By Charlie Hoare, CHAMPS Associate
This International Men’s Day I wanted to share my learnings from my own experiences of mental health problems as well as my professional expertise as a positive psychology coach.
In my book, Man Down, I wrote that we all need five-a-day for good mental health. It’s a simple analogy and demonstrates that our mental health, just like our physical health, needs a whole range of different treatments, interventions and activities in order for us to thrive.
Another point I want to make absolutely clear is that bottling things up rarely – if ever – helps. I was bullied as a young teenager at boarding school and for two years I refused to tell my parents or my teachers. I felt that, as a young man, I should be able to manage it on my own. Unfortunately, the energy it takes to emotionally shut off and carry on as if nothing is happening significantly drains the fuel you have in your wellbeing tank – which doesn’t bode well for the future. In fact, it was ten years later that I realised how the bullying and my silent response to it contributed to my adult bouts of depression and anxiety.
So, here are five things that have helped me personally in managing my own experiences of depression and anxiety. And I doubt you’ll be surprised by number one…
Talk about it
Talking about your feelings or experiences is a way of dealing with them, rather than running away from them. It takes courage to acknowledge what’s going on so it’s definitely a brave step to take – never a weak one. Putting on a brave front and pretending it hasn’t happened will catch up with you one day – I’m living proof of that.
So whether it’s talking to your friends, colleagues, parents or therapist, being able to offload will help massively. It gets the problem out from inside your head and allows you to look at it for what it is – with an objective viewpoint from whoever you’re sharing with too. Leave it to fester in your head and you’ll end up with a never ending spiral of doom.
I’m a big fan of the speaker Brene Brown who has famously spoken about the power of vulnerability. Vulnerability breeds connections, and, unless you are able to be vulnerable with someone (i.e. present a part of yourself that could be rejected) then you can’t form a meaningful connection. Another reason to be vulnerable is the benefits it brings to others. Breaking down barriers creates a fundamental shift in a relationship, enabling others to be more vulnerable too. It’s a win-win for all involved.
See your GP
I’m not going to guarantee you’ll have the perfect experience with your GP, as there are so many out there and all have different approaches to mental health just as we all have unique experiences with mental health. However, if you are able to take responsibility for your wellbeing, question the advice where appropriate and get a second opinion if you’re unsure, your GP will be a great first step into therapies or medication or even considering what actions you can take personally to contribute to your mental wellbeing. I have taken antidepressants, but I wasn’t pushed down that route initially. We started with CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and antidepressants came later on – and in my case they really helped at the time. As per the theme of this piece, however, medication alone isn’t going to change everything, which is why you should try to find five different approaches to support your wellbeing.
Coaching and Talking Therapy
People can often confuse coaching and talking therapy. However, it’s useful to understand the difference as for some people, coaching might be a good first step to get used to working with a professional on your mental health.
Putting it in simple terms, coaching is about goal-setting and looking forward, whereas therapy is about reflecting on your past and considering what you haven’t previously dealt with that might be impacting on your life today and how to tackle it. Of course there is some crossover and, for example, your past experiences may well come up in your coaching session, but broadly speaking, the focus is different.
In terms of therapy or counselling, it’s certainly not like the old stereotype we used to see in the films. There are different types of counselling. Psychotherapy, for example, is often longer term and delves into your past to understand why you feel or behave a certain way. CBT on the other hand looks at how you have previously responded to problems or situations, analysing your associated behaviours and equipping you with new techniques to manage such situations more effectively going forward.
My advice is that you can look at seeing a therapist or consultant as having a chat with a professional friend. You’re basically able to have a conversation with someone who is completely anonymous, confidential and there purely to help you – it’s a really unique opportunity. You’ll never in your life have conversations that are that one-way. Why wouldn’t you use that opportunity?
Exercise and the outdoors
Exercise has always been a big part of my life. I used to think that if I was physically fit I would be mentally fit. But of course, that isn’t the case. We need a range of contributing factors to stay mentally and physically well.
But in moderation, exercise is a great way to release feel-good hormones (endorphins) and reduce stress hormones (cortisol) that will positively impact your mental wellbeing. I say in moderation because, for me, I became almost addicted to exercise. I was practicing yoga six days a week and feeling dependent on it – and that’s never a good thing.
Where possible, taking the exercise outside is also a bonus. There’s a term called ‘biophilia’ which describes the human/animal innate desire to connect with nature that we all have. Just going out for a walk, breathing in a little bit of fresh air and taking note of the nature around you makes you feel so much better. I’m a big believer in the healing power of nature.
Manage your expectations
I think this is a really important one to mention, because recovery is rarely a straight line and there is never a quick fix. If you think a quick visit to the doctor and a packet of antidepressants will change everything you’re likely to be sorely disappointed and that will further damage your mental wellbeing. Recovery is a journey, and, personally, I have spent many years seeing therapists, talking to friends – in fact practicing all of the above. I am now equipped to better manage my mental health but that’s the key word here: I manage it. Because it can still be up and down – I am certainly not fixed. But I live a much more fulfilling life being aware of how to manage looming depressive episodes or anxieties.
To read more about my experiences of depression and anxiety, you can order my book, Man Down available from all good retailers and published by Hachette.
For anyone interested in positive psychology coaching, check out CHAMPS’ My Mental Wealth coaching course.