So today is the final day of Mental Health Awareness Week.  I guess if I was going to have a meltdown, then this would be a pretty ironic week to have it – But I do love irony!

Mid-way through the week and for no particular reason I found myself in a flat spin, a rising anxiety, the sense of panic that heralded the onset of an emotional maelstrom. Many years ago when I first experienced this inner confusion it was painfully disorientating. My inability to recognise these feelings for what they were made the world an exceptionally scary place. The kind of place where popping a pill seemed the best way to function so that I could wear a mask and say ‘I’m fine, nothing to see here!’

Now however, I’m not ashamed to share these experiences. Staying quiet helps nobody and over the last 20 years or so I’ve come to recognise that nearly all of us will experience being emotionally overwhelmed at some point. For some the experience may come only once and be brief, for others it may be sustained. I’ve learned that when those moments come, the way we respond to them has a huge impact on what happens next.

Experience has taught me that the more you fight against it, the more power it takes from you. And so this week when I realised the anxiety was not abating, when I found my thoughts and perceptions turning dark, I accepted it. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a pleasant feeling, but for me at least accepting it central to recovering my balance. When I say accept it, I mean accepting it in the same way you accept having a common cold – you consciously note the early symptoms and whilst you know the worst is yet to come, you reassure yourself it will eventually pass. The parallel between mental health and physical health holds true – to push the analogy further, if you pretend you don’t have a cold or the flu and try to soldier through it, more often than not you will exacerbate the symptoms and find recovery takes much longer. I’ve discovered that if I pretend I’m not in a depressive state then it can create far more stress which ultimately makes things worse. Pretending can create a dam behind which the emotions pile up until the pressure is so great the dam breaches and everything comes crashing through.

So how do I deal with it? Well first of all let’s be honest, sitting here reflecting on this subject with a clear head and heart is easy, but when I’m in the middle of it, confusion and doubt is all around. Most of all it can be hard to trust my perception of things and as a result it can become hard to make meaningful decisions – so I don’t! With acceptance comes the recognition that if decision making is questionable, then as far as possible I should avoid acting on any meaningful decisions. In the same way that I have to accept fatigue is the symptom of a cold, I accept that mental fatigue is a symptom of a depressive state. I find this to be one of the most powerful things I can do because it instantly takes the pressure off. Yes I know, easier said than done sometimes, but this is where mindfulness comes in (but that’s a different blog).

The next step for me after I’ve recognised I need to take the foot off the pedal is to tell other people that’s what I’m doing and why. Come on, you knew this was going to end up with storytelling eventually! Telling your own story is so powerful when it comes to mental health. We each have an intrinsic need to be heard, especially when our emotions are in turmoil. By communicating how we are feeling, we are at first required to find the words to express ourselves and this can be empowering on its own. But then in sharing those feelings with someone else, we help recognise those feelings and in recognising them we can start to let them go. If this is starting to sound more like counselling then it’s hardly surprising – what is a counsellor if not a compassionate audience member willing to hear the story you need to tell.

The power of sharing personal stories is gaining mainstream recognition and is being celebrated. Next month in Swansea we have the second Storytelling for Health Conference which builds upon the success of the first one held in 2017. The first conference was a huge eye opener to the expansive role of storytelling, not only in a therapeutic context but also as a tool to improve all facets of person centred healthcare development.

Projects like PeopleSpeakUp are emerging with a focus on giving opportunity for people to discover their voice, not only from a health perspective, but around a broad range of community and social issues. This kind of work helps people discover that speaking up brings a sense of empowerment, but also a strong sense of well-being because it reveals our connection to each other.

Stories sit at the heart of what it is to be a community, and a strong cohesive community is central to our individual health and well-being. So be proud of who you are, both your strengths and your weaknesses because they are what makes you, YOU - tell your story and tell it loud! x