Making my mental health my priority has made me feel more empowered and in control of my life.
The three pieces of concrete advice that have had the biggest impact on my mental health are: get regular exercise, challenge unhelpful thoughts, and stick to a good sleep routine.
Following a 'fake it until you make it' strategy of acting as if I believed this advice would truly help me was a useful way of overcoming my resistance to getting started.
Change is possible, and being kind to myself helped me take my mental health seriously and feel much better about myself.
Advice to my younger self
I have had prolonged periods in my life where I felt like nothing was worth doing at all.
Getting out of these bad times was hard, but a series of manageable lifestyle changes helped me get back on track. This is what I want to tell my younger self, particularly when I was feeling lost and hopeless:
You can make your mental health your priority and your whole world improves. There's three things in particular that you can do. They might sound too simple to make much of a difference, but they work.
First, get regular physical exercise. You'll be surprised by how your mood is influenced by what you physically do with your body each day. You are not just a disembodied brain! Exercise helps your mental health and it isn't reserved just for people who naturally enjoy sports. Go running, and keep at it even if you think you're bad. Don't expect immediate results, and be kind to yourself if you need to take breaks. The important thing is to give it a go.
Second, challenge your negative patterns of thinking. Ask 'is this thought actually helpful to me?', and if it isn't, find the thing that is helpful and commit to it, even if you secretly feel that the unhelpful thing is actually 'right' in some way. It's a much better use of your energy to be sceptical of your negative self-beliefs than it is to create reasons why you should feel bad about yourself all the time.
And lastly, get enough sleep. Be respectful of your sleep routine. When you are tired all day it makes it much harder to stick to your mental health goals, and you risk falling into a negative spiral. Getting enough sleep makes doing the other things easier and helps you stay in control of your life.
I'm not saying that you will never have bad days if you follow this advice, but you will be more resilient and you will begin to feel much better about yourself. There's so much more you can do when you believe in yourself again.
Fighting my urge to resist this advice
I think my younger self would have had considerable trouble taking this advice seriously. I've put some thoughts below about how I might have resisted acting on it, and how I'd go about responding to that resistance now. I'm drawing from lessons I have learned from cognitive behavioural therapy.
Being attached to an unhealthy identity
Part of my resistance would come from an unconscious view of myself where I covertly valued being depressed and mentally ill, and so I didn't really want to change. Other people felt sorry for me and gave me attention and compassion, which I liked. And it gave me an excuse for not challenging myself or trying very hard at things - I'd think "I can't do that because I'm the kind person who is consigned to a life of sadness and worry, I'm not someone who acts boldly in the world".
This is a difficult mindset to shift, but I would like to emphasise that change is possible. Identities aren't set in stone, and if you can recognise an unhealthy way of relating to yourself it can be the trigger for positive change.
Not enough motivation to get started
I would also probably point out that there is a bootstrapping problem with this advice. If you are in a very bad place where everything feels futile it's unlikely you'll have the motivation to start following the advice.
One technique I found very useful to overcome the 'no initial motivation problem' was to pretend to believe that I thought change was possible, even though I doubted that it actually was. I decided to act as though the advice I was being given would make a difference, even though I felt it couldn't really apply to me, as I wrongly thought I was an exceptional case. The advice did work, and the 'fake it until you make it' method helped get me going.
Not feeling worthy of improvement
Sometimes I would feel like I wasn't really worth expending any effort on. I would resist doing anything positive because I didn't respect myself enough to try to improve things.
My technique for tackling this would be to turn my self-doubt against my negative self-belief. What if I'm wrong about not being worthy of care and self-respect? If you open yourself up to the possibility that you might be wrong in your negative opinion of yourself, you are more likely to experiment with doing things that improve your life.
This is an instance of putting the advice to challenge negative patterns of thought into practice.
Procrastinating on taking positive action
Another way I would resist actually following the advice would be to procrastinate about ever getting started.
Reframing my procrastination as a fear of failure has helped me confront it more directly. I remind myself of things that I have done recently where I failed, and think about how they made me feel. The outcomes are never as bad as I feared they would be, and so I have come to distrust my ability to predict how I will feel when things don't go to plan.
Knowing that I tend to overestimate how bad I'll feel when things don't go to plan helps me to manage my fear of failure, and encourages me to act rather than put things off.
