No matter how much we put our wellbeing first, when you have an ongoing mental health condition, you may experience a time where you feel yourself spiralling. We share nine ways you can look after yourself when a mental health crisis is about to hit
Talking about our mental health and wellbeing has become more acceptable in recent years. From campaigns about having a cuppa and a catchup, to people speaking candidly about their experiences on primetime, you’d be hard-pressed to go an evening without stumbling across some kind of self-care or wellbeing message when scrolling through Twitter, Instagram, or even Reddit.
Yet… just because we’re reading and hearing more about it, it doesn’t necessarily make it any easier when we’re struggling in the moment. Whether a period of ill mental health has crept up on you, symptoms have managed to sneak in under your radar, or you’ve been hoping they will go away if you just keep pushing, we all experience times when our mental health feels like it's on the decline. But what can we do about it? How can we start looking after ourselves when we recognise the signs that our mental health and wellbeing may be spiralling?
Be open and honest
Acknowledging how we are feeling is a key step towards finding ways to cope when we feel overwhelmed. It can be easy to dismiss early warning signs. For many of us, we may keep pushing – If I can just get to the end of the day, work won’t feel so bad. If I can just make it to Friday, I won’t feel so stressed. If I just focus on something happier, I won’t need to think about how I’m feeling now. Yet ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.
It can be tough, but try and take a moment to step aside and ask yourself: how am I really doing? When we’re asked how we are, our instinct so often is to deflect: I’m fine, how’re you? Or Can’t complain. How’ve you been? Talking about how we are feeling can help us to stay in good mental health, to better cope and deal with times when we are feeling overwhelmed, and to strengthen our support system.
Being open and honest about how we are feeling (with ourselves, and others) isn’t a sign of weakness. The more we open up, the more we feel we can open up in the future - and the more likely those we love will feel able to speak up if they, too, are struggling.
As the Mental Health Foundation explains, you don’t need to sit down and have a big conversation about mental health and wellbeing in order to reach out. “Many people feel more comfortable when these conversations develop naturally - maybe when you’re doing something together. If it feels awkward at first, give it time. Make talking about your feelings something that you do.”
Learn to recognise self-destructive and self-meditating behaviours
Self-destructive and self-medicating behaviours can look very different from person to person. What may be one person’s form of self-care, could be another person’s temporary distraction that leads to further problems down the line.
Your self-destructive behaviours might be more overt or obvious to you. People may turn to self-harm to feel a sense of control when everything gets too much, or may rely on drugs or alcohol to numb how they are feeling. For others, their fallback may be something trickier to identify or more overlooked addictions, such as focusing on sex, social media, gambling, overworking, or spending too much. Ignoring your own health, not eating right, or denying yourself things you know would improve your wellbeing can all be further, harder to spot ways we self-sabotage, or try to ignore what is really making us unhappy.
Self-medication is one of the ways many of us try to alleviate symptoms of mental illness or to mask when we are struggling. Food, alcohol, and drugs can be commonly used to try and boost our moods or hide signs we are struggling.
If you’re worried that you may have developed destructive patterns to help cope with how you are feeling, you aren’t alone – and you don’t have to continue on with the cycle. The first step towards making a real change is recognising that there is a problem.
This could be something you need more professional help with, in the forms of therapeutic support self-help groups, or expert guidance. It could be an issue where you can reach out and speak with others with similar experiences through online forums or local support groups, or it could be something that self-care can help with.
Take things slowly
A bad day (or three) may not necessarily turn into something more. When things go wrong, it’s easy to assume that the worst will happen. But feeling bad in the moment doesn’t have to progress into something more.
When we experience ill mental health, we may come to learn the symptoms and patterns. However, when we assume that each time we see these signs that things are going to take a turn for the worst, we can create a cycle of negative thinking, where our rumination can lead to further or increased feelings of depression and anxiety.
If you find your thoughts stuck in a pattern, try and challenge them. Step outside, give yourself the opportunity to take things slowly and reflect on your day or week as a whole. What has gone right? What have you achieved? Even small successes are still just that, successes. Be kind to yourself in the here and now; future-you will appreciate it.
Set up a wellness action plan with your employer
Wellness action plans (WAPs) are designed to offer support at work. Often small, simple things that place very little work on your employer or manager, can make a big difference. Creating a wellness action plan can provide you with a practical way of supporting your own mental health at work.
Anyone can complete one. You don’t need to have a diagnosed mental health problem in order to experience the benefits. By having one in place, it can provide you with practical steps and support in the future if you aren’t feeling great. This can also save you time and the additional stress and worry of trying to articulate what’s wrong if your mental health does take a turn for the worse.
Mental health charity Mind has created simple, free guides for employees and line managers to help better explain WAPs, how they can help you, what they should include, and how to get started. The downloadable PDF also includes a template you can print off and fill in to share or go through with your manager.
