If I could have readers leave the Desk at the end of the month with only one new piece of information, it’s that mental illnesses are actual, physical ailments in the brain. While the way we think and perceive has something to do with how the illnesses are expressed, the fact remains that most conditions come down to processes in the brain working in ways that cause significant suffering. For folks like me, these ailments are going to stick around for a while; that means one of the best things we can do for ourselves is develop coping mechanisms and routines that help us have as few bad days as possible. Now that I’ve talked at length about the conditions I have, I’d like to talk about a few of the things I’ve learned to do that help me most.
Before that, though, I do want to make a few disclaimers. First of all I’m not a licensed professional and none of the advice you find here should be taken as gospel; feel free to discard any or all of this if your psychiatrist or psychologist tells you different. Second, this shouldn’t be viewed as the equivalent of professional help. If you have (or think you have) a mental illness, the best course of action is seeking professional treatment if at all possible. Finally, taking these steps won’t guarantee that you’ll never have issues with your mental illness. I still have bad days and I still fall into depressive episodes myself. Hopefully, though, these can help shallow out the emotional valleys and make it easier to recover from them.
THE BORING STUFF
Sleep. Sleep has been the most important thing for me to get under control for my mental health. Back in college during my worst periods I had functionally no schedule for sleep; I would instead spend as much time as possible in my dorm’s computer labs seeking out some kind of human connection to make myself feel better. But the lack of consistent sleep made it so hard to regulate my emotions, pay attention in class, or absorb the day-to-day stresses that come with a full courseload.
While the exact function of sleep is not entirely understood, we do know that a number of important “brain maintenance” processes happen during rest. For those of us who have problems with brain function, a consistent sleep schedule is one of the easiest ways we can help our brain manage what it can. Our internal clocks are different, and for those of us working jobs with variable schedules or have some other function that doesn’t let us adopt a stable routine, it might not be possible to set a consistent bedtime for, say 10 PM – 6 AM. Do what you can, but do something; seven or eight hours of sleep a night are a must before just about anything else.
Diet. Again, I know that this is some loaded advice. There are so many folks who are simply unable to eat well because they can’t afford or find fresh produce, don’t have the time or will to cook for themselves, or have other legitimate reasons preventing them from making big changes to their diet. I get it; I’m not going to ask you to go vegan or only buy organic. But small changes to your diet that recenter focus on nutrients that help your body function better can be made. A good rule of thumb is the classic quote from food writer Michael Pollan: “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.”
At minimum, I’d recommend eating less salt, sugar and processed foods; drinking fewer sodas and juices (even diet and sugar-free versions); eating more lean meats and whole grains; drinking more water and tea. Most carb-heavy processed foods tend to convert into sugars within our bodies (at least, to my understandings) and the simpler or more processed the carb, the faster that process tends to be. In the United States we’re all about our processed carbs, and breaking away from them can feel like swimming upstream. It’s hard, I know. But if you can have fruits, vegetables and lean meats — have as much of them as possible.
Exercise. Exerting ourselves can often trigger the body into releasing dopamine, endocannibanoids and other chemicals that lift our mood, and the best part about exercise is that there’s a near-limitless variety of things we can do to work ourselves out. There’s weight training, sure; but there’s also running, sports like basketball or soccer, yoga or tai chi, cleaning the house, or walking along a favorite trail. In addition to the benefits of regular exercise, getting outdoors also helps our bodies to make Vitamin D (which helps build our bones and protects against cancer) as well as serotonin (one of those neurotransmitters I’ve been talking about).
Personally, I love running, but the spirit might move you to try something different. I understand how hard it can be to make time for regular exercise — I still struggle with it myself. But taking even ten minutes a day to walk around the block during the day can help lift your mood and give yourself more energy.
Getting more sleep, eating better food, and developing a regular exercise routine are all suggestions that any of us who’ve gotten professional help for our mental illnesses have heard time and time and time again — but there’s a reason for that. Taking care of our most basic needs is incredibly important. Not only does it help our body develop the tools it needs to manage the imbalances in our brain, but it also encourages us to change our relationship with ourselves. I’ve found that making sure I eat, sleep and move well helps me to think of myself as someone worth caring for and also helps to make me more sensitive to those needs. I have a better gauge for when I’m hungry, or really need sleep.
