I had a few sessions with an ADHD coach about 2 years ago, and one of the things that stood out for me in one of our first sessions was when we were in the middle of our session, and my kids came rushing into the lounge and climbed all over me to greet me when they got home from school. I immediately apologised for the interruption and in response, the coach said to me, “Don’t apologise. Be grateful that you have children who can interrupt you to show you love”. That, as they say, was a watershed moment for me.
As a person who struggles with clinical depression, remembering what I am grateful for in this life is helpful, having a list of things I’m grateful for that I can refer to when I’m really low is mental health first aid for me. My gratitude log (which is what I call it in my bullet journal) is a list of things in my life that I’m grateful for, but also reminders about me as a person and what I like about myself and that I’m grateful for.
According to Psychology Today, the 7 scientifically proven benefits of gratitude are:
Although I can see the surface level benefits for myself, I have wondered what is the psychology behind gratitude, is there any scientific benefit to it? Because it can feel really pointless, or fake, if you cannot see the value in it.
Having gratitude helps build connection and relationships.
Acknowledging someone’s contribution to your life, even if it’s something small, like holding a door open, makes an acquaintance desire to seek an ongoing relationship. So being thankful can help you make friends (it really is a magic word)
Gratitude improves physical health.
Grateful people are less likely to experience health challenges and are more likely to take care of themselves (which is probably why they are less likely to experience health difficulties). That’s reason enough for me, I’m grateful that I am able to participate in sports like triathlon, because I don’t get bored, and it’s always a challenge for me.
Gratitude improves psychological health
Being grateful can reduce the experience of emotions like envy, resentment and regret as it’s been known to reduce depression. It makes sense because if you are looking at your own life and what is great in your life, it’s very hard to be jealous of what others have because maybe they make more money, but they don’t have a family, for example. Also, it’s very hard to feel regret if you are grateful for the life you have experienced, instead of longing for a life you don’t have.
Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression
Grateful people are more likely to behave in a prosocial manner (also going to win you some friends). In the studies where they have measured gratitude, they found that grateful people are more likely to behave more kindly even when others aren’t showing the same type of behaviour. And I guess, if you start your day being thankful for life’s small mercies, it only matters what you do, and not how others choose to live?
Grateful people sleep better
People who write in gratitude journal before bed have found to experience better and longer sleep. I may have to try this one out, because I sometimes forget what sleep feels like. I don’t know when last I woke up well-rested, so on some days, I need to end my day with gratitude.
Gratitude improves self-esteem
Gratitude has been known to reduce social comparisons, which in tern, helps build self-esteem, because the focus goes from envying someone else’s life, to appreciating your own life, and being able to appreciate other people’s accomplishments, without feeling resentment.
Gratitude increases mental strength
Grateful people have been found to be more resilient in the face of trauma. The basis of this is that being able to recognize what you have to be thankful in your life helps you to build resilience for those moments when you are struggling with a really challenging situation.
The key message I have taken out of all the reading I have been doing on gratitude and self-love, is the renewed focus on yourself, and teaching yourself to appreciate who you are and what you have achieved, what you have in this life. It’s something small, you can do it when you wake up.
I challenge you, for at least 30 days, to write down one thing that you are grateful for each day. Find those things in your life that will remind you why you should love yourself.
I’m going to be honest. I love Christmas. I am one of those nerds who loves the magic of Christmas. And I try and make Christmas the most wonderful time of the year for my kids. We bake, we do secret Santa, we wrap our Christmas presents, we decorate the tree together, and Elfie runs amok at night. Christmas is magical, and family-oriented, and based in Christianity (for us).
And if you had to ask me about Christmas growing up, I will tell you the same. Christmas was a magical time. We went to Noddy parties, we decorated the tree (including fake snow), we listened to Christmas music, we wrapped gifts for our family, and the Christmas food was untouchable.
But the truth is, as a child in my family, all credit for experiencing the magic of Christmas is on my mom. She made it special. There were a lot of challenges in my childhood, a lot of sadness around Christmas. We lost my grandfather a week before Christmas, most of my family is divorced, or blended families, family members have been ostracized for bad life choices. It’s a hotbed of family dysfunction. But all I remember is magic.
