Managing Mental Health: The Small Things Make All the Difference
So many of life’s great truths and lessons are paradoxes. Thinkers and writers including the psychologist Carl Rogers and the best-selling author of The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin, have shared apparently contradictory observations such as ‘The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change’ (Rogers) and ‘The days are long but the years are short’ (Rubin – who also wisely noted in Happier At Home that ‘The opposite of a profound truth is also true’).
The same applies when it comes to learning to live with mental health issues. Managing ourselves and our conditions requires both macro and micro responses. The profound truth is that we need in-depth, long-term support and intervention as well as small, daily inputs.
In my own case, the long-term element in dealing with borderline personality disorder is comprised of group therapy, with the prospect of moving on to other therapeutic programmes afterwards, alongside ongoing meetings with a case manager that I’ve built up a good relationship with and an amazingly supportive GP. I know that I’m fortunate to receive all this. Together we are continually assessing my medication and my progress (I use the term warily), looking for positives and sticking points.
Such support and intervention is helping me to challenge ingrained thought patterns and ways of behaving. How I think and approach the world is altering. Sometimes I can almost feel the neural pathways fizzing and fusing.
This is crucial for sustained change and healthy coping mechanisms. Yet also crucial is finding the quotidian ways that I can help myself. Changing one’s brain is exhausting and I need ease the mental overload, especially when I’m having a bad mental health day anyway. How can I make it easier for myself? What in my daily life can I adjust so that life feels less mentally demanding?
I recently spent some time consciously addressing these questions, brainstorming possible answers and observing my daily routines as I went through them. What was hard? What could be made less difficult?
My partner and I undertook a similar exercise during the height of a mental health episode last summer. Back then, we identified our bed and the bathroom as stress hotspots. Our responses were simple: we bought an extra set of bedlinen (no more trying to strip, wash and remake all in one day) and asked my mum if she could clean our bathroom during those crisis weeks.
This time my responses are just as simple. Recognising that use of my mobile in bed was disturbing my sleep (i.e. finally accepting what experts have been saying for ages!), I bought an old school alarm clock and moved my phone charger to the kitchen. Realising that choosing what to eat for lunch each day leaves me panicked and paralysed with indecision, I asked my partner to make extra for me when he does his Sunday meal prep.
The greatest transformation, however, has been in the mornings. Often the prospect of getting ready for the day was more than I could cognitively handle. At the moment little feels like automatic behaviour so all the different steps and processes overwhelmed me before I’d even begun. In my effort to change this, I reorganised the shower caddy (and asked my partner to stick to the new arrangement!). Having my shampoo and soap in exactly the same place each morning made a profound difference, if only for removing the extra step of having to rummage for them. More tiny routines followed, from always cleaning my teeth before I get into the shower to applying my deodorant right side first.
These actions may sound ridiculous. They may also seem to you like more work and more hassle. For me, they have removed much of the mental anguish from one of hardest times of the day. Now I clean my teeth without having to decide when to do while also escaping the critical self-talk that berated me for finding this task such a struggle (‘What kind of pathetic failure are you? Even a toddler can do this better than you can!’). Furthermore these micro solutions enable me to better face the macro aspects of living with mental health issues. It’s far easier to show up at 10am on a Monday for group therapy if you haven’t depleted your brain’s resources trying to clean your teeth and wash your hair.
Your micro solutions would probably look very different but if you’ve been encouraged to explore this then some useful questions to consider are:
What are your pinch points in the day?
Where could you use some help?
What would make life easier for you?
Are there any little tweaks that would ease the process of daily life?
What makes you disproportionately stressed compared to the size of the task?