I have experienced mental illness for almost all my life. Here are some tiny steps I take to make myself feel a little bit better.
First Things First
Before we get on to the feel-good stuff, there are some important things we need to talk about first:
Listen to your doctor. They're the one taking care of your treatment, and anything that they have advised you to do should take precedence over anything that any well-meaning stranger tells you (including me!).
If you feel suicidal, seek immediate help. Either call a helpline like Samaritans (116 123 in UK and ROI) or get yourself to the emergency room or hospital. If you can't do either of those things, seek out other humans. It's important that you're not left alone when you feel so distressed or hopeless.
You're Not the Only One, and Neither Am I
Somebody else got there before me! This self-care fact sheet was created by Eponis, and has been shared worldwide because it's so useful. All of these tips are things that can help you to get through the day, and sometimes surviving one day is all you can do. But there WILL be better days. You just need to handle this one right now.
Everything Is Awful and I'm Not Okay
Why Should You Listen to What I Have to Say?
I'm not a doctor. I'm a scientist, author, and illustrator (wow, maybe it's those three full-time jobs that are causing me so much stress!). But I have experienced mental illness for almost all my life. I have OCD, anxiety and depression (that's all for now, but I'm sure I can earn some more merit badges as time goes on). I've been prescribed an array of exciting medications and therapies, so I have seen things from the business end, so to speak.
I know what works for me, I've listened to the advice of people who do and don't suffer from mental health conditions, and I've dispensed a fair bit of advice of my own. I've also given talks to educate the general public about what mental illness actually is, and what it isn't. Because I'm a scientist, I won't feed you any nonsense about unproven treatments, or platitudes that serve to give me the warm feels but provide you with nothing. Evidence is what I'm about, with any anecdotes qualified with facts and explanations.
I have experienced hardship as a result of my mental health, and I'd like to minimise the impact of these conditions on other people's lives. I've lost friends, jobs, and relationships because of my illnesses, and life is made far harder than it would be otherwise. Effective treatments and coping strategies are one part of the equation to managing mental illness. The other is in spreading awareness and achieving adaptations that accommodate everyone's idiosyncracies, be they disability-related or not.
When to Take Advice With a Pinch of Salt
Well-Intentioned Stranger, or Concerned Troll?
Sometimes you don't even need to disclose that you have a mental health condition. You might encounter a smart aleck who saw a documentary on schizophrenia and now feels qualified to diagnose people in their peer group. When I felt less confident, and not in control of my illnesses, I would allow these "kindly" souls to preach to me and put me in my place by demonstrating their "superior" knowledge. Because speaking with authority does give one a bit of a power trip, doesn't it?
As well as being unscientific and condescending, it's dangerous and spreads misinformation. If anyone tries this on you or someone else, just ask them where they got their medical degree from. Nine times out of 10 it'll be the University of Google. The remaining 1 time out of 10 it'll be "the University of Life, mate, HUR HUR HUR" and can be dismissed with equal contempt.
1. Stand Up
Stand up, take a few steps, and leave the room. I know that even this small thing can be a challenge. You don't want to do it, but once you've actually done it, you'll be glad you did. It's the middle bit that you can't face. Even knowing this, knowing that it's irrational, and that the reward will far outweigh the cost, I still face this internal battle every day. But you just have to recognise the pain as temporary, and face the anxiety it brings. It is going to be tough, although it may get easier if you persistently face it and push through it. Or it might not. But you still need to fight it. And it will pass. And you will feel relief. It's that feeling of relief that you need to focus on. This is going to be hard. But you can defeat it. And when you do, you will have achieved something.
If you do leave the room, that's even better. There's more reason to find something to occupy your mind, and less temptation to sit back down and wallow.
2. Open a Window
You should probably open the curtains first, and get some daylight in! This is another of those hurdles you must jump in order to feel the relief on the other side. If you're fortunate enough to live somewhere warm, you'll be met with a nice, cooling breeze, and the sounds of nature or the city. Enjoy it, allow it to sharpen your senses. Just a few minutes peeking out of an open window can get you back on track and ready for the day.
If, however, you live somewhere cold, like the North of England (brrrrrrrrrr!), you may wish to keep that window closed and just enjoy the view. If your room is cold, you'll need fluffy slippers, jumpers and a dressing gown to prevent you from jumping straight back under the duvet (it gets seriously cold here, and my bed is sooooo warm).
Failing that, you could try a light box. Exposure to blue light increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which makes you more alert, and is a necessary component of the sleep-wake cycle in humans. Some stress is good, without it you'll feel unmotivated and lethargic. Completely blind people, and those suffering from depression, can experience non-24 circadian rhythms as a result of a lack of blue light (source: National Sleep Foundation). Typically the sleep-wake cycle is extended to about 25 hours, and the days become staggered. It's not nice to feel out of sync, and it's rather antisocial, too.
3. Make a Cup of Tea and Drink It in the Kitchen
A nice cup of tea in the morning is great for anyone (is my Englishness showing?). Maybe you'd prefer a coffee, or a glass of water, or whatever. The important thing is that you stay in the kitchen to drink it. Focus on your immediate surroundings, enjoy them, drink in the atmosphere as well as your beverage. By staying put to consume it, you'll have taken yourself away from your bed / armchair / secret den, and this will help you to actually make a start on your day.
And Maybe a Couple of Biscuits, Too.
4. Wash Your Face
Maybe you just can't be bothered having a shower. Perhaps that's not perfect, but when you're feeling crap, perfection can go and do one. There will still be time for a proper shower later on, if you feel up to it. The idea behind this tip is to have a similar effect to opening a window. It will make you feel fresh and less stuck to the spot. There's no need to punish yourself—it doesn't have to be cold water! A warm flannel wiped over your face is still refreshing, and hopefully it will make you feel a little cleaner as well.
