I have been working as a nurse since 2016 and have been around the block working in a lot of different areas. At present I work in a service where I assess people and provide interventions. Mental health nurses are often seen as the ‘jack of all trades’, part therapist, part social worker, part support worker, part advocate and part nurse. I have always had a passion for helping people with their mental health and wellbeing, particularly men’s mental health. I am a man who like most of us had gone through a lot of dark times and the struggles of what it means in being a man navigating this complex world. Every day I speak with men who are struggling and through my career I have supported people at their most unwell and I have sadly been around people who have taken their life. Therefore, if there is something I can do to raise awareness, get men to speak up, feel better about themselves and improve their mental wellbeing, I will do my best.
When someone is going through a difficult, overwhelming and distressing time, a little question we nurses and therapists often ask is; ‘Imagine someone you love is going through the same situation as you, what advice would you give them?’ The idea then would be for you to try the advice on yourself. I’ve mixed it up a bit. As I am bringing a small human male into the world, I have asked myself the question; ‘what advice would I give my son?’. So below is a little list of things I have picked up along the way through my studies, my work and my interactions with amazing people. It is advice I would want my son to have when he’s a bit older, and technically, advice I would give myself. Do I always follow my own advice? Hell no. I am no guru or zen master, I am just human, just like you. But the best we can do is try. Hopefully you’ll be able to take something away from it too.
I just want to add, this list is a just a snippet, is not in priority order and it’s my personal opinion, certainly not medical advice. If you have concerns about your mental health, speaking with your GP is the first port of call. I have tried to condense the key things in a paragraph, which was tough. I could talk so much more about each one and add another dozen, but it would make for a particularly tedious blog article!
Work on your sleep – Get 7-8 hours. Bed is for sleep and sex, not twitter or YouTube. Bed is not for staring at the ceiling and dwelling on past or planning for things that haven’t happened yet that you cannot predict. If you cannot sleep, get up and return to bed when you feel sleepy. Get early morning sun. Taking in that sun is a powerful sleep aid and helps with regulating your 24-hour body clock. Be that guy who is first up enjoying that spring sunrise. Weekend? Go to bed same time and wake up same time most of the time. Drink caffeine before midday only. Energy drinks = no. Limit booze if you can, especially right before bed. Still can’t sleep? Speak to someone about it.
Understand anxiety – Modern life is full of it. Anxiety is just nature’s threat detector, it’s the end of an evolutionary arms race. It’s the fight or flight system. It can make us jump to conclusions and catastrophise and feel awful, that’s because it’s meant to. The same anxiety you are feeling that is stopping you from talking to someone or doing that interview or presentation, is the same feeling our ancestors had when they were low on food and a storm was closing in. It was life and death for them. For us now it’s debilitating, but it’s not going to kill you (unless you are actually in danger in that case let instinct kick in). Every time anxiety wins, you learn that you can’t cope and anxiety is something to be feared. Where you can, win small battles against anxiety, no matter how small. This is where you learn, slowly but surely; ‘I’ve got this’. If you lose at a small battle say; ‘I gave it a go, next time I’ve got this’. Is it impacting your life in a significant way? Speak to someone about it.
Break the cycle of depression and low motivation – Struggling going to the gym? Cannot be bothered to go out? Feeling low? Not enjoying anything? Focus on the here and now and take one small step at time. Do what you can do now, at a push. No matter how small that thing is, its infinitely better than doing nothing. Motivation happens after doing the thing you want to do; think back to time when you kept at something, did you have to motivate yourself to do it every time? Certainly not. Do one small step each day and over days, this can amount to a lot. Imagine a bucket, the fuller your bucket the more content you feel, the more enjoyment you get, the more pleasure and closeness you experience. All our buckets have holes in. If your life has thrown you one too many curve balls, your bucket probably has a few more holes in. When that bucket is empty, that’s when you feel depressed and when its empty, you’ll fill it up and it drains out, and you’re back to square one. The secret is to top it up just a little, most days quicker than it empties. Try and do it even if you don’t feel great and at some point, the more helpful feelings return and you’ll notice that you just won’t need to think about motivation as much. Can’t top that bucket up no matter what you do? Speak to someone about it.
Be mindful with alcohol – Use this rule of thumb; ‘do I feel like shit?’. If the answer is yes, maybe don’t drink. Alcohol is part of our heritage and long held traditions, if you are going to drink, do it as part of a tradition and/or to bring people closer together. A tradition is not every Tuesday night. A memory just came to mind; I once saw a colleague in the alcohol aisle on a Tuesday holding a bottle of spirit, and I asked ‘special occasion?’. The response was ‘yeah, It’s Tuesday’. I often see the danger of alcohol is not the chemical itself, but it’s the behaviour around it, for example if you are feeling awful, overwhelmed and stressed, your body is trying to tell you there is something wrong. Alcohol can remove that emotional pain and stress very quickly. But that stress is still there and tomorrow it will grow and all you’ve learnt is that alcohol gets rid of the stress. Your body will then seek out these fastest ways to get rid of this stress and in the long term…that is one slippery slope. Never go cold turkey without medical help. Still struggling with alcohol? Speak to someone about it.
Resist urges, temptations and breathe – This is a little analogy to understand how to ride urges. Imagine being by the sea, a freezing cold ocean is in front of you and you want go in for a swim. You step in, it is freezing and every fibre of your being says ‘get the hell out’. But if you were to do absolutely nothing, just breathe, your body will quickly acclimatise and the urges disappear. Being human we are the one animal that can do absolutely nothing when every fibre of our being is yelling out to run. This is not just a skill, it can also be a superpower. But like any skill, it is something you practice to get better at and fades with time. Try it out, next time you want to slam a door, smoke another cigarette, or reach for another sugary treat. Do nothing, just breathe and let the urge pass. You’ll find that before long, you can unlock this superpower when you have bigger fish to fry. Still struggling? Have an addiction? Speak to someone about it.
Be part of a tribe – No matter how extrovert or introvert you are, we are human. We were made to be part of a community, a family, a tribe. We’ve spread across the globe and with my very limited evolutionary psychology knowledge I would argue that a shared identity and belonging to a tribe made that happen. Your tribe can be anything, your local CrossFit gym, your family, your friends, your team, your fellow hobby enthusiasts, or a club. You don’t have to be a socialite, and all it may take is just saying hello and resting in the knowledge that you are part of something. A really important lesson of being part of a tribe is that you learn that most people, most of the time are good and have got your back. Yes, sometimes people say things that aren’t helpful or can be a bit annoying, but mostly people mean well and are good. If you don’t have a tribe, you lose out on the experiences and chances to be around good people and to be good to people. There is a lot out there. Still feeling isolated? Speak to someone about it.
So that’s it so far. Being a bit of a jack of all trades, I could go on about a lot more; self-compassion, negative thoughts, mindfulness practice, breathing techniques, exercise, the outdoors, self-esteem, managing stress, hobbies/interests, anger, relationships, drugs, cognitive behavioural therapy techniques, etc…. perhaps that could be for another day.