan. Try to eat at regular intervals – a few hours without food and my mood noticeably drops. I also like to make ‘Power Smoothies’ – blend up a bunch of healthy stuff to give you a nutritious boost!
Find an Exercise that Works for Me! Yep, I was one of the kids that hated P.E at school – all that competitiveness & room for embarrassment. But I have still managed to develop some healthy exercises that I love.
- Dog walking is the simplest exercise – it’s hard not to be motivated by my little dog’s passion for the outdoors! I also got into cycling to and from work, which I love because I can do exercise in a solitary environment at my own pace (gyms freak me out). Similarly, I love to swim – especially since it clears my mind of thoughts except for counting the laps.
Devoting Time & Energy to Being Myself. That sounds vague – but I think sometimes we hold back from investing in ourselves. Sometimes you really need to spend the day wrapped in blankets by the fire watching your favourite sitcoms. But there are lots more activities, which help you to feel clearer about who you are, which we will look at more in the next section. Here are a couple of ways to incorporate a tiny self-discovery activity into your daily routine…
- Daily Activities: Choosing an affirmation – don’t agonise over it, it can change depending on what you need – and saying it to yourself every day. It may help to refer to yourself as “I” (e.g. “I am enough” or “I can let go”) rather than “you” – otherwise it starts getting a bit weirdly talking-to-yourself-in-the-mirror motivational-film-scene. I mean if that’s your thing go for it.
- Power Thought cards – might help give you ideas to focus on. Pick one per week and explore the ways each card can influence your wellbeing. Similarly, SARK’s Living Juicy book (I own this one) or Card deck gives you a thought for each day or week.
Learn About & Understand Yourself
There are many many
websites out there with helpful information about mental health, but in my opinion this is the best. It can really help as a first step to understand everything you can about how you’re feeling. This makes me feel more ‘normal’, and as a result more in control and hopeful. The site is run by an inspiring couple whose daughter ended her life, and they are dedicated to providing non-profit resources to those in need.
My choice is from the Helpguide website – although there are many variations of ‘mindfulness’ exercises. This is especially aimed at those who struggle to cope with overwhelming (or stuck) emotions: ‘Mindfulness Meditation Exercise’
. I’m trying to incorporate this 25-minute exercise into my daily life for the next couple of months to explore its effects.
This can take so many forms, and is something I’m passionate about. When I was younger I used to write all my thoughts down in a very personal diary format. Nowadays I like to keep journals of lists of ideas, musings on certain topics, or just drawing. Some people keep a gratitude journal
a few times per week on the things that they are happy for. At one time, I kept a journal of my dreams and which themes in my waking life they seemed to apply to, quite an interesting way to explore your inner psyche! There are a few arty ‘play’ journals by people such as SARK
that give you a more guided journaling experience if you need some help to start. For something less diary-like, Keri Smith creates really wacky activity books
including one whose sole object is to be destroyed by the person who buys it. My main recommendation here though is that I find journaling that focuses on positives, dreams or goals
to be much more helpful than putting your negative thoughts on paper. (Although one study suggests
writing down negative thoughts and throwing them away and it can also be helpful to write down your negative assumptions and then write a challenge to it in response).
It may seem a simple idea, but sometimes doing personality surveys and reading about personality theories such as the Myers-Briggs Psychological Types
can give a greater understanding of the many facets of our personalities. It might remind you that there are positives and negatives that are part of who we all are. Another interesting read is the Highly Sensitive Person
Learning More about Happiness.
I got depressed when I was quite young, in my early teens, and someone recommended to me some classic writers who had faced depression. So I read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye
and I read Plath’s Bell Jar
, among other things. It’s probably quite important to be in a stable enough place to read books like these – they made quite an impact on me. I would recommend exploring the genre of books about happiness too, to keep the balance! Brainpickings
is full of inspirational articles, excerpts and reading lists – try their Essential Books on Happiness
– I’ve read Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project
from this list.
Counselling. I’ve left the most ‘obvious’ until last. Counselling can be a really great way to learn about yourself. There are many types of counselling, such as talking therapy or cognitive behaviour therapy, and within each type every counsellor is different too – I would suggest that if one particular experience didn’t feel right don’t be put off; it’s worth trying again somewhere different. Counsellors are still people, and sometimes you just might connect with a different person if it didn’t work out the first time!