5. Do One Little Thing
Is there some task you've been putting off for ages? It's huge and insurmountable and leaves you feeling powerless to do anything about? You need to face that discomfort, and do just a little bit. Perhaps open one piece of mail, or hang up one t-shirt. But there's no pressure to do anything more than that. Maybe it'll give you the boost you need to do a little bit more, and that's good! But if you just do that tiny thing and then stop, you will have chipped way at the bigger problem, and you will have faced one fear - which will give you the confidence to face another, and another.
6. Read One Page of a Book
That's right, one single page. And from the trashiest, most facile book you own. The idea is to push at the boundaries you've set yourself, but in a controlled and manageable way. When I was at my worst, I struggled with concentration and comprehension. It's as though there was a heavy weight tied to my brain, making everything slower and more difficult. Part of my recovery was to make small, but challenging steps, to take on my brain's languor. Prior to experiencing depression, I loved reading. I could devour an entire novel in one go, and still want more. Yet when I became ill, I could read a paragraph several times and not take any of it in. My mind was elsewhere, and my conscious was skimming the text while my subconscious was off on a journey to the pits of despair and distraction.
Set yourself a target of one page, and no more. You don't need to think ahead, just take this one page as this one page. Read it, re-read it, absorb it, just concentrate on that single page. You're demonstrating to your mind that you can do it, and you're forcing your mind to do a little work.
Remember the Milk is a to-do/scheduling program that is absolutely free! I've found it to be incredibly useful for planning my time and breaking big tasks down into manageable pieces. You can manage it online as a web app, and there are also apps available for your devices, including iPhone, Android & PC.
7. Take 10 Minutes to Sort Your Head Out
Set a timer for 10 minutes. At the end of those 10 minutes, you have to stop, get up, and do something else. Even if it's simply standing up and moving to another seat in the same room, just do it. Do something to break up the day. That's the first rule.
And what about those 10 minutes you've given yourself? Use them wisely. It's okay to think, to wonder, but you don't want to end up wallowing. These 10 minutes are a great time to think about some important things that you need to do today. If it helps, use a pen and paper to note these down. But don't make a huge list, or you'll never finish it, and probably feel overwhelmed. Stick to the immediate, and list between 3 and 5 things to do. Break larger tasks down into tiny ones. It doesn't matter if one task becomes 50, if you make a start on it, bit-by-bit, it's closer to being finished.
If you don't have the mental energy for that, just use those 10 minutes for reflection and a rest. But you have to stop after 10 minutes, else you won't make progress.
8. Have a Little of What You Fancy
There's nothing like a little treat to perk you up... but take it easy.
Maybe you'd like a piece of chocolate or half an hour's video gaming. Well, okay, it could be enough to engage your mind—as long as you're able to stop. The ability to break your day down into discrete packages can help you to manage your time, get things done, and resist temptation.
But if you think you might go too far, and not stop doing the thing you love, you can become dependent and your chosen vice will lose its sparkle. You could try setting yourself goals and rewarding yourself after you've achieved them. As I've said a few times above, you don't need to overstretch yourself, small goals are better if you're struggling, and the promise of a little reward can be an excellent motivator.
9. Contact an Ally
A reliable friend can help you in a few ways. The first, and simplest, is just by being there. Maybe text a mate if you're feeling down, and start a conversation. Human contact is important, be it in person, or in digital format. Making a connection will lift your spirits, and may be the catalyst you need to get moving. If you have no-one in your life, there are helplines available for people with mental health difficulties, and even if nothing changes by the end of the phone call, just hearing another human voice may help.
Another way that a trusted friend can assist is by being a motivational buddy. It's best to choose a good friend for this, and someone who won't put up with any nonsense from you. They're going to offer you support, but also tough love. I've found that depression prevents you from giving a crap about the important tasks that you must complete in your everyday life, but having someone to push you, and to praise you when you've succeeded really helps. Your inner resistance can be thwarted by an external force. But like I said, they need to be able to put up with your foibles, and know when to put their foot down.
10. Make Yourself Pretty
Pamper yourself a little. Do something to make yourself feel good. Pluck your eyebrows, have a shave, or paint your nails. The important thing is that perfection's not important. Maybe you'll miss a bit, or end up slightly asymmetrical. It doesn't matter. It might even be a good thing—if it's imperfect and you know it, deal with it. If you try to fix it you'll get stuck in a loop or make it worse. Accepting that unsettling feeling is good for you: you move closer to conquering the next hurdle, and you've gotten through it and you can see that it's ok. And you have the added benefit of being gorgeous!
One Final Thing
At the start of this article, I said that you should listen to your doctor's advice. And I stand by that statement. The advice in this article should in no way replace that of a licensed physician. You should always liaise with your doctor to find treatments and coping strategies that work for you. Everyone's different, and you might find that some of my advice just doesn't help you, or that there's an even better way to manage your condition. All of these tips are meant to supplement whatever medical options you have been prescribed. They are not a replacement, and you should keep taking your meds and attend therapy sessions.
What Works for You?
We're Not Alone
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2017 Katy Preen
The Comments Section
Katy Preen (author) from Manchester, UK on April 23, 2017:
That's also a good one - nothing like a bit of sound to make you feel alert and in the moment! Even better if it's something you love. Thanks!
Carolyn Fields from South Dakota, USA on April 22, 2017:
These are all wonderful ideas. I might also add listening to upbeat music to the list, but that's not everybody's cup of tea - pun intended. I enjoyed reading. Thanks!