Recently I shared some information about the things I’m doing to manage my mental health in a proactive way. I’ve had a lot of lovely feedback from people who’ve shared that they found some useful takeaways in there and from a personal perspective it was really useful for me to articulate my approach. One thing that I know both from personal experience and conversations I’ve had with people in the last few days, is that sometimes unhelpful thinking patterns or unconscious behaviours can still creep in and what we need then is a way to respond positively in the moment. I think that unhelpful and catastrophising thoughts seem to be spreading faster than the virus right now and often triggering entrenched but unhelpful “coping mechanisms,” so I wanted to share some ideas on how I manage these so they don’t take over.
The first step is to try and notice when these thoughts or behaviours start creeping in. I have written a list that I call my “early warning signs” that allow me to recognise I’m going in the wrong direction before I’m wallowing in the swamp of despair and overwhelm (most of the time anyway!). These will be different for everyone, but some of the early warning signs for me are:
- “All or nothing” thinking – A big early warning sign for me is when I start thinking of things in a very polarised way – when I use language like always or never, I know that I’m probably not in a healthy or rational place, because life is extremely nuanced most of the time.
- Distraction, avoidance, numbing – These behaviours are a signal that I’m suppressing emotions and not being in the present moment. I could write a whole article on how these things show up in my life (& most likely will!), but some examples are scrolling on my phone, not being able to get out of bed, frequent task-shifting and eating when I know I’m not hungry (but there are dozens more!). Do you know how these coping mechanisms show up in your own life?
- Physical sensations – Over the years, my body has got increasingly skilled at signalling that something is going on with me mentally via a range of physical sensations. This could be anything from tightness in my chest to stomach pains to an overwhelming sense of fatigue. I used to take the approach that I just needed to “push through” if I felt these things, but now I take them much more seriously and use them as a reminder of the intrinsic connection of body and mind.
For me, noticing that there’s something going on is usually the hardest thing and once I’ve noticed, the rest does feel easier. I’ve found that the next important thing is to find a way to disrupt either the thinking or the behaviour (or both!). Here are a handful of things I use regularly as part of the “disrupt” phase:
- Humour – I find humour to be one of the most powerful tools in disrupting unhelpful thinking patterns because usually its power comes from how serious it feels. Like the boggart in Harry Potter that takes on the shape of the observers worst fear, these thinking patterns feel very real and very scary. I love the idea that JK Rowling devised that the way to combat this it to make the shape seem comical and ridiculous. Laughter has a powerful affect in dissipating fear. This works best for me when I have other people who can help me see the ridiculous nature of my thoughts and often it results in uncontrollable laughter that completely disrupts the fear-based feelings and creates a profound sense of relief.
- “Get up and get down and get outside” – I love these lyrics by Frank Turner and I feel they articulate my next disrupt tactic really well. If I have a sense of feeling “stuck” in a pattern of thinking or behaviour, physical movement and changing my environment can be a game changer. I learned to do this years ago when I felt in a funk and like I couldn’t move (think netflix or scrolling-induced coma where you’ve needed the toilet for 2 hours and it’s way past bedtime but you’re feeling too tired to get up off the sofa to go to bed). I would tell myself, “in 3 seconds, you’re getting up… 3…2…1…” and I would get up. I’ve used this method thousands of times to create the activation energy to start and then I generally find the rest flows quite well. I also find changing my environment whether it’s moving to a different room or going for a walk outside to be really helpful.
- Get present – there’s a saying I like… “you should meditate for 10 minutes a day. Unless you don’t have time to meditate. Then you should meditate for 20.” Quite often if I’m engaging in unhelpful thoughts or behaviours, this will include the idea that “I don’t have enough time.” This is very rarely objectively the case. Most of us have at least some time in each day that is lost to unconsciousness or ruminating or worrying. I find that it is disruptive to these thoughts to do something mindfully, slower than I could do it and sending a message to the universe that says “I have enough time.” This could be eating slowly and mindfully, doing some yoga or meditation without feeling impatient or like I need to “get it done” or reading some poetry.
The final step is to bring a level of acceptance to the fact that thoughts or behaviours may have shown up, but they don’t diminish me and they don’t define me. Podcast host Andrea Owen tells herself “so that happened,” acknowledging the event but not attaching meaning to it. I think there is a level of self-compassion and forgiveness in this step too. Which is important in allowing us to move on. If we create a new unhelpful thought pattern about how we “should know better” or that we’re disappointed in ourselves or frustrated with how we’ve been, we are just feeding those patterns and creating a downward spiral that will be really difficult to break. For many people, this step can be the hardest. We are often deeply conditioned to be hard on ourselves in the perpetual (& ultimately futile) quest for perfection. But the counter-intuitive truth I have found is this. If you want to make better choices next time, you have to believe that you are a person who is capable of making better choices. And to do this, you have to be able to forgive yourself, accept your humanness and let go of any stories you have created about your unworthiness.