Now more than ever, it's vital to discuss mental health openly and without judgment. This year, we have all been affected in some way by the several tragic events that have taken place, from the Australian bushfires to the COVID-19 pandemic. Feelings of grief, anxiety and loneliness have become more frequent for millions of people, and receiving support has become more difficult due to social distancing restrictions. Despite this, mental health is still unbelievably stigmatised and is seen as a taboo topic in many cultures and societies.
In order to break this barrier, we must welcome discussions about our mental wellbeing and how to better take care of our minds, just as we would with our physical wellbeing. As someone who has struggled with their mental health like many young people, I want to talk about the things I've learnt mental health and how you can stay in control of your emotions in such an uncertain climate.
Something I'm guilty of is letting my emotions run my life. I'll be functioning perfectly fine - carrying out daily tasks, socialising, exercising... until I suddenly feel down again. From there on, the day is cancelled. I'll sit in my room in an unsettled state for hours, too tired to do anything productive but too irritable to stay still. I can stay this way the entire evening until I finally decide to sleep and hope that I feel better in the morning. This, for reference, is not a good example of a healthy coping mechanism. However, with lockdown and the lack of schedule it brought, this became much more common for me, and I had to discover better ways of coping before it took a greater toll on my health.
One of the most crucial things I discovered to do when experiencing a strong negative emotion is to acknowledge it. It sounds simple enough, but it's all too easy to push a negative thought to the back of our minds and try not to think about it. Speaking from experience, this never works. It only leaves the issue to accumulate space in your head, taking up more of your energy each time you attempt to brush it off. You must have the courage to simply sit with that emotion and recognise its presence. It's good practice to try to name that emotion. What are you feeling right now? Anxious? Upset? Angry? Disconnected? This will allow you to begin understanding your current state of mind and see your emotions from an objective point of view, reducing the impact they have on your life.
Another powerful tool is the acceptance and validation of your own emotions. Often, we convince ourselves that we are being irrational when we feel negative emotions, telling ourselves things like "It could be worse" or "I'm being too sensitive". These thoughts can be amplified even further when others convince us of these things too, calling us ridiculous or childish when we open up about our feelings. However, your brain is still very much an organ (arguably one of the most important in your body, too) and it deserves to be treated that way. You wouldn't call your legs overdramatic when they ached the day after a long run. You wouldn't argue with your rumbling stomach after not eating breakfast or lunch. So, why are we so quick to dismiss the way our mind feels? It can be hard to understand the exact cause of our emotions and mental state when there are so many factors that can affect our mood, but simply letting yourself feel whatever you're feeling gives you the power to work with your mind, rather than against it.
Making notes and lists can also be surprisingly helpful in aiding your mental wellbeing. Translating thoughts circulating your head onto paper can help you accept them, as well as giving your brain more room to breathe as you let those feelings escape through your pen onto the page. You can also use lists as a tool to bring positivity in your life. Write a list of things you are grateful for, or little things you noticed today that made you happy. Studies have shown gratitude can increase positive emotions reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and it only takes a few minutes each day to express gratitude; this helped me stay calm and optimistic on the days I struggled most. To-do lists can also be surprisingly helpful when your mind feels cloudy and worn out. Writing out all the tasks you want to do that day removes them from your working memory, which can help you think more clearly and ease anxiety when your life feels cluttered. As you move through the day, you can simply look at your list, rather than racking your memory for all the chores and assignments you have to do that day. Lists not only organize your life, but can also give us a sense of control and calmness in our daily lives and allow us to feel more positivity when we feel hopeless.
Self-care is vital to emotional wellbeing (and it's not always the "bubble bath and scented candles" type that you find on Instagram, either). Self-care is doing what your brain and body need most in that moment. Just five to ten minutes of exercise or meditation can make you feel happier and calmer. Listen to a podcast, journal, go for a run, take a nap, practise a hobby, stretch, sit in complete silence - whatever you think you need in that moment to improve your wellbeing. Taking care of yourself should be your priority above anything else, as only then can you navigate the rest of your life with a rested, healthy mind.
What works for others may not work for you, so experiment with different types of activities and see which ones make you the most content in the long run. However, don't mistake self-care with over-indulgence. The difference is that indulgence often satisfies short-term desires, but makes you feel unhappier over time. If you find yourself over-indulging, allow yourself forgiveness (no one is perfect), but gently bring your attention to a more mindful activity.
As I discussed in the beginning, talking about your emotions is more important than ever. Humans are naturally social creatures and the limited social contact over the past few months may have caused many to feel isolated and unable to talk about their wellbeing. However, in the age of the internet, we are more connected than ever.
If you can read this blog right now, you can probably also message a friend or even video-call your grandma. There is always a way to reach those you trust most for those vital conversations. If you feel you can't talk to those closest to you, there are countless helplines and websites with qualified professionals who will listen to you and give you advice. Making mental health an open conversation is mutually beneficial for everyone; mental health is something we all have, so being able to talk to about it will help us get through hardships a little easier. Part of breaking the stigma is being there for others too; check in with your family and friends regularly and listen to them with empathy and compassion. You've probably heard it a hundred times, but it still holds true - treat others the way you want to be treated.
If there's anything we can learn from these unprecedented times, it's to take care of yourself and others. This World Mental Health Day, give yourself the space to feel whatever you're feeling and the time to take care of your mind.