It’s taken me two serious depressive episodes, a spell in hospital, masses of medication and nearly a decade of psychiatrists, doctors and therapists, to realise something really simple: tiny tweaks can make a huge difference to our happiness.
But first the bad news. Here’s what happened to me before I worked out the little things that changed my life.
Rewind just over 20 years ago. It all began one May when depression struck me seemingly out of the blue. I was taking our two small sons – a six-month-old baby and a toddler – upstairs for bath time. I laid them on their snow-white towels, kissing their rounded tummies in our normal routine, when my heart started racing.
That night I was gripped by insomnia . I thought I was having a heart attack; my heart was beating so wildly. I paced the house all night, checking and re-checking the children. When I lay in bed unable to sleep, my worries went round and round and I became increasingly overwhelmed. I was bursting with an active sense of dread that disaster was about to strike and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. It felt like I was on a plane that was going to crash. In three days I went from being mildly anxious to being unable to move, in an agonising foetal curl on the floor, suicidal with fear.
This proved to be the start of my first major depressive episode , born of anxiety . I was briefly hospitalised and was then ill for a further six months. I was treated with antidepressants and sleeping pills and eventually returned to work, hoping the problem would go away.
My luck held, but then I had a second breakdown several years later. That time, the trigger was something as seemingly insignificant as holding a Christmas get-together. Our house was full of family and friends for festive drinks. I had been trying to be the consummate hostess, twirling strangers together as if choreographing an elaborate dance. But my mistake was to pause briefly for breath in the kitchen, amid the dirty glasses and empty trays.
Rachel Kelly | Photography by Libi Pedder
At that moment, I knew the battle was over. All the physical symptoms I recognised were back: the racing heart, the sense of dread, worries piling on worries. Once again, my fears solidified into harrowing physical symptoms. Once again, all I could do was lie in bed and scream. I was screaming because of the pain. Every bit of me was in acute, dynamic, physical agony. It felt as if I was back on a plane that was crashing, hurtling at high speed. That time I was ill for the best part of two years.
I probably had an underlying tendency to anxiety. I was a happy but sensitive child, and this combined with the acute societal pressure I felt to be good in every role I played – wife, journalist and mother. In the end, I was overwhelmed, an experience I wrote about in my first book Black Rainbow: How Words Healed Me – My Journey Through Depression , published in 2014.
My descent into depressive illness is a cautionary tale for all of us trying to juggle the multiple demands of work, family and our need for status and approval above our own emotional wellbeing and health. We need to tread warily amid the demands of modern life and the pressures we put on ourselves.
So I began to collect a toolkit of ideas for good mental health to make a third depressive episode less likely. It is a bit like breaking your arm. After a couple of breaks, you feel more vulnerable to a third. Aside from the main approaches prescribed by doctors for anxiety and depression – chiefly medication and therapy – I had every incentive to see if I could find other strategies for myself.
Underlying all my new small steps is one huge mindset shift: you have to believe you have power over your life, because you do. The first step is to identify when you find yourself slipping into victim mode. Typically, when I’m feeling rudderless, I find myself believing that my successes or failures are because of things I can’t do anything about, like luck or the DNA I was born with , rather than hard work and practice. You need to challenge your belief that you can’t make a difference. You can.
So here are my sanity-saving steps. They had to be small and doable. Otherwise, I wasn’t going to manage them. They all take less than a minute or less Add them all together and they might just change your life.
1. Make your bed: 1 minute
Every morning make your bed to your own satisfaction, the white duvet perfectly aligned and pillows nicely plumped in my case. Make your bed a haven of calm by not having any clutter lying about – (check out Marie Kondo ’s Magic of Tidying). The act of achieving and controlling something as soon as you wake up puts you in the right mood to continue a sense of control throughout your day.
2. Block one nostril: 10 seconds
When we are anxious, our breathing becomes fast and shallow. When we breathe more slowly this forces our racing minds to slow down as well. It can help to close one nostril with a finger – this means we breathe at half the rate than normal, rather like when we have a cold. You can only breathe in the present, so it’s the best way to be calm and centred. Think about anxiety – you worry about the future, you regret the past. Breathing keeps us in the present.
3. Take an Omega 3 supplement: 2 seconds
Nourish your body – omega-3 fats are especially mood enhancing. Take a supplement : data shows it is as effective as eating oily fish which I don’t like anyway.
4. Be kind and practice a random act of kindness, preferably to a stranger: 1 minute
Being kind to others has a very real effect on our happiness. We become kinder to ourselves and develop a more compassionate, accepting inner voice, which you can call upon to help you counteract negative thinking. Ideas include:
Pay a coffee forward
Say hello to the barista/ shop assistant/ ticket collector/ doorman/ waiter
When you are late, say thanks for being patient rather than sorry I’m late
Pay attention to what someone is saying when they talk to you. Listen to understand and not to reply. There’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth.
