I’ve been asked to do a video on good mental health habits; and I’d love to get your wisdom. Here’s some of mine;
- Talk it out – don’t bottle it up. Expressing feelings can be a big struggle for lots of us with MH issues. Sometimes it’s a trigger, (you feel bad, but don’t know why; you don’t have anyone to talk to; you learned that negative emotions are ‘bad’, so you look to other ways to ‘speak’ such as self-harm). Sometimes silence keeps bad coping mechanisms going, (it’s easier to rely on habits than risk building actual relationships). Sometimes it’s a side-effect, (you’re ashamed of having MH issues, so you shut up and keep it in). At whatever stage your words get stuck, it’s important to get them started again. Those words are a way of releasing some of the feelings and pain you’ve been swallowing. You don’t have to let them out in one go, but like lifting the lid on a pot, you can release them bit by bit, and safely. There are different ways of doing this – but the best (and scariest) is with an actual person, face to face. Online contact has benefits, but it can’t take the place of someone who can walk with you and see you and actually be there. A wise friend. A church leader, boss or mentor. A parent. Someone who has been through something similar. Your GP. A counsellor. Whatever way you do it, be brave. Start with ten words, ‘I think I might need some help. Can we talk?’
- Stay connected (church, friendships, routines that get you engaging with others in a positive way). I’m not talking about one or two trusted confidantes (see point one); but a community; God’s people, family, local people. When times are hard, it’s tempting to retreat. But the more you engage, the more you want to. Conversely, the less you engage, the harder it is. If you’re struggling, even getting out to the corner shop or exchanging two words with someone in the street is important. It reminds you that there’s a world out there, there are other people and there’s a place for you; it’s not just you in your room with your fears. If you hurt your body, you’d need extra food and rest to recuperate. In the same way, if your brain is broken, then instead of running from community, you need it into gentle spoonfuls. A quiet evening sermon with a good friend. A one to one bible study. Listening to others singing spiritual truths, even if you don’t want to join in. Jesus-centred bible nourishment and grace.
- Watch your expectations. If you have a mental illness, it’s important not to confuse it with who you are. But it’s also important to get to know it. If you have diabetes you can’t carry on regardless. Ditto mental ill health. So study it. What are the symptoms or triggers? What builds you up and what makes you stressed? Be aware of your own limitations and then plan out a realistic middle ground. For example; let’s say you’re anxious and find social situations really challenging. Don’t waste time beating yourself up for finding them hard; but don’t withdraw from others either. Start with a small gathering or meeting and ask others to pray for and support you. Build in time to recover afterwards and remind yourself of what you’ve achieved. It might be that you’ll always find this hard; but that’s okay. Celebrate what you can do and be open to God changing you, but be realistic about how he has shaped you.
- Watch your boundaries. Most of us tend to be either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ folks. We say yes to everyone and burn out, or we say no to everything and end up living in a safe, airless prison. (It’s a good idea to ask a friend or partner, which you are). If you’re a ‘yes’ – think about why you do it. Who are you serving? What are the implications for you and those you love if you take more on? If you’re a ‘no’, then maybe it’s time to start trying ‘yes.’ Who can you bless? What do you need to be able to step out – and how does God equip you? Are there ways of breaking the scary thing down into manageable bits? We serve others, not as a way to get identity or brownie points, but because God has given us gifts to build up His church. Mental ill health can make us very self-focused; but ultimately, it blesses us to bless others.
- Feed your (positive) passions. What do you love about your church, your community, your home, your friends? What fires you up? Are there ways of building these things into your life; and setting aside time to thank God and others for them? God has given us spiritual gifts and one way we can spot them is the passion he gives us for them. (NB, just as you focus on what is good, watch what you put in your brain (e.g. social media), what you listen to, and read, and watch. Think of your brain and heart as toddlers you are babysitting. Your job is to lead them, care for them and where necessary, protect them from themselves!
- Cultivate and celebrate wise friends. Let them know your weaknesses and any triggers. Invite them to encourage and challenge you – and do the same for them. Look for opportunities to thank them for their friendship; pray for them and let them know what you value about them or how they are encouraging you. Ask the Lord to give you a generous spirit so that you can celebrate them without making comparisons or putting yourself down. They have their path and you have yours and that’s how God designed it.
- Get the basics in place. Eat well and drink water. Do some exercise. Get outside in the air. Don’t drink too much. If you’re not great with caffeine, cut it back. If you’re sitting up all night reading Twitter, leave your phone downstairs. If you feel discontented after reading about celebrities, step away from the magazine. If too much news makes you feel depressed, then limit and offset it by reading about what God is doing in the worldwide church.
- Speak back to yourself. It’s enough maintaining good MH without an internal voice that sounds like the worst school bullies. So call yourself out. What are the worst things you tell yourself? Write them out and then reply with answers from the gospel, from a Father who loves you and knows what is best for you. For examples, think of how Jesus speaks to his disciples; challenging and encouraging and restoring them. Practise talking back to yourself and remember it will get easier, the more you do it. Ask those around you to help challenge you gently too
- Do things one step and one task at a time; and be open to God changing your plans. When I spin plates, I get stressed and break them. Similarly, if I try to make too many plans or look too far ahead, I become overwhelmed. So instead…‘Give us today our daily bread…’ (not yearly or monthly, or even weekly). ‘Commit your ways to the Lord and he will make your paths straight,’ (not my lists or my worrying or my routines). Start the day by giving it to him. He’ll help you do it in his strength: One. Step. At. A. Time.