There’s a lot of mental illness stigma in New Zealand. From the friend or family member who tells you just to ‘get over it’, to the many little ways that living with a mental illness in an unsupportive environment slowly erodes at you. Whenever I see a new campaign set out to help inform and educate people about mental illness I am heartened, but often end up feeling a tad disappointed. Campaigns tend to focus on depression, but other forms of mental illness are still so very rarely discussed.
The kind of depression that gets funding and celebrity campaigns tends to be episodic depression. I guess its appeal is that it can hit absolutely anyone and it’s treatable. If you have an episode of depression you can get out the other end and have it be over. It’s got to be very appealing to have your campaign finish with a happy ending, especially if you get to put a respected celebrity face to it. This is great, and I’m happy that campaigns like this exist, but they aren’t structured to talk about anything other than episodic depression, and so they don’t do much to raise awareness for other kinds of mental illness. They still lead into the idea that mental illness is the thing you should completely recover from, and that complete recovery is your only option.
I have clinical anxiety. My brain is wired this way and will always be a bit funny about certain things. I am prone to having flare-ups and relapses, and intense situations (especially social situations) can provoke my condition. I am currently choosing to function without medication specifically for my anxiety, as I’ve found treatments for my PCOS helps with the worst of my symptoms. This is a choice I make that is currently right for me, but this may change in the future.
I’ve had periods of depression on the top of my anxiety, but the anxiety is there through everything. I honestly thought it was just how everyone went through the world until I was finally diagnosed at 19. Knowing that this was a thing my brain did and would likely always do was a bit of a shock, but it has ended up opening a lot more doors than it has closed. I now know what behaviours I needed to watch for, monitor and how to manage my warning signs. This lets me live in a much happier space than otherwise.
I was lucky enough to see a good psychologist, who helped give me the tools that get me through my daily life. Now, even when things get tough for me, I can open this mental toolbox and use any of the tools I find inside there. I’m sharing a few of my tools here with you today, in case they might be useful to others.
I’d like to state that I am not in any way a qualified psychotherapist and the information I provide is as a sufferer and support person of others. If you have mental health concerns please take them to a professional first, as everyone is different and needs different things. Please also keep in mind these are my own personal tips that help me, and that other people need different things.
Be mindful of warning signs
My anxiety operates around an all or nothing thought pattern. If something doesn’t go quite as I expected I might think something like: “This didn’t go exactly as I imagined, therefore I am a dreadful person everyone hates”. This poisonous thinking sets off a chain reaction that in bad cases could lead to a panic attack. Often it leaves me feeling deeply uneasy and wary, unable to enjoy anything at all until the feeling passes, which can take hours or days. Often I’ll completely forget what the initial trigger was and be left only with this heightened sense of worry, it’s exhausting.
After a lot of practice I easily recognise my warning signs and can create my very own counter-serum using the power of my own brain. By recognising the hostile thought as an anxiety warning sign, I can work to dissolve it and neutralise the harmful effects. The way I do this is based off Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It feels stupid at first, but reinforcing positive memories and pathways helps to cement them, and helps to counter or overwrite the negative pathway trying to worm its way in. Changing the thoughts influences changes in feelings with enough practice.
As an example, I’d counter “I’m a dreadful person everyone hates” with “I get along well with good people” and think about the friends I’d had positive interactions with lately, and how awesome they are. They have time for me, so I must be at the very least tolerable. Thinking like this is usually enough to stop the anxiety spiral from revving up, especially if each thought has its own specialised counter-serum.
Forgive failures and setbacks
In particularly stressful times I quite often miss my warning signs and end up in an anxiety or depression spiral. Some days become completely unrecoverable. But hey, it’s hard to stay on top of your game all the time. Once I’ve slipped I make sure to instantly forgive myself for doing so. Just like that, forgiven. I wouldn’t be critical someone for slipping, so I shouldn’t give myself a hard time either.
Forgiveness for being human and for having a mental illness goes a long way to me feeling like I can pick myself up again. There’s a voice inside me that demands I perform at 100% optimal capacity every minute of every day. By telling this voice that no, it’s okay to be at 40% right now is comforting and makes my recovery easier.
Look back often
I make sure to always look back to check how I’m coping with how I’ve coped in the past. It’s not always better, but the overall trend seems to have stabilised for me in the last few years. Even though I am relatively stable, I still find it useful to look back to when I wasn’t coping well to help reinforce how much I have improved since those times.
When I feel like I’ve done something well, I like to reward myself. Usually it’s something small, like a nice meal, a fancy drink or even just some time playing a new game. It’s nice to give myself a little acknowledgement at getting through something that I’d otherwise find intimidating.
When discussing mental health within the context of cognitive behavioural therapy, there’s a model made of three parts: thoughts, feelings, and physical self. I consider self care to be the soothing ointment that you put on one or all three parts. Self care for me is escaping into video games or buying some lollies or soda and curling up in bed. Self care is of course an entirely personal thing, but it’s a thing to do to make your thoughts, feelings, or physical self feel better, even if only for a short time. Sometimes all you need is a small respite from the constant active self monitoring that comes with long-term mental illness.
Safety nets are important. They are the people in your life you can talk to about how your illness might be affecting you today. They might not completely understand, but they can still be supportive and helpful in other ways. The most important thing to remember is that relationships are two way streets. While the people around you will hopefully have time for you, it’s important that you respect them, their energy levels and ability to engage with you on your needs. Even completely neurotypical friends get worn out and need time to themselves. If someone can’t help you, don’t take it personally, just ask another person in your net. If your net is small, reach out to other support online, in centres or over the phone.
Seems pretty self-explanatory, but it’s always worth saying. Things are okay. I’ve had to do a lot of work to get to okay and I have to do a lot of work to stay here, but it’s working. I feel like a person who has a lifelong condition but can manage it in a way that affords me a pretty great quality of life. I feel very fortunate.
If you need support and are unsure how to get it, below are some New Zealand-based support networks and organisations.
http://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/ Mental Health Foundation
Suicide Prevention Helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Lifeline 0800 543 354
Youthline 0800 376 633 or free text 234
Samaritans 0800 726 666 (Lower North Island, Christchurch & West Coast)
04 473 9739 (other regions)