Some reminders for mental health in this precarious and difficult time

Hello! It’s me, Steph, and it’s been a while.

I’m back though, and I hope these reminders make you go, “wow, I needed to hear that” (or at least some of them!).

I’ve learned a lot about mental health in the last few months, but particularly about self-compassion. I started therapy post-mental breakdown before the pandemic, and what I thought would be weekly sessions focused on helping me control anxiety turned out to be a journey of discovering my capacity to be nice to myself, and of the incredible power of switching from a place of shame, guilt and expectation, to a place of love, understanding and acceptance. 

Normally I’d post these reminders on my Instagram story, but I don’t want to have to cut them down, because I believe in these things very strongly. 

I’m not a psychologist or a professional in any way. But I am a human, and I’m struggling with things most of you are also struggling with. So I wanted to remind you of some points that I know I personally needed to bring back into focus. So, in no particular order:

1. It’s ok to have no idea how to feel or be right now. 

None of us know. Not my friends, not the government, and not even Oprah knows. Nobody is getting it “right.” There is no ‘right’ way to respond to a global pandemic emotionally or mentally! 

It’s ok to not how how to name or explain your thoughts or feelings, and if you can, it’s ok if they don’t seem to ‘make sense.’ If you feel something, regardless of why, it’s real, and you’re allowed to be emotional or apathetic or even happy you get to catch up on reading or spend time with your family or whatever! Just know that there is no rubric, and whatever you’re doing, you’re doing ok. 

2. It’s ok to have rubbish mental health right now. 

Ok, obviously. 

But really – it’s ok to be depressed or triggered or anxious or exhausted or just not ok, even if you’re not sure what you feel at all. Positivity and gratitude are really helpful, especially at a time like this. But sometimes they aren’t enough, which is ok. 

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It’s not a personal failure if you can’t force yourself to ‘look on the bright side’ or ‘be thankful for how lucky you are all things considered.’ You’re not ungrateful if you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, or just feeling terrible all the time. 

Take care of yourself if you’re struggling. Don’t put pressure on yourself to ‘focus on the good’ and ‘be strong.’ Don’t try to shame yourself into mental health – if anything, that makes it all worse. Offer yourself validation, understanding, and space to do what you need to. 

Don’t put arbitrary expectations on yourself to be happy and content and grateful and healthy just because you’re, you know, not dying or without a home or in any other extreme situation. 

3. Stop using the word should 

Should is a bad word. It brings feelings of shame, guilt and inadequacy. Again – there is no correct or best way to be during this period! 

Stop yourself when you hear yourself saying “I should do this” or “I should be doing less of this” or “I shouldn’t be doing/eating/feeling/thinking this.” Switch to alternative words and phrases that still help you reflect on your lifestyle in a constructive way, like, “is this the most helpful thing for me to be doing/eating/feeling/thinking? What else could I be doing/etc with this time that would fulfill my needs more? Do I feel I have the capacity for that?”

If the answer is no, that’s ok! Pick something else to do, and allow yourself NOT to do things, too. 

4. Routines help 

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They do not have to be big or well planned or productive or perfect. It can literally be three things you do to start your day and one thing to wind down for bed. It could be scheduling blocks of your day carefully and colour-coding everything. Do whatever makes you feel good. Nobody knows you better than you, and nobody knows your needs better than you – have faith in that! Lean into yourself!

5. That being said, don’t beat yourself up if you change your mind on where you’re spending your time 

It’s ok to realize that you’re not satisfied with how you’ve been spending your time over the last few days/weeks/months. Do not beat yourself up, or say “ugh I SHOULD have been learning a language/working harder/reading more/exercising often/eating less-“ or whatever! 

Rather, say things like, “Ok, I tried that for a weeks weeks to see if it was what I needed, and in retrospect, it was not. What would I like to try tomorrow/in the next few days?” And see how that makes you feel.

There is no urgency to ‘get it right’ – it being living, in the most general sense of the word, in this situation. Working from home, maybe living with people we usually don’t, not seeing loved ones, limited contact with others, the crippling weight of the pandemic – it’s a lot. There is no correct way for you to design your lifestyle to ‘suit’ this moment in history. 

