Many people will suffer from some form of mental illness throughout their lives. While battling it is very distressing at the best of times, it is possible to figure out ways that work for you to manage mental crises, bounce back and still live the life you had always wanted for yourself. It doesn't have to be the reason why you don't go forth and chase what means most to you. In this post, I want to share some bouncing back tools and strategies that have worked for me in times of anxiety and depression.
Taking the ownership of what is going on and your situation is something I can’t stress enough. This is relevant to all distressing experiences you may go through in life and not limited to mental illness. When you take the ownership, you can begin taking steps towards understanding what is going on and then establishing how to function and thrive as you move forward.
The key to moving forward is understanding the situation, yourself and the force operating within you. Once you’ve gained this self-awareness, you can take proactive measures towards improving your health on a more consistent basis. You can commit to your own wellness and become very dedicated to protecting it. When you take ownership of the distress and struggle then you can take positive measures to bounce back.
Develop a bounce-back plan
I learnt the importance of having a plan during competing in sport. Often after an event, I would go through depression regardless of what the result of the competition was. Hence I approach my mental health and wellness in the same way I treat my sport. When I go through deep depressive periods, my sport is one of my drivers to live. Even when it feels like my fire has gone out, there is always a little pilot flicker still going. This is what I have to push on for.
I wasn’t always very good at identifying my mental slide into the darkness so I developed a plan that I could go to when all else failed. Commitment is very important for the plan to work. You have to be so committed that you will at the very least attempt to follow the plan when depression or anxiety comes. Otherwise, it is just a plan with no action and that won’t get you very far. If all you feel you can do is to commit to recovery, then do it.
To guide you through developing your own bounce-back plan, I will share a few aspects of how I prepare myself to survive moments when it feels like I can no longer endure life.
Firstly, I acknowledge what is likely to happen after a big event and why that might be. I write it down in a way that makes sense to me (you could do a list, a paragraph, a mind-map, etc). I pay attention to many experiences, including how my body feels, my physiology, my brain and nervous system, and anything that may be connected, such as emotions and historical patterns. I also make sure that I document this in a way that is both kind and empathetic to myself. No self-bullying!
Next, I identify the early warning signs of a slump down into a dark space. I think about how I will recognise it. I also consider what others around me might notice and feed back to me. I am not always very good at recognising my feelings – I would much rather try to avoid them!
Finally, I think of and record the actions I can take, which will help me through this stormy period without it turning into a full blown cyclone. I explain in my plan why these things are going to help. This explanation is for my own benefit, because during the storm, I know that I might find these planned actions stupid. Instead, I will be tempted and might end up employing some historical, less helpful coping mechanisms to get me through a dark episode. One of these has been disordered self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Once I get into this mental cycle, it becomes very hard to come out of it. Again, I try to think of actions relating to the wellbeing of body, brain/mind, emotions, work, self-care, relationships and my training in my sport.
The plan needs an after-care too, so think of what you can do that will help you to get through the post-episode time without it slipping back into the darker space. As before, explain on paper how and why these actions will help you.
In summary, this is the plan I have learnt while coping with performance in sport, but the same can be applied to all aspects of life, including living with mental illness.
Build your support network
There is always a dilemma when it comes to mental health disclosure, especially in the workplace, as not all employers care to understand the struggles that you can face when experiencing these issues. However, building a support network around you is one of the most important actions you can take in order to thrive and stand back on your feet when you fall down. In addition, it is vital that we’re able to safely and publicly talk about these issues as there are more people than you realise who will experience some form of mental illness in their life. The end of the stigma can only come with real-life discussion.
When I first started being more open about what I had been experiencing, I expected it to be really difficult. I thought people wouldn't understand or would think I was flawed in some way. A bit later, I realised it was more of my own judgement about myself and that in actual fact things became a lot better when people could understand more about what I was going through. It enabled them to help me when I needed it but, more importantly, I gained freedom to communicate my distress in a positive way, which enabled me to let go, take charge and move forward - even on the days it felt that I couldn’t.
The support network also helps with my next point – communication – which is especially important in enabling you to reach out in moments of distress. Mental illness is isolating and it makes you think you’re alone in your feelings, with no one around to understand or help you. Sometimes, just having someone who knows a little about it and can listen is enough support to help you to stand back up and begin taking small steps forward again.
I had a guideline for myself that, when I was feeling very distressed and wanting to take drastic actions, I would send a message to one of my “safe” people and allow them time to reply. Sometimes I would get a reply quickly and sometimes the waiting felt like forever, but I promised myself I would just wait to hear back. This did take a lot of trust to know that I would get a response back but the more I let someone in, the more I began to realise I wasn't alone and others had my back in the fight.
This is such an effective way to diffuse overpowering thoughts as you simply have to allow yourself to loosen your grip a little when you share it with someone else and have to wait for their answer. Waiting can look different for everyone. You could curl up in bed and just be still, practise mindfulness or choose to set on a task. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you wait to hear from someone before making any decisions that could affect your long-term health and those who care about you.
I wouldn't have been able to use this so effectively if I hadn’t had a few people around to help me to manage it. At first, it just started with being able to email my therapist, but after a while she encouraged me to communicate things with my family and friends, and so my network grew bigger.
Work towards your bigger picture
Personally, I found that working towards a bigger goal was crucial to my wellbeing. It meant that, when depression or anxiety had a strong grip on me, I could force myself into doing what needed to be done to achieve my goals. I committed to simply doing what was right according to my values, even if I didn't feel like it or didn't want to, even if it didn't feel good at the time.
I developed a discipline, which was super challenging, but every day I was able to make small progress. Now, when I relapse, I have the discipline to realise my bounce-back plan and healthy coping strategies, even if I don’t feel like doing anything. Mental illness doesn't have to win this fight with you and that is very important to remember. Sometimes, we will be hooked into thinking that so many people don’t survive but the truth is that many do; we just don’t hear about the wins as often as we do about lost battles.
With depression it is important to do the opposite of what you feel like doing. Depression will tell you that all you can do is stay in bed and that is probably all you will feel like doing too. I urge you to do the opposite. Even a small step in the positive direction will help you thrive through the darkest day. When anxiety tells you that you can’t go out and be with your people, then it is even more important that you do go out.
What works for me is a clarity of my own vision and commitment to getting there. I tend to be quite busy in my pursuit, which can sometimes become a bit overwhelming, so I also schedule in mindful breaks, when it is my “job” to have a rest and enjoy it. Of course, there are times I fall down and that’s when my support network helps me to get back up and keep going.
Embrace challenge and growth
While mental illness isn't something I would wish anyone to experience and I don’t treat it lightly, I like to try and learn from every experience, and figure out how it has helped me strive towards the bigger picture. Many of the strategies that work for me revolve around discipline and allowing myself to find comfort in the uncomfortable. These are also assets that anyone who wants to achieve anything at a high level needs to be able to master.
Rather than seeing my issues as being just that – issues, I try to look at them as being somewhat helpful in my pursuit of fulfilment. This way of thinking is something I learnt from sport and from looking for the good in things, in order to build confidence to move forward. These are all interchangeable strategies that can be used in high performance and committing to mental wellness. You might find your own way of viewing it; the important thing is to try and find something that will enable you to escape the limitations of mental illness and find the growth within each experience. It is truly empowering and an incredible way of thinking.
Don’t forget that every time you fall and get up, you build resilience. Life isn't about not failing, it is about fighting back and standing up time and time again.
I am not saying this bounce-back plan will magically fix your distress, and I have only described a few aspects of it, but these small steps will help you become a lot stronger in the battle. They will help you build resilience and get your life back.