17 min read

Last year (May 2019), I wrote a blog, “Depression: Just Another Day”. It had taken me over 30 years to acknowledge that I suffered from depression. Writing helped me to confront and deal with it and to recognise I had unknowingly built a mental health toolkit. It has led to me living a far happier and better life than I had previously thought possible.

In this blog, I’ve extracted, into a shorter read, the tools I use to check-in, defend and nurture my mental health (MH) and so lead a less stressed life. I hope some of this toolkit, if not all, is of use to you and if it is that you share it with others who might benefit.

My Mental Health toolkit

My MH toolkit is quite set now. I’ve cycled through different tools; finding stuff that worked for me – that made days less dark and anxieties less of a burden – and discarding anything that didn’t. It has kept me from doing silly things and some extremely stupid and damaging ones. I hope it works as well for you.

I would recommend trying all of it for a week or two. Decide what you want to keep doing. If something isn’t working for you, make changes that better fit with your life and see if it improves your mental health.

Things the toolkit covers:

  • A mental health check-in – 5-steps to quickly identify stressors and start to deal with them
  • Recognition of the most negative person you cannot get away from and must deal with
  • Safe spaces
  • Anchoring yourself
  • Being your best parent & cheerleader
  • Bad habits and addictions.
Set of tools, labelled with heart-shaped numbers, hanging on wall brackets

Mostly it combines general mental health techniques any qualified MH practitioner could talk you through. If you think or feel or fear you cannot cope on your own or with the help of family or friends, then seek out such a practitioner. Needing help is not a weakness; finding ways to get to good mental health is a strength.

So, what is good mental health?

I used to think that any day that did not begin with self-doubt, fear or loathing or a myriad of other negative feelings was a good day. I had low expectations.

Now, I know that I am in good mental health when I can cope with whatever life is flinging in my direction, not feel overwhelmed and know that I have, indeed, got this.

Mental health check-in

I have learnt that I have to check-in on my mental health and work at maintaining it. Just like my physical health, I need to nourish it and develop it to ensure it is ever-ready for whatever is coming my way. This seems all-too-obvious now, but I was never taught any of this at school or home when I was a kid.

We all have stresses and strains in our lives. For example, during Coronavirus, some of them might range from but not be limited to:

Personal

  • missing socially distanced loved ones
  • un-used to spending so much time in such constant proximity with loved ones
  • worrying if schools and workplaces are safe places
  • anxiety over how much kids are being damaged by not being at school
  • stressed over loved ones ill, at home or in hospital

Work

  • imminent deadlines
  • insufficient revenue coming in
  • worrying if the workplace is safe for employees post-lockdown – is there a standard to be met?
  • stressed out by the very real prospect that your business and/or job is at risk

etc.

There is nothing wrong with feeling stressed or worried, so long as you are not weighed down by it for long periods.

So, here’s the 1st lesson: Stop burying things! Out-of-sight is not out of mind. Subconsciously, you are likely freaking out about things you have tried to avoid. Ignoring your problems can lead you to do things you might not be able to take back – the most extreme of which could be harming yourself and/or others.

Your 1st step to dealing with problems is to acknowledge them as issues that need to be dealt with. Ok, so how do you know something is a problem?

If when you think about an issue you need to deal with, you somehow always find something else to do, then that is likely a problem that you are avoiding.

Here are 5-steps to start to identify issues and begin to deal with them:

  1. Is there anything that is preoccupying your mind? Write it down. Everything. This simple act of writing is you starting to deal with things. Well done.
  2. Is it causing you undue stress? Look at the things you have written down – how does each one make you feel?
    Some might be passing annoyances but others far more challenging and in the pit of your belly they fill you with a sense of dread. That’s ok, you’ll learn to break them down into smaller problems and move forward with them.
  3. Can you solve anything you’ve listed solo or, at least, get part of the way there by yourself? If so, then do it – give yourself an easy win and then move onto the next thing.
  4. Do you need help? Can’t see an immediate answer or path to begin on? No sweat – give yourself a break from it for a while and let your subconscious go to work. Come back to it fresh and if you still aren’t making any forward progress, determine what help you need and then go get it.
  5. Where can you get help from?
    • Personal – family or friends
    • Professional – work colleagues, family or friends
    • Something you don’t want anyone in your life to know about – therapy

If you’re new to this MH toolkit, you may find you now have a long list of stuff. Don’t panic!

