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A Mind of our Own - Managing our Mental Health

I wake up. I am in a bed in a small room in the aptly named Black Forest. There is no light. I cannot see my own hand in front of my face. I have no idea of the time and I dare not look at the clock. I don’t want to know how many interminable hours I will have to endure before dawn and daylight. Then another 10 days and nights before I am home. I am trapped in a very dark place.

I am a man lost out at sea. The safety of the shore is a mirage. I am scared of drowning. I am on the edge of panic. The fear rises in my stomach, escalating exponentially. A tangible, physical, horrible, sinking feeling.

I need to stop myself from going under. I talk to myself, dragging up fragments of my mantra, "I am safe", "It will pass", "It’s a memory place". Grasping desperately for mindfulness, I attempt to step aside from my feelings into the present reality. "How interesting" I mumble to myself as I stumble to the door of the balcony and take a breath outside my prison cell. The clock says 10 past 2. “This isn’t going to be easy”, I say to myself “Let's just get to 2:15”.

I had my first anxiety attack in New Orleans 5 years earlier. It took me entirely by surprise. Thousands of miles from home, my hotel room had no windows and again it was pitch black. I woke with an immediate and overwhelming feeling of consuming panic. I had no mantras or mindfulness methods to manage it then. I just had manic - manically calculating how I could get back quickly to England. It was too impossible. I got up, threw on some clothes and fled out of the room.

Next thing I knew I was pacing obsessively up and down a corridor, counting each step 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, over and over. Trying not to think of anything but the numbers.1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. Just trying to survive through the next minute. Then I was out in the street, in the middle of the night, walking as fast as I could, somewhere, anywhere.

I found myself on some steps looking out to the Mississippi, focussing on this calming mass of water, breathing the warm air and bathing in the open space. I was like a man who has broken out of a dungeon. I was Andy in the Shawshanke Redemption, crawling out through a filthy narrow pipe into the freshness and liberty of the river.

A year later, I was stranded in Budapest when the infamous Icelandic volcanic ash cloud spread over Europe. Another panic attack. All flights home were cancelled. It was hopeless. I pounded the pavements of yet another city. I was desperate. If I jumped in front of a car, I would be taken to hospital. Then they would have to find a way to get me home. In a moment of sanity, I rang a friend who “talked me down”. In the end, three of us drove the 22 hours across Europe to get home.

Knowing our own Mind

Roll the clock forwards ten years to October 10th 2020 and it’s “World Mental Health Day”. I have completed therapy, no longer have panic attacks, and have trained as a coach. What have I learned about mental health from my own experience and discovery?

Firstly, that our mental health challenges follow us wherever we go. They stalk us and track us down They are in our head – the one thing we cannot really leave behind.

Secondly, that mental health conditions come in all shapes and sizes. If our mind is an iceberg, many are above or near the surface, others are submerged much deeper. Through therapy, I learned that my panic attacks were triggered by subterranean subconscious memories – in my case, the traumatic experience of abandonment as a baby. When touched, these old wounds of psychic terror erupted in indescribable pain and panic. My journey from the bottom of the iceberg to the fresh air above the water took years of therapy.

Dealing with other, less deeply rooted and maybe more prevalent mindset challenges – such as anxiety, loss, perfectionism, or imposter syndrome – may be a shorter journey and within the reach of coaches to help with.

All of which is easier said than done. Progress can be two steps forward and one step back. But walking in the right direction, however slowly and meandering, always brings us closer to where we want to be.

Thinking Differently

Thankfully, there is much more understanding and openness about mental health than there was 10 or 20 years ago. I think it all started with Paul Gascoigne at Italia 90 crying in front of 25 million viewers on British TV. Then we had the dramatic public outpouring of grief with the death of Princess Diana.

We are slowly learning the importance of acknowledging and revealing our emotional and mental health challenges, without being embarrassed or ashamed of them. We are accepting that talking and seeking help is essential.

Meanwhile, there has been a huge increase in people diagnosed with mental health and wellbeing conditions. Those number of people with anxiety has tripled in the last decade. By 2018, it affected 25-30% of women under 35 – and that was before Covid-19. Anxiety alone causes unknown unhappiness and exhaustion for millions of people.

Having started to acknowledge, test and trace mental health challenges, how are we to contain the growing epidemic, now super-spreading with Coronavirus? 

We are realising that offering simplistic advice is rarely helpful and can indeed be harmful. And saying we understand – when we can’t – can be patronising and dispiriting.

As a coach, I have learned that the most important thing is to simply listen patiently with compassion.

Finding our Voice

As part of our Barefoot training, we explored the “cast of characters” – the range of voices inside our head, sometimes collaborating, sometimes competing with each other. Some are playful, others more logical, some very risk averse, others adventurous, some are older, others are quite young.  

In my case, there was a terrified voice of a child from my past screaming that I was trapped and abandoned, and that I had to escape right away. This is a very useful voice when there is a real and immediate danger. My adult, rational voice was desperately trying to get into the conversation to say this was simply not the case.

We may have other voices grounded in fear or hopelessness – with feelings of anxiety, depression, unworthiness, anger, or deep hurt. They come from parts of our psyche damaged by the past or fearful of the future. They tell us the house is on fire when all we need to do is replace the battery in the smoke alarm. The previous fire was years ago.

This is where listening to the voices of the present is most important. We live and breathe in the here and now. The past is gone. The future does not exist.  

I am not defined by, or at the mercy of any of these voices. I am (mostly) a rational, functioning adult, living in the present reality. I can choose which parts of my mind to listen to. I can turn their individual volumes up or down. I can politely and firmly say to the noisy, unhelpful characters that I have heard what you have to say, thank you very much, and you no longer need to shout.

The last thing on my Mind

World Mental Health Day reminds us that we must never stop learning and caring – that that we need to continue to champion the cause of the millions of people across the world who are living with mental health challenges.

One final, personal plea. Mental health is a world where men need to speak up and show up more. In the UK, only 20-25% of therapists and coaches are male. Men are just as susceptible to mental health challenges as women – we are just less likely to talk about them. Let’s start to address that unusual gender imbalance.

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