Today is World Mental Health Day 2023 – which means that there will be articles popping up on social media and no doubt a few spots on the radio dedicated to ‘mental health’. Not long ago, talking about ‘mental health’ at all could still make some people feel uncomfortable, as it wasn’t the norm, and there wasn’t much guidance on how to address ‘mental health issues’ in conversation. We may even have heard someone disclosing sheepishly that they had “suffered from mental health in the past” – fortunately, things are very different now.
Now we know that anyone can have mental health issues, that our mental health fluctuates in line with what is going on in our lives and relationships and it is more a question of what we are doing at any given time to maintain our mental health, rather than broaching the subject (if at all), in hushed tones, when we have run into bleak territory and are feeling desperate.
Mental health is a cause for celebration – it is a privilege. Those of us privileged enough to enjoy good mental health most of the time may take it for granted, as with any privilege, and not realise its value to us unless we experience the loss of it. This can happen for any reason: physical ill health, bereavement, taking on too much, not practising self-care and feeling our levels of stress rise and our tolerance fall.
The idea of an optimal state, in which we can function best and feel most alert and receptive to those around us and the day ahead, can be a useful one to hold in mind when we feel our mental health has started to wobble a bit, or been thrown way off track. This happens to everyone. Something to reach for, or back to, to re-orient oneself in the midst of the maelstrom, can help a lot. This concept of a ‘window of tolerance’ is used often in the field of mental health to reveal to individuals their own inner roadmap, so that they can learn what does and doesn’t help when times are tough.
When we are overwhelmed (by feelings, others, our current life circumstances or by a list of expectations we place upon ourselves) we tend either to shut down or become extremely alert and on edge – neither of these states is healthy or functional day to day. Conversely, when everything is running smoothly, or we are ‘just having a good day’, we are more able cope with what comes up, to respond spontaneously to new situations, and to feel a degree confidence in ourselves – we are within our window of tolerance. So how do we stay in this good place, where everything just happens as it should, and we feel fine? Well, obviously we can’t. Life doesn’t work like that and things outside our control (and in our control) go ‘wrong’.
What we can do is ensure that we have the best relationship with ourselves as we possibly can – and this way, we are always able to take a few minutes (or seconds or hours) out, connect with ourselves and help ourselves to feel better, whatever is going on.
The foundation of our relationship with ourselves is self-care – in order to be of any use to ourselves, when we have been flung outside our window of tolerance by Life, we need to know how to look after ourselves. And this is where it gets personal – how do we do that?
We each have things that make us feel more like ourselves, that help us ‘remember who we are’ underneath all the layers of identity that we have collected as a result of how we may have chosen (or not) to lead our lives. We are located behind all of that, in a place that is not contingent on the acceptance of those around us at any given time or reliant on the success that we have arbitrarily decided we need to achieve in order to be OK. If we can find our way back to that place on a daily basis, connect with it, and move forward from there into the day, we are then best placed to realise that everything else that happens in the day is just a bunch of stuff that is happening – and we can respond to it from a balanced and confident place, connected with ourselves, realising that we can make assertive decisions about what to do next and can choose to fully give of ourselves to our lives and those around us – which is a very different kettle of fish from just surviving the endless stream of demands that assails us. All of our relationships, personal and professional, are co-created – and we can improve them all by practising self-care. So if we begin to feel overwhelmed and sense we are moving outside our window of tolerance, we can just step back again, connect with ourselves (by practising self-care behaviours that connect us with the solid foundation of who we are) until we are ready to re-connect with what’s around us.
When we feel we need to take some time out, or it is suggested by others that we might need to (!), this is typically due to the effects of overwhelm and burnout – but how amazing it is when we build in these time-outs intentionally, enabling us to re-connect with ourselves and remember who we are, routinely bringing our best selves back into our lives and relationships. Some of us are naturally better at this than others – and World Mental Health Day is the perfect time to share with our friends, family and colleagues what we do to connect with ourselves (aka to ‘practise self-care’). We all benefit from hearing how others do this – so it is the best kind of generosity to share our experience in this way.
This year’s slogan for World Mental Health Day is ‘mental health is a universal human right’. This may be so, but we also know that it is a privilege. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 38% of people with severe mental health issues also have long-term physical conditions, asylum seekers are 5 times more likely to suffer from mental health issues than the general population and those in the lowest income bracket are 2-3 times more likely to develop mental health problems than those in the highest.
Let us be aware of this privilege on a daily basis, practise self-care to maintain our mental health, and support each other by generously sharing our experiences.
Happy World Mental Health Day!
Charlotte Baden-Powell (Private Client Partner, TEP) qualified as an integrative psychotherapist at Metanoia Institute in 2020 and is in the final stages of a Doctorate in Counselling Psychology and Psychotherapy by Professional Studies, submitting her thesis on empowering and disempowering approaches to alleviating extreme states of psychological distress (aka ‘psychosis’) next year.