On incrementally improving your mental state

Caring for your mental health can be overwhelming, especially when anxiety, depression or other conditions are at their worst. Everywhere you read about exercising, eating well, sleeping well, drinking water, getting sunlight, meditating and the list goes on and on.

When you’re already down on yourself, it can be hard to stay motivated and even harder to keep going if you miss a goal or experience a setback. I have definitely found my mental health is at it’s best when I’m ticking off all the “wellness” boxes. However, getting back on track when things start to slip, or when life gets in the way is by far the hardest part.

Over time, I’ve realized what is more important than the others, and instead of trying to get back to doing everything all at once, I set myself smaller goals over a longer period of time and focus on the things that are most important. These priorities are going to be different for everyone, but I’ll use my example to explain how it works for me.

Where to start

The first thing is sleep. If I don’t sleep well over a long stretch of time, I become irritable and grumpy, am less likely to have the energy to exercise or cook a meal and things will quickly spiral down from there. Whenever I recognize myself as getting out of healthy habits, this is where I start. This may mean passing on social outings, turning off the TV early and reading a book, or meditating before I go to sleep. It’s the foundation that, without it, means I’ll just keep falling down again.

From there it’s about setting manageable and achievable goals for drinking water, eating well and exercising. Being hard on yourself for missing an unachievable goal you set yourself doesn’t help anything. It’s better to set a goal of working out 3 times this week and hit it, then it is to try and do it every day and miss the goal, especially when your inner voice is already being hard on you.

The issues with drinking socially

The balance of social activities is the thing I probably find the hardest. Being alone definitely doesn’t help matters, but also social situations in your mid-twenties are almost always centred around drinking. This is where surrounding yourself with people who genuinely understand mental health is so important. There is nothing worse than being peer-pressured by a friend into another night out when you know it’s going to send you downwards. The guilt of disappointing a friend and the effects if you do are a clear no-win situation. I’ve found several ways of dealing with this:

  1. Take charge and make plans to do something not centred around drinking
  2. Drink less. Go along, order sodas with lime and do your best to hold fast against peer pressure.
  3. Prepare and recover. Eat well, exercise and drink water the day of if you know you’re going out. Try to do the same the day after.

Above all else, your mental health is yours to protect and friends who are more interested in getting you wasted probably aren’t that good of friends after all, especially if you’ve explained why. That may mean that some people lose touch but friendship shouldn’t come at the cost of your mental health.

Keep track

No one knows how you’re feeling better than you. Strategies for keeping yourself healthy ultimately come down to what works best for you. It’s okay to take it one step at a time, in fact, it’s almost essential. One of the best tools for setting out a plan is the rise of journalling. I was sceptical at first but I’ve found by revisiting how I’m doing each day. I am able to re-adjust the goals I’ve set and kept myself honest. This isn’t just when I’m in a funk, but also to keep a healthy mental state resilient and less likely to be taken down by a bump in the road. There are dozens of curated journals you can buy online, I’ve used MindJournal before, but ultimately it’s about three things:

  1. Observing how you’re feeling and write it down.
  2. Set both little and big goals. Sometimes mine are just “workout tonight”, even if it’s a light one like yoga, a stretch or a jog.
  3. Reflect on why you did or didn’t hit those goals and hold yourself accountable.

I wouldn’t expect this to be a blueprint for anyone, as everyone’s mental health is different and their own. Sharing successes and failures give us all the strength to carry on. Take advantage of motivation when you have it and don’t try and force yourself better, it takes little steps.

You got this.

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