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Looking up under lockdown

My mental health recovery story

Yikes. Over a year without writing a blog post. Rest assured, I’m still alive and well, and I hope you are too.

It’s probably the understatement of the year to say that life for us all has changed markedly over the past few months. It’s like we’re all stuck in a holding pattern, our lives seemingly on pause with lots of whispers of this being the ‘new normal’. We’ll see.

I originally intended to write this post to reflect on my projects and personal development over lockdown, hoping I’d take a look back one day in the future and remind myself that I didn’t completely squander this time at home.  But the more I wrote, the more I realised that my key focus and accomplishments were all in support of my objective to recover from depression, and so I ended up writing this post to explain how I managed to see the back of it. The current restrictions on our lives has had a toll on many people’s mental health, so I hope that if you have faced similar difficulties you might find some of my experiences useful in your own recovery.

Background

In the 6 months prior to and during the first few weeks of lockdown in March I had been troubled with increasingly severe anxiety. For years, I’ve had difficulty focusing on the present moment but my condition had suddenly become debilitating: full of regret for past experiences, worry for the future and a general feeling of being sorry for myself. I was easily triggered and lashed out at my family for trivial reasons, and an overwhelming sense of negativity enveloped my mind. Every day was a struggle against nasty thoughts in my head and my only solace came when closing the bedroom door and getting into bed. There were days where even muttering words to my loved ones involved too much effort and I’d go an entire day without saying anything.

It goes without saying that I needed a recovery strategy to avoid falling further into this hole that I’d dug for myself. Looking back, I’ve summarised 7 changes I’ve made in my life that were all pivotal to my recovery.

1. Meditation

The word meditation tends to conjure up images of peaced out monks sitting cross-legged in the middle of nowhere, but in reality, it’s a practice that’s accessible to everyone.

I started meditating between 10-20 minutes a day using the popular app Headspace since lockdown began in March.  The first part of the exercise is to take notice of the sensations of the body, and being aware of the motivation and intention for the exercise. The remainder of the exercise simply involves sitting in silence observing the inhalation and exhalation of the breath.

Having meditated every day for the last 9 months, nowadays I notice less background chatter in my mind; better articulation of my thoughts and improved problem-solving ability. Being more mindful, focusing on the present has noticeably improved my attitude. I feel like my mind is ‘soft’ and malleable now, in a way that’s hard to describe.

Most importantly I’m able to recognise when my mind has drifted from the present and bring the focus back again, helping to break cycles of rumination and give more attention to my daily activities.  I’m less snappy and more empathetic with those around me. I’ve also grown more accepting of past mistakes and less bothered by thoughts about the future. Recognising my own failings and accepting them has also made me less judgemental and more compassionate towards others.

2. Fitness

I remember Boris’s address to the nation well. One form of exercise a day, he said. Little did I know, this is something I took to heart as an opportunity to get myself into shape, with surprising implications for my mental health.

As the shops closed and the world fell quiet, for the first time in my life, I put on the trainers and went for a run. Unsurprisingly, just 250 metres later, I almost collapsed in a heap. But with perseverance and consistency to run every week, in a matter of 4 months I managed to extend my distance to 5KM and complete the circuit in 23 minutes. Nowadays with my trainers I feel like there’s no stopping me.

Even more so than the running, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) classes over Zoom were brutal. Being punished with burpees for not keeping up with my colleagues was admittedly misery but easily the most effective physical workout possible. Thanks to Joe Wicks, who is my remote instructor these days, I’m not even thinking of re-instating my gym membership any longer.

It’s astounding that without any gym equipment at all, I’m fitter and stronger than ever before. Just using my body weight (and maybe some additional tins of beans for good measure) did wonders for me. Now, I’ve never done drugs, but the endorphin rush after intense exercise gives me a feeling of being high. For hours afterwards I’m buzzing and motivated to power through my day.

3. Nutrition

A debilitating brain fog enshrouded me in the early weeks of lockdown, with an overwhelming sense of negativity swirling around in my head.  After research, I found a contributing cause – a chronic vitamin B12 deficiency, likely onset by the combination of my plant-based lifestyle and diet adjustments after moving back home. Having loaded up on ultra-high doses of B12 tablets for weeks afterwards, the fog lifted which helped me past the paralysis. Even today I’m shocked at how badly a vitamin deficiency can mess with your mind. Scary stuff.

The side effect of the lockdown and eating out less has made me more attentive to what’s going in my food and cleaning up my diet (admittedly it wasn’t terrible to begin with). The meditation has gone hand in hand with the cooking to make it more enjoyable, helping me pay more attention to each chopping and stirring action as opposed to my mind being elsewhere.

4. Opening up

A problem shared is a problem halved, as the saying goes. I’d wholeheartedly vouch for that. My longstanding bad habit of internalising my emotions was definitely a factor in placing immense pressure on myself. It’s this habit that probably led to my troubles in the first place.

As hard as it is, finding the courage to go past that invisible barrier and pouring out the thoughts to close friends and family is one of the best remedies for unbottling emotions. It had been 10 years since I left home for university and I haven’t spent too much time with my parents since then, but our time together during lockdown helped me to heal. All it takes is someone willing to listen.

