Thursday, August 10, 2017

A poem about joy

Creative self-expression can be a really good way to spend free time and maintain good mental health. To this end I recently composed the following poem, which I entered into an Australian poetry competition on the topic of joy (I didn't win).

Joy: Lost and Found

Something's distorted 
The newspaper reported
Executive pay 
A thousand times minimum wage
It's what I'm worth say
The kings of the day
While toilet cleaners 
And hands making sweatshop sneakers
Keep the world turning. 

Shallowness is the new disease
Accessing what we want with ease
Seeking deeper truths competes
With breaking news and celeb tweets
Beauty queens on digital screens
Keep men eternally in their teens
And make women feel ugly.

There's been no progress 
In Canberra or congress
Where short term decisions 
Outwit long term visions
And election results read 
‘A plague on both your houses’.

The young lady opens a letter
Three years a war refugee
Living in rural Australia
Congrats on perm residency
Up the road is a struggling farmer
Wireless on as he cleans a silo
My crops might have failed for the past three years
But thank heaven it’s not Aleppo.

In the school yard the boys' fight is over
Shirts torn and faces dirt-ridden
As they each learn the valuable lesson
Of forgiving and being forgiven 
Upstairs the teacher inspires
Though doesn’t realise her impact
Explaining the twentieth century
And humans remaining intact.

In the psych wing of the hospital 
A glimmer of hope begins
In the mind of a suffering soldier 
Whose problems aren't with his limbs
In the east wing of the hospital 
A newborn child cries
And like they did in Bethlehem
Mother and son meet eyes.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Four keys to beating depression

One of my favourite documentary shows is Air Crash Investigations. Each episode recounts a plane crash from recent years or decades and tells the story of the investigation into what happened and why. Time and again, the investigators conclude that it is rarely a single problem that causes an air disaster, but rather a combination or “cascade” of factors combine to result in a calamity.

The same can often be said for falling into depression. Lots of seemingly little things can contribute to a personal emotional crash. The good news from this observation is that small adjustments to how I think or behave can go a long way to preventing a depressive episode.

Here are four attitudes and behaviours that can help anyone to maintain good mental health and keep those susceptible to depression from going into a nosedive, or help with pulling out of one.

1. Manage the spikes

Being able to see the bigger picture is very important for all of us, especially if we are under stress and have a tendency to be anxious or glum. Think of any given time period in your life whether it be a day, a week, a month or year. If you were to plot how you felt on a graph (assuming you were in reasonable health) there will likely be mostly steadiness, shallow waves, and a few spikes of distress. How we handle these spikes can make a big difference to how things play out. For me, half the battle is won once I recognize I'm in a spike of distress, that the world isn’t ending, and it will inevitably pass. (See my article titled This Too Shall Pass for more insight into managing spikes).

2. Accept that which you cannot change

Most of us could admit to wasting plenty of mental energy fighting a reality we didn’t like having to deal with. I’m talking about more than simply wishing something wasn't so. This is the stewing or brooding type of cognition that perpetuates fear or anger and doesn’t allow me to acknowledge the given circumstance for what it is and move on.

This is much easier said than done, especially when it comes to life changing events or developments that lead to hardship and/or heartbreak. Nevertheless, the sooner we come to grips with our circumstance and consciously acknowledge that we can’t change the past, the sooner we can focus on what we can do to proceed healthily with positive motivation.

3. Be organized

Put simply, being organized with your life minimizes unnecessary stress. This is especially true in the age we live in where there is so much to juggle and seemingly so little time to take a breath.

I liken the brain’s operating capacity to working memory (known as RAM) in a computer. If I ask my computer to do too many things at once (e.g. having 15 web browsers open that are all buffering or downloading media), it reaches a threshold before it begins to slow down how quickly it does everything. This is because my computer has only so much RAM. The same goes for the brain. In my experience, being poorly organized leads to having too many considerations going on at once and pretty soon I feel overwhelmed, lose confidence and focus.

One example of minimising my brain’s working memory burden is setting reminders. I like to use the personal calendar on my mobile phone to remind me of appointments and errands I need to run, and the same goes for my work calendar for meetings and meeting deadlines. Being organized will look different for each individual, but to whatever degree is practical for you, it is worth investing time to this. (See this article for more insights into managing time shortage and anxiety.)

4. Be healthily occupied

How we spend our time has a direct impact on our mental health. While this may seem obvious, it has been my experience that having a conscious focus on what I am doing and why is very helpful in making decisions on how to occupy myself at any given point in the day or week.

To be sure, many people don’t have much discretionary time if they for example have a demanding job or are raising young children. Yet even in these cases, making decisions about boundaries to work hours and sharing the child minding with one’s partner ought to be made with an eye to what is sustainable for your mental health. What’s more, even how a busy person spends their free time can have a decisive impact on his or her overall mood.

In the digital age we live in it is very easy to treat the mobile phone as simply an extension of one’s right hand, constantly checking it and scrolling through the latest news and social media feeds even when walking down the street or in the company of someone else. This puts the mind in a constant state of distraction (think of my RAM analogy) and is the opposite of being mindful.

