World Mental Health Awareness Day. Every year it means more to more people, which is obviously amazing. Knowing that you are not alone, and that others have felt and experienced what you have, is one of the greatest gifts that the internet has given humanity. It’s given us a lot of useless stuff, of course, and some downright horrible stuff, but the ability to connect and feel part of a community has done immeasurable amounts to make mental health a part of everyone’s consciousness – and to make it a priority.
Understanding what affects my mental health is one of the most important tools I have in maintaining it. I’ve never had a diagnosis, or suffered any major breakdown, but I can look back across my adult life and identify certain times when I was definitely mentally unhealthy. Each one of those times was surrounded by a storm of things happening in my life that were out of my control; and, sure enough, I can see my stress levels rise if I feel that day to day routines are slipping out of my control. If there is more to do than I can fit in; if there seems to be too much to keep in my head, and remember in a particular week; if the mess in the house reaches outrageous levels. I get snappish, short of patience, and irrationally annoyed that no-one other than me has any desire or ability to sort it out. My heart rate rises and stays risen for hours, and I can get short of breath just sitting in a chair. I get jolts of adrenaline for no good reason, other than remembering something I’ve forgotten to do. And so I have deduced from this that the uninvited passenger in my head is a form of anxiety.
It’s not a very troublesome one, compared with the guests that others carry with them; keeping it in check is the mental health equivalent of trying not to get a blister on your heel. But it is along for the ride nonetheless. I am stuck with it, and it pipes up if I don’t do enough to placate it, but I have learned that I can keep it happy by making sure my thoughts and life are as organised as I can get them. When I know that I’m doing everything I should be doing, I’m calm and I feel like I can manage home, work, boys and everything else like Superwoman.
Only a couple of times in my life have I felt dangerously close to tipping over into more serious problems. But my self-prescription of order and control has kept me on the healthy side in recent years; and I only managed to reach the diagnosis, remedy and prevention measures because of the openness of others, sharing themselves and their experiences,and letting me know that it’s not weird, it’s not being “a control freak” – it’s just coping. Keeping that passenger quiet.
This week I have further extended my sphere of control into my physical health and wellness – I’ve got a Fitbit. This little piece of loveliness congratulates me when I’m moving the right amount – important now that I spend much of the day sitting at my laptop – and reminds me to get up if I’m not. It records the number of times I go upstairs, when my heart rate climbs and calms, and even how well I slept each night.
This somewhat parental approach of direction and praise won’t suit everyone, and there are probably some levels of psychoanalysis to peel away here; but I always thrived on direction and reward for effort at school, so this appeals a great deal. It’s a little thing, but it’s one more element of life that I have a handle on – so it’s contributing to my mental health, and my physical health as well. And the glitter ball of glory that I get when I achieve my 10k steps gives me a warm sense of satisfaction every time.
Technology – sometimes the enemy of mental health, but I can’t help feeling that it can be a huge force for good in a world full of people who are coming to terms with how much help they really need.