But being an adult, and having the ability to see that, is very different. So, although I would always come home for Christmas when I lived away from home as an adult, I did so because of my love of Christmas. But as an adult, I know there is no Christmas magic, so yes, it’s a lot harder.
Christmas as an adult means spending time with people we don’t necessarily get along with for the sake of “family”. It means returning to toxic environments and situations and being catapulted back to all those challenging childhood feelings – regressing almost. Adults have expectations loaded onto us, and responsibilities to be a grown up in all situations.
Needless to say, what I’m getting at, is that Christmas, or the festive season, is hard for many people. For some it’s not the obligation of seeing family you don’t want to, but actually, the loneliness of not having a family around, or grieving loved ones, financial burdens, fatigue from a hard year. The end of the year is an emotional minefield.
With this in mind, I have curated some tips for surviving festive (with your mental health intact)
I used to love, and I mean love, shopping on Christmas Eve. It gave me a rush, which I now know was actually related to ADHD and needing that dopamine hit, by gamifying my Christmas shopping – will I have all my gifts by the time the shops close or not? But in reality, the buzz and overwhelm of all the Christmas specials, the decorations, the people, is a lot. So, it’s best to plan out your shopping, and give yourself a deadline early in December to finish your Christmas stuff, and then you can sit back and relax while the rush continues around you.
Also, plan out your time, so that you don’t have to accept every social event that comes across your whatsapp – make time for the people you want to see, but also time for yourself to rest and recuperate. And if you don’t want to host Christmas lunch because it will give you too much anxiety, don’t say yes out of obligation. Hold yourself accountable to yourself and say no for your own mental health.
Set a budget and stick to it.
We all joke about Janu-worry, because we all overspend at Christmas time and then don’t know how we are going to make it to the end of January. We feel obligated to buy everyone gifts, and big gifts (I mean, it’s Christmas). We also feel obligated to go to all the social events we are invited to. So, budget your resources so that you don’t have the post-Christmas financial burden stressing you out, and also your own time and energy to rest and recover before you return to work/school/university in the new year
Tis the season
It’s festive! Which gives us reason to eat and drink more than we should, but it doesn’t count because it’s over the festive period. And then 1 January hits, and we are hit with guilt for putting on weight, and all the things you said at the work year end, or to your mother-in-law because you did take on Christmas lunch and got drunk to manage your stress.
So two things, we all know our limits, and how they make us feel. If you don’t want to stay in bed for an entire day, don’t drink so much that you are forced to, but if you do, don’t feel guilty, because what’s done is done, all you can do is rest, recuperate, and remember that tomorrow is another day. What I’m saying is that don’t beat yourself up for a few extra kilos, or one too many drinks. Just remember to be true to you, and what is good for you.
I’m sure you would have read it all over the internet when it comes to advice about looking after yourself: Set your boundaries, and stay true to them – don’t do anything you don’t want to do. Remember that even if the festive season is hard, it does have an end, this is not forever. And think of that when you are spiraling because of negative interactions. Also, make sure you make time for yourself – you can take proper time out like going to a movie, take yourself to coffee, go for a run, read a book. Do things that take you out of your head.
Like I said before, Christmas can be challenging because you may be forced to interact with family you don’t necessarily want to. There are, however, ways of managing difficult family members, and difficult conversations that you don’t want to answer about your weight, non-spouse, lack of children, lack of success at work etc.
Think of answers to questions you expect to get, in advance, so you are prepared to answer and aren’t thrown off by questions out of left field. If you do get stuck in a difficult conversation about topics you’d rather not talk about, prepare exit statements, or ways of changing the subject. If you really cannot get out of the topic, suggest an activity to be able to move on, like ‘hey I need to go help set the table’ for example.
You can also start your own traditions, things that make you happy. Once my kids were old enough, I was able to start my own family traditions. Through this I’ve been able to preserve the magic of Christmas, as an adult. But your tradition could be watching a movie by yourself on the 26th. Getting a special coffee by yourself on the 23rd of December. It can be anything.
