7 Essentials in my Mental Health Toolbox
I was first introduced to the idea of a mental health (or ‘wellness’ or ‘recovery’) toolbox by a counsellor. ‘Think of it like this: if something needs a quick fix in your house, you’ll get out your toolbox,’ she said. ‘Like tightening a wobbly door handle. You don’t need to call in a professional, but you do need to do something. What would you put in your mental health toolbox?’
Pushing all thoughts of screwdrivers and hammers out of my head, my mind went blank. But I thought about it a lot, over the next few days, and I realised that I definitely wouldn’t struggle to start filling up my toolbox.
So here’s what’s in my mental health toolbox today. On their own, these things aren’t enough to ‘fix’ my anxiety or depression – and that’s absolutely ok, because just like physical health, a quick fix isn’t adequate for our mental health. It deserves more than that: ongoing attention and care, to be tweaked when necessary – but they are capable of boosting my mood, providing comfort and restoration, and when combined with everything else in my toolbox, they make a real difference.
I’ve flirted with several mantras over the years, and that’s absolutely fine. (There are no rules when it comes to your mental health toolbox.) I like to go for short sayings that are easy to remember, like ‘Trust the process,’ ‘One day at a time’ and ‘I choose me.’ If I’m faced with a difficult decision or a stressful situation, I tell myself, ‘You can do this’ – really simple, but it helps. When I come across a line in a book that strikes a chord with me, I write it down. I have ‘I am stronger than I am broken’ (from Roxanne Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body) written inside the front cover of my diary. When you look at something a lot, it can’t help but sink in.
When I say running saved my life after I was diagnosed with postnatal depression, I’m not exaggerating. Medication may have cleared the fog just enough for me to put on my trainers and step outside, but running put me back together again. Day after day, I scraped together the determination and energy I needed to harness the power of exercise to clear my mind, which gave me the headspace I needed to see a way forward. Over the years, I’ve explored and enjoyed other types of exercise – yoga, dancing, swimming in the sea – but running is my go-to when I need a quick emotional lift.
A favourite film
We all have one: the film you’ve watched a thousand times and know every line of. Some people might call it a guilty pleasure; I have no guilt at all in admitting that Pretty Woman always gives me a boost.
A long, hot bath
When I was first diagnosed with depression in my late teens, I didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t understand what was going on or what it meant for my future, and beyond my GP, I had no other professional to ask for help. Mental health just wasn’t something that was talked about. So I ran a bath. And I did that, every evening, for as long as I can remember. It’s still my safe place.
It’s a no-brainer, but often out of reach for busy parents – life just gets in the way of precious shut-eye. It’s a vicious circle: sleep-deprivation affects my mental health, then I get anxious about not getting enough sleep. The science behind the connection between sleep, stress and emotional health is complex, but in my opinion, it’s undeniable. Basically, I try anything and everything to get more sleep. I sleep when baby sleeps (regardless of how much laundry needs to be done). At the weekend, when my husband is home, I hand over the childcare reins and jump into bed for a couple of hours. And I don’t ever let myself feel guilty about it.
I’ve always found great comfort in putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Writing is my trade, but doing it strictly for myself is what helps me get through the darkest days and nights. (I highly recommend journaling through insomnia; there’s nothing like transferring your thoughts – no matter how half-baked or nonsensical they may seem at the time – from your head onto your notepad when you’re struggling to find peace at 3am.) Reminder: these words are for your eyes only. What you write doesn’t have to make sense, and spelling, grammar and structure don’t matter.
An uplifting/engaging/thought-provoking podcast
During low times, I often don’t have the concentration required to read a book. A really great podcast is the next best thing: it’s the auditory version of a comfort blanket. I recommend having a few on your list so you’ve always got something that suits your mood. If I want a podcast to make me think and make me laugh, I plug into The Guilty Feminist. For a mental health podcast, check out TherapLab for candid conversations about therapy, Anxiety Slayer for tools to relax and reduce anxiety, and Made of Human for an honest, moving exploration of what it means to be human.
The beauty of the mental health toolbox is that it can hold whatever you like. So take a few moments to think about what helps you get through the difficult days – those days when you need a bit of help, or just something to make you feel ‘you’ again.