TW: Mental illness, brief mention of self harm coping strategy, flashbacks.
I have struggled with severe mental illness for a couple of years now and over the time I have had a lot of ups and downs. I have learnt more about myself and how I can help myself cope with difficult situations. These strategies are also definitely not a replacement for medication, psychology, group therapy, hospital etc. I’ll probably do another post about that some time in the future. But that said these ideas often they do help me and I try to remind myself that if I never use them they definitely won’t work. Plus I find the more I practise the easier each management approach gets to use. I really hope some of these will help you as well. Whatever it is you are going through I am sending all of the supportive vibes your way.
Before I get into the suggestions themselves I would recommend making a list or plan with the techniques you want to try. I know when my mental health starts to deteriorate I find it so hard think clearly. I can’t remember any of my coping strategies and even if I can, I convince myself that none of them will work. I am not going to claim they will work every time, in all honesty I sometimes spiral beyond the help of strategies or things are just too much for me to deal with. To set myself up with the best chance I need to have a clear list of what I should try and do in each scenario so I don’t have to think, just follow instructions. You can give this plan to friends and family too so they can support and offer guidance personalised to you.
Grounding is about pulling yourself from inside your head back to the world around you and reminding yourself that you are in a safe place. It can help to ease that whirlwind racing of thoughts. This technique helps me the most when I am feeling a panic attack; experiencing bad flashbacks; or struggling with getting stuck in my head with the voices in my brain getting louder. It’s a very simple approach designed to help you gain some control and calm in the instant short term so you can then think about long term strategies.
There are a variety of ways you can ground yourself, different strokes for different folks and all. These are some of mine:
- Making a hot drink and focusing on the process and then feeling the hot mug in your hands and smelling the drink.
- Lighting a candle and watching the flame flicker, maybe place it in a dark space to see the light dance across the wall. Focus on the smell. Does it remind you of anything? I currently have a ‘Secret Garden’ candle and it makes me think of nostalgic childhood books and relaxing in the garden in the sun.
- Work through your five senses: See, touch, hear, smell and taste. I find this forces me to think about what is around me and that can help distract my brain as well as ground me.
One of my struggles is when I feel like my brain is split into two parts, one advocating for recovery and the other one arguing for more harmful coping strategies or just giving up. That could be a discussion between something simple like whether you should go to bed at a sensible time or not. Or a struggle between something more complicated like whether you should self harm or not. Whatever your internal debate is, I am sure it that an experienced that something that most of us can relate to.
What I find useful is that this strategy gives value to both sides because there is a reason why we relapse or utilise harmful coping strategies: they help. So just to try and label them as bad and push them out my mind can make me feel invalidated and trapped which only makes those voices stronger.
Draw two heads or figures (I draw two stick figures) and label each one e.g. ‘Anxiety thoughts’ ‘How to cope thoughts’ or ‘Harmful coping strategies’ ‘Helpful coping strategies’ or ‘Reasons to relapse’ ‘Reasons to Recover’ or ‘My thoughts’ ‘What would my Phycologists/nurses/trusted individuals response be’ or ‘Short term’ ‘Long term’ etc. You can do this with any combination you like.
Talking heads helps me to make sense of that debate in my head and make it less overwhelming and easier to understand. Looking at each of the sides written down can also help me to realise which of the points really matter to me.
I started bullet journaling in January 2020 and have never looked back. I am on journal number 5 I think? What a time to start journaling though! I don’t think any of us in January 2020 could anticipate what was about to unfold! Now I had tried to diary and journal oh so many times before. I would start off really dedicated and then gradually write less and less until eventually I gave up. Part of my problem with a traditional diary was I put myself under so much pressure to record every single little detail that had happened that day so it took me so long to write and put me under a huge weight of expectation.
With bullet journaling I have total freedom. It’s okay if I skip a few days or equally if I want to have 3 or 4 different extracts from the same day. I can have pages where I just write about my day; pages to vent; pages for getting difficult or intrusive thoughts out of my head and written down; pages with cute postcards or stickers; inspirational quotes; or just doodles. Basically there is no structure and anything goes.
Journaling helps me to cope with my darkest thoughts that I can’t bring myself to share with anyone. By writing them down it helps me to articulate to myself what I am thinking and it feels less of a dark secret. Writing can also help me express my anger and upset at people or situations meaning I am less likely to lash out. On a different note though I also love ordering quote postcards and stickers from small shops to make aesthetic flatlays.
My biggest advice would be just to start. Don’t panic about having to have the right journal or pens or opening page. I started with a blank page A5 notebook and that worked fine for me. In fact 4 out of my 5 journals are just blank A5. Secondly, don’t compare your journal to ones you see on social media. It is something to help you, it doesn’t need to be the most aesthetic.
“In mental health terms, a trigger refers to something that affects your emotional state, often significantly, by causing extreme overwhelm or distress. A trigger affects your ability to remain present in the moment. It may bring up specific thought patterns or influence your behaviour.” – com/health/triggered#:~:text=In%20mental%20health%20terms%2C%20a,
Different things will trigger different people and what does trigger us isn’t always what we may expect. For me there are somethings I know I find triggering like if I see a cyclist have a close shave or I have a difficult medical appointment. But often triggers seem to come out of no where and that can make me feel quite on edge as I don’t know whether a trigger might knock me out of the blue.
So I find making a note of when something has triggered me not only helps me to understand and manage in the moment but also to see if any patterns emerge. For example I have realised that if I am going through a period of bad insomnia I am less resilient and so things I mind normally be able to manage hit me really hard.
A bit like with making a coping strategy plan, I find having a pre-made table with clear headings that I can enter in the details of a triggering experience really helpful. It means I don’t have to think too hard at a time when I am struggling and so am more likely to actually fill it in.
On my plan I include: Date, time, location, trigger, what was my instant response, what coping strategies should I use, why was this triggering etc.
Time with animals
This is highly personal I realise, I have friends who just don’t like animals, but if you do the therapeutic value of them can be huge. For me I find it very comforting to be around animals, there is something about that connection with a living thing that is truly special. I really believe animals can understand us to a certain extent. They definitely react to how you are feeling. There is not a lot better than a big fully pet cuddle.
The other benefit for me is in getting out of the house and interacting with other people, particularly in lockdown where a lot of us have been quite isolated. I don’t have any of my own pets (one day though!) but I walk a family friends’ dog once a week and have regular horse riding lessons. Having fixed commitments gives me some structure and purpose to my week. Plus there is just something special about how animals see the world. Brodie, the cockapoo I walk, is just so interested and excited about everything from grass, to rocks, to puddles, everything really. It makes me take notice of the little things.
So there you have it, my mental illness coping strategies, I so hope there is something in here that you find helpful. I might do a part two of this as there are several other approaches I use that I haven’t written about today. I’d love to know any of your mental health coping strategies too.
Most importantly though remember that ‘Even if all you do today is breathe, that is enough.”