I’m going to be honest. I have always loved Christmas. Looking back on my childhood, I remember the magic of Christmas. From attending Noddy parties, and getting my first gift of the year from Father Christmas, and the fairy whom we have to help turn on the lights once the Golliwogs have switched them off. And then the search for the Christmas tree, and then decorating it, including using cotton wool to make snow. And when I was a little older, being able to write letters to Father Christmas to ask for what I wanted. Christmas movies. It really was a magical time.
But what I didn’t see was the challenging family dynamics that was underlying every Christmas lunch. My parents and aunts and uncles were all divorced, so it is a logistical nightmare to plan for the adults, because which year do the kids go to which parents. I very rarely saw my father’s side of the family, which looking back is a challenging dynamic in its own. His brother would also visit every year, and my ma refused to acknowledge his presence, a tension I felt then, but only understood once I was old enough. I rarely saw my sister for an extended period of time, which I only understand now was because she’s not a fan of Christmas, because of these difficult dynamics.
And as an adult, once the magic was gone, it really was gone. I have some difficult Christmases that I look back on, some where I’ve spent the afternoon crying, or where I spent the day angry with something my father did. Or the year where I just felt really bad for my niece because she bore the brunt of the difficulties my brother and father were experiencing. Christmas is not magical. It takes all those family dynamics we avoid for most of the year, and then amplifies it on that one day in the year where we are forced to spend hours together and share a meal.
Christmas is hard as an adult. We stress about having the perfect Christmas lunch, and buying the perfect gifts for everyone we love, and making sure we look good for that one day. The expense for that one day is astronomical, and doesn’t make sense, but we do it every year.
Christmas is a trigger for many people. It’s a time of severe loneliness for many people, where they are reminded of how lonely they are. It’s a time when we also remember the people we are not seeing because they are no longer with us.
But when we strip it all away, the real magic of Christmas lies in who we spend it with, and making sure that we spend our time with people who uplift us. And that we don’t feel obligated to see family that do not make us feel good about ourselves. We need to hold that boundary, and not allow an expectation of Christmas time being a family holiday, if our families only bring bad feelings. And acknowledge that it is ok to spend Christmas by yourself, and treat yourself to a special day. Eat a special meal, pamper yourself.
However you spend Christmas and the festive season, whether it’s with others or by yourself, but make sure at the end of the day you are doing things that uplift you and make feel good. This year, the best gift you can give yourself is self-care.
Look after yourself, and we’ll chat again in 2021.
If you do find that you are struggling with mental health issues or are feeling as though you can’t cope with life, what do you do? And where do you turn? This month, I’ve connected with some mental health practitioners to provide guidance as to what the different mental health practitioners do, to guide those of us seeking therapeutic help and guidance.
Interview with a Social Worker:
What does a social worker do?
People normally think of statutory social workers who are involved with the removal of children. This is only one area of social work, and you need to be designated to statutory social work.
Our goal within social work is about how to develop communities and to help communities thrive. We work with individuals, groups and families. We consider what are your resources – what are you lacking and what have you got. Social work is about developing and helping people thrive individually, group and community.
We look at using resources. For example, how do we help families, we try and work with what you have available to you. If you are struggling to move, we build in exercises to help you move within your environment. We play to your strengths and sensory capabilities. It’s about using the resources you have to manage mental wellness
What is the difference between a social worker and a psychologist?
Although social workers are not involved in any diagnostic work, they work with people, and can be your first source of therapeutic healing. We can refer for extra support or input around diagnosis if required. We help clients develop skills and help to manage symptoms, once they have a diagnosis. We look at the impact on your life, and what we can do with that. For example, what are your triggers for depression, and when you see that happening, what do you do, what are your options, and strategies in this space eg checking in with a friend.
Social work gives clients practical resources. What does your depression mean practically? Where is it stopping our life and what can we do
When would someone need to see a social worker?
There is no one size fits all when it comes to treatment. Depending on approach you’re needing, at the time, it will determine who you approach. At the end of the day, if you are struggling to function – you need to speak to someone. And you need someone who is going to listen and understand to help you pick up the different threads. If you feel like things are unravelling, you should seek help, before you feel like you’re too stretched. It’s hard for many people to admit that they’re not coping.
How do you find a social worker?
The best place is to look at the SAASWIPP Website, and search by interest topic. Social workers need to be registered to be on the website, and you will find information on whether they are cash only or you can claim medical aid. All this information will be available
Anything you would like to add?
Different people connect with different practitioners – this is about a process and a journey. While there has historically been a hierarchical perception and at times, real division between psychologists, there is most definitely space and a need for both. Even as mental health practitioners, we should always be working within the best interests of our clients, ethically and professionally. This should always guide practice.
