Often, we find it difficult to talk about our mental and physical health. This is definitely true more-so for men. There are many brave men opening up and starting to talk about mental health, their own challenges and what they do to combat them. One of those people is Balian, born and raised in the Midlands of England, UK.
Featured in our guest-blogger spot this week, I Interviewed him about his opinions on men’s mental health and how he has overcome his own challenges, using counselling and other modalities.
– A short history –
Balian is a welder turned welding lecturer from the midlands in the UK. He grew up on a farm, left home at 17 and went on to travel the world, often as a lone wolf. When he started to struggle with his mental health it came as a shock to him, as well as family and friends.
“I was always the happy go lucky guy with big dreams, always on some sort of adventure or undertaking some sort of challenge. Lifes problems and unforeseen events can catch anyone though, eventually I found I didn’t have the energy or capacity to do anything productive anymore.”
Balian started bloging in January around a month after being signed off from work to help process thoughts and help improve his mental health.
“I have always enjoyed writing in my spare time, especially when travelling. It was a creative escape I knew I could fall back on even though we are in lockdown. After getting over the initial shock and internal disappointment I faced at actually needing the time off I figured there must be more people who feel like me. I know there are. I then had an urge to start writing about it. My head was struggling to contain all my bigger issues along with the many micro issues that trouble everyone so I figured if I could identify them by writing them down, maybe it would help me process them? I had always wanted to start a blog when I was younger and now I was being paid to have some time off to recuperate I thought if I am going to be writing a lot… why not make a site and put it online? “
Balian writes about a number of challenges everyone faces, as well as different healing modalities to help turn things around and improve both physical and mental well-being.
1. Why were you drawn to blogging initially? What made you interested in blogging and writing about men’s mental health?
I have taken to writing naturally in my spare time over the years, especially when younger. From silly parodies of songs that I would sing at the top of my lungs to annoy the older guys in the workshop when I was an apprentice- through to me fully documenting my wife’s pregnancy and the first few months of parenting so my daughter could read it when she grew up.
I had never really turned to writing in darker times before and instead always sought escapism in things like exercise, gaming or travel.
I have a friend who is an actor that went through some personal trauma last year. He said he felt much better when he had a script to be working on rather than just delaying feeling the pain with forms of escapism. This made me consider that maybe I could use the forms of creativity I enjoy to help me recover and process my problems. I decided on New Years eve that my resolution would be to create a website and write about my life. Since I am a guy and I am writing about my recovery, naturally my niche became men’s mental health – or at least my personal mental health journey.
At this time I am still writing for myself to aid my recovery so I write about whatever I feel I want to write about- so I may niche more in the future for exposure… but at the minute that isn’t how I feel about it. I do also feel I that I had some personal realisations that people may want to hear. Specifically that other men should hear. It isn’t weak to need help, and if you feel it is- surely it is weaker to pretend you don’t need it when you do?
There are so many guys- I was one of them- that don’t understand depression and how uncontrollable it can be. It isn’t something you can ‘man up’ out of. If you need help it is readily available. If you ignore depression, it gets worse- believe me. In the back of my mind I am hoping that if my writing relates to just one person and encourage them to seek professional help or just talk to a friend or loved one- then sharing my story was worth it.
2. How did you start to blog? What effect did it have on your life, both mentally and physically? When did you decide to write about your experiences with mental wellbeing?
From the moment I had been signed off and I lost the need to focus on work, I found I didn’t really do anything. I ate and watched tv. On my alternate weeks with my daughter I had purpose to be up and about to play with her and get her to and from nursery- but the rest of the time was sort of a blur. I certainly wasn’t recovering. I had removed the pressure of being at work but had replaced it with lethargy. After talking to the friend I mentioned above I felt encouraged to give a creative escape a go.
I started taking notes of what I was doing throughout my day and would then write it up in the evening. I soon found that gave my day just a little more structure than I had had. Once it became a bit of a routine, I felt I had purpose- something that felt good, productive and rewarding. Something that was also personal and for me. I was also able to look back on my progress.
After writing down some of my fears, such as my fear of starting counselling, I realised it was ridiculous… So I contacted my G.P and started counselling. Writing gave me structure. The structure helped me recognise how many hours I was wasting in my day. Once I had that I started separating chunks of time for things like exercise, things like my writing, things like calling friends and family. I had posted how I felt inside online- in doing that I removed a lot of the negative stigma from my own mind and was more open about it with people closer to me. I told my brothers, my friends and my parents about how I was feeling and what I was doing. I had been open online- why couldn’t I be with them? I learned by being open about my struggles that my dad had secretly had counselling before- so had my mum. I learned that my brothers thought I was down but didn’t want to say anything. I learned that at least one of my friends was in desperate need of counselling too. If I hadn’t written about it, I wouldn’t have talked about it. Writing about my issues has given me another way to try and process them- the more ways you have to try and process an issue- the more likely that you can.
3. What do you do to help with your mental and physical wellbeing? (simple things, such as walking the dog, reaching out family/friends, exercise, eating healthy, etc).