LESS BORING STUFF
Meditation. There are a lot of misconceptions about what meditation is, and that might be because everyone who practices it has a slightly different concept of what it is. In popular culture, meditation is the emptying of mind and communion with everything around you in the present moment; it’s an act of peaceful enlightenment that you have to do perfectly the first time you do it or you just can’t.
I’m here to tell you that meditation is messy and disorganized. I’ve meditated (almost) every day for seven years or so now, and most days are still a struggle against “monkey mind”. Meditation is not the mechanism we use to force ourselves into mindfulness and peace; it’s the mechanism we use to watch and accept our own thoughts as they arise.
When I sit on the meditation bench, I replay past arguments I’ve had with people; I think about the many mistakes I’ve made; depressed and obsessive thoughts pop up all the time. That’s completely fine — that’s what I’m on the bench for. However, so many of us believe that the thoughts or feelings we have are inherently bad and meditation is the way we rid ourselves of these thoughts. That’s not the case: these thoughts and feelings are natural, and it’s OK to accept that we have them. Acceptance of these difficult emotions and the thoughts they’re associated with is the first step we need to take in order to make peace with them.
Meditation as a daily practice allows us to gain better insights into the deeper layers within our thought process. We might notice, for example, that the same kinds of situations trigger a specific memory or regret; or we might notice that there’s a common thread in the things that make us angry or sad. If we accept this, we can then explore these insights with a gentle and compassionate curiosity. Perhaps, in time, we can even resolve the things that cause us suffering.
That definitely takes work, persistence, and faith in the process. But it’s been worth it to me. Due to my meditation practice, I have a much better understanding of when I’m in a depression or particularly rough bit of anxiety; that allows me to handle myself better when I’m in those spaces so I’m not as likely to do something that I’d later regret. That alone makes the depressions easier to deal with.
Making a care packet. One of the things that I like to do for myself when I’m feeling fairly well is making a “care package” for a future version of myself struggling through a bad depression or anxiety day. This can include one package of my favorite candy, a story or novel that I love, a playlist that lets me “lean in” to that feeling of sadness and turn it into a cathartic experience, or a Snuggie, or a really sweet letter or gift from a friend. Your mileage may vary with this, of course, but now that I can somewhat anticipate when I’m hitting a downward spiral I can look into the small things I’ve left myself to feel better and use them.
Of course, the things in your care packet don’t have to be physical objects: it could be permission to cancel a social engagement without feeling guilty, or a day to binge-watch a show in your pajamas. The main idea is to accept that there will be moments where despite your best efforts you hit a rough patch, and to do little things in advance that will help your future self ride out those times. In addition to giving yourself presents, it also helps retrain your brain to treat yourself a bit more kindly and to recognize that these “flare-ups” aren’t your fault. Sometimes they happen, and it’s important to be kind to yourself when they do.
Engage and learn. For most of us with mental illnesses, it can feel like we’re the only people who have this messed up thing where our brains lie to us about how the world works every once in a while. The terrible thoughts, the embarrassing emotions, the situations that are surprisingly common for those of us with deep depressive episodes — all of these can make us feel alienated and broken beyond the possibility of repair. The stigma that surrounds these illnesses can make it hard to open up about them, to share experiences even with other people we know going through the same thing.
That’s why learning as much as we can about our conditions and engaging with others who are also coping with them can be so important. The messed up things we do or think at our worst might be a fairly common experience; or we might, through the course of consoling a fellow sufferer, learn how to be gentler with ourselves dealing with a similar problem. There are a large number of online resources for depression, anxiety, and ADHD — even grouped by location, background, or lifestyle. The Internet is a wonderful gift here, in that it’s given us the capability to share our struggles in ways we’ve never been able to before. It might help knowing more about what you’re going through, and that you’re not the only one going through it.
These are some of the things that have helped me build better coping strategies and resilience against my mental illness. I sincerely hope they help a few of you out there, as well.