The last thing I’ll say about this is the value of making time for stillness, reflection and prayer. The Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac once noted that because we live in a time of spiritual aridity, “the vital equilibrium between action and contemplation has been lost, to the apparent profit of the first, but for the very same reason, to its detriment”. If this was true at the time of writing 30 years ago, how much more so today. The video below provides some insight into the value of making one's inner life a priority.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

New website

It has been over a year since my last post for this blog, which reflects a touch of laziness on my part, but also that a fair bit has happened over that time keeping me away from writing. I've just created a new website focused on faith called "on this rock", and made the first post about my journey to becoming Catholic. Why not check it out?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Reflections on the Sydney siege aftermath

It’s been a frightening and tragic 24 hours for people living in Sydney in the wake of the siege that took place in the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place. My hope is that in a small way I might be able contribute positively to the online environment and the mental health and wellbeing of anyone experiencing the range of emotions one feels after events like this.

The evening before the siege I happened to be watching one of my favourite episodes of the political drama series The West Wing (Noël, episode 10, season 2). Set in the days leading up to Christmas, the episode focuses on Josh Lyman (one of the lead characters) and his coming to terms with having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Earlier in the season Josh was critically injured by political extremists in an assassination attempt on President Jed Bartlet. Once Josh recovered from the physical wounds he seemed to be fine, but in this episode we observe the process of Josh exhibiting symptoms of what turns out to be PTSD.

Fortunately his friends see that something isn’t right and seek assistance from mental health professionals. They are able to work with Josh and bring his emotional suffering to light, make a diagnosis and enable the healing process to begin.

Here are four brief points I would like to apply from this episode combined with my own experience of coping with distressing events:

1. It is always OK to share with someone you trust how you are feeling in the aftermath of a tragic event, regardless of whether you are personally involved or are 10,000 miles away (as was the case with me when the 9/11 attacks triggered me to have a panic attack). 

2. It is wise to limit how much media you consume about the tragic event. Avoid media focused on speculation and finger pointing (e.g. criticism of the NSW police and legal system). 

3. Mental health professionals are trained to provide assistance to whatever degree might assist you if you think you might benefit from it. Many companies and government departments have confidential employee assistance programs with a hotline you can call to speak to a counselor. The online resource mindhealthconnect is an easy way to find mental health and wellbeing information, support and services (including free services) from Australia's leading health providers

4. If you happen to be feeling fragile right now, take heart from knowing that you are not alone in what you are going through - you’re not going crazy, people experience and recover from mental difficulties all the time.

I thought I would finish as usual with a music video which I have found to be therapeutic when going through hard times - music is a great healer in my experience.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The keys to mental health recovery

While there are many facets to successfully managing a recovery from an episode of depression or anxiety, the good news from my own experience is that there is an overarching simplicity to it. If I had to summarise I would say the key to my recovery and long-term health management has been a mixture of persistence, discipline, and inspiration.

In terms of persistence, two good examples from my own experience have been my approach to getting professional help and my attitude towards medication. Both can be highly sensitive topics for someone coming to terms with mental illness and therefore easily dismissed as being "just too hard" or "not worth it". I have needed to persist with seeking out the right help because the first doctor/therapist I saw was definitely not the right one for me, but once I did find someone suitable my health and wellbeing improved dramatically. Likewise with medication I’ve struggled at times with the process of trial-and-error (doctor supervised) and side-effects, but again my persistence with finding the right type and level of medication has paid massive dividends for my quality of life.

Regarding discipline, I see looking after my body and mind as fundamental to my health. This means I exercise most days of the week, I am intentional about what I eat and drink and make sure I get a good night’s sleep. I found these basic areas a great starting point to begin managing my condition.

Regarding inspiration, there is no hard and fast formula to finding it because everyone is different and it’s personal. From my own experience, relationships have been a key source of motivation and hope. The input of family members and friends have been indispensible to weathering the tough times and celebrating the good moments. There has also been a central spiritual component to my story, with prayer and reflection offering me solace and the opportunity to slow down from the break-neck pace the world can easily railroad us into.

Inspiration can and will come in many forms and from places you do not expect it. I can’t tell you how important things like movies, music and art have at times been to lifting my spirits or helping me to persevere with the difficulties of day-to-day life.

One important point I would like to make is that early intervention for mental health issues is so critical. Had my problems been identified sooner I would not have had the depth of crisis that saw me hospitalised and might have minimised the resulting long span of time it took me to recover. What my story does show, however, is that no matter how bad things get there’s support to help you overcome the obstacles that come with mental illness.

The good news is that how you feel when times are hard is not how you will always feel. Sometimes the darkest hour of the night is the one just before the dawn.

The video clip below is a beautiful song called Man Of Sorrows. It is one of the names given to Jesus in the bible, and is a title which I believe makes His life and message particularly relevant to those suffering from mental illness, as indeed it has for me.