Doing your best everyday is enough! Stay in touch with your needs, and give yourself permission and space to change your mind and try new things – and DON’T BEAT YOURSELF UP for feeling unsatisfied with whatever it is you were doing before. 

6. There is no! Right! way! to! Be! During a global pandemic! 

I know I’ve said this already, but it’s a big deal. You literally do not need to worry about whether or not you’re using this time well/putting enough effort into being mentally healthy/capable of productivity/etc. 

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If productivity makes you feel good, do that! If shaming yourself into an activity (work/exercise/diet/etc) makes you feel worse, don’t do that! And forgive yourself for shaming/being hard on yourself too. 

We’re all trying to be the best version of ourselves and hold ourselves accountable. It’s easy to slip into a place of shaming/guilting ourselves to do The Things. But you owe yourself more than that; take the time to try shake those patterns of talking to yourself. 

7. PRACTICE COMPASSION

With yourself above all, but also with others. My favorite Instagram account is @lisaoliveratherapy who has great resources for self-compassion and tending to our needs. She even has things like self-compassion journal prompts, which you can google if you’d like, too.

You don’t have to follow a bunch of self help accounts or journal if you don’t want to. You can just spend a few minutes asking yourself, “how can I offer myself compassion right now?” 

Be kind to yourself. The way we speak to ourselves matters. You owe yourself acceptance and compassion, because you deserve love and safety. You just have to give those things to yourself, too – now more than ever.

-Steph

The extraordinarily ordinary moments in-between mental illness exist – I promise

But it does get better. 

Some parts of our lives are really hard, really dark, and when we look back it’s kind of like reflecting on what a long winter felt like when you’d go months without being able to remember what it felt like to feel your toes and fingers because it was so cold, and the sunsets were never there and the sun didn’t make you feel warm and everything was dry and icy-

But it does get better. 

And you won’t see it coming: you won’t notice it happening, the thawing – you won’t notice every day how you’re starting to hum to yourself again or how laughter is coming more easily than it did before or how you’ve started noticing sunsets and feeling sunshine again. 

You’ll just be sitting on your couch at 11 am on a Wednesday listening to traffic and lawn mowers and the neighbours music drinking coffee that’s too expensive but almost worth it with a book you didn’t realized how grateful you were to be reading until right this moment and –

it will be better.

casey-horner-394182-unsplashAnd you’ll suddenly realize that for the longest time you’ve forgotten what it felt like to not be ok, and that you’re excited to do… anything, really. The prospect of doing your dishes or getting started on that assignment or phoning up your parents to say hi or catching up with people you saw only yesterday is actually not a horrible idea, in fact you’re content and grateful for all of it. 

Suddenly your life will dawn on you at a completely ordinary moment, and it will bring with it the realization that you’re not exhausted by the thought of being alive, and that – that is so far from ordinary for so many of us. 

I’m not sure what it feels like to really say it’s normal for me to want to be alive, or to not be completely crippled by the daunting task of quite literally being conscious and getting out of bed and making myself a bowl of cereal, let alone all the other often exhausting activities required to be functional. Feeling kind of like being alive is a cool thing to do, all the time, is not normal for me. 

But it does get better. 

There will always be winters for me – a day, a week, sometimes many more – where I’m tired and my soul is uninterested in the world and it’s both exhausting to be a functional human AND convince myself I actually want to do that at the same time. Those seasons are always lurking, and I can never know when they’re coming or how long they’ll last when they do. 

But that’s ok, because I know that there will be many more ‘ordinary’ Wednesday mornings in my apartment when life will feel like it’s a good color on me and I can’t wait to wear it out into the world. 

Mental illness isn’t a teenager in a 5 bedroom house in ‘Riverdale’ who’s parents fight sometimes and failed a class and it rains all the time. Mental illness is war inside of us, and it’s disingenuous to romanticize it, because it’s ugly, painful, even horrific, impossible to understand from the outside, and even when it’s not happening, there’s always the feeling that it could happen again at any moment. 

joanna-kosinska-140783-unsplashBut it’s good to know from my lived experience, and that of many others, that there will also be peace sometimes, and it will be worth itit is worth it. In an understatement of the century, being depressed sucks, a lot.

