Photo: Rory Macleod/Flickr
I have bipolar disorder (manic depression), but I live a happy, healthy, stable life. I'm proud of myself for this, because for a long time, my life was the complete opposite. For the better part of four years I suffered from ghastly bouts of depression, which led to alcoholism, drug abuse, medicine-induced psychosis, near suicide attempts and multiple hospitalizations. My life was a train wreck, but I was committed to recovering, and over time, I learned how to manage my illness so effectively that it doesn't negatively impact upon my life anymore.
Below are 14 self-care practices that I learned from various therapists, doctors, self-help books, athletes, artists and my parents that helped pull me out of the abyss and lead me to happiness. They're relevant to everyone - regardless if you're suffering from a mental illness or not.
1. Don't worry about things that are beyond your control
Few things come more naturally to us than worrying, but once we learn not to stress about things that are out of our hands, it frees up a lot of energy that can be spent on something more positive. Whenever I find myself worrying, I ask myself if what I'm fretting about is within my control or not, and if it's not, I push it out of my mind. This can be very hard to do at first, but with practice, you do get better at it.
2. Don't speak badly about yourself - because you're listening
If you were to talk to your best friend in the same way you talk to yourself, would your friend be OK with that? Or would they be hurt, offended or angry? If it's some variation of the latter, then you need to work at being much kinder to yourself. For me, this involved getting therapy.
3. Surround yourself with positive people as opposed to negative ones
To varying extents, we are all influenced by the people around us. If we surround ourselves with positive, inspiring people, then we tend to feel positive and inspired. If we surround ourselves with negative, downbeat people, then we tend to feel negative and downbeat. During my recovery, I'd constantly meet people with a mental illness who were determined to fight it and return to living a happy life - this was so inspiring, and I loved being around these people. On the other hand, I'd also meet a lot of people who instead of focusing on getting better, chose to be bitter about their illness - they'd complain that it was unfair that they were suffering, that no form of treatment worked even though they'd hardly tried any, and in general, they just wallowed in self-pity. I steered clear of those people, because they'll do nothing but bring you down.
4. Treat your body like a temple - eat well, sleep well and exercise frequently
This is one of the most important aspects of proper self-care, particularly if you suffer from a mental illness - see the post I wrote a little while ago where I talk about 6 things you should do each day if you suffer from depression.
5. Don't be a prisoner of what other people think
You need to make decisions in your life that are best for you, and if you let yourself be influenced by the prejudices, misconceptions or irrelevant opinions of others, it has the potential to seriously impact your happiness. For example, I've come into contact with thousands of people with depression through my Depression Is Not Destiny Campaign, and on a daily basis I see people who don't ask for help because they're afraid of being judged. I understand how debilitating the stigma surrounding mental illness can be, but it's important to realize that not seeking help will leave you trapped in depression. And not getting treatment when you need it is not taking good care of yourself.
When people ask me how to free themselves from what others think of them, I always quote something Dr Seuss said that's forever stuck with me: "those who matter don't mind and those who mind don't matter". I really believe this, which is why I'm not phased by what others think of me.
6. Be assertive
Part of caring for yourself is not allowing other people to walk all over you. Manuel J Smith's book When I Say "No" I feel Guilty helped me come a long way in this regard.
7. Don't live in denial
When we're not self-aware, it's nearly impossible to take good care of ourselves. When we're in denial about, for example, being overweight, or having a mental illness, or having an addiction, it's impossible to seek the help we need.
8. Work at letting go of your anger
As the saying goes, holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. The only person it hurts is you.
9. Recognize that your career is not the only thing that matters in life
It's important, sure - but don't work so hard at making a living that you forget to make a life. When you're too career-focused you often neglect other things that matter - like your family and your health. Part of taking good physical and emotional care of yourself is leading a balanced life.
10. Have goals and strive to achieve them.
When we don't have goals, we tend to get unfocused. Set goals for your health and work towards achieving them - such as losing three kilos before the end of the year, or going to the gym twice a week.
11. Ruthlessly eliminate excuses
When we make excuses not to do things that we know are good for us, then we're not taking the best care of ourselves. Let me give you an example - being a very active mental health advocate, I constantly witness people say things like, "I know exercise is good for me, but it's impossible for me to do because I don't have any energy". Now don't get me wrong - I sure as hell know that depression can make you feel extremely lethargic and zap all your energy - but saying that it's "impossible" isn't exactly true, either. Out of the thousands and thousands of people I've met with depression, I've never encountered anyone who literally spends 24 hours a day in bed. At the absolute, absolute, absolute minimum, they get up and go to the bathroom a couple of times a day. And if you can walk to the bathroom, you can walk down the street or around the block - and studies show that even a little bit of exercise like this can lift your mood. Now, I'm not saying it's easy - walking about the block can be a real challenge for someone in the throes of a debilitating depression - but it's not impossible, either. So ruthlessly eliminate excuses and don't sell yourself short. You can do it, and you do yourself a great disservice by convincing yourself that you can't.
12. Congratulate yourself when you do something good
To continue with the above example, if you do manage to go for that walk around the block, then give yourself a pat on the back. Self-affirmation in this context is a healthy thing, and it can motivate you to repeat the action again.
13. Don't victimize yourself or ruminate on things that go wrong
I developed my bipolar disorder from a doctor's negligence. I was 21 at the time, and was prescribed an antidepressant that wasn't meant for someone so young, which had a freak reaction with my brain and led me to develop my illness. When I first heard the news, I knew I had two choices - I could have a pity party and ruminate about how incompetent my doctor was and complain about how much my life sucked that I now had bipolar disorder; or, I could just accept that it happened and channel all my energy into doing everything in my power to recover so that I could go on to live a happy, healthy life. Straight away, I chose to do the latter. Bad things happen, and feeling sorry for ourselves won't get us anywhere. We need to move on and be proactive about taking care of ourselves instead of doing nothing and forever feeling like a victim.
14. Take responsibility for your health
If you suffer from a mental illness like bipolar disorder, it's not going to go away or get under control by itself. You have to be proactive. You have to work hard. You have to fight. It's really hard to beat a mental illness, but it's even harder for a mental illness to beat a person who never gives up. Recovery is possible, but you have to take responsibility for it. Every night before you go to sleep, ask yourself, "what steps did I take today to help me recover from my illness?" You should always be able to have at least one answer.
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