We live in a society where the promotion and encouragement of maintaining and investing in our physical health is deeply ingrained in our system, and rightly so. We are taught the importance and necessity of our physical health from as early as primary school, as well as the science behind it and methods we can use in order to ensure its upkeep. Yet when most people talk about old age, the majority are willingly accept the physical disabilities they may face, such as having to need a wheelchair or walking stick, or needing assistance to go to the bathroom.

But what people fear the most is losing control of their mind. The future of our mental health as we age seems to be everyone’s main concern, yet we are never taught how to monitor and take care of it.

How you understand your own mental health and the problems you experience will be personal to you, but we at Fearless Femme have created this toolkit which we hope will serve as a checklist of exercises you can employ to help ensure good mental health and make sure you’re exercising your brain in the right way every day.

Self Compassion

Self-compassion is exceptionally difficult for those who suffer from extreme self-criticism, shame and low self-worth, which is why Professor Paul Gilbert founded a technique known as CFT (Compassion Focussed Therapy). He developed CFT in response to the overwhelming number of patients he treated over a decade whose anxiety and depression he noticed were exacerbated by their tendency to be overly self-critical to the point of self-hatred. Extreme self-hatred and criticism effectively made CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) methods unsuccessful in these patients, preventing them from treating their depression and anxiety.

CFT is therefore most suitable for anyone who has relentless inner critics, holds deep feelings of shame, who is unkind towards themselves, or has experienced emotional or physical abuse, including neglect and bullying. It may also help those with self-esteem issues, chronic anxiety and/or depression, and eating disorders.

What CFT helps you understand is how the intensity of your anxiety and depression can in fact derive from your own internalised bullying. You fear your own thoughts; your anxiety and depression are dejected, worrisome, exhausted, instinctive reactions to your own inner voice: “You idiot! Why are you so fat and stupid?! Why are you so ugly? Hear them? They’re laughing at you. Everyone knows you’re a pathetic loser!” What CFT helps you realise is that you are effectively attacking yourself, and when your body feels under attack it will trigger its protection systems.

When you mind attacks you, your body will go into protection mode. You’ll bow down to the criticism mercifully, accepting the lashings of shame, allowing the feelings of anxiety and depression to persist extensively.

The only way to stop this is to treat yourself with compassion when you start feeling anxiety or depression taking control. It takes a lot of conscious practice and effort to address and change that cold, bullying and aggressive inner voice, which tries to change your thoughts and behaviours, into a compassionate one. But it can be done.

What needs to happen is for you to refocus your attention on your strengths, skills and positive qualities; then secondly you need to address why you fear giving up your negative voice. Why do you hold onto it? Do you fear you will become a worse or less successful person without it? Courage is important here, but you are capable of taking all of these steps, and gradually over time you will find yourself becoming a better friend to yourself.

Emotional Validation

There has likely been a time in your life when you’ve told someone about how and what you’re feeling. This may have been a brief incident with a colleague or friend, or perhaps it was a longer, more earnest conversation with a family member or therapist. At that time you may have shared with them some sensitive and personal information about yourself which was painful and frightening to bring up. After expressing yourself, courageously and honestly, you then ended your narrative by saying: “I’m sorry for being so negative.”

Society has led us to believe that experiencing or expressing “negative” emotions is taboo; we are made to feel guilty or ashamed for expressing melancholy, distress or frustration to someone as it’s inconsiderate to their feelings, and will ultimately affect their mood in a negative way. Effectively: speaking about “negative” emotions is widely regarded by many as inconsiderate as sneezing in someone’s face without covering your mouth.

The ironic twist is that these so-called “negative” emotions are vital to our mental health. Well-being is not determined by the presence of positive emotions and absence of negative, but rather by a eudaemonic philosophy which emphasises a sense of meaning and fulfilment that is fortified by confronting and acknowledging suffering.

In short: how do we know we are happy if we have never felt sad? Adversity is essential to human experience in order for us to feel triumph and joy. There is no such thing as a negative emotion: only distressing ones. Distressing feelings are biological prompts telling us something in our life needs attention and amendment; thus suppressing them or apologising for them is counterproductive and unnecessary. Speaking negatively and expressing your distressing emotions are not the same thing, and emotions are not contagious: if the mood of the person you are speaking to alters, they are likely being affected by empathy rather than “picking up your mood”.

