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Mental Health Awareness Week

What have you learned this year about your Mental Health?

Until a couple of weeks ago, I had great plans for this week. I intended to publish daily posts, here and on social media, about mental health - offering some tools to manage it, information to those who love someone who suffers with it, and education on the whole subject to anyone who might be interested. I may still produce something along those lines, but it'll be rushed, less well-planned and thought-out, more rough round the edges than I'd really like. Why? Well, because it came back. It ...? My depression.

I've been managing my depression - pretty successfully - for some time now, enough not to feel a complete impostor when offering guidance to others with this particular struggle. But it still happened, and my fellow sufferers will recognise know how, for it creeps up on you, with bad days no longer having gaps between them, but becoming all joined up. You get worn down by the constant weight of it, rendering you unable to think rationally, to remember what you need to do to help yourself get though this dark period.

Like many of us with depression, I owe huge gratitude to my friends. They not only check in on me, but kindly force me to look inward and to acknowledge there's a problem. They remind me it's OK to feel this way, that I'm not a failure, but their kindness also allows me to access that part of my brain where I remember what helped me before.

This time round what worked was to binge on chocolate - not part of my usual care plan and not one I'd generally advocate because of the negative connotations of sugar imbalances - but it seems to have been the right first step this time. Maybe because the nauseous feeling in my stomach caused by overeating something rich and sweet overpowered the anxious feeling I was holding there.

Next I listened to what I call "fuck it" music - in my case, Amy Winehouse, followed by some "move it" music - Santana this time, all before getting outdoors for a good long walk. A walk when I didn't stride around to raise my metabolism or to stretch out my recovering knee, instead taking the time to really appreciate the changing flowers in my local park, to smile and exchange greetings with my fellow walkers, to verbally pet friendly dogs and small children - if from a safe distance. Finally, I re-started my programme of knee strengthening exercises and back stretches which I'd allowed to lapse, for physical struggles when I cannot obtain remedial treatment are a sure-fire route to increased levels of anxiety. I repeated this programme (less the chocolate) for a few days, before feeling the cloud lift. I know it's not a done deal, but my depression is now a fading presence instead of an overwhelming weight; I know I need to remain alert, but am on the road to recovery.

With hindsight, it's easy to see that I'd allowed my emotional cup to run dry. Busy worrying about all manner of things, both personal and professional, and about how people I know and love are coping with lock-down, I took my eye off the self-care ball.

This year, the focus of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 is kindness. During this difficult time, buried among the fear, anger and frustrations, and the early selfishness of hoarders, there have been some amazing stories of selfless acts, and of great kindness to loved ones and strangers alike. But something that tends to get forgotten is the importance of kindness to self.

You may have noticed how carrying out an act of kindness gives you a warm feeling inside. You could rationalise it by believing your subconscious is giving you a virtual pat on the back, but there is science behind that warm feeling. I'll keep the explanation as short as I can. Carrying out an act of kindness causes the body to release endorphins. Now, although one primary role of endorphins is to help you deal with stress, the infamous "endorphin rush" happens because endorphin activity is associated with an increase in dopamine. Dopamine is how we feel pleasure, often being referred to as the feel-good neurotransmitter. When you learn that acts of kindness also cause a release of the hormone oxytocin - sometimes called the love hormone - you can see that the body is just pouring out the love in response to your act of kindness.

Now imagine that you directed an act of kindness towards yourself. You'd not only benefit from the body's chemical response to your action, but also from being on the receiving end of the kindness itself. A double whammy if you like.

So, how about it? How about allowing some of that kindness to be directed to yourself? You don't need to wait for it to be Mental Health Awareness Week to be kind to yourself - try to make it a habit to practice self-care - don't be like me and forget to guard against your cup running dry. For if you wish to continue to be caring to others, you have to make sure you extend that loving kindness to yourself.

© 2020 Caring Coaching