Mental Health First Aid Kit
Everyone has a first aid kit in their house. Even if it’s just a box or a random drawer that has things thrown in it, you know where to go when you need a plaster or a painkiller. But what about a first aid kit for your mental health (the wine rack doesn’t count, sadly…)? It’s just as important as your physical health but we forget about it all too easily.
As a mental health first aider I firmly believe that having a mental health first aid kit that you can dip into when you need it is key. Something tangible that you can physically go to whenever you feel yourself slipping into that dark place, and find what you need to stop you from losing control and bring you back to yourself. If you have coping strategies in place, then you probably already have one. I met a guy years ago who had severe PTSD and he wrote down his strategies on a small piece of paper and then laminated it so he could carry it in his wallet or his pocket. He had some in different places of his house as well, so there was always a reminder nearby. Simple, but for him, extremely effective.
I prefer a mix of physical objects and actions that I can do like breathing exercises. I can’t carry a kit around with me, but breathing can be done anywhere. Except underwater. Don’t try it there. It won’t end well. I mean, unless you have a snorkel or something like that, then you could try it, or you know, some kind of scuba gear……..I digress….back to the topic….
If you’re a creative type, you could actually make a pretty box (or buy one, whatever works) to have things in that you can take out as needed. Or you could just write a list of things to remember when the world isn’t quite going how it should and keep that in a specific place (or places). Whatever works for you and causes you the least stress, which really is the point of it.
Certain things do work better for different conditions, so it’s important to get things right for you. Saying that, just because something is recommended for anxiety but not depression, doesn’t mean you can’t have it in your First Aid Kit if it’s helpful for you. For example, a colouring book can be perfect for someone who’s got anxiety as they need something to focus on, but for someone with stress they can end up being infuriating. I personally struggle with colouring books even though I do have anxiety. It’s too much for my brain to deal with at that moment.
In the end, it’s YOUR kit designed to be there for YOU and what YOU need. There’s no right or wrong. But just to get you started, here’s a rundown of which things can be helpful for different conditions and why.
Ahh depression. Hello darkness my old friend, as they say. Me and depression have had a long run so, over time, I’ve managed to figure out a few things that can help, along with a few things that don’t necessarily help me, but can be very useful tools for your own kit.
Photographs – A quick reminder of the people you love and who love you back, photographs are a lovely way to make you feel grounded again.
Notes to yourself or letters from others – Having a few positive notes that you’ve written to yourself lying around can be just the thing you need. It’s a reminder from yourself that the hole you’re in won’t last forever. Similarly, letters from other can help you remember how loved you are.
Quote cards – Working in a similar way as the notes and letters, reminding yourself of your favourite affirmations can help you to re-focus and remind you that you are in fact, enough.
Tissues – A good thing to have on hand, you never know when you might need one! I met someone recently who uses a tissue in the same way you would use a fidget toy, fiddling with it when she felt the need to be more grounded.
Comfort food – Sometimes we all need a bit of sugar. Or salt. Whatever you crave that will make you feel better. My go to is chocolate (I do have a bit of a sweet tooth) which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it does contain serotonin after all. Just don’t go overboard. Take everything in moderation – a little treat every now and again never hurt anyone.
Sunshine – So this isn’t really something you can box, BUT, if you’re able to get out in the sunshine (which I admit isn’t always that easy, particularly for those of us who live in the North) you can soak up some of that lovely Vitamin D. Natural sunlight can be a great way to increase serotonin in your body and help lift your mood.
Books – I love reading, I always have. It’s a safe space full of magical stories from far off lands that can provide an escape for a while and can be just what you need at that moment. It’s important not to get lost though, unfortunately the real world isn’t going to go away. Taking some time to concentrate on your favourite story however, can help you re-centre yourself.
Music – Music is food for the soul; it can lift you up or just sit with while you work through your emotions. As a musician, music has always comforted me and I’d be lost without it. Whether you listen to it or play an instrument, it can take you away for a while and help you refocus.
Anxiety is, frankly, a pain in the arse. It has you constantly second guessing yourself, overthinking, worrying about things obsessively. It never stops. Or at least, that’s how it feels to me. When you live with anxiety, your sympathetic nervous system is on overdrive, constantly telling your body that it needs to be ready for fight or flight – to either run from danger or fight it, so if this sounds familiar, then your kit needs things to try and calm it all down.
