I have always dealt with mental health issues. Genuinely, for as long as I can remember. I have done a lot of " soul searching" this last year or two. I have looked into aspects of my personality that I hated, and searched for why they existed and what I could do about them. I also decided to try and amplify the aspects of myself that I loved. I have learned more about myself this past year than I ever have in my whole life, but I do believe that a lot of that can be attributed to the struggle I faced in the last year or two, as well. COVID hit me hard. Especially at first. I was terrified of catching it, constantly checking the statistics surrounding the pandemic. I was also facing loneliness, heightened anxiety, heightened depression and ocd. I have lived with these things since I was very young, as mentioned above but, the reality is that I always hoped my mental health would get better, and over the past year or so, it has only seemed to get worse. However, despite my mental health issues progressing, I have found many new ways to cope which I never even knew of before. These methods have helped me immensly. They have stopped a panic attack in it's tracks, and for the times that these methods were used after a panic attack already started, they have helped me find my way out of it. In all honesty, I just used one of these methods twenty minutes ago, while I experienced depersonalization/ desociation, during a panic attack that lasted way longer, and was way more intense than usual. So yeah, this is me being brutally honest, because I don't think people are real enough when it comes to these things. I didn't even understand what I was experiencing until becoming a psychology student, and seeking therapy, as well as researching these things on my own time.
But here it is. My truth. I wont pretend that it isn't a constant battle, but I will be forthcoming about what helps me lessen the pain, so that maybe it can help you, or a loved one, too.
What You Need To Know About Anxiety
First of all, anxiety is a natural, and important bodily reaction, though it may not seem like it. Evolutionarily, we used our sense of fear to understand when we were in danger. It activated our fight or flight responses to keep us safe and out of harms way. The issue becomes when we are anxious, or overly anxious, for a reason that is not as harmful as we perceive it to be. When we activate the "reptilian" part of our brain that feels fear, we send ourselves into that same fight or flight response, whether it is actually warranted or not. We can experience different responses to this- for example, when my anxiety or depression is very serious, I tend to freeze up. I physically feel like I cannot move. I stay stuck in one spot. I also can experience dissociation and depersonalization, which are terrifying things to experience. Our nervous system basically experiences regulation issues as we continue to feel anxiety over what is triggering us, and when we feel this anxiety, and continue to think about it, we are reinforcing the fear, and training that part of the brain to think it is correct to be afraid. What we really need is to be able to regulate our nervous systems.
There are two breathing techniques I use often. This one is for stress and anxiety in a general state. It is where you breathe into the count of four, hold to the count of four, breathe out to the count of four, and then hold again, to the count of four. This helps to regulate your breath, as when we panic, we tend to breathe faster, which again= reinforces the idea that we are afraid and have a reason to be.
The second breathing technique is one that I use when experiencing panic attacks and in more severe situations. You breathe in, then breathe out as long as you possibly can. This sounds simple, but I promise if you continually do this, it does work, and it helps calm down your body's response to anxiety and helps take you out of, or if you do it in time- prevent a panic attack.
Physical activity and Physical Wellbeing
As well as physical wellness working in a cyclical manner with mental wellness just in general, doing something physical, like jumping jacks, in a moment of stress and anxiety, also regulates your body when experiencing panic and stress.
Running works well for some people, jumping jacks works great for others. It is about getting your body moving. I always feel better when I go for walks outside in nature. Nature genuinely is so healing, and even being by rushing water can help to calm you down. Fresh air is incredibly beneficial to many people's mental states.
Yoga is also a great way to create a sense of balance.
Meditation, Mindfulness, Gratitude and Setting Intentions
You do not need to identify as spiritual to engage in meditation. It is recommended by many secular therapists as a way of drawing your attention back to the present. Whether affirmation meditation, guided meditation, or just silent meditation, there are so many benefits to learning how to be present. Anxiety is the thief of the present. It makes us live in fear of the future or live in pain from the past. When you are truly living in the moment it is so much easier to notice things around you, and realize that despite your troubles, there is so much to feel grateful for and find beauty in.
Gratitude is a great thing to practice. It goes hand in hand with mindfulness. I personally aim to practice gratitude and mindfulness by exercising being present in the moment I am in. I do this, by becoming in tune with my five senses. This is particularly easy and relaxing when I am outside in nature. I make a conscious choice to identify one thing at least, for each sense, that surrounds me. I may make note of the breeze on my skin, the smell of flowers, the beautiful leaves changing colour before me, the taste of the tea I am drinking, the sound of birds chirping. This is a great exercise to bring you back to the present moment and to help you realize that there are in fact beautiful and good things surrounding us at all times.
