What Kept Me From a Breakdown in 2020

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.

Continue reading “What Kept Me From a Breakdown in 2020”

The Gut-Brain Connection and What You Can Do About It

We are in the middle of a mental illness epidemic. According to a report done by the CDC in June, 25% of people between the ages of 18-24 seriously have considered suicide since March. The percentage was 16% for adults 25-44. 31% of all age groups reported experiencing anxiety or depressive disorder, and over 40% experienced adverse or behavioral health symptoms. “The prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (25.5% versus 8.1%), and prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019 (24.3% versus 6.5%) (2).” See full report here.  

These numbers affect me on a very personal level.

I was diagnosed with PTSD at a young age, followed by depression, followed by a diagnosis of bipolar disorder by the time I was 18. I was on many different medications to attempt to treat my mental disconnect, and while some of the worked, some did more harm than good. I understand what it is like to experience the deepest of lows and the highest of highs. I know what it feels like to have a brain that you can’t control, a mind that races and thoughts that spin around and threaten any kind of peace or stability.

One thing I have learned, in my last decade of mental stability, is that our mental health symptoms are always responses to an imbalance in our internal or external environment. External triggers could be grief, stress, or lifestyle disruption. Internal triggers could be something like blood sugar issues, thyroid dysfunction, nutrient deficiencies… or poor gut health. Learning about the gut/brain connection and addressing key areas in my physical health made a huge impact on my mental health.

Now, there is no one size fits all. What worked for me is not going to work exactly the same in someone else. But I do believe everyone can benefit from improving gut health.

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In a perfect world, the lining of the intestine allows entry to nutrients from our food to be absorbed and go where they’re needed. This lining is supposed to prevent toxins, bacterial overgrowth, and food products from exiting the gut lining. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. When you have poor gut health, thanks to stress, toxins in the environment, overconsumption of sugar and processed foods, overuse of antibiotics or other common medications, and a whole lot of other triggers, the intestinal barrier becomes permeable, and endotoxins leak out. This is what the phrase “leaky gut” refers to. The inflammation that results leads to a myriad of health issues, but what is being studied a lot right now is the effect on the brain and mental health. Many psychiatrists are suggesting that poor gut health is at the root of many of our mental illnesses.

To further that point, it’s important to note that over 90% of our serotonin (the “happy” neurotransmitter) is produced in the gut, and serotonin cannot be produced without the assistance of amino acids. So if what we eat impacts the way our neurotransmitters are produced, it stands to reason that what we eat impacts the way our brains receive neurotransmitters and find mental wealth.

There are many lifestyle interventions that are FREE, that can benefit our brain function as well as our gut. To break it down in the most simple form possible, here’s the acronym LIVE to help you get started and give you some practical ways to start taking nourishing your gut and brain together!

Continue reading “The Gut-Brain Connection and What You Can Do About It”

My Top 3 Brain Health Books in the Last 3 Months

A survey from the CDC in June reported that since March, 25% of young adults ages 18-25 had seriously considered suicide since the start of the pandemic. The number for adults ages 26-44 was was 16%. This is NOT okay. We have a problem. Correction: we have HAD a problem with mental health concerns, but it seems as if the stress and isolation and fear from this pandemic have just exacerbated all of them!

I am on a continual quest to discover why. I want to know why our brains are suffering and why mental health issues are rising and why we have all the meds in the world – but we still have an epidemic of mental illness.

I don’t typically do book reviews, but these three books have been so helpful for me the last few months as I dig into all my why questions and seek to understand the root of mental health concerns. These issues will not be going away anytime soon. But we can support our bodies and brains through a variety of tools in the toolkit.

Book #1: This is Your Brain On Food by Dr. Uma Naidoo

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Naidoo and discussing her new book. Listen to the interview here. What sets this book apart, and the reason I list it number one, is that Dr. Uma is a psychiatrist AND a nutrition specialist AND a professional chef. She understands food on multiple levels, from food as medicine to food as an art to food as comfort. In her book, she details the gut/brain connection and why our food choices matter so much. Then she divides each chapter up by specific issue (depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc), and she explains a bit about the diagnosis, what foods improve that condition, what foods hinder it, along with what supplements to include. The recipes in the back of the book are simple and delicious, and I’m always a fan of adding new recipes to my repertoire!

