The upsurge in new gym memberships in early January testifies to the optimism of so many people as a new year begins, but the drop-off in attendance becomes apparent very soon afterwards. Hopes dwindle, old anxieties reappear, and the promise of the new year seems to evaporate. Yet it is possible to create lasting change. Jim Deeds and Brendan McManus SJ, authors of Finding God in the Mess and Deeper into the Mess, offer ten tips for keeping balance and good mental health in the long term.
Recent research shows that levels of mental illness, anxiety, and depression among millennials are at an all-time high. This can be attributed to career and study pressure, future uncertainty and the stress that comes from living in a social media-centred world. In fact, though relationships, peer pressure and acceptance are central, ironically, social media use is often the major contributor to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and poor sleep. The tips below address these challenges by drawing from modern psychology and Ignatian spirituality.
1. Life is tough and feelings can be the toughest things of all. Learn to befriend them, understand them and realise that you are much more than your feelings. Everything in life passes – savour the good and let go of the bad. Feelings come and go. Learn to watch them like clouds coming into your life, and remember just as you can’t hold onto a cloud, your job is to let your feelings go too. A simple meditation on this is: stop, find a quiet place, even pretend to be listening on headphones. Ask yourself how you feel. Notice that there is a small gap between you and your feelings. Stay with that gap. In it, all is quiet and empty – full of possibilities. Rest in this gap for a few minutes each day. Train yourself to watch your feelings come and go, like clouds do, no matter how strong they are. This will help you when you hit a crisis and may even save your life.
2. Technology is a gift for communication with others but it is a terrible boss; learn to switch off and enjoy off line activities that build you up: hike a hill, learn a skill, take a risk, talk to someone face to face. TV, games, videos and Internet are not the real world, but they pretend to be friends. Use them as the gift they can be and take control of them. Otherwise you are a slave and it’s a cruel master.
3. “If it feels good do it” can sound great but it can bring you to some dark places. Everyone has hidden strength and the ability to put off immediate pleasures. Find that steel inside yourself that allows you to go outside your comfort zone, build bridges and reach out to others. The irony is that when we reach out to help and include others, we’re also taking care of ourselves.
4. You have something unique within you. You are a one-off gift to the world. And that gift is for you to give away, not to hide away. The greatest happiness is found in truly being yourself and helping others; it can be challenging at first but there is a slow burn feel-good factor that lasts for a long time.
5. You are not responsible for all the ills of the world. Trying to save the world can be overwhelming. Trying to solve all of your own and everyone else’s problems all at one go would be equally overwhelming. If you get into that way of being, it’s time to stop. Press pause. Get some space and remember that you just have to do your bit. There is some small thing that you can do in almost every situation you face. It is like building a jigsaw. You will have a piece to contribute. It will be uniquely you, and which will help. Build it one piece at a time.
6. Anxiety and fear are not good reasons to do things. In fact, most of the time, decisions made out of anxiety and fear are not good long-term decisions. Anxiety and fear often keep us locked in a narrow room with narrow options that see the worst in others and ourselves. Imagine what it would be like to trust in the world and people, and to act without fear (not without caution though). There is a middle road to be walked that is manageable and achievable.
7. Idealism is a great thing but set the bar too high and nothing or no one can measure up. The perfect is the enemy of the good; work out what the good thing to do is and just do it. A cluttered life doesn’t give you a chance to see what’s going on. And when we don’t see what’s going on we can be fooled into thinking that things are terrible, even when they are not.
8. Travel light; have a de-clutter. Start by clearing out your room of things that you don’t need. You are a traveller through life and you have to travel light, otherwise you will get weighed down by things and come to be chained to them. Remember that people are not things to be acquired and disposed according to your feelings. Take this de-clutter as a chance to evaluate what is really going in and what is really valuable to you.
9. Accept the things you cannot change and change the things you can (and know the difference). Don’t waste your time trying to change things that are given: your family, face, body, friends, locality. There is some rare beauty in them that can only be seen in a certain light. Find it and encourage it. If it won’t be encouraged, know that you’ve done your best and can be content with that.
10. Happiness is an inside job – you know instinctively that having things and comparing yourself to others is empty and futile, and yet we all get caught up in it. Take a moment in the quiet. Go back to that gap you found in the meditation above; that gap between you and your feelings. In the gap, imagine a bright white light. See the light as a good thing, bright and warming. Now realise that this light is the goodness, brightness and warmth you have at the core of you. You are good and bright and warm inside. Dwell in this light for as long as you like. Find happiness in these thoughts.