Here are my top ten tips for recovering from mental illness (particularly depression and anxiety). Tell me any really good tips I’ve missed out in the comments. They’re not commandments, just what worked for me — feel free to disagree.
1) Know your enemy
If you have a particular condition or group of conditions, research them and know them. Know your enemy: know the kind of negative thoughts and behaviour patterns you might fall into, and watch out for them. Don’t let your condition lie to you or control you. Instead, learn how to manage it, and minimise its control over your life.
Go on to support sites and see how the condition affects different people. Go on to reputable health and psychology websites and research what sorts of therapy seem to work well with it, and where you might find those therapies. Learn to be your own doctor. Recognise the thoughts and attitudes that are messing you up and causing you suffering. You’re probably all familiar with the CBT bingo list of cognitive distortions. Get to know your own particular biases, and watch out for them, guard against them.
2) Your thoughts are not ‘you’
If you have a mental illness, the thoughts in your head will sometimes cause you pain. And then some of us will freak out at having those thoughts and being a rotten or weak person. Thoughts are just thoughts. We don’t have to let them bully us or cause us pain. We can choose not to listen to them. We can say to ourselves: “I refuse to let those old negative thoughts cause me suffering any more”. When we stop believing in negative thoughts, we take away their power over us. We can raise our negative thoughts and beliefs over us like a God, and hand them a whip to beat us. Or we can choose not to believe them, not to give them power over us. We can free ourselves from the prisons we have constructed for ourselves.
3) We are habitual creatures. Changing habits takes long-term effort
Human personalities are bundles of automatic habits, lit up by a small ray of conscious thought. We can shine that ray onto our habits, think if they’re working for us, and if not, we can change our habits.
Our personalities are always changing, all the way through our life. That’s the good news. Neuroscientists call it “neuro-plasticity” — our ability to re-wire ourselves. The habits we grew up with are not written in stone for eternity. We can change them. But you have to work hard, challenging the bad old habits of thought, challenging the bad old habits of behaviour, facing your fears, and going through some painful moments. It takes energy and effort to change yourself but we can, in fact, change ourselves much more than we typically think.
Change is slow — it happens over month and years. But then you look back and see how far you’ve come.
Part of Tip 3 is keeping track of our progress. Our intuitions about whether we’re getting better or not are often wrong. So we need to keep track of our progress more objectively and accurately. Don’t focus on the day-to-day fluctuations, focus on the long-term trend.
You win some battles, you lose some battles, but are you winning the war? Keep track of your progress in a journal or on smartphone apps, keep track of your depression levels, for example, or your binge-eating, or how often you get panic attacks, or how often you are getting out to see your friends. Be scientific in your approach to mental health recovery. Keep track of your success in reinforcing good habits while weakening bad ones.
4) Focus on what you can control, while accepting for the time being what you can’t
Be efficient in your energy. Focus your energy on what you can control and change. With the things you can’t immediately change, learn to shrug and say “f*ck it”. Lots of things will happen to us in life, and we don’t always have a choice over the people we meet or the situations we find ourselves in. But we do have a choice how we respond to them. Likewise, our childhoods are not our “fault”. But our adult lives are now our responsibility.
Staying sane and mentally healthy in this world involves recognising the limits of our control. We’re in a big, complex world and we only have limited control over it — over the economy, the weather, the government, other people, our friends, even our own bodies. If we fixate on things beyond our control, we’ll make ourselves feel helpless, angry, paranoid, insecure and disempowered. Instead, we can focus on what we can control, even if it’s only small things. Here’s a nice quote from Albert Ellis, which my housemate just sent me:
The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny.
5) Get support
You can’t do it all on your own. You need help and support. This is the fight of your life, and you need a team in your corner. Tell your family what you’re going through. Tell some close friends. Be careful who you confide in though — not everyone you tell will be helpful. If they’re not helpful or sympathetic, go easy on them — they’re probably a bit frightened, or just ignorant. Find a local support group. Find a good therapist. Find a good support site and make contact with the more useful and positive voices on that site. Find stories of people who have come through the condition you are going through — then get in contact with them and ask for advice. And share your successes as well as your setbacks with other people. Celebrate your victories with your team.
