Hello to you all reading this. My name is Jonny Ward, or 'The Anxious Fireman' on Twitter. I have written many a blog before on the matter of mental health, most have been from the perspective of a firefighter who suffers with anxiety.
To place myself in context, I have served with Greater Manchester Fire Service for 8 years; I’m a 31 straight white male. I was captain of the rugby team; I have travelled all over the world and have been renowned for my ability to cope with almost anything life threw at me.
Then about 2 years ago now I had some stressful events in my life and I had, what can only be best described as, a breakdown. I didn’t see it as a ‘breakdown’ at the time. I basically blacked out in a restaurant, as I came too I knew in my mind I had changed. I was nervous, anxious and shy. The opposite of who I was used to being.
As I have gone through the journey back to mental good health I have learnt a lot about mental health and what it really is. Admittedly, I had never given it a thought before I started struggling. So I want to share with you all my thoughts. Thoughts?? Thoughts are really the cause of mental ill health.
Anxiety and depression really are a sickness of thought. But mental health is a practical and physical illness. I have tried to explain what I mean below. I hope, especially for men who prefer a practical problem to solve, this may help.
I want to add, I am no expert. This is purely my experience and understanding, but this thinking helped me enormously.
As human beings we need to see our brain as a physical organ, just like any other organ in the body. The brain is the physical organ; the mind is our thoughts. Some we control, whilst some are made for us by the brain's oldest functioning parts (the subconscious) that are there to protect us from threats.
Our brain health is forged by our thoughts. When we have a thought, a physical pathway is created in the brain, almost like a thought highway. These pathways allow thoughts to pass through them, this is how we grow and develop. These pathways can change and develop due to our life experiences.
Every thought we have in our mind, affects our body physically. If we think about moving our hand, it will move. If we think about a friend passing, we feel sad. If we think about a happy memory, we feel happy. Thoughts have a physical chemical release that effects how we feel.
If we have many positive experiences, but more importantly positive thoughts, our body will be flooded with serotonin, the happy chemical. Our body and mind will feel happier, more positive.
If, however, our thoughts are of negative things, our body will release depressing chemicals such as cortisone into our system. This will, in turn, effect our mood. If these negative thoughts persist over a long period, this is when someone can develop depression or anxiety.
Depression is when the mind and body has far more negative chemicals then positive ones. Your thoughts may be, "I’m not good enough", "I can’t do this", "have I achieved enough?" perhaps money worries or family problems. They may also just be negatively balanced.
Sometimes people with everything (material objects) can be depressed purely due to their outlook on life or not being happy or honest about who they are. This can start a cycle of thinking negatively; your body reacting by increasing negative chemicals in the body and a downward cycle begins.
Anxiety is when someone’s subconscious has developed a pathway in the brain that suggests a person may be in danger in a certain situation. To deal with this the brain releases adrenaline or 'fight and flight'. This in turn creates what we know as a panic attack. This may have been looking silly in a social situation, etc...
So mental health is really about balancing out the positive and negative thinking. If you compare this to the liver and constantly fill the liver with alcohol, eventually it’s going to get sick. Take negative thinking as alcohol for the brain.
This doesn’t mean however that one negative thought will turn into depression, just like alcohol it’s the long term damage that often leads to problems.
This is why talking helps. It allows your mind to rationalise situations and therefore your thoughts surrounding them. It also allows you to see that others feel the same as you, so that fear of your emotions, of pain, of feeling alone, all of which are negative thoughts can be removed.
This is also why telling someone just to "think positively", or "chin up" just doesn’t work. To change a whole thought process, a pathway in the brain, takes time and effort. Therapies like CBT challenge a person’s thought process over an extended period, to change and remove old thoughts that are causing negative reactions.
Medication can increase the happy mood chemicals in a person’s system. If they feel happier, their thoughts are generally going to be happier and healthier. This allows them the chance to redevelop the pathways in the brain, but also why therapy should be considered alongside medication.
Alongside our thoughts, social events and actions plus keeping healthy hugely affect the mind. Keeping physically active releases happy chemicals into the body, it relaxes us, but also it makes us feel better physically and socially; you may enjoy sport and therefore have more positive thoughts.
Day-to-day negativity also affects us. Social media, the news and people’s moans all go in and affect how our brains and minds are reacting to the world around us.
So mental health is intrinsically linked to physical health. They are not separate; they are joined in such a way that you can’t ignore either of them.
To beat anxiety or depression we need to challenge and change our thought process. This does not happen overnight, just like changing a drinking or eating habit. It also does mean that a mental resilience can be built. Often this means not fearing your emotions or your reactions to situations. Often the biggest part is just accepting and not fearing how you feel. Fearing how you feel is just negative thinking and will add to the negative process.
Being angry, sad, upset, happy, excited, afraid is all normal. But in our modern world we repress a lot of these emotions in fear of convention. Don’t. Release them, accept them and accept you’re just a human being, trying to get by. It’s all ok.
I have written this blog on the back of a close friend committing suicide. He was mentally very poorly. I hope this blog in some way may help someone else before they become as poorly.
My love to you all.
FF Jonny Ward