Here are the 5 most important lessons I have learnt in the 6 weeks since I stopped taking antidepressants. I hope they might help people in similar situations, or help their families and friends to understand what they are experiencing.
1. There is no sudden shift from “mentally ill” to “mentally well.”
It’s easy to assume that being well enough to come off medication means you should be able to make other changes quickly and effectively, but you will probably find that life doesn’t look very different when you stop taking antidepressants. There will still be struggles and changes take time.
You can continue to take steps in the right direction, but bear in mind that these need to be steps — not giant leaps. Managing your expectations and being realistic helps you move forward while being compassionate towards yourself. Placing yourself under pressure to transform your life in a short period is neither practical nor fair.
2. A change in mood is not a relapse.
Life is full of ups and downs: we all know this, yet there is a tendency when you have mental health problems to think that normal fluctuations in mood signify a relapse. I have discovered that this intensifies when you stop taking medication. You wonder whether a natural reaction to an event, such as disappointment, is actually a symptom of your mental health deteriorating.
Be prepared for this reaction. Find a more accurate way of monitoring your mental health than listening to the stream of your thoughts. Simply recording your mood and other symptoms at regular times can establish a more objective picture. If you genuinely feel your symptoms are getting worse, discuss it with your doctor and/or other mental health professionals.
3. Self-care is more important when you feel all right.
Self-care is about prevention as well as treatment; I am learning that the former is essential. It’s tricky to keep up self-care routines when you feel well. You start thinking your time might be better spent doing other things. Unfortunately, you might not realise that this is a fallacy until your mental health suffers.
You need to be strict with yourself and do what you need to do every day. This varies from person to person, but for me they include mindfulness meditation, some form of exercise and using a SAD lamp during darker months. Prioritise your mental health, even when it’s tempting to do something else.
4. Don’t let yourself get sidetracked by setbacks.
There will be very difficult times and you will face challenges you didn’t anticipate. For example, I have injured my hip and have been taking a break from exercise, which is difficult because being active is an integral part of my mental health management. The only option is to work around setbacks. In my case, I am focusing on using other strategies to boost my mood until I can return to exercise.
Setbacks are frustrating, for sure, but don’t let them become excuses for not looking after yourself. If you are struggling a lot, remember that there is no shame in taking medication again. Try to show yourself compassion and think of alternative solutions for your problems. Don’t let setbacks dictate your life — figure out how to deal with them and move on.
5. Find other things to focus on.
Rather than obsessing about your health, focus on other things — your relationships, work, passions. Get back to an old interest or try out some new hobbies. Learn something new. Set some goals which aren’t directly related to your mental health.
Activities which induce a sense of flow are ideal — your mind is focused on what you are doing, so there is no opportunity for negative thoughts to arise. Different activities work for different people, but most involve using a skill which challenges you without being so challenging that it causes negative feelings. For me, writing and drawing are most likely to induce flow.
However, activities which don’t necessarily induce flow can also provide a healthy distraction. I love film and literature, for example, so I get lost inside the stories. I also enjoy modern jive, although my skill level is too poor to induce flow — even when I get frustrated at my lack of coordination, rhythm and balance, it’s a break from my usual anxieties. Walking the dog involves little skill, but provides me with a lot of pleasure. Seek pleasures in your life — as long as it’s not self-destructive or damaging to others, these pleasures can help you get more out of life.
I want to manage my mental health so that I can live a full, satisfying life and this can only happen through paying attention to the things with which I want to fill my life. Filling your life with small pleasures can help you through the challenging times. Finding and fuelling your passions can help you learn to be well.