If you do find that you are struggling with mental health issues or are feeling as though you can’t cope with life, what do you do? And where do you turn? This month, I’ve connected with some mental health practitioners to provide guidance as to what the different mental health practitioners do, to guide those of us seeking therapeutic help and guidance.
Interview with a Clinical Psychologist:
What does a psychologist do?
You get different kinds, but it depends on registration category. As a clinical psychologist, I am trained to treat and diagnose all clinical disorders, but also to help people through all hurt and pain.
What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?
A Psychiatrist is a medical doctor and manages mental disorders with medication.
A Psychologist is a mental health professional, but not medical doctor. We can diagnose, but cannot prescribe medication, so a treatment plan involves psycho-therapeutic methods. Including behaviour techniques for clients. But more importantly helping clients heal through a supportive and caring relationship.
How do I know I need to see a psychologist?
As a necessity, things to look out for are suicidal thoughts and feelings, but also a struggle to live, where you are struggling to feel joy and the need to connect with others.
If ever you feel you need some kind of support, you can see psychologist. There are many of us who don’t have adequate support in their lives, and a psychologist can help provide that and help them build that into their lives.
Advice on finding a psychologist
My experience as a client and a therapist, is that race and culture matters. So I would recommend, that you seek out someone that you think would have sufficient lived experience that they could understand your context. Besides that, someone who is referred by a mental health professional is a good bet. And I would encourage you to look at people’s website, social media, to get a sense of the psychologist and their areas of interest.
Other types of psychologists
Counselling – They are not trained in diagnosing severe mental illness, but are able to offer psychological support and treatment for less severe emotional struggles.
Educational – They are involved in conducting psycho-educational assessments, diagnosing barriers to learning and helping to provide practical support and treatment plans for these learning barriers.
Neuropsychologist – They look at the impact of brain trauma on neuropsychological functioning.
Research psychologist – They conduct social science research in the area of social psychology in particular.
Other mental health professionals
Registered counsellors – They are not able to diagnose, but they are able to offer psychological and emotional support, to those suffering with less sever mental health concerns.
Clinical social workers – They are well trained in family and child work.
What is the therapeutic process like
Initially, the therapist needs to gain an understanding of why the client is struggling at this particular time, with these particular issues, given the unique path they’ve walked in life. The therapist is able to gain an understanding of the challenges they have, and what might be helpful in order to help them overcome these.
Prevention is better than cure, and while it might seem as though it is unnecessary, or even over pathologizing a situation to seek out therapy, if addressed early, things need a lot less therapy, and result in less emotional trouble. Even if one or two sessions can rule out what is causing trouble, it is better than leaving things ferment and causing other trouble.
It was the middle of the night. And the fourth night that week that I was up at 1am, unable to sleep. I was reading package inserts to see the dosage I would need for overdose. And bemoaning the fact that based on the number of tablets I had, I would only damage my internal organs, and be forced to face the world anyway.
I’m no stranger to suicidal thinking. I have never ever attempted suicide, but I know far too many people who have, and of too many people who have committed suicide.
When it comes to suicide, people are confused by the act, think that it’s selfish, question what would drive someone to take their own life? It’s considered an act of weakness for people who are not brave enough to face the trials of life.
And in contradiction, when we hear someone talk about how they want to die, or they want to commit suicide, we brush it off as attention-seeking behaviour. If nothing else, please give these people attention. Rather a few minutes of attention to hear what is bothering someone, than a lifetime of missing someone who saw no way out other than taking their own life. And we are always left wondering why a person would take such extreme measures to end emotional pain. So let’s have these conversations before we have to grieve a loss.
Some things to understand about suicide:
It’s not death that the person desires, but the end of deep emotional pain.
The pain from challenging life circumstances is ongoing and there seems to be no end in sight.
Deep feelings of hopelessness
A deep-seated sense of loneliness and feeling alone in the world.
Self-hatred so deep that the world would seemingly be better without them.
Having nothing to live for because of perceived failures.
A sense that death is the only escape.
Certain medications have been known to cause suicidal thinking.
What can we do if we sense our loved ones are feeling suicidal, or if someone we know expresses suicidal thinking:
Help them seek professional help. Either psychologists, psychiatrists, suicide helplines.
Listen to them. Without trying to give advice, just listen. Accept how they are feeling – it doesn’t mean you are condoning the act of suicide, but that you are condoning them having very difficult feelings.
Anyone suffering with suicidality needs to be seen and heard, and shown that they are valuable and that the world needs them. Someone considering suicide, might feel like there is no one in the world who cares about them, and it may take just that one person to listen to make a difference.
The conversation you have needs to be matter-of-fact. If you react with emotion, like daring them to do it in anger, or acting shocked, or being judgemental, it will create further distance and feelings of loneliness. At this stage, this person needs to feel connected, and not experience any further challenging emotions.
The person may experience shame for feeling this way, but don’t let them swear you to secrecy. You need to seek help from a professional. Ask them if you can contact a family member.
