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Making lasting changes to improve our mental wellbeing

NCMH Champion Steve, who has lived experience of Bipolar II, gives his practical advice on how to manage our mental health better for personal improvement.

I’ve always felt that I was somehow different to others.

As a teen I often felt tired, disconnected from other people and that I was missing out on some secret in life that others enjoyed.

I never suspected that I had a mental health problem, just that I was somehow not as good as others in many ways.

In about 2010 I started to feel the crash and would alternate between feeling very low or very driven, sometimes both in the same week.

My partner indicated something was not right and eventually in 2015 I went to see a psychologist. He diagnosed me with Bipolar II and suddenly my life seemed to make sense.

I immediately did as much research as I could to work out ways of managing it.

Making lasting changes

Let’s face it, making lasting changes to our lives is hard. Whether we’re trying to start exercising or stop snacking, quit drink or drugs, spend less money or less time on our devices, something needs to be sacrificed.

The sacrifice is that we’ll experience some degree of discomfort, expend more energy, have less time available or need to give up something else in order to eventually feel and become better.

The benefits, however, can be far-reaching and can help us to make long-lasting improvements to our mental health.

Man begins walk up hillside

When does change happen?

The greatest changes often happen when the discomfort of staying the same becomes greater than the discomfort of implementing change.

When I was diagnosed with Bipolar II in 2015 I researched what I should be doing to help myself, and exercise was one of those things.

I started swimming three times a-week and noticed that I experienced much less depression after a few weeks.

Sometimes, for one reason or another, I wouldn’t exercise for a week or two and quickly slipped back into a low mood.

I realised that it would be less difficult to keep on exercising than to stop and start and to have to keep climbing out of that black hole of depression.

It took me about a year to develop a consistent exercise regime but now it’s strong and I seldom miss my sessions.

Lightboard with 'Time For Change' lettering on it

Five principles for making permanent changes

1. Have a good reason for wanting to change: Often a reason like just wanting to lose weight or wanting to give up drinking alcohol isn’t enough to motivate us strongly enough to change. It takes a values-based goal to keep us focused.

Core values are those values that form the foundation on which we function and conduct ourselves. Wanting to operate at our best or wanting to be healthier or stronger is an example.

My reason for keeping focused on exercising or getting to bed earlier at night is that I want to be the best that I can for my family.

If I stray from my goal then I’m not going to be able to give my family the optimal version of myself. I also keep focused on my mental health so that I can live a happier and more satisfying life.

2. Think long-term: Self-improvement takes time.

Picture yourself in one year, then two years, and in five years. Think how much healthier, happier and more successful you will be at each stage if you successfully make the change.

Think about how long you may still live and how these changes will improve your life for the rest of your years. The short-term discomfort of change will almost always be worth it in the long run.

When I get demotivated or when I think change is happening too slowly I often visualise myself in the future and it helps to get me back on track.

Take it slow. It’s more important to establish a new routine strongly than to see immediate results. The first signs of results often only follow after weeks or months of performing an activity regularly.

3. Practice being mindful: Mindfulness teaches us to live in the present.

If we’re caught up in our heads all day or are on autopilot then it’s easier to do things out of pure habit, like opening the fridge when we’re bored or scrolling through page after page of social media.

Once we’re able to start catching ourselves in the act of doing something we have committed not to, we can start to see the pattern.

After some practice we can start to think more carefully when the thought of performing an act is still just in our head and make a conscious decision about whether or not to carry on with the behaviour. If we can remember to use our main reason for changing at this stage we can stop ourselves

For example, spending too much time on social media means I have less quality time to spend with my family. Each time we’re able to stop ourselves we strengthen the neural pathways in our brains, which can lead to permanent change.

4. Practice Acceptance: Shame is a word that’s thrown around a lot these days and for good reason – it holds us back.

Shame is the negative emotion that we feel when we do something “wrong”. We can experience shame because we feel we have failed in some way or because of the real or perceived judgement of others.

For example, if I’m aiming to give up recreational drugs and I fail, I’m bound to feel shame. That shame can drive me further into addiction and cause a vicious cycle that never ends.

A more positive state of mind is acceptance. None of us are perfect, not you and not me. We all have our areas we need to work on. Accept that you are just a human.

Tell yourself that whatever you’re experiencing right now is okay. Be aware of it but never chastise yourself for the behaviours you’re experiencing, commit to doing the best you can.

Slowly your mindset and relationship to your issue will change to be more positive and this leads to long term behaviour modification.

5. Get up one more time than you fall: Each time you go off-track ask yourself why you want to improve and picture yourself two years from now if you continue to improve.

Then dust yourself off and start again. It doesn’t matter if you restart a hundred times, eventually you’ll get there.

It took me many tries to establish a strong exercise routine. I felt defeated and demotivated at the thought of having to drag myself out of bed in a low mood, but I kept on thinking how much better my life would be and how much happier my family would be if I was functioning at my best.

Each time I got back on the horse it got easier, knowing the result would be worth it.

It’s time for your homework

Look at your life and write down areas where you think you can improve. Then pick one of those and write down how you can start to make changes TODAY.

Write down your reason for wanting to achieve it and how you will go about it. Then put it into action. Start small and work your way up.

Think of yourself in the years to come if you manage to improve even just 20%.

Making positive changes is an investment in your long-term mental health. It can be hard to start and to build momentum but your future self will love you for it.


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Steve was diagnosed with Bipolar II in 2015 and has used self-management tools to improve his mental health. He runs a website that shares mental health recovery plan ideas to help others.

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