About four years ago, I started taking my mental health seriously. Mental illness and addiction run in my family, and I wanted to manage it better than previous generations had (bless them, they did the best they could). Just as I would get regular mammograms if breast cancer ran in my family, I attacked the potential problem with vigor. I started seeing a therapist, taking prescription medicine to manage my crippling, lifelong anxiety, and I quit drinking alcohol.
My life changed entirely, but not in the ways I thought. I thought the biggest part of managing mental health was just showing up to the doctor and telling her I hadn’t blinked in about five years and *poof* I’d be good in 4-6 weeks. I won’t underestimate the importance of showing up, but I will also stress the importance of the work I had to do once I got there; active, hard, ugly WORK to change my behavior and my belief systems.
As the global crisis grows, I’m aware that I need to work a little harder to keep my head right. Extreme stress can be a trigger for those who suffer from mental illness and addiction, and awareness is key. In addition to keeping my weekly video chats with my therapist and my prescriptions up to date, I must do daily work to help manage my stress, anxiety and depression during this time of unprecedented change.
I caveat all of this with saying, while I wish I played one on TV, I am not a doctor. But I do work in marketing, and I know the importance of disclosure, so please make sure you work with a professional to plan what’s right for you and your mental health. Communication is also key. Make sure the people in both your personal and professional support system know if you are struggling, as it will better help them support you through this time.
Here are some tips of my own personal “survival guide”:
1. I’m doing what’s right for me.
There is no shortage of advice on how to spend your quarantine. According to the Internet, we should all use this time to learn how to sing in Portuguese while doing a tik tok dance, after we reorganize all our closets, but make sure we don’t do too much because we should also use this time to slow down for self-care and reflection and being present.
This time is your time. Use it however you want to make your world better and safe. Which is why…
2. I’m channeling Bruce Lee.
No, I’m not roundhouse kicking around my home office (as often as I should be), I’m channeling what wise Uncle Brucey said many years ago, which is to “be like water.” I’m just trying to go with the flow, baby.
Things are going to change and change again for a while, and I can’t do a darn thing about it. Life will be a lot easier if I flow with the changes, rather than try to resist them. I can’t control most things, but I can control how I react to them. I can breathe through it and train myself to find the positive in everything. Which is a nice lead in to…
3. I’m practicing being thankful.
Being grateful has turned into a daily activity. I am forcing myself to write down five things I am grateful for every day, even when I’m cranky. Especially when I’m cranky. Most days, I write down the same things, and then I feel grateful I still have five things for my list.
Focusing on what is here and true today helps me not focus on all the world’s problems. It elevates my mood, and makes it harder to whine and complain after I spell out on paper what blessings already exist in my corner of the world.
Here’s what I wrote down this morning, as an example:
I AM GRATEFUL FOR:
- My health. That makes the list every day until it doesn’t.
- My coworkers’ senses of humor
- Working with people that care about me
- My husband, who is in this whole thing with me, both personally and professionally
- The flowers in my garden that will grow this year, no matter what the market does.
There are some days that “cheese” will be a stand-alone bullet point, and that’s ok too. Practicing thanks for even the smallest things can bring big joy, but you actually have to practice to get good at it. The same goes for the most natural activity we do…
4. I’m breathing.
Quite literally, I’m practicing breathing. When I feel stressed or anxious, I subconsciously hold my breath. I never noticed it until I started taking yoga classes, and an instructor mentioned that I held my breath when the poses became the most difficult. She told me I likely do that in real life, and she was right. I became conscious of my breath, and lack thereof, and I try to remember the lesson that you can only hold the hardest yoga poses if you focus on your breath. The minute you start thinking about anything else in that room, you topple.
There are lots of breathing techniques out there, and here is a common one. It’s called the 4-7-8 technique, and to use it:
- empty the lungs of air.
- breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds.
- hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds.
- exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a “whoosh” sound, for 8 seconds.
- repeat the cycle up to 4 times.
There you go! You have stopped depriving your brain of oxygen when you need it the most. As with anything else, breathing takes practice. You need to practice over and over and over until it becomes part of who you are, like any other habit. Luckily, it’s way easier than practicing TikTok dances, and usually less awkward. And speaking of awkward…
5. I’m feeling my feelings.
Call me Brené Brown, vulnerability is my new mantra. When someone asks me how I am during stressful times, I have a knee-jerk reaction to blurt out “I’m fine!” in a chipper-yet-slightly-crazed tone. I grew up in a “suck it up” household, so it’s ingrained in me to dismiss my feelings and just keep going.
I’m trying not to do that right now. When someone asks me how I’m doing, and I’m scared, I’m going to say out loud “I’m scared of all this uncertainty.” By doing this, I hear that other people are scared too, and I focus my attention to comforting the other person about their fears, and I forget how scared I am. As do-gooders of National Life, we know better than anyone that helping others helps us, and sharing how you feel will ultimately break the vulnerability barriers and help others feel better too.
I’ll end where I began: do what’s right for you and your health, breathing makes it a lot easier, and channel Bruce. And make sure you send me your TikTok videos 😊