This post includes:
- False assumptions and beliefs
- What I've learned
- My current mental health toolkit
- Questions and actions
- Recommended tools and resources
When I try to think back to before I really looked at and started to understand my mental health, there was an essence of assumption that it should be good without any effort. The main state of my mind should be healthy by default and any type of self care or work would be building on top of that.
This was likely matched up with the very limited understanding of health and wellness that I gleamed from school growing up, which focused more heavily on the physical aspects of ourselves — leaving me in the dark about the struggles that I was going through with depression and anxiety as is so common for many teenagers during that time.
The first hurdle was having the words, knowledge and understanding about what it was that I was even experiencing.
Opening up for the first time
As I talk about with The One Project and in my TEDx talk, How Photography Saved My Life, photography was the way for me to start expressing myself around my mental health and start to better understand what I was going through by seeing it from a new perspective.
🔑 It's the understanding and awareness that are the first keys to having a successful toolkit for your mental health because it's the foundation of experimenting, developing and finding what works for you.
Each of us are different in how we may experience these issues, along with what we'll be drawn to do on a regular basis as you'll need to enjoy these tasks for it to be effective and to make it easier to come back to often.
Externalizing it through art, writing it out or talking and having conversations about your mental health (which is where therapy can come into play) allows you to process and gain new perspective. In the beginning, it will be the way that you keep track of your experiments and the exercise of finding the right tools to build your mental toolkit. It also becomes a great way for you to tally and keep track of how different tools work for you and assessing how your toolkit needs to change over time to accommodate changes in your symptoms, lifestyle and stressors.
Overcoming internalized stigma
One of the biggest hurdles that I've had to overcome to better manage my mental health is stigma.
Social stigma is the disapproval of, or discrimination against, a person based on perceivable social characteristics that serve to distinguish them from other members of a society. — via Wikipedia
In the beginning, it was all of the judgement that I assumed would come from speaking about what I was going through. It was the outdated stories that I had internalized from movies, books and media around mental health that only showed extreme examples that were stigmatizing and didn't fit the full reality. There was a lot of fear that I had around talking about these issues and admitting that I was struggling with my mental health, yet taking the leap and pushing past that stigma allowed me to start getting help and gain a better understanding that has transformed my mental health and life in many ways.
Later on in my life, there would be other points where I'd come face to face with more of the stigma around mental health that I'd internalized around going to therapy, taking medication, being hospitalized, and dealing with psychosis. Each of these circumstances challenged me at key points where I needed to reach out and get support for my mental health and it became a battle with myself to push past the stigmatizing stories to see the true reality and receive support.
Every step of this journey to challenge stigma keeps reminding me:
- It's far more common than we think (even issues like psychosis)
- Sometimes we are our own biggest hurdles for getting help and support
- We need better representation of mental health in media to reduce stigma and improve our understanding of different conditions
The more we challenge and release the stigma we've internalized, the more confident we can become in communicating around, managing and accepting our mental health no matter where we're at, so that we can get the help and support we need, along with building a strong toolkit for your mental health.
What is a mental toolkit?
A mental toolkit is a set of tools, habits and routines that you use on a regular basis in order to manage and improve your mental health.
From my experience and what I've heard from psychologists, therapists and other mental health professionals, I believe it's one of the most important things that you can build and develop to gain a better sense of wellness.
This is both in support of and in addition to making sure that the core aspects of your health are covered like healthy eating, sleep and exercise. These are the baselines to ensuring good overall wellness and should always come first.
If you're seriously struggling or in crisis, professional help should always be your first step, however it can't be the only thing that you use or rely on. Many people also need medication for their mental health and having a mental toolkit you're confident in can help to improve your overall wellbeing along the recommendations from a mental health professional.
By establishing a strong mental toolkit, you can reduce the severity, frequency and time that you struggle with symptoms. Instead of getting caught up and spiralling down further, you can act with confidence and put your effort towards tools that will help to bring you back to a better state.