But the Ordinary Days where your mind is feeling good about itself are pretty fucking amazing. 

I used to feel sad and angry that I was brought to tears with gratefulness for days that seemed so commonplace for everyone around me, because I felt like I deserved to feel like that all the time and it wasn’t ok that I responded to Normal Moments so dramatically. 

But, that doesn’t help me. Its pretty rough comparing yourself to mentally healthy people,  so, just don’t do that, it doesn’t serve you, and can bring you nothing but more unnecessary anger and pain. Making peace with our lot in life is an ongoing process for me, and I would be lying if I said the whole “accepting what you can’t change will bring you happiness” thing doesn’t REALLY piss me off, because accepting a generalized anxiety disorder and bunch of other really horrible stuff that got shipped in with my dysfunctional brain is actually not going to bring me happiness, but thank you Tumblr, it’s a nice sentiment. 

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I don’t have answers for how to work around that, because it’s something we battle all the time. But, I just wanted to let you know that, despite all of that, your Ordinary Days exist – now, or in the future – and they will be just as real as the wintery difficulties you’re living through now or have in the past. 

Peace exists, and just because you haven’t had your Oh-My-Gosh-I’m-Happy-To-Be-Alive-What-Is-This-Feeling! moment on a Wednesday morning yet, doesn’t mean it’s not coming. 

You’re still kicking, so don’t stop now – because someday you won’t have to kick anything to enjoy your day, I promise. 

– Steph (Hunting Happiness)

Gratitude can’t always scare off your depression – and that’s ok

Gratitude.

It’s a very powerful thing – in fact, it can be the momentum you need to keep you moving through the days you feel too tired to continue; tired of the mental illness trying to pry away the big and small things we rejoice in.

But sometimes we are unable to feel that gratitude, even though we try and we know we should, and that’s completely ok.

Depression is particularly cunning at breaking down our gratitude, which is terrible because from there it’s an easy shot at our positivity and hope, and the despair sets in.

Sometimes when I am depressed, I make lists of everything I’m grateful for. I spend a lot of time, on my own, trying to stir up the deepest feelings of appreciation for my loved ones, the weather, even my comfortable and expensive linen – but most of all, appreciation for what it feels like to simply exist.

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It’s really the only effective way that I can defeat my depressionsometimes.

Other times, however, it doesn’t work. 

Sometimes when I am depressed, I try with everything I have to adhere to Tumblr templates for gratitude journals and I attempt to find the motivation to even think about what I like about my life or existence in general, and I can’t.

Sometimes depression takes the ability to feel grateful from me, and I get angry with myself. I beat myself up and ask myself why I can’t be like all the other mental illness success stories of people filling mirrors with sticky notes about appreciation.

I feel disgusted and frustrated with myself for being so ungrateful, and tell myself that I need to get it together. I feel as though it were my choice to be so sad and moody because  I can’t look on the bright side.

nathan-dumlao-592015-unsplashBut I wanted to tell you that sometimes it’s ok to not be grateful. Sometimes it’s okay to not feel appreciative or positive about anything. It isn’t your fault.

When your mental illness exhausts you, cripples you, calls you mean names, it often does it in the disguise of yourself. You tell yourself you’re useless or ungrateful or weak, but, as anyone experienced in the art of overcoming mental illness understands, mental illnesses lie to us.

So don’t beat yourself up over things you can’t feel and things you do feel. Your mental illness is already doing it for you, you don’t need to help. Sometimes there are things you just can’t help but feel – or not feel, and that’s completely ok.

Ride it out, take your medication or do your yoga or scream into a void – do whatever it is you do when you’re knocked over by a bad wave, and you feel as though you’re drowning. Don’t waste energy being angry with yourself for not being able to just pull it together or find the silver linings to lift your mood.

Sometimes it just isn’t that easy, and some days you’ll feel as though there isn’t anything to be grateful about. Don’t let that make you bitter, because you know it is temporary, even though it doesn’t feel like it at the time.

Be easy on yourself when your mental illness isn’t – give yourself some slack when your mind won’t. You deserve it.

 

-Steph

When illness is invisible, take more initiative in checking up on the friends who look healthy

I scrolled through my instagram today, and watched a video of me singing with a ukulele (very original, I know) from almost a year ago and reading the slew of comments – compliments, hearts, recognition for how cool people thought I was – was really hard for me.