Journaling cannot go unmentioned as it has been such a saving grace for me on the days that I needed to pour my heart out. This works well for people who don't have someone they feel they can talk to. I write out all I am worried about, and at the end, I tend to feel better- a sense of relief. However, gratitude journaling and journaling my intentions for the day have also helped me. Especially in the morning, I find that starting my day with things to make note of, be grateful for, and pinpointing what I would like to work towards today is very helpful. At night, making note of the good parts of my day, even if I felt today went badly, helps me put things into perspective, and get ready for a new beginning- tomorrow.
Scheduling: Friend or Foe
Schedules can be a friend or foe depending on who you are. Some people feel liberated by order, others feel confined. Ironically, I am a combination of both.
I typically make a schedule of what I would like to do, but then am gracious with myself when I am not able to do everything in its entirety. I can be very perfectionistic, and so it is important for me to give myself compassion when trying to create order. Not everything can be controlled, and we must remember that. However, having some guidelines for our goals and plans for the day helps us put things into perspective, and I find that usually what I am overwhelmed by, is not as " heavy" as I think it is when it is all jumbled up in my head.
I find that I am less depressed and anxious when I create a sense of structure for myself and for my days. When I am productive, and I get things done, I find that I feel less lost, and less like I am just letting the world move around me. I become an active participant in my life when I feel accomplished. These accomplishments can be small, but they still deserve a big round of applause. I know that depression and anxiety can be debilitating, and like I mentioned above, sometimes I really do struggle to move. However, it is normally on my worst days, that I get to such lows, and know that I only have " up" to go to. Even choosing one thing to do, makes me feel better about myself because I tried to help myself, and no matter how small- that matters!
Some days I plan an extensive schedule, one full of self care, and cleaning, and getting things done. Other days, I take some things from my schedule and complete them in any way I can. Feeding myself, putting time aside for skin care, doing the dishes, walking my dog etc.
I have spent a week where I had a planned out schedule everyday, and I followed it to a tee. After the week I feel amazing, but I also felt a little burnt out. It takes discipline, and time to get used to schedule changes. It is an active response to feeling stuck, and it can feel exhausting until we are used to it. But I realized that I could still be active and proud of myself by picking some very important things ro do and get done, from my list. Some days when I really need a pick me up, I do follow my schedule exactly, but I don't force myself to do this everyday when I know that there are external factors that sometimes prevent me from following it perfectly. I may wake up at 5 am, go for a walk immediately, workout, do yoga, meditation, skin care, read and journal, all before 7 am one day, and the next I may wake up at 8 and eat, go for a walk when I can later, clean when I have time, and just focus on the most pressing things at that moment.
It is not about doing things perfectly. It's about finding balance in the balance.
Helpful tip: if you do decide to follow a schedule, I find it's best to chunk my days instead of confining myself to exact times to finish things. I have a morning chunk, afternoon chunk, and night chunk, with a (somewhat) ordered list of things to get done before the chunk is over. But sometimes an item gets carried over into the next chunk, and that is okay too. We need to be compassionate with our progress, and also, proud of our victories, no matter how small they may seem!
Mind and Gut: The Mental Wellness Diet
I only recently came to truly realize the importance of eating healthy. Not just because of the effects, it was having on me physically, but mentally as well. Certain things we consume in excess are actually big contributors to how we feel mentally, especially if you are very sensitive to how your body is feeling.
Caffeine is a literal stimulant, and yes, it is considered a drug because it is very addictive. I love coffee and I love tea, but I do feel that cutting back helps to improve my mood and headaches! Withdrawal is bound to happen if you go cold turkey, but I find that it is worth it to consider at least cutting back.
As well, too much sodium, too much sugar, too much fat, and processed foods are unhealthy as well. Personally, I'm vegan, but that in no way means I am healthy. I have lots of healthy options, but unfortunately for most of us, vegan or not, accessible, easy food is most often not very healthy for us. Eating too much of these things can contribute to mental health issues.
Finally, vitamin deficiencies are the real deal. I personally am anemic as well, so this makes me feel even more tired than I would be if I was just experiencing depression. I started taking iron supplements, omega 3 supplements ( algae ones) to help with my brain function, depression and more. I also started taking B12 and D3. I'm not a nutritionist so I don't have all the facts readily available, but I do know that it is worth researching the connection between eating excess unhealthy foods, and the connection between having deficiencies in things you really need as well.
Sometimes I really struggle with eating and being motivated to get up and cook, This unfortunately has drained my bank account of quite a bit as my default is to order food online. However, something that really helped me is pushing myself to try and make something new, and something that looks good. If something is visually appealing, I am more excited to eat it. As well, I feel really proud of my efforts.
