Forget chasing happiness and fulfilment through material things or outside validation and invest in the most important thing in your life, your mental health.

So many people believe that the secret to happiness is on the outside, when in fact it is on the inside. You can move home, gain promotions at work, win the lottery, buy as many material things as you wish and jump from one relationship to another, but without good mental health, you will never find the peace and happiness you are looking for.

Symptoms of poor mental health

  • Relationships and friendships full of conflict
  • Feelings of worthlessness and depression
  • Finding no joy in anything
  • Having little to no energy and motivation
  • Irritability
  • Unable to think clearly
  • Withdrawal from the outside world
  • Irrational fears and worries
  • Poor concentration
  • Low self-esteem
  • Excessive worry about how others view you
  • Poor sleep
  • Inability to cope with everyday life
  • Anger issues
  • Lack of self-care

The trouble with poor mental health is that it can lead to the opposite of what is needed to improve, which is looking after yourself physically and mentally, as the worse someone feels, the more they tend to indulge in destructive behaviours or attempt to self-medicate.

So poor mental health can lead to poor eating habits as those who suffer turn to food for comfort, leading to them gaining weight which only makes them feel worse about themselves. They may turn to alcohol in an attempt to numb their feelings, only to feel mentally worse due to the effects of the alcohol. They may spend too much time in bed or isolate themselves, instead of getting the social interactions and connections that help promote a sense of belonging and security.

Also, the last thing someone wants to do when they have little to no energy is to go for a walk outdoors or hit the gym, so they don’t get the exercise and fresh air that can help them improve their physical health and overall well-being.

So, as you can see, poor mental health leads many people into behaviours that make them feel worse and so it becomes a vicious cycle.

My own experience with poor mental health

After I had recovered from anxiety, my mental health wasn’t at its best, to say the least. The years of overthinking, introspecting, worry and mental work I had indulged in, in an attempt to get better, had really taken its toll on me mentally. I struggled to concentrate, couldn’t think straight and had days where I found little to no joy in anything.

I remember sitting on a beautiful beach many years ago feeling absolutely miserable and detached from my surroundings, I thought to myself, ‘If I can’t be happy and feel present here, then I can never be happy’.  The trouble is, no matter where I went I was always taking my brain with me and if that was worn out and depleted, then it didn’t matter where I went, where I lived, what material things I had, or what relationship I was in, I would still be unhappy.

On days when my mental health was poor, I would initially do everything I shouldn’t do. I would go over past and future events in my head, stay in bed, reach for a can of beer, eat crap food or lay on the sofa all day watching TV or aimlessly browsing the internet. I would also go to war with how I felt, trying to think my way out or force change by struggling with it all, which only led to my brain feeling more exhausted and so I felt worse.

When none of this worked, I finally realised it was my mental health that was the problem and it was my responsibility to improve it; no one else could do it for me. It wasn’t struggling with how I felt or self-medicating that was going to help me overcome how I felt, it was looking after myself.

If you look after your car and service it regularly, top up the oil, attend to any issues with the engine and wash it often, then it will look and run far better than if you neglect it, and the same principle was true with my mental well-being.

So now when I felt mentally off and down, I knew this was not a sign to turn back to old habits that would make things worse. It was a sign that my brain needed looking after more than ever. Alongside taking better care of myself, I also stopped going to war with how I felt. If I had a bad day, then I would accept it fully, knowing that trying to fight it would only make it worse and lengthen the time I found myself in mental discomfort.

Self-Care v Self-Improvement

The bigger mistake I initially made was that I looked towards self-improvement to fix all my problems instead of incorporating self-care. When I went towards self-improvement as a means to feel better, then I mainly began to feel worse. This was due to me always trying to fix myself and not allowing myself to experience negative emotions while being obsessively concerned about myself.

The paradox is that those who are able to accept negative feelings rather than trying to get rid of them, actually feel better, and those who are able to accept themselves as they are rather than constantly striving to reach some goal of perfection, feel more at peace with themselves.

Self-help is not about trying to get rid of anything, it is about no longer doing the things that hurt you, like lack of exercise, poor diet, isolating yourself and using harmful substances to cope. If you look at all these behaviours, it goes back to trying to suppress negative feelings, which is what I was also trying to achieve through self-improvement. I also found that the better I felt mentally and physically, all the things I was working on like lack of self-confidence and being better socially, improved on their own.