If someone has expressed suicidal ideation, do not leave them alone, and do not leave them with the means to commit suicide. In that moment, seek the help that they need, through a suicide hotline, contacting hospitals, psychiatric facilities.
Show them that they are not alone in the world, and that you are there to listen to them. Sometimes that’s all someone needs is one person who shows them that they are wanted and needed.
Risks and warning signs:
Talking about death or suicide
Giving away possessions
Change in behaviour
Not experiencing belonging
Feeling like a burden
Isolating from friends and family and withdrawing from activities
Calling people to say Goodbye
If you are experiencing suicidal ideation, first and foremost, seek professional help, or contact a helpline. And, if you are prone to suicidal thinking, it’s a good idea to have a safety plan for yourself:
Know the warning signs, of how your mood, thoughts and behaviours change
Have a list of people you can turn to (in the depths of emotional pain and loneliness, we sometimes forget who those people are)
Make a list of activities to distract yourself (if you are feeling hopeless you could struggle to think of anything other than suicide)
Make sure that you don’t have anything that can be used to commit suicide
Make a list of relaxation techniques (e.g yoga, meditation, deep breathing, dancing)
Make a list of professionals, and helplines you can contact.
At the end of the day, suicide is preventable, and it is important to have transparent conversations with loved ones whom you think are at risk. And if you are someone experiencing suicidal ideation, know that there is help out there, and it’s not weak to feel suicidal, nor is it weak to seek help.
The other day my son told me that they can’t cry because they are not babies any more, and I leapt at the opportunity to tell him that it’s always ok to cry. If you are feeling hurt, or sad, or angry, or even happy. It’s always ok to cry. I went on to say that even I cry, and his dad cries. Everybody cries.
I’ve alluded to it before, how we are socialized differently, and how little boys are taught that it’s not ok to cry, or get hurt. And as men grow older, they are taught that it’s not ok to feel big emotions. No one wants to be accused of being hysterical (a word which has its origins in the anatomy of a woman – the Greek word for uterus). Historically, for a man to do anything like a woman is bad, don’t run like a girl, or throw like a girl, or cry like a girl.
But when it comes to mental health, the rate of suicide amongst men is double the rate it is amongst women, however, the rate of depression diagnosis amongst men is half the rate it is amongst women. Surely, there is something wrong here?
If so many men are in such despair that the only way they see out is to end their lives, why are there not more male diagnosis of depression, of feeling empty? If we could treat more men for depression, then we could reduce the rate of suicide amongst men.
But to do this, we need to change our view of mental health amongst men. Seeking help in the form of therapy or other methods of mental health treatment should not be seen as something only women do. Men need to know about the benefits of talk therapy, and share it with their friends. Men need to learn the symptoms of mental illness, so that they can recognize it in themselves, but also in their friends.
There was a great campaign in the UK on bar coasters, where it asked questions like, “are you feeling a lot more angrier than usual?”; “do you not enjoy the things you used to enjoy?”; “are you feeling like you don’t fit in with your friends?”. These are the type of questions men should be asking themselves.
Depression isn’t only about sadness, and feeling weak, and something that only women experience. Depression is also increased anger and irritation. Feeling nothing. Decreased motivation. Just feeling off. Feeling like you don’t want to be with your friends, or that something is just different when you’re with them.
We need to teach men that it’s ok to not be ok. That it’s ok to cry. That it’s ok to ask for help. And to seek professional help.
The societal expectations of men are to be the heroes, the ones who stay strong for their families. But struggling with a mental illness leaves you feeling weak. And unable to take care of yourself, let alone your family. And because they’ve been raised to not talk about these feelings, and these fears of not living up to these societal expectations, all of these feelings are repressed and turned inwards. They may come out as anger or irritation, or the utter despair that leads to suicide.
Men learn early on, that it’s not ok to be introspective, to journal to dissect your thoughts, so why would talk therapy work? Women spend hours talking to their friends to solve problems and to discuss their lives “ad nauseum”. But for men, when there is a problem, they are taught that they need to man up, and punch things and fight. But the fact is, you cannot punch your mental illness.
We need to challenge the toxic masculinity that says we need to mock our friends for seeing a therapist, or for expressing emotions. Because that is what is causing the underrepresentation of male mental illness. Men are not doing well, and don’t want to express it to anyone for fear of being judged, or accused of “acting like a woman”.
We need to raise our boys to teach them that it’s ok to cry, no matter what age they are. It’s ok to feel sad, but it’s also ok to feel lonely, to feel empty. But most importantly, we need to teach them that when life is too much, we should seek help, from our family, our friends, or professional help if that’s what we need.
