In honor of mental health awareness month, I thought I’d get up close and personal (and super vulnerable) and share some things I’ve experienced over the course of my twenties, dealing with mental health conditions.
I’ve been learning to manage and live with GAD and MDD, and I’ve experienced a short-term bout of panic disorder. Long story short, my goal is to learn as much as I can about all of this so I can feel like *me.* Because when I think of me, I think of a happy-go-lucky, optimistic, sunshiny, sparkly human. That really is who I am, but as with any illness, sometimes your body betrays you (or at least it feels that way) and your mood takes a beating. Try getting hyped for a party with a migraine, or doing a happy dance when your IBD is acting up — catch my drift?
And through my ceaseless quest to absorb as much information as possible for my treatment and management, I’ve found that I live a happier life now than I did before all this began (which didn’t seem possible at first). Here are seven of the biggest lessons about mental health that have changed my life (emphasis on “my” — remember that everyone’s journey is different!).
1. Awareness isn’t half the battle, but it’s a huge step
I’m years into my own mental health journey, and still learning a ton. I’m taking Yale’s “Science of Well Being” course, and in the very first lesson they detailed the “GI Joe Fallacy.” Professor Laurie Santos, PhD, asserts that the idea of “knowing is half the battle” is actually incorrect (it’s definitely a piece, but not half).
Awareness — that knowing — can be a catalyst. And while you still have work to do from there, you wouldn’t know to do the work if you didn’t have that catalyst. Awareness can also provide massive validation and contextualization of your experiences.
I still remember the day I got my anxiety diagnosis from my first therapist. I had been going through a really difficult time in my life, so I figured this diagnosis was like that of a cold or flu — something that came on suddenly and would leave soon after I took the right medication or rested. I was shell shocked when this therapist told me I had been living with anxiety my whole life.
My lack of awareness of what anxiety was, or how it presented, kept me from truly understanding why I felt certain things at certain times; why my reactions to certain stimuli sometimes felt odd or extreme. This somewhat retroactive diagnosis provided immense context and validation for past experiences, and filled in some blanks I didn’t know existed. It has also helped me better understand how I exist in the world now; why I think and feel certain things, why I behave in certain ways, how I interact with others.
So while it might not be “half the battle,” it’s a crucial part of understanding who you are, and why you are. It’s the beginning, it’s the catalyst, and it’s the first step on your journey. Awareness will continue to come to you in different ways, and mindfulness and concentrated presence will help with that every day.
2. There’s no “one thing” or quick fix to “cure” you
I understand the feeling of being completely overwhelmed by anxiety and depression to the point where you feel paralyzed. I have been there, and I know just how alluring the idea of a “quick fix” can be. Unfortunately… it doesn’t exist. There’s no off-button for a panic attack, no off-switch for depression (or on-switch for your dopamine when it doesn’t seem to be showing up in adequate levels).
My therapist and I talk about this like a recipe. You can’t make chocolate chip cookies with just chocolate chips. You can’t make a smoothie with frozen pineapple alone (I mean, maybe you could, IDK). CBD has been a huge part of *my* mental health recipe, but it’s not the only part. Therapy has changed my life, but it’s more effective because I follow the directions of my therapist with day to day activities. My medication is fabulous for regulating my neurotransmitters, but I think it works better because I take care of my body in other ways with healthy foods and exercise. And your recipe will be different from my recipe, because we all have different needs, desires, and things that work best for us.
As frustrating as it is, there’s no simple solution or fix for mental health. And that in part is because you don’t need “fixing” (I’ll get to that shortly). Mental health hygiene is an important habit to develop to ensure you’re checking boxes in all areas of life to support your emotional wellbeing. In turn, the rest of your body will thrive, too… and from there it’s like a cycle that feeds itself. Healthier body, happier mind; happier mind, healthier body.
3. This requires constant repetition in the mental gym
A lot of people think they can go to a few therapy sessions and be good to go (again, the quick fix mentality). My psychiatrist and I have had several laughs about that. Consider what it’d be like to take that approach with health and fitness. Can you imagine going to the gym three times and expecting to have perfectly sculpted abs for the next three years? The brain, quite similar to the body, requires constant and consistent training, including “reps.”
Just like you need reps of a certain exercise to teach your muscles a certain pattern, you may need to repeat a concept multiple times (talking it out with a therapist, re-reading something many times, relearning an idea over and over). This could feel frustrating, or like you’re not “getting it.” But keep in mind, you probably wouldn’t say you were ready to be a SoulCycle instructor after having taken a handful of classes, right? This takes a lot of work.
Also consider that by the time you get to therapy, you’re potentially an adult with decades of deeply ingrained patterns — and you have lots of “unlearning” to do. Keeping to the metaphor, it’d be like teaching yourself to walk differently after you’d been walking a certain way your whole life. If you’re undoing harmful thoughts, negative patterns, or unhealthy ways of acting in the world and in relationships, this is going to take a ton of work. This isn’t to scare you off, but rather to encourage you to have patience with yourself.
4. You cannot and should not go it alone
The mental health journey is not one I’d recommend doing solo. We all need our team, our advisers, our support system. I would not be anywhere close to as adjusted and healed and aware as I am today without the invaluable help of my psychiatrist/psychotherapist, who I frequently refer to as my personal warlock. He is actually magic.
