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.Continue reading “Mental Health Awareness Month – What I Learned About My Mental Health This Year”