The one thing that I’m sure we have all discovered is the importance of dealing with adversity. We are living in challenging times, aside from the difficulties of just living a normal life, of going to school and work, and shopping, having to sanitize, and always wearing a mask when you’re around other people. Also, the loss of income that has resulted from lockdowns and quarantines. Not being able to see or hug loved ones.
One thing that cannot be overlooked, is that the pandemic, despite the challenges and difficulties it has presented, but there are also lessons we have learnt in building resilience, and also some practices, that we can draw from this. One key thing in overcoming adversity is building resistance.
Write it out
One thing that trauma or adverse experiences create in us, is the need to ruminate on negative thoughts and feelings. And when we are in a space of negativity, all we think about is that negative thought, and we allow it to grow. But if we are to build resilience to be able to overcome situations that we cannot control, we need to change the narrative when it comes to ruminating on negative thoughts. When you feel that wave of negative emotions, sit with the feeling, it’s also not good to pretend that we don’t feel bad things. And then write down how you are feeling. And then spin it into a positive.
2. Face your fears
Slowly expose yourself to the things that you are fearful of. For example, I am so fearful of shopping right now. The environment in the shops is somber, and the fact that we are all wearing masks, and there are rules for shopping, and the need to sanitize, and I do not feel safe around other people. They are all a potential source of Corona, and are therefore scary to me. So for me, initially, I just did a quick top up grocery shop, in and out, and I was done. Then after a few of these type of trips, I went to clothing stores, but I wanted something specific, so I went straight to that item, and then left just as quickly. And eventually I graduated, to browsing in book stores, and buying takeaway coffees.
3. Practise self-compassion
Be conscious of your feelings. Feel what you are feeling, without judgement. Describe the feeling to yourself, and where you feel it in your body. Don’t repress your feelings, like we so quickly do, because “feelings are bad”. “Being emotional is bad.” Give yourself the time to feel your feelings, and acknowledge them.
Also, remember that you are not alone. That everyone in the world experiences big emotions. There is nothing wrong with feeling big feelings. And for not wanting to do anything. And to just want to cry. And to want to lie in bed all day. To feel deep anger and rage. To feel paralysed by overwhelm. Emotions are ok. And we all go through it.
And be kind to yourself. We are experiencing an incredibly difficult time right now, so it’s time to give yourself a break. And be compassionate with yourself and how you feel, and what you are going through. It’s ok.
I’ve said it before, and it will come up again and again. Meditation has been scientifically proven to improve mood. It’s one of the best ways to remain mindful. Because for 5-10 minutes a day, you can just focus on your body, and your breathing, and truly be in the moment, and allow yourself to think about things, but then also to let those thoughts go. The easiest way to meditate, is to do a bodyscan, and focus on your breathing. Being in the moment, focusing on your body, and just breathing for a moment will help to improve your mood, and increase your calm.
5. Even bad has a bit of good in it
Spend some time appreciating the paradox of a traumatic event in world history like a pandemic. Even though we have lost certain freedoms we enjoyed, we have gained time at home with our family that we rarely get to experience. And even though we may feel vulnerable because of fears around contracting COVID, or losing family members or friends to Corona, we are ultimately developing strength that we didn’t know we had. We are playing multiple roles in our families, as parents, partners, teachers. Being forced away from our family members gives us strength to be on our own.
This pandemic is forcing us to relook our lives. We need to try and build resilience through dealing with our emotions, meditating, being self-compassionate and living out our new normal. We have been given the opportunity to review our lives and asses what we truly need, and when this is all over, what we are going to return to. We are living in tough times, and I encourage you to try and build resilience. It’s all we can do.
For a moment in time, we have stopped talking about COVID-19, and focused on humanity, and the current discourse is about how none of us should be silent about racism. There is a call for us all to be anti-racist. As people of colour, if you do not speak up, you are agreeing with racism. As white people, you are colluding with racists by not speaking up.
I am a believer in justice and standing up for the disenfranchised, because I know what it is like to not have your voice heard. Without systemic justice, though, nothing will be fixed. Within a system that is just, individuals all have access to all opportunities. And no one is discriminated against for individual characteristics such as race or gender or socioeconomic status. Or, mental health.
Historically, mental health has been developed by white males, and still today, the majority of the field is still white, so where does that leave the unique challenges of suffering with a mental illness as a person of colour. A lot of research has gone into the diagnosis of mental illness and the development of the diagnostic tools. And these are reviewed to ensure that our definitions are relevant to the context within which we live. However, we are still using diagnostic tools, which are predominantly developed with a Euro-centric, Western understanding of human behaviour.
As an example, there is still an underdiagnosis of girls with ADHD because the symptoms were initially based on boys, and hyperactivity may look different for a girl, which is why many women are only diagnosed with ADHD in mid to late adulthood. The same goes for Autism. And because women are socialized differently in society, women on the Autism spectrum, are able to hide their symptoms, because there is a societal expectation to fit in, and behave in a certain way to be regarded as a woman in this society.
