How does someone with an active mental illness get through 2020?
My first response is, “I have no idea.”
But that’s not true. In reality, I’ve spent years prepping for 2020. I’ve spent years restoring my body and brain through a variety of therapies because I know that I can’t guarantee smooth sailing in every life stage. I’ve spent years reading, studying, and educating others about mental health tools.
I am so glad I did. I believe the key to treating mental illness, in whatever form, is to initiate tools for healing before times get bad, before the waves of instability hit. I played defense with my health for far too long, so at some point in the last decade or so – I started playing offense and implemented a wide range of strategies to manage my moods.
Yes, this year I have struggled with bits of anxiety, disrupted sleep patterns, and moments of apathy. I have had days where I lay around the house and don’t shower, eating at random times and doing nothing but reading crap fiction and watching crap TV shows. But that is very rare, and honestly – sometimes I plan for those days of doing nothing and I schedule my lazy days like I schedule my appointments – which makes them intentional and responsive, not reactive.
So this is my “pat myself on the back” moment. I haven’t had a breakdown. I haven’t gone into a full blown manic or depressed episode. I haven’t lost it.
But I’m not out of the woods. Ever. I must stay vigilant. I must continue to utilize the tools that have gotten me through so many years of stability.
Whether you have been diagnosed with a mental illness, or you are simply struggling with the mental fog that is the year 2020, I want to share some of my tips that keep me sane in the hopes that it helps you, too. There is no one cause to mental illness, therefore there is no one solution. What works for me might not work as well for you. This list is not exhaustive and is only a brief summary.
- See a counselor. I go to an amazing therapist for maintenance every month, and I have for almost 4 years. She specializes in bipolar disorder, and helps me process my thinking and keeps my negativity in check. Because of her, I can often reframe my anxious or fearful thoughts and plant myself back into reality.
- Maintain a regular sleep routine. It amazes me how many people are NOT getting deep quality sleep, or they’re getting artificial sleep from substances or medications that come with pretty serious adverse side effects. If you aren’t getting deep, consistent sleep, consider these options: go off or limit sugar, keep your caffeine to morning only, get morning sun, exercise in the first part of the day, and/or cut out alcohol (I know, I know). There are many safe supplements to help with restorative sleep. I recently tried out a product from Nutritional Frontiers called Sleep Time that was extremely helpful in giving me deep sleep and it also helped me to wake up refreshed and ready to go! There’s also full spectrum hemp oil, melatonin, magnesium, other herbs and more that many people see success with. Of course, if you are currently taking any medication, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor first. There are also sleep hygiene hacks like a gratitude journal or a nightly brain dump, plus tools like taking a warm Epsom salt bath and wearing blue light blocking glasses.. I could make this an entire post in itself (and there are entire books and articles written on the importance of sleep for mental health), but just know – my sleep routine is absolutely essential for my maintenance and stability.
- Exercise. Just like I am amazed at the number of people who don’t get quality sleep, I’m amazed at how many people don’t make time for exercise. If you have time to read this list, which you most likely saw from scrolling social media, you have time to lace up your shoes and take a walk. Do some push-ups, jumping jacks, intense stretching, anything – just move! Movement promotes the presence of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) so our brains can grow new cells. Movement helps to decrease cortisol and increase blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, where we make our decisions and show empathy. It is the most powerful antidepressant we have available to us – some studies say it works just as well, if not better, than medication. I like to change up my routine and alternate from strength training to HIIT to running to yoga. It depends on my mood, but I always try to make time for some form of movement every day. My brain relies on it.
- Practice Gratitude. Negativity is toxic – but it is also addictive. The more negative thoughts we have, the more we will continue to have. The science of neuroplasticity backs that up. Likewise, the more we practice gratitude, the more we will wire our brains to be thankful and positive. I know it works because I catch myself being grateful during times when it doesn’t make sense. When I used to spiral down into negativity about the world and what is happening, I catch myself looking around and finding something to be grateful for. It could be my wall color, my cozy bed, my tantrum-throwing child, anything – my brain becomes more trained for gratitude and positivity every day that I actively practice. When I’m driving, I think of what I’m thankful for. When I go to bed. When I wake up. When I’m running. It has become an activity, like exercise, that I have to constantly engage in. I wouldn’t have believed it a decade ago. I would’ve said it’s cheesy and “nah, I’m good. I don’t need a gratitude list.” But IT WORKS. It keeps me sane.
- Good Mood Foods. You know I had to go there. But sugar and processed carbs are brain drains for me. Yes, I absolutely have the freedom to eat whatever I want, and I never feel restricted by a specific set of dieting rules or guidelines, but I know that there are some things that just kill my mood. Too many processed carbs, flavored chips, heavy food, sugary sweets and drinks and baked goods – I’m just better off when I limit them. Do I have them every once in a while? Sure! But I make sure the majority of what I consume are veggies, quality protein, healthy fats, and lots of water! Here’s the catch, though – I can’t say no to these foods if I’m not practicing the first four items. When my sleep is off, when I’m not being mindful about gratitude and managing my stress, it is much easier to overdo it on the processed foods that drain me.
Now, the unspoken essential item I have left out of this list is stress management. The more I dig into brain health and learn about how our brains function (or fail to function) under stress, the greater the emphasis I place on stress management. And the BEST tool for managing stress is creating a predictable structure and routine that your brain recognizes as non-threatening and safe. This will limit the trigger into “fight or flight,” which throws off just about every single process in the body – including how our neurotransmitters are signaled. All of the five items I listed can be added to a predictable and safe routine that, as a result, minimizes stress!
By implementing these suggestions and creating a consistent routine, we all can have a fighting chance – no matter what the end of 2020 or the start of 2021 throws at us.