I’ve also found that talking about these needs with all my health team — acupuncturist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, personal trainer, physician, OBGYN, massage therapist, etc — has allowed me to take a more 360 approach to my treatment (contributing to that recipe and mental health hygiene). Everyone has a different approach to helping someone manage anxiety (or any mental health condition, for that matter), so being open with those who can help you can give you really unexpected tools and tips. For instance, I met an occupational therapist who did a quick assessment on my posture, and helped me discover that my “fight or flight” response was actually “freeze” — she found that my anxiety reaction was to tense up and freeze (in animal terms, “play dead”) by assessing the muscles in my thoracic spine area. Go figure.
And while it might seem scary to talk about these things at first as they’re so intimate and personal, I’ve found that talking about mental health can actually make it less scary. I learned from Brené Brown that “speaking shame” actually takes away some of shame’s power. If you’ve ever watched a horror movie or TV series, you know that a monster or villain can be much scarier when you haven’t seen them. They’re lurking in the shadows, you don’t know exactly what they look like or how to recognize them. But once they’re revealed, a layer of fear is removed (sometimes!). It’s a similar concept with shame and the things that feel scary to talk about — sometimes they’re scarier when they’re silent and abstract.
Lean on friends and family. They’re there to help you (and if they’re not, replace them… I mean what). Ask for help where you need it. Do not — I repeat, do not — isolate yourself. Not only will this provide for a happier and longer life, but you’ll find that managing your mental health is MUCH easier when you don’t have to shoulder that weight alone. It truly takes a village.
5. Healing is not linear
I don’t know if it’s just my personality or the way my brain works or our culture, but I expect things to follow a somewhat linear pattern or timeline. You are healthy, you get sick, you get better. The end.
That’s not how it works, in reality. I thought once I broke through to the other side that that was it — I was good to go, and I’d never experience that struggle again. Which, as you may have gathered, is hilarious to me in retrospect. Healing isn’t a straight line; it’s a squiggle with loops and jagged lines, with some stickers and glitter thrown in, maybe a blotch from spilled coffee. It’s so much messier than many of us A-type, hyperproductive, Virgo suns would like to believe.
This is important to remember if you ever feel like you’re slipping or backtracking or stalling and not making progress. It’s all part of the journey, and you won’t ever be on a linear, upward trajectory all of the time. Be gentle. Embrace the mess.
6. There are few things more important than taking a break
When I say “I could write a book about this,” I mean that literally (it’s in progress). One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in the past five years, if not the biggest, is how important it is to give yourself both literal and figurative breaks.
If you’re anything like me and have a tendency to ignore the check engine lights and run your brain and body into the ground, this one is really going to make an impact on your life. Take a break. You think you don’t have time. You think you have too much work. You think you have too many responsibilities. You think you don’t have the cash flow. You think things will fall apart if you do. You think the world will stop turning if you turn off for a bit.
You are wrong.
You will never have the time to pause until you make time to pause. You don’t have an extra couple hours to take for yourself, until you get a flat tire or lock yourself out of your car or house. Suddenly you have a few hours. Imagine if you got sick and were stuck in the hospital for a bit — who would feed your dog, cover for you at work, finish that project?
The point is, the world keeps turning even if we’re taking a nap or a week off. I found more clarity and healing through taking a few weeks off of … well, everything… than I have in essentially the rest of my life. Giving yourself permission, in this case, is more than half the battle. It truly comes down to you making a choice to prioritize your mental health.
Give yourself a day — or if you have the means (with PTO, perhaps) a week or more — to turn off your phone and computer. No work, no obligations, no appointments or expectations. And remember to take breaks throughout the day! Take a day over the weekend to just sleep and rest — no housework or plans. Breaks are a rare commodity in this fast-paced world, and you need them even more than you want them.
7. There’s nothing WRONG with you
You wouldn’t ask someone with a heart condition, “Wow, wtf is wrong with you?” You wouldn’t refer to your friend with Crohn’s or diabetes as “the one with ‘issues.’” (at least… I hope you wouldn’t).
It’s easy to look at how we are different and assign a “wrongness” to it. That might be part of our culture, idk, I’m not an anthropologist. It’s important to realize that you don’t need to be “fixed,” and that this healing (so you can feel healthier and happier) is not about changing who you are. There is nothing wrong with who you are or how you were made (I’m not gonna get all cheesy Lady Gaga born this way or whatever, but you get it).
It’s like the idea of saying some foods are good and some are bad — this has been proven to be an unhealthy approach to eating. Some foods are nutrient dense, others aren’t. But food is food. Sometimes food is for pleasure, sometimes it’s for fuel, but at the end of the day, it’s just food. And the same goes for your mental health (love relating anxiety to snacks). It’s not good or bad — it just is. There are ways to see it as a positive (in how it makes you more you), but the main thing here is to just embrace it as part of you versus thinking something is wrong with you.
The other component of this is not identifying with your condition.
Your mental health condition is something you live with — it’s not who you are.
Back to what I was saying earlier; you wouldn’t consider yourself an “unfun” person if a migraine kept you from attending a party. You wouldn’t think you were a negative person if your IBS stopped you from dancing around the house or feeling cheerful. So stop defining yourself by your mental health diagnosis.
This is something I still grapple with. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I wake up some days thinking “my toxic trait is my entire personality.” Again, healing isn’t linear! Remember that one?? I’m aware of this battle with identity and my mental health’s role in it, and I’m working on it every single day with different approaches.
I hope you get to learn these lessons and grow from them, too. Because through all of this learning and growing, my mental health challenges have truly made me a better, more empathic, more compassionate, more hopeful and optimistic person. The best version of me.