My current mental health toolkit
This is an ideal template that I strive towards and an important piece of using this toolkit has been removing any additional stress or pressure about always accomplishing each and every part of it. It can become counterproductive to stress over self care, so there are lots of times that I don't come close to this, which is OK.
It's also meant to be fluid and flexible to accommodate where I'm at. At times I will need more self care if I'm dealing with more stress than usual and if I'm busy and in a good space I may not need as much to maintain that. However I keep all of these in mind to be able to tap into them whenever I need.
The most important piece is holding this toolkit in your mind as you navigate your life, so that you have the knowledge of what to do when the unexpected arises and you hit hard times with your mental health.
My ideal mental toolkit:
- Meditation (about 20 mins. to 1 hour every day) - I've been meditating for more than 10 years now, with varying degrees of length and frequency, however it's been a key part of my mental toolkit from the beginning. I find that it helps to relieve any anxiety, reduce stress and put me into a more calm and centered state that is more present. Studies have shown that it has positive effects to help you manage both depression and anxiety.
- Yoga (1 to 2 times per week) - Personally, I've found that yoga is a great way for me to achieve both physical strength, regular sweating and exercise, while also improving my flexibility.
- Floatation therapy (once per week) - Floating (also known as floatation therapy or sensory deprivation) is something that I've included in my toolkit for more than 7 years now and it has had a major effect on reducing stress, anxiety, and depression for me, while also adding many other positive effects like improved sleep, increased energy and a greater state of calm. Studies are showing very promising positive effects for mental health, including anxiety, depression, PTSD and more.
- Wim Hof breathing (6 rounds about 3 times per week) - This is a technique that has come and gone, and is a recent addition back into my mental toolkit that I've started pairing with my meditations (doing this right before I meditate). I find that it helps to increase my overall energy, relieve stress/anxiety and deepen my sense of calm. You can learn more about the method here.
- Exercise (2 to 3 times per week, ideally sweat everyday) - While I strive to exercise to get my heart pumping and my body sweating everyday, I find the good balance I need is around 2 to 3 times per week. Anything less than this and I start to feel more negative effects creep in.
- Journalling (one page per day) - Journalling has been another long time habit in my mental toolkit that I've done for more than 10 years at varying degrees of frequency. I find it helps me to let go of stress and anxiety each day by processing and reflecting on what's been bouncing around in my mind.
- Therapy (weekly) - Regular therapy is the latest addition to my mental toolkit and it's been a huge help for me to make big changes to both my mental health and also core patterns that have kept me struggling in the past. It can take some time to find a therapist who's the right fit and the cost can be a barrier for many, but the investment is well worth it.
It's important to note this toolkit listed above is the result of years of experimentation and refinement. There are many tools I have tried that didn't suit me or didn't achieve the necessary results for my mental health that I removed, so don't get discouraged during your process of finding what works.
Another aspect of your toolkit is to take note of what to avoid as well. What are the negative habits or circumstances that you notice making your symptoms worse? As you gain knowledge in this area, you'll also want to do your best to avoid these, while also adding in the positive habits that help improve your mental state.
Building your own mental toolkit
Below are some questions that you can use to help in your process of developing your own mental toolkit:
- What are some of the habits I currently do on a daily or weekly basis?
- What habits catch my interest and fit my personality the most?
- Are there habits that have helped in the past that I have forgotten?
- How often and how much of a habit do I need for it to be most effective?
- Am I getting enough exercise every week? How can I best achieve this?
- Do I have any negative habits that I should work on replacing?
- What is the right mix of habits and tools that I need to do each week?
- What is the right amount of challenge without adding too much stress?
- Are there certain times when my symptoms worsen? Is this linked to anything? (ex. Anxiety gets out of control if I have too much caffeine.)
I hope that this will help guide you in creating or improving your mental toolkit to get to a better, more consistent state of wellness for your mind, body and life!
Recommended Tools and Resources