There is also an underrepresentation of men with mental illness, because there is still the stigma of mental illness being an indication of weakness. Men are not readily willing to admit that they are suffering, and also willing to seek help, for fear of not “manning up”, or appearing weak. Boys are taught that they are not to ask for help, or cry.
What about the cultural meaning of “hearing voices”, such as when the ancestors are speaking? Or when you are called to be a sangoma? There are a number of beliefs within the African, South American or Asian cultures, which can be explained away as a symptom of a mental illness. So how do we differentiate between cultural understanding and mental illness symptoms?
Aside from the stigma of mental illness, there is the stigma of seeking help for mental illness, and seeing a psychologist for a “white” disease. As a person of colour your family might not understand or agree with you struggling with a mental illness, and you might be judged, or ostracized for seeking help for a mental illness. And being that many causes of mental illness relate to family dynamics and triggers as a result of lack of family support, this presents quite the predicament.
And finally, access to mental health practitioners. The majority of psychologists are white, and the majority of therapy is conducted in English, and Afrikaans. When searching for a psychologist, you may want to see someone who fits the same demographic as you do, or speaks the same language as you. How difficult must it be to undergo therapy to uncover deep-seated emotional and identity issues in a second, or third, language?
Also, the socioeconomic barrier for people of colour in having access to the mental healthcare professionals that they may need. A number of studies have been conducted on the inequality of healthcare systems, and mental health care is a privileged form of care, which further creates a barrier between the races and socioeconomic classes. Healthcare systems in South Africa have been shown to be unequally distributed within the country.
It’s also important to consider the fact that certain behaviours are prevalent amongst the impoverished, and when impacted by mental illness, they are not subtyped as being afflicted by mental illness, but are viewed as criminals or deviants. Because of unconscious bias in regards to race, there are certain characteristics attributed to certain races, like violence, which have the potential to result in misdiagnoses, or underdiagnosis. As an example, being lazy is attributed to being black, but one of the key symptoms in ADHD or depression is reduced productivity. This will be missed as a diagnosis, if it is assumed that the person is inherently lazy.
When considering mental wellness within the context of race (or gender, or sexuality), we need to acknowledge further layers of challenge, and stigma associated as a result. And ultimately the fact that anyone with mental illness, regardless of demographic wants to be heard and cared for, and understood.
Counselling Psychology in South Africa by Jason Bantjies, Ashraf Kagee, and Charles Young
HPSCA Report of the Working Group on Promulgation of Regulations
Synergi Collaborative Centre briefing paper on priorities to address ethnic inequalities in severe mental illness
The global pandemic has us all a little fearful, and paranoid, and stressed and anxious. And as someone for whom this is a daily experience, I thought I would share some ideas for maintaining mental health during these very uncertain times. Partly from my own experience, and partly from the advice from my psychologist:
Routine routine routine
It may sound boring, but one of the best things that has worked for me, has been maintaining a routine, albeit very different from my pre-global pandemic life. During these uncertain times, there is not much that we can control, but how we structure our days is something we can (relatively) control. Having that structure lessens my anxiety because I know what is coming. There is a lot to be said for having a plan. And look, it doesn’t always look the same, but if we have this plan, and try and stick to it, it gives us one less bit of uncertainty in our lives. And a small semblance of peace.
Our minds are overwhelmed with work, the Corona statistics, home schooling, staying fit and healthy, but also wanting to eat everything in sight (which is rarely a carrot stick), concerns about the health of our family, the general paranoia of not being able to touch anything before you’ve washed your hands and sterilized.
Spending some mindful time doing yoga or meditation will do wonders for your mental health. The key objectives of the yoga or meditation is to spend some time focusing on your body, and allowing thoughts in and then letting them go. These types of mindfulness activities, allow us to clear our heads, by making us focus on our breathing and body position. An easy meditation you can do for a few minutes a day, is body scanning: start at your head, feel its position in space, tense and release your face/jaw, and then continue to tense and release as you move down your body, from your shoulders, arms, chest, abs, legs, to your feet.
Spending time focused on something other than the thoughts running through your head will give you a space to think more clearly, and help with that feeling of overwhelm. Meditation has been scientifically proven to calm anxiety, so I definitely recommend spending some time out of your head.
3. Self Care
Ok, so right now, we’re able to go to meetings in our pajamas and slippers and no one would know. My advice here is to get dressed for work. And yes, for most of the week you will wear your apocalypse gear (stretchy pants /workout gear/ day pajamas), but try at least 2 days in the week to dress up for work, do your hair and make-up, wear shoes you can go outside in. Getting up and getting dressed is sometimes one of the easiest ways to alleviate anxious feelings. Look good, even if you aren’t feeling great. It helps, in a weird way, but it does.
