Mental health is just as important as physical health, but it can be a lot harder to talk about. Many people think that experiencing poor mental health is unusual, but if we actually think about it, very few people will sail through life without being stressed, upset or anxious about something. In fact, 1 in 6 people will have experienced a common mental health problem in the past week.
It is normal for you to feel down some days or stressed about issues important to you, but it is important to ensure that you are able to manage your stress healthily. The American ‘Stress first aid for Firefighter and Emergency Services Personnel’ categories can help you identify when you need a little bit of extra help. This guide can be referred to daily, or a few times a week to help you evaluate if you are on top of things, or if things are getting on top of you. Clicking on the thumbnail (above) will take you to the full chart which you might want to print and keep, or just read the categories below.
When thinking about your mental health and levels of stress and anxiety, it can be pretty overwhelming. One easy way to think about it would be to use the four levels of the firefighter scale to determine where your mental state is, and how to improve it.
This would be your level if you are feeling like you are coping well. Your moods will generally be calm and steady in this section of the scale, but it is normal to have some small mood changes as you are going about your day. Due to your mental health being in a pretty positive place, you are able to follow your daily routine, focusing on tasks that you have to complete and communicating effectively with those around you. Both your sleeping and your appetite should be normal, and you should easily be able to adjust your plans, or take feedback from others without it becoming too overwhelming.
The next level up on this mental health scale is when you may start to notice that you are finding things a little more difficult – and that is ok. Everyone feels like this sometimes; the most important thing is that you identify that you might need a little support. At this stage, you may notice that you are becoming a little more inconsistent when it comes to completing tasks and you may start to struggle with changing plans. You might also begin to notice some physical symptoms of stress such as low energy, headaches and muscle tension accompanied by a lack of sleep or loss of appetite. When spending time with ones you love, you might feel stressed or get less enjoyment. Your mood may also fluctuate more often, meaning that you experience bouts of sadness, nervousness or snappiness. If you feel like this describes you, then there are many steps that you can take to get back on top and feel like yourself again.
When you begin to think like you can’t keep going and that life is getting on top of you, it can be really tough. It is important to note that most people feel like this at some point in their life and there are many resources and organisations that can give advice and help you through this. At this level of the scale you may feel exhausted and unable to concentrate. You may be avoiding interacting with family, friends or colleagues due to how you are feeling. Physically, you may experience aches, pains and fatigue, while mentally you may experience stronger emotions more consistently, such as persistent fear, panic and anxiety, sadness or hopelessness. Due to your feelings, you may also be distracted, restless or have trouble sleeping. Many people who experience these feelings self-medicate by over eating or using substances, but this will not tackle the root of why you are feeling this way and will not make you feel any better in the long run.
This is where urgent action needs to be taken and you should seek medical advice and the support of those around you. You may find that you have totally withdrawn from your relationships and that you are experiencing symptoms such as panic attacks, nightmares or distress. At this stage, you may feel like you can’t go on anymore and have thoughts of self-harm. However, it is important to note that there is a way out of this and there is support that you can access to stop you from feeling lost or numb. These feelings are temporary and there are plenty of people who can support you until you are able to cope.
Trying to identify what is causing you to feel like you do is a good way to start feeling better. You may know the cause of the stress immediately, or you may want to use our stress factors scale from our Guide to Healthy Active Ageing to help.
If you are finding that things are becoming overwhelming it is important to talk to someone. This may come naturally to some people but it may be more difficult, and that’s OK too. If you have a close friend or family member that you could confide in then start here, as they know you better than anyone.
If you feel uncomfortable speaking to someone that you know then a health professional, or support service such as the Samaritans (details are below) will be able to offer you support and advice as they are trained professionals. Many people say that they feel much better when they get things off their chest.
Other ways to get back on top include upping your levels of activity – studies have shown that exercise releases chemicals in your body that improve your mood and reduce stress. In particular, exercises that have a rhythm such as running, walking, swimming and dancing have been shown to help mental health.
The NHS recommends 5 steps to mental well being (which can be accessed below), which provide 5 clear steps with easy to understand do’s and don’ts. As well as connecting with others and exercise, they also recommend learning new skills that will help boost your confidence, giving to others to give you a sense of self-worth and practicing mindfulness.
It is important to note that everyone is different, and techniques that work for some people, may not work for others. Try out a few to see which ones are right for you, and if you reassess your feelings on the scale and still find you are overwhelmed, it is important to seek medical advice. This may seem daunting at first but remember, they are trained professionals who aren’t there to judge, they are there to give you a helping hand and get you back on your feet.
The Samaritans – 116123
Mind infoline: 0300 123 3393
Age UK – 0800 678 1602
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Your doctor can help with medical problems, or if you are in an emotional crisis you could contact the Samaritans. You can call them free from any phone on 116 123, email email@example.com or you may have a branch near you that you can visit (see www.samaritans.org/branches).
If the cause of your crisis is feeling overwhelmed by a financial or legal issue then they may suggest a local legal centre or the Citizens Advice Bureau as a good first step to solving your issues.
There is a Spanish phrase that says ‘Where there is a will, there are many ways’. Just because what you have tried so far has not worked does not mean there is nothing else to try and these people are expert at finding the right solution in a crisis, and they care.