Whenever we talk about looking after our mental health, one of the things that’s often thrown around as a solution is the idea of self-care. Self-care is typically defined as “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one's own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress”.
Unfortunately, thanks to a number of lifestyle companies and some rather cynical marketing, self-care is often seen to be synonymous with lighting candles, having bubble baths, and donning expensive face masks.
However, for the majority of people who are living with real, sometimes debilitating, mental health issues, self-care is much more straight-forward than that. For people – like myself – who live with long term mental health issues, self-care isn’t about massages and yoga (although they can obviously help!), but more about getting out of bed, brushing our hair, cleaning our teeth or tidying our homes a little.
For those who really need it, self-care is a far-cry from the version we often see online.
That said, I’ve found that some parts of the internet have become safe places for many people who feel as though they are engaged in battles with their brain. Whether that’s depression or anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, or any of the other mental health conditions that one in four of us globally will face in our lifetime.
Finding the online tools that work for me
Apps, podcasts, communities and games are popping up all over the place to help us manage the parts of our brains that are prone to giving us a hard time. And while I wouldn’t say any of them are cures for mental health issues, I’ve found that they are great tools to have in my arsenal for the times that I’ve needed some techniques to help.
Here are a few of the apps and online resources that I’ve tried alongside my other mental health management tools:
I know everyone sort of groans when meditation and mindfulness are mentioned as tools for preserving your mental health, but after taking a Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (M-CBT) course, I know first-hand how helpful it can be to employ a bit of mindfulness to help you stop your thoughts from feel like they are spiraling.
Headspace (available on iPhone and Android) is billed as “meditation for modern life” and aims to help you live a healthier, happier, and more ‘well-rested’ life, in just a few minutes a day. It covers all the tips and advice you need for starting out, and includes hundreds of themed sessions, covering everything from stress and sleep, to focus and anxiety.
Getting into the habit of meditating has often has been a game changer for me. Taking a few minutes out of each day to shut down my brain and just concentrate on breathing, helps stop my feelings of anxiety and reminds me that I’m a human who is doing their best.
I was also a bit sceptical when I heard about Clementine for the first time. A hypnotherapy app?! But after being recommended it by a person whose opinion I value greatly when it comes to matters of the mind, I decided to give it a shot.
Clementine’s aim is to help you feel calmer, believe in yourself and to sleep better. Sounds good, right? How does it work? According to the makers of the app, “neuroscientists believe that hypnosis is the quickest and easiest way to make changes to your thought processes, as it’s when the mind is most durable and adaptable to change”. That’s how it promises that you will ‘wake up’ feeling positive, calm and more able to cope after using Clementine.
For me, the daily mantras that buzz through to my phone a few times a day, reminding me that I am “brave and bold and brilliant”, and variations on that sort of theme have had a hugely positive impact on the way I speak to myself.
Elefriends is billed as a supportive online community where you can be yourself, while offering a safe place to listen, share and be heard.
Managed by the people at the UK mental health charity Mind, Elefriends is a forum where anyone who has ever struggled with their mental health can share tips, tricks, stories and advice without fear.
The concept values the power of shared experiences and perspectives, so that those within the community don't just get help, but they give help too. Unlike lots of other spaces online, Elefriends is moderated to keep it safe and the peer-to-peer support that’s available is incredibly powerful.
From my perspective, there’s nothing better than talking about your mental health issues and someone saying, “I see you. I’ve got you. It will get better”.
There are about 75 million* podcasts on the planet and deciding which ones to listen to can be anxiety-inducing in itself (*not actually). But there is a bunch of brilliant people talking about their brains and what goes on inside them, so your preferred podcast app can be a great place to find solace and comfort when you need it.
Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place sees the DJ and writer interview brilliant guests like Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, Hilary Clinton, Kelly Holmes and Russell Brand (to name just a few), while Bryony Gordon’s Mad World is a limited series with interviews from Frank Bruno, Stephen Fry and author Matt Haig. Feel Better, Live More with Dr Chaterjee aims to “empower you to become the architect of your own health” with various hints, tips and inspiring interviews (as a swimmer, I LOVED the Ross Edgely episode).
I also love Griefcast with Cariad Lloyd, a podcast of “funny people talking about death”. Each week Cariad talks to a different guest about their experiences of grief. Together they share their views on the pain, loss and the weirdness that happens when someone dies. While grief isn’t necessarily something I feel my depression and anxiety are linked to, there’s something incredibly powerful to hear people talking so openly and frankly about their feelings. Very much worth a listen.
Couch to 5k
Exercise is another one of those things that makes a lot of people who struggle with their mental health groan when people recommend it, but the fact of the matter is, exercise really can help you manage a difficult brain. Alan Cohen, a GP with a special interest in mental health told the NHS, “Any type of exercise is useful, as long as it suits you and you do enough of it.” And for many people, running is in fact just what the doctor ordered.
I’m by no means telling you that on the days when you can barely get out of bed that you should go for a run, but I am saying that finding a way to exercise when you feel well can be a great tool for keeping your demons at bay (or at least, less ferocious for a while). It often worked for me.
Couch to 5k is a great app to help get you moving if mental health issues have stopped you in your tracks. It breaks everything down into super manageable chunks so you’re less likely to get disheartened and pack it in because you try to do too much too soon. If running isn’t your thing, there are plenty of apps for yoga and other home workouts that you can try too.
Moving might feel impossible some days, but there are other days when it won’t. Take advantage of them.
It might seem counterintuitive to recommend social media, because we often see reports that tell us how damaging it can be to our mental health. However, following specific mental health accounts and using social media carefully and – here’s that word again – mindfully, can make a massive difference.
Be sure to cultivate your social media to only follow accounts that make you feel good about yourself and your life. So mute or unfollow anyone who makes you feel uncomfortable. If you know you have issues with your body, try only following those in the body positivity community who celebrate their bodies, rather than those who make you pick apart your own.
I also try to follow those whose ethos and attitude to life is similar to mine and avoid anyone who makes me slip into negative thought patterns. I find the mute button is a powerful tool if you’re worry about offending anyone.
Ultimately, your own mental health is of paramount importance and being thoughtful about who you follow and how you use social is integral to surviving the modern world.
And lastly, it sounds incredibly simple, almost too simple, but WhatsApp can be a great communication tool too. If you’re feeling low, reach out to your loved ones. They want to hear from you. And it’s likely they will want to help. So let them.
There are so many tools that exist to help us manage our mental health these days. These are just a few examples of the things that work for me, but you might find other things that work for you.
Remember though, none of these resources are recommended as replacements for professional medical help, so if you need more support or feel like you’re in crisis, do reach out to your GP or other mental health services in your area.
UK/MED/20/0014 January 2020