Headphones – Putting headphones on (noise cancelling ones are even better) is a great way to help you tune out the sounds or noises that are causing you to feel stressed or overwhelmed. Team that up with some music or meditation or even just your favourite movie and it’s a fab way to soothe your poor brain.
Colouring Books – Colouring books are not just for kids. Soothing, distracting and fun, having something to focus on can give your overstimulated brain some relief. You’re not thinking about yourself and your worries, you’re just looking at what colour to choose next and letting the world fall away.
Weighted Blanket – A must have for any anxious person, a weighted blanket can give off feelings of safety and security, helping you to relax and feel comforted. The weight of the blanket acts in the same way a hug would, activating your parasympathetic nervous system to lower your heart rate and calm your brain.
Fuzzy socks – A comfy pair of fuzzy socks with your weighted blanket can help you feel safe and warm, both important things if you’re in the middle of an anxiety attack. For me, I like the feel of the socks themselves and focusing on them really helps me to calm down.
Fidget toys – Tried and tested and there are so many different ones to choose from. Having something small for you to fiddle with can be very grounding as it engages your sense of touch and helps bring you back to the present moment. It doesn’t even have to be a toy, it can be any small object, a paperclip, a rock, a pencil. I used to have a lucky button that I carried everywhere and it made me feel better. Shrug.
Cold water – Perhaps a surprising one to have on the list, research has shown that splashing cold water on your face or wrists can help soothe that pesky fight or flight response. Having a reusable water bottle (filled with cold water of course) or an ice pack handy, could be just what you need. It you’re out and about you can just pop into the nearest bathroom, wet down a paper towel and gently wipe that over your wrists, forehead or back of your neck. If you’re at home, then a cold shower really does the trick, however unpleasant it may sound.
Breathing exercises – Breathing exercises are an extremely useful tool to have in your kit and can be done anywhere, anytime. There’s so many you can do, but I’m going to list 3 that have helped me at different times, depending on how panicked I was.
– Breathe in for 3 beats and breathe out for 6. If that’s too much, try breathing in for 2 and out for 4. As long as the out breath is longer than the in breath, it will help lower your heart rate and keep you calm.
– Take a deep breath and blow out for as long as you can, as if you were blowing bubbles. You can even imagine the bubbles in your head. Again, as long as the out breath is longer, it should work.
– If thinking about bubbles or counting is too much in the moment, just take as deep of a breath as you can. Focus on only that and try to make each one deeper than the last. Keep going until your heart rate starts to even out.
Bubbles – You could also actually blow some bubbles. Cheap to buy and fun to play with, who doesn’t love bubbles! Like with the breathing exercise, blowing bubbles forces you to slow down and take deeper breaths. While it’s fun for adult, I’ve found that this is a great technique for kids as well because blowing bubbles is something they understand.
A demon we’ve all fallen prey to at some point, stress for many of us has become a part of daily life. As I mentioned in a previous blog, stress isn’t inherently a bad thing. It’s purpose was to help our ancestors survive, and it did. When we’re in stressful situations today, it helps us to think fast and decide on a course of action. Mostly. Some people can get overcome by it and that’s when tools to help reduce it become very useful.
Hand cream – Not usually the first thing you’d see on a list, but stick with me. Hand cream engages both your sense of smell and touch. The scent can be familiar and calming and the act of massaging it into your skin helps you to really focus on what you’re doing, almost forcing you to be mindful. It’s all very soothing.
Massager – Like fidget toys there are so many massagers to choose from so it all comes down to individual preference (and your bank balance alas). When you’re stressed, your body can often become very tense, so having a way to loosen up this stiff or sore muscles and help you to relax.
Acupressure ring – I’m going to be honest, I’d never heard of these before but they sound great. Designed to apply pressure to sensitive spots on your fingers, they can help promote a sense of calm, reduce stress and anxiety and help to increase your focus and attention. Some designs look just like any other ring you might wear so they don’t even stand out. Click here to find out more if the idea of it interests you.
Eye mask – I love an eye mask. I have trouble sleeping and light in particular can be a problem, so an eye mask is a must for me. However, they’re not just designed to reduce light, they can be a useful self-care tool as well. You can get a cooling mask to help soothe headaches, a warming mask for those tired eyes or a mask infused with essential oils that smell divine and have their own benefits. Whichever you choose, taking time to slow down can really help you reduce your stress levels.