Find a Safe Space to Take Refuge
A ‘Safe Place’.
As part of the Mindfulness meditation I mentioned earlier, Dr. Jeanne Segal recommends creating in your mind or environment a safe space
, and evoking all the senses in this imaginary process (a calm & beautiful scene, soothing music or sounds, comforting sensations and a calming taste and smell). This gives you a ‘quick stress relief’ strategy, and don’t underestimate how effective this can be. I think carrying around an inspiring imaginary scene to calm yourself down is simply a brilliant idea.
I have no idea whether many other people find this… but for me, beautiful scenes or images can leave me feeling more inspired, calm and fulfilled in a very unique way. This partly involves the easily forgotten art of looking at the world around us – the way winter light falls on a lake at twilight, or seeing a solitary ram watching a magpie from my train window, or examining really closely
an object in an art gallery that you would normally only give a passing glance. Alain de Botton has recently started to write about Art as Therapy
Cafés. I’m a complete café-enthusiast (which is why I’m creating a café map for other people who love & support independents!) but this is partly because a café is such an inspiring little safe refuge from life. Firstly cafés offer tea (very important to the British problem-solving paradigm!), but also they are an environment associated with calm pleasure. I hope that other people can find physical spaces that have a similarly calm & inspiring effect on them.
Joy & Music. Joy is such a difficult emotion to access, especially if you’re feeling cripplingly low – I think sometimes hormones just don’t allow it. However, and once again I don’t know if others experience this too, I have on rare occasions found that while experiencing intense emotions such as sadness I can also experience intense joy if I don’t numb myself against it. For me these situations are nearly always musical in nature, which is why I have put joy + music together here. I play my clarinet frequently, and improvise, which gives me access to a state of ‘flow’ and self-expression. I listen to music and discover new music (Spotify is good for this, but I also ‘Shazam’ songs when out & about and from films) constantly, in addition to seeking out live music whenever possible (there is SO much free live music to find!) and music helps me to experience emotions in a safe and cathartic way. Often, just changing to a more upbeat track can also change my mood like magic!
Not Being Alone
Others know how you feel. There has recently been a wonderful boost to the coverage of depression in the online sphere – in the form of lists, blogs and cartoons.
Finding and talking to friends. It can be intimidating to know who to talk to when times are hard – unfortunately not everyone does understand what you’re going through. However, fortunately there are some people who do!
- You may find that some people have announced themselves ready to listen for #TimeToTalk day – that could be a good starting point! When approaching friends it might be easiest to bring things up indirectly. For example, asking for film and book recommendations because there’s a lot clouding up your mind may lead to a deeper discussion with those who detect that there’s something wrong but hadn’t had an opening to bring it up.
- Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger though, and services such as Nightline (for students) and the Samaritans (for everybody) are there for when you need a confidential and friendly chat with someone outside your everyday life.
Motivation to DO Things & Making Your Personal Plan
Where to Start. I have included a lot of information here, and it is so easy to feel overwhelmed and lost – even by ‘self help’! I find that my emotions and obstacles only start to change when I make a conscious decision that I’m going to turn things around (which takes a lot of effort and resilience). But equally importantly, goals have to be realistic and manageable, and I have to try not to beat myself up if I take a couple of steps forward and then one back.
- Manageable chunks. SARK (I know I keep mentioning her, but she’s great!) invented ‘Micro-movements’ – and I live by these when I can’t get started on something. I break projects and tasks down into tiny portions, and focus only on what I can complete TODAY. Most people can’t cope with thinking about everything all at once (… can anyone?!). And just pick a couple of ideas to focus on at a time.
- Having a schedule & tangible goals. Ideas floating around my head are no good – it feels somehow that there’s too much to do, everything gets muddled. I write lists. Lists of goals, to-do lists, lists of ideas. Lists of what I have achieved. Lists of things to do, listen to and think about on bad days. Lists of ideas which I’ve finally decided to share with other people :).
Ä Related blog posts I’ve written:
Thank you for reading. Keep swimming.