At the end of the day, Christmas is punted as a special magical happy family time, but for a lot of people it’s stressful, and lonely, and triggering. All we can do if we are obligated to be in situations we don’t want to be is to remember that we are in control of ourselves. We don’t have to engage in conversations or with people that we don’t want to. If we have left an event feeling deflated, we need to take time out for ourselves to return to ourselves, no matter what that looks like.
The first step in learning to love myself, was getting to know myself. To start doing all the things that I enjoy, to go back to my childhood to all those things that I did because I loved them but maybe stopped them because someone judged me for it. To think of things that I like, if no one knew I was doing them. What would I do, if I was completely free of judgement? What would I do if I knew no one would find out?
All these questions to truly find out what makes me tick, without fear of anyone shaming me, or putting my interests down, no fear of not being interesting enough or cool enough or good enough. Just me, figuring out who I am.
Part of this journey, and to gain self-knowledge, meant that I had to start spending time by myself, to figure out who I am, and what I like. It’s almost like dating, you go out with a person, and over a series of outings you learn about who they are, what they like, what they don’t like, and whether or not you are comfortable with this person. And self-knowledge is exactly like that.
You spend some time with yourself. Talk about your past, how you grew up. So with yourself, you think back to your childhood, and who you were, and what energized you and what you were passionate about. What could you do, or talk about, for hours without getting bored.
As a mother of two, with a time-consuming job, it’s not always easy for me to find these moments, but I try and create them where I can. If I have 30 minutes spare on my weekend, I’ll go for coffee by myself, and journal, or colour in. Or if one of my kids has a party, I drop them off, and then use the next two hours to be by myself, and figure her out.
Also, think about what is important to you – just you, whether or not society, your family, and friends will agree with them, or think they are bad or good. None of that is important – it’s just about what is important to you. Later on, you can decide if this is the person you want to be and you can always readjust your values. People are always growing and changing, and while you are on a journey to know yourself, doesn’t mean that who that person is static and unchanging.
Last year, I was lucky enough to have an ADHD coach and we went through my values, and there were a lot of values that I thought I had, but when she asked me to write down all the things that I wanted to do with my life, frankly I had to admit that wanting to go snowboarding, and complete an Ironman 70.3 had nothing to do with humility. And for someone as health conscious as I am with a strong interest in how the body works, and keeping fit, and wanting to be a triathlete again, not once did I mention health as one of my values.
We worked through a lot of self-limiting beliefs I had, especially around money, and unpacking my thoughts around “the love of money is the root of all evil”. A lot of my values had to be re-thought because the good girl people pleaser in me wrote down my first set of values, and I had to go back and be real about who I am, not who I want people to think I am. It was not easy. And I’m still working on it.
Are there any activities, or things you have always wanted to try but didn’t because of whatever self-limiting beliefs, or judgement from others? If you have the means, try these things out, see if you like them. See if they fit into who you want to be. Do you enjoy them? Then roll with it.
Towards the end of last year, I had a random thought about wanting to do tennis. And because my kids were interested in doing tennis, I thought I may as well, because then it can be a fun activity that we can play together. I started Tennis coaching, and it was like a light went on. I had so much fun, and I had clearly forgotten how much I enjoyed playing tennis as a kid. I recalled that I had played from about the age of 10, all the way to the end of high school. I didn’t place any value on my enjoyment of the sport because I only played socially, I never tried out for the team. But, I had to admit to myself that this is something I really enjoyed.
This journey of self-knowledge has been a hard one, and I’m still learning new things about myself every day. Sometimes it’s this great feeling of learning something really positive about yourself that you hadn’t realized before, and other times you have to admit to yourself that you have qualities that are maybe not that likeable. And you can keep them, or put them in the self-improvement bucket, but as long as you acknowledge all your parts… and we’ll get into the self-love and acceptance part later. But for now, all we need to know is who am I?
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.
Depression def.: a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think, and how you act. Depression causes feelings of severe despondency and dejection.
Q: How would you define Depression? (in layman’s terms)
A: My definition of depression would be a constant state of hopelessness, where you want to do things, but you just can’t. You want to get up and be productive, but can’t. You want to be surrounded by people but can’t. Because you don’t want to be a burden, but you can’t help being a burden.
