I’ve spoken quite a bit about mental health over the course of this blog. While depression is the main spectre I battle, I also have my fights with anxiety, and a (thankfully now, historic) battle with OCD when my stress was at its worst. The majority of mental health problems can be, and sometimes are, kept at bay by coping mechanisms.
Some coping mechanisms work better and for longer than others. The ones that don’t work so well, or that just shift the problem or cause different symptoms, I would call ‘crutches’. One such crutch is alcohol, another might be drugs. Both of which are short-term solutions, neither solve the problem, but they are a way to function, in a way, and delay having to deal with anything.
More, perhaps most, insidious is the ‘keeping busy’ crutch. I am one of these people that relies on this when things aren’t going well.
However, what makes it harder for me to tell is that I also keep very busy when I feel perfectly fine.
One key lesson I learned very recently, thanks to a seminar run at my office by Mind (the mental health charity who do extremely important work and to whom I donated the proceeds from my marathon fundraising last year) was about the bell-curve of stress.
The most interesting part was that, for many of us, we seem to run in a cycle. I often start with some healthy amount of tension, then on getting involved with a project that demands or stimulates my attention, I become motivated and focused. However, if this persists, and situations do not resolve satisfactorily, my stress level continues to increase beyond my tolerance, fatiguing me and causing panic and anxiety, and finally anger before I stop functioning completely – I then cross back to the other side of the curve after a long recovery before climbing it again.
The trick, claimed the psychologist taking our group, is to learn how to stay in the top part of the curve. It takes less time to recuperate, and we can begin at a healthier place – for at the top end lies anxiety, and at the bottom lies depression (because we need stimulation to function and stay sane – without it, we feel useless, or (depending on your brain) hallucinate). At both ends, he said without smiling, at the very extremes, lies suicide.
But how does one learn such a trick? Many of us don’t notice we’re burning out until we’re near the end of the spectrum, and we’re already shouting at people – some of whom might not understand why they’ve become the target of our tired anger.
One answer is to take stock. How often do any of us actually check in with ourselves and ask: am I okay? What am I worrying about right now? How much control do I have over it? Am I active enough right now? What projects am I working on? Do I enjoy the activities I’m doing?
And of course, when going through what you’re doing – remember to be GREAT:
Give (helping a friend, volunteering), Relate (talking), Exercise (sweat thrice a week), Appreciate (be mindful), Try (do and learn new things).