It’s been a heavy couple of weeks. Although I try to avoid the news, knowing that it just makes me anxious, it still seeps through. The horrendous events of Sarah Everard’s death, the vigils and the outpouring of people’s own experiences, took me back to the times I have been followed, harassed and assaulted.
Watching the film by Roman Kemp about young male suicide #OurSilentEmergency, and the Caroline Flack documentary about her life and death, weighed heavy too. I am always surprised at the statistics about mental illness. Not like many people who can’t believe how many people are affected, but rather how few. There are, of course, those people who think that because they sometimes feel a bit down or a bit worried that they are suffering depression or anxiety. Those who say they are “a little bit OCD” because they check they locked the door multiple times, or they have to have the TV volume on an even number.
But there are way more, I imagine, who struggle through life with the dense weight of actual depression, or the endless stomach churn of anxiety who have never been told that they are suffering above and beyond others. They assume it’s normal to feel that way as they’ve never known any different. Or at the other end of the spectrum, they think they are a total freak and no-one else feels like that, so they will keep quiet because of the shame or judgement they expect.
Since I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety a few years ago and started taking medication to manage it (which I initially resisted, with the whole I-should-be-strong-enough-to-manage-this-by-myself thing) I have slowly become more willing to talk about it.
And perhaps I live in an echo chamber, or I am instinctively drawn to people with a similar experience to me. But most of the people I spend any real time with talk about the mental health struggles they live with or have overcome. Some don’t talk about them, but I know they are there. Rarely do I speak to anyone who has never struggled. Nearly half (43.4%) of adults think that they have had a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their life (35.2% of men and 51.2% of women). A fifth of men (19.5%) and a third of women (33.7%) have had diagnoses confirmed by professionals.* But I think in reality the stats are higher.
So what qualifies as a mental health difficulty, problem, condition anyway? When does having “normal”, difficult emotions tip over? What is mental ill-health or mental illness? I see it as when these emotions are persistent and significant and have an impact on day to day life. The mental health foundation talks about two types of mental ill-health: ‘Neurotic’ covers those symptoms which can be regarded as severe forms of ‘normal’ emotional experiences such as depression, anxiety or panic. The less common category of ‘psychotic’ is when the symptoms interfere with a person’s perception of reality, and may include hallucinations such as seeing, hearing, smelling or feeling things that no one else can.
And the charity Mind describes it as finding the ways you're frequently thinking, feeling or reacting become difficult, or even impossible, to cope with.
Just like physical health, it’s not clear cut, it’s not as simple as you are or you’re not well. Some people can have a severe condition and learn to manage it well, others will have a condition considered as relatively mild and yet it impacts on their life severely. It’s messy, it’s complicated. And it’s extremely common. Yet it’s surrounded by stigma, shame and silence. And that is what’s killing people.
We talk about things weighing us down. I recently spoke to a psychologist and she really got me to tune into physical the feelings of the emotions I was experiencing, which were overwhelm and burnout. I said it felt like I was wearing a heavy cloak over my shoulders, like the rubber ones you wear at the hairdressers, presumably so they don’t accidentally cut your neck and shoulders. A few days later I was feeling anxious and worried, and the cloak became full length. It was weighty. Even though I am not always good at connecting my mind and body, I can see where phrases come from like carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.
Mental health difficulties affect the way you think, feel and behave. They can affect the way we feel in and about our bodies as well. There is well evidenced connection between out gut and our mind for example. We know that eating nutritiously will help our mood internally. But can we untangle the wellness we feel from eating more nutrient dense foods from the sense of satisfaction we feel? We have been so indoctrinated into feeling guilty for having comfort foods, calorific snacks and carbs, and virtuous for eating veggies and fruit, nuts and seeds, that no wonder we feel pleased with ourselves when we forgo the former for the latter. But untangling that from diet culture learnings to really tune into how we actually feel in our bodies and minds when we eat is not an easy task. And a large part of it is to do with the guilt we put on ourselves when we “give in to cravings” and eat the “bad” food.
I have mostly untangled that web, I have stopped beating myself up when I have an occasional take away or some biscuits. I try really hard not to separate good and bad food for my children. I try hard to listen to my body and eat intuitively. And I don’t always get it right but I don’t pile the guilt onto that cloak that is already weighing me down, because I now know that that is the downwards spiral that will really impact my mental health.
It is a complex web for sure. I have helped a lot of women find the end of that thread and start to unpick it, and it can be a messy process, with tears and frustration along the way. But until we untangle that untidy ball of wool, we cannot create that masterpiece, whatever it may be; that jumper you’d love to knit, that blanket you want to crochet, or that life you want to live: at peace with your body and at ease with food.
People manage their struggle different ways. Some more effective than others. The most effective ways I have and do manage mine is therapy, medication, sea swimming, yoga, meditation. But none have been as effective as the mindset shift I have worked on with regards to my relationship with myself. Accepting my body for what it is and what it does, and knowing that I am worthy no matter what. Everything stems from that.
Working with a coach to get to this point has been game changing for me. I can be that game changer for you through coaching, helping you unravel those threads and put them back together a little neater, transforming the way you see your body and yourself. Unlocking the your potential to go out there in the world and live your best life. Because you deserve it.
*Stansfeld, S., Clark, C., Bebbington, P., King, M., Jenkins, R., & Hinchliffe, S. (2016). Chapter 2: Common mental disorders. In S. McManus, P. Bebbington, R. Jenkins, & T. Brugha (Eds.), Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014. Leeds: NHS Digital