Once I started counselling I really adopted my counsellors recommendation that I see mental health as a ladder- and that I can’t skip any of the steps.
Personally I am currently between the disconnection, high level anxiety and low level anxiety steps. Through counselling and that understanding I started to recognise my behaviours in each of these steps and little things I can do to help myself climb that ladder up to feeling ok. I have my routine and that is awesome- but if I fall into disconnection- where I can’t feel anything- sometimes I don’t have the energy to get up and turn the TV on- never mind go for a run.
– Talking it through with my partner –
I have taught my partner as best I can to recognise my tells for falling into disconnection.
Maybe I am sat in my car after we got home for much longer than I need to? Maybe I am taking 15 minutes to make a single cup of tea?
If she sees some of these things she encourages me to stand up and walk around the room and listen to nostalgic music. In disconnection I have lost my ability to feel emotions- by listening to nostalgic music I encourage feeling. By walking around I am drawing in more oxygen encouraging my frontal cortex to logic my way up the ladder.
– Physical exercise, walking the dog –
If I am in high level anxiety then my easier tell is that I am super irritable or have a short fuse. This is where walking the dog or more physical exercise can help.
Exercise doesn’t particularly mean running or being at the gym- it can mean washing the pots or tidying the house.
Anything to distract myself. I also find that a beat with no lyrics help me here, something I can just work to. Lastly low level anxiety. In this stage it may be I feel like I don’t want to leave the house or go into the shop- something as simple as chewing gum can help. Your brain doesn’t understand why you are feeling fear when you start salivating, so it works towards cancelling out the fear.
A happy playlist of music that maybe I can sing to can also help me here.
When I am in disconnection I need help to just move. I find that I can only workout properly or write well when I am in high level anxiety or better, I will engage with friends if they contact me.
– Support from friends –
If I reach low level anxiety or better I feel good enough to work towards leaving the house and even actively seeking engagement from friends.
– Routine is an important factor –
Encouraging a routine incorporating all of those things- talking to friends, exercising, cleaning the house, writing, walking the dog- helps me feel better when I may otherwise avoid them because I am slipping down the ladder. I have been lucky enough to cut out coping mechanisms that may have otherwise been destructive, in excess, over the years.
– Healthy diet and avoiding alcohol –
I eat healthy by default and I don’t enjoy alcohol at all anymore. I have definitely ordered more takeaways when I have felt down but I always feel better when I eat healthier. To further encourage a healthy diet I have quite a strict shopping list now that I stick to which saves me money and stops the temptation to snack when I am feeling too lethargic to cook.
– Music –
Music is also absolutely a key part of my day as a I mentioned above- I have a playlist for each mood I am in and it helps me work toward feeling good.
4. What are the benefits, both mentally and physically, of the modalities you use for improving mental health?
Eating healthy and exercising speak for themselves. Everyone can see from a mile off if you are looking after your physical body. Understanding why things like exercise help has encouraged me do it more than I was.
By my understanding exercise helps by increasing your oxygen flow. In doing this you are giving your frontal cortex more oxygen to process and you are also distracting yourself from negative thoughts because you are engaging your body but also usually you are having to process your movements or count reps.
Things like meditation can then help once you are past the intrusive negative thoughts that you get with high level anxiety for the same reason. You are again increasing oxygen to the frontal cortex but actively focusing on thought and relaxation.
The main modality for me though has been trying to be creative- which gives me something tangible to measure my healing. I have always loved creating or designing things- that is probably why I was drawn to engineering and welding, though as a kid I always wanted to work as an artist. My main artistic escape as a kid was making sculptures- this is something I still do but now I can weld they are far more fun. The covid lockdown cut away a lot of creative escapes I had- sculpturing (as I have no access to my workshop), writing (As I mainly wrote when I travelled), and Teaching (which in itself was a creative escape for me). I am only recently realising that over the years I have self regulated my mental health with these pursuits.
Having them taken away during lockdown definitely had a profound impact and certainly contributed toward the downturn in my mental health- so it is why I have now driven myself to writing as a form of recovery or healing. When you are thinking creatively you are usually being subconsciously optimistic, if you are being optimistic then you are miles from disconnection and you are usually feeling pretty good. It all makes so much sense to me now- I just wish I had started when the first lockdown kicked in.
5. How has counselling helped? Would you recommend counselling to others? Why/why not?
Counselling has been the other main catalyst to my recovery so far. I have friends who have had very negative reactions to counselling and to be honest I half expected to be talking to someone very condescending who just smiled absently and nodded as I recounted my life story. I was awaiting my first session ready to be actively pessimistic toward any of their reactions to my personal traumas. I will proudly and openly admit that I was completely wrong- I have found counselling to be one of the most empowering experiences of my life. I told myself that I would tell the truth about anything the counsellor asked, and I have- but once the questions started I had floods and floods of information to share. Things that I had no idea I was holding on to. I have enjoyed the psychology theory side of my sessions easily as much as the ‘talking about my problems’ side- if not more so. Understanding why we act the way we do under certain circumstances. Learning our own personal trigger or boundaries and understanding our own justifications or reactions for things. Learning that you can’t fully understand someone else and their justifications for their actions. The main point in my latest session being that it is impossible for me to justify someone else’s actions- but I can justify how I reacted to it.