Over time your seeming un-manageable list will lessen. If any problem seems too big, then keep trying 5 – get help.

Are there any family or friends you feel comfortable talking to (if you’re one of mine – I got you and will try to find some time)? If not, then could you reach out to your Doctor or a local mental health charity. Or if you don’t want to talk in-person, then how do you feel about texting with Shout or interacting with an online community like Side by Side?

If you are having suicidal thoughts, then get yourself to the Accident & Emergency department at your nearest hospital or phone emergency services because you need help NOW.

Before I used to allow things to fester, I used to let problems multiple – and they do, really fast – way quicker than you expect. Now I take things head-on. I figure out what I can do by myself and work out what assistance I need to get other things sorted.

Mostly I do this, but sometimes I relapse into not dealing with things. Like, when a pandemic with racist tendencies, particularly targeting people of colour, demands all the World’s households socially-distance from each other. Leaving me holed up on my own with no-one to hug or be hugged by – that can cause a wobble or two.

When that happens, I am first kind to myself. I don’t spend days wallowing in self-pity and/or beating myself up. Not anymore. Now, I take time out to pause and reflect, and then I take however many small steps are needed to get back on track and move forward.

Also, learn to forgive your fuck-ups and failures. When you mess up – and we all do – deal with it as quickly as you can – don’t let it rankle. If you have caused someone-else pain or screwed with their life or head, find a way to apologise properly; and then find a way to forgive yourself. Learn from whatever mistake you made or crime you committed and be a better person.

However your days starts, progresses, or ends reserve 15-30 mins for a daily mental health check-in because you deserve it: you matter.

Set yourself a daily calendar reminder and copy the 5 steps above into it, so you have them handy. Build it into your day and do it every day; stop thinking you haven’t got time, just get up earlier or go to bed later – no excuses, get it done.

Your toughest foe

Watch out for your bad self. Perhaps you are lucky and blessed with irrepressible positivity and/or empathy. I am that for my friends and family; but for myself, I am not.

My subconscious goes to town on me over all manner of things. It entrenches itself in the darkest recesses of my mind, whispering insidiously. It has access to every past dark thought I’ve ever had and lounges around waiting to welcome every future destructive idea I never expected to entertain.

Seated silhouette of a person with head in one hand assailed by a cloud of words describing feelings that accompany depression.

In a battle with myself, it’s the fucker that I can never truly defeat armed with the knowledge of all my weaknesses and fears. So, how do you mount a defence against that?

You need a castle, an anchor, a parent, and a cheerleader.

Your castle, a welcoming space

I ran from depression for a long time. Ever since I was a kid, I kept myself busy – always on the move – staying just ahead of it. However, running is eventually exhausting; and there comes a time when the road runs out. That is when you need a castle from which to gather, regroup and spring forth.

It doesn’t have to be an actual castle – a temple will do.

Fantasies aside, it can be a room in your house; a walk that you can go on; an activity that you can submerge yourself in (Yoga, running, boxing, painting, fishing, a box-set, etc – no, not drinking – no self-medication). It just needs to be somewhere you can go or something you can do that gives you space to quieten your busy mind and lessen any panic you are feeling.

For me, it’s writing. If I’m fretting about something, I invariably end up writing about it. I deconstruct my problems into words and paragraphs. I sit and rest with them. And then I start moving them around, seeing what fits together, what works and what doesn’t. I make a whole with a beginning, a middle and an end (thank you Mrs Hill).

Writing is one of the things I do to give me space to cope. Find your spaces and make them welcoming places. Get yourself a castle.

Your anchor – love something more than yourself

Winnie the Pooh: Piglet asks Pooh how do you spell love and Pooh replies you don't spell it, you feel it.

Your anchor or, hopefully, anchors are the people, pets or things that you love more than yourself – they give you something for which to stick around.

When you feel you’re being overwhelmed, it is the hope that you can make it home to them that keeps you tethered and stops you from being swept away by a storm of insecurity.

