On Why: You Should Reach Out

*Disclaimer: This is not professional advice, it is based on my personal experience. This article should not be taken in the substitute of professional advice and guidance. Should you have any health, medical, or disability questions or concerns, please consult a physician or other health care professional.  WM makes no claims to the accuracy of the professional resources linked at the bottom of the article.*
When someone breaks their leg we know what to say, we know what to do, we know how to act. “I hope you feel better soon!” “Do you need someone to cook or clean for you?” “Do you have a ride to the doctor?” We follow up, not just because we care, but because we’ve been taught how to care.

Through school, childhood experience, and personal experience, we’ve learned how to tend to those struggling with their physical health. This is referring to certain illnesses (ex: the flu) and physical issues (ex: a broken arm) and does not encompass physical disabilities and stigmatized illness (like STIs, HIV/AIDS, etc). We aren’t taught how to ask, inquire, or care for a person’s mental health, despite the fact that in the US nearly half of adults will experience mental health issues in their lifetime.

When someone is experiencing a low in their mental health we are silent. We think that because we don’t know the perfect thing to say that we should say nothing. I can tell you from my experience with anxiety, depression, and PTSD that I have never once needed my friends to be my doctors, I’ve needed them to be my friends. I’ve needed support, not guidance. You don’t need to have all the solutions to aide someone. You don’t need to “fix” someone.

I’m fortunate to be in a relationship now with a very grounding foundation. I’m also fortunate that I have the ability to workout every day. For me, those two things are better than the world’s best medication. However, there have been several times in my life where I didn’t have those things and was having anxiety attacks nearly every week. Or times in my life that emotion-focused coping mechanisms were not enough to support me.

I can so vividly remember the first time I had an anxiety attack and I wasn’t alone. It was a Saturday night, behind a group of apartments on my college campus. Someone I didn’t know found me as I was doubled over and gasping to breathe. All she did was put her hand gently on my back and say “It’s okay, I’m going to stay with you”. And she did. She walked me home and I still don’t know who she was.

I’m not advocating that you begin touching strangers without their permission, but I am suggesting you reach out to those who may need help. It made all the difference in the world. She didn’t try to fix me, she didn’t try to make it stop, she just let me know I wasn’t alone. I truly think that is the best thing you can do for someone going through the roughest moments in their mental health. Just tell them that you are there and that they aren’t alone.

We don’t need you to have the perfect sentence to make the difference. We just need you. Somethings you can say to someone needing support:

“I’m here for you.”

“Would you like me come over and make dinner for you?”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I’m checking in to let you know that I care about you and I’m here for you.”

“What can I do for you?”

“If you just need company I can come and sit with you.”

“Do you want someone to go to the doctor with you?”

“How are you feeling?”

 

Professional sites offering more information and options:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline.

Advice from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

How to help someone with depression.

Supporting someone in a mental health crisis.

10 things to say to someone with a mental health problem.

 

A final note: mental healthcare is still very inaccessible for many people. It’s difficult to see quality doctors, medications are expensive. Look into the leaders you vote for an ensure that improving the mental health system is important to them. Stay up to date on new policies. Look at what you can do in your community to help. If you shop using Amazon navigate to Your Account > Change Your Charity and select a charity that supports access to mental healthcare. Look at what the people around you need every day.

Pennies become dollars. The small things you do every day to support those around you will have lasting results.

Personal Note: a sacred pause

Earlier this week I started fully processing the grief that has been piling up in me over the past year. A combination of losing so many people, who mean so much to me, manifested itself into an anxiety attack, my first in several years. As I came down from the attack a friend gave me the gentle nudge I needed.

“Maybe you should start meditating.”

I think in the age of Lululemon-esque, green juice, neo-spiritualism “meditating” is a practice that gets thrown around a lot. At times it can seem like a default response for “I don’t know how to support your mental health right now”. But, you see, I have a degree in an East Asian philosophy, one that consisted of studying the  Shōbōgenzō, following the teachings of  Thích Nhất Hạnh, and meditating regularly. Meditation and yoga were both in my daily repertoire until two to three years ago. This gentle nudge was a nudge not into something new, not into a catch-all formulaic response, but back into my center. Back into my homeostasis.

The next day I drafted a potential new blog post. A few of the notes I jotted down for myself: yin yoga, daily meditation, journaling, breathwork, psychologist visits. Each came with a question mark. A C-curve and a dot that was the text version of the “Will this actually work?” question that I had been asking myself since I first knew I was off-kilter. As I scrawled into my journal that night I asked the universe for some sign or path, something to help me with the first step.

Tuesday morning brought that sign I was looking for. An Alchemy Workshop put on by 3rd Ritual, a Taoist meditation company that I’d met a few months prior, was being advertised on the founder’s Instagram. It was described as a “brain bath” and Jenn, the founder of 3rd Ritual, had one guest spot left. I messaged her immediately and got the last spot. It felt like a perfect answer to the question I had been quietly asking myself for weeks.

