The Mental Health Toolbox

- 16 Oct, 2020

This is possibly the strangest introductory sentence I’ve ever written, but I love my toolbox.

As a child, a substantial amount of my time was spent with my dad in the shed. Things were rarely thrown away or given up on: everything could be made more stable, repaired, reimagined or made into something completely different if you had the right tools. And my dad’s shed was (and is) a treasure trove of different tools for pretty much any DIY job you can imagine.

I grew up to be ‘the friend who does DIY’. Beds, wardrobes, chairs, lamps, windows…you name it, I’ve built, assembled or fixed it in exchange for a delicious meal. And whenever I’ve moved house, my home has been incomplete without: 1) my books; 2) my rice cooker (it’s a Persian thing); and 3) my toolbox.

The toolbox, then, has an important status in my life. It’s a non-negotiable item. A set of things that keep my house in working order and stop me feeling entirely helpless to deal with things that go wrong. 

In the last few years, as I’ve become increasingly interested in mental wellbeing, I’ve started to think about managing mental health in a similar way. My ‘mental health toolbox’ is a selection of tools that help me keep myself on track and in good working order. And when things get past the point of DIY, then it’s time to call in the professionals (hence my dad supervising me securing a bookshelf to the wall over Skype – no, really).

Unlike a real toolbox, though, a mental health toolbox is very personal. One size does not fit all. And while you’ll probably find a handful of common items (the hammer and screwdrivers of mental health, as it were), there are a myriad things that can make people feel at ease, joyful, calm or secure. Perhaps for you it’s art, or baking. Maybe it’s bashing drums or going swimming in the sea. Music is a big one for a lot of people, but I grew up in a crowded household (also a Persian thing) so I seek silence when I need me-time. 

Ultimately, though, it really doesn’t matter what’s in the box. Yes, there are plenty of studies showing how x, y and z can help with anxiety, mood, resilience, etc. But I’ve come to realise that probably the most powerful tool that we can possess – and what I think yoga has given me most – is self-knowledge. That is, when we take the time to get to know ourselves, to truly understand what affects us both positively and negatively, we feel so much more empowered to help ourselves and to understand when we need help from others. To figure out what helps us to stay balanced, and what helps us to restore balance.

I’m therefore not as interested in telling you what should be in your mental health toolbox as I am in encouraging you to think about what helps you to feel balanced and then to ask if you give yourself enough time for those things. Because the reality is that none of these tools will be any good if you don’t actually use them – and in a busy world where I see people around me juggling work, children, activism, family obligations, studying, social lives and a whole lot more besides, it’s really easy to put yourself at the bottom of the pile.

One thing that’s really helped me to build my toolbox is an exercise I do as part of my journaling. Admittedly, this seems quite intense to a lot of people, though in practice it takes literally two minutes. If you’re data-driven, though, it might just work for you. 

Every night, I do a little checklist of things I’ve done that day, which may have made me feel good (exercise, yoga, meditation, time outdoors…) or may have made me feel either physically unwell (e.g. dairy) or anxious/jittery (caffeine, too much sugar, too much TV…). Over time, this exercise has helped me to identify a lot of my ‘tools’ as well as a lot of my triggers. It’s helped me to make better decisions because it’s a really powerful way of taking responsibility for myself. 

That is absolutely not to say that mental health issues are self-inflicted. It’s merely to say that there is a lot of noise in modern day life, and often we don’t stop to think how much of what has become a daily habit, is actually not serving us (for me: caffeine; binge-watching TV and too much social media). An exercise like this can help us to take a step back and make choices that serve us better.

The above is also not to say that the aim is to stop ourselves feeling ‘negative’ emotions. The reality and richness of life is that we do not always feel okay. And that’s okay. Frankly, the world is a mess and if I didn’t feel sad, angry or anxious about that then I wouldn’t consider myself an engaged citizen of the world. Life throws us challenges. Stress, sadness, grief and disappointment are just as important as happiness and joy. But I believe that when we have a foundation of balance, then we’re better equipped to deal with the downs and less likely to clutch desperately at the ups. We become more resilient and better able to cope with daily stresses, while also becoming better attuned to our own limits and knowing when we need to ask for help.

Good mental health, like most things in life, isn’t a destination. There’s no ‘getting there’ or achieving it as a permanent state. It’s something we constantly work on, using the tools we have. I hope my thoughts have given you some food for thought to build your own mental toolbox and to give yourself the time to use what’s in it. And as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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