Small disclaimer – this post is about mental health and although speaking from experience, I am not a trained professional and what works for me will not conclusively work for everyone. If you are concerned about your mental wellbeing, please book an appointment with your doctor or if you’re in crisis contact one of these support agencies or call 999.
When someone says they’re going through a low period with their mental health, the stereotypes suggest that person is finding it more difficult to find joy, doesn’t leave their room or house and doesn’t want to socialise. Whilst these can all be true, what people don’t often talk about are the more physical responses that make mental illness incredibly difficult to live with – stress headaches that painkillers don’t help, digestive issues, constant feelings of nausea, not sleeping well or sleeping too much at the wrong time, alongside the lack of motivation to even to basic things to take care of yourself including showering, cleaning and making food.
When someone is in this state of mental illness, one thing they often crave is feeling normal again – wanting to feel more productive, wanting to not feel the need to burst into tears and the thought of the washing up; wanting to feel like themselves again. Creating a normal routine when you’re not in a normal headspace can be incredibly challenging and needs a lot of patience and gentle encouragement that someone feeling that ill often doesn’t give themselves.
But there are little changes you can make that are small enough to not feel overwhelming but big enough to hopefully make you feel a little bit better each day. I’m still figuring out what works best for me, but these are a few things I’m trying to make part of my new routine.
- make a list
I’m a big list maker and I appreciate that not everyone needs to write down everything to have a sense of what they’re going to achieve each day, but when your brain feels like absolute mush, having a list can help take circling thoughts and make them feel more concrete. Even if that list is brush teeth, eat breakfast, shower, eat lunch, eat dinner, brush teeth then it serves as a visual reminder to do those things and you know that you’ve taken some basic steps to look after yourself even when you really don’t want to. Good job!
If those kinds of things don’t work for you (personally it makes my list feel way too long and overwhelming), try making a three point to do list – one high priority task, one medium priority task and one low priority task. For me at the moment, my high priority task is job hunting (but I only spend an hour doing this otherwise it gets too much), my medium priority task is doing my daily writing for NaNoWriMo and my low priority task is a craft activity, because doing something physical but inevitably inconsequential is really relaxing for me!
Making lists that work for you can be a massive learning curve, but give yourself permission to learn from what doesn’t work and start small and build up – things will get better!
- turn that list into a schedule
Again, potentially a little niche, but the one reason I find myself continually going back to education is that I like the structure of having a timetable and knowing when something will start and end. When I was working on my dissertation I found it really useful to schedule an hour or two and know that after that time I could stop but I’d still done an hour of work and that actually made me work better in that hour.
If I’d done this the five months before my diss was due I definitely wouldn’t have needed an extension, but we learn from our mistakes or something.
But a schedule works really well for me! I’ve started using an app called Tiimo, as recommended by Paige Layle on tiktok, which is a scheduling app that has cute little icons and is really easy to use, as well as sending notifications to both my phone and my smart watch about what I’ve planned for when.
My favourite thing about tiimo as that I don’t see it as a concrete schedule – I get notifications about what I should be doing things but sometimes I need to laze on the sofa and play Animal Crossing and maybe have an accidental nap. But tiimo just assumes I’m doing what I’ve scheduled and congratulates me when I’ve finished a task! Having a schedule that doesn’t feel concrete and feels more like gentle guidance I’ve found is really great for me mentally and gives me the freedom to choose whilst also giving me the structure of a routine if I feel ready for it.
- don’t spend all day sitting in the same place
Speaking of spending all day on the sofa – if you feel mentally capable, try and move and do different tasks in different places. Even if you just sit and watch YouTube or Netflix in different places, I guarantee that not sitting on the sofa all day will make you feel less sluggish by the end of the day.
I try and start my day sitting at the table I use as a desk, maybe sitting on the sofa for lunch or in the afternoon and then even going up to bed early with my laptop and sitting up there for a bit I feel much better than if I’ve sat on the sofa in the morning and not moved until I go up to bed.
Obviously if you live somewhere bigger than a one bedroom house, it’ll be easier to find some variety but make the most of what you’ve got – if you feel up to it, rearranging your space can be therapeutic too!
The step up from this is actually going for a walk outside or maybe even doing exercise, but when you feel physically ill with headaches and tummy aches the thought of doing anything too physical can just make it worse. Work up to it.
- have regular mealtimes (and try and eat at least 3 fruits/vegetables a day)
Having regular anchor points throughout the day can break it up a little bit and making getting up in the morning feel a little less intimidating. I’m a creature of habit and though I don’t always eat breakfast, I usually start making lunch at 12pm and aim dinner for 6pm not because I’m hungry (though I usually am) but because that’s when I expect to do it.
Listening to your body and knowing when you’re actually hungry is a difficult skill to learn, especially when your body can tell you you’re hungry when in fact you’re bored, thirsty or procrastinating.
Eating healthy and preparing food isn’t always easy, but things like peas and sweetcorn can be done in the microwave, many green beans only need to be boiled for a few minutes and most vegetables can be laid on a baking tray in the oven for 20 minutes and taste amazing with a bit of seasoning. There are lots of ways to eat healthy with little preparation and cheaply and although chucking more chicken nuggets and chips in the oven or a ready meal in the microwave feels easier, if you can, putting in a little effort will do wonders in the long run, even just to prove to yourself that you can do it.
- give yourself time for a routine before bed but don’t put any pressure on yourself to sleep
Many people have trouble with sleep regardless of their mental state, but when you’re low and you can’t sleep, everything feels worse and it becomes this awful cycle of looking at the clock, wishing you were already asleep, lying with your eyes open and starting the circle again.
Having a routine and giving yourself time to wind down, whether it’s a skincare routine, reading a book, watching YouTube videos or playing mindless phone games, the change of pace will hopefully help.
When you do eventually settle down to sleep, don’t put pressure on yourself to fall asleep by a certain time and if you don’t have to, let yourself compensate in the morning. I know I’m fortunate, in a way, at the moment to not be working or have any reason to get up at a certain time, but sleeping until my body needs me to even if it’s much later than I really want to is more important for my mental and physical health in the long run than forcing myself to pretend to be this super productive morning person I can’t be at the moment.
Mental illness is unpredictable and bloody inconvenient at the best of times – but it doesn’t last forever. It is an episode and it will end, however much it feels like it won’t. Learning to deal with your new ‘normal’ in the present, especially in a pandemic – is all anyone can expect from you, including yourself. You are not alone and things will get better.
Thank you for reading – I hope you and your loved ones are happy, healthy and staying safe!