Include some selfcare activities into your day. Selfcare isn’t always big activities like sitting in your bath, with a face mask, reading a magazine, with a glass of bubbly. It can be something as small as rolling your shoulders a few times at your desk to relax your body if you are feeling tense. Spend a few seconds deep breathing to calm down. Looking at a photo of your family. Micro selfcare is about anything, no matter how small, that is going to aid your feelings of anxiety or uncertainty.
So before the global pandemic, I had fitness goals, which have subsequently been put on pause. But nonetheless, exercise gives me energy. And in the moments when I’ve felt awful, lethargic, and demotivated, doing some form of exercise gives me those endorphins and energy to get me through the day. It doesn’t have to be a lot, I am currently doing about 15 minutes of basic functional fitness, using my body weight and things I have around the house, like chairs, and my children’s board books.
You don’t need to come out of this global pandemic fit enough to complete an Ironman, but doing a few minutes of exercise a day, will definitely help with the stress, anxiety, paranoia, loneliness, and general overwhelem.
5. Limit social media and news coverage
Social media is like a lifeline to the outside world, and if we stop, what are we going to do with our time? And if we stop scrolling, where are we going to see all those Corona memes? All true. But being on social media, and reading the worldwide corona stats daily will function to make you more paranoid, and feeling less than you are. Seeing all these super moms out there with perfect home school routines, and time to make their own playdough and paint, and making nutritious meals and snacks for their children, while your child ate cereal and a chicken nugget for supper while watching his 100th episode of Paw Patrol, is bound to make you feel like a failure. Not something you need right now. Also, try and limit your intake of news on Corona. We need to know what is happening in the world right now, but try to not go down a Corona media black hole, it’s just not healthy. Another tip, is to read/watch serious news in the mornings/early afternoon, going to sleep with those hard hitting news stories, can cause undue stress, and impact your sleep.
But stay on social media, we need those memes. Humour is so valuable in a time of crisis. So keep reading and sharing, but try and limit the time you spend there, to protect your mental health.
6. Video calls
Video calls is an awesome way to keep your distance, while staying connected. I’ve been able to stay in touch with my family and friends, and my kids are able to show them their toys and art that they’ve made. My kids have used Zoom for classes with their teachers, and parties with their friends.
Also, I happened to celebrate my birthday a few weeks ago, and we took to Zoom to party. We shared drinks, danced to music, it was one of the best birthdays I’ve had. I don’t know when last I’d laughed like that, since social distancing. It helped me to feel close to family and friends… healthily.
When you’re feeling lonely, video call a friend or family member or five. That’s one of the most difficult things we are going to experience during a pandemic that requires us to stay away from people. And we humans are social beings. Even us introverts. We all need our people time. So reach out when you need to.
For me, one of my favourite things to do is to sit with a good book, or spend some time writing creatively. These type of activities have come in handy while I’m staying home. A few suggestions are reading, colouring in, knitting, painting, playing with playdough, sewing, drawing etc. Activites that will allow you to sit quietly for an hour or two. These type of activities are also mindful activities that enable you do move outside of your mind, and focus on doing something practical.
Another suggestion here, is to dance. It may not be a calm activity, but who feels stressed after having a dance party in your lounge? (knowing that you can literally dance like no one is watching). So move that coffee table out of the way, put on your favourite tunes, and dance it out.
8. Writing – even if you don’t normally
Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, it is really helpful to journal right now. We are all overwhelmed by what is happening around us, stress about the “new normal”, fear for ourselves and our families, having to fill multiple roles, and feeling lonely and distant from our friends and families. And it is so useful to get those thoughts down on paper. If you are lying awake at night, get out that journal and write down the thoughts that are keeping you awake. It may start out as a grocery list, but then evolve, like “buy tomatoes. Replace remote batteries. Why does my life suck right now? Is it because my dad never showed me enough affection?”
Hey, who knows, maybe you’ll find a hidden talent you didn’t know you had.
9. Sleep and wake times and meals
One thing that has become so easy is eating all day, but then also staying up all night because we’re binge watching Netflix, and then we wake up late. My advice here is to try and maintain the same bed time and wake up time. It won’t necessarily be the same as before, but it will relate to that routine you have set up for yourself. It sounds simple, but once again, something that you can control during a time when there is so much that is out of our control.
Closely linked to this is sticking to meal times. And yes, we are snacking an inordinate amount, but we need to ensure that we have our regular meals. If this is out of control , it can negatively impact your mental health. One thing I try and focus on, as a sufferer of anxiety, is to limit my coffee and sugar intake, and to ensure that I have regular meal times and snack times.
10. Time outside (Vitamin D)
Finally, spend some time outside, in the sun. We need to make sure that we get our vitamin D. Maybe have your lunch outside, or when you are journaling, do that outside in the sun. Also, something simple that you can do for your general physical health that will aid your mental health.