Keep (or get) active
Getting your recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week isn’t just good for your physical health - it has a whole host of mental health benefits, too. Exercise releases feel-good chemicals that can help improve your mood, while regular activity can help boost your self-esteem, increase your concentration, improve sleep, and help you to feel better. Studies have shown that being active can even help protect us against symptoms of anxiety and mild depression, as well as decreasing stress levels.
Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise five days a week is recommended for most adults. If you can, including some form of moderate-intensity workout in your daily routine is thought to be best.
Setting small, achievable targets, fitting exercise into your existing routine, and making small switches can all have a significant impact. If you’re unsure where to start, try these tips for boosting your health and fitness, as recommended by Dr Luke Powles.
Eat well and stay hydrated
Nearly half of us don’t know what we should be eating to maintain a balanced, healthy diet. Yet what we eat can have a huge impact on our mood and mental health. As nutritional therapist Beanie Robinson explains, what we eat can help us to look after our mental health.
“We all respond differently to specific foods, meaning there is no prototype for the perfect anti-anxiety diet. Keeping a food diary for two weeks will help you identify foods that positively and negatively affect you.”
If you are looking for foods that can help you to naturally boost your mood, Nutritionist Resource shares their thoughts on what could help.
Eating oily fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help to protect against depression. “Good sources of omega-3 are oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines; eggs; walnuts, flaxseeds, and sunflower seeds. Aim to eat fish at least twice a week and a small handful of seeds and nuts on most days.”
Ensuring you start each day with a balanced breakfast and regular, healthy meals throughout the day can help to keep your blood sugar levels steady, preventing mood swings and sugar cravings. Getting your five (or more) a day, cutting back on caffeine, and ensuring you are drinking enough can also help to boost your mood. Too much caffeine can exacerbate depression and anxiety, while not drinking enough water can lead to dehydration, headaches, mood swings, lethargy, and decreased concentration.
Discover more about the links between food, mood, and mental health.
Shake up your routine
The monotony of our routines can weigh heavily on us. Perhaps you have a commute you find draining, or you can’t remember the last time you got away and did something exciting just for the fun of it. Having a change of pace (and scenery) can be good for our mental health and wellbeing.
It doesn’t have to be something that breaks the bank. Just taking a short break whilst doing chores, dedicating 10 minutes from your lunch hour to go for a walk and get away from your desk, or exploring your local area beyond your regular paths can all give you the chance to destress, take time for you, and shake things up.
If doing something new makes you feel nervous, try instead to spend time doing something you’re good at, that you enjoy, or can lose yourself in. Doing activities we enjoy can give us a boost to our self-esteem, as well as a sense of achievement. It could be something simple, like mindful colouring or even exploring the mental health benefits of gardening. If you don’t have a garden of your own, you can still benefit from plant power
Look after all of you, not just part of you
We each have physical, emotional, and mental health and wellbeing. It’s important that we look after ourselves as a whole, without neglecting or overlooking individual parts.
When we experience periods of low mood, poor mental health, or decreased physical health, we can become more likely to look for quick-fixes to try and make ourselves feel better as soon as we can - even if that isn’t what’s always best for us in the long run.
According to one study, it was revealed that one in five of us wouldn’t delete Instagram even if we knew it was harming our health. The same study found that despite 80% of us saying that our finances have a negative impact on our mental health, three in five (60%) of us would still treat ourselves despite being unable to afford it.
When we experience periods of bad mental health, it can be harder to manage our money worries – and our spending habits. But by making small changes and developing sustainable habits, we can start looking after our finances even when they feel like our lowest priority.
Tracking your spending, speaking with friends and family, and reaching out for advice can all be a huge help. If you’re unsure where to start, this financial wellbeing improvement checklist can help you get started, or find out more about how debt counselling can help.
Ask for help
Speaking up and asking for help can feel impossible when we are at our lowest. If you are already feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, trying to articulate what is wrong and what you need help with can feel like an insurmountable task. Yet if we don’t ask for help or let loved ones know when we are struggling, they may not know anything is wrong.
If you’re unsure how to get the conversation started, Happiful writer Becky has shared these three tips to help you talk about mental health. If you want to raise the conversation at work, Fiona has shared six ways you can open up to your boss about mental health at work.
For some, speaking with an outsider can offer more reassurance without the pressure and worries surrounding opening up to loved ones. The Samaritans offer judgement-free listening, 24/7 on 116 123.
If you would rather speak with someone face-to-face, working with a counsellor or therapist could help you to deal with your feelings, offer coping strategies, and help you to identify negative thought patterns. If you aren’t sure if therapy is the option for you, working with a coach could be another route to consider.
If you would like to speak with others who have had similar experiences, working with a support group or attending group therapy could offer the space and help you are looking for.
Discover more about the differences between group therapy and support groups.
If you are worried about your immediate health, safety, or wellbeing, it’s important to seek help right away. Call 999 or visit your nearest A&E department if you are worried you may be experiencing suicidal or distressing thoughts.