Accentuating The Positive

I recently read a very interesting book, Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression by Miriam Akhtar, which has helped me to manage my mental health. I was already a fan of positive psychology, but hadn’t read anything which applied the approach to mental illness. The standard line given in books on positive psychology is that whereas most psychology focuses on what’s wrong, positive psychology concentrates on what people can do to feel good — rather than fixing problems, it circumvents them to find solutions.

I personally believe that there are benefits to either approach when treating mental health problems: there is no need to choose one and no reason why they cannot be used simultaneously. While this book focuses on depression, the strategies it suggests can also be used to manage other mental health problems — in my case, I find them useful for anxiety and borderline personality disorder. Another advantage of using this book is that it explains the theory behind everything without being dry or too academic. It’s suitable for any level of knowledge regarding positive psychology; whether you have never heard of it or if you are familiar with the subject, the advice is pertinent and never patronising.

As always, I would never recommend altering your course of treatment without consulting your doctor or another mental health professional, but an advantage of these strategies is that the chance of them causing harm is minimal — the majority will be ineffective at worst. If you are unsure about whether a particular technique might have adverse effects, discuss it with a mental health professional first. I will also caution that there is a lot of trial and error involved in implementing the strategies effectively, although it is definitely worth persevering, so don’t be discouraged if some of them don’t seem to work for you straightaway.

So what are the strategies? They are divided into broad chapters which examine each topic in detail: savouring, gratitude, mindfulness meditation, learning optimism, developing resilience, connecting with others, vitality and focusing on your strengths. There are several techniques desrcibed for each strategy, as well as advice on how to apply them and details on how they can boost your mood. There are also recommendations on which other strategies to try if one resonates with you.

I love how practical Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression is — the focus is on applying the theory to your life and counteracting the effects of depression. It demonstrates how small changes can spiral into big improvements and left me feeling empowered. I think it’s particularly helpful for people like myself, who are learning how to manage their mental health and need reminders of how we can help ourselves on the more challenging days. I also like the optimism of positive psychology; I have spent many years trying to fix my problems and the shift in focus to how I can feel better despite my problems is refreshing. Of course, that’s not to say that I won’t continue trying to solve my problems in addition to using these strategies, but sometimes it’s easier and more effective to look at what’s going right in life and how we can create more of those things.

Daily Battles

Coming off antidepressants may have been a watershed moment, but the past two weeks have reaffirmed something I already knew: coping with mental illness is a daily battle. Sometimes the battles are small and sometimes they are easily won (though, oddly, these are often the bigger ones), but the battles still have to be fought. You can’t opt out.

Life tends to present many problems and uncertainties, which are tricky to handle without the added complication of mental illness. I find myself questioning my reactions when things go wrong — if I get angry, does it mean my mental health is worsening or is it a natural reaction? If I feel sad and disappointed when my plans go awry, is it “normal” or is it mental illness?

Logically, I know that my symptoms will fluctuate and that everyone’s mood, regardless of their mental health, fluctuates. In fact, many symptoms of mental illness are “normal” in moderation — it’s when they take over your life that they become destructive. For example, feeling unmotivated and lethargic once in a while is par for the course, but when I feel like that most days, it’s due to depression. I have to accept that the boundaries between mental illness and good mental health will always be unclear for me: I can never blot out my experience of mental illness, so it will always affect how I interpret my emotions and behaviour.

There are advantages to this continual assessment of my mood: I can gauge my symptoms and intervene before they get too bad. When I feel anxious or depressed or whatever, I can use my strategies to help myself feel better. I can also examine the circumstances of my change in mood and work out whether I’m reacting to a particular situation, in which case I may be able to find practical solutions. Being self-aware can be incredibly useful, but it’s not easy — it is both a battle in itself and a tactic for winning battles.

I find myself in a strange situation, because some days I feel extremely well and other days I still feel ill. Thankfully, the former are edging out the latter, but even good days present battles I hadn’t anticipated. Good days make me wonder if I ought to be doing more, achieving more. I question whether I am using my mental health problems as an excuse or if I’m just lazy. Pacing myself is a struggle.

I think perhaps the trick to winning these daily battles is to assess how I feel each day and act accordingly. There will be days when I can go out, have fun and act carefree. There will also be days when I zone out in front of the television and overthink every single aspect of my life. Some battles will be won in glorious fashion; others will, inevitably, be lost. I just have to keep fighting.