From Ill to Well: 5 Basic Things You Can do to Become Well Today
Maybe this title sounds a little clickbait. That’s ok. Because it’s true. If there’s something I’ve learned in the past year in a half while navigating my own mental health and reading from other experts and those who have overcome mental illness in their own life - it’s that your choices reflect where you’re at today. Sure, that probably sounds a little cliche, but in the context of recovering from mental illness, there’s not a better mindset you can take on. A lot of times, we might approach recovery as some kind of linear graph that depicts the peaks and valleys of where we’re at in “overcoming mental illness.” And that when we reach December of next year, we might be able to officially say “OK, everyone! I’ve finally recovered. I’m a normal person - just like all of you now!” But why do we need to wait until we’re at a certain point to feel “normal” again? And what really is normal? Does no one else have mental health to take care of?
Consider this: next Monday you have one of the best days of your life. You started your morning by working out, got coffee with a friend, crushed it at work, and went home feeling confident and happy. However, on Wednesday, you accidentally overslept your alarm, missed breakfast and coffee, got to work late, procrastinated at work by spending most of your time on social media, missed working out, forgot to text your friends back, and now you’re going to bed feeling super lousy and overthinking just about everything that’s wrong with your life. You now beat yourself up for screwing up, begin fearing relapse, and now your anxiety, depression or both begin taking charge of your life again. This happens. I’m sure it has happened a lot for many of us trying to overcome mental illness in our life. But perhaps we need to reimagine this week in a new light.
When you were having an amazing week on Monday and Tuesday - free from anxiety, depression, compulsive behaviors, and whatever else your symptoms show up as, were you mentally healthy? Are you then officially mentally ill again on Wednesday? What if this pattern keeps repeating? Building better mental health is the process of learning how to overcome challenges we face every day. It has everything to do with consciously choosing how we want to spend our time and energy. We all know there’s plenty of things you can do to feel better when we’re struggling with a mental illness (excercise, talk to people, eat right, go to counseling, community involvement, don’t ruminate over thoughts and feelings, meditation/prayer, etc.) But when we’re struggling with mental illness, what’s happening is that we’re being pulled away from doing what we love to do. We can relapse in a day, and also feel better the next day. Mark Freeman, author of You Are Not a Rock, claims it is better to define your mental health by where you’re going rather than how you feel right now. Sure, you may be feeling anxious right now, but maybe you're also challenging yourself every day by surrounding yourself with people and doing things that make you uncomfortable. Now that's a big win right there.
If we are consistently wasting time, building bad habits, involving ourselves in unhealthy overthinking (or overeating), and then wonder “Gee, why do I feel so terrible right now!?” Maybe, it makes more sense than we'd like to admit at times.
Personally, I have no idea where I’d be at on the “mental health recovery graph” (if that was something that was real). I’m still facing various anxieties, insecurities, patterns, and behaviors in my life I’d like to be free of. But one thing I will tell you that can help immensely is to let go of this undefined timeline you’re supposed to stick to for your recovery. This was something I got caught up in for a while, and the reality is that you can be mentally healthy tomorrow if you want to.
Actually, you can start right now.
So, in light of all this, here are 5 really basic, yet practical things you can begin to do to put you back on a path towards mental health (side note: you’ve heard them all before):
1. Talk. If you find yourself stuck while dealing with mental illness and you can’t find your way out, have you tried talking to someone who you know loves and cares about you? Whether it’s one of your parents, your best friend, a teacher, or even a counselor, the point is to find someone you can trust. Once you do this, you’ll realize that breaking the silence about how you feel is a lot less scary than you imagine and that you’ve now already won half the battle.
2. Physical activity. Keep having fun with your life, even when if you’re depressed, sad, angry, or anxious. God gave you a body. And one thing we know about our bodies is that it does what the mind tells it to do. So, go play a sport you love, or pick up a new hobby you’re interested in. Keeping your body active will actually keep your mind healthy.
3. Counseling. Counseling is an important step for some in learning how to deal with their complex selves. Often times, we don’t recognize or understand our own emotions and thoughts, yet once we do, we’re usually left unsure about what to do with them. This is why most of us avoid, attack or freeze in the face of them. This is why finding a helpful counselor is really no different than hiring a physical trainer to help you understand basic lifts when you’ve finally decided to start working out. When you find the right “mental health trainer,” you’ll understand what and how much you can lift (and believe me, it’s more than you think).
4. Sleep. Have you ever thought about how sleep is a sign of our own limitation? We end each day acknowledging that we are not capable to “move” and “do” all of the time. We need rest. All the time we spend in our heads is very exhausting. One thing that can often help is keeping a consistent sleep pattern (same wake-up time similar bedtimes). We can end the day giving up control how we think are lives are supposed to go, and start fresh again in the morning.
5. Keep making friends. When you feel lonely, it’s normal that you might experience more sadness, depression, or anxiety. God didn’t make us to be disconnected. This loneliness that can lead to depression is a sign that you’re functioning just fine. You should have friends. And you can continue cultivating friendships even while feeling alone. One of the disastrous impacts mental illness plays in our life is pulling us away from the things and people we love. So when you start to feel pulled away in those moments, be aware and run back toward the people you love the most. Because you are in fact, a great friend-maker!
Note: I'm aware these steps may seem like they cannot be applied by everyone right away depending on where you’re at in your journey with mental illness. I understand that many people may find it difficult to begin implementing even just one of practices in their life, since they may find themselves feeling hopeless at times. However, the easiest way to start is by taking small steps, and doing small things you control. You don’t have to be perfect at it, nor should you judge yourself if find yourself doing them and still struggling. I've begun to realize that mental health is more accurately associated with choosing to live your life today in spite of how you may be feeling right now.
Good luck out there. Don’t forget to reach out for help if you need it.