Updated: May 15
The first and most important thing when you are going through a crisis like that is to wrap your head around the following: your mental health crisis is not the end of your life. It feels like it, but it is not. Even if it drags, if you feel like it will never end, I promise it is not the end. It is actually a new beginning; it may even need to hurt so much because pain is motivating, it creates a strong dissonance in your mind and as long as you find a way to connect with your sense of agency you will be fine. Or even better than fine.
#1. How to approach a mental health crisis (or any other crisis)
Crises are normal. Everyone goes through them, they are necessary for growth and change. Some are bigger and more dramatic, while others go just a bit smoother – but without them life would be stale. We live very long lives now; we cannot expect to follow one trajectory from the age of twenty until eighty plus. We need crises to adjust our strategies and ways of thinking.
A crisis can occur when you lose a job, lose a relationship, your parent passes away, or when you are simply getting a bit older, and your nervous system can no longer withstand the stimulation that you bombarded it with before.
One of the most common crises described in movies and literature is the mid-life crisis - it would normally occur between the ages of 37 to 43. It is a common phenomenon, and it is supposed to help us switch from the feeling of being invincible to a bit more humility and self-care that we need as we get older. This is a moment when people get burned out, experience a depressive episode or decide to end an important relationship. All these changes are scary, but they help you adjust and grow – the decision to get a divorce can lead you to a new, more fulfilling relationship in the future. A burnout can force you into a career that will be sustainable up until your 80s. A depressive episode can force you to face the difficult truth that you are not invincible and need to take better care of your health. You can reap all of those benefits of a crisis if you do not give up, keep trying, keep experimenting with what helps, and if you believe that there is meaning in the experience, however painful.
#2. Learning self-care
A lot of internet advice will tell you that when times are tough, you need to learn self-care, practice self-love, and develop a better relationship with yourself. This seems pretty vague, right? What does that actually mean? The answer is fairly simple: it means that you need to experiment with different things and stop to observe the results of your experiments.
If you are going through a crisis, it means that the things that used to work for you and made you feel good in the past stopped working. Which, in turn, means that you need to figure out new ways of making yourself feel good. For example, people who experience their first depressive episode often say that the things that brought them joy no longer do, and then they jump to the conclusion that nothing can bring them joy. The jump to the general conclusion is dangerous. What we need to do is revert it and stick to reality: the things that used to bring joy no longer do. I am repeating myself here for a reason. This statement does not mean that nothing brings joy; it just means that the things that once worked are no longer valid, so new sources of joy are yet to be discovered. You need to try out new things and then check how you feel after. This needs to be repeated a lot of times so that you learn to do what helps and ditch the things that no longer do. Once you figure this out, you have an amazing resource for the rest of your life, and you learn what to do when times are tough.
You can do this by engaging in a new hobby, changing the way you build relationships, or having healthier routines that help you take care of your body. Some of the things that I discovered in my crisis are fairly simple but incredibly effective – I know now that I need to have group activities in my life. So whenever I feel like I am sliding down, I join a workshop or a group of strangers for a holiday (there are a lot of agencies that organize that). I also learned that my body tells me when something is off – for some people, it may be their stomach acting out, for others, it may be headaches, for others, it may be their back. Your body always tells you that something is wrong; you just need to learn to listen.
#3 Coping with difficult emotions
So, a crisis can be an emotional rollercoaster. All of the emotions that you were blocking before are now coming to the surface, and this can be really challenging. Their intensity and the thoughts attached to them may really surprise you. You need to keep reminding yourself of two things: that emotions are not threatening; some are just uncomfortable, and that every emotion passes if you just let yourself experience it. Easier said than done, right? Well, yes, that is true, but if you allow yourself to experience an emotion and try not to immediately do something about it, you will learn that there is wisdom in every emotion. Anxiety will not kill you, neither will sadness. You can experience really intense emotions without having to do anything about them. You can withstand more than you give yourself credit for, and if you give yourself time, new insights will come.
You do not have to force yourself to feel better immediately. You can approach even the most intense emotion with curiosity. What is your sadness telling you? How does anxiety feel in your body? Can you notice how energizing anger can be? Why are you feeling the way you are feeling (ask yourself this question seven times)?
It is ok if you can’t do it at the first go and revert back to your usual coping strategies. Learning this takes time. It is a difficult process, but once you make friends with all the emotions, your life will get better. A good mindfulness course or app can help you with that (I use Waking Up by Sam Harris).
#4 Navigating relationships better
Every internet advice will tell you that in a crisis, you need other people around you. You need to stay connected to your friends and share what you are going through so that other people can help you. Mostly that is true, but what is missing from that advice is nuance. You need to be connected, that is correct, but you also need to be mindful of how different people affect you when you are in a vulnerable state.
Most people will want to help you when you are in pain - after all, most people, especially your friends, do not want to see you suffer. However, not all people are equipped to assist you in a crisis. You may end up getting bad advice or a perspective on life that is negative and kills hope. People will tell you things that stem from their own anxieties. It is important to not take defensive advice to heart.
People mostly refer to their own experience when they speak; they speak through their own fears. When you are vulnerable, the things you hear tend to really stick. So, you may want to be a bit cautious about what and with whom you share. My experience is that the best help I got was from people who understand that relationships are hard, that life is not black and white, who do not jump to conclusions, who are patient, and really listen before making judgments, who can differentiate between facts and opinions and admit that they can be wrong. These people, I feel, I can trust and value their opinions.
Getting back to mental stability after a crisis is just like learning to ride a bike. You don't master it on the first go. You can't expect it to be fast; you need to fall down a couple of times to learn your balance again. You fall down, get back up, and then something surprises you, and you're back down again. This can happen over and over again. It's normal and nothing to be afraid of. When you fall down, give yourself a moment, and then try again with the new knowledge that you gained from falling down. Every fall is just you learning new things. Sounds like a great way to approach life in general, right? It is.
Life after crisis
Some experiences are undeniably tough, and a mental health crisis can be incredibly challenging, but you can also grow through it. You learn that difficulties are a normal part of life, you learn better self-care, you learn to make better relationship choices and become more patient. Also, you can learn to understand others in a more empathetic, nuanced way and become less judgemental. Once you've gone through a difficult time you realise that people may be going through stuff of their own without you even knowing about it. You also learn that you are more flexible and resilient than you ever thought possible. A crisis can really make you stronger.
From today’s perspective I can say that I am finally living life the way I want to live it and this is also what I hear from the people I have assisted in navigating through their own personal crises. Once the dust settles they say that they finally have the courage to go for the things that they want and not settle for less. I strongly believe that with the right mindset and maybe a bit of help you can get there too.
If you are currently facing a crisis or struggling through tough times, remember that this is not the end of your life. If you feel overwhelmed and need guidance, know that you don't have to face it alone. I can help you not only survive but also thrive through this experience.