Looking after your mental health by Alistair Livingstone

As we all come to terms with having to isolate to protect ourselves and others from the coronavirus, club member Alistair Livingstone has written a blog about his own experiences.  We thank Alistair for his honesty and insight into mental health.

Looking after your mental health during tough times….

I wanted to write a short blog for you all!   As some of you will know, I had a very tough time around 18 months ago with severe anxiety, depression and PTSD. It taught me an awful lot about my mental health and how much it can impact on every aspect of life. Fortunately I am now through it and I’ve recovered – so much so that I often give presentations and talk about my experiences.


I’m sure that we’d all agree that the current situation we find ourselves in is scary and some people will be feeling particularly anxious and perhaps struggling to cope. Add into that the fact that you are not able to do things that you enjoy, for example coming to the club and meeting friends, it’s a tricky time for us all.

I must say right from the beginning, I’m not a great fan of ‘survivors’ who then tell people what they should do. I’d never tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do. Having said that, I lived with crippling mental health issues for almost a year of my life and I’m going to share some of the things that helped me. Feel free to take it or leave it as one size definitely doesn’tfit all when it comes to mental health.

The one thing that helped me more than anything else with my mental health was people being compassionate. And that included me being kind to myself! That doesn’t mean agreeing with everyone or even liking them, but it did mean caring about how they felt. When I started struggling to cope I was my own harshest critic. I’d often tell myself to “get a grip” and “pull yourself together!” That didn’t help me, it made me feel worse! Once I became more understanding with how I was feeling I suddenly felt a whole lot better.

When other people were kind to me, even the smallest gestures suddenly became the difference between a good day and a bad day. It made me feel less anxious and not so overwhelmed. I’ve thought a lot about that since we’ve been put into lockdown. The calls and texts that people make are probably far more important than any of us really realise. I guess the Thursday night show of appreciation for the NHS and front line workers is another good example.

The good thing about compassion is it’s a two way street! I found that when I showed others compassion it also made me feel better about myself. Maybe set yourself the aim of doing something kind every single day – call that friend who is on their own, send a text, give your neighbour a wave – it’ll make the world a lot better place and you may not realise just how important it is to them.

For a year very few people at the club knew I was really poorly. I decided, for some reason, that I had to keep it secret and not tell anyone, even some friends and people I’d known for years. The result was that the people who would have been there to support me and help me through my struggles didn’t know! I learnt a valuable lesson which was that I should have been more honest about how I was feeling. It really is okay to not be okay. If you’re struggling with the current situation, tell people and ask for some help. My experience was that every single person was kind, supportive and caring. I wish that I hadn’t suffered in silence for so many months.

Another thing that I found, particularly when I was off work for several months, was how important it was to get into a routine. Days used to drag, a bit like now as they are all much the same! I didn’t go to work for 4 months and on some days I was barely able to leave the house. I’d get into a routine and try and stick to it. It gave my days a bit of structure and it meant that I didn’t just drift along with too much time to dwell on things.

I found meeting friends a huge positive – there really is no replacement for human interaction with people you like. Now that’s not possible at the moment but we can still keep in touch. I’ve recently started arranging zoom catch ups with friends. Zoom is an interactive video conferencing app that means you can see and hear who you are talking to. You can have as many friends along as you like! In the same way that I’d have arranged to meet them for a coffee at the club, I’ll now meet them for a zoom! It’s easy to use and is a great way to stay on touch (other video conferencing apps are available!).

This one is even more tricky at the moment, but I tried to focus on positive things. The coverage of the pandemic is scary and sad and truly shocking. In the same way as I did when I was really poorly I limited my exposure to bad news. I wanted to focus on positive things, things that would help me.

That’s not to say that we can all live in our own world because lots of us are being badly affected by the pandemic, but I found taking control of what I was listening to and watching made a huge difference. I came off social media, I’d watch a lunchtime news and then I’d not watch any more news all day and I spent time with positive people who were fun to be around. I’d not spend hours talking about things that were depressing or negative. I’d even force myself to watch something funny before I went to bed every single night. Otherwise you’ll watch the 10 o’clock news and then go to sleep worrying!

Remember that this is a moment in time. I work in a school and on the last day before we closed it was the saddest of things to see. The initial excitement that the children felt at the prospect of an extended ‘holiday’ soon evaporated and realisation set in, this was serious. As I said to my year group of 11 and 12 year olds, “this is a moment in time and time stands still for nobody, not even Mr Livingstone!”

When I was poorly I set dates in the future and imagined what I’d be doing then – in six months, in a year, in five years. Any crisis has a habit of making you feel like you’re frozen in time, like the clock has stopped. That’s certainly how I felt; it was as though my life had shuddered to a halt. I suspect some people feel like that now, particularly as significant events are now not happening – holidays, school terms, sporting events and even family gatherings. But all of these things will happen in the future so get some dates in the diary. We don’t know when the lockdown will end but end it will so even if the dates change, start looking to the future. The club will re-open and we will meet friends, play sport, take exercise and socialise. It may be this spring, if not it will be this summer, if not it will be this autumn. What is for sure is that it will happen. As I said to the children, “we will look back in years to come and remember what a strange time this was.”

Finally, prevention is better than cure. I’ve spoken to a lot of my ex-colleagues about my experience with mental ill health and the question I get asked the most is, “did you see it coming?” I didn’t. But  in truth I think it’s because I wasn’t looking for it! Now I reflect back, there were signs that things were going wrong with my mental health and had I realised I suspect I’d have got some help and not have been so poorly. If I had my time again, knowing what I know now, I’d have sought some help long before I finally went bang. If you think you’re struggling then there’s a lot of people out there who will help.

As I say, these are things that helped me when I was in a pretty dark place and suffering with my mental health. The current situation we’re in is like nothing we’ve experienced before and it will affect all of us. If you’re finding things tough at the moment then maybe just have a think about what may work for you.

 

So, in summary.

1. Be compassionate to others and to yourself
2. Tell people how you’re feeling
3. Get into a routine
4. Meet people (remotely!)
5. Focus on positive things and limit the negatives
6. This is a moment in time, and it will pass so look to the future
7. Prevention is better than cure

We are all in this together and like so many others at the sports club, I will help in any way I can.


Take care of yourselves and be kind!

Ali Livingstone