The clinical psychologist Dr. Austin argues that we all have a “mental health jar,” which is filled with both genetic and environmental factors. We all have some genetic vulnerability to mental illness, which varies from person to person and that part goes into the jar first.
When Alastair Campbell, English journalist, author and activist he spoke opened up about his depression in a 2019 BBC documentary where he met Dr Jehannine Austin and discussed how his family history of mental disorders might be linked to his own experiences.
Their findings; Genetics is only part of the story. External factors and circumstances are elements that can turn things upside down. But, more importantly, whether there is a diagnosed condition or not, there are specific, individualized actions one can take to build mental resilience.
Then I first heard the theory with the jam jar
I remembered her again a few months later, in the Spring of 2020, when I stood in my mask and gloves – then gloves were the norm – in front of the empty supermarket shelves. The toilet paper and the yeast were disgusting. The people, including me, were anxiously trying to find our balance and what to do with all this free time that the pandemic had suddenly brought with it. We watched a lot of Netflix. We made a lot of bread. We did a lot of zoom parties. But it wasn’t enough.
What I was really looking for in those dark early days of the pandemic was not yeast but to actually find what I needed to feel better. Whether that meant feeling safer or happier. And that’s how I remembered the analogy of the jar with the jam.
The thought of Dr. Austin has it this way: We all have a “mental health jar’ which is fraught with both genetic and environmental factors. We all have some genetic vulnerability to mental illness, which varies from person to person and that part goes into the jar first.
Next are the environmental factors. Think about work issues, relationship problems, financial worries and personal losses. Our genetics don’t change, but environmental factors do. When our jar is full and overflowing with them, we enter a period of poor mental health.
“A big event can have a big impact on our vulnerability. It can even fill a jar to the top, leading someone to experience their first active episode of illness.” says the expert in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar.
What can we do to help ourselves?
We can add some protective factors to our jar, in essence it’s like “enlarging” the space in our jar or like making it taller. However, we certainly give it room to have more space so that it does not overflow with negatives.
These factors, according to Dr. Austin, are based on a few basics such as good sleep, a balanced diet, exercise, proper use of social media and stress management. Things we already know you will tell me.
But think about something you might not have thought of until now: During your day you may do things out of habit that you don’t like and don’t need to do, or you can replace them with other, easier or more pleasant ones.
For example, if you don’t like cooking, you can find easier recipes for weekdays or a restaurant that makes homemade dishes, so that you can save time over the pot a few days a week.
Sleep is the key also. A King’s College study found that in the first lockdown around half the population reported their sleep was more disturbed than usual.
Dr. Austin says she’s vertical about bedtime, stressing the importance of a sleep routine. There’s certainly no need for self-flagellation, the secret is to do your best, when you can.
In her part diet, the same rule applies. Do your best without stressing yourself out. It seems that balance is the key here as well. Some comfort meals or snacks will not hurt, but you should include fruits and vegetables, water and less junk and processed foods in your diet.
When it comes to work Alastair Campbell put it neatly: “activity with substance”. For him there is ‘working to make a living’ and ‘working to make a difference’. Most of us don’t have the luxury of balancing the two but we know we need a little creativity.
Dr. Austin has a history of depression and anxiety disorder, and during the pandemic he discovered he needed to change things. “I did everything I could about my sleep routine, my exercise, my food, but despite my efforts, my condition remained fragile.”
She recommends that people who are struggling with their daily lives talk to their doctor and explore treatment options together. “When you’re at that point where you can no longer do the things that you know will help you, then you might need a little push.”
She describes how even in her most difficult moments she will do everything in her power to find a protective factor, such as hanging out with a person she feels good with:
“When I’m feeling down, reaching out and letting people know I’m grateful makes all the difference. I feel like I’m giving and receiving kindness.”
In her post, Dr. Emma Hepburn, clinical psychologist writes:
“[…] The idea of Dr. Austin is helpful in understanding mental health. […] Anyone can struggle depending on what’s going on in their life (that’s what the evidence tells us). […] (the idea) also considers key factors that may explain why some people are more vulnerable than others to mental health problems. But what I probably love most is that it shows that we have the ability to increase our mental health resilience by reducing stressors in our environment and taking care of our minds using helpful strategies. Who would have thought that a jam jar filled with strawberries and raspberries could be so meaningful!”
So when things get difficult and the jar is about to overflow, it is of great value – apart from self-care, our own people and help from an expert – to stay true to ourselves, our dreams, our plans, our values . Very often there is also the answer to how to help ourselves when you feel fragile. There, and in accepting ourselves.
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