When you’re trying to keep a hold on your mental health, you probably have a daily list of ‘feel-good’ things you do to keep on track. It might be certain foods, or little rituals, particular songs or a type of exercise you do to boost the serotonin, get the endorphins flowing and keep the anxiety or depression at bay.
But one day you might wake up and realise that the things that once made you feel good, aren’t quite having the same effect anymore. And that can be quite perturbing for anyone who feels like their mental health is on shaky ground at the best of times. It’s like being like an addict whose body becomes tolerant to a certain level of alcohol or drugs. So, what happens when you can’t get that wholesome wellbeing high and what should we do when our carefully mapped out mental wellbeing plan suddenly goes wonky and doesn’t work anymore?
I had this exact problem very recently. For the past year, I had worked out an optimum wellbeing plan that made me feel good and slotted into my work and family life. I would wake up early and meditate; then sometime during the day around work and clients, I would make sure I did a brisk 30-minute walk; and then at some point I’d slot in 15 minutes of yoga. During the day I would also try and eat as well as I could (with no judgement!), drink lots of water and take my vitamins. I would also go to a Buddhist meeting once a week for lectures and meditation. Sound too good to be true? Yeah, well it was.
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In all honesty, once I’d decided on my wellbeing action plan, it took about a year to finally manage to do all these things without an inordinate amount of effort. On the plus side, the bad habits I used to have (chugging back cooking sherry while making the evening meal or scoffing numerous custard tarts in one go) gradually fell by the wayside when I realised that none of that stuff actually made me feel very good. And the good habits, I’m happy to say, really did end up becoming like second nature. It was no longer a chore to go on a walk anymore, because I found that I actually really enjoyed doing it at the time and enjoyed how it made me feel afterwards.
So far so good. But it all started going pear-shaped when I attended my regular meditation meeting. Now I never thought you could have a bad experience of meditation. I mean, surely it’s a pretty safe occupation, right? You sit there in peace and stillness. You try not to think thoughts. You concentrate on your breathing. What’s not to like?
The worst I thought that could happen was that you got frustrated if you couldn’t relax and put an end to the brain chatter. But on this particular occasion, I found myself almost at the point of panic. It was an hour-long session which was entirely silent – no music, no chanting, just sitting there in a dim room with twenty other people with our eyes closed. No change from any other time I’d been there.
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But the problem was that this time my mouth decided to produce inordinate amounts of saliva. I have no idea why but I felt like I had an overflowing mouthful of water that I needed to swallow down every 30 seconds and unfortunately, I have a particularly loud swallow which sounds like bath water going down a plug hole. I began to get really worried that the other meditators could hear this and get annoyed by it. Suddenly this predicament made me feel extremely self-conscious and the more I thought about it, the more my mouth filled with water and the more I needed to swallow, and the more embarrassed I got. Until in the end I felt like I weird version of Pavlov’s dog who salivated every time I heard a meditation bell chime.
After about 15 minutes of this I started to get quite panicky. What was the point of sitting there trying to concentrate and empty my mind when all I could think of was worrying about dribbling? I wanted to head for the door – but then if I did, I’d really be disturbing everyone, not just the few people sitting round me who could hear my massive gulping. I decided to stay put and ride it out but I have to say it was the longest hour I’ve ever spent and it seriously made me think about investing in one of those saliva suckers that dental nurses use.
I tried one more group meditation meeting after that experience but I ended up with the same problem again and the recurring panicky feeling. I know it’s a psychosomatic thing but it properly affected my ability to meditate in a group.
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Although, it hasn’t put me off meditation solo-style in the slightest, what it did do was remind me that it’s no good pushing yourself into sticking with a practice if it isn’t working anymore. So, I just had to cross that one off the list, for the time being. Group meditation? A big no-no for me at this time.
But then another of my wellbeing staples went up the swanee. Yoga. I’d been doing yoga for about 15 years – first of all in classes and then, as I’d gained more experience, on my own using a variety of poses that I knew suited my body. I loved the way it stretched my body, easing out any muscle tension, but also the way it slowed me down, calmed me down and taught me how to breathe fully and become centred in the present moment.
There hadn’t been a week that went by without me doing some kind of yoga stretching, especially when my back felt locked up due to work. But I began to feel like my yoga practice was just another thing on my to-do list, and when I did do it my body – which had started its downward slide into menopausal territory – was feeling pretty grumbly about it. Some of the poses seemed like they were hurting my back instead of stretching it and I would sometimes end a yoga session feeling worse than when I started. I tried to change poses, but the same feelings kept happening - a grumbly body and a grumpy mind.
However, being the stubborn person I am - and determined to keep my wellbeing plan on track - I just ignored what was staring me in the face, and blindly carried on. Until I spoke to an osteopath friend who actually said that he wanted to ban Pilates and yoga due to all the injuries they seemed to cause. Now I happen to think that’s taking it a bit too far, but it did remind me of a massage client of mine who despite having a serious wrist injury still insisted on going to her yoga class where she would injure it even more by doing downward dog poses. She’d got into the mindset that she absolutely had to do yoga because it was what she’d always done to help keep her body in shape and her mind at peace and she would have preferred to have caused herself permanent and lasting injury rather than give up yoga. It made me realise that I was doing exactly the same thing – it had become a habit but rather than it being a good habit that had once made me feel good, it had turned sour and I had to recognise that.
It made me feel slightly sad to banish my yoga mat to the corner but once I’d done it I felt suddenly extremely liberated. Yoga had become a chore to me, and it was time to shake up my wellbeing plan and find something else – perhaps swimming? Or maybe not. Maybe the walking and the solo meditation was enough? What this whole experience taught me was that as human beings we are subject to change. Our bodies change, our lifestyles change, our jobs change and our needs change. If we are to stay fully connected to a plan to help our mental health, then we have to be fully mindful of what exactly makes us feel good in that moment. This means that our plans have to adapt day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. Don’t force yourself to complete a ritual just because you feel you have to, or because you will feel judged if you don’t. If it makes you feel good, do it. And if it doesn’t, then for god’s sake stop. Otherwise you could end up like me, with a bad back and a mouthful of saliva with nowhere to spit….
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