Some things are too difficult to talk even to those who are most cherished to us. On the advice of my brother, I called up my council’s mental health counselling service (Greenwich Time to Talk) with whom I had a couple of sessions before being enrolled on a 10-week online CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) course. CBT uses scientifically proven tools and techniques to help challenge thoughts. I was initially sceptical of the tools but I do feel that they help rationalise thoughts objectively by deconstructing them to identify their triggers and resultant emotions/feelings. All councils offer free support – something I didn’t realise – and it’s a service definitely to take advantage of if you need help. But it requires commitment and you get out what you put in.

The Cognitive Triangle. Cognition, The Cognitive Method, and… | by Michael Patanella | Real Life Resilience | Medium

The Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviours cycle is a useful technique for breaking down difficult thoughts and escaping cycles of rumination

Finally, in the absence of being able to share the most challenging of thoughts, I’ve found that recording myself talking and hearing positive messages in the sound of my own voice as an uplifting voice of comfort. Occasionally journaling about my day and putting ink to paper was another way to relieve the pressure in my head. Even writing this blog post is also a form of therapy for me.

5. Reconnecting with nature

‘Gardening adds years to your life and life to your years’, as they say. Growing veggies was another feel-good activity, with some nice juicy rewards in the autumn

It was during the night hours that I’d struggle most with my depression, and I found a way to embrace the darkness rather than hide away from it. My remedy was simply to look upwards on a clear night’s sky. Lying down and staring towards the stars invoked a sense of curiosity and awe. It also reminded me how incredible it is that life exists on this tiny rock circulating in the vast expanse of the universe. The recognition of how fragile life is brought a sense of gratefulness and privilege to be alive and healthy against all of nature’s odds.

This feeling of being small was exacerbated when trying out some new water sports over the autumn. Being thrown by around by water while surfing in St Ives, and falling off my paddleboard into the sea in Dartmouth not only a reminder of my own mortality but also gave a massive adrenaline rush, a fun distraction from normal life and a refreshing perspective to see the world.

Paddleboarding on the Thames and River Dart was a surprising but effective exercise in lifting my mood

On days off from my intense exercise, I’d head off for long hikes into the woods which was another opportunity to focus on the present. I’d remind myself to be attentive to the scent of wilderness, the feeling of wind blowing in my face, and the feeling of my feet on the ground.  I find walking to be the best opportunity to challenge thinking and an omnipresent reminder of the distinction between the physical world – the things we can see and touch, right here and now, and the thoughts in the head which don’t exist and is self-created fiction.

6. Listening to music

Music for me has been an escape from the monotony of life and that reassuring, comforting voice and an overlooked factor in overcoming depression. Listening to artists like The Score helped me connect to a voice, but also relaxing jazz and upbeat music have helped quell my frustration. In the absence of any pubs or clubs, there’s nothing like belting out your favourite tunes at the dead of night in the comfort of your living room to let off some steam.

7. Education

If I was to pinpoint one lesson that has stuck with me most across the various books and videos I’ve read and watched over lockdown, it has been around self-compassion and acceptance. Many of us judge ourselves more harshly than we’d treat others, especially when we make mistakes. Loving yourself for who you are, embracing your imperfections, and reminding yourself that you’re human is the best formula for self-acceptance. I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as regret and mistakes. We always ever react in all scenarios in life with the best knowledge and experience we had at the time.

A few other key learnings from a few books I’ve read over lockdown:

  • Homo Deus: We only act the way we do because of the chemicals in our body reacting to external stimuli. Arguably, there’s no such thing as free will…
  • Atomic habits: The power of good habits and aiming for small but continuous improvements in your life (1% and the power of compounding). Streaks are powerful in forming lasting habits.
  • The Little Big Things: Being grateful for the little important things in life, like one’s health and freedom. Being optimistic to find a path forward in difficult circumstances.
  • Effective altruism: Giving to the right charities and being smarter around the most effective way to make a difference by doing what you’re good at.

Conclusion

The stark and uncomfortable realisation is that depression, however painful it is to experience, is an entirely fabricated experience in the mind. It’s all in the head – not in the physical world – and it’s important to remember the difference between the two. Few in this world truly know how to master the incredible power of the human mind, but simply recognising when your own intelligence has turned against you is the first step in overcoming mental health difficulties.

People tell me that keeping busy helps to solve depression, but I think that just enshrouds problems and doesn’t resolve them. They’ll remain in the back of your mind, forever gnawing away at you. Unveiling and exposing those deepest insecurities is the only solution, and then rationalising them through scientific methods, talking about them, and meditating.

I’ve mentioned this before on my blog, but mental health matters as much as physical health. Just like one would visit a doctor after an accident without thinking twice, speaking up and sharing with mental health difficulties should invoke the same instinct. There is no shame in doing so.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have bad days. But they’re far less intense and more transient than they were in the past. I could not have recovered to the extent I did without each of the above remedies. I hope they help you through your difficult patches too.

Stay safe.

-S

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