For six years now, I’ve been dealing with anxiety and depression.
I’ve been quite public about my experience ever since I first opened up about it towards the end of 2017. To be honest, talking about my health in person or online hasn’t been easy at all and at the start, it was uncomfortable to say the least. Whenever you put yourself out there like that on any form of media, there can be that voice in the back of your head that asks you “what will people think?” and this can force you to question the validity of your message.
The reason why I continued to expose this vulnerable side to myself openly was because I quickly realised that the positive impact on others caused by sharing my experience was far too great to overlook. Looking back on the past year and a half now, it’s become pretty obvious that by helping others, I’ve unintentionally helped myself too.
Being a young man of South-Asian origin in particular, these conversations aren’t always straightforward. Culturally speaking, there are still a number of barriers that exist within our communities and households. And so ultimately, if I want to break down the stigma attached to mental health, particularly men’s mental health, then it’s critical that I continue to engage in dialogue in order to raise awareness, normalise the topic and do my part to highlight access to support for others.
Now this time last year, I was just finishing my final year of my degree at university. Those that were close to me on a daily basis were well aware of how volatile my mental health was over the academic year and it was quite evident that my health was at its lowest point in years. I remember questioning if I was even going to graduate at one point – I really thought that I would have to delay my graduation in order to get my health back on track.
For any of you who have suffered with an anxiety attack before, you know it can feel like hell.
Despite having gone through waves of poor mental health over the last few years, I hadn’t previously been hit with anxiety attacks very often up until my final year at university. This was much newer to me.
The key symptoms to look out for if you, or someone around you, is potentially suffering from an anxiety attack are:
- An accelerated heart rate
- Chest pains
- Shortness of breath
- Chills or hot flashes
- Dizziness or faintness
Anxiety attacks can come on more gradually, whereas panic attacks often occur suddenly (although both share very similar symptoms).
On average, 1 in 4 people suffer from a mental health condition every year and when looking more closely at UK university students, 1 in 5 are diagnosed with a mental health condition. Of the students that were surveyed by The Insight Network, 3 in 4 said that they hid their diagnosis from their friends. Clearly, the stigma still exists.
Now the main reason why I’m writing this is to highlight the fact that after all of the low periods, I’ve actually been very healthy over the last 12 months.
I haven’t even suffered from an anxiety attack since June of 2018. It’s unbelievable to me. At the time, I never imagined that I could get anywhere near to this point. I think that the problem is that when you’re going through that down phase, for whatever reason, everything tends to seem impossible. Recovering looks unrealistic and inner peace appears to be a distant idea.
I guess that I just want to let you know that if you’re going through any phase of poor mental health, it’s so important to remind yourself that it can get better – it will get better.
It took me a while to get through the challenges in order to get to where I am now. I was trying (and mostly failing) to improve my health for most of my final year at university, despite knowing the tips and strategies people commonly use to take care of their health and proactively trying to take action for months. So be patient with yourself – it’s not an overnight fix.
Not every method works for everyone. There definitely isn’t a one size fits all approach and so it’s important that you’re aware of what does and doesn’t work for you; it’s important that you’re aware of the type of person you are so that you can choose what type of solutions work best for you.
Here are 5 methods I used to improve my mental wellbeing:
- Be active
Exercising regularly helps to stimulate the growth of new brain cells and sharpens your daily focus. The endorphins can work wonders. Staying active can boost your self-confidence, energy levels and (very importantly) your quality of sleep. The trick is to find something that you enjoy – it’s not mandatory to go to the gym. There are plenty of sports or activities to get involved in. Find something that you will look forward to and suits your lifestyle. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to try something new!
- Eat well
It’s not just about what you do but it’s also about what you consume.
Staying hydrated and maintaining a well-balanced, healthy diet will energise you and improve your mood too. A hungry you is a hangry you – we don’t want that. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t treat yourself with that takeaway you plan on ordering this weekend, all I’m saying is that you should try to keep it in moderation.
- Take time to understand your needs
Self-awareness is key – I can’t stress this enough (unintentional pun).
Take time to reflect and evaluate your environment – what in your daily routine and surroundings is having a negative impact on your wellbeing over a period of time? If you’re the type of person who prefers structure, then find ways to stay organised and build a sustainable routine that works for you. Small adjustments can actually go a long way; journaling, using a planner or even taking half an hour to go for a walk in the evenings can shift your mood.
I generally feel pretty restless. Even when I’m sat still, I’m usually scrolling through my phone or on my laptop (which isn’t healthy I know). I started using Headspace to meditate for at least 10 minutes per day – the Headspace app makes it pretty straightforward to start meditating, especially for beginners. That 10 minutes per day helped me to learn how to slow down and I began to understand the benefits of actually just being still.
- Make rest and sleep a priority
This is something that a lot of us, including myself, need to give more attention to. A lot of the time we feel pressured (even by ourselves) to do more and constantly be on the move. Sometimes it’s hard saying no at work or even saying no to your friends and family. Believe me, you will burn out quicker than you think.
Sometimes you have to work longer – I get it. But as much as you can, make rest a priority. It has to be an absolute non-negotiable in your life. It’s really okay to stay at home and catch up on your favourite Netflix series sometimes.
When it comes to sleep, getting to sleep earlier becomes more practical once you commit to waking up at a set time every morning. Your body clock will naturally adjust to this. Other small tricks to improve your sleep include avoiding screens at least 30-60mins before bed and avoiding any work/strenuous activities in the evening. I even started taking organic melatonin supplements before bed which was a big help.
- Make your close relationships a priority
The people close to you can really make a difference. I made the mistake of keeping my mental health a secret from most of my closest friends for almost 4 years – I was afraid of how they would react or what they would think. But what I realised was that by finally opening up, I all of a sudden had a whole new support system that massively changed the way I dealt with my health. I had people to talk to. I had people to hold me accountable. I had help.
Avoid isolating yourself for prolonged periods of time.
Sometimes you’ve really got to push yourself to get out of your room and spend time with others. You might not feel up to it, that’s fine. It’s natural to feel that way when you feel low. But you’ll thank yourself for making the effort to get up, get ready and spend time with your friends and family. So even though I told you to make rest a priority a moment ago, I’m also telling you that you should balance this with a healthy social life.
As I finish writing this, I just want to also briefly say thank you.
Thank you to everyone who has supported me over the years to get to a positive place with my health and an even more positive place in my life. The last 12 months have been surreal. My health has been very stable, I’m surrounded by some really inspiring people, I’ve moved abroad to start my graduate career for an amazing company, and I’ve been truly blessed with the opportunity to travel and be part of some incredible experiences.
If there’s anything that I’ve taken away from my experience with mental health so far, it’s that there’s definitely no such thing as needing to “man up”. You do not need to pretend to wear this mask of masculinity for anyone; not for your culture, not your family, not your friends and not yourself. It’s completely normal, and most definitely not uncommon, to have to face challenges with your mental wellbeing. Guys, it’s so important that we kill our egos and get rid of this pride we continue to carry with us. Trust me, the burden of your pride isn’t worth it. You’re no less of a man because of it – there is strength in opening up and a lot of bravery in vulnerability.
And please do take a moment to check on your friends and on your family. A simple message or phone call can make someone’s day.
“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” – Lena Horne
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