7 practical steps to take control of your mental health journey

    Published: 15 October 2021. Written by Marina Gask.

    From recognising the first signs to finding help for yourself or a loved one, our experts talk you through the mental health journey. 

    Finally, as a nation, we are talking about mental health more than ever before. But while it’s a step in the right direction, talking isn’t enough. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted, and in some cases led to, a growing need for mental health support.

    While we did our best to stay positive: baking banana bread, staying in touch with friends and family on Zoom and taking part in the Thursday-night clap for the NHS, living through repeated lockdowns has taken its toll. Fears about income, social isolation and the health of those around us has had an enormous impact on the nation’s collective mental health. The result: anxiety and depression, and emerging signs of other underlying mental disorders.

    Now being back at school and work is causing added pressure, with more than half of us, up until recently, still fearing the ‘new normal’ and when it might start to feel… well, normal. 

    Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing, affecting how we think, feel and act. It can also affect how we handle stressful situations, relate to other people, and make life choices. Mental health phone lines run by the NHS answered around three million calls during the pandemic, and the number of children and young people who experienced a mental health problem this year is one in six, up from one in nine pre-pandemic. 

    One UK study revealed that successive lockdowns triggered spikes of activity among UK healthcare professionals in the treatment of rising rates of depression. ‘Many people are experiencing mental health issues for the first time, or finding that hidden ones have come to the fore,’ explains former mental health nurse and hypnotherapist Chrissy Reeves. ‘A spiralling sense of loss of control of our lives has left many people in a state of panic and high anxiety, resulting in feelings of exhaustion, overwhelm or depression.’

     While World Mental Health Day earlier this month highlighted the need to make mental health care available to all, conversations around the subject are important every day. Here are the questions to ask and practical steps you can take if you think you or someone you love is struggling with a mental illness.

    What are the signs of mental illness?

     Telltale signs of faltering mental health can be poor sleep, reduced appetite, feeling lethargic and being tired all the time. But you should really be aware of anything out of the norm. ‘You may experience the exact opposite – sleeping too much, overeating, feeling over-energised and the inability to switch off,’ says Reeves. ‘Racing thoughts, an overactive brain or a dulling of activity in the brain can also be signs, as can anger, irritability and withdrawal from your usual activities.’

    Over-reliance on alcohol, food or other addictive behaviours are ways that we attempt to numb symptoms of mental illness. ‘Depression can be described as living too much in the past, whereas anxiety tends to be about anticipating problems in the future,’ says Reeves. If you recognise these signs in yourself or someone close to you, they can indicate depression, overwhelming anxiety, or another mental health condition.

    What can trigger mental illness?

     There are many factors that can cause mental health issues, including physical health, hormone changes and poor sleep. ‘We can also be vulnerable to mental health issues due to our genes, our upbringing, and/or our inbuilt coping mechanisms and personality,’ says Reeves.

    ‘Don’t forget that the Covid-19 pandemic has been like nothing we’ve ever experienced before and not knowing when it’s going to end while dealing with the impact on our lives and livelihoods has triggered the fight-or-flight response in our brains far more than normal, leading to psychological distress.’ Understanding your personal triggers involves self-reflection and awareness, and will help you identify how best to overcome your anxiety or tackle those feelings of depression. 

    Is it normal not to feel happy all the time?

     While it’s probably the emotion you enjoy the most, it’s perfectly normal not to feel happy all the time. Accepting and becoming accustomed to ‘down’ moods will help you cope with them. ‘Never be afraid to feel your feelings. Being aware that feelings are states and not traits and will eventually pass can be incredibly powerful,’  explains Dr Marianne Trent, clinical psychologist at Good Thinking Psychological Services.

    Grace McGeehan, a clinical hypnotherapist at Myndup, adds: Accept that worrying and stressing over things that are out of your control wastes energy. Instead, focus on the present and what you can do in this moment to stay happy. Set aside specific time to worry or alternatively write your worries in a notebook so you will begin to feel more in control of them.’ If the feelings persist and you start to feel overwhelmed, reach out to a trusted friend, your GP or a mental health professional.

    Who can I talk to? 

     Don’t hold it in. If mental health issues go unrecognised and unchecked, they can cause problems elsewhere in your life. ‘These things are so difficult to talk about. But if you don’t own up to these feelings, another person being grumpy, irritable or full of rage, or retreating into their own world, can be mistaken for something else. They could, in fact, be symptoms of depression or anxiety or other mental health issues.’ Talking honestly with a loved one, a trusted friend, your GP or a counsellor could be the first important step in tackling your psychological distress and getting the help you need. ‘If you are concerned about someone’s mental health, don’t be afraid to ask directly,’ says Reeves. ‘Say “I noticed that when this happened you looked really upset,” and see how they react. They may get defensive due to the stigma around mental health, or they may be relieved to talk about it. Don’t probe, but just let them know you are concerned and there if they need you.’

    How can I take care of my mental health every day?

     Mental health should be taken care of in the same way that we take care of our bodies. ‘Get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly to release feel-good endorphins, eat well, get fresh air, practice a little mindfulness daily and learn something new whenever you can – it really gives your mental health a boost,’ says Reeves. 

    Doing something creative is also proven to help people deal with a wide range of mental-health conditions and psychological distress. Writing, coding, cooking up a storm in the kitchen, doing crosswords – even doodling during a work meeting or phone call can help.

    You may need to alter your lifestyle in more radical ways, too. Research has revealed that working from home during the pandemic led to work weeks becoming as much as 10% longer, leading to many moving away from traditional employment and making the leap to self-employment. One study found that more than two-thirds of entrepreneurs started their business to improve their work-life balance and a fifth were striving to improve their mental health, highlighting a desire for control over wellbeing.

    How can I take control of my mental health?

    It’s easy to default to negative self-talk whenever we feel anxious.

    We immediately overthink a situation and imagine the outcome to be far worse than it probably is. ‘But how you think about an event will affect how you experience it and becoming aware of your self-talk allows you to change your thought patterns to more constructive and helpful thoughts,’ says McGeehan. Try focusing on the moment and practice mindfulness. ‘By taking a few moments to shift your busy mind to become the observer of your thoughts, and simply imagining them floating by, enables you to detach from them and focus on the present moment. By becoming aware of what is happening right here, right now, you reduce the overwhelming worries you have about the future and bring yourself back to a state of calm.’

     

    How can I get mental health help?

     ‘Focus every day on finding the “three Ps”: positive action, positive interaction and positive thought. You can also support a better mindset by asking yourself daily: “What has been good?” Regularly focusing on the positives increases serotonin production for a healthier mindset,’ says Nicole Woodcock, clinical hypnotherapist and psychotherapist at Hummingbird Hypnotherapy.

    If your mental health issues are becoming overwhelming, seek professional help from your GP, a psychotherapist or a counsellor. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be effective, as can talking therapy. In some cases, antidepressants can be helpful. ‘Studies show that they don’t work for everyone, and there are side effects, but while they won’t take away the root cause, antidepressants can really help ease the symptoms of mental health problems,’ says Reeves. If you need help for a mental health crisis or emergency, you should get immediate expert advice and assessment.

     

    As a Vitality health insurance member, you have a range of mental health support available to you, from a Headspace subscription to mental health forums and talking therapy. Log in to the Member Zone for the details.