At the time, my immune system was too weak to fight off hemorrhagic laryngitis (it’s like normal laryngitis except all the blood vessels in your throat burst, super terrible), and I developed an anti-biotic resistant infection. My doctors (multiple in this case) kept saying  all I had to do was stay relaxed, not increase my heart rate, and reduce stress so that my body could fight the infection.

Except that I suffer from anxiety – and as the year increased in stress levels, so did my anxiety. My immune system couldn’t keep up. My body and mind have always been too sensitive and too connected to avoid physical illness when my mind was in a rough patch.

I battled with recurring debilitating fevers, flare ups, sore throats and a consistent effort to keep it under control for almost an entire year.

But it made my singing voice sound super cool in the video for Instragram, so…

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It’s not as though this was the only health problem I’ve dealt with because of my anxiety. I began to suffer from symptoms of PTSD (after a traumatically abusive relationship) and I developed a nightmare disorder.

In fact, yesterday I was at the doctor for problems with my spleen and ovarian cysts – a result of chronic anxiety and stress.

What I’m really trying to talk about, though, is that feeling about the comments under a video made at a time that I knew I was struggling to face each day with the constant, never ending battle for health I couldn’t seem to win.

It makes me feel alone. I can be right there, in front of people, some I consider close friends, and this huge part of my life is hidden from them, because my illnesses are invisible. It’s surreal, realizing when I post pictures of me receiving awards, everyone thinks, ‘wow, she’s killing it,’ even on days where I feel like my body and mind are killing me. 

So, while recycled and aged, please don’t judge people from what you can see on the outside – even people you consider close friends. When you ask someone how they are, really mean it. If a few more people had taken the time to check up on me instead of congratulating me for achievements at university or complimenting me on my clothes and ukulele playing, I would have felt a lot less like the ground was constantly falling out from under me for a majority of the days last year, and worrying that I would seem ungrateful if I spoke out about it. fabrizio-verrecchia-228667-unsplash

I’m not saying you should pry, or that you should assume every girl on Instagram with a ukulele is mentally ill, but I am saying that even when someone doesn’t reach out or start a conversation about things they’re going through, if they matter to you, take initiative.

It would have made the WORLD of difference if someone had seen another instagram post of me busy at some or other activity and texted me, “hey, so glad to see you’re achieving so much. I’m sure it must take a toll though, how are you doing?

Whenever my fiends saw me, they’d say things like, “I am so proud of you, you’re doing so much, it’s so impressive, you’re amazing, you’re so strong, I don’t know how you do it!” It felt IMPOSSIBLE in the face of those sentiments to say, “actually, all things aside, I’m not coping.” 

When I did, I’d get horrible advice about stress management, which I’ve covered in this blog post on how to correctly respond to loved ones’ anxiety.

harli-marten-135841-unsplashWhen someone is important to you, going that little extra mile to let them know you recognize that things might be challenging or difficult for them can be incredibly appreciated – and needed.

It seems a bit weird at first, but if you know someone has struggled with invisible illness in the past, chances are they’d appreciate even just letting them know you recognize their rough situation. It might even give that person the courage to take initiative themselves.

Trust me, it could mean the world of difference to them.

When panic attacks, this is how I regain control

My anxiety has this charming habit where it can completely derail my life when it’s in the mood, but, today I wanted to share some pretty neat ways that I calm the Anxiety Monster when it throws a tantrum.

They definitely don’t completely rid me of my panic, but, they do help me regain control over my mind, and that really speeds up the process of recovering from crippling anxiety to being able to get on with my life – because that doesn’t wait for us when our mental illnesses are having a go at us.

These are pretty effective for run-of-the-mill stress, and if you’re a pro-Worrier like me, then these are (I hope) really helpful.

If you decide to try any of these, even when you’re just feeling a little stressed, I would love to know if it helped!

The Can-and-Can’t Controllables

When faced with an immediate and triggering situation, I make lists with two columns: “Things I Cannot Control” and “Things I Can Control”

The root of all stress (a certain trigger for my anxiety) is our perception of control over a the outcome of a situation. We often don’t realize how significant our abject horror is at the fact that we can’t control everything, and how much it can exacerbate our already-prone-to-panic minds.

