Everyone will have times in their life when things get challenging. When this happens, it is important to make wellness a priority as it is too easy to get focused on the problems and disregard or minimise the importance of self-care for their mental health.
The two words, ‘mental’ and ‘health’ more often than not invoke negative thoughts around mental illness, and the word ‘health’ is often not considered.
One way to think about mental health is on a continuum from ‘healthy’ at one end, through to ‘reacting’, ‘injured’ and ‘ill’ at the other end. Let’s look at each of these a bit closer.
What does ‘healthy’ look like? We have normal sleep patterns, a good sense of humour, normal mood fluctuations, good energy levels and no or limited alcohol use.
What does ‘reacting’ look like? We start to have trouble sleeping due to intrusive thoughts, are more forgetful, irritable or sad; we feel overwhelmed and may have regular but controlled alcohol use or gambling.
What about ‘injured’? At this stage we may feel restless, have disturbed sleep, increased fatigue, a negative attitude, more anger, anxiety, increased aches and pains, and have increased drug and alcohol use, which is harder to control.
What does ‘ill’ look like? We can’t fall asleep or stay asleep, can no longer cope at work, we might have excessive anxiety or angry outbursts, depression, physical illnesses, frequent drug and alcohol use, and out of character decision-making.
This assessment tool has been adapted for the NZDF based on the work of Keyes (2002), The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing To Flourishing In Life, Journal of Health and Social Research, 43, 307-322; and the CF Mental Health Continuum.
Depending on where someone is on the continuum will determine what support they might need, with those people falling into the ‘red’ or ‘ill’ category requiring help from their GP at least, alongside a mental health professional. Seeking help early will generally speed up someone’s recovery.
When faced with a challenging situation, one can also start with the widely accepted basic techniques of ‘Grounding’, ‘Breathing’ and ‘Thinking’.
Allow yourself the time to stop whatever you are doing and ‘ground’ yourself in this moment of time by feeling your feet on the ground, the mundane sounds around you, and the feeling of your body in whatever position it happens to be currently in. In doing this you are noticing that you are in this moment in time now, not in the future or past.
Then notice your breathing. Although breathing is something we take for granted, it is a quick way to down regulate our nervous system. Try to inhale gently to the count of 4, and then exhale to the count of 4 – do this repeatedly for a few minutes. Try and breathe all the way down into your diaphragm as this is more calming.
Then, notice whether your thoughts are helping or hindering you. Ask yourself simple questions such as “Is this an actual problem I can solve now or a hypothetical situation that hasn’t yet happened” or if you are caught up in past events you can remind yourself that that moment has passed and you are in this moment in time.
We so often get caught up in reliving past moments in our lives, or we imagine future unhelpful scenarios. When this happens, we need to be reminded to stop, ground ourselves in the present, break things down into manageable chunks, and engage in more accurate and helpful self-talk such as “I am having a tough time at the moment so it’s normal to feel this way, but bit by bit, I will get through it”.
Most of us tend to regularly keep an eye on the physical aspect of our health – we look at our weight, body mass, body shape and go to the gym or a diet, but we tend to forget about our mental health until sometimes, unfortunately, it’s too late. As a nation, we need to find better ways to avoid the ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ scenario by keeping tabs on our mental wellbeing for our own sake and that of our loved ones and those around us.
The Mental Health Foundation is emphasising the role of nature this year and highlights the Five Ways to Wellbeing as part of Mental Health Awareness Week. For more information and resources on mental wellbeing, go to www.mentalhealth.org.nz.
Please seek help from your GP if you are concerned about your or someone else’s mental health. Available Helplines are:
- Lifeline’s 24/7 Helpline: Free call 0800 543 354 or free text HELP (4357)
- Youthline: Free call 0800 376 633 or free text 234
- or visit depression.org.nz
Cath Hunter is Clinical Psychologist, Gains@Geneva, National Clinical Manager and Marie Young is Clinical Psychologist, Gains@Geneva, Regional Clinical Manager at Geneva Healthcare.