People with mental health problems often have difficulty managing their emotions. Small disappointments and anxieties can spiral and escalate until all sense of proportion is gone; we become trapped, stuck in a loop of churning emotions that distorts our sense of reality and makes the world seem a hostile, intimidating place.
There are many reasons this can happen, and if your therapist is worth their salt they should be exploring them with you. But that’s not what I wanted to discuss today, what I want to look at is what we can do when we find ourselves triggered and spiralling.
So how do we counter this?
The truth is we can’t, not completely, none of us will ever be free of negative emotions and even the ‘strongest’ people will occasionally find themselves struggling to cope. What we can do is develop an idea of what helps us in the moments we feel lost, we can then use this to create a list of skills or activities that help to soothe our minds in times of distress. This is what I call the ‘mental health tool kit.’
What goes in a tool kit?
Anything can go in a mental health tool kit. No two people’s kits will look exactly alike, but that’s okay, the whole idea is that it is tailored to our individual needs; ultimately it is up to us to decide what we put in. Here are some basic ‘tools’ shown to help improve our mental health:
- Socialising with friends
- Being in Nature
Obviously the respective usefulness of these activities depends both on our own personal disposition and current emotional state. Telling someone to ‘socialise with friends’ who is too anxious to leave the house is both patronising and unhelpful. That person may find their own solace in reading a book or playing video games. There are no right and wrong answers here; it is about finding what works for you. Think about things that make you happy, a good friend of mine told me that when he feels overwhelmed, taking the time to choose and prepare an evening meal always helps bring him around. Do you play music? Write? Paint? All of these things can be valuable additions to your kit.
It is also important to bear in mind we are not expecting any of these activities to solve all our problems the minute we try them, we are looking for things that help, whether this be in a big way or a small way. If an activity soothes us even a little bit, it’s worth considering for the kit.
How will this help?
The basic idea is that the next time we begin to feel overwhelmed, we can turn to our mental health kits for help. Recognising when you are spiralling and trying to respond before things can reach crisis is a cornerstone of good mental health. It might be the first thing you try doesn’t help much, so you try something else. Developing an effective mental health kit requires you take the time to experiment and see what works for you. Over time you should find certain activities lend themselves better to different emotional states; for example I find that exercise and computer games are particularly effective at soothing anxiety, whereas quieter activities such as reading are better suited to when I’m feeling lethargic and low.
None of this happens overnight, finding the motivation to even try can be really tough if you’re in a low place, which is why the support of a therapist or close friends and family is so important. I have found the development of a durable, flexible tool kit to be an important step on the road to good mental health for both myself and my clients.