Saturday, 13 May 2017

Mental

It's been Mental Health Awareness Week  this past week and it's been hard to escape the mass amounts of publicity raising awareness. I've found it really interesting to read so many examples from both famous people and people I respect in my PLN about their struggles with mental health issues. 

It's made me reflect on my own experiences. I don't think I've ever had any long term mental health issues, although I've certainly had some very short term adverse reactions to events, but I tend to be able to spot when these happen and take steps to deal with it. 

I think I'm more fortunate than others in that respect, but I admire anyone who has the courage to talk about their issues. 

My one episode of any kind of mental health issue came when my first marriage broke down unexpectedly and in very public and extremely difficult circumstances. I know for certain I suffered a depressive episode and struggled with lots of things. I've talked before about how my employer at the time and particularly the Chief Executive supported me wholeheartedly. My judgement was very much impaired, I made lots of bad decisions, my mood was all over the place and I didn't think there was a way to recover. 

But time heals. 

Slowly. 

Nowadays I can tell when I'm feeling stressed or coming close to anything like a depressive episode. There are headaches, a feeling of blood rushing round my head, and heart palpitations in extreme cases. I'd have trouble sleeping, or staying asleep and would wake very early with my brain very active. If any two or more of these or other symptoms show themselves, I know I'm getting stressed and I know if I do nothing about it then it would make me ill. 

So I tend to do something about it.

Sometimes it's about doing something physical to expend some energy. I'm lucky enough to be fit and active and I use that to help me in times of stress. It gives me time to think as well, which helps too. 

Sometimes it's about talking or writing. I find both incredibly useful to manage my emotional state. I'm a big believer in the power of counselling and other similar techniques, although I was brought up to think that men shouldn't show emotion as it was a sign of weakness, and I should hide it all away. 

This means I do struggle to show emotion, and do keep it all internal, so talking and writing gives me an outlet. 

Whilst I have times of difficulty nothing has come close to the depressive episode around my divorce, although I know that if I didn't have coping mechanisms I'd be in greater difficulty. 

I also am more aware now of situations that can cause me stress. It's usually when people think something about me that is untrue, or argue with me from a position I can't understand, or when I feel a very strong sense of injustice. These situations create some of the symptoms I've described so I have to try my coping mechanisms. 

An alternative is to avoid these situations altogether but that's not always possible, and another technique is to not let them stress me, but that's easier said than done as well. 

I read an interview in HR Magazine this week with Alastair Campbell  talking about his own mental health issues. He mentally rates each day at its outset according to how he feels it is going to go from what he knows he is doing that day, on a scale of 0-10. He says he is comfortable if his days are no lower than 2 and no higher than 7 but he struggles if he knows days are going either side of those scores. 

I quite like this approach. He's planning ahead, and if he knows he's in for a 2 day, he knows he has to plan out his coping strategies and to be honest on reflection I can see that's what I have been doing, albeit without any scoring mechanism to quantify it. I'll always schedule a run after an event I know may cause me some difficulty, and it does help. Or I'll make sure I make contact with someone I can talk to during the day. 

I've also read about some places, e.g. in France, where companies can't send emails after a certain time and employees can't read emails whilst on holiday. When I first heard about this I didn't think it was workable, but over time I've come to appreciate what a good move it is in terms of mental health and work life balance. 

I blogged here about my experiments with it and I've continued them. When I'm off work for anything more than 24 hours I deactivate my email from my phone and tablet so I'm not disturbed. And I try my best each evening to switch off my work communications and focus on other things like family, and I'm mostly successful in doing so. 

There was once a regional union official who used to send me very abusive emails late at night. He would never send these during the day and in person he was not as nasty either. But he seemed to get a kick out of sending these because he knew the effect it would have on me (a very negative emotional reaction because it hit all the triggers I mention above and I had no available coping mechanisms due to the time of night, and he knew that), and he would also cc in the Chief Executive and as many other union officials as he could, which would further exacerbate my stress reaction and is a part of the reasons why I'm so anti cc. 

These experiences taught me the downsides of using email late at night, and I often encourage managers who do need to complete work and send email themselves late at night to set them to send at 8am. They get their bit done but without the negative impact or intrusion into someone's home life. 

I'm halfway through The Winning Mindset digital coaching programme via ex England cricketer and noted sports psychologist Jeremy Snape and it's really good. Highly recommended. I'll do a longer blog on it when it's finished but a few of the daily coaching episodes have focused on mental health and in particular how to develop mental toughness or resilience. 

It's been interesting to hear from world class athletes and their coaches about how they manage work life balance, how they manage their mental state and how they cope with setbacks or criticism. 

One thing I particularly liked was a top athlete suggesting that you shouldn't view mistakes or bad experiences as something to dwell on, but instead view them as successive drafts of your ever increasing performance. 

Another was to put setbacks and such things in context. Rarely do setbacks affect your entire life, usually just one portion of it and often they're no reflection on your whole self or your direction or anything, they're just one isolated bad incident that is already in the past and therefore it shouldn't affect your sense of self worth. 

Really good stuff and I'm enjoying the coaching programme and have got a lot from it. Watch out for another blog on this soon. 

But I still can't shake the feeling that I'm not supposed to be anything less than strong and focused all the time. That as a man I should never have emotions and certainly shouldn't ever feel like crying. I'm a senior manager too and I still often think that's not what we do. 

Those kinds of views are wrong but they are what I was brought up believing and what many people still do believe. It's only through campaigns like Mental Health Awareness Week and the stories shared by those a bit braver than me and those who have gone through tougher times than me that I can even begin to feel it's ok to talk about feeling stressed and being less than my best from time to time. 

In this blog I've tried to explain how I cope with difficult times and how it's been helpful to read others stories and to learn from external sources too. 

I hope that I'm able to help others in doing so. 

Till next time…

Gary

Ps in other news, I've had the wetsuit out today and have been open water swimming for the first time since last August when I caught a nasty bug doing so. I felt great except for the first few minutes when I had brain freeze. Glad I'm back in the open water. 

Mental Health Awareness Week