A particularly useful learning point for me was to be kind to myself when I do fail at something I wanted to do. If my exercise routine drops, I no longer beat myself up and suffer a disproportionate amount of guilt, but instead I try to recognise that I'm not perfect and perhaps I needed a break from it after all. This has made it much easier for me eventually to start a new routine, because I have reduced the emotional costs that I inflict on myself if it doesn't go as perfectly as I had hoped.
I also find it helpful to decompose large and daunting tasks like 'exercise frequently' into smaller, more manageable ones. A good example of this is to tell myself that I don't have to go for a run, I just need to lace up my running shoes. If I get out the door, I don't have to run for ages, I can just do a few minutes, and I can stop any time I want. By the time I am actually moving, continuing is easier than stopping.
Thoughts about whether this advice applies to you
I deliberately chose to address my younger self in this piece as it made it easier for me to get started and write it. I felt like it gave me permission to be particularly honest and not hold back, and I didn't have to worry so much about whether the advice could generalise for everyone.
But I do think that this advice could benefit anyone who is prone to periods of inertia, indecision, low-self esteem and other symptoms of less than perfect mental health.
Whether or not the three things I have chosen as most valuable for me work optimally for you or not, I expect that anything you can do to prioritise your mental health will help you maximise your potential and be as successful as possible.
Most of what I have shared I learned from therapists teaching me the tools and techniques of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and I would recommend everyone learn more about CBT. I found working with a therapist was a good signal to myself that I was taking my mental health seriously, and even though I sometimes felt like the sessions weren't all that useful or that I wasn't making progress, I would still recommend it. I did make progress, I have learned, and change was possible.
For the people for whom impaired mental health is not the biggest limiting factor in actualising their potential, perhaps you can afford to make something other than your mental health your number one priority in life. But I would caution you on the very real risks of burn-out and damage to yourself or your loved ones. Check in with yourself and ensure that you are not pursuing your goals at the expense of your health or your relationships, even if your goals are noble.
Dream big, take risks with big potential benefits, and be a leader for others to follow. But take your responsibility to look after yourself very seriously.
Bonus advice for myself
Beyond the three main pieces of advice for improving my mental health, there are several other things which have significantly contributed to my wellbeing that I would like to share.
The biggest one was permanently giving up drinking alcohol. This was one of those things that required me to reach a particularly low point before I instigated lasting change, but I believe that with the right encouragement I would have been able to do it sooner, or perhaps even moderate my intake to a sensible level (something I always found very difficult to do).
I would definitely want my younger self to drink less, and I think one way to achieve this would be to confront the darker reasons why I was drinking excessively so frequently. It wasn't just because it was 'fun': it was because I was fundamentally uncomfortable with myself (and the people I was hanging out with) and I wanted the confidence boost that alcohol gave me.
Since giving up alcohol I no longer waste days in bed nursing a hangover and I no longer experience the self-loathing that followed a heavy night out. Being teetotal has boosted my confidence and it has helped me see the value of drawing boundaries for myself. It feeds into my other wellbeing goals by removing an excuse for why I can't get up in the morning and do something positive, and it makes it so much easier to exercise regularly and sleep well.
This is a theme I have noticed with my focus on mental health in general - my actions can combine to form a virtuous circle of positive feedback, where one intervention helps and supports another and together they make it easier to stay on course.
The next piece of advice I have for myself is to resist the urge to become a recluse and to withdraw from the world. Feeling lonely is a real problem, and even though I identify as quite an extreme introvert, I have felt the pernicious effects of loneliness on my wellbeing and sense of connectedness to the world. I have found that I cannot live as an island, and that I benefit from regularly being around other people and spending time with my friends and family in the real world, to a degree I have been quite surprised by. Human contact is important to me, and I now make sure to build it in to my lifestyle in a way I wouldn't if I was naively designing a schedule to maximise my productivity. I used to think that going away to a secluded cabin in the woods would be the most effective way for me to think and realise my intellectual potential, but now I think I would feel extremely lonely and achieve less than if I stayed embedded in the world and aimed to live a balanced life with sustainable and health-focused expectations for myself.
And that brings me to my final piece of bonus advice, which I have already touched on but I want to emphasise again. This is to have appropriate expectations about how well all of this advice will work. None of these techniques are silver bullets, and depression and anxiety and other forms of misery will inevitably still appear in your life, even if you are doing everything I have suggested and more. But the advice I have outlined has helped me feel better in the past, and I am committed to believing that it will work for me in the future. This belief helps me ride out the bad times, and to accept the possibility that there may be hope even on my worst days.