How to spot and deal with mental health triggers

As anyone who has come into contact with me over the last year will know, at the beginning of May I was due to have completed a 250 mile ride between Milan and Venice in support of the mental health charity Mind. For obvious reasons this didn’t go ahead and won’t until at least October. Ironically, the very thing that stopped this happening has had a massive effect on our collective mental health. The world we now live in is about as far from our comfort zones as it’s possible to be; our routines, our support structures, our usual tricks to alleviate the everyday strains and stresses of work have all been either taken away or changed beyond recognition.

I would never tell anyone what they should do to manage their own mental health, or that of anyone close to them. But I thought I might share some of the things that have helped me over the last couple of months, as well as how I’ve spotted and dealt with some of the triggers. My most common struggle is overwhelm. When I try and take on too much or too much is happening to or around me that I can’t control, I effectively shut down. That’s followed up with some physical anxiety; the shortness of breath, tight chest and an inability to find positivity. So I have to work really hard to try and manage this in a few ways:

  • Reminding myself of what is and isn’t within my control. Worrying about things I cannot affect is not only fruitless, it’s harmful. I CAN control how react and how I process. Trying to be as clear in my processing of events is important; how do I feel about it? What do I need in order to feel ok? How do I need to communicate these needs?
  • Don’t have ridiculous expectations of myself. This is a big one, especially if people haven’t come face-to-face with their own mental health before (a common theme at the moment). The most important thing is to remove the phrase ‘I should be able to deal with this’ from your lexicon. No matter how strong, experienced, confident, etc you are, you’re not invulnerable. If you feel like shit, acknowledge that. Because the alternative is to pretend you don’t and then make it so much worse. I’ve gotten pretty good at this bit.
  • It takes some effort to not see it as a weakness to be affected by things that seem small. I always say that experiencing mental health issues is a bit like your first car crash. It’s rubbish at the time but makes you a much better driver. Going through mental struggles opens up a load of empathy to be able to spot it in others, as well as showing you that you are not only susceptible to it but able to overcome it.
  • Find some pressure release valves. I have a couple of things that really help me with this and I deploy them depending on how I’m feeling. Firstly I ride my bike. Sometimes long, sometimes short, but any exercise is great for anxiety or depression because of the endorphins it releases. It also allows you some time with your thoughts away from pressure. I always get some proper perspective when I’m riding and have solved some really annoying problems in my head while doing it.
  • BUT, sometimes the last thing you can imagine doing is some exercise and you definitely don’t want to add to your overwhelm by beating yourself up for not feeling like you want to go for a run or ride. So I also have spent a huge amount of time painting what my friend calls ‘little plastic soldiers’. I’ve been collecting and painting all sorts of figures with stupidly small details and fiddly bits. You don’t have to do this exact thing but what it does for me is remove ALL thought. You can’t stress about work while you’re trying to paint a tiny Avengers symbol on Captain America’s shoulder! While I’m painting I can literally hear the pressure leaking out of my head (though it might be a loose valve on my airbrush?) and I honestly think it’s been a life saver over the last two months.
  • Talk about it. This is non-mandatory because, if this is your first encounter with this feeling, the last thing you might want to do is tell someone. But I cannot tell you how much it has helped me. I’m incredibly lucky to have a really understanding family that understand my need for quiet or space. I’ve also got some incredible friends that really understand the value of just listening.
  • But I’ve become more and more comfortable just sharing that I’m having a hard time, even with work colleagues (when it’s relevant or appropriate to do so – I don’t have a chat room dedicated to my current mental state!). Sometimes you just need someone to nod and say ‘that sounds shit, can I do anything?’.

This is all just how I deal with it and sometimes none of it works. Sometimes I can spot it coming and head it off at the pass. I’m also not suffering with any massive disorders or coming to terms with any massive past traumas. For some people all of this will be nonsense/wrong/unhelpful/preachy. But if you are someone that is experiencing their own feelings of anxiety or overwhelm or any other mental health issue for the first time, you are not alone and you are not unusual.

You are just as amazing and brilliant as you always were. You just need to give yourself some space to not be ok, remove any expectation of being able to just get through it and acknowledge the feeling. What you feel today is not forever, no matter how it might seem. It’s only this moment and you will be ok again.