I am fortunate to have a large family and set of friends. Together, they are the family I was born to; the family I chose; and the family that chose me.

Trust me on this one thing if nothing else: you will never be your best self without the input from those who know and love you despite all of the many, many faults you see in yourself.

So, make an effort and invest in your family and friends and spend time with them, virtually & physically – one day, you might need to rely on one or more of them to save you from yourself, or they might need you to do the same for them.

Oh, and things that you love don’t have to be people or pets; activities can bring you joy too. I hadn’t realised how much I loved writing and how much of an outlet it was for expressing myself and working stuff out. Mostly, I used to write long letters, and I didn’t understand the harm I did to myself by stopping when I felt that friends didn’t have time for them.

Whatever it is, have something in your life that you love. Make good memories – stuff you can look back on and hold on to. In the longest of seconds, memories can remind you that you matter and keep you anchored.

Parent & Cheerleader

The best parents get you through childhood to adulthood as healthy and happy as possible. When you come to leave their nest, you have to learn to be that best parent for yourself.

Being your own parent is complicated and weird. Besides working and paying the bills, you have to learn to encourage the things that are good for you and praise yourself for doing them and chastise those that are not and make sure you stop. If you’re not already doing this: get used to arguing with and cajoling your teenage self.

In parenting myself, there are 5 things that I check: 5 things that keep me on track.

You might want to change or modify some of these. That’s fine. However, do not use qualitative queries like “how do I feel”. If you are as good at lying to yourself as I have been in the past, this will not work out well for you. It is much better to use markers that you can’t fudge on. Mine are:

  1. Diet & weight – when was the last time I used my chopping board and how often does this happen in any week?

    If I’m not chopping fresh ingredients frequently, then I am likely eating fast food crap: microwaveable meals, takeaways and other assorted rubbish; or worse, I am not eating at all.

    Your gut is your engine – put proper food into it.

    In a YouTube World, there is no excuse in not improving your cooking skills (Jack Monroe – on-a-budget, Jamie Oliver – on-a-deadline). That said, don’t try and crash-diet your way to health, instead cut down your sugar consumption and learn about good & bad fat. Also, check with your GP if you have any diet-affecting conditions, like diabetes. I am Vitamin-D deficient and have to take supplements and make sure I expose my head and arms to enough direct sunlight to avoid Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

    Is your weight noticeably up or down? A weight change of more than 5% in a month when you have not been trying to gain or lose weight might be a sign of stress or depression. Be it a rubbish diet or weight change take corrective action or seek out help because you matter.
  2. Exercise – when was the last time I did any? I cycle pretty much everywhere and maintain a mix of Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, running, climbing & resistance training. Meditative arts help quiet my mind and have re-taught me how to breath and cardio is a must-do, not because I’m an endorphin junkie but because I like cake and exercise allows me the extra calories.

    If I’m not regularly exercising, then I am likely ill or stressed.

    You may hate exercise, but we all need to do some, so find something that you can tolerate and do it often. Pick a team sport or a gym class or go for a run. Or just go for a walk – go forest bathing and listen to the song of trees. Commit to exercising regularly because you matter.
  3. Company – when was the last time I had a proper face-to-face conversation with someone? I live on my own, and I run a business solo. Communicating via email and messaging apps, I can easily go several days without having a proper conversation with anyone that doesn’t involve grocery queries.

    In my experience, having too much time on your own often leads to the asking of dangerous questions: am I happy? Do I like myself? Would anyone miss me if… Unless you have serious amounts of Zen, be careful of hanging out in your head for large amounts of time without talking to anyone else. We are not meant to fly solo – people are not good at being alone – we are social creatures.

    If you’re avoiding calling people because you think they’ll be too busy and that then proves to be the case, do not take it as a personal rejection. Do not go on a booze binge – that will not help. Seek out someone else to talk to or indulge yourself in a healthy pastime, because you matter.
  4. Cleanliness – when did I last wash and do laundry? Parenting 101 – if it’s been a week and you’re not doing this bare minimum, then seek out company or get help, because you matter.
  5. Soul Nourishment – when did I last feel any joy? On a scale of 1-10, below 5 is never good and just maintaining a consistent 5 is a level of grey that needs to be interrupted.

