In a trend that is threatening to become the norm, I can’t muster the concentration to write the post I sat down to write this morning.
Maybe it’s just mornings?
(some days there just isn’t enough coffee.)
Thankfully it’s not the only thing I’ve been pondering lately.
Speaking of lately, recently – say, the last few weeks – I find myself giving more and more advice to people on Twitter, regarding potential coping strategies to use for their anxiety and depression.
Which should tell you something about the state of our modern mental healthcare system. No, no, I won’t say it explicitly – I’d like your head to not explode long enough to finish reading this post.
So, for kicks, I thought I’d make a bit of a list here. At least it will be a place to get started if you’re needing a place to start.
I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice.
What it will be is a person who has spent most of his life suffering from anxiety and depression and has been looking for ways to keep going for something like 30 years now, talking about the things I have found useful.
So, to give this set of tactics some kind of structure, I’m going to break it into 2 sections:
Short Term & Long Term measures.
Let’s start with the Short Term.
These are what I do in the moment to help ease my symptoms. Read as: Emergency Measures.
The first and easiest thing to do is to remove myself from the stimulus that is causing the acute reaction. I.E: get the hell away from the thing freaking me out. If it’s too much of an emotional overload, which sometimes it is, then fuck it, get gone.
Sometimes you do have to just get away. No shame, no bullshit.
What if you can’t split?
I knew I could count on you to ask the perceptive questions. I have the best fekkin’ readers.
So, if I’m stuck here are the other methods I employ.
Breath Control. There are a number of breathing methods that can calm you down. I’ll describe some of them here but definitely do some research to find more, as these may not be completely useful to you.
The most effective I’ve found is the 4x7x8 method. (Credit to Dr. Andrew Weil, who may not have invented this method, but it’s who I stole it from.)
Start by placing the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth, just behind your front teeth. Keep it there for the duration of the exercise.
Breathe in through your nose for a 4 count.
Then hold your breath for a 7 count.
Then exhale through your mouth – not moving your tongue – for an 8 count.
Do this circuit at least 5 times. (5 usually works for me. Occasionally I’ve gone as much as 10.)
Important point for this method: Keep your count length the same. Doesn’t matter if you use the one-one-thousand or one-mississippi method, or just watch the clock, but keep the counts consistent.
This has the benefit of working fairly quickly.
It’s a bit like hacking your nervous system.
There are a few methods similar to this. What they all have in common is that you will be exhaling for twice as long as you’re inhaling. That seems to be the action that triggers the mechanistic change in our nervous systems.
Another breathing method I have used successfully is Mindful Breathing.
This is a bit of an advanced technique and only works well if you have some training and practice in mindfulness meditation. And I’m not talking about that guided shit someone in HR thinks will make you more efficient/ productive at work. I mean actual Vipassana meditation. Look that one up. It’s all kinds of interesting.
Another method I use, rather frequently, but which requires practice ahead of time, I call Grounding.
(So, I have a long background in the martial arts. Practice any art for long enough and you begin to work with concepts of internal energy. Give it a name. For the hardcore skeptics reading this, I appreciate your skepticism. I will not talk about anything I can’t teach you to do in this post. I also will not ascribe to this technique any particular mystical significance. For all I know it could just be visualization, but it works for me.)
This technique works best when one is standing. (I find it works a little better for me when I have skin contact with the ground: bare feet on grass or soil, but it still works in sneakers on the pavement.)
Stand still, but do not lock your knees.
That’s important, so I’ll repeat it:
DO. NOT. LOCK. YOUR. KNEES.
Stand straight, allowing your bones to do most of the supporting of your structure. You may have to wiggle and sway a bit to find this balance point, but it’s there, so find it. You’ll notice it becomes a comfortable position fairly quickly.
For this next part, you can close your eyes, at first, to help the visualization, but as you get better with the practice learn to keep your eyes open. This is about a feeling, rather than a mental image.
Stand straight and breathe normally.
Imagine your legs as two hoses, or waterfalls, or pipes – whatever works for you.
Then imagine water rushing from your middle, through your legs, into the ground.
(it can be a rush, a trickle, whatever image you can create in your mind. You can also imagine it as beams of light. That’s worked for me as well.)
Do this until you can feel the movement inside your legs.
You don’t need to do it twice a day for 20 minutes each time or anything so structured. Once you can visualize it, you can practice it randomly throughout your day, 30 seconds here, a minute or two there. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.
When you can feel it – feel it, not just imagine it as a picture in your head – then you can use it.