Hot drinks – Another mildly surprising one that people don’t expect is hot drinks. Whether it’s your favourite tea, hot chocolate or coffee, the taste, the smell, the feeling of the warm mug in your hands are all great stress relievers. If herbal tea is your go to, you also have the benefits that they provide. Sometimes, it’s just the association of the drink with the fact that you’ve taken 5 minutes to sit down and relax. For us Brits, having a natter over a cuppa is the ultimate stress relief!
Stress balls – These are a really cheap, but super effective form of stress relief. If you feel yourself starting to get worked up, just give it a good squeeze. And if you’re imagining that it’s someone’s head (or other squishy bit), then that’s fine. As long as you stop thinking about it once you’ve put the stress ball down…….
Meditation & Mindfulness – Whether you go for a long session or a quick 5 minutes, meditation or mindfulness are such great ways to lower your stress levels. Part of it is in the act of doing it, but part of it is simply taking the time out for yourself. If you’re not sure where to start then try an app or some guided meditations online. Give it a go.
Journaling – I am a writer, so often when my head’s going crazy I find it helpful to put my thoughts down on paper. In my head they’re like flies buzzing around a jar. I can’t get to them and there’s so many that I don’t know where to start. Once they’re out of my head, I can choose to focus on them one by one or not at all. That’s what journaling is essentially. Sometimes my scribbles are random and sometimes they have form. They can even turn into blogs eventually….
So what next?
These lists are not exhaustive and are only suggestions. What helps one person may not help another, but they can be worth a try. There are also things that cross over. Stress balls aren’t just for stress; they can help someone with anxiety. Books aren’t just good for depression; they can be useful if you’re stressed and want to take some time out for yourself. The same applies to music or watching movies or your favourite TV show. As long as they comfort you, they’re useful.
They can also be used for other mental health conditions, not just the ones I’ve mentioned. For example, meditation and breathing exercises are an incredibly useful tool for everyone, not just those struggling with mental health. People with Borderline Personality Disorder (sometimes known as Emotional Dysregulation Disorder) struggle with feelings of abandonment, so having photographs and letters from loved ones can help remind them that they’re not alone. With PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) it can be useful to carry around an object that reminds you of the present which can help with flashbacks. That could be a photograph, a piece of jewellery or something small that can be carried in your bag or pocket.
For other conditions, some recommendations include keeping a journal, using grounding techniques (which are similar to mindfulness), and visualisation; imagining yourself in a safe space or wearing a suit of armour. It can make you feel protected and help bring you out of whatever hole you’re in. This could help someone with anxiety, especially if they have panic attacks. It’s a technique I might start trying myself.
There are also actions you can do to help yourself that can’t be quantified into a box. Most mental health professionals would recommend healthy eating and drinking plenty of water, which we all should be doing really. Sigh. Exercise is also a great tool to use as it gives you endorphins (the feel good hormone), but if it’s not something you’ve done a lot of before or have other health conditions it’s always best to speak to your doctor before you embark on an exercise regime. There’s no point doing it if you end up injuring yourself because that helps no one. Yoga is a great option because you can start small with something like Yin Yoga, which is slower paced, and then work your way up. It also has a meditative aspect to it that helps with mental health.
Your Mental Health First Aid Kit is exactly that. YOURS. It should contain things that YOU need that are going to be helpful to YOU. If you’re not sure what works then try a few things out. With all that said, these are the things I use in MY kit. Some of it is in an actual box (that I decorated myself, go me) but the rest doesn’t quite fit. I do always know where they are though, for when I need them. Some of the things on my list haven’t been mentioned yet, but they are things that work for me. The list really is endless.
At the end of the day, you need to do what’s best for your mental health. If that means going for a walk and hugging trees, great! Go for it! If curling up in bed and escaping from the world for a while works best, do it (don’t forget to come back though)! If screaming at the sky while shaking your fist angrily helps, have at it! Because let’s be honest, there’s a lot of darkness in the world right now. It can be overwhelming, especially with the over saturation from TV and social media meaning we’re constantly exposed to it. We all need an outlet. But more importantly, we need safe outlets and having a first aid kit specifically for your mental health can be just that.
You do you. But be safe.
Borderline Personality Disorder