MORE GLOSS: Why do we find it so hard to accept acts of kindness?
5. Wash your hands in a new way: 1 minute
A technique that can help you with this is mindfulness , a non-judgmental way of focusing attention on what we are experiencing in the moment. My challenge has been incorporating this into my everyday life. The answer has been to make an everyday activity a mindful one: I use hand washing. I pay particular attention to the sensation of cold water, the sound of the tap, the smell of the soap. These mindful moments provide full stops amid the rush, and a reminder to slow down.
6. Use the word 'yet': 1 second
Watch your language, and think how you could rephrase statements about your own powerlessness. Language itself can make us feel more of a victim and gives our power to others. So instead of saying, 'I can’t deal with this,' say 'I can’t deal with this, yet.'
7. Learn this poem
We appreciate good times more by having experienced the bad. In fact, we would not appreciate sunnier times without living through the rainy ones. I love the way this idea is expressed in this poem by the 19th-century Scottish writer Charles Mackay. Learn it and recite it every time life sucks.
Oh, you tears,
I’m thankful that you run,
Though you trickle in the darkness,
You shall glitter in the sun
The rainbow could not shine if the rain
refused to fall,
And the eyes that cannot weep are the
saddest eyes of all.
8. Adopt an appreciation pause: 3 seconds
This is about appreciating those you wouldn’t routinely thank or notice in the busy rush to get things done. It could be the person at the till who serves you lunch, the office cleaner, the teacher who helped you solve a problem after class, a doctor who worked out why you haven’t been feeling well or the police officer patrolling your neighbourhood.
Take a moment to think of all these people in your life, people who admittedly are just doing their jobs, but as a result, you may have overlooked them or taken them for granted.
Consider how our lives would fall apart without these individuals who look after our health, education, community and environment. Perhaps in the future, you will make a point of thanking them. While adopting an appreciation pause is designed to consider those you don’t know well, it also works well for long-term partners and close friends and family members whom we often also overlook! Pause for a final moment to think about them too and quietly say thank you in your head.
9. Write a handwritten note
I have always enjoyed the rituals that surround letter writing, from the sealing of the envelope to the attaching of the stamp and the trip to a scarlet pillar-box. There’s also a great pleasure to be had in receiving a proper handwritten message as the post falls through the letterbox with an intriguing clunk.
There are few nicer letters to write than ones that express gratitude to someone for the role they have played in our life. Put aside your own worries and focus instead on what you are thankful for. Anecdotal evidence collected about people in a nursing home found that one common regret among the dying is the wish that they had had the courage to express their feelings; a second is people wishing they had stayed in touch more with friends. Sending a note saying why you care about someone combines both objectives.
10. Say "Ommm...": 1 minute
Scientists now believe that mental disorders may have their root cause in the immune system and looks at inflammation as a key factor. Stimulating our vagus nerve at the back of our throats may help reduce this unhelpful inflammation.
This nerve is so called because it wanders to so many different places in the body, like a vagabond. It begins in the brain stem and then passes through the back of the throat before branching out when it reaches our digestive system and even stretches to a tiny part of the external ear canal. It acts automatically, increasing our heart rate and blood pressure when we are under stress and relaxing them when the threat passes.
The audible vibration we create and experience when chanting, gargling or humming can stimulate the vagus nerve. This could explain why chanting, and especially the "om" sound is used in yoga and meditative practices . Get chanting.
11. Imagine a pendulum: 1 minute
One way I have learnt to manage my stress levels has been to use mental imagery – to create or experience visual pictures in the mind. These images can help us understand and become aware of our moods, be they high or low, as well as control them. Cancer sufferers also use this method to help them relax and manage their symptoms.
So, the pendulum. This could be a stone, weight or crystal hanging from the end of a string. When I am calm, I imagine that the string is still, the book peacefully at the end of it, not moving to the right or left. This is the happy middle ground, when I am in balance, neither too high nor too low. But when I get either overly stressed or overly excited, the pendulum starts to swing from side to side – a useful visual representation to remind me of my own mood swings.
Then at times when I feel really unstable, I imagine the pendulum swinging so fast it is out of control. This image reminds me I have a little perspective
and can quickly become either upset and angry, or by contrast on too much of a high. The picture in my head is a reminder that I need to pause. I must find a way to calm down and return to the mid-point.
Using the pendulum image has helped me become more aware of my mood swings. I have learnt that it is better not to act when I feel so out of control, as I will almost certainly regret it. I also use this image as a way to disconnect from the feelings it represents. By observing the pendulum, I watch my emotional volatility rather than 'becoming' it.