Q: What are the symptoms? (as you know or experience them)
A: Some symptoms I think are answers to questions, like how
many days have you not been getting enough sleep? How much energy do you have?
Does your work inspire you? Do your friends find you talking really slowly, or
really fast? How often do you feel hopeless? Have there been any changes in
feelings, appetite, or sex drive.
Q: How does it feel to have Depression?
A: For me it’s, you really want to do stuff, but you feel
that you can’t. It’s not that you don’t have the will power. Some days you just
can’t get out of bed. You want to and you shout to yourself in your head to not
be lazy, but your body just won’t get out of bed.
There is a disconnect between what you want to do, and what your body tells you that you can do. What you want to do, what you should do, and what you end up doing. You may look at a list of things you want to do, and you try to do some of them, but you just can’t. You just don’t have the motivation, or the physicality to actually do the things. And then that perpetuates the feeling hopelessness and worthlessness because of not doing things, and that you are not good at anything, and it all just gets worse.
And I don’t know why, and it’s not something I want, but I
just create a situation where I have things that I want to do, but I just
For me, I don’t know about it being about being sad. People
may view depression as not outgoing or engaging with friends. It’s not sad,
it’s a purple haze, and it’s just not good. You could get a call from someone
who you really love taking to, but then not want to talk to them so you don’t
answer the phone, or you do speak to them, and you just don’t enjoy it, even
though you normally enjoy talking to them.
It’s like having an overwhelming sense of misery. It can be
sad, but we generally have reasons to be sad. But there isn’t always a reason
for feeling depressed. It’s a constant state of being hopeless, overwhelmed,
and a disconnect between what you want to do, and what you do do. It’s about
knowing that this isn’t normal for me.
I think that it’s important to be honest with yourself and
those around you, and put your hand up and say, “I’m not feeling great”.
Q: What are the treatment options for Depression?
A: I think there is obviously the quite clinical way, through
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), to reflect with someone else. CBT enables
you to be guided through exactly what are the symptoms you are experiencing,
and then breaking them down into tasks to address them. To be actioning against
the symptoms, which could help alleviate the symptoms. This method is whereby
you have an impartial person work through the changes with you. Once you work through
it with someone it can be challenging, but I think when you really unpack every
step, it has a meaningful impact. It can really benefit you.
Every concern and problem are really overwhelming, but when
you pick out simple things to resolve the big and vague emotions you may be
feeling, you can focus on these, and then work through them methodically.
Less clinical, is surrounding yourself with friends and family.
Make sure you have other people you can confide in. Sometimes, all you need is
to share how you are feeling with someone, and you don’t have to be in a
formalized therapy situation.
If you have a chemical deficit, or if CBT doesn’t address
the core issues, you will need to use medication. For example, if your body is
not producing serotonin, SSRIs, might absolutely be something that your body
needs. Even with medication though, you need to make sure you’re eating well,
drinking well, and exercising, otherwise, you’re not giving yourself a fighting
It’s like with any illness, the medication alone will not
resolve the problem, if you do not adjust your lifestyle too. If you had heart
disease, you would be on medication, but you’d also need to adjust your eating
and drinking habits, to remain healthy. Healing mental illness is the same.
So don’t live in darkness, not eat, or move. Make sure you
have a nice place to live and a nice way to live. With good people who support
Q: Do you have to take medication if you have Depression?
A: You don’t have to. You might not have to. But you might have
to. And someone that’s a trained professional who understands the cause, might
say that you need meds. You need to be open to the idea. It’s not a sign of
weakness. If you had a vitamin deficiency your doctor would definitely
recommend vitamins. No one judges that. If you look at your brain, and if it’s
not producing properly, then you’ll need to go the medication route.
We need to accept that your brain is an organ just like the
rest of your body. If you had a thyroid problem, it’s a medical issue. Your brain
needs attention, just like the rest of your body.
If medication is needed, embrace it, if not then don’t worry
about it. Work with a professional. It might be meds that are required, but it
might be only therapy that you need.
If you do need meds, don’t just take it, and that’s it, you
need to adjust your lifestyle too and make sure you’re in a supportive environment.