There is not much that we can control right now, so try focusing on what you can control.
When my good friend passed away last year, something struck me, related to my mental health journey. Whenever any of my colleagues, and family have approached me to express their condolences, and support, my response was, “I feel sad, because I miss her, but I’m glad she is no longer suffering.”
And that is what I realized the day after she passed. I’d been feeling sad. And I’ve been able to acknowledge that. And as I was walking into the office on that Monday, I was thinking about it. People will often say, “I feel so depressed…” but what you’re actually feeling is sadness. And while yes, I was going through a depressive episode at the same time, but, regarding my friend’s passing, I felt sad. And I was able to differentiate between the two emotions.
And while that may seem so minor, for someone who struggles to express emotion because for her entire life she was told that nice girls don’t get angry, and good girls don’t feel bad emotions, it’s a massive step to tease out sadness from depression. To be able to say that yes, I am depressed, but what depression feels like is a weight on my body, resulting in me not being able to get out of bed, or wash my hair, or eat. Whereas sadness, is a feeling of sorrow, of wanting to be around my friend, or wishing to hear her jokes, or spend time dancing with her, or looking at old photos, and realizing we will never have another photo together, nor share a birthday together again. It’s a feeling of longing.
Yes, this is a small win, but if this is you, give yourself a pat on the back. A lot of us have grown up being told things like, “Do not throw a temper tantrum” (when you did not have enough words to express your anger as a toddler), or “Oh come on, it’s just high school, it will be over soon” (when something made you sad as a teenager). And of course, “Nice girls don’t get angry” and “You would be much prettier if you smiled”. Let’s not forget, “Man up” and “Boys don’t cry”.
We’ve been taught, especially as women, that we always need to be happy, and that nice girls don’t get angry, so we never learn how to express anger in an appropriate way. And boys are taught that you need to man up, and that the best way to resolve a conflict is to fight it out, so they never learn the appropriate way to express anger either. And the same goes for other emotions. “Boys don’t cry”, but also, women shouldn’t be “too emotional”. How do I know what too emotional is? If I never learnt what the correct amount of emotion to express is?
And then as adults, we don’t even understand what is going on in our bodies when we feel emotion. And we have to re-learn how emotions feel, and how to express them, and the words for the different emotions, and also, how emotions feel in our bodies.
Last year, I learnt about expressing different emotions, and how to differentiate them from thoughts. So I may be mentally exhausted from working too hard, so it feels like tired, but instead of taking a nap, maybe I need to watch a silly show on TV to rest my brain. Or, know that I think that you your actions are unfair, but the emotion I am feeling is rejection.
The next step that I’m currently learning, is how my emotions feel in my body. We feel anger long before it erupts in shouting, for example. I have acknowledged that my anxiety is in my gut, and in the tension in my jaw and in my shoulders. But what I am learning is to pick up on the building of the anxiety before it’s a full-blown panic attack and then I have to take a lot more drastic measures to return to normal functioning, rather than picking it up while it’s still manageable. And maybe all I need to do is roll my shoulders or breathe deeply three times.
Another example, is knowing that when your partner starts making a statement that is a trigger for you and before he’s completed the sentence, your stomach is already in knots, and reading that feeling in your body, and being able to say to yourself that you are feeling anger, and frustration. So that instead of responding in anger, you respond by expressing the emotion that you are feeling, and stating that you cannot respond to the content of what he is saying, until you have a moment to calm down and think rationally again.
What’s also important to know, is that we don’t just experience emotions in our heads. Emotions are felt throughout our bodies, and we can pick up the signs in our bodies first sometimes. A small tingling in your fingertips, to suggest that you don’t feel comfortable somewhere. Before it becomes panic in your mind, and a sinking sensation in your gut, before you are in full-blown fight or flight mode. So start paying attention to your body, it’s more intone than you think. And it alerts you to your emotional state before you recognize the emotion.
It’s so important to be able to express emotions, and that means being able to name them, and to know the difference between sadness, and anger. And to know that expressing emotion is not bad, if done correctly. What we’ve convoluted, as a society, is expressing emotion with how that emotion is expressed. And that is where the problem lies.
It’s acknowledging that your partner, for example, is allowed to be angry with you for something you said or did, but not allowing them to degrade you, or violate you because of their anger. And then for you to depersonalize the anger, by saying to yourself that they are angry with something you did as it upsets them, and it has nothing to do with who you are as a person. It’s feeling anger yourself, but not allowing the anger to forever colour your feelings towards another person.
All feelings are ok. It’s what we do with them that matters.
The emotions wheel (useful for identifying emotions):
Even though it’s 2020, mental illness is still very misunderstood. Everyone who has low self esteem or feels nervous, has anxiety. Everyone who feels sad sometimes has depression. Everyone who is obsessed with having a neat desk is OCD. And everyone who cannot focus has ADHD. And not all thin women are anorexic.
