This Children’s Mental Health Week, we are sharing a free resource for professionals, parents/carers, and trusted adults who are supporting the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people. The resource contains practical exercises they can use to help to cope with thoughts and feelings, and also signposting to wider support.
Georgia Hughes, the Case Worker in Catch22’s County Lines Support and Rescue service who created the resource, said:
“I created this resource for our team, but this isn’t just a resource for children and young people affected by County Lines. Mental health and wellbeing is at the heart of all support work. I hope other people will find this resource a helpful in their work or everyday lives.”
Having difficulty coping?
- Just like physical health, everybody has mental health and it can change from day to day. Having good mental health doesn’t mean you are constantly happy and cheerful, as you can still be affected by things that happen in your life.
- A person may be experiencing poor mental health when they find it really difficult to cope with every day things. They may find it difficult to control their thoughts and actions, and get less enjoyment from things they used to enjoy. They may also feel constantly worked up.
- Finding it difficult to cope is not a sign of weakness. It is important to remember that your feelings are valid and things can get better. Whether you’re having a bad day or struggling with your mental health, it’s important that you reach out and don’t try and manage alone.
Spotting the signs
There is not always a specific cause for poor mental health. Other times, the cause is more obvious, for example experiencing things that are frightening, traumatic, or worrying may impact our mental health. The way people treat us can also affect our mental health and how we manage new relationships. It can affect the way we feel in lots of ways, for example:
- feeling anxious or worried,
- experiencing intense feelings of sadness or anger,
- fear that you may relive that traumatic experience again,
- feelings of guilt or shame about what’s happened,
- a decrease in self-esteem,
- feeling like you’re constantly on edge – this is a response that is triggered in our brain to protect us from things that we think signal danger; this can make us feel really tired or drained,
- having vivid flashbacks or nightmares,
- finding it difficult to concentrate, and/or
- feeling numb and/or emotionless – this could even mean that you stop enjoying activities that you previously liked doing.
Coping with thoughts and feelings
When things start to affect us, we may use coping strategies to help us manage and reduce stress. However, some strategies may increase stress levels instead. These are known as unhealthy coping mechanisms. These might look like:
- substance misuse or reliance (drugs and alcohol),
- blaming and self-blaming,
- self-harming behaviours,
- risk-taking behaviours (smoking, drinking, drug taking, vandalism, illegal activities etc.),
- going over things in your mind in an endless loop,
- procrastination, which means that you avoid doing tasks,
- intrusive thoughts (unwelcome/unwanted ideas that come to your mind),
- emotional numbing (shutting down from thoughts and feelings to reduce stress and anxiety, and/or
- shutting down or avoiding your own feelings to relieve stress and anxiety.
These strategies only create more problems for us. The following diagram shows how using unhealthy coping strategies can result in more emotional impact.
This diagram shows how bad experiences might lead to unhealthy ways of coping. Unhealthy coping strategies may be used to reduce unwanted feelings in the short-term, but they may lead to more problems in the long-run. Breaking the cycle of unhealthy coping strategies is key, through finding more healthy ways of coping. Some examples are redirecting your attention from the unpleasant thoughts through listening to music, writing down your thoughts, changing your environment by going for a walk or jog, and using breathing techniques.
Practical activities that help you in the moment
Grounding exercises are helpful to cope when you are feeling overwhelmed or distracted by distressing memories, thoughts or feelings.
The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding method
- Name 5 things that you can see around you. Think about the colours and shapes of what you are looking at.
- Focus on 4 things you can physically touch. Think about how they feel – are they soft or hard? Smooth or rough? Cold or warm?
- Name 3 things that you can hear around you. Think about how loud or quiet the noises are. Are they noises you hear often?
- Notice 2 things that you can smell around you right now. Think about what you like about the smell.
- Focus on 1 thing that you can taste. If you can’t taste anything, then instead you can choose your favourite thing to eat.
Box breathing is another grounding exercise. This exercise can help to calm your nervous system when it’s overworking. Firstly, slowly breathe out, letting all the oxygen out of your lungs. Then you can begin the cycle…
- Slowly breathe in through your nose for the count of 4.