You may need a combination of therapy and medication. You definitely need other
And know that you might go through multiple regimes of
medication. You might have to go through many brands and dosages. It might take
months before your body produces what it needs to work. It might not work at
all. It might be a year before you start feeling better. You might even be
diagnosed with treatment-resistant depression.
I still want to emphasise that, above all, it’s normal. And
it’s not fine, but normal, and you’ll need to explore which options work for
you. Not everyone needs medication, but if you do need medication, embrace it,
and keep trying.
It can be an agonizing, long journey, but make sure you’re
on the journey.
Q: Is it genetic?
A: For me, I think it’s a combination of your environment,
genetic factors, or it could just be an accident.
If I look at my family, it’s most likely genetic. A number
of my close family members suffer with some form of mental illness. So if I had
to look at it surgically, at my family tree pattern, I would say, yes it’s
genetic, but some families have no challenges at all, and a person in that
family could still have depression.
A lot of mental illnesses, are a product of environment, like
anxiety. Our society is changing, and it has been shown that 25% of girls
before the age of 14 have an anxiety disorder. And while young people today are
more open about mental illness, this is still not a stat we have seen before. It’s
because of the social pressures on social media. We’re in a hyperattentive
world. Where the number of followers you have, and the number of likes on a
post are important, and it’s resulting in a world focused on instant
gratification through visuals, and having the perfect social media life. The
success metric in our personal lives is around exposure. We are forced into a
mould, to be a certain type of person. And none of it is 100% true. So
definitely the environment we live in.
But also, it is as a result of the challenges we experience in our lives. Instances of mental illness, like depression, also occur in relation to the number of wars, colonization etc a society experiences, all problems forced on people by others. PTSD has been known about for thousands of years, in that, during the Crusades, soldiers would still hear clashing of metal long after leaving the environment they were fighting in. This shows that mental health has been documented for thousands of years, in written records. It’s always been a problem, but we’ve never looked at in the right way. Younger people are talking about mental health more these days, we are starting to see more mental health memes. The world is starting to have a more casual relationship with mental health. Children as young as 14 years are talking about it. Sometimes younger.
Overall, mental illness is both genetic, and environmental.
For example, you might get cancer even if you don’t smoke or
drink. It could be that it is genetic, but we cannot be sure what the exact
The brain is complex. Don’t try and put it in a box.
Q: Anything else you would like to add
A: I heard my cousin’s kid of 7 years, tell her mom, “it’s
not good for my mental health” and I just think that she has had exposure at
such a young age to have the language to express that her mental health is
important. Overexposure of stress is not good, and young children are
We are on the cusp in history where the generation before us
denied mental health, and our generation is starting to talk about mental
health, and being open about it, and I’m sure the next generation will have
Young kids are talking about stress and mental health. We
are starting to talk about it in legislative, medical, social society. We are
changing the landscape in the ways in which we talk about mental health.
What is important is empowering the frontline, those who are
the first people who are going to be managing the symptoms of a mental illness.
For them to be able to recognize it as mental illness, and then treat it as
such. We need to empower them in the knowledge of the right action to take.
We’re starting to see a lot more openness around mental
health, even in societies where it was previously a taboo.
It doesn’t matter who you are, your age, or upbringing – anyone can suffer unique mental health
challenges. From all walks of life. It’s not a failure. There are treatments,
and there are things you can do to improve your life.
If you want to, you can change the world. We are ready.
We’ve never been more ready. It’s a really beautiful time to talk about mental
Just talk. If you’re not having a good day, say so. Just
If you’ve had a bad weekend, don’t lie. Don’t think of a
different things to say, to make up a story of a good weekend. Just say how it really
is. You’ll negatively impact yourself if you are not honest about your mental
Talk about it. Write a blog. Whatever it might be. You’re
going to change someone’s’ life. And they’ll change your life. There’s a ripple
effect of mental healing.
Be the young girl saying that she doesn’t want to do
homework because she’s stressed
Or the 80 year old who is admitting that she is not doing
Or members of the LGBQTIA community, and all the mental
health issues they struggle with.
