Mental health tips to help you cope during a stressful time

IMAGE: FLORIAN GAERTNER/GETTY IMAGES
IMAGE: FLORIAN GAERTNER/GETTY IMAGES

Mental health”: it’s a term nay-sayers have come to associate with millennials and pill-pushers, but few of us actually spend enough time thinking about what it means in relation to our own lives until things are already falling apart.

More often than not, until we find ourselves unable to cope with the contingencies of everyday life – until we have already resorted to substance abuse, or reverted to more innocuous bad habits – we won’t introduce changes for the benefit of our psychological stability.

Why is the maxim that prevention trumps cure so hard to take to heart where our own wellbeing is concerned?

In part, it’s because it can be hard to recognise that one isn’t doing well before the 11th hour, especially when you are responsible for taking care of family members and loved ones.

As such, attending to your psychological wellbeing is particularly important for women, who are typically juggling familial obligations as well as contending with professional and financial stress.

The average adult woman has little time left over for herself.

CHECK IN WITH YOURSELF

It’s also so easy to overlook the first indications that your responsibilities are taking a toll on your mind (and on your body, by extension).

Loss of appetite, excessive hunger, sleeplessness, oversleeping, relentless anxiety — any of these symptoms can be dismissed as par for the course, but combined and compounded over time, they should be taken seriously.

Indeed, a huge part of supporting and safeguarding your mental health is simply a function of taking yourself seriously: don’t be dismissive of your own suffering, however “normal” it may seem to you.

A good rule of thumb: if the distress in question is something that would concern you if it were affecting your friend, your child, your partner, or your parent, then you should accord yourself the same care you would them.

If it gets to the point where you can no longer take care of yourself, then it stands to reason that you won’t be able to take care of the people who are relying on you.

Where your mental health is concerned, your first resolution should be to familiarise yourself with your stressors and the reactions they provoke. Try keeping a mood diary and “checking in” with yourself a few times a day, either at pre-designated intervals, or when you catch yourself in the midst of a maladaptive coping mechanism, such as smoking, or, even better: in the midst of an unhappy moment.

This seemingly mundane practice will nurture a state of emotional self-awareness, which will in turn empower you to modify your reactions to negative stimuli.

If you would prefer a 21st century alternative to a pen-and-paper mood map, experiment with apps such as Daylio, which uses videos and images to help you identify your moods; or MoodKit, which is modelled on cognitive behavioural therapy and records your activities, your thoughts, and your moods, as well as filing journal entries. 

TALK ABOUT IT

Consider initiating conversations about your mental health with your friends and family more regularly this year.

Even though it goes against the grain of conservative cultural socialisation, encouraging a culture of emotional transparency will make it easier to ask for help when you need it, as well as providing both you and your loved ones with a healthy outlet for your emotions.

Communicating your feelings to the people closest to you — and encouraging them to do the same — is likely to avert conflict, as you will have greater insight into the factors motivating other people’s behaviour.

As a result, instead of reacting poorly to your friends’ or family’s moods or attributing them to a shortcoming on your part, you might be able to offer constructive advice. You will probably also find that if you engage in meaningful conversations about your experiences and the effects they are having on your emotions, you won’t feel the same compunction to escape as regularly.

This will diminish your reliance on digital media, which, as we are often reminded (but are all too rarely in the mood to acknowledge) is itself detrimental to your overall mental wellbeing.

DIGITAL DETOX

In that vein, do your utmost to disconnect from your devices in 2020. Often, this is a function of setting boundaries: unless your personal or professional circumstances absolutely mandate uninterrupted connectivity, limit your personal availability.

Make it known that you will not answer work-related emails or phone calls after a pre-established point in the day. The fact that we are working longer hours (for lower pay) seems to be taking a quantifiable toll on our bodies.

According to a recent report by Blue Cross Blue Shield (a US federation of health insurance providers), we are ageing faster than our parents did, and might even die comparatively young.

Silence the kinds of notifications that aren’t necessary to your role as a caretaker — your family and close friends should be able to reach you in an emergency, but you don’t need to be notified every time someone views your LinkedIn page or double taps on your latest Instagram offering.

So much of the anxiety that seems to saturate our communities nowadays is inexorably related to our relationships with computers, phones, tablets, and televisions: we are chronically over-stimulated.

Exercising self-discipline where your electronic media is concerned will almost unquestionably improve the quality of your sleep, which is essential to your mental health.

Try to reintroduce some of the recreational activities you used to enjoy in your downtime. Read, draw, hike, run — and include your friends on a regular basis. Not only are we sleepless and overwrought, but recent studies have shown that we are also heartrendingly lonely.

BACK TO BASICS

Small, sometimes strange things are warranted to make you feel good. Our main mental health objective in 2020 should be to generate endorphins without compromising our physical wellbeing, or derailing the pursuit of our goals.

If you live in an urban area that is relatively bereft of greenery, invest in a houseplant — strangely enough, watering and tending to shrubbery also seems to make humans happy. Otherwise, cook. Learn something new. Move your body. Be creative. But most importantly, don’t ignore the signs that things aren’t going well within.

If your financial situation is not conducive to contracting an independent healthcare practitioner, start by finding out what kinds of psychological resources your place of employment offers its employees — you might be surprised by how many companies are taking steps to introduce mental health support into their existing infrastructure.

If you are at a South African university, you should also be able to access affordable counselling services: contact the administrative staff and they will put you in touch with the relevant faculty.

Otherwise, you can contact Sadag (the South African Depression and Anxiety Group), the Destiny Helpline for Youth & Students, or LifeLine (Gauteng or Western Cape) for rapid, cost-free assistance.

New apps like BetterHelp and Talkspace Online also enable users to connect to a therapist over text or video call, which alleviates the need to seek out and travel to a psychologist. Apps of this kind also empower prospective clients to maintain a degree of anonymity.

If you’re struggling, you can get help: SADAG 0800 456 789 Whatsapp 076 88 22 775 Emergency 0800 567 567; LifeLine: 0861 322 322

This article first appeared in the March 2020 print edition of S Mag. The Sowetan’s quarterly lifestyle magazine.   


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