One of the first things Jenn said was that this ritual was a “sacred pause”. The phrase hit me like an earthquake. I haven’t been taking a single pause in the past year, out of an unconscious fear of the emotions that can come in the slow moments. After an introduction to the space and practice, we all took a few breaths together during a short meditation and then introduced ourselves, sharing our name and something we have that we didn’t have last year. I immediately had two thoughts, one easy and one honest. The easy answer is the ability to make things, specifically my new sourdough fixation, but I chose to share the honest answer: grief. This past year taught me what it is to truly experience genuine loss. Not the loss of a job or relationship, but the real and raw loss of someone you love. After introductions, it was time for the ritual.

The ritual itself was divided into three parts, each addressing a different facet of ourselves. The body, the mind, and the spirit.

 

our alter for The Ritual

 

We addressed the body through a gentle yin yoga flow, repeating postures evenly on the left and right. When I was regularly practicing yoga, under the very energetic and dynamic Ashtanga style, I was bending myself into pretzels and balancing on my forearms with ease. But it has been a long time since I practiced and the challenge presented with adho mukha svanasana was humbling. It also forced me to focus deeply on my physical body and anchored me to the “here and now” of the ritual.

Moving onto the mind we did a writing exercise, based on “looking in the rearview mirror”. Starting with a “Less” column we wrote out all the things we had experienced in the past year (or several years) that we wanted less of in the future. I wrote several things, but the two that jumped out to me are “Guilt, Self-Blame” and “Avoidance, Hiding Tough Emotions”. Moving 200 miles from my family at the start of 2019, just a couple months after we received two stage four diagnoses, has weighed on me for the past year. At the same time as processing this self-blame and guilt over the move, I’ve been hiding a lot of these emotions. From others and from myself. As my family lost people this year I tried to remain stoic, knowing that we likely had more loss just a few months away. In an effort to protect myself from grief I hid from truly feeling. I want less of that. Less of postponing how I feel to make others comfortable or out of a personal fear of feeling raw emotions. To close the “Less” column we closed our eyes, filled with as much breath as we could, and released the “Less” through several, group-wide deep exhales. The only word to describe it: cathartic.

The second piece of addressing the mind was creating a “More” column, based not on all our wants from the future, but again informed by our past experiences. This list was evenly as long as my my “Less” column, but more centering to write. “Journaling, Tidyness Throughout the home, Introspection, Allowing Myself to Feel”.  My favorite one, the one that first came to my mind, is “museum days”. One of my absolute favorite things to do with him, and something we’ve been doing since our first few months of dating (when we were too broke to do anything else we would spend afternoons taking advantage of DC’s free museums). It’s one of the things that makes me feel most full in our relationship. Other things were centered around what keeps me calm and relaxed, a large focus of mine lately.

 

 

The final third of the ritual was dedicated to the spirit, caring for it with a free-flowing painting session. Starting with a center dot, representing each of us, we filled in the surrounding space with all the things we want to keep close to us. Friends and family, goals, hopes, anything. The gentle chime of 3rd Ritual’s Bel drew the ritual to an end.

We closed with savasanaaromatherapy, and a Jenn gently speaking through the parable of the two travelers.

After the workshop last night I wouldn’t say I felt healed, but that wasn’t the point. What I did feel is radically changed. Like a few of the grains of the mountain that’s been weighing me down had been lifted. Last night was the first step I had been asking for. It truly was a sacred pause from all the buzzing that’s been going on in my head lately and a beautiful way to welcome me back to myself and have a moment of calm.

On Nourishing: Anxiety and Finding What Works for Me

*I want to start this off with a disclaimer that this is what I have found to work for me. Everyone’s mental health needs are different and require unique, nuanced treatments and coping mechanisms. I am not a doctor and this is not intended to be taken as medical advice, this is based on my own personal experience.*

 

Let’s start at the beginning

When I was in elementary school I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), at the time they were separate disorders. At the time the best course of action looked like medication and as a 4th grader, I was put on a daily dose of Concerta to help me pay attention in class. After a little under a year my mom stopped the medication, she said that it made me less like myself and that she didn’t like how it changed me. I can honestly say that for that time in my life I have very few memories, almost like I was there, but not there. I found my written evaluation when I was in my early teens and was instantly embarrassed and self-conscious about what the observing psychologist had written about me.

Finding those notes was the first time I had that feeling of being different, being watched, and being evaluated in social situations. I believe that if you can track a mental disorder back to one moment finding those notes is what spurred on my social anxiety. It changed how I interacted with people every day. I was always a little extra chatty, but I was never embarrassed by acting a way that felt natural to me, and never felt that I had to overcompensate for an innate difference between me and the person next to me.