When you feel yourself headed towards the badness, take the time to feel the energy flowing through your torso, down your legs and into the earth. The Earth is big. The Earth can take it. It can accept it without complaint.
And the Earth, the very ground under your feet, is also strong. It’s stronger than anything else you’ll likely experience in your life. And it’s got strength to spare.
So, let that feeling of water rushing, or of light, or of wind, it doesn’t matter, let that feeling flow into the ground, and – at the same time – feel the ground as it holds you up. Let the strength from the ground seep up into your legs, and then the rest of your body. Feel the bones of the earth supporting you just as your bones support your posture.
This is mostly visualization, and therefore a bit of an advanced method, but if you practice it, you can deploy it very quickly, even while walking.
But you have to practice it.
So, 1200 words into this post, and I’m just now switching over to the Long Term methods. Bit of a longer read than my usual. Thanks for sticking around.
The Long Term methods are what I employ, mostly daily, as a regular practice to help keep myself on an even keel. They help broadly and overall but are not meant for moments of intense freakout. I use them regularly to raise my base level.
These are, what I call, the 5 pillars of my mental health:
I’ll go over them each, briefly, because what works for me may not work for you and it’ll be better to stick to basic heuristics rather than getting deep into the weeds.
Diet: (relax, this just means your regular nutrition)
I eat in a way that makes me feel good, overall. Not necessarily good in the moment, but overall.
(for me, currently, that’s super low carb. Meat, nuts, green vegetables, butter, and some berries. But I’m also trying to lose about 60 pounds and this works well for me. YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY. The other thing is, I don’t eat things that hurt me, like, again for me, anything with gluten in it, even if it’s amazingly delicious. [ok, sometimes I eat them, but not while I’m trying to lose weight. Too much inflammation for me].)
I recommend experimenting to find out what works best for you. Some genotypes do better with higher carbohydrates than others, some do better with higher fats. If you can’t consult a registered dietician, or afford one, which has been the case for most of my life, then read up on different protocols and experiment with them. Do restriction diets to see if you have food intolerances. There’s a ton of information out there, just do your due diligence in checking out their references and source material. Also, consult your physician before doing anything radical.
Exercise: Get Some.
(Really. The odds are good you, like everyone else, aren’t getting enough. The body is made to move, and a lot more than you’d think.)
Beyond that, the research suggests that 30-60 minutes of vigorous exercise, 3-4 times per week has a beneficial effect – ie: it can lessen the intensity of anxiety and depression.
*Note: Exercise is not a cure-all. It most likely will not make your symptoms go away. Don’t count on it to do that. Also, it’s going to take a couple of weeks to feel the broader effects of exercise. It takes the human body about two weeks to begin to adapt to any physical stimulus. Again, again, your mileage may vary.
I like lifting weights. Training for either strength or hypertrophy works well for me.
Maybe you like cardio?
Great! Do that. The important point here is vigorous. The exercise must be intense, and it must be kept up for a certain length of time. (don’t worry, you can build up to it and begin gaining the benefits along the way.)
*If you’re going to employ this route, please check with your doctor to make sure you don’t have any health concerns that will be exacerbated by heavy exercise.*
Medication: (just a spoon full of… wait…no…)
Ok, this often the most touchy of all the subjects on my list. It’s one I didn’t deal with for a number of years, much to my loss.
See, I grew up in a time where behavioral health medications tended to make people into zombies. Fat, drooling zombies.
And that kept me vehemently opposed to taking medication for probably 20 years too long.
They have much better formulations and understanding of the subject now. It’s not complete, and not what I would call comprehensive, but it is a workable system, even if it requires experimentation. (There are some practitioners who are better than others, and there is a genetic test – expensive though it may be – which can help rule out certain medications for any individual. I hope that both these things will become more widely available, and soon. We need all the help we can get.)
I currently take the lowest dose of 2 different meds. I do this to minimize the side effects.
But I’ve been on them for a while, and like most medications for mental illness, I believe I am beginning to see diminishing returns. To wit, I will be finding a specialist to take over my med management. So, more experimenting for me. Much exciting! So side effects!
This is definitely something you want to see a doctor about.
Therapy: (your friends and family are not your therapists)
I’ll say it again: YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY ARE NOT, AND CAN NOT BE YOUR THERAPIST!
If you suffer from anxiety and depression, you need to have a professional to talk with.
Your friends and family can and should be a support system, but they can not function in the role of therapist. They’re not qualified – even if they’ve got a degree. Too much bias. And, news flash, your friends and family will tend to think more like you, more in the same vein as you, than a stranger.
