Minding My Mind is a Full-Time Job
A mental health toolkit with all the tough love vibes
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week!
I write and talk about mental health a lot, but I didn’t choose to focus my work on mental health: the topic chose me. My book, Totally Fine, tells the story of how my grief after my boyfriend’s death by suicide impacted my mental health for a decade. Since then, I’ve picked up tools along the way that keep my mind in good shape. My recent break-up has been rough, and yet, I knew from day one that I had what I needed to get through it. Every day in my life is mental health awareness day and looking after my mental health will always be my priority.
Author Elizabeth Gilbert, wrote:
Managing my mental health is very nearly a full-time job. I don’t take it lightly, because the stakes are high. Like many of us, I have a mind that is a very dangerous neighborhood. Left unattended, my mind will fester, rot, and roll me over the brink into anxiety and depression.
Me too, Liz, me too.
I structure my life around the foundations I need for good mental health: it’s why I’m self-employed and need a flexible working schedule. I put minding my mind above the amount of money I could earn, career success and sometimes relationships. As they say on the airplane security briefing: you need to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others.
Tough Love’s Mental Health Toolkit
FEEL ALL THE FEELINGS
Feeling good all the time is a futile ambition and makes us feel a lot worse in the long-run. This was me for a decade and what I wrote about in my book. I shut myself off and did whatever I could to numb and distract myself from my grief and it didn’t work.
Now, I welcome all the difficult feelings in and I say hello to sadness or anger or anxiety and all the icky stuff when it comes knocking at my door. If I’m feeling weird and I’m not sure why, I look at the feelings wheel and identify what I’m experiencing.
All feelings are temporary and they go away as quickly as they arrive. I accept that in life, there’s no joy without sadness and no hope without despair. Sometimes, our bodies are trying to tell us something and our feelings can act as a compass - listen to them. After my break-up, I’ve had to feel all the difficult feelings and it’s been hard, but I know that this too shall pass and life is more beautiful when you feel all of it.
SLOW DOWN YOUR THOUGHTS BY PUTTING THEM ON THE PAGE
You don’t need to be a writer to have a regular journaling practice. Writing down my thoughts slows them down and as any problem or hardship hits the page it becomes more manageable. If I’m stressed about, say, money, I write it all out and I quickly realise that it’s going to be ok.
AVOID NUMBING BEHAVIOURS
Our culture is a numbing-addicts playground. Numbing behaviours include the need to be constantly busy and seeking distractions. It’s constantly chasing dopamine hits from shopping to drugs to Instagram likes. It’s overworking, binge drinking, binge TV watching and anything that we do to avoid sitting with ourselves. My book talks about all the numbing techniques that I engaged with to try and escape my complex and difficult emotions around my bereavement by suicide. I feel sad when I revisit that time because I was existing, not living.
Sometimes, we need to numb as a survival tactic in the short-term but it’s not how we can live our lives. We must allow uncomfortable feelings and thoughts from boredom to anxiety to imposter syndrome to exist in us so that we can confront them head on. It’s not always easy, but sitting in stillness and facing reality and difficult truths will benefit us in the long-term. If you’re constantly numbing, ask what you’re avoiding.
NOURISH YOURSELF WITH GOOD FOOD
Eating well impacts how you feel and there are studies that show links between what we eat and our mental health. Advertising plays on our emotions to sell us things and we’ve grown up in a culture where big food companies have ingrained in our brains that junk food equates to happiness, when the opposite is true.
Eating well isn’t an easy task and it requires prioritisation, planning and effort. If I walk into a shop hungry after a bad day, I won’t pick up something to eat that is good for me. A few days of eating overly processed, fake food impacts my mental health and so I do what I can to make sure my fridge and freezer are packed full of food that’ll make me genuinely happy.
GET OUT OF THE HEAD AND INTO THE BODY
Entrepreneur Tim Ferriss said on his podcast that when someone calls him in a panic and with a problem, he tells them to go an exercise for an hour and then call him back. I find that whenever I take myself out of my head and into my body, the chaos in my mind becomes more manageable. I rely on the endorphins I get from exercise to keep myself feeling good day to day and like with eating well, we need to make time and space for it. Sometimes when I’m stressed, I have a shower, so that’s another way I step away from my phone and the stresses of modern life and reconnect with my body.
GIFT YOURSELF FOCUS
I’m worried about what’s happening to our brains as the online world is constantly vying for our attention. We’re losing the concentration muscle as we flit between tasks and scroll through short videos with someone talking really fast. On my work and mental health podcast that I co-host with my best mate Anna Codrea-Rado called Is This Working?, founder of activewear brand TALA, Grace Beverley said that ‘productivity is self-care.’ I agree with Grace.
What I love about writing is that I put my phone away to concentrate and allow myself to get into a state of flow, which feels so good. When I’m in the state of flow I feel fulfilled, grounded and settled and those feelings stay with me for the rest of the day. It’s the best antidote to the brain-rot, dopamine highs and lows of mindless scrolling. Concentrating on one thing at a time, whether that’s in a pottery class or focusing on a TV show with your phone out of reach is a gift to yourself. I wrote about how the psychology of flow and how it was going to get me through my break-up here.
SPEND TIME WITH LOVED ONES
It’s often when we least feel like it when we need to see people the most. I note that I rarely regret dragging myself out the house to spend time with people and I try to keep that memory, so I can bring it up when there’s a part of me that thinks that I want to be left alone to wallow. Reach out to friends especially when you don’t feel like it.
STOP PRETENDING TO BE TOTALLY FINE
It’s ok to not be ok… We so often shame ourselves for what we’re going through and want to prove to the world and to ourselves that we are FINE. I’d love to pretend to be totally fine about my break-up, but I’m not. It’s frustrating because the healing process is slow, but it does feel better when I just admit this truth to myself and trusted supporters.
So that’s my mental health toolkit. I’d love to hear what yours are in the comments. We’re all so different, but the point of this piece and Mental Health Awareness week is that word: AWARENESS. If we start to think about our mental health as something we need to be constantly aware of, a good life will follow.
More information about Mental Health Awareness Week is here.
How to support a loved one? Watch this video on the difference between empathy and sympathy.
Listen to my podcast, Totally Fine with Tiffany Philippou, where I interview people about life-altering experiences and times that they pretended to be fine.
Congratulations to the wonderful Emma Gannon for the publication of her book: The Success Myth: Our obsession with achievement is a trap. This is how to break free. I’m halfway through and nodding away. So much of what we’ve been taught about life is all wrong and I love Emma’s warm and engaging writing style and I feel like she’s talking to me as I read it. It was also great fun to support her IRL at the launch. More in-person events for my life please, they really fuel my soul. Thank you Emma!