Today, my panic attacks were triggered by the sudden news that I have to find a new apartment in 2 weeks, so my list looked kind of this:

Things I Cannot Control

  • The price of property
  • The fact that I have to move

Things I Can Control

  • Where I will live
  • How much information I have about my options

I know it seems slightly silly, but when you have a full list of things you CAN control, highlighted with colorful lines and exclamation points reminding you to only focus on those, you also have a list of stuff on the “can’t control” list that you now recognize have no business being worried about, because – well, you can’t control them.

List of stuff you’re allowed to worry about

This is a habitual reminder. Before you label this as way-too-obvious, it’s very powerful for someone with heavy control issues like me. I am a firm believer that we can engrain stuff into our brains and make them part of our lifestyles, and this list is an attempt at just that. It lists the things in the world, my life, and my character that I am responsible for, and is stuck up next to mirror, so that every morning I read the following:

“Stuff I’m Responsible for/Can Control

  • My choices and actions
  • My attitudes and priorities
  • With whom, where, and on what I spend my time, money, labour, and resources

If the thing you’re worrying about is not on THIS list, STOP WORRYING ABOUT IT!”

I love lists – maybe a bit too much. My psychology textbook says people with over controlling, A Type tendencies (like me) are more prone to illness, and even Coronary Heart Disease (yikes).

But, even though I’m trying to lighten up on the whole totally-mortified-at-the-chaotic-consequences-of-losing-total-control thing, I also think my list-making is a way of making affirmations and it’s necessary step to regaining control over my mind when anxiety pushes it off the rails.

Maybe lists and being obsessed with what I can control can be detrimental if overdone, but, in the case of using these controllable vs. uncontrollable lists as a GPS for my brain when Generalized Anxiety throws it into the wild, I think it’s a helpful habit.

If you don’t make lists, are there any other ways that help you regain control over your mind when panic strikes? If so, I’d love to hear them!

– Steph

I’m not “too sensitive.” I’m mentally ill.

It hurts when people erase us – our struggles, our scars, our victories, our invisible battles, a part of our lives that shapes us and our paths in ways others will never comprehend.

It hurts when people erase our mental illnesses.

gabriel-762937-unsplashIt’s like being told that everything must be your fault, a result of your flaws and weaknesses and choices; that it’s inconceivable that there is an invisible destiny carved into our bones by genetics and external factors of trauma or tragedy, leaving us learning every day the forever-evolving face of our mental illness and how best to get through the new day.

How many of us have at some point been told that we can be a little “too sensitive,” “too emotional,” or “too involved” ? How many of us have felt that we’re being told that our pain, our exhaustion, our hopelessness, our control over our minds slipping through our finger tips, are our fault? Our choice, even?

For me, I’ve heard it countless times.

“You need to toughen up.” “You’re too soft for this world.” “You can’t be so sensitive and expect to be treated right.” “You shouldn’t let things affect you this much.”

And in my head, with internal hot tears of anger and hurt at the erasure of my pain, of the war I have battled without complaint or surrender for as long as I can remember, all I can think when I hear that is, “thank you! So! Much! I am cured, of my depression, of my anxiety, and finally, presented with the easy to make and simple choice of “tough” or “sensitive,” I can continue my life with contentment and joy, never again to be pestered by the whisperings of my own mind! Bless you, kind sir!”

miguel-bruna-503098-unsplashI’m a little angry about it, I guess. And I should be. Because, when I’m at rock bottom, at my wits end, my life falling apart, my mind urging me to figuratively hit “quit without saving” on my existence, when I’m crying in the shower and in the elevator and in the moments no one is watching, when my hands are shaking as I desperately count the pills from my doctor and the consequences of absence from work, from relationships, from the world, are knocking on my door demanding that I attend to responsibilities even though I can barely attend to myself –

You telling me I need to “toughen up” and not be “so sensitive,” is erasing my mental illness, and you’re erasing the victories I win every single day with them, and you’re erasing the fact that mental illness is ugly, real, and that I am so so much tougher than you could ever imagine, because I face their hideous faces every morning.