And you need a qualified, licensed stranger’s perspective.
Find one you work well with and get to your appointments.
If you can not afford a therapist, look into if there are any local programs. Sometimes they are administered through your local health department. Also, there are often local charitable organizations they will help with this.
So, let me repeat: Get a Licensed Therapist. Your friends, family, and/or clergy are not therapists. They can and should be a support system, but don’t count on them for therapy.
Meditation: (well, it works for me 😉 )
I meditate almost every day.
If you’re just getting started, it’s best to make it a part of your daily practice for a good while.
There are a plethora of methods of meditation. Find one that works for you. (but try to find one that doesn’t cost you money. Like, $1,400 to learn Transcendental Meditation?! Fuck you very much.)
There’s only one method of meditation I learned which cost me anything, and it was less than $200 over the course of more than 6 months.
You can find legitimate courses of study that are completely free. Start there, but do your research. Seriously, there’s a lot of bullshit out there. Don’t pay for it, and do some looking to see where it comes from and/ or how it works. Everything comes from somewhere, and usually, that’s a discoverable quantity.
I have found 3 types of meditation particularly helpful for my anxiety and depression symptoms:
Mindfulness – actual Vipassana meditation. It takes a couple of forms. Some are easier than others to get started with, but all are a bit too detailed to go into in this post. Easy to look up a how-to though.
Mantra – Mantra meditation is one of a group of meditations that require you to narrow your focus and concentration to a single point/ image/ phrase/ sound. It’s nifty, and you should look it up.
Auto-Hypnosis – This is one is another visualization heavy practice, and you definitely need a quiet, undisturbed place to practice it. There are plenty of books on the subject. You’ll even find some useful videos on the web. This method is good for changing the internal characteristics of your thoughts. It is a way to create new patterns of thinking, especially about yourself. If you have anxiety and depression, odds are you have some not so positive thoughts about yourself.
*Be careful with Auto-Hypnosis. You need either to be guided or to have attained a certain degree of focus before it becomes effective. (No, you won’t be able to make yourself unconsciously cluck like a chicken.)*
So, that’s my 5 pillars.
There are a couple of other things I’d like to mention. I thought, originally that they might go without saying, but no. Somethings do need to be made explicit.
First: Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. And make sure it’s quality sleep. How do you know if it’s good sleep? You wake up feeling rested, that’s how.
There are few things you can do which will be more beneficial to your mood and mental health than getting enough good sleep.
Second: Take the time in your week or day to do the thing that you love.
(don’t let it go more than a week. Really, don’t let it go more than a day or two. You will notice a difference.)
I’m a writer. I actually enjoy the act of writing.
I also like reading.
Big TV and Movie fan as well.
Also, if you keep up with my social media you’ll have noticed this, I sing karaoke. Usually once a week. It’s a way to blow off steam that works for me.
Find those things that work for you and crowbar them into your schedule.
If you wait for there to be time, there never will be.
Make time for them, just don’t lose too much sleep to do it.
(I run into this problem as I often read before bed.)
I’d like to take this opportunity to restate an underlying principle of everything I’ve listed so far:
These are all actionable steps you can take. They don’t require faith, or belief – only experiment and observation.
(with the exception of the Licensed Therapist, they don’t require you to rely on other people either.)
To restate: these are methods that I find useful. Your mileage may vary, and where indicated, definitely consult with your physician before the undertaking.
Often, due to portrayals in the media, or our own lack of knowledge, we tend to think that there is a panacea, a one-stop cure-all for anxiety and depression when the truth is that there really isn’t.
There likely isn’t just a single cause either. It’s probably a constellation of causes, all adding up to The Suck.
If there’s one thing I think would benefit the majority of humanity, at least in this arena, it’s giving up on the idea that there’s a magic key out there.
Often it’s a bunch of little things piling up on us.
The good thing about recognizing that fact is that we can use the same process to feel better; a bunch of little things, over time.
(Any one of which could feel like a huge step in the moment. For me, many of them have. But they’re steps you can take. You have the ability. Take one tiny step and it makes you more capable of taking the next one. And then it’s dominoes.)
I hope this is useful to someone out there.
Try some or all of these suggestions.
Do your research.
Find new methods.
Share them with anyone you think will benefit, or anyone who asks.
If you come up with something that works for you, that, of course, isn’t listed here, please put it in the comments. You never know who it could help.
Well, this post ran long AF, as the kids say.
If you made it this far, thanks again.
Until next time…