Book #2: Brain Wash by David Perlmutter, MD and Austin Perlmutter, MD

Lately social media has been annoying me. I mean, this isn’t a new thing. There are periods of time (like election years) where it seems like comments get more heated than usual. So take an election year, add in a pandemic and a whole lot of confusion and it’s a recipe for a social media disaster! What I love about this book, Brain Wash, is that it breaks down how our brains work and why we respond the way we do under stressful circumstances. It ends with a 10 day brain detox program, incorporating all of the suggestions made in the book. I’ll be honest – I read the first half of the book twice, because it was so helpful for me. The difficult concepts are explained in a way that everyone can understand.

Book #3: The End of Mental Illness by Dr. Daniel Amen

Dr. Daniel Amen is someone I follow religiously on social media, and I admire his approach to psychiatry. Unlike most psychiatrists, he performs brain scans on his patients. He seeks to address root causes to the brain dysfunction being presented. He doesn’t diagnose and slap a prescription in someone’s hand, he looks at other tools that are helpful. In this book, he outlines all the principles he adopts with his patients and all the factors that impact our brain wellness – from blood flow to toxins to inflammation to genetics to head trauma and so much more. This book gives a lot of practical guidance on suggested supplements and changes to make to have a clear, healthy brain.

All books are available on Amazon or wherever books are sold.

Because we are in the middle of a mental health epidemic, we have a battle to fight with our brain health. There are so many tools available to support a healthy brain. These three books are excellent resources for anyone seeking to get to the root of their mental health issues.

Why a Deep Breathing Practice Impacts Your Mental Health

Are you breathing? Like, for real?

I don’t remember a lot from my Latin class in college, but I remember this one phrase: “Dum spiro, spero.” It means, “While I breathe, I hope.” This quote has been heavy on my mind in light of everything going on today.

There is so much confusion and uncertainty causing mental distress and pain. It seems as if everyone is divided, and we are required to take extreme stances for every issue. I swear, if I wrote up a post about why I love having a dog, the cat people would come after me and attack my character. Totally kidding, but do you get what I’m saying? Have you felt the same way recently? It’s like everyone is on edge and forcing each other to pick sides… but when it’s the “wrong side” – you’re cancelled.

It’s exhausting. I find myself tense and edgy as a result, quick to react instead of thoughtfully respond. It keeps me in a triggered state. It keeps me STRESSED.

Chronic stress, or being in a constant state of fight or flight, can have negative effects on our immune system, digestive function, blood sugar, blood pressure, reproductive organs, decision-making ability, empathy, and so much more!

However, a regular practice of breathwork (deep intentional breathing) has been proven, time and time again, to take our body out of chronic “fight or flight” and straight into “rest and digest” mode. When we are only taking short, shallow breathes through the mouth, we perpetuate that stressed state. I’ve recently found that wearing a mask for a long time disrupts my breathing. I start breathing through my mouth more and I begin to feel a little panicked. I know that’s no bueno for my overall health.

If you could do JUST ONE THING for your health today, can you promise me you will take a few deep breaths?  As you may know, I’m a big fan of the simple 4-7-8 approach. Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold for 7, and out through your mouth for 8. Repeat two to three times. There are excellent apps to help get you started in a regular breathing practice as well, from Headspace to Insight Timer, to faith-based apps like One Minute Pause and Abide.

For more on the importance of deep breathing and how to incoporate it into your daily life, check out my video below!

Cognitive Dissonance – Why We Can’t Just Get Along

I consider myself a lifelong observer of human nature. I love questioning and digging into motivations and why people respond and interact the way they do. I love people-watching. Since my people-watching opportunities are limited right now, I prefer opinion-stalking on social media.

Lately I have been wrestling with the concept of cognitive dissonance. Once you understand how it works, you can see it happening all over your newsfeeds.

Here is the definition: “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.”

What this means is when you encounter an opinion or belief contrary to your own, it causes a knee-jerk response of defensiveness, shutdown, or absolute denial that any belief system other than your own could potentially be true. It causes an inability to give anyone the benefit of the doubt because that may mean that your belief isn’t as rock solid as you thought, or maybe – you have been wrong.

For example, let’s bring up the topic of vaccination. This is a hot button topic for so many so it feels like a perfect example to start with. In fact, I can already sense you getting uncomfortable. In my observations, it seems to be more common to shut down someone and call them “anti-vaxxer” than to sit down and ask questions about their decisions and thought process. Why? Because if that person shares that their child was injured by a vaccine, and you have the belief that vaccines are completely safe, it may cause you to question whether you are opening up your own child to injury – and no parent wants to believe that. See? Cognitive dissonance. So we shut down, say those people are ignorant with their “Google degree,” and refuse to listen or give them the benefit of the doubt. I get it because I was once there, too. I didn’t want to consider an opposing view of vaccines.

