Nobody wants to end up in group therapy, so the idea of attending my first session last week seemed impossible. All I could imagine beforehand were the awkward introductions and being forced to talk about things I didn’t want to, and I have to admit; the first part of the session really was the anxiety-ridden nightmare I had imagined. Standing around, nervously queueing for a drink from the coffee machine, with around 6 or 7 others, their ages ranging from a little younger than me to probably around 70. Once we had been taken through to the main room and sat around in the perfectly predictable circle I had imagined, it was time to start.
The two leaders made things a little easier, assuring us we wouldn’t ever have to speak if we didn’t want to, and that we were simply going to try to put some new skills and habits into place to help with our ‘wellbeing’, but I still had my reservations that I wasn’t going to hear anything I hadn’t heard before. Then it was time for setting the group ‘rules’. I don’t think my eyes could have rolled any further to the back of my head. It felt like being back in a high school sex-ed class. Everyone seemed uncomfortable, which was probably why everyone was so agreeable.
Once we got past the ‘rules’ and talking about our hopes for the sessions, we started our first discussion. “What keeps us unwell?” The leader asked. We were nearing the end of the session by now, but we had a few minutes to talk to the people next to us before being given the chance to feedback. People were reluctant to speak at first, and surprisingly I ended up being one of the only two people wanting to really give their opinions. In fact, I wanted to speak a little too much, I kept thinking of point after point on what keeps me unwell, but I soon realised that not all of my points resonated with others, which opened my eyes a little more to how diverse mental illness, and the actions we take around it, can be.
But it got me thinking for hours afterwards, what is it for me? What choices do I make that help keep me unwell? Although the majority of the time, I don’t have the motivation to keep up with making an effort to help my mental health, I definitely notice the difference on the days that I am doing certain things differently. So I figured out my list. I decided that my number one detrimental behaviour is (or, was) drinking, or playing into other self-destructive cycles. I brought this up in the session, and we discussed how these behaviours may act like a short-term fix, especially for anxiety, but how in the long-term, they have an incredibly negative impact on mental health. I noticed instantly how my mental illness became easier to cope with once I cut down my drinking, so hearing the words that it was helping to ‘keep me unwell’ really resonated with me. Another thing that came up for me personally was avoiding situations for fear of anxiety, which lead me to realise that the longer you avoid something, the bigger the fear and anxiety for that situation becomes, keeping you unwell and probably leading to more avoidance. It’s a horrible cycle that too many of us know.
This got me thinking. What about the opposite view? Now I know what I can try not to do, but what can I be doing to help keep myself well? Of course, motivation is difficult when dealing with mental illness, but if we don’t give up, and we keep trying new things, what exactly can we be doing to help ourselves? My first thoughts jumped to the list my doctor keeps writing me, and I realised my number one in this area is exercise. As simple and predictable as it sounds, making the effort to keep up an exercise plan, no matter what it is (for me that’s walking, yoga or going to the gym) helps tremendously with keeping well. It really can be the difference between a good day and a bad day, and paired with keeping your sleep healthy and your support system strong, it makes all the difference when coping with mental illness.
So I guess the first session of group therapy was really a success. It got me thinking about how I can be more proactive in dealing with my mental illness, albeit when I can find the effort and motivation, which isn’t something I normally think about too much. I think it’s too easy to give in to poor mental health, and think that there’s nothing you can do to help yourself, but in reality, you may not be able to find a cure, but you can definitely help yourself cope. I look forward to seeing what the rest of my group sessions help me think about.