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An Honest Discussion About Mental Health

Through this blog I’ve slowly become more open about discussing my personal struggles with anxiety and depression (something I experienced for the first time as a result of my cancer diagnosis). Yet, in the past, I’ve rarely spoken face-to-face with family or friends about these darker emotions – let alone anyone else. Whilst I’ve had no problem describing the physical side effects of my various medical and surgical treatments, any anxiety or sadness has often remained my dirty little secret. My boyfriend (who is currently living in Sydney for a year – a situation which likely fuels some of these emotions) occasionally receives a “crisis call” from me when things are really bad, but often I’ll try and ride out any negative feelings on my own. Yet slowly I’ve come to recognise that this kind of weird, secretive behaviour is not OK – and fortunately things are changing around here…

Changing The Conversation Around Mental Health

Over the last few months I’ve found myself increasingly opening up to friends and family when I’m feeling a bit blue or anxious (I did it today and it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders). Whereas in the past I declined any therapy or counselling when it was offered to me following my diagnosis, if I could go back in time, I’d definitely accept it now. This is because I now recognise the value of opening up to people during tough times.

But plenty of people are still not talking about their mental health. Mental health disorders are skyrocketing globally: between 1990 and today, people suffering from depression or anxiety increased roughly 50% (to over 600 million people). Antidepressant use has exploded, but simultaneously depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, OCD, phobias (and suicide) keep climbing. We all know the new forces conspiring to make us more miserable: from rising global economic inequality to constant digital/work/media connection.Sadly the World Health Organization (WHO) has forecasted that by 2030 the largest health risk across the world will be depression (not obesity).

I guess it’s the very British “stiff upper lip” approach to dealing with problems that has often caused us to suffer in silence in the UK. Sadly, it’s this reluctance to talk about mental health that continues to fuel the stigma and contributes to sufferers feeling ashamed and isolated. This is why mental health initiatives, like Heads Together – set up the 
Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, is so important in helping to change the conversation about mental health. The wonderful Bryony Gordon has also become a hugely successful author following the release of Mad Girl – a book which details her battle with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). She now also heads up the podcast MadWorld – and her first guest was Prince Harry who, for the first time, spoke openly of his mental health issues following the death of Princess Diana.

Fortunately, prior to being diagnosed I hadn’t experienced much in the way of mental health issues. I considered myself an optimistic, care-free, happy person (something I’ve gratefully inherited from my mum). Yet we all have our bad days (or weeks or even months) and cancer definitely made me experience the full spectrum of human emotions.

My Experience With Anxiety & Depression

Gratefully sometime last year (even before I’d received the good news that my cancer had buggered off) my anxiety and depression seemed to dissipate. I think I essentially journeyed through all the stages of grief and eventually emerged from the experience – changed, but not broken. I then continued living life with gratitude (filling it to the brim with epic trips, wonderful people, yoga and meditation). The strategies I’d learnt to cope with the stress of cancer eventually led me to complete my yoga teacher training in India, where I met some of the most inspirational people I’ve ever crossed paths with, and I felt at my strongest (both physically and mentally) when I got back in March.

I then decided to try returning to work and things started to unravel a little… In order to complete my final four months as a junior doctor I’ve had to move into a spare room back in a city where I barely know anyone, I’m working 50 hours a week, I’ve become too exhausted to go to any yoga classes in the evenings, I have to jump on a train to London to squeeze in blood tests, infusions and scans around work, and to top it all off I went and developed shingles a few weeks ago which has absolutely floored my energy levels.

Needless to say, the I’m-so-happy-I-can’t-stop-crying-during-this-yoga-class state that I found myself in a few months ago has definitely faded. BUT… I’m determined not to lose it completely. Whereas a few years ago I had no idea how to look after my mental health, I now have a few strategies up my sleeve for dealing with challenging times:

Supporting Mental Health During Challenging Times:

Mindfulness

For me this has got to come in at number one – there’s simply no better tool for dealing with hellish times! I honestly don’t think I’d have got through the last few years without having a monumental break down if it wasn’t for learning to live one day at a time. It’s easy to get into a pattern of worrying unnecessarily about all the negative possibilities that may emerge in the future. All this negative cycle does is reinforces any sadness and worsens your mood. The key is to keep bringing yourself back to the present moment as much as possible – and always, always take the time to BREATHE.

Lifestyle Changes

A huge lesson I’ve learnt over the last few years is that even when things feel like they will never get better, they generally do. It’s important to remind yourself that life involves constant change and that you won’t always feel this rubbish. Be patient and do your best to look after yourself in the meantime – eat well, exercise and get a good amount of sleep (I know I need eight hours to feel my best).

