Mental Health Awareness Month – What I Learned About My Mental Health This Year

Breaking news for myself: I don’t need to pathologize my feelings. I can experience Big Feelings without having a mental health crisis. Experiencing feelings does not make me mentally unstable.

For so long, my feelings were scary. It wasn’t safe to feel them. While I have always enjoyed experiencing a wide range of emotions, from high school on, they met a list of symptoms on someone’s checklist. Hypomania? Categorized by racing thoughts, pressured speech, elation, high energy, increased goal-directed activity, distractibility, or talkativeness. Check. Depression? Categorized by fatigue, sadness, hopelessness, lethargy, too much sleep, tearfulness, feelings of worthlessness. Check. My real human emotions were analyzed and over-pathologized for so long–by me, by my parents, by the experts. It disrupted my life, and it made me feel shame for experiencing a wide range of emotions. So at some point, I stopped letting myself feel them. You know why? It’s easier not to feel than be worried your feelings are at the mercy of a brain, diagnosis, and prescriptions that are out of your control.

I created a disconnect between my body and brain. In some ways, I checked out of the experience of life. I activated autopilot mode. I cruised. This looked like packing my schedule and hyper-controlling my environment. I had routines that were predictable. I said yes to too much, so there was no room for thinking or feeling for too long. I planned for downtime, in case the overwhelm hit me. I stayed away from dramatic movies, series, or books. I didn’t want to be caught off guard. Sleep was a savior when life became too heavy.

I questioned every mood shift. Thankfully, my husband Richard pushed back on my questions. He reminded me, over and over again, that experiencing a wide range of emotions is okay–and is very human. It took me a long time to believe him.

Today, almost thirty years after I first experienced the darkness, I can use my feelings as a navigation system. They tell me where I need to re-adjust. They are alerts on the dashboard, indicating that it’s time to check in with myself.

If I’m feeling sad, overwhelmed, scattered, distracted, TOO energetic, or any other emotion that feels extreme, I ask myself what I need to feel regulated again. Sometimes, I check in with a feelings wheel (see below or click here). Simply identifying a feeling, naming it out loud, is like taking a big deep breath that’s been constricted in my chest for hours.

I do this often at the end of the day, usually as I verbally process with Richard, but sometimes as I pray myself to sleep. Saying the feeling normalizes the emotional wave driving the feeling, and then I can move on. When I don’t identify them, they build up. That’s when the dysregulation happens.

Now, hear me clearly: I’m not saying every time a person is experiencing depression or anxiety or a manic episode, it’s due to the fact that they can’t name their feelings. I get anxious when I eat a large cookie. My brain gets buzzed if I drink a too-sugary coffee drink. Alcoholic beverages can make me feel depressed and poorly impact my sleep. Skipping yoga too many times in a week can make me restless. There are very real physical triggers to my mood shifts, and I am constantly monitoring my responses to mood-altering substances like sugar, alcohol, gluten, dairy, and any overly processed standard American food.

But learning helpful emotional regulation tools is key to my continual recovery. It has gotten me through a recent re-emergence of PTSD symptoms. I frequently check in with myself, and ask myself what I need to feel safe and regulated.

Other regulation tools include:

  • Yoga: I go at least three times a week, and when I don’t, I feel restless.
  • Taking a walk in nature: This helps me to move through my emotions and acknowledge them when I’m anxious.
  • Earlier bedtime: Bumping my bedtime back is one of my oldest tools, and it always helps. Sometimes my anxiety will alert me in the middle of the night, which leads to…
  • 4-7-8 breathing: Inhale through the nose for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, exhale through the mouth for eight seconds. I do a few rounds of this when I’m feeling tense and can’t pinpoint the source of tension.
  • Journaling: Whether it’s a lot or a little, just getting the words on paper, by hand, makes an impact.
  • Supporting my blood sugar with the right food: Certain foods crank up my anxiety and distractibility, especially desserts. When I eat 20-30 grams of protein in a meal, with a good amount of fiber from vegetables, I feel more grounded and calm. Eating dessert or refined, processed carbs, especially early in the day, makes me feel more lethargic, anxious, and irritable.
  • Talking to a loved one: As I mentioned, I often practice sharing a few feelings from the feelings wheel with my husband at night, and I make sure to let him know if I’m feeling “off” so I can work through it.
  • Using brain-regulating devices like NuCalm, binaural beats, or NSDR (yoga nidra): When I’m not sleeping well at night, I try to include one of these mid-afternoon. NuCalm requires a subscription, but the others you can find on streaming services.
  • Planning something to look forward to: I like having events on my calendar that I’m anticipating. It can be as simple as a family outing or a planned day of chill, it helps me to always have something that I am excited to look forward to.
  • Reading fiction: I use mindless fiction to help regulate my breathing and give my eyes some back and forth rapid movement, which is very soothing to me. Taking my mind off of my world and into another always helps, too.

I’m sure I could add more things to the list, but these are the ones I use the most consistently to support my emotional regulation.

Feelings are important. Naming feelings can help draw us closer to our Creator and take steps to find deeper support from the community around us. Contrary to what we’ve been told growing up, faking it until you make it and shaking it off may lead to more emotional disconnect and an implosion later. While our feelings may not be based in an accurate perception of the world around us, they direct us to check-in and alert us to where we need to re-direct.

If, like me, your feelings have been analyzed and pathologized to the point where you disconnect from them, I’m so sorry that has happened to you. I hate that it feels scary to feel normal human emotions. I see you, and I know what it feels like to try to reconnect.

Practicing regulation tools, like naming feelings and the ideas I mentioned above, enable us to build up resilience so that the scary feelings aren’t as scary or foreign anymore. Regulation tools give you a soft place to land when life’s blows hit. They are safety nets when you feel unsteady on your feet.

My hope and prayer is that you can add new supportive tools into your routine to forge a resilient healing path. If you’re looking for more support in this area, reach out. I’d love to help walk you through it.

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