    You can find some small piece of amazing in most days, but you usually miss it because you are not paying attention. Too often you are mentally elsewhere thinking of something you will likely be unable to properly remember later.

    Stop doing that, be more present in the now. Find at least one moment of wonder every day – a sunrise, a sunset, a pretty neighbour dancing like an elemental force of nature. Find some joy, take a mental polaroid and memory-bank it.

    Another good way to nourish your soul is to do something charitable – helping others feels good. Give of your time if you can and if you can’t spare a few hours a week, then can you make a regular donation to a charity that fits with your values or do a fundraising activity of your own.

Bad habits and addictions

If you want to have good mental health then stop doing stuff that holds you back or damages you.

If you’re like me, then your habits get worse as you get more stressed. I used to alternate between:

  • Hesitancy – when things got rough, I was the King of avoidance. I somehow put a never-ending series of hurdles into my path that prevented me from properly starting, let alone getting close to finishing anything. My thought process used to get gridlocked, preventing me from easily moving forward
  • Switch-tasking – or as it ought to be known the art of simultaneously doing many unconnected things poorly. As I get more stressed, I habitually start new tasks before I have finished older ones in the subconscious hope of finishing anything; and then I try to catch-up through what I think is “multi-tasking” but is not. This rarely works out well for me.

If not adequately addressed these 2 things stop me from getting things done, which leads to stress that prevents me from getting other things done – and so a downward spiral ensues.

I’ve got a whole methodology for dealing with this that I will publish at a later date, but it boils down to this:

  • your head is a busy place – stuff can easily get muddled-up or lost in it, so get everything out onto paper or your computer. It doesn’t matter whether it’s beautiful prose or near-incomprehensible nonsense, just get it out
  • make lists, sort and prioritise them, and
  • give things that are worth your time proper focus.

Freeing up space in your head is the easy part, what’s far harder is tackling the stuff that causes you physical, financial or mental damage.

I have an addictive personality in that there are things that I fall hard for that are not good for me. I am fortunate that thus far, I have been able to step back from the edge by implementing curtail & control coping strategies; although that has often come alarmingly late.

Only you will know what your bad habits and addictions are – you need to be brutally honest with yourself on this because beating these back could lead to significant changes in your life and not doing so could prevent you from becoming your better self.

Some of mine are listed below along with the controls I decided I had to follow.

Problem: video games. In my early teens, I played video games; a lot. I had a need to master and beat them that bordered on the pathological. Wasted hours and days were spent in that pathetic pursuit.

Solution: I had to ban myself from owning games consoles and even now am wary of playing with friends or their kids, which is very frustrating because games look so awesome now.

Problem: cigarettes. I started smoking when I was 15. I loved it. There is no better accompaniment to a pint of beer or a shot of spirits than a ciggie. However, starting up smoking is the stupidest of the many stupid things that I have ever done in my life: I know this because I did it twice. I gave up for 5 years but ended up back on them, after a boozy weekend with friends down in Devon, because I am weak.

Solution: I went cold turkey. I’m now into year 5 (2020) of my second spell of not smoking. I miss cigarettes – I feel great that I don’t smoke, but after a few drinks, I still miss them.

Problem: alcohol. In my 20s, I was out drinking 3 to 4 times a week – this was not unusual amongst my workmates and friends. Looking back, I used alcohol as an aid to fun but was also guilty of self-medicating and using it as a salve for my problems.

Solution: Over the years, I have put in place several strategies for the consumption of alcohol:

  • in the late 90s, a flatmate and I made a pact to limit ourselves to 1 bottle of wine when home because if the 2nd bottle got opened, it got finished
  • during my late 20s, I capped going out to 2 to 3 times a week
  • in my mid-30s, I affected a rule of no drinking at home unless I had company. If you don’t have a girlfriend, boyfriend, husband or wife, or regularly have dates come home this drastically reduces the amount you drink. The same is true if a racist pandemic is visited on the World forcing a lockdown and you have a no drinking at home rule unless you have company
  • now, I am down to having drinks once every week or two unless there’s an exceptional reason for more – like an unexpected date or forgotten party – or less, because of a racist pandemic.

