Could looking at your life like a jam jar improve your mental health?

Sally Newall
·8-min read
Photo credit: Sade Mims, EDAS
Photo credit: Sade Mims, EDAS

It’s April 2020, five degrees celsius, and I’m in a 30-strong queue at a local bakery to buy, improbably, fresh yeast to make hot cross buns. In the last 10 years, I’ve baked precisely one cake and zero bread. I was jumping on a bandwagon to pass the sudden glut of free time the pandemic delivered. Of course it was fiddly and tedious. I then ate the very average batch over a lonely Easter weekend, while attempting Joe Wicks’ PE to burn them off, which proved too high-impact for my dodgy knees. I also stayed up far too late watching unsettling Netflix shows. Tiger King’s depraved lunacy seemed appropriate mood music for a world that was suddenly all wrong. And it filled the quiet.

What I needed in those dark early days of the pandemic was not to do what everyone else was doing, but to really find the things that would lift and sustain me. I needed to open my mental health jam jar (stick with me).

I first heard the jam jar analogy via an unlikely source: Alastair Campbell. The former Labour Party spin doctor has talked openly about his depression, and in a 2019 documentary, met genetic counsellor Dr Jehannine Austin to talk about how his family history of mental illness links to his own experiences. His findings? Genetics is only one part of the story; external factors and circumstances are what can tip things over the edge. But, crucially, whether you have a diagnosed condition or not, there are specific, personalised actions you can do to build your mental resilience.

Dr Austin’s simple analogy goes like this: We all have a ‘mental illness jar’, which is filled with both genetic and environmental factors. We all have some genetic vulnerability to mental illness but it varies hugely, this goes into the jar first. Environmental factors follow; think job issues, relationship problems, financial worries and personal loss. Our genetics don’t change, but the environmental factors do (hello, global pandemic). When our jar fills up and overflows with these influences, we enter a period of poor mental health. “A single big event can have a large impact on our vulnerability,” Austin told me over a Zoom call from Canada. “It can even fill up a jar to the top, leading to someone possibly experiencing their first active episode of illness.”

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The numbers bear this out: the latest statistics from the ONS show that last year around one in five people in the UK reported suffering from depression – double 2019’s number. Similar rates of anxiety were recorded. Even with restrictions easing, the residual emotional toll and trauma of the last 12 months is predicted to be long-term.

So what can we do to help ourselves now? We can add ‘rings’ or ‘protective factors’ to make our jars taller. These are grounded in some fundamentals that Dr Austin boils down to sleep, nutrition, exercise, good social support networks and finding ways of managing stress. “Boring, boring, boring, we all know that,” she says in her refreshingly straight-talking way. “But you can use this knowledge to empower you to take more control over them. It’s up to the individual to find the things that work for them.”

At its most simplistic level, cooking for me is more functional than enjoyable, so I could have ditched baking for knocking up a batch of my favourite one-pot veggie chilli to freeze. Nutrition, tick. I could have swapped Wicks’ jumping and squatting for some knee-friendly online pilates, and traded Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin for something warm and funny – two words: Schitt’s Creek. I could have bought the hot cross buns, rather than baking my own mediocre version that miserable Easter.

While working out ways to be happy in your own company is essential, and apparently took me 35 years to master, it will only go so far. “We’re a group species; we need other humans,” says Austin. We all have those non-negotiable people in our lives whether that’s a partner, friends or family. The pandemic may have robbed us of spontaneous meet-ups, parties and human touch, but it also affirmed our most significant relationships and made us kinder; more attuned to others’ needs.

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For those like me who have a diagnosed mental illness, professional treatment are rings too. I have bipolar II; a mood disorder characterised by periods of elevated mood, known as ‘hypomania’, and episodes of depression, the latter of which for me has been severe. My daily medication, fortnightly psychotherapy and regular appointments with my psychiatrist are crucial protective factors.

Back to those universal fundamentals. Sleep is key and we know it’s a problem right now. A study by King’s College found that in the first lockdown around half of the population reported that their sleep had been more disturbed than usual. Austin says she is “rigid” about bedtime and has little rituals to “ramp my brain down from its level of work-based activity”. She says that might be watching something on Netflix, followed by a book “that takes me down another notch”. She has a hot shower before bed and applies a lavender-scented body cream.

On the nutrition front, when I contracted Covid in January, as well as being zapped of energy, I lost my taste and smell, neither of which have returned fully. NHS guidance says ready meals might be a good short-term solution. I fully embraced the government-sanctioned methods, absolving myself of all guilt – as long as something pre-prepared is relatively nutritionally balanced, it doesn’t matter if it comes via Deliveroo rather than the result of hours in the kitchen. Austin's recommended M.O? “No self-flagellation, it’s about doing the best you can, when you can and being compassionate with yourself.”

Work is one of my rings. Alastair Campbell put it in a neat way: “meaningful activity”. For him this was “work to make a living” and “work to make a difference”. I don’t have the luxury of an even balance of both, and I know I need some creativity to keep my brain fully oiled. Maybe brain-storming the latest trends with my team – “being alive” to the world as one of my journalism tutors put it – or occasionally writing pieces like this: mental health and raising awareness of bipolar disorder have become my passion areas.

Photo credit: Josh Shinner for Harper's Bazaar
Photo credit: Josh Shinner for Harper's Bazaar

I know I’m in a very fortunate position to have kept my job, many others haven’t been so lucky, and sometimes the protective factors can only go so far, especially when you’re down a ring. “Losing your job is a life-shaking thing,” says Austin. “Give yourself time to grieve, acknowledge how fucking difficult that is. You’re not going to fix it by going for a run or cooking a nice dinner.”

Austin has a history of depression and anxiety, and found in the last year, she had to change things up. “I was doing my sleep hygiene, my exercise, my eating, but despite my very best efforts, I was only managing to maintain a very fragile state of mental health.” She started taking antidepressants and recommends that anyone struggling should speak to their GP to look at treatment options like talking therapy or medication. “When you’re in that place where you cannot do the things that you know will help, then you may need a little kick to get you out of the bottom.” Yet even in the lowest moments she will do her best to practice even a semblance of a protective factor, like a social interaction: “When I feel like shit, reaching out and letting people know I’m grateful to them, makes a difference in turn to me. I feel like I’ve spread a little good.”

When the going gets tough, and your jar is close to overflowing, stay true to yourself. The thing I’ve most enjoyed in the last year? Creating an analogue interiors moodboard to plan redecorating of my house – a cheap corkboard and pins are the only requirements. I’ve loved narrowing down paint samples and fabric choices and seeing things come together. Creating a unique, cosy, comfortable home will always be important to me. But if I end up scrolling Pinterest in bed late at night for inspiration, then I’m not going to beat myself up.

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