Sometimes everything in our life is going well… except our mental health. It can stir up all sorts of emotions and thoughts. We might not understand it. Perhaps we feel guilty, hopeless, frustrated, and deeply ashamed. But there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Poor mental health, and mental illness, can happen to anyone at any time.
Misconceptions about mental health
There’s a big misconception that if our life is ‘good’, then we can’t experience poor mental health. That just isn’t the case. Our physical health can go wonky, even if we’ve just got a new job, are in a stable relationship and love where we live. So can our mental health.
As with any condition, some things can increase our risk of experiencing poor mental health, but some of us are diagnosed with a mental illness despite few or no identifiable risk factors.
How it feels
We worry about people judging us because we have no ‘right’ to feel so bad when things are so ‘good’. So we sit in our car until we can pull it together on our lunch break. Plaster on a smile in front of our kids. Swallow our tears before picking up a phone call from a friend. Generally, we keep our feelings to ourselves, pretending that we’re okay when we actually feel anything but.
Squishing stuff down
Some of us are very effective at the “squish it” technique… for a while.
If something happens that makes us feel bad, instead of dealing with it, we squish it down inside us somewhere and try to forget about it. Unfortunately, when our ability to cope is exceeded, stuff starts popping up and we can no longer ignore it.
It might seem frustrating that there are things affecting our mental health that we thought we’d ‘sorted’. But trying to ignore tough stuff doesn’t usually act as a permanent solution. It might work temporarily, but at some point, we may need to work through these tricky things, and we might need support with that.
Mental health impacts of delayed processing
We don’t all process things at the same speed. Some of us react straight away. Others need more time.
We might have a processing traffic jam, especially if we’ve faced complex and/or numerous difficult situations in quick succession. It can take time to process all the things that have happened to us. Things people have said, things we’ve had to do, decisions we’ve had to make, times we’ve had to be brave, and any knock-on impacts of difficult circumstances.
Processing can almost become a background buzz. As it continues, we might have dips in our mental health that seem to come out of the blue, but actually relate to the point we’ve reached in our processing traffic jam. It can take time to work through that.
Reaching a place of safety
There are times when we go through really difficult things and seem totally fine, then arrived at a place where things are a little less tough, only for our mental health to go splat. This can seem very topsy turvy.
We can think about it sort of like being stuck on a big hill in an unexpected storm. Each of us would react differently to this imaginary storm, but some of us ‘cope’. We would be the ones to galvanise our team, make an action plan, and get everyone off the big hill and into a warm, dry building. Only once safely in the building would we start to shake or cry.
Sometimes we don’t feel safe enough to really feel our feelings or acknowledge our situation when we’re going through tricky times. We just get our heads down and work hard to improve things for ourselves. Once we feel safe enough to let our guard down a bit, our mental health falters.
It can seem somewhat illogical on the face of it. Bad times – able to cope, good times – barely able to get dressed. But from an evolutionary perspective it makes total sense. While we’re fighting for the basics, all of our energy needs to go into survival. Only once our basic needs are met, are we able to turn our focus to our thoughts and feelings.
Running on empty
Some of us get so caught up in being busy and juggling commitments, that we rarely stop to check in with ourselves. This means that we don’t notice our mental health beginning to wobble until the wobble starts to affect our ability to function.
When we’re utterly exhausted, whether we enjoy the things that are exhausting us or not, it’s hard to maintain positive mental health. We can start to feel irritable, cry more often, feel more ‘on edge’ and as though we’re less able to cope with small issues than we might like.
To start to figure this one out, it helps to begin with a crystal-clear picture of where we’re at. How much are we currently doing? What does it look like? Drawing this out on a weekly plan can help. We might want to add to it over a few weeks. When we first write it out, we might forget things because we’re so used to doing them.
Seeing a standard week written down in front of us can help us to assess whether we really are too busy and, if we are, whether we can start to reduce some commitments. Dropping commitments can feel daunting, but sometimes we don’t have to stop doing things, just adjust how we do them. For example, can we reduce our taxi duties by car-sharing to and from our kids’ various clubs? Could we reduce the admin associated with our volunteer role? Can we afford to pay a cleaner to pop in a morning a week, freeing us up to spend time with our family rather than elbow-deep in soapy water?
Rebalancing our time can sometimes help to get our mental health back on track.
“Going well” isn’t matching our values
“Going well” is subjective. It means different things to different people.
Whilst one person might define “going well” as having 2.4 kids, a dog, a semi-detached house, and a well-paid job, others might define “going well” as being able to meet our basic needs consistently.
None of us grows up in a vacuum. We’re each taught a definition of “going well” from a young age. It’s often an amalgamation of family expectations, wisdom from friends, stuff our education system has impressed upon us, and things we’ve absorbed from our community.
As we get older, we develop our own opinions, identity and belief system. It can take a lot of unpicking and a whole lot of work to remove the weight of expectation and tap into our personal values buried underneath. Our current state of “going well” could be far removed from our personal values. This can leave us feeling disjointed, disconnected, and kind of “off”.
Talking to others, writing, reading, journaling, drawing, pondering, taking ‘thinking walks’, listening, and tuning into the things that feel ‘okay’ and those that don’t can all help us to re-connect with who we are, what we want, and what “well” means for us.
The hopelessness of poor mental health
One of the particularly difficult aspects of experiencing poor mental health when other areas of our life are going well is the sense of hopelessness it can foster.
When things are going wrong, there’s something we can attribute our poor mental health to. Something we can blame. Something we can point to and say ‘that’s it, that’s the reason’. Bad stuff is rubbish, but at least it gives us a focus. At least it feels like there’s something tangible we can work on.
When everything is going well… where does that leave us?
It can feel hopeless, especially if we’ve worked hard to get to the place we’re in and thought that we’d feel better once all the ‘stuff’ we’ve been through was more or less sorted. Sometimes, it can lead to spiralling suicidal thoughts, because if we can’t put our finger on a specific issue that we can ‘fix’, then it can feel as though we’re doomed to feel rubbish forever.
It’s so important that we get support when we feel hopeless. Firstly, because nobody should face such horrid feelings alone. But secondly, our loved ones or professionals might be able to spot things that we haven’t. They might have ideas of things that we could try. If not, then at least they can be by our side until things feel brighter.
Whatever our situation we deserve support
Whatever our situation, however comfortably or uncomfortably we’ve experienced life so far, we deserve support.
Poor mental health and mental illness don’t discriminate. So, neither should we. Nobody has a right to judge us for struggling, whatever our situation, and that includes judging ourselves. We deserve to feel supported. We deserve to feel okay. Help is out there. We aren’t alone.
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