I am loathe to fully give up drinking because it’s the one vice I have left that I allow myself to enjoy. It was 21 weeks before I succumbed to the virtual drinks it seemed the rest of the World was enjoying and though I initially found the siren-temptation to have non-virtual drinks very strong I have managed to, thus far, resist it. I can’t slide on solo-drinking: I have to keep strong on that.

Problem: Sports. I don’t count being a sports fan as one of my addictions, but I do know that it can lead to large swings in my mood.

I am an Arsenal fan. It’s not the football that’s the addiction, it’s the being and feeling part of a tribe. Team sports are among the few shared spaces where men (and it is mostly men) can gather and express emotion en masse.

My mood used to be governed by Arsenal’s results. Being happy or miserable would hinge upon the Arse winning or losing or throwing away valuable points in a sodding draw against useless opposition. During games, I can feel my blood pressure rising and heart beating faster and faster. Now, I can’t watch any live sport where I have any kind of allegiance without feeling uncomfortably apprehensive; rollercoastering from rage to utter desolation to delirious delight – it’s emotionally exhausting. If you want to understand the insanity of sports fans, Nick Hornsby’s seminal novel, Fever Pitch, is a good place to start.

Solution: I still follow Arsenal but from a safe distance. I rarely go to games or watch them on TV live any more. Mostly I read about their exploits in the newspapers or watch on catch-up. This keeps my rage levels low, but means I sacrifice the pure joy of being present when they win.

Life can be better

If you:

  • do your mental health check-in regularly. It is not weak to feel overwhelmed by life’s stresses and worries and to succumb to them; just know that you have overcome adversity before and you can and will do so again even if it takes time
  • watch out for your bad self; don’t let you drag yourself down
  • spend time in your safe spaces & activities – to quieten your busy mind and lessen any panic you are feeling
  • anchor yourself to the World by having people and things in your life that you love
  • be your best parent & cheerleader and keep yourself on a good behavioural track
  • remember it is not weak to have bad habits and/or addictions as long as you can find the strength to admit to and try to deal with them.

If you stumble, then remember to be kind to yourself, to pause and reflect, and then take however many small steps are needed to get back on track.

I hope that some, if not all of this has been useful. If your problems still feel bigger than this toolkit or the one you make from it, or if it feels like you have this black dog, then please seek out help from friends or family or a mental health charity and start a conversation; because you matter.

Look after your mental health – use the toolkit that works for you – and know that if life isn’t good, you can make it better.


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References

Depression: Just Another Day – My battle with depression

Shout UK – Shout is a 24/7 UK crisis text service available for times when people feel they need immediate support. It’s based on the US CrisisText Line that’s been running since August 2013

Side by Side – a mental health supportive online community

How to apologise – Advice on how to apologise properly

Jack Monroe’s Cooking on a bootstrap blog – Jack is a campaigner, food writer and activist and her blog shows us affordable, authentic and creative recipes that aren’t just for those with fancy gadgets or premium ingredients

Jamie’s 15-Minute Meals recipes – Jamie Oliver’s food is good fare; easily made – even if it does take a few minutes longer than 15

9 things that can happen to your body when you crash diet

NHS advice on How to cut down on sugar in your diet

Fat: the facts – an NHS guide

Covid-19: the role of vitamin D – podcast – from the Guardian newspaper

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – NHS information

The correct way to breathe in – 2-min YouTube from Dr. Belisa Vranich

78 secs on What is Japanese “forest bathing” and how can it improve your health

The excellent Brainpickings on The Songs of Trees by David Haskell – A Biologist’s Lyrical Ode to How Relationships Weave the Fabric of Life

Staying Active by the British Heart Foundation

The beautiful YouTube tale of Jamie Livingston and his Polaroid a day for 18 years hobby

Fever Pitch a book about being a football fan by Nick Hornby

I had a black dog, his name was depression – a gentle introduction to depression.



Created: 23rd May 2019, Published: 17th May 2020.
Updated: 23rd January 2021 – added paragraph on virtual drinks & no solo-drinking.
Updated: 5th Apr 2021 – minor readability edits.

© JAK 2020
The right of JAK to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted
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No part of this article may be reproduced or re-sold in any form or by any means without the prior permission in writing of the author.