Thankfully we are living at a time when there is much more awareness of the importance of mental health issues. Adverts on television encourage us to be on the alert for the masks people can wear and there is a realization that depression is something to be talked about, rather than hidden, which unfortunately was the case not so many years ago, at least in this country.
Since 1949, the month of May has been observed as Mental Health Month in the United States. This has helped encourage people to take care of their minds as well as their bodies. Studies over there have shown that individuals who have chronic medical illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure and autoimmune disorders have a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with a mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression. Our bodies and minds act as one unit and therefore it is important to care for both our emotional and mental states as well as our physical health.
We all know what it is to be worried about something but there is much more involved in the issue of Anxiety. When worrying we focus on a particular issue such as “Will I get everything ready in time at work and at home before I go on holiday?” or “Will I get to the Bank before it closes?” Anxiety is felt throughout the body and is more general. A person may become excessively concerned with the state of their finances or what could befall them abroad while they are on vacation. Worry can focus us on a solution, such as asking my neighbour to drive me to the Bank. Anxiety, however, can force us to go round and round in circles as if trapped in a revolving door wondering – ‘what if?’ ‘What if?’ ‘What if?’
Worry evaporates when the issue is resolved but anxiety can move from one focus to another. It is unlikely that anyone would take a day off from work because of a worry, but anxiety can affect people in such a way that they may become too distressed to work. Worry is considered a normative, psychological state arising in certain instances and for a specific duration; anxiety is considered a true mental disorder, one that requires psychological treatment and/or medication.
It is possible to manage anxiety and stress and limit the potentially damaging effects to your well-being. Begin by accepting that you cannot control everything. Try not to let negative thoughts take root by asking yourself if things are really as bad as they seem. Instead of aiming for perfection, which is not realistic, look instead at the possible and positive side of things.
Take note of what triggers your anxiety, people, events, places and maybe write about them in a journal. Writing is an excellent way to focus thoughts and can be very revealing in what it teaches us about our inner life and outward behaviour.
It is advisable to inhale and exhale slowly throughout the day when you are feeling stressed. Try breathing in for 4 counts and breathing out for 4 counts for 5 minutes in total. By gently pacing your breath you will slow your heart rate which should help calm you down.
Other general good advice is to cut down on alcohol and coffee; eat well-balanced meals; get enough sleep and exercise. Sometimes, a good way to stop anxious thoughts is by simply going to the local park and literally taking a walk away from the situation. It is very important to take some time out, listen to music, get a massage, meditate or take up yoga. For those of you who have concerns about yoga check out Maranatha Yoga which is Christ-centred and attempts to reconcile any misconceptions about yoga within a Christian concept.
Aromatherapy is also thought to help activate certain receptors in the brain, potentially easing anxiety. Whether they are experienced in oil form, incense or a candle, scents such as lavender, chamomile and sandalwood can be very soothing.
The simplest definition of mindfulness is paying attention to one’s experience in the present moment. It involves observing thoughts and emotions from moment to moment without judging or being caught up in them. It teaches people to direct their attention to what is going on right here, right now, with an attitude of kindness towards themselves and their experiences. This being with ourselves is in contrast with more habitual states of mind in which we are often caught up with memories, imaginings, concerns or plans.
We are often unaware of the direction of our thinking but it has a profound effect on how we live our lives, as well as on our mental and emotional health. Mindfulness helps us to actually feel unwanted feelings which we might otherwise sweep under the carpet. With it we learn to turn towards the difficulties, challenges and pain in our lives because they are in our lives, with an attitude of allowing and kindness. As we build emotional strength and resilience we free up energy which can now be channelled into making wiser choices and making more-informed decisions.
Most of us at some point in our life will come into contact with a person suffering from depression; it could even happen to oneself. Depression is the most common of mental illnesses.
There are many ways in which you can show your support for someone in this situation and the most obvious way is to be there for them. Obviously that involves listening to them, if they want to talk, and being prepared to listen to the same concern over and over again. Do this without giving advice as very often an individual struggling with this illness is not able to listen to people telling them what to do, never mind possessing the energy or the motivation which would be needed to act on any suggestions made. Be sure to remind them that what they are suffering from is an illness and that they are not possessed with some inherent flaw which sets them apart from other normal people!
At times the best thing might be just to offer them the comfort of another presence; going for a walk or to the cinema. It may be that they might need practical help doing a task which seems to be simple to others but insurmountable to them e.g. picking up papers from the front garden or paying a bill.
It is important to remember to encourage someone who is depressed to seek professional help by going to a doctor or a counsellor. You can’t do it all yourself and nor are you qualified to, but you can encourage them to keep appointments, or go with them if they are reluctant to be alone.
We are all on the same journey through life and we never know when we might need the help of someone else. To be there for others who are suffering is at the heart of living life in a Christian way and ‘loving your neighbour as yourself’.
Wiritten by Marie – Therese Cryan