- Hold your breath for another slow count of 4.
- Exhale through your mouth for the same slow count of 4, expelling the air from your lungs.
- Hold your breath for the same slow count of 4.
Repeat this process as many times as you wish. Feel your body slowing down.
Progressive muscle relaxation involves working through the body tension each muscle at a time. This helps give a sense of control over the body’s anxiety response and stop it in its tracks.
What to do: Get into a comfortable position in a chair. You may want to lie down too. Work through each one of the following muscle groups, tensing each muscle for 5 seconds and releasing. Pause for 15 seconds between each muscle group.
- Forehead: Squeeze the muscles in your forehead for 5 seconds. Notice the difference in how your muscles feel as you relax. Continue to release the tension until your forehead feels completely relaxed.
- Jaw: Tense the muscles in your jaw for 5 seconds. Notice the feeling of relaxation and continue to breathe slowly and evenly.
- Neck and shoulders: Increase tension in your neck and shoulders by raising your shoulders up toward your ears and hold for 5 seconds. Slowly release the tension as you count for 15 seconds. Notice the tension melting away.
- Arms and hands: Slowly draw both hands into fists. Pull your fists into your chest and hold for 5 seconds, squeezing as tight as you can. Notice the feeling of relaxation as you release the tension.
- Legs: Slowly increase the tension in your quadriceps and calves. Squeeze the muscles as hard as you can for 5 seconds. Next, gently release the tension. Notice the tension melting away and the feeling of relaxation that is left.
- Feet: Slowly increase the tension in your feet and toes. Tighten the muscles as much as you can and hold for 5 seconds. Then slowly release the tension and notice all the tension melting away. Continue breathing slowly and evenly.
Ways to support your mental health
Mindfulness is a way of bringing awareness to the present moment. It’s about taking time to notice the world around us and re-connecting with our bodies using our senses. Through being mindful, we become more aware of our thoughts and how they impact our emotions and behaviour. It makes us take a step back and see how our stream of thoughts might not be helpful.
Here are some short activities you can do to start being mindful:
- Start silently naming your thoughts and feelings as they come and go (e.g. you get a thought that you won’t pass a job).
- Mindful eating – next time you eat, give it your full attention, noticing the taste and texture in your mouth. This helps take us off ‘autopilot’.
- Try guided meditation. There are lots of great playlists on Spotify, Apple Music etc.
- Try journalling, where you write down a couple of things each day that you’re grateful for.
- Notice how your body feels when you get out of bed. Perhaps it’s a little stiff. Take a moment to stretch and notice how this feels before you start the day.
- When you’re outside, take a moment to look up and notice what you see above eye level.
Self-care: it isn’t just about pampering!
Self-care is just the little things we do to look after our own mental health. It’s about trying to listen to how we are feeling and understanding what we need to maintain positive mental health and wellbeing. This could mean taking time for yourself when you are feeling overwhelmed.
You may have a preferred self-care activity, but this doesn’t mean it will work for you every time. That’s why it’s a good idea to have a few self-care strategies that you can use.
Self-care is not a replacement for getting help from friends, family or professionals. It’s about maintaining good mental health. Talk to someone you trust such as parents/carer or education professional.
Below are some suggestions to start practising self-care:
- Listen to the Headspace app.
- Watch your favourite TV programme or film.
- Talk to a friend – if this is not possible, you could write a few notes in a journal.
- Keep active – whether that’s a walk, run, the gym, or dancing in the garden!
- Listen to a podcast.
When to ask for help
When your feelings stop you doing the things you enjoy and is affecting you most days, especially when they make you feel like you can’t cope anymore. However, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been struggling, it is always a good idea to talk about your feelings.
Why ask for help?
It’s important to reach out so you don’t feel isolated and to get support for your feelings. Reaching out can also help you to understand your feelings better and you can start to feel better.
Talking to someone
Some people prefer to open up to their friends and family, or someone they know whereas others would rather talk to professionals. Everyone is different and it’s important to do what’s right for you. There are lots of national services available
that can offer support, which are detailed in the downloadable booklet below.