Therefore it’s essential that you always acknowledge, accept and be unashamed of your distressing emotions. Don’t rush to change your feelings or hide them from others or yourself. If overwhelming or persistant, write them down and talk to someone you trust about them, and if the distress increases alarmingly, consider taking immediate action by talking with a professional.

Positive Affirmations

Words have significant power. It’s likely you’re someone who watches what you say around other people: to be respectful, kind and considerate at all times. You have very likely had to apologise in your life for something you said, multiple times. Whilst we are careful with the words we use towards others, we tend to be less mindful of those we use against ourselves. We can bring ourselves down for months or years at a time with perpetual negative self-talk; but our entire mental universes can change by just choosing to speak and think with words which cultivate our greatest selves and mood.

If you want to make great change in the world and yourself, accomplish great things and experience life to the fullest, you need to manifest an empowered and positive vocabulary to inspire the necessary actions. The only way your brain can be rewired accordingly to meet your ambitions is through the language it harnesses. You can’t touch your brain in any other way: you can’t open up your head and fiddle around until it’s just right. You can only influence it through your language of thought.

It’s crucial, therefore, if you want to reach your fullest potential, to connect with your mind with positive self-talk and thinking.

This, spoiler alert, is very difficult. It can be virtually impossible for those in the depths of depression.

That’s ok; it may not be something you can do right now: but try again, in a tiny way, tomorrow. Keep it as a goal in your life, something you’d like to achieve. To many of you, it will feel like lying to yourself, and that feeling doesn’t go away overnight. It can take months and years; but what we can tell you now is that none of it is a lie. You are not lying to yourself: your depression just tells you that you are. It tries to guilt trip you into feeling negatively about yourself because your positive self-talk doesn’t benefit depression, it only benefits you, and depression needs to keep itself in a sustainable environment. Once it feels threatened, it’s going to pull you down.

Kill it with kindness: be kind to yourself. It’s amazing how much of an impact such a simple idea can have on your life and mental well-being.

Focus on Growth

Some mental health conditions are possible to recover from entirely, whilst others are unfortunately not — but all can be treated and managed in a multitude of ways. The suitable management and treatment of mental health problems will help lessen the negative impact they can potentially have on your life, allowing you to build yourself up as a productive and fulfilled individual.

You may find it helpful to focus on the word ‘growth’ rather than ‘recovery’. There are some mental health issues, such as eating disorders, which specifically need to focus on recovery for the sake of the individual as it is a matter of immediate urgency and a serious risk to their health and life. Other mental health conditions – such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia – have a less clear-cut process in terms of ‘recovery’, as many are life-long illnesses which fluctuate, (re-)emerge and subside at different intensities throughout our lives.

What’s important for everyone suffering from mental health problems is to focus on growth and make this your goal every day, rather than focussing on an end goal of ‘being recovered’ which isn’t always achievable.

Focussing on progress rather than an allusive ‘end goal’ gives you chance to celebrate something about yourself and your life every day. You shouldn’t feel that you have to preserve opportunities to feel proud, or celebratory, or grateful until you have gotten some distant end point of recovery. These emotions are not exhaustive.

It’s unlikely you hear of people saying: “I became tired of feeling small senses of pride everyday. The feeling wore off over time; I regretfully used my pride and gratitude all up too quickly and now my supply of good feelings about myself have been exhausted beyond repair.”

If the feelings of happiness and self-satisfaction were exhaustive, then this would apply to other feelings. We doubt you’ve found yourself saying: “I felt sad so many times recently that I just can’t feel sad anymore. The feeling of sadness has been exhausted. I’m really not in the mood to try and feel sad again for a while.”

Life is never about the end goal: you can’t sustain the incredible feeling of pride you get when you graduate from high school or university over the next sixty years of your life: you have to keep growing. Whatsmore, professional and academic development go hand-in-hand with that of personal development: if you don’t give credit to and focus on your own personal development, other areas of your life will not thrive as you wish them to.

You are your main resource in life, so it’s crucial you maintain it with the utmost care and respect. Focussing on growth not only helps you with your life goals, but it also helps you better understand yourself, handle stress and improves your mental well-being and self-esteem.