Adding In Omega 3’s

Research has shown that depressed people often lack a fatty acid known as EPA. Get omega-3’s through walnuts, flaxseed and oily fish like salmon or tuna.

Reaching Out

It’s really easy to shut yourself away when you are going through a bad patch – but that’s the worst thing you can do. Getting support from people who love you is an key aspect in lifting your mood. Tell people you trust that you’re feeling down and that you’d appreciate their understanding and support.

Saying No

As the above point highlights, it’s important to reach out to family and friends when life feels impossibly tough – but it’s also crucial that you don’t find yourself saying yes to events or activities that you know you don’t want to do. I now try and tune into my gut instinct – that feeling of “I want to say no to this event” and use the time to do something nourishing for myself instead.

Doing Something Kind For Yourself

This leads on from the point above. Establishing what’s important, simplifying and prioritising helps to restore some much needed balance. Over the last few weeks I’ve been playing my favourite music, I’ve bought myself fresh flowers (peonies are back in season!), I’ve booked in for a massage, and I’ve started making future plans to look forward to. Right now I feel like I need to spend plenty of time at home recharging, but it’s good to have fun plans on the horizon. For more self-care ideas check out my blog post here.

Identifying Any Triggers

Sometimes when you are feeling overwhelmed, you can’t “see the wood for the trees”. In this situation it’s a good idea to write down the things that are bothering you – it could be unpaid bills, a lack of positive experiences, social isolation or a unfulfilling job. Then write down some practical things that you can do to deal with them. For example, find ways to pay the bills, plan a holiday, and start making changes to your CV in preparation for a new job.

Exercising – Or At Least Going For A Walk

A big meta-analysis on 1.1 million people recently re-confirmed the powerful connection between regular exercise and mental health: people in the lowest third for aerobic fitness levels were 75% more likely to have received a depression diagnosis than those in the top third. The endorphins which are produced during exercise essentially help to lift your mood. It can be difficult to stay motivated when depressed so vigorous exercise such as running can be tough to maintain. However, even moderate exercise like a brisk walk has been shown to improve mood. Yoga is also great! I might not be able to attend a class as often as I’d like after work but I’m still squeezing in 20 minutes of home practice a few times a week.

Tuning Out The Internet

Powering down from social media can be really helpful. For a few days, a few hours, or even just a few minutes, put your phone on airplane mode and focus on something completed unrelated.

Writing It Down

I’ve found this blog to be an incredibly cathartic outlet over the past year. If you don’t have a blog, a diary or journal is basically the same thing. A journal can work in two ways. You can use it as a release – where you share your darkest thoughts, no holds barred – because you don’t need to worry that anyone will judge you for them. Alternatively another good way to use a journal (I prefer this way) is to write at least five things down every day that you are grateful for. This forces us to think more positively and can help to remind us that things are (generally) not that bad. (Although I’ve got to say it, stage 4 cancer was THAT BAD).

Choosing Positive Language

This really simple tool was incredibly helpful for me. I have a tendency to moan and be a negative when things are going wrong so I now always try and alter the language I use to give a situation a positive spin. An easy way to do this is to ask yourself, “What have I learnt from this?” or “How am I growing?”.

Reading Self-Help Books

I have a confession to make: I have a minor addiction to what might be described as self-help books – as well as meaty memoirs about human survival. Some books to consider reading include: Big Magic, The Year of Magical Thinking, The Happiness Project, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice On Love & Life, Wild, and The Opposite Of Loneliness.

“Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke

And Above All Please Remember:

Whilst sadness is an emotion that everyone experiences (and is usually caused by certain events), depression is a constant feeling of sadness which has a negative impact on your life and needs to be addressed. The key is whether or not sadness is paired with other factors of depression, such as; loss of energy, trouble concentrating, lack of pleasure from activities, difficulty sleeping, disruption in eating patterns, feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness.

If you have any of these symptoms, please don’t put off visiting a mental health professional, even if you’re not sure you need to. People are often not keen to try antidepressants but cognitive therapy can be extremely useful in counteracting depression in the first instance. A counsellor can help you to understand your current thought patterns and identify any harmful or false ideas and thoughts that you have that can trigger depression or make it worse. The aim is to change your ways of thinking to avoid these ideas as well as help your thought patterns to be more realistic and helpful.

The world is only going to get more “mental”: more stressful, with more relentless digital and media overload. Remember that ultimately your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Please take good care of yourself.

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