Therapists agree about one thing: their clients are the problem. I get quite used to telling trainees: “You know, if your clients had no worries they wouldn’t be coming to see you”.
Adding: “So inherently your job is difficult”.
But that never stopped a therapist from complaining – nor a client from demanding simple solutions. So in the interests of shedding genuine light, what does the evidence show you can always do to improve your mental health?
Bear in mind that very few people have identical symptoms. (I sometimes wonder whether we should even attempt to define our “depressions”, “manias”, “dementias”, “schizophrenias” or “neuroses” because no two psychological mindsets match). But, taken all in all, you will find more happiness if you attempt:
1) To find work where you have some measure of control over your terms, conditions and mode of operating.
2) To live among people who give you supportive if sometimes critical feedback.
3) To sing in a choir.
4) To go dancing.
5) To enter into the rhythm of a more “natural” life either by gardening, making art or visiting empty landscapes where you gain perspective on your personal ‘significance’.
For myself, I always aimed to achieve the first two items and, with occasional rows and flare-ups, was generally successful. I managed from the ages of six to 18 and may resume in my dotage. Item 4 has been a complete fail. Four left feet. Nearly all my recent energy has been focused on item five.
My garden is of course a hotbed of 20 vegetable varieties plus trees galore. But for true salvation, I opt for the empty glories of West Penwith’s Cornish landscape – or I go find an Alp.
If you want to ask the world a question, go and stare at a wild sea or stand among splendour about 4000 metres up a mountain and I promise you will begin to hear some sort of an answer, if only from yourself.
What are the three best anti-depressants on the planet with no chemical side-effects?
Well, there’s the cliff walk from St Ives to Zennor in the far south-west of Britain. One minute you are in Hampstead-On-Sea surrounded by up to 40,000 people clamouring for ice creams. The next it’s just you, the seals, the seagulls, the endless seascape and the odd passing German all telling you this view has not been altered since granite was first made – try cornwallonline.co.uk. The route is moderately difficult because you have to clamber over boulders half as big as you are while the path constantly wanders up and down also meandering round every headland. There’s no phone signal in the middle section. The six and a half miles sometime seem like sixteen. But you meet yourself along the way – plus the occasional adder. It’s sort of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” territory without the desert or mesas. You feel alive, alert and aerobic in ways impossible to replicate in a gym.
Second, risk everything on a serried French glacier. As a still novice skier, I was once led up a mountain by friends native to the region who didn’t begin to comprehend there could be people who generally used feet by day instead of zippy carbon fibre skiblades. They went up, I ploddingly followed. They skied down non-stop, pell-mell, hell-for-leather and the devil take the hindmost. I paused in my tracks, stared at two pinpoints of people about to disappear from view two hundred metres below me, traced in my mind the narrow descent with a meagre scraping of snow requiring hundreds of sudden turns all of which must be infallibly performed or death by crevasse might ensue, and thought – “What a couple of shits!” – but I also caught the view and thought – “If IKEA stands for complete tedium this is a total thrill.” Reality check – you don’t have to go with dodgy mates and risk your life. Try a walking trek through the beautiful vistas of the French Alps on the legendary Tour Du Mont Blanc over at tourdumontblanc.holiday run by Salamander Adventures to be on the healthier side yet obtain similar benefits. The grand visual perspectives, the simplification of life into just staying warm and fit enough to move in a challenging environment, the good sleep that comes from using your body as nature intended in unusually fresh air – these are chosen paths to peace of mind.
Thirdly, to the woods. Via woodlands.co.uk you can buy yourself several acres of your own wood for about the same price as a deposit on a grim flat in the West Midlands. Forget those damaging pressures associated with home ownership (paying mortgages, worrying about price movements and keeping up with the Joneses) and by contrast, reflect on the healthier influence of sitting under your own slice of nature’s tree canopy instead. Benefits include: ‘rebalancing by getting away in a place you can call your own without time-pressures’; ‘coping better with stress by relaxing in an interesting and peaceful environment’; ‘growing physically fitter by engaging in the practical task of wood management’ (eg chopping); ‘being able to “work, rest and play” in ways not normally possible in other outdoor settings’ plus ‘gaining a sense of perspective and meaning in life simply by watching the trees grow’. Admittedly, you’ll need to rent somewhere else to sleep except for those times you’re prepared to go camping. But visiting your wood to see the stars at night or the sunlight on the leaves by day with no one around – it’s soul-mending.