Am I proud of that? Why? Would I be happier acting a different way next time? Learning more about myself over these sessions has definitely helped me let go of some needless stress and also helped me build an even closer relationship with my partner. As I said before though- I do know people who have claimed counselling did not work for them. Whether that is because they did not fully engage, whether it is because the counsellor perhaps was not a great match for them- I do not know. I would still always recommend giving it a thorough trial if you are struggling. I see my counsellor as a chiropractor for my brain. It feels good during the session, sometimes I feel absolutely terrible the next day- but if I keep up with the exercises I will feel better in the long run. I think a lot of people who fail to get anything from their sessions are just not being honest enough with what they share and how they feel. Regardless of how weak or dark you think your inner machinations may be your counsellor is there as a completely unbiased professional to listen exclusively to your side of the story. Leave the ego out of it and just tell the truth.
6. Do you advise people participate in any other modalities or do anything else that is positive for mental and physical wellbeing, to compliment their counselling sessions?
I think setting some personal goals is very important. Having a list of things you want or want to do then ticking them off one by one is incredibly satisfying. It gives you a feeling of success and you feel optimistic. You need two separate lists though. A long term and a short term. Your long term goals may be to get fit, pay off your debts, build your own house, get married, have kids, start your own business- whatever it is make these your bucket list of things that you really want but you are going to have to work your ass off for. Then hide this list away or you will make yourself feel worse. Then create a short term list.
This list really depends on your current mindset. When I am disconnected my list may include trying to get myself to go for a shower. Wash the pots. Cook a meal. Call a friend. Anything to kickstart my brain again- the more attainable the better. If I am feeling ok or good it will be things that relate more heavily to my long term goals- like doing something creative for my website, reading a book, exercising, looking at how I can save more money. The reason why I recommend a list over anything specific is because you know what makes you work. As you start to tick off the short term list you may find you have started to or fully completed a long term goal. Keep your completed lists. On bad days it may bring you up when you see how well you are doing. On good days you embrace your success and create more difficult yet now attainable goals. I found with these lists I started to spiral upwards so I had more good days than bad- rather than spiralling down and feeling hopeless and that I wasn’t getting any better.
7. What would you recommend for people looking to start counselling, but don’t know where to start?
Contact your local G.P first and tell them how you feel. If you have experienced trauma or are just feeling run down from the day to day, whatever it is- they are a good person to initiate the process with and share how you feel. My G.P then recommended to me a few different companies that offer counselling, some face to face and some over the phone. If you find your G.P un-helpful or you feel that is too big of a step- then get online and search for local counselling services. They are all over the country and many are free on the NHS or you can pay to go private. All counselling is confidential. I know first hand that counselling has helped me process some pretty serious personal trauma and helped me identify and process things I didn’t even realise were affecting me. Everyone is so concerned with their physical health and how they look that they forget that the brain is the most vital part of the body- you will go to the gym, buy fancy clothes and eat healthy food- so why not treat your brain to a little r&r. If you are like me and haven’t been exercising, don’t buy fancy clothes and haven’t been eating particularly healthy… Then still try counselling.
8. What would you recommend to those looking to start to write to aid with mental well-being , but don’t know where to start?
Aside from writing lists- documenting how I feel day to day has given me evidence that I am recovering, even if it is only in small amounts. Writing is a fantastic escape and you really don’t need much to do it.
I take notes on my phone, I have a few journals and notepads dotted around (though my puppy and daughter often destroy them) and I write on my computer. Once you get into a habit of noting down what you have been doing throughout the day and how you have been feeling- expanding on it comes naturally too. At first my notes for my day were no more than a paragraph. After a couple of weeks I found that I could write a paragraph about my breakfast. The true healing comes by just giving you a chance to let some of the pressure out of your head by jotting it down. I sometimes have a full two sided discussion with myself on paper with pros and cons, it is crazy how easy it is to tap into your inner dialogue when you give yourself the chance. The other benefits include, as I mentioned, having a record of how you felt a week ago, a month ago or longer and seeing how you much you have progressed. When I read some of my notes that I took around the time of my divorce I see I was in a dark place. I don’t think I even managed to diary when it got to custody battle stages as I was too far gone. Looking at some of my more optimistic writing now- my blog posts and this interview- I have tangible physical evidence that I am recovering and moving forward. It feels amazing.
So the best advice I can give is that if you are struggling to share how you feel- even with your G.P- pick up a pen and some paper and let all your troubles out. Once some of my biggest fears were put onto paper I realised how insignificant they were. Just start with ‘Today I’…
Thanks so Much, Balian. By being so brave, open and candid, I am sure you will help men who struggle with their mental wellbeing but don’t reach out.
I appreciate you taking the time to answer some questions and be our guest blogger of the week!