Mental illness can make things hard to plan.
You can never be sure whether a certain date will be a good day or a bad day. You don’t know whether this week will be difficult or relatively easy. Given this unpredictability, learning to be flexible is a key skill.
Being flexible requires some consideration…
The most obvious consideration is deciding your priorities: defining which aspects of your life are most important to you and keeping the order in mind. There might be times when you are too ill to tackle even your most important and basic needs, but much of mental illness isn’t so extreme — bad days may severely limit what you can do, but you can still do something. The trouble is, without clear priorities, it’s easy to waste the little energy you have on tasks which aren’t important.
When we complete trivial tasks but neglect our priorities, our tendency is often to blame ourselves — which can make mental health problems (and symptoms) worse.
I often fall into the trap of completing low priority tasks first. I tell myself that they will ease me into the important stuff, helping me avoid procrastination. This might work for some people, but when your mental health fluctuates, you can’t depend on being able to do the important tasks later.
You might feel drained later and simply won’t have the energy to do more. Or the depression could take over and you won’t have the motivation or ability to do anything, let alone something important. Or you could get lost in an anxiety whirlwind, stressing out and worrying so much that you can’t think straight. There are a million reasons, depending on the symptoms you personally experience, why “later” might not be an option.
Priorities need boundaries.
In order to prioritise effectively, you need to put boundaries in place. These can be flexible, but you need to be aware of them — and make other people aware, when relevant. Prioritising is pointless if you can be easily swayed by someone begging you to do an unimportant task. You need to make it clear that you have priorities and while everyone’s time is limited to 24 hours a day, mental illness steals time from you.
Setting and maintaining boundaries can be difficult, but it is necessary.
Boundaries help us to cultivate good mental health and to manage better during episodes of poor mental health. Given this, it’s a good idea to ensure you put boundaries in place at any time — the sooner, the better.
I recently had to set boundaries with someone for whom I do volunteer work. It was difficult for me to broach the subject, but I wanted to make it clear that I couldn’t prioritise them. I could commit to a few hours of work a week and would be willing to do more if/when I’m able, but my priorities are my mental health, writing work for which there’s a chance of earning money, blogging, training and preparing for my Machu Picchu trek and my other volunteer role, which is more closely related to my passions and career plans since it’s a mental health charity.
I felt awkward bringing it up, but this volunteer role has never been formal and I have never promised to do a certain number of hours. I still want to help, but not at the expense of my priorities. I feel better for having explained this, because I wanted to ensure that the expectations of those involved didn’t exceed what I could offer. I also didn’t want to feel pressured to put in more hours than I could commit to, because that would make my mental health problems worse. In fact, setting boundaries benefits everyone, because if my mental health declined a lot, I wouldn’t be able to do anything at all.
You might come across people who don’t respect your boundaries, but don’t be deterred by them: you set and maintain your own boundaries. They might try to push at them or knock them down, but you are in control.
Your ultimate priority should be you.
You can’t help anyone or achieve your own goals unless you put yourself and your mental health first. Ensuring you are managing your mental health as best you can means that you will be able to do more than if you don’t prioritise it. In the list I made above of my own priorities, my mental health comes first. Why? Simply because I cannot do anything else on the list unless my mental health problems are under a certain level of control.
Knowing when to step up and when to step back can be complicated, but your main consideration should be how your actions will affect your mental health.
Again, this often requires flexibility. For example, sometimes I feel so anxious that going for a walk would make me feel worse. Going outside can make me feel panicky and I’m constantly on edge when my anxiety is bad, so I wouldn’t enjoy the walk. Most of the time, going for a walk makes me feel better, even if I’m experiencing some anxiety, because being outside and getting exercise improves my mood, plus I get a sense of achievement from doing it. The trick is to recognise when my anxiety levels make the activity shift from “helpful” to “detrimental”.
The same goes for any task or activity. Mental health problems can be complex and it’s all very well to make a list of what helps you feel better, but sometimes those things can make you feel worse. It depends on your symptoms and circumstances. Be aware of how you are affected by different activities at different times and adjust your boundaries and priorities accordingly.
It’s not just about mental health.
I refer to mental health because it’s the main focus of my blog, but everything I have said applies to physical health, too. In fact, my mental health and physical health are so intertwined that I tend to consider them together. For instance, prioritising my mental health means prioritising exercise — which improves my physical health.
The basics of cultivating good mental health and good physical health are the same: eating healthily, exercising, getting enough sleep, reducing stress, etc. Keep this in mind when deciding on your priorities and setting boundaries — a strong foundation of healthy habits helps you to do everything else more efficiently and effectively.