Protecting Your Energy + Self Care
To be fair, I would say protecting your energy is a form of self care. Having a loving support system is something that can be very helpful to your mental state. However, it is important to make sure you are surrounded by people who bring positivity and love and light into your life, instead of having those who contribute to your pain or negative energies. Protecting your energy is arguably one of the most important things you can do. Creating boundaries for others around you is so important. We need to learn to say no to people who take advantage of our kindness, and even those who are generally very kind themselves, sometimes we need to prioritize our own care, before we can care for others. You can not pour from an empty cup. It is not selfish to look after yourself. In fact, it can benefit your relationships to do so.
Personally, I have a select few in my life who I surround myself with. I can so easily feel suffocated by other's if the energy they give of is toxic or heavy. It depletes my energy. It is not a bad thing to choose who to spend time with. There are some people who you may even want to keep around, but just see less in order to prioritize your well being. I have had friends who are fun to go out with, on the off chance I do want to go out, but they drain me in the typical case of me wanting to stay in. You can extend kindness to them, and yourself by protecting your energy and enforcing your boundaries.
Self care routines are one of my staples when I am feeling depressed. I typically spend my Sunday's endulging in a " self care day". I clean everything that needs cleaning, then I plan for my week ahead, and then I give myself a spa day essentially, to feel revitalized for the next week. However, I have started to integrate a small sample size of this spa day, into my everyday when possible. Skin care, tidying up when possible, moisturizing, eating healthy, mindfulness, journaling, small things like essential oils in the shower etc. There is so much more that we can do for ourselves than what we are already doing.
Learning About Ourselves Along The Way
In my opinion, one of the best things we can do in life, is learn. Learn about the world, about new things, and about ourselves. We are everchanging beings, and what made us happy in the past may not make us as happy now, but that does not mean that happiness is unachievable. As well, learning how to cope better with our mental states, how to understand our mental states better, is also not unachievable. One of the best things I have ever done to date, was commit to myself, to learning myself, and in the process- loving myself. We all want to be understood by others, but we don't seek to understand ourselves enough. The ability to learn, and grow, and heal , and challenge ourselves is such an amazing gift. There are always new things to try. New hobbies to explore. New places to visit. New passions and dreams to follow. Finding a passion is so important. It gives us a sense of purpose and meaning. Many of us, I feel are missing that. But one thing that I have found important to remind myself of along the way to the goals I am passionate about, is that it is important to trust the process and to be present for it. We as humans seem to live success to success in life. We have tunnel vision, never fully satisfied until we get exactly what we feel like we want. What we tell ourselves we need to be happy. But then what happens when you get to the top? Eventually, you find something else to desire. Or, you spend your time reflecting on the struggle. Point is, happiness, the way that society has defined it, is so fleeting. Because humans are goal-oriented, we can't stay still for too long without feeling stuck. We always want more. We only reflect on how strong we were once we get there. We only appreciate the stepping stones along the way, once we feel we have made it. We need to appreciate the strength and power we have in this moment, it is the only way we can be truly present.
And in my opinion, being present is the answer to everything.
© 2021 Riah Marie
Liza from USA on October 21, 2021:
Riah, you're most welcome. I hope we all can benefit from your story. I have tested with personal and emotional struggles after moving to the US. I learned a lot from the people surrounding and thankfully, my husband has helped me a lot. Have a great and productive day!
Riah Marie (author) from Canada on October 20, 2021:
@Priya Barua, thank you for commenting and for sharing your connection to what I’ve posted!! I appreciate your kind words, and I’m happy to hear that setting intentions helps with your anxiety! Sending positivity and light your way!!
Priya Barua on October 20, 2021:
Thank you for sharing your journey with us, as well as the things that helped you cope with it. I connect to it and have often set intentions to keep my anxiety at bay. You're brave, wonderful and well.
Riah Marie (author) from Canada on October 20, 2021:
@lizmalay Thank you very much for taking the time to comment. It’s so nice to meet people like you, who take the time to stop and share kind words! You made my night :) Wishing you the best as well!
Liza from USA on October 20, 2021:
I'm glad that I noticed your article on my timeline. First of all, I would like to say kudos for being very brave to tell your story. I do not doubt that nowadays, many people (whether we know them or do not) struggle with physical, well-being, emotional, and social issues. Reading yours made me feel that you're like a soldier combatting in a war, and you've prevailed. Thank you for sharing the suggestions and opinions so many people can benefit from them. Best of luck Riah!