After four weeks of ‘safe my life school’, I can definitively say that I have a mental health trick or two under my ‘tool’-belt, (lol..see what I did there? 😉 ) and I’ve used many of them along this unimaginable journey. I find some work better than others, but when I believe in their ability to help me, and actually practice them…they work. So I thought tonight I’d share a summary of my favourite tools in hopes of helping some of you. Of course I’m not trained in teaching these tools, and the best way to learn how to cope with these illnesses is through your doctor. But with that being said, I think a little extra experienced knowledge goes a long way.
1. The first tool may seem super simple, but to people who suffer from mental health illnesses such as depression, it can be a tricky one to apply. Tool #1 is, when possible, in order to alleviate stress, do simple exercises such as deep breathing, (I use this all the time to help me fall asleep), sing in the car, yoga, or walking a pet. Don’t always think of exercise as an activity that takes all day to do or plan, that can be too daunting of a task for anyone with anxiety or depression. Instead, exercise your brain by doing simple things such as closing your eyes and breathing deeply for a few minutes, and be proud of yourself…every small step leads to a healthier mind.
2. A tool I use for my anxiety (especially at the onset of my symptoms) is an easy distraction exercise that helps me forget that I feel anxious, thus often taking away the symptoms and preventing a panic attack. When I feel the butterflies or heaviness in my chest, and I know anxiety is looming, I focus on an object that is near me, (this could be anything…the other day I used store names and license plates) and I say any characteristic that comes to mind about the object out loud (if possible) for 5 minutes. This may sound funny, but humour me. For example: When I was anxious in AB’s car the other day, I looked at the store names in front of me and said things like, ‘Zehrs. Z-E-H-R-S. The sign is green and orange. It’s about 15 feet long. It’s above the Dollar store sign. They are both rectangles, not squares. They have four points’…etc. You can say anything at all! As long as you are taking your attention away from your anxiety. It sounds silly I know…but it honestly works for me if I commit to actually doing it properly. Then after 5 minutes of describing the objects, close your eyes and do deep breathing for 2 minutes and repeat as many times as needed until you feel better. I usually need about 10 minutes to get myself back to normal… but it’s well worth the effort!
3. Positive self-talk is another tool I have mentioned in several blogs. You would think this skill would be easy for everyone, but it’s not. For people with mental health illnesses, distorted thinking can block our ability to automatically implement positive self-talk during stressful situations, which leads us to believe that negative events, (which are ultimately out of our control) occur just to ruin our day. So if you’re sitting in traffic, livid that Hwy 400 is more of a parking lot than a highway, squeezing the steeling wheel so hard you could bend it, giving the finger to the guy who pulled in front of you, and tapping your foot to every headache ‘pound’ you feel in your head…stop! Easier said than done?…well not really. This one is pretty simple. NOTHING you do aside from getting a helicopter to land on the roof of your car and fly you to your Jays game in Toronto will get you there any faster. Say to your self, ‘well I may as well listen to some music and chill’, because thats ALL YOU CAN DO. Tell yourself that the guy who pulled in front of you won’t be getting there any faster. We all know he will change lanes again and you will crawl past him at the speed of a caterpillar in 5-10 minutes. There’s NO need to get upset about it AT ALL. The traffic wasn’t made to make you late for your game…so stop telling yourself that it was…it’s there just because it’s there. I was horrible for increasing my stress with unnecessary road-rage, and therefore increasing the use of my negative, consequence ridden coping skills. It so wasn’t worth it! Especially when all I needed was some positive self-talk and I could have been singing with the windows down, knowing I would make it there eventually.
4. Watch for negative automatic thoughts caused by ‘catastrophizing’. People with mental health illnesses tend to predict the worst case scenarios (the catastrophe) of an event and worry about this for no justifiable reason. Which leads me to tool #4: look for evidence before worrying. This was a bit tricky for me to manage because as a Paramedic I’ve been trained to imagine the worst case scenario in order to prepare for anything I may walk into. Heck, ‘worst case scenario Harris’ was the nickname my partner Ian gave me two years ago…and rightly so! 🙂 (Ian I can hear you laughing!) But when I’m not in Paramedic mode, this type of thinking is often pointless and stressful. So now whenever I’m thinking the worst, I ask myself, ‘what proof do I have that this will occur?’. And usually…I don’t find any proof at all! So why the heck am I going to waste my energy on such frivolous thinking? Sadly many mental health illness sufferers have experienced past events which did turn out to be their worst case scenarios. But these few past events still don’t make it practical to think the worst about everything in our future.
5. Another good tool to help alleviate stress is to set healthy boundaries. Give yourself permission to practice trusting yourself and seek to understand your issues rather than let others shape how you think, feel and act. Speak for yourself and stand behind your word. And remember, saying ‘no’ to things you can not do is normal and doesn’t make you a bad person. We ultimately ‘teach people how we want to be treated’. (Amanda Barrowcliffe, 2014)
6. Here’s a biggie that many of us overlook…learn from consequences. When you are about to numb or sooth yourself with destructive choices, say out loud what the consequences of that choice will be. My example would be: ‘If I drink too much I will not make rational decisions. I may take pills when I’m in that state which will send me to the hospital again or kill me. My kids may get taken away from me and I may lose my job. I will disappoint my family and friends. I know I don’t make good choices when I’m intoxicated, so I will stay away from the liquor store and go to the gym instead.’ It would be magnificent to not have any vices with serious consequences, but if you do, you need to own it! Or your consequences will be great.
7. Healthy minds are able to think and act rationally because when an unpleasant event occurs they allow intellect to dictate their reactions, rather than emotion. Furthermore healthy minds can manage the temporary feeling of distress, and don’t act impulsively to numb the feeling, because they know the emotion will eventually pass. Which leads me to tool #7, trust that distressful feelings will pass…you don’t have to numb them or lash out because of them. For example: A healthy person may get pulled over for speeding and feel very nervous. But their healthy mind rationalizes this feeling using intellect allowing them to get through their nervous emotions calmly, knowing they will feel better once the officer leaves. Now take a person with Borderline Personality Disorder who reacts to their emotion when they get pulled over. They leave no room for intellect until consequences are often being enforced…intellect and emotion are in reversed order. This person may yell at the officer right away because they don’t think to let themselves feel the nervous emotions, and when they get a second ticket for lashing out, they then use intellect to realize that their actions were purely fuelled by emotion. So taking the time to breathe and know that the distressful feeling WILL pass may help people with mental health illnesses avoid unnecessary consequences.
8. The most important tool of all is to remind yourself every day that you can only fix YOURSELF. Stop managing others. They don’t need you to tell them what is right or wrong (unless its your place to do so). People have to take responsibility for their own mistakes, unhappiness, future, and their own personal growth. Pay no attention to ill remarks made about you. Remember they cast doubt on the character of the speaker, not on yours.
The more you practice using these tools the better you will become at using them. I am already noticing that I am doing them automatically and it’s only been 4 weeks…pretty good turn around if you ask me. In summary, remember to make recovery your FIRST priority. Outline destructive behaviours, find alternative behaviours. and implement them…. and PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE 🙂