Today, I wanted to talk about some strategies that I use to improve mental health. Living and recovering from chronic illnesses is challenging, both physically and mentally. Over the years, I’ve come to learn that it’s just as important to take care of my mental health as much as my physical wellbeing.
Mental Health is as Important as Physical Health
I often talk about my recovery as being like a full-time job. That’s because there are things that I need to do each day to maintain my health. This includes things like taking my supplements, gentle stretching, pre-emptive rest, exercising when I’m able and staying hydrated. If I let these slip, my health suffers for it.
The same is true for my mental health. There are things that I incorporate into my daily routine that help to maintain my mental health too. And, if I neglect to do these, my mental health suffers for it.
What I do TO Improve Mental Health
Below is my toolkit that I dip into to help with my mental health. I don’t necessarily do everything on this list every single day. However, it’s important for me to practise at least a few of them.
Before I begin, it goes without saying that I’m by no means a mental health expert. Rather, these are simple strategies that help me as a patient. If you are struggling with your mental health, I would always advise getting in touch with a healthcare professional who can help you.
1. Keep a Gratitude Journal
Those of you who have followed my blog for a few years will remember that I had a series on my blog called ‘What Made Me Happy‘. For the whole of 2014, I wrote a monthly summary of what made me happy and what I was grateful for each month.
For me, it was an experiment. I wanted to see if changing my outlook made any difference to my mental health. And it did. This experiment made me realise the power of gratitude.
Taking just a few minutes to write down what you are grateful for each day sounds trivial, but I found it incredibly helpful. It wasn’t something that came naturally to me and there were often times I felt silly for writing the simplest of things (it can be hard to find a positive during a flare-up for example!).
However, over time, I found it easier and realised that it did help to improve my mental health. I was happier and more positive for it and even my self-esteem benefitted.
My gratitude journal is something I admittedly dip in and out of. There are times when I simply can’t be bothered (I’m only human after all). However, if I neglect it for too long I tend to find doubt, anxiety and stress start to creep back in.
2. Allocate WOrry Time
As important as my gratitude journal is, I think it’s important to say that improving mental health isn’t as simple as thinking positively. No-one thinks happy thoughts 100% of the time and that’s okay. In my opinion, believing that you just need to be more positive and shouldn’t think negatively can actually be harmful.
It places pressure on you to achieve something that– quite frankly– isn’t achievable. And, it completely ignores how you actually feel. Bottling things up is never helpful.
Personally, I believe it’s important to express our emotions, whether positive or negative. The important thing is ensuring we do this in a healthy way.
For me, that’s allocating worry time. If something is bothering me, I will give myself a set time to do a ‘brain dump’. I will write down everything that is worrying my or consuming my thoughts.
I like this because writing it down and seeing it in black and white makes me feel more in control. Allocating a time to do this also stops me from ruminating on these thoughts and allowing them to grow into something more (catastrophizing, anyone?).
3. Challenging & Re-framing my Thoughts
Outside of worry time, my brain doesn’t suddenly stop thinking negative or worrying thoughts. So, I also try to be proactive about this. Rather than letting my mind run, I mentally think “stop”. I then challenge myself by asking a few questions.
- What is making me feel this way? (If I can identify it, I can maybe be proactive and do something about it).
- Is there anything I can do about it? Is it in my control? (If not, why am I worrying about it?)
- How can I view this situation differently?
It’s not easy but I do try and flip the script, so-to-speak. I might not always believe the opposite view but I find it helpful to do this as it gets me thinking more about solutions rather than the problem.
Affirmations are something that I used to think of as a bit ‘woo’. I didn’t entertain them for a long time. Not only that but when I first started using them I didn’t believe a word of what I said. Skip forward to now, and affirmations are one of my go-to strategies.
I use them every single day. My favourites include:
- I am strong
- I am healing
- I’ve got this
- This will pass
I find daily affirmations help to strengthen my mental health and they also help to keep me calm when I am having a difficult time.
