It's Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year's focus is on Kindness. When we redesigned the bricks & mortar store at the start of this year, well-being was at the forefront of the change. I wanted to make a place that felt warm, welcoming and safe for all customers regular and new... and I also needed the space to be those things for me and my family, too.
I speak openly on social media about how my son's autism has led us down the path towards a slower pace of life. It's reflected in the products on the shelves here at Century, and the workshops we hold: that drive to reconnect with nature; the importance of finding small pockets of peace during the day; things that promote nourishment, calm, and simple everyday joy.
Many "simple" things are touted as easy fixes to soothe a difficult day: going for a run, meditating, calling a friend. But some days, in our experience, those things don't even scratch the surface. The nature of our son's disability means that life often feels like we're in an emotional minefield. Within a day, there is deep happiness, and silliness, and so much kindness. There are also unpredictable bouts of upset, heart-wrenching meltdowns, and so many big-picture questions to try to fathom the answers to. Often, all of these things happen within the space of half an hour. It's a lifelong neurological condition, and we're in it for the long run.
With that in mind, I wanted to share 5 habit shifts that help us navigate stress, and that we return to whenever we need to re-calibrate our mental health...
1 / Give it a name and be specific
For a long time, we disguised and excused away our stress by cloaking it in the language of "I'm tired". It covered a multitude of sins: working late, being busy, lack of sleep. People could relate to it. Everyone gets tired.
Over the years, "I'm tired" progressed to "I'm struggling" and finally, last year, to "I really need help". It wasn't until we said those words out loud that we were able to finally ask for the help we so desperately needed from the people around us. The more specific we were about how we were struggling and why we were worn out, the more our friends and family were able to help in tangible ways.
It's really easy to convince yourself that you're on your own in whatever you're going through, and that nobody understands. Sometimes, they don't understand (because they've never been there or it's not on their radar), and that's OK, because even if they don't understand, they can still care. There'll be people, too, who don't know how to deal with your honesty, who don't reply to your heartfelt messages. That's OK, too. Be kind on them. I've been that person, so unsure of what to say or scared of saying the wrong thing that months pass and I feel too embarrassed to get in touch. But the people who do reply... it opens up conversations that can only ever deepen your relationship and you might just find, like we did, that people in your life are desperate to help but just need a little direction in how to go about it. Make it easier for them to help. Start with one small thing, and build from there.
2 / Simplify when you can
For us, that means having less on the menu, literally. We're not quite organised enough to meal plan, but we have a loose template of tried-and-tested favourites at home, to try to limit the amount of thought required for the act of putting food on the table three times a day. Simplifying also means saying no to things that we know will add to our stress, even when those things seem easy and "normal" to other families. It means leaving more blank space in our days, where we aren't required to be anywhere (not difficult at the moment...). It also means, at home, leaving more physical space and keeping each room simple and unfussy. It means trying to create, in every aspect of life, one less thing to worry about.
3 / Know when to be extra kind to yourself, write off a day and start afresh
Some days, instead of fighting it or making your mind work overtime, the sensible thing is to just go to bed and know that, after a decent night's sleep, something will have shifted, the sun will rise on a new day, and you can put yesterday to the back of your mind.
4 / Then change what you can
I've lost count of the number of times we've sat down at the table late at night, with a notebook and pen in hand, writing lists to try to navigate and learn from the challenging situations we find ourselves in. We could try this. Obviously, this is the problem. Why didn't we think of that before? It doesn't always work, but the process reminds us that change is always possible. Sometimes it's a minuscule change. Sometimes, a giant one. Our last home had some scarily steep stairs that were a constant source of worry as our son raced down them. We anguished about how to keep him safe, shifted the way we lived in that space as best we could to avoid using the stairs so often. Then one day we realised: we could change the situation, move to a ground floor flat and remove that constant source of stress. It felt like a light-bulb moment. Leaving a home and community we loved wasn't easy, but as soon as we'd made that commitment to change, life felt a little less heavy. We felt less trapped.
5 / Conquer the small things
Usually it's not about the big things like moving house. It's the dozens of daily tasks, appointments, cleaning, emails, laundry, bills, text message replies, life admin to keep on top of, that no one else can step up to take care of, and that doesn't go away just because you're struggling. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to keep two notebooks, one called "Small Things" and another called "Big Things".
The Big Things notebook is reserved for the really important tasks that you need to do - and those things get tackled as and when, on the days when you find yourself with the time and the headspace. Or, even better and more realistic, they get broken down into their elements, and written in the Small Things notebook instead. One by one, the small tasks get crossed off, and you get that feeling of a "win" every day. I put a wash on! I hung the clothes out to dry! I replied to an email! Suddenly you find yourself looking at a satisfying page of scored-off accomplishments, and that feeling of never having any time, or being hopeless, is replaced by something positive. Case in point: we had to fill in a Disability Living Allowance form, one of those dense, HMRC forms that require a huge amount of mental energy and have no room for error. We put it off for weeks. Then we started to break it down into smaller tasks. We needed a letter from someone (a simple phone call). Needed help to fill it in (a less simple phone call but one step closer to the goal). Needed time to do it (a request for a family member to kindly care for our son). Needed the right stamp (a trip to the post office).
You get the picture. It was something we could never have tackled in one go, but addressing the steps over a number of weeks made it possible.
... There are days that leave us reeling, when all of the above goes out of the window. But it's become a kind of mental health blueprint for us as we navigate through the challenges. It takes into account each of our own individual needs and the feelings of others, with kindness. Like I said, for a long time, we didn't share our reality or, at least, not in real terms. But the more we all speak honestly about mental health, the sooner we can get the help that's out there, and I'm sharing in the hope that it helps one more person who's struggling at the moment. We might not understand but we really do care. Thanks so much for reading.
You can find out more about the Mental Health Foundations's Mental Health Week, and why kindness is so important to our mental health as individuals and as a society, here.