How to look after your mental health when you’re feeling overwhelmed

No matter how much we put our wellbeing first, when you have an ongoing mental health condition, you may experience a time where you feel yourself spiralling. We share nine ways you can look after yourself when a mental health crisis is about to hit

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful

Talking about our mental health and wellbeing has become more acceptable in recent years.

However, just because we’re reading and hearing more about it doesn’t, necessarily, make it any easier when we’re struggling in the moment. Whether a period of mental ill health has crept up on you, symptoms have managed to sneak in under your radar, or you’ve been hoping they will go away if you just keep pushing, we all experience times when our mental health feels like it’s on the decline. But what can we do about it? How can we start looking after ourselves when we recognise the signs that our mental health and wellbeing may be starting to spiral?

Be open and honest

Acknowledging how we are feeling is a key step towards finding ways to cope when we feel overwhelmed – it can be easy to dismiss early warning signs. For many of us, we may keep pushing – yet ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.

It can be tough, but try and take a moment to step aside and ask yourself ‘How am I really doing?’ When we’re asked how we are, our instinct so often is to deflect,‘I’m fine; how’re you?’ Or ‘Can’t complain – how’ve you been?’ Talking about how we are feeling can help us to stay in good mental health, to cope better and deal with times when we are feeling overwhelmed, strengthening our support systems.

Being open and honest about how we are feeling, with ourselves and others, isn’t a sign of weakness. The more we open up, the more we feel we can open up in the future – and the more likely those we love will feel able to speak up if they, too, are struggling.

As the Mental Health Foundation explains, you don’t need to sit down and have a big conversation about mental health and wellbeing in order to reach out. “Many people feel more comfortable when these conversations develop naturally – maybe when you’re doing something together. If it feels awkward at first, give it time. Make talking about your feelings something that you do.”

Learn to recognise self-destructive and self-medicating behaviours

Self-destructive and self-medicating behaviours can look very different from person to person; what may be one person’s form of self-care, could be another person’s temporary distraction that leads to further problems down the line.

Your self-destructive behaviours might be more overt or obvious to you. People may turn to self-harm to feel a sense of control when everything gets too much, or may rely on drugs or alcohol to numb how they are feeling. For others, their fallback may be something trickier to identify or involve more overlooked addictions, such as focusing on sex, social media, gambling, overworking or spending too much. Self-medication is one of the ways many of us try to alleviate symptoms of mental illness, or to mask when we are struggling. Food, alcohol, and drugs are all commonly used to try and boost our moods or hide signs we are struggling.

Ignoring your own health, not eating right, or denying yourself things you know would improve your wellbeing can all be further, harder to spot ways we self-sabotage, or try to ignore what is really making us unhappy.

If you’re worried that you may have developed destructive patterns to help cope with how you are feeling, you aren’t alone – and you don’t have to continue on with the cycle. The first step towards making a real change is recognising that there is a problem. This could be something you need more professional help with, in the form of therapeutic support self-help groups, or expert guidance. It could be an issue where you can reach out and speak with others with similar experiences through online forums or local support groups, or it could be something that self-care can help with.

Take things slowly

A bad day may not, necessarily, turn into something more. When things go wrong, it’s easy to assume that the worst will happen but feeling bad in the moment doesn’t have to progress into something more.

When we experience mental ill health, we may come to learn the symptoms and patterns. However, when we assume that each time we see these signs that things are going to take a turn for the worst, we can create a cycle of negative thinking, where our rumination can lead to further or increased feelings of depression and anxiety.

If you find your thoughts stuck in a pattern, try and challenge them. Step outside, give yourself the opportunity to take things slowly and reflect on your day or week as a whole. What has gone right? What have you achieved? Even small successes are still just that, successes. Be kind to yourself in the here and now; future-you will appreciate it.

Keep – or get – active

Getting your recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week isn’t just good for your physical health – it has a whole host of mental health benefits, too. Exercise releases feel-good chemicals that can help improve your mood, and regular activity can help boost your self-esteem, increase your concentration, improve your sleep, and help you to feel better overall. Studies have shown that being active can even help protect us against symptoms of anxiety and mild depression, as well as decreasing stress levels. 

Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise, five days a week, is recommended for most adults. If you can, including some form of moderate-intensity workout in your daily routine is thought to be best. Setting small, achievable targets, fitting exercise into your existing routine and making small switches can all have a significant impact. If you’re unsure where to start, try these tips for boosting your health and fitness, recommended by Dr Luke Powles.

Eat well and stay hydrated

Nearly half of us don’t know what we should be eating to maintain a balanced, healthy diet, yet what we eat can have a huge impact on our mood and mental health. As nutritional therapist Beanie Robinson explains, what we eat can help us to look after our mental health. “We all respond differently to specific foods, meaning there is no prototype for the perfect anti-anxiety diet. Keeping a food diary for two weeks will help you identify foods that positively and negatively affect you.”

If you are looking for foods that can help you to naturally boost your mood, Nutritionist Resource shares their thoughts on what could help. Eating oily fish, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, can help to protect against depression. “Good sources of omega-3 are oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines as well as eggs, walnuts, flaxseeds and sunflower seeds. Aim to eat fish at least twice a week and a small handful of seeds and nuts most days.”

Shake up your routine

The monotony of our routines can weigh heavily on us. Perhaps you have a commute you find draining, or you can’t remember the last time you got away and did something exciting just for the fun of it. Having a change of pace and scenery can be good for our mental health and wellbeing.

It doesn’t have to be something that breaks the bank; just taking a short break whilst doing chores, dedicating 10 minutes from your lunch hour to go for a walk and get away from your desk, or exploring your local area beyond your regular paths can all give you the chance to de-stress, take time out for you, and shake things up.

If doing something new makes you feel nervous, try instead to spend time doing something you’re good at, that you enjoy, or can lose yourself in. Doing activities we enjoy can give us a boost to our self-esteem, as well as a sense of achievement. It could be something simple, like mindful colouring or even exploring the mental health benefits of gardening.

Look after all of you, not just part of you

We each have physical, emotional and mental health and wellbeing. It’s important that we look after ourselves as a whole, without neglecting or overlooking individual parts. When we experience periods of low mood, poor mental health, or decreased physical health, we can become more likely to look for quick-fixes to try and make ourselves feel better as soon as we can – even if this isn’t what’s best for us in the long run.

According to one study, it was revealed that one-in-five of us wouldn’t delete Instagram even if we knew it was harming our health. The same study found that, despite 80% of us saying that our finances have a negative impact on our mental health, three-in-five (60%) of us would still treat ourselves despite being unable to afford it.

When we experience periods of poor mental health, it can be harder to manage our money worries – and our spending habits. Howver, by making small changes, and developing sustainable habits, we can start looking after our finances even when they feel like our lowest priority.

Tracking your spending, speaking with friends and family, and reaching out for advice can all be a huge help. If you’re unsure where to start, find out more about how debt counselling can help.

Ask for help

Speaking up and asking for help can feel impossible when we are at our lowest. If you are already feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, trying to articulate what is wrong and what you need help with can feel like an insurmountable task. Yet if we don’t ask for help, or let loved ones know when we are struggling, they may not know anything is wrong.

For some people, speaking with an outsider can offer more reassurance without the pressure and worries surrounding opening up to loved ones. The Samaritans offer judgement-free listening, 24/7 on 116 123.

If you would rather speak with someone face-to-face, working with a counsellor or therapist could help you to deal with your feelings, offer coping strategies, and help you to identify negative thought patterns. If you aren’t sure if therapy is the option for you, working with a coach could be another route to consider.

If you would like to speak with others who have had similar experiences, working with a support group, or attending group therapy, could offer the space and help you are looking for.

If you are worried about your immediate health, safety or wellbeing, it’s important to seek help right away. Call 999 or visit your nearest A&E department if you are worried you may be experiencing suicidal or distressing thoughts.

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