Last time I offered my thoughts for people who don't struggle with mental illness, but who want to know how to better treat those who do. This time I thought I'd speak to my people. Anyone who is dealing with depression and anxiety - this is for you.
Managing depression and anxiety is like an intense workout at the gym - and not just because they are both exhausting. They both require self-awareness and all the strength you've got.
At the gym some people can lift 200 pounds, some only 50, some only 25. Whether you're the one who can lift 200 or 25 doesn't matter. What does matter is that you know which one you are. A person will never get stronger at the gym by insisting they can only lift 25 pounds, when in reality she can pretty easily lift 200. She isn't doing her best, and that's not productive or admirable. On the other hand, a person who can only lift 25 pounds SHOULD NOT try to lift 200 - not even with help. It will almost certainly cause an injury, perhaps one that means not lifting anything for a long time. Overexertion isn't productive or admirable either, no matter what society says.
I say this for two reasons:
First, because the advice below will not work for everyone. Some people are so deep in a depression pit that the simplest thing is challenging. I understand that - I've been there before too. I've been given "easy" things to try by friends and therapists that I simply couldn't manage. For a long time I was drowning. I had to get to solid ground and breathe fresh air before I could try and take steps forward - even little ones. If you look at this list and think I can't even do that - that's ok. Please try first, but if the advice someone gives you is too heavy for you at the moment, put it down until you're stronger. Survive. Then try again.
Second, if these things DO work for you, you have a responsibility to do them. Just like in the gym - if you can lift 200, you better not quit at 25. I try to be really honest with myself about what I can and cannot handle. Sometimes I want to just wallow on the floor, but most of the time these days I know that I can manage more than that. If I know that I can do more, I must do more.
Here are some things that help me:
1. TAKE CARE OF YOUR PHYSICAL BODY
Having depression and anxiety often means that you have trouble sleeping, don't want to eat (or only want to eat garbage), don't feel like taking a shower, and wouldn't get up to exercise unless someone got after you with a cattle prod. While it may seem like it couldn't possibly make that big of a difference, taking care of your physical body really can help. If you have clinical depression, going for a walk or drinking water will not "fix" you. However, regularly keeping up with self-care can make the difference between a catatonic day and a manageable one.
When my depression was really bad last year, I always noticed a huge difference when I didn't get enough sleep the night before. Not only was I too tired to function, but sleep deprivation makes me feel sick to my stomach, so I couldn't eat or drink. Every day was tough, but those days were TOUGH. I actually had a day where I was too catatonic to drive myself home. I stared blankly into space while someone helped me into the car like a toddler. I really do believe that if I'd gotten enough sleep, I would have fared better. You can't always control this - but try.
Drink water. Go outside and get some vitamin D. If you live where I do and it's cold and rainy for 8 months out of the year, take a vitamin D pill. Exercise in whatever form is manageable for you. Set an alarm so you don't forget your medication. Stay away from sugar, which causes a brain crash and can be addicting. On that note - DON'T DRINK ALCOHOL. It's an addicting depressant made of sugar. BAD IDEA.
Like I said, none of these things will "fix" it - especially not on their own - but making several tiny healthy choices can really add up to feeling a bit more like yourself.
2. TAKE CARE OF YOUR MIND
Mental illness means that some percentage of your mind is acting beyond your control. Practice honest self-awareness to find out what your percentage is. It may be 80%, it may be 5%. Whatever percentage of your mind is within your control, you have a responsibility to manage properly. A panic attack set off by something you can't even identify falls into the percentage of things you cannot control. Your only choice is to try to recover as best you can. A recurring thought that you know you really should not dwell on because it deeply upsets you falls into the percentage of things you can control. Tell yourself This thought does not serve me in any helpful way. I should not let it linger here. I will think about something else now. A person with anxiety may have to do this on repeat every 30 seconds all day long. It's difficult and exhausting, but if it falls within your control, control it.
Maintaining control over your percentage, sometimes requires diligent self care. It is rare for me to go through a day with complete control over my percentage without establishing boundaries and taking precautions. Taking this route to work upsets me. In order to maintain control it is best that I choose a different route. This topic of conversation makes me anxious. In order to maintain control it is best that I leave the room and go find something pleasant to do. Seeing this person is harmful to me. In order to maintain control it is best that I skip this upcoming event. Practice self-awareness and make the choices that set you up for success in controlling your percentage. Take inventory of your relationships. Are any of them consistently setting you up for failure in this? If the relationship poisons your mind or reduces your percentage, it's not worth it. Say goodbye.
3. TAKE TIME TO BE PRESENT
I, like most people, tend to do several things at one time. I've often found myself eating dinner while watching a tv show, holding a conversation with two people via text message, and panicking about my future. I wasn't enjoying my food. I was just mindlessly eating it, not paying close attention to flavors or appreciating the process. I would then find myself dissatisfied and seek more food, not properly feeling like I'd already eaten. I wasn't enjoying the tv show. I missed anything nonverbal, which is often the best part of the experience. I didn't even realize at the time that I wasn't actually enjoying any of it.
I now try to make a habit of spending most of my day doing one thing at a time. I know, some of you are freaking out because that would be such a "waste" to not be doing as much as possible as often as possible. It doesn't feel like a waste, because the things I'm doing actually amount to something rather than leaving me feeling empty. I read a lot now. Part of this is because I found a book that I love that happens to be 1400 pages, but mostly it's because reading requires you to put all thoughts and other activities aside. It's been years since I've watched tv without also doing something meaningless on my phone, or allowing my mind to drift to something concerning me. No more. I put my phone down, and I put my thoughts to the side and experience what's in front of me.
It seems like a little thing, but being present for your life makes a big difference in how much you enjoy it.
4. TAKE TIME TO CREATE
Something that has really helped me boost my happiness is creating. I think it is innate in us to want to make things, whether it be food, crafts, or even new relationships. Depression can make you feel like a destroyer. I've spent so much of the last year feeling like a hurricane that tore through the lives of everyone I love. Now I get to pick up broken pieces, patch up holes, and hope that the foundations were sturdy enough to allow for rebuilding. After so much time spent breaking, it has been so refreshing to create.
I recently started sewing, which is another one of my one-thing-at-a-time activities. It uses both of my hands, it requires my full attention, and it's too loud to do while "watching" tv. I'm satisfied and happy when the task is complete, having dedicated myself fully to a project. Sewing, crafting, writing, and baking have all been "creation activities" for me lately.
Projects give us purpose. If you are struggling with depression and anxiety, try to find a project. It could give you a reason to get out of bed, and something to look forward to at the end of a long day. It's something to do with your hands and mind that isn't destructive, and something to prove that this day being alive wasn't a waste. Share your project with others by creating something to give to someone else or inviting someone over to enjoy the fruits of your labor.