Every year my health insurance provider incentivizes me to get my annual physical and blood work. I eat (mostly) healthy and exercise regularly, but I still check in with my doctor once a year to get a baseline for my physical well-being. It’s safe to say that most of us do this, but what about checking in regularly with our mental health? Chances are that we don’t check in with this critical component of our well-being as often as we should. It’s just as important to address feeling stressed or anxious for an extended period of time as it is addressing back pain or a bad cough. I believe that a driving factor behind the lack of mental health awareness is the negative stigma behind the term “mental health”. We’re getting much better at being open and discussing our mental health, but we still have a long way to go.
I remember vividly when I was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. The truth is, I had known for a really long time that I was a generally anxious person. As far back as 5th grade, I remember my teacher calling on me to read aloud to the class or have me answer a test question, I would turn a bright shade of red. In college, I would wear turtle necks for presentations because of the hives I’d get from the physical effects of the anxiety of speaking in front of large groups.
In my early twenties my anxiety got out of hand and I sought help. It was no longer manageable on my own. My anxiety took an inward turn and I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. I would avoid going out with friends, I obsessed over things I couldn’t control and I lost interest in things that used to make me happy.
I went to my primary care doctor and the nurse asked why I was there that day to see the doctor. When I started to verbalize how I was feeling, I realized for the first time that I was describing someone who was anxious and depressed. It was hard to say it out loud because I was admitting it to myself something that I avoided for a long time.
The problems I was facing in my life were typical of someone at a transitional age. I was 22 years old and had just started my first job working full-time. I was adjusting to life as an adult. My boyfriend and I had moved in together and we were learning the ropes of living on our own for the first time. All of that layered in with some complex family and personal issues were enough to set my mental health spiraling out of control.
When my doctor told me that she thought that I had a generalized anxiety/depression disorder, I cried. Because to me, I was not a depressed person. I still got up every day and went to work, the gym, made dinner and did it all over again the next day. When I envisioned someone who was anxious and depressed, I did not picture myself.
It took me a few days to come to terms with my doctor’s visit, but I promised myself that I wouldn’t be ashamed of my diagnosis. I openly shared my struggles with friends and family for the first time. It was a breath of fresh air to have everything out in the open. It was relieving because my diagnosis empowered me to take control and manage my symptoms. In the beginning, I put a lot of time and energy into managing my mental health. My day-to-day didn’t change drastically, but my diagnosis was a blessing because I was able to shift my perspective and recognize my triggers.
I still put a lot of work into my mental health because I saw how bad it could get for me when I let it get out of control. Mental health awareness month has come and gone, but I wanted to share some of the tools I have come to rely on over the last six years for managing my anxiety. These tools are what work best for me. You may find that these work for you, or they may not. I believe in transparency and sharing our experiences with one another. The more we talk about all of our issues, not just mental health, the more we will come to realize that we have more similarities with one another than we do differences.
I don’t want to quote Legally Blonde here, but I’m going to quote Legally Blonde here. Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy. Exercise isn’t just great for your body, its also great for your mind. I treat my 50 min each day exercising as my “me time”. We spend so much time doing things for others all day. How often do we give back to our bodies and minds?
Exercising comes in many forms. Some people prefer to run outside, while others prefer to take group fitness classes. Even taking a 10-minute walk around the block to clear your head can put your mind at ease and decrease any nervous energy. Our minds and our bodies are so connected. The more we nourish each, the other will see the positive effects. Taking time out of your day to get your heart rate up and your body moving is not selfish, it’s self-care.
2. The Power of Saying “No”
As women we wear so many hats in a day. Spouse, Mom, friend, boss, co-worker, leader, mentor, the list goes on, and the plans and obligations for each of these roles go up. But the truth is, there are only so many hours in a day. Trying to fit everything in all of the time quickly leads to burnout and fatigue. This can take a huge toll on our mental health. We’re all guilty of saying yes to things that we know we don’t have time for in our busy schedules.
The time comes and you find yourself dreading the plans you made last week. We’ve all been there. You are not a bad [insert role here] if you say no to something! It’s more important to put your full attention on a few things versus give your 10% to everything. I used to get serious FOMO if I missed a night out with the girls or a family event. Now I know when I am wavering on the line of taking on too much. Sometimes saying no can be just as powerful as saying yes – its all about keeping a healthy balance!
3. Deep Breathing Exercises
Mindful, deep breathing can be a huge asset when you’re in the middle of an anxiety attack. Simply shifting the mind to focus on breathing helps bring the body back to a calm state. When I find that my nerves are getting out of control or I am having an anxiety attack I take a deep breathe in through my nose while I count to three. Then I hold that breath for another three seconds, and breathe out through my mouth for another three seconds. Repeating this over and over helps bring my heart rate down and keeps my mind in the present. The best part about this exercise is that you can do it anywhere! Breathing is normal and natural so no one will notice if you’re doing this in public, school, work, etc.
4. Natural Remedies
There are lots of different herbal supplements out there that claim to help with anxiety. Recently I’ve worked two things into my routine that have made a world of difference; CBD oil and Ashwagandha. CBD oil is having its moment. It’s to 2019 what coconut oil was to 2015. Even Bed Bath and Beyond had it in their catalog. That’s when you know it’s gone mainstream. CBD has gone viral because its benefits cannot be denied. I take two drops in the morning and two drops at night before bed. I’ve noticed that my anxiety during the day has lessened and I sleep much better at night. Like a vitamin, you won’t notice the difference overnight, but after about 30-days you should see a difference. I’ve also started drinking an ashwagandha based cocoa at night before bed.
Ashwagandha is a root powder that serves as an adaptogen to help the body cope with daily stress. You can get pure Ashwagandha root powder on Amazon, but honestly, I really hate the taste. I prefer to drink it as an adaptogen blend. My favorite is the cosmic cocoa from Moon Juice. It’s a great supplement or replacement to a nightly tea. They also just launched a Matcha version if you’re into that.
5. Ask for Help
This is so important! The tips and tricks above help supplement my mental health care plan. But I still check in with my therapist and my doctor every few months. If nothing you’ve tried on your own has helped, it’s okay to ask for help. Go see your doctor, a psychiatrist, a therapist – whatever you’re comfortable with. It does not mean you are a failure or that your mental illness has won. It might only be temporary. There are times in our lives that are more stressful than others and we might need a little more help during those times. It’s okay if you have to take medicine for the short-term, or the long term. Everyone’s mental health journey and treatment plan will be different. What’s important is that you take the right steps for YOU.
Everyone’s mental health journey and coping mechanisms are different, but what’s important is that we realize the face of mental health isn’t someone with multiple personality disorder in a thriller movie or someone in a padded cell at a mental institution. It’s the new Mom who is overwhelmed with her recent life change. And the executive of a large company who is stressed juggling their career and home life. It’s the woman who is suffering from infertility. It’s also me. Someone who might appear to the average bystander like everything is going just fine but is dealing with deep sadness and grief over the loss of my Mom.
We’re all going through something in our lives, but just because our challenges are different doesn’t mean they don’t affect us in the same way mentally or they aren’t as important as someone else’s. Today (and every day!) we should check in with our mental well being and be kinder to those around us because you never know who may be struggling.