It’s not that we’re “too” anything. It’s called mental illness.

Mine are called Depression and Anxiety. Whatever yours are called, kudos to you for fighting quietly or loudly or neatly or messily. However you win your battles, even on the days you lose, you’re not too sensitive or emotional or self involved or at fault. None of it is your fault. Call it what it is, and don’t let people who don’t understand convince you to agree with the shady voice in your head that tries to convince you it’s all on you, because it’s not, and I hope this is your daily reminder of that.

–  Steph

Anxiety doesn’t want your advice about stress management, and neither do I.

Please stop responding to my anxiety with, “stress isn’t good for you, you know.” 

I know. 

I do know, because I can’t tell you how much money has been spent on profesional help and medication, or even the physical illnesses that never seem to end, as the distress my body experiences is a result of my anxiety. 

“You’re really stressed out, you really need to learn how to calm down.” 

I would be rich enough to afford therapy more often if I had a cent for every time I’ve heard that in my life. I’m nervous, jumpy, and always clouded with an agitated sense of urgency; I worry a lot, and make small things seem big. Before exams, I’m panicking, and when something goes wrong, I freak out. I have split ends, I bite my nails, I’m not good at relaxing, and I have a generalized anxiety disorder. 

For those of us who struggle with anxiety, it’s a mixture of intense frustration and hurt when someone throws used, dusty, fridge-magnet wisdom about stress at us when we express our anxiety, because it’s insulting to tell us our disorder is the same as feeling under pressure. 

Don’t get me wrong, stress is quite literally a killer (disclaimer, don’t read that if you’re anxious about health…) It’s a mental health concern that is a modern pandemic, and it’s a valid and serious problem for many people. But it is not the same as anxiety, and it hurts us deeply when you treat them as interchangeable terms for a biological response to demands.

To all those out there who haven’t suffered from anxiety: When I try to talk about how anxiety is causing me distress and hindering me in something, understand that it was challenging for me to begin talking about my anxiety to begin with. To be met with invalidation and ignorance in the form of, “wow, man, you’re quite the stress-ball! You should try-makes me cry when I go home and begin my nighttime routine of sedatives and countless other steps in my precarious mental health regimen that allows me to make it through another day. 

So, when someone says, “I’m feeling anxious about-“ or, “Yeah, I know it’s fine, I’m just having anxiety over -“ here are some options to substitute anything along the lines of “don’t stress,”: 

“Would you like to talk about why you’re feeling anxious, or are you not sure?” 

“What are you anxious about? Here are all the reasons why those worries are irrational to help you realize that too.” 

“List all your ‘what if-‘ scenarios and lets debunk them as you go.” 

I’m tired of defending my mental illness, and I’m tired of trying to convince people to legitimize my suffering. I shouldn’t have to prove that my “stressed out personality” is more serious than that and that I need space, support and respect when I’m not ok.

It’s the small things that make people feel like they can open up about their mental health challenges, and not unintentionally invalidating anxiety is a great way to let the people you care about know that you see them, you hear them, and that they don’t have to struggle alone. 

And for my fellow anxiety-sufferers: I know it’s not our job to educate the world, but when it comes to the people directly in our space, we need to care enough about ourselves to speak up when presented with situations like having your anxiety invalidated by people who think that saying, “just calm down, it’s not that big of a deal” is good advice. Next time, say it – say, “Thanks, but, although it’s something I don’t like talking about, I have an anxiety disorder, and it’s a little more challenging to work around it than that.”

I promise that people aren’t as unsupportive of your mental health as you think. They just don’t know, and they often don’t understand. Being open about our challenges – to whatever degree we feel comfortable, but at least a little bit – is part of breaking apart that crafty stigma that makes our issues even more difficult, and it’s part of raising awareness for how the world needs to get on board with us even when we aren’t on board with ourselves. A society that normalizes talking about, validating and helping with mental illness is one we need.

I know it’s scary to think about admitting to mental health struggles (at least for me, anyway, it’s the stuff of nightmares), but on the occasions I actually found the courage to voice why I missed the meeting, lecture, event or phone call (because I was having panic attacks and I can’t always afford medication), it was met with support, empathy, and a response that actually massively eased the weight of my anxiety.

So next time, take the leap!