Now, someone reading this is already shutting down and refusing to read the rest – so to that I would question, why? Why is this offensive to you? I would encourage you to dig into that and maybe sit down with someone who stopped vaccinating their child. You might find, like I did, that no parent chooses to make such an extreme decision for their child without doing a lot of research (beyond a Google search). I would even wager to guess that the majority of parents I know will do anything it takes to keep their kids safe – and that might look different from parent to parent. It may not change your mind, but at least it could create an environment of care and sympathy, something that often seems to be lacking in this controversial conversation.

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I’ll bring up another example to make you even more uncomfortable. White privilege. Systemic racism. “Systemic racism doesn’t exist.” I hear that from time to time. And when that belief gets challenged, it causes more shutdown, more defensiveness, and maybe some articles or videos thrown in. Cognitive dissonance causes such an internal storm that it makes it nearly impossible to listen to anything other than your view. But remember, like my first example, just because you haven’t experienced something yourself doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. For those who don’t believe in white privilege or systemic racism, I’d encourage you to sit down with a person of color. Talk to them about their experience. Listen to their stories. As I mentioned above, you don’t have to change your mind, but maybe you could show someone you care enough to consider an alternate perspective.

Continue reading “Cognitive Dissonance – Why We Can’t Just Get Along”

Tips to Take Charge of Your Health During the Era of Covid

As an advocate for whole body healing, I really hoped this virus situation would open up new discussions on how to take care of our personal health.

Have I missed something?

We are NOT a healthy country. This should be opening our eyes, but it’s not.

The U.S. spends the most on health care compared to other developed countries BUT has lower life expectancy, highest infant mortality, highest suicide rates, and highest rates of chronic disease.

We’re masking the real issue. Yes, pun intended.

The actions I take for my health actually don’t impact your health. YOU have to advocate for yourself. And you are not powerless. There is so much hope!

Here are some of my favorite tips for taking personal responsibility for your health. I hope these are as helpful for you as they have been for me. Continue reading “Tips to Take Charge of Your Health During the Era of Covid”

Thanks to PTSD, I’ll Never Be a Hero

Thanks to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, I’ll never be a hero.

I want to. I’d like to think that I’m a person of action, and that if I witness a dangerous event I’ll jump right into rescue mode. I’m a nice woman, and I like helping.

But I can’t. Trauma keeps me from moving. Trauma keeps me frozen in place, dissociating myself from reality, stuck to the floor in cement boots.

I taught English for 11 years, so looking back, I’m glad the topic of “disaster response time” wasn’t a job interview question. I wouldn’t have passed to the next level of interviews, that’s for sure.

I remember once when I worked at a middle school, a substitute teacher passed out in a classroom down the hall from me. I heard students running down the hallway, calling for the nurse. I peeked my head out the door, knowing I needed to check and see what was going on, knowing I needed to respond. But everything started moving in slow motion. I heard cries, I heard the words “CPR,” I saw others in action. But I was frozen. I couldn’t move.

I was chained to the past.

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I was 9 years old again, listening to the cries of my mother and grandmother as they try to revive my dying grandfather. I hear my grandma shout “No Freeman!” I watch him falling out of the car to the sidewalk and onto my front lawn. I watch them get out an epi pen, perform CPR, yelling for help.

I watch his eyes roll back.

Continue reading “Thanks to PTSD, I’ll Never Be a Hero”

Freedom from the Mental Illness Shame Cycle

When I was 21, I made a suicide pact with myself. I felt the weight of the world on a consistent basis, as I struggled with depression, mania, and the chaos of jumping from one failed medication to the next. My mind was not my friend, and I didn’t feel safe in my body. At the young age of 21, I was fatigued from fighting the swirling thoughts and the heavy waves. I was burdened by being the only one who suffers from such a debilitating disorder.

I didn’t want to be on this exhausting earth any longer than necessary.

I decided that by my 41st birthday, I would end it all.

Today I turn 39. I have been in a stable place mentally for over a decade. The giant roller coaster I used to ride with my moods is now just a soft swell, a gentle up and down of a kiddie coaster.

I have no intention of ending my life. Not now. Not ever.

img_7600My life is a gift. My illness is a gift. For so long I lived in shame about my diagnosis. I didn’t want to share about it, and I didn’t want to look “abnormal.” I knew I carried a stigma. Today I am learning that thanks to my moods, I get to see the world from a different lens. Colors are richer and brighter to me. The air is fresher. Sounds are more soothing and meaningful. Everything is vibrant and alive. And even when they are not, and I experience a drop in my mood, I see the dark side and feel more deeply than others… meaning I can empathize with others’ pain in a way I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

I know now that my pain has a purpose. My pain showed me who I can be in spite of a broken brain.

