How I look after number one

Tying in with our World Mental Health Day campaign encouraging people to make their mental health a priority, our colleague Gemma tells us why looking after her mental health is integral to her quality of life. 


Mental Health UK’s theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day on 10th October is something simple yet so powerful. Everyone is encouraged to think of the number one thing they can do to support their mental health.  

So many of us start every day with a head full of commitments – an ever growing to do list of family obligations, deadlines at work and household chores to name a few. How often do we ask ourselves – how can I take care of my mental health today? I can speak for myself – I hardly ever asked that question. I used to just launch into the day with what I had to do, my sense of fulfilment revolving around my output and what I had achieved.  

All too often our own wellbeing is neglected, perhaps as in my case, taken for granted. I used to think that if I met expectations, delivered on deadlines and proved my worth in my role as daughter, partner, manager etc. my own wellbeing would be taken care of. But my thinking shifted about 20 years ago when I had to leave a career I thought I was destined for because of my debilitating anxiety.  

At that point the reality of consuming panic attacks made me realise the number one thing I had to do for my mental health was to stop and seek help. It sounds so simple, yet I agonised over it for many months.  

But once I had made the decision it started me on a path to better understand myself and I now try to live by the rule – my mental health is a priority. I know how easy it is for my needs to be pushed to one side by circumstances that seem out of my control but I also know the importance of listening to yourself. Through therapy I began to appreciate that a lot of my anxiety boiled down to ‘control’ – I often felt subjected to certain aspects or settings that I found difficult. I didn’t appreciate that I could be and indeed was in control. It was okay to exert my needs in a situation and have them met. It wasn’t necessary to live in fear of how I would be perceived because I shouldn’t’ be ashamed – what I needed for my mental health mattered.   

We are all on our own journey with mental health. I can only speak from my own experience that my mental health is now always a priority. If my anxiety levels are increasing – I make time to have a check in with myself. I take time out from whatever I am doing so that I can observe what is actually going on for me. What is it that I can do to help myself? What is within my circle of control? When I start to unpick a situation that is causing me anxiety I can see where I might be able to change aspects so it becomes less stress-inducing and more comfortable.  

If you haven’t come across the circle of control before it is a really helpful visual tool that you can use throughout your day, applying it to home life, work situations and so on. It will help you identify aspects that you have control, influence and power over [Conceptualised by Stephen Covey, 1989]. This tool really encouraged me to become proactive where I could make a change and more accepting of other areas where my influence was minimal. It will help you to focus on what you can start, stop, continue or change within your circle of control that would have a positive impact on your wellbeing.  

Using a personal example, I don’t like change and I will often stay in a certain situation because the familiar is comforting, despite it being destructive. Recently I knew I had to change a situation because my self-esteem was bottoming and my panic attacks were making a resurgence. I knew I could not continue the way I had. So, I needed to unravel what was going on – I honestly felt powerless. But I had options and that was the key. When I looked at what I could control I felt so much more self-assured and certain of the decision I made. It took courage but I brought about a change that was very much in my realm to control and I can happily say that it was the best decision I ever made.  

This World Mental Health Day join with Mental Health UK and put your mental health first. Make it not only your personal priority but a priority in every setting. Prioritising mental health isn’t just a powerful theme to promote on the 10th October – it should be an ever-present theme in everyone’s life.  

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