6) Let go of the shame
Mental illness is as normal as physical illness. You wouldn’t feel ashamed or mortified if you had flu, for example, or cancer. So why feel ashamed if you have a period of mental illness? A common statistic suggests that one in four suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives. but in fact, just about everyone will have at least one period of mental instability in their lives at some point, even if it’s not a diagnosable condition. There is nothing shameful about mental illness. In fact, facing mental illness with dignity and courage is morally laudable — it’s an achievement — particularly if you then use your experience to help other people going through tough times.
7) Think of others, fight for others
Getting over mental illness isn’t just about you — it’s about all the other people struggling with poor mental health. As sufferers from it, we’re in position to become experts, front-line correspondents from the trenches. So keep notes, get informed, share your experience, and if you get out of the labyrinth, go back and help other people get out. Remember how much it hurt, and don’t forget there are people still hurting. Here’s a quote from JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye that I find inspiring:
Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them — if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.
And here’s another, from Seneca, that I pinned up on my wall while I was writing Philosophy for Life
There is no time for playing around. You have been retained as counsel for the unhappy. You have promised to bring help to the shipwrecked, the imprisoned the sick, the needy, to those whose heads are under the poised axe. Where are you deflecting your attention? What are you doing?
8) Take care of your body as well as your mind
We sometimes don’t realise the extent to which our mental health is connected to our physical health. An important part of recovery from mental illness is learning to take care of our bodies too: taking exercise can be crucial to getting better. If nothing else, going for a run or a swim gets rid of some of our nervous mental energy. Exorcise the demons through exercise! Also be careful of what you eat and drink — too much coffee might make you anxious. You might drink a lot in the evening to overcome your inhibitions, but end up making a fool of yourself, and then feeling extra-anxious and paranoid when you’re hungover in the morning. Take care of your body — you need as much energy as possible for the fight. Sleep is also hugely important — try to get to bed at a proper time and get at least seven hours. Try to live on a steady, even keel, however boring that sounds.
9) Don’t romanticise or over-intellectualise your condition
I don’t mean this in a harsh way, like ‘pull up your socks and stop making a fuss’. What I mean is, let go of the drama. Let go of the romantic myth of yourself as a tragic martyr, singled out for suffering. Let go of the myth of yourself as a unique snowflake, whose problems are deliciously interesting and complex. Let that sh*t go! It’s just another way to hold on suffering — to make love to your disease. I did that for years, then I realised the millions of people suffering from social anxiety had exactly the same thoughts and beliefs as me. Beneath all our drama and intellectual sophistication, our mental illness conditions are often pretty basic, even humiliatingly so (we long to be complex). This is why a lot of clever people would rather spend thousands of pounds on Freudian psychoanalysis — because, even if it doesn’t make them better, it flatters their unique complexity. Instead, try to define the beliefs or attitudes that cause you suffering as simply, clearly, humbly and undramatically as possible.
I also think it can be useful to see the ridiculousness in your situation. Having a mental illness is, often, ridiculous. It puts us in ridiculous situations. If we laugh at that, it means we’re not turning it into a big tragic drama. I like the Woody Allen scene at the end of Hannah and her Sisters about this. Woody’s been trying to find the meaning of life, then he stumbles into a cinema and sees a Marx Brothers film and decides, even if he doesn’t know if there’s a God, he can still relax and try to enjoy the strange experience of being alive.
10) Enjoy the little moments
I have my reservations about the ‘happiness movement’ and its exclusive focus on happiness as the meaning of life. But they got something right: we can learn to cultivate moments of peace and happiness. That’s not the meaning of life, but it helps, because experiencing mental illness means we’re probably soaked in negative emotions. So we can try to cultivate little moments of positivity along the way. Learn what gives you pleasure — reading a particular author, maybe, or listening to music, or going for a walk, or seeing particular friends, or even tidying up your room. Drop by drop, we can get into the habit of happiness. We can choose not to beat ourselves up, but to let ourselves be happy, here in this moment. Eckhart Tolle may be a weirdo, but he got that right. All we have is this moment. We can take a breath, let go of our worries and regrets for just a second, and enjoy the moment, without putting any demands on it.
And finally, a last quote, from (I think) Winston Churchill: if you’re going through hell, keep going. Don’t give up. You’re in this fight for all of us. And we’re in it too, shoulder-to-shoulder with you.
I wrote this a few years back. Now, I think I might add: sometimes medication is helpful too, particularly if you’re in acute distress.
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