It’s Mental Health Awareness Week… and it’s the week my students start their exams. I’ve been all too aware of my own mental health lately (always the case when it’s a bit below par) and I figure that sharing my experience might help those wondering how they can possibly tackle the mountain of exam pressure when just living is hard enough.
I first became fully aware of mental health as A Thing in 2002, when a dear friend, severely depressed, came to stay in my home. He struggled to get out of bed, to shower, to interact, to contribute to the household… almost everything seemed impossible for him and I couldn’t understand why at the time. Later, my inability to help him in a meaningful way was a huge source of guilt and I made it my mission to learn as much as I could about mental health so that I would never again be in a position where someone was suffering and I could only stand idly by. (My own depression, following soon after, made it oh so much clearer what was actually happening and what it meant for everyday life.)
Fast forward 17 years or so: I and people close to me still struggle with our mental health at times – one person’s depression can trigger someone else’s anxiety and so on – but I have learned so much. That combination of personal experience, book learning and professional training means that I have been able to support hundreds of young people with their mental health struggles through my work, and I try to practise what I preach in terms of self care too. Strategies that have helped me this week:
Sometimes there’s so much going on that it all becomes a bit overwhelming; exam season is a good example of this. The danger is that if we have too many commitments, we go for the ‘head in the sand’ approach and do nothing, paralysed by the fear that we can’t get it all done. The solution is to be a bit kinder to ourselves: look at what we’ve got to fit into our week, highlight the essentials (turning up for exams, for example) and remove some of the stuff that is less important. If you have a job, can you reduce your hours for a few weeks or take a holiday until things calm down? Open-ended tasks like revision can be scaled down too: how much do you really need to do? Have you left enough time for other important things like sleeping (see below)? Drop the perfectionism and lower your expectations of yourself – just for a bit.
This weekend, a migraine forced me to take time away from the computer where I had planned to beaver away on all things Life Tutor. Instead, I decided to visit the allotment that I have neglected somewhat since things got busy. Some gentle exercise, a sense of purpose and the sun on my skin helped immensely with both my physical and mental wellbeing. You don’t need an allotment to get all of this – how about taking the dog out for a walk or meeting a friend at the local park?
Taking a break from social media
Everyone knows that people only show their best bits on their profile pages, and the media is all over the negative effects of the socials on young people’s mental health. It can be especially hard to look at the whole world partying when you don’t feel up to it. It’s not just that though – the sheer volume of information coming through and the expectation to contribute sometimes feels like too much. When that happens, just stop. Put your phone away, leave the house without it, even. It will all still be there when you feel ready to come back to it.
Obvious but true – sleep is good for you. Schedule time for a good 8 hours per night, even if that means going to bed embarrassingly early. I know that getting extra sleep always helps me feel better – I even sacrificed my beloved Parkrun this weekend for an extra few Zs, blocking the morning sunlight with my superhero eye mask.
All of these are little things that you can slot into your life any time, to make things feel a little more bearable. But if someone asked me what the single biggest factor for managing my mental health has been over the years, I’d say mindfulness. I started learning the techniques in 2003, before it became fashionable, and today it is pretty well integrated into my life (the story of how I ran away to a Thai monastery to start is for another time)! I know that when things are bad, it’s not me and it will pass. Look out for my post on mini mindfulness techniques for the exam period later this week.
Do you know a teenager who is stressed, overwhelmed or lacking direction? Struggling with mental health worries but no medical services available? The Life Tutor can help. Get in touch for an informal chat about your needs.
Lucy Aditi is on a mission to help young people thrive in their education and take control of their future. As The Life Tutor, she brings 20 years’ experience to her coaching and wellbeing strategies, guiding teens and their parents through challenging times and empowering them to grow together.