Ways to start nurturing your mental health today.
Words: Petra Velzeboer
It seems to be the human condition and survival instinct is to avoid pain! And if the perceived pain of doing the work is greater than the pain of living how we are, we avoid it as long as possible. We all do it, we stay in that job, that toxic relationship, don’t communicate our needs or sacrifice our health all because the idea of changing it seems too overwhelming – better the devil we know and all. To do something different looks hard, risky and vulnerable so we avoid, we numb out and just keep putting one foot in front of the other – until life decides for us that something’s got to give. We experience burnout, anxiety, depression, physical illness or a number of life challenges. The conversation about change gets forced upon us – we get fired or made redundant, our partner leaves us or our health gives way – and suddenly, we sit up and take notice. Desperate, in pain, waking up to our loss, we begin to figure out if there is another way. For me, growing up in communes which turned into the darkness of a cult, my pain built over time and I hadn’t learned about healthy outlets, much less that it was ok to have needs and to express them. Self-care felt foreign and people-pleasing and making myself fit into what other people wanted me to be became the norm. When I finally left (forced by the birth of a child), I simply shape-shifted into a new situation. Middle class mother, smiles, polite – descending into alcohol addiction and depression, unable to acknowledge or understand the trauma that had built up over time. Eventually the cracks began to show and the pain of staying the same was greater than the pain of doing the work and seeing if things could change.
Of course the work is harder here. We’re desperate, repairing the damage we’ve done to ourselves often for years, while practising a new way of being. It’s a lot! Laying in my bed early one morning, I made a pact with myself to experiment with all the wellbeing tools people talked about and if they didn’t work I could take my life in just one year. I didn’t think it would work for me but I had run out of options, having convinced myself that my own kids would be better off without me if I just disappeared. What I learned in that year is that we can teach ourselves to be happy. That wellbeing and good mental health is a skill, and if consistently invested in, can help us move through life’s challenges with ease and confidence. So what does investing in our mental health and happiness look like? This isn’t just bubble-bath wellbeing (though there’s nothing wrong with those), it’s bigger than that. It’s about brave conversations, radical honesty and experimenting with what works for you. In a world of information overload so many of us even get overwhelmed with wellbeing tools – thinking we need to do all of them all of the time in order to be well, stressing ourselves out in the process. When I was first changing my life I would listen to a 3-minute guided meditation each day to simply help me emotionally regulate and manage normal life things without drinking or escaping my reality and where I had gotten myself to. Sometimes I would be walking and doing things while I
listened on headphones, sometimes I would hide in my room when life was getting too much for just those 3 minutes.
“Laying in my bed early one morning, I made a pact with myself to experiment with all the wellbeing tools people talked about and if they didn’t work I could take my life in just one year.”
What I learned over time was that while there were normal life challenges in front of me, my body had experienced a host of traumas that meant my nervous system was shot and my reactions were a build up of stress over time – this takes some releasing. Here are a few tips to consider when investing in your mental health in order to live a good life and prevent those crisis points:
When I got divorced and changed my whole life for a second time, yoga connected me to my body. We think of yoga as aesthetic and healthy but not as releasing trauma, preventing burnout and re-connecting to ourselves. A simple yoga practice in your living room at the start or end of your day can be the perfect way to disconnect from the noise and listen to what your body needs. Prevention is all about pre-empting crisis by listening to the little things early on – aches, pains or anxieties are all information that we can work with. It can help us understand what we need as it can feel impossible to express those needs if we don’t know what they are in the first place. Yoga is a great way to learn to listen to your needs and sometimes release pent up emotion and stress.
This is a big one and more of a lifelong learning process rather than a won-and-done tactic. In a world of distraction and competing demands, learning to reflect on and set healthy boundaries is crucial to investing in your mental health long term. A boundary protects the time, space and energy it takes to invest in your wellbeing and can actually have an additional impact of affecting those around you for good. If you’re anything like me, the temptation can be to people-please and make sure everyone else is always ok before investing in yourself – but a healthy boundary communicated with respect can actually help others too. By role-modelling behaviour and handling challenges with integrity you can actually form more meaningful connections than veering between the extremes of giving everything and then feeling resentful. Resentment is a real big clue that a healthier boundary needs to be thought about and communicated. Anxiety and depression are also clues that something needs to change in your environment or influences so learning to listen and take action is crucial to preventing those crash points that force us to wake up the hard way.
Now this may seem silly as you’re not going into battle or doing an extreme sport but it is the skill that I would swear by the most. In order to change any habit, be radically honest with yourself and how you have played a part in getting yourself here, as well as take the action necessary to change things, you’re going to have to be brave. So often we focus on what we don’t want – that pesky anxiety, burnout or overwhelm – but we forget to focus on what good looks like and what we do want. Being brave is deeply personal. It’s whatever pushes you just that tiniest step outside of your comfort zone and gets you out of thinking about what you want and into actually doing the things necessary to create change and prevent those crash points. This could be as simple as talking to your Barista when they make you coffee, going into the office and actually talking to someone or speaking up in a meeting. It could be bigger things too like starting a yoga class, experimenting with meditation or having a brave conversation with a partner, boss or friend. This is the kind of habit stacking that can take you from isolation, shame and despair to the person you want to be. In fact, asking yourself who you want to be is a great first step as it uses positive psychology to help you see where you want to get to, not just what you want to avoid. This can change over time of course, but having an intention will give you information about what you need to work on now in order to get there – to know which bits are in your control and where you can focus your energy. So, Begin with You!
That’s the name of my new book that a lifetime of learning has enabled me to write. If you want to challenge the repeat cycle you find yourself in where you push yourself, crash and then recover – but just enough to push yourself, crash and recover again, then think about the part you play in that cycle and crucially, what you can do to not just move through the cycle quicker but completely rebrand what success means to you and the steps necessary to investing in yourself. With this new perspective investing in ourselves becomes about a lifetime of joy and the resilience necessary to handle life’s challenges rather than simply repairing our body and mind when it falls apart under the strain. Begin with you today!
Petra Velzeboer is a psychotherapist, CEO of mental health consultancy PVL and author of ‘Begin With You‘ (Kogan Page, £12.99) Website: www.petravelzeboer.com