Women are more likely
than men to get depressed – One of the reasons is due to the different
challenges women experience. But also because men don’t seek mental help.
People in the developing world, where there is no access to
treatment. People are exposed to mental health issues but what they see is violence
or they are violent. But because they are not treating the illness, there is a
vicious cycle of violence and illness and homelessness. In the developed world
they have access, and no one knows they have mental health issues.
Look at it as what it is. It’s who we are and what we are
and how we talk will create the perception of what mental illness and mental
We’ll see the mindset change that we want to see. In 30
years we’ll live in a beautiful world. But until then we have to talk.
Resources available to you, if you are struggling with Depression:
Schizophrenia def.: A long-term mental illness of a type involving a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion, and behaviour, leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion, and a sense of mental fragmentation.
Q: How would you define Schizophrenia? (in layman’s terms)
A: Schizophrenia is a complex mental illness. The person suffering from it has a distortion of reality and hallucinations to the point that they can talk to themselves.
Q: What are the symptoms? (as you know or experience them) Is it like having multiple personalities?
A: People suffering from Schizophrenia don’t have multiple personalities, they just have a different reality. They build their own world and they cannot differentiate between what’s real and what isn’t.
In many cases they suffer from hallucinations and hear voices. They might even have full conversations with the “people” talking to them or swap from “someone” taking to them and then answering. This is the reason why it might appear as though they have multiple personalities, which isn’t the case. Having said that, due to all that’s going on in their head, they might become very absent and while you think you are having a conversation with them, their mind is somewhere else.
Q: How does it feel to have Schizophrenia? Or to be the carer (family) of someone who has Schizophrenia?
A: I remember it being very challenging and confusing. When I was younger, I couldn’t fully understand what was happening and would sometimes wrongly push the person to “just get better” or “do something to change it”. With the years, I have learnt that it cannot be cured and that the people suffering from it are actually in a lot of despair, which is the reason why in many cases they end up committing suicide to end the suffering.
Q: Are there treatment options for Schizophrenia?
A: There is unfortunately no cure, but medication and therapy are two ways in which to minimize the symptoms.
Q: Do you have to take medication if you have Schizophrenia?
A: Schizophrenia tends to be for life and yes, medication is needed. Unfortunately, the process to find the right mediation isn’t an easy one and patients have to go through trial and error until the right one and dosage are found. This process is challenging as the person might see their symptoms worsening for a bit of time.
Q: Are you able to keep a job if you have Schizophrenia?
A: I guess it depends on the level of the illness. In many instances the distortion of the reality or hallucinations are such that keeping a normal job isn’t possible. It will also depend on whether the person suffering from it is going though a bad period.
Q: Is it genetic?
A: To date there is no clarity as to why Schizophrenia happens. It’s known that there is a genetic component to it but that isn’t the only one. Environmental and altered brain chemistry play a big role too.
Q: Anything else you would like to add
A: As humans, we tend to be scared of the unfamiliar, therefore, it’s incredibly important that people talk about mental illness openly. There is nothing to be embarrassed about and only when people talk about it, will the topic be normalised.
Anxiety def.: A
chronic condition characterized by an excessive and persistent sense of
apprehension, with physical symptoms
Q: How would you define Anxiety? (in layman’s terms)
A: Anxiety is constantly fearing the worst, and worrying about everything. Having anxiety is like being fearful of everything, from people, to dying and everything inbetween. It’s being nervous all the time, and not knowing why, just fearing and feeling stressed about every situation you go into. It’s black and white thinking, catastrophizing, being negative, feeling irritable, impatient. It’s the need to be busy all the time, to constantly be making lists, and always feeling like a failure. It’s feeling insecure, doubt, feeling like you’re never enough. It’s feeling overwhelmed, but scared to ask for help. And it also manifests physically so there are a number of physical symptoms, like problems with your gut, sweating, headaches, carpal tunnel. And yes, a lot of people may feel nervous about speaking in front of a group of people, or going to a party alone, or fearing losing their loved ones, but it’s when these concerns start affecting your life in a negative way, and become so overwhelming and overarching, that you are no longer living your life optimally, that you need to seek help. Also, there are different types of anxiety. I have Generalised Anxiety disorder, with a propensity towards social anxiety. But you could suffer with panic attacks, have a phobia, only have social anxiety. There’s also adjustment anxiety (which is what happens with major life changes).