Continue reading “Freedom from the Mental Illness Shame Cycle”

Being Bipolar in a Global Crisis

No amount of sugar or substance can make my brain buzz the way a dose of hypomania can. The ideas, the thoughts, and the LIFE that course through my head – all those are amplified in a time of crisis or extreme change. Being thrown off my daily routine or sleep schedule is a risk to my mental health. So throwing me into a global pandemic and giving me access to information 24/7 can really shake things up.

I find myself hopping around from medical research sites to conspiracy theory groups to political commentaries and read over all the comments and opinions. I am an excellent mimic. In order to manage my symptoms early on, I found a way to adapt to acceptable behavior and commentary, so I wouldn’t have to stand out any more than my buzzing brain could allow. I know what I shouldn’t voice in public or on social media, at risk of anyone thinking I am “crazy,” the C word accusation being one of my biggest threats. I fear other people’s opinions of me more than the average person, because deep down inside I know that my brain functions differently from everyone else’s, and that is scary. So I turn inward, and obsess, and research some more, and head down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, at the expense of my sanity.

At first the racing thoughts and buzz are a high, and they fuel me and energize me. At some point though, my brain reaches breaking point and I have to make it stop. I’ve been down these roads long enough to know where they end – in verbal explosions or in heavy medication to shut it all off.

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The carousel ride that is bipolar disorder.

So I fight. I maintain my mind by shutting off my triggers. I stop researching, stop listening and reading to anything that will throw me into a black hole of information. I take naps, and I go to sleep early. I’m fortunate in that I’ve never struggled with sleep. I can always breathe myself to sleep. In for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, out for 8 seconds. I burn off the energy through heavy exercise. I write, I dig into my feelings and name what is going on instead of escaping through obsessive behaviors.

The thing about bipolar disorder, is that it manifests differently in everyone. Everyone struggles in a unique way, and everyone has different triggers.

*To hear more details from others who suffer and how they manage, click to listen to Episode 29 of the podcast on my show page or subscribe on iTunes.

I’ve compiled a list of my favorite tools for finding stability during times of major stress or life change. Before I list them, here is the caveat – these tools aren’t always effective in the middle of a full-fledged episode. It is really hard to tell someone who cannot physically get out of bed due to depression, “You should just lace up your shoes and go outside. Why are you just laying there?” Or telling someone who’s manic, “Slow down and go to sleep.” It doesn’t work like that. These are physical illnesses that affect the physical function of our bodies. Our brains aren’t capable of telling our bodies to do what our bodies need to do. This is why we have to be on the offense and employ these tools REGULARLY, during times of stability, so that they are habitual and instinctual. The sooner we can tighten up these strategies at the beginning of the roller coaster climb or at the beginning of the dip downward, the better off we will be. Continue reading “Being Bipolar in a Global Crisis”

Mom Life During a Pandemic: How We Can Best Support Our Kids’ Mental Health

I don’t have to remind anyone that the last few weeks of this pandemic and period of social distance have been unlike anything experienced or seen in our lifetime. My work schedule has been interrupted, my husband’s work schedule has been interrupted, our social life has disappeared, and my kids are completely thrown off. Field trips were cancelled, basketball season has been delayed, and school went online until…when? Do we even know? Dates spin in and out of my head, fighting for the return of normalcy. Is it April 9th? 21st? Or do we wait for the 30th to resume prior activities? I can’t even keep track.

This kind of disruption and uncertainty is difficult for me. Change of all kind is hard for me, especially as one who fights to stay mentally stable. I get the opportunity to verbalize that, share about it with my friends (via phone or text only, of course), and have long discussions with my husband.

My kids, however, don’t know how to express their fear or anxiety as well. For them, it comes out in misbehavior, aggression, moodiness, hyperactivity, tearfulness, or even closed off apathy. That is developmentally understandable. As their prefrontal cortexes are still developing, it is difficult for them to access emotions or positive decision-making when they are in fight or flight mode. A stressful trigger, like being told they can no longer see their friends or go to school, is going to take a toll on their bodies. Stress hormones get ramped up, contributing to more fear and anxiety that is difficult to process. Chronic stress can also affect the immune system and its function.

This is true for adults as well. Even though we have the luxury of developed brains, it is still difficult to access our frontal lobe and respond appropriately to hardship when we are faced with extreme stressors.

So what is the solution?

It starts with us.

Continue reading “Mom Life During a Pandemic: How We Can Best Support Our Kids’ Mental Health”