When choosing an affirmation, I basically think about what I am struggling with and then what the opposite is (or what I wish was true). Then, I’ll repeat that to myself many times through the day.
Some people incorporate affirmations into practices, such as yoga. And, while this can be useful it’s not necessary. Simply make a conscious effort to repeat your chosen affirmation to yourself.
5. Spending Time Outside
It’s said that spending time in nature is good for our mental health and, personally, I’ve found this to be true. If I can get outside, I find I am much happier for it.
Sometimes this will be going for a walk with my dog. Other times, it might be sitting out in my garden. If I’m having a particularly difficult day, it can be a simple as lying or sitting near to a window and letting the fresh air in.
6. Staying off my phone
The less time I spend on my phone browsing social media, the better I feel for it. I don’t know what it is about the endless timelines, but something about them makes me feel stressed out and anxious. Not only that, but too much screen time is an energy drainer for me.
I try to allocate a set time for social media and stick with it. This isn’t always easy, of course. And, if I find myself reaching my phone throughout the day I try to bring my awareness towards this. I then try to consciously change this habit.
If I still find myself doing it, then I move my phone to another room. That way I can still hear it if it rings but I won’t be reaching for it out of habit.
I’ve previously written an entire blog post about visualisation (which you can read here if you are interested), so I will keep this brief. Visualisations are very important to me in my recovery and are helpful for my mental health.
It can be as simple as visualising my symptoms leaving my body. For example, with every exhale I visualise that any pain or discomfort is leaving my body.
I also like to take time to visualise myself doing things that I’d love to be able to do but presently can’t. I visualise what remission/recovery will look like.
The mind is an extremely powerful tool. We can do things and visit places we might not be able to at present. Imagination is all that’s required.
For example, I often find my mind drifting off to the top of a snowy mountain and I visualise myself snowboarding down. I find it a very calming process and I tell myself that I will achieve this one day (even if I don’t quite believe it!).
Visualisation can also positively impact my mood. One of my favourite things to do is visualise myself dancing to music. This helps me to feel more upbeat and positive.
8. Deep Breathing Exercises
Thanks to my chronic illnesses, my body was stuck in fight/flight mode for a long time. This in itself can cause physiological stress and anxiety. It’s been important for both my mental and physical health to practise calmness each day.
I’ve never been one for guided meditations but I find that I can reach a meditative state by doing deep breathing exercises. Doing this for even just 10 minutes a day is so impactful. If you want to get started, Infusio has a great video you can follow.
I often like to combine deep breathing and visualisations as this helps me to easily achieve that deep, meditative state.
9. Listening to Music
Music is something that has long had the ability to impact my mood. I have playlists tailored to different moods and find that music can either energise me, calm me down or simply make me happy.
Music can also be nostalgic as certain songs transport me back to a specific time and place. I find reflecting back on happy memories to be very healing.
One of the first things I do each day is play music. It makes my morning significantly better. What I play depends entirely on how I’m feeling.
Sometimes I need something upbeat to help get me out of bed and starting my day. Other times, I need chilled out songs as I can’t cope with anything else.
I also like to use music as part of my visualisations and/or deep breathing exercises. It’s a very important part of my mental health toolkit! I’d highly recommend paying attention to how music makes you feel and think about ways of incorporating that into your day to your benefit.
10. Talk to Someone
They say a problem shared is a problem halved. And, there’s definitely something to that. I find opening up and speaking to someone instantly makes me feel lighter. I appreciate it’s not always easy but finding someone you trust to talk to is so helpful.
Sometimes it will be my husband or mum that I talk to. Other times, I might chat with friends I’ve made online who also live with chronic illness (there are great communities on Instagram and Twitter).
If neither of these feels like an option to you, please consider speaking to a healthcare professional. Your GP is a good first port of call. And, please remember that there is always someone waiting to listen through organisations such as the Samaritans.
Do you struggle with the mental health aspect of living with chronic illness? What strategies do you use to improve mental health? I’d love to hear your views in the comments down below.
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