I am not saying there is no place for self-improvement, it certainly helped me understand my thoughts better and change faulty beliefs that weren’t serving me. Inner work is also vital in healing emotional scars and helping change the way you view yourself only that you don’t get addicted to it and end up in a constant state of trying to fix yourself and use it as a way of solving all your problems while neglecting self-care and making positive changes towards self-growth.

Ways to improve your mental health

  • Eat healthier
  • Reduce alcohol or give it up altogether
  • Stop smoking
  • Start to exercise, preferably outdoors
  • Let go of excessive worry and let life unfold as it does
  • Have a purpose for your day
  • Become more spiritual
  • Get a good night’s sleep
  • Join a group or class or find a new hobby
  • Take time to do nothing and just be
  • Talk to someone about any issues bothering you, don’t bottle things up
  • Learn to give to others and be kind
  • Make social connections
  • Cut back on social media
  • Turn off the news
  • Let go of any toxic people in your life

These are just a few of the things you can do to improve your mental health, but each person is different and only you know what truly helps.  My personal guide was to let go of the things that made me feel worse and do more of what made me feel better.

When I first began to change and make my mental and physical health a priority above anything else, I found it hard to motivate myself to make the positive changes necessary, but I saw my lack of energy and motivation as a symptom of what I had put myself through previously and knew things would improve in time.

So I ditched all the crap food and improved my diet and ate at regular times. I started to walk in nature and bought a bike. I then joined a Buddhist and local art class. I cut my alcohol intake right down to where hangovers were no longer an issue. I also found a part-time job and did some volunteering to have a purpose to my day rather than laying in bed feeling sorry for myself.

Initially, progress was slow, but I did start to see changes in my overall well-being. I found that my concentration was much better, I had more mental and physical energy and found my overall self-esteem increased. The irony is that the better I felt, the more I wanted to look after myself, as I didn’t want to ruin it by going back to abusing my mind and body. So just as poor mental health leads to you looking after yourself less, good mental health leads to you looking after yourself better.

Practising good self-care is not only good for you but also for those around you whom you care about. The better you feel the better your friendships and relationships are. Unhappy people tend to withdraw and lash out, whereas happy people are more inclined to help and serve others.

Also when your self-esteem improves, you no longer seek validation outside of yourself, leaving you to express your true self instead of putting on masks or people-pleasing in an attempt to manipulate others into liking and accepting you.

Signs of good mental health

  • More able to cope with life’s challenges
  • Better concentration and mental clarity
  • Increased mental and physical energy
  • Increased feelings of well-being
  • Forming better relationships and friendships
  • Increased self-esteem
  • More rewarding and better social interactions
  • Less worry and anxiety
  • Far less conflict
  • A change in perspective and what is important in life
  • Caring less about what others think
  • Kinder and more giving towards others

Some people think it’s normal to feel down and have little motivation, believing this is just how they are or that life has dealt them a bad hand. What they don’t realise is how different things can be if they make the changes necessary.

The key to self-care is never about trying to find ways to get rid of any kind of suffering, but finding out what is causing it and making the changes needed. Suffering is always telling you that changes need to be made. If you regularly feel down, angry or irritable, have a lack of clarity and self-esteem, and feel as though life has no meaning, it is a clear sign that your mental health is not in good shape and needs attention.

No one is asking you to be perfect in the changes you make. People who fail at dieting are the ones that cut out everything they like, and then find it impossible to stick to. If you can make a few positive changes then you will feel the benefits, which will hopefully encourage you to make more. Also, remember you are human and even with the best of intentions, moods and confidence fluctuate, and that’s fine. We are not after perfection here, only to improve our overall well-being.

So when you work towards better self-care, understand that there will be bad days along the way and don’t let this deter you from your goal. Be patient and kind towards yourself at all times and understand that you are going through a tough time at the moment, but with positive changes, things will gradually improve. One vital thing I learnt was to no longer take my moods out on others. This only led to regret later on and only hurt me and those around me.

Finally, if you have made any bad decisions towards yourself and others due to how you were feeling, forgive yourself. It wasn’t your fault. You were being directed by how you were feeling and not who you truly were. What happened before has gone, work now towards a new you. Look after your mind and body like you would your own child – it will thank you for it.

Just remember the world and how you view it is a reflection of your mental state and the beliefs you have. Change them and your life will look and feel completely different.

Paul David
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