But to actually suffer with mental illness is not as romantic as movies would have you believe. Every day is hard. Because every day, you are trying to function like a “normal” human being. And people assume that everyone with a mental illness has to look the same way. And that incredibly confident CEO could never suffer with bipolar, right? Although this is not a post about the difficulties of being on the mental illness spectrum. This is about those symptoms that we don’t talk about.
Laziness. Well, actually, perceived laziness. Sometimes people who suffer with mental illness struggle to complete tasks. And while you are motivated to complete tasks, you actually physically cannot for a number of reasons. Fear of failure. Perfectionism. Lack of motivation. Inability to concentrate. Sure, not all laziness is as a result of mental illness, but we need to start digging a little deeper when someone seems to be lazy and unproductive. It isn’t always as a result of lack of effort or desire.
Unemployment. Even though many companies will have mental health and wellness policies these days, and mental illness is starting to have its time in the sun, like wearing green on mental health day in October, when someone is actually suffering, and it’s affecting their work, it’s chalked up to poor performance. Especially in big corporate companies, poor performance is very rarely connected to mental illness. And a lot of the time, if we can give people the support and time to heal from mental illness, as we do with physical illness, we’ll improve productivity in our organisations.
Divorce/Singleness. Mental illness affects relationships. For many years, I suffered with undiagnosed anxiety, and a lot of disagreements between my husband and I were fueled by my negative outlook. I’d always been an optimistic person, and here was one of the closest people to me, telling me that he couldn’t handle my negativity. Now that we know about my anxiety and how it manifests, we are able to manage symptoms, and he is better able to understand me. But for many people, who suffer with mental illness, they struggle to maintain relationships, with romantic partners, but also friendships. We spend a lot of time in a vicious cycle of wanting to be social, but not having the energy to be social as a result of spending all day fighting mental illness to be perceived as a normal/likeable/successful individual.
Unidentified physical illness. I have a number of friends and acquaintances who have experienced random physical conditions like carpel tunnel, bowel and bladder issues, and other conditions. And most of these are directly related to their mental illness. Now, don’t get me wrong. Not all physical illness are manifestations of mental illness, and even if they are as a result of physical illness, they are serious, and need to be treated as such. But what needs to be done is treat the mental illness and not just ignore it, because, if we do, the physical illness will continue. Also, some physical conditions are caused by the excess of cortisol in our systems as a result of anxiety for example. We need to start viewing the body holistically. The brain is an organ just like the heart or lungs or liver. And it can get sick just like those other organs.
Lack of confidence. I mention this separately, because a lot of people experience the symptoms of a mental illness, but with people who do not understand, they attribute these symptoms to be part of that person’s character. So we get labelled as aloof, or lazy, negative, aggressive. And if the person feels that this is not true to their character, there is the potential to feel unconfident and insecure in who you are. And if people don’t like you because of symptoms like your negativity, or perceived self-absorption, it can leave you wondering, what is so wrong with me? And then lack of confidence in abilities, because you can never do anything right because of unproductivity as a result of depression for example. Or not doing well at school or work, and wondering what it is about you that is making you so incapable of success, when it could possibly be ADHD that is affecting your work, as an example.
Failure. It goes without saying considering all the above, that people who suffer with mental illness suffer a lot from failure. Perceived failure sometimes as a result of impossible standards. Actual failure as a result of lack of productivity, or poor motivation, absenteeism, missed dealines etc. And that is the challenge, to separate the symptoms from character, and understanding yourself, to know where your symptoms are making you fall short, and what you can manage, and what you can change.
Ultimately, mental illness is an invisible illness, no one knows how much you’re suffering from the outside. They cannot read your thoughts, nor can they see the related emotional stress, or the physical tax mental illness takes on your body. But also, it is not clear how this invisible illness, which a lot of people don’t really understand, and cannot conceive of how it impacts your life, has these other impacts on your life, causing that vicious cycle of having mental illness, struggling, having it impact your life negatively, and thereby creating difficult life experiences which would impact anyone’s emotional stability, let alone someone who is already suffering.
Mental illness is complex. And while having a diagnosis can be liberating, operating in a world that doesn’t understand you and what that diagnosis means is difficult. And then the result of this lack of understanding is these “invisible symptoms” that do not appear on the DSM.
I am very open about my illnesses, and symptoms, and how they impact my life. And my husband has now gained more understanding so he has a better grasp of how my anxiety impacts both me, and our relationship. I have also joined a group at work to support sufferers and carers of mental illness, and my main objective of joining this group is to spread the awareness and understanding of mental illness, and how it impacts the working life of employees. The only way to counter these invisible symptoms that I’ve mentioned here is through knowledge, if you ask me. To have knowledge of ourselves, and our mental illness, but then also for non-sufferers, or carers to have the information to develop their understanding.