Q: What are the symptoms? (as you know or experience them)
A: Anxiety can manifest with thoughts, feelings, behaviours,
and physically. For me, I experience feelings of self-doubt, I get overwhelmed
quite easily. I struggle to build relationships with people because I fear that
they are going to abandon me so a lot of the time I don’t put effort into
relationships, or I push people away. I suffer with insomnia. I fear both the
future and the past. I beat myself up for things that I said 5 years ago, or
even, 5 minutes ago. Everything I say and do is wrong. I am terrible at
decision-making because I’m fearful of the outcome of every decision I make. I
procrastinate because I’m scared of doing things the wrong way. I get easily
distracted by stimuli, and then struggle to concentrate. I suffer with
headaches, and problems with my gut, and excessive sweating. I say
inappropriate things to people that make me nervous, or people in authority, or
I say nothing at all, and then beat myself up about it. I have very negative
thought patterns, always expecting the worst. I never want to admit that I am
happy, because I am fearful that the feeling will be taken away. Depending on
the type of anxiety, it manifests in different ways, and then it would have
different symptoms. Some people experience mostly physical symptoms, like tight
chest, difficulty breathing.
Q: How does it feel to have Anxiety?
A: Having anxiety for me, feels like I have too many train tracks running in my mind at any given time, and it never stops. A friend gave me the analogy of having 1000 internet tabs open, and they are all flashing at the same time. A million thoughts constantly running through my head, fears, things I should say, things I said, things I need to do, analyzing my environment, things I should be doing, things I should be saying, everything that I am, everything that I’m not. Having anxiety is like always having that feeling of nervousness before an interview, or speaking to a big crowd of people. And it’s like being afraid all the time. And like always being busy. Always having things to do. All the time. It’s like being on, always. There is no rest, no off switch, because then I convince myself I’ve forgotten something. I always feel like I’ve failed. I’m fearful of trying new things and then I feel like a failure because I’m not living my best life. It’s like always being in fight or flight mode.
Q: What are the treatment options for Anxiety?
A: For me, I’m in talk therapy, and I use medication to
treat my anxiety. I know people who use mindfulness and meditation to treat
their anxiety. Depending on the type of anxiety disorder, CBT (behavioural
therapy) can work. My personal opinion is that it’s important to find the root
cause of the anxiety. Mine is quite complex, so I’ve been in therapy for a
number of years, and we’re still uncovering things. For some people a few
sessions of CBT helps them develop practical steps to manage their anxiety.
Q: Do you have to take medication if you have Anxiety?
A: Not everyone requires medication. For me, the medication
helps slow down the train tracks so that I can find a space to breathe, and
concentrate on one thought process at a time. The decision on whether or not to
use medication should be made with your therapist/psychiatrist though. Everyone
is different. And some people are able to combat their anxiety with only talk
therapy or CBT, or mindfulness techniques. Some of us might have to be on
medication for most of our lives.
Q: Is it genetic?
A: From what I’ve read, and the psycho-education that I’ve done with my therapist, you do have a predisposition to get anxiety. If you suffer childhood trauma, the chances of getting anxiety are pretty high, even if your parents don’t suffer. There is also a theory I’ve been reading a lot about, on generational trauma, and just like many illnesses pass down through the generations, so does trauma, in the wiring of our brains, and our neurochemicals. But what I love about this theory is that they are proving that yes, trauma is transferred from one generation to the next, but so is healing. So even if you have a predisposition, or you are suffering from generational trauma, you can be the one to start passing down generational healing.
Q: Anything else you would like to add
A: Living with anxiety is hard. It’s like feeling everything
all of the time. But it’s not a life sentence. You can get help, and with
treatment, you can be healed. It is possible to recover. It’s not immediate,
but healing is possible. I feel like I’m proof of that. I am definitely not the
same person I was a year ago. And I definitely feel like I’m passing down
generational healing in my family.