After finding those notes I became hyper-aware and fearful of how other people were perceiving me. Social anxiety can turn you into a different person. Personally, I am very introverted, which for someone who knows me may be a surprise. I truly am happiest when I am in the background, quieter in the conversation, and taking it all in instead of being the center of attention. My anxiety makes me feel that, in a social situation, I am constantly being judged and therefore constantly have to prove myself. Being “on” like that can be extremely taxing on and draining for me.

 

Then

One of the biggest mistakes I ever made was enrolling in a small college. I had always wanted to go to a large school, being completely anonymous was extremely attractive to me (I grew up in a small town, in a family of seven, and more often than not was referred to as “one of the Shephards”. I absolutely hated how people would know me without knowing me at all.) Another attractive quality to a large school was the class size.

Lectures of 100+ students initially seem like the exact opposite someone with ADD/ADHD would need, however as a young adult I was much better at handling my attention issues and was able to learn quite well in those “fly-on-the-wall” situations. Of course, I would always have a tape recorder (thanks, Dad!) in case I spaced out in class and needed to listen to the lesson a second time, but in a lot of ways lecture-based learning was how I had been taught to learn all through middle and high school. It was familiar.

In the small college I ended up going to only one of my classes was lecture-based, all the others were based on small groups and roundtable discussions. It was not a learning style that suited me. To sit and read the 30+ pages needed per class was extremely difficult, and then to be put in a social situation where, in front of your peers, you needed to demonstrate not just a retention, but a comprehension of the reading was consistently challenging. Social anxiety makes getting a question wrong feel like taking a bullet. It’s not just the moment of making a mistake, it’s the inability to move past it. While the conversation pivots and weaves its way throughout the classroom you are still locked into that moment. Reliving it over and over.

Each class felt like a punishment and I spiraled, barely doing the readings, skipping class, and doing anything to distance myself from the fact that I was not getting it. After my first semester, I had a 1.5 GPA and was on academic probation. Before that day my GPA had never been below 3.75. I’m happy that I was able to retake classes, turn things around, and graduate with a 3.87 GPA.

Looking back I am, genuinely surprised that I graduated at all, much less with honors. I have reread some of the work I produced in my collegiate level courses and feel it was worse than my high school level work. I was not in the right environment for me and my learning. I had immense anxiety about disappointing my professors, my parents, and my peers and felt that transferring college would be an admittance of the fact that I couldn’t cut it.

My anxiety held me to stay in a situation where it was crippling my ability to succeed.

 

Now

The purpose of sharing all of this is two-fold. For one it’s a self declaration that I am not the person I was in high school or college and that that person’s mistakes or short-comings don’t determine who am I or who I can be (if you are someone who lives with anxiety you know how difficult it can be to release yourself from previous mistakes). The second is to explain how I was able to make changes for myself to make my anxiety more manageable. There is no one-size-fits-all for managing a mental illness, but for me, a few foundational changes to my day to day has made all the difference.

 

Coping strategies

Checking In. There’s a meditation technique of the “swinging door”. Essentially it’s a way to cope with those moments in meditation when a thought enters the mind. Instead of getting wrapped up in the thought and panicking about your inability to focus the idea is to acknowledge the thought and then let it go like a swinging door. This is similar to what I refer to as the “check-in” that I give myself. Instead of forcing myself to relax and trying to bury or compartmentalize anxiety I acknowledge it. When I feel I’m getting anxious, I take several deep breaths, try to make my mind go blank, and then approach the problem or trigger again. Does this work every time? Not at all, but it slows me down and gives me a moment to focus on something else.

 

Caring for Myself Physically. I’ve been an athlete my entire life. Taking care of my body is just as important as taking care of my mind. When I am physically active and nourished I genuinely feel better. I’m vigilant about how much I go out and drink, how often I eat foods that lack the nutrition I need, and especially how much I eat gluten. I’ve been diagnosed with a gluten allergy, but even if I hadn’t I would still avoid it. I’ve noticed that when I lower the amount of gluten in my diet I sleep better and feel less anxiety. If I notice anxiety building over several days I’ll check in with my physical health and make sure I’m still caring for myself in the ways that I need to be.

 

Taking a “Time Out”. I’m a naturally introverted person with social anxiety who grew up in a family of seven. “Me” time wasn’t something I ever realized I needed. As an adult, I worked at a retail store and found it to be completely draining. I would work from 3 pm to 10 pm, come home and sleep until 1:30 pm the next day. I wasn’t energized, inspired, excited, it was like I was living on auto-pilot. If I have a lot of events one week / weekend I will be sure to clear my schedule for the following few days to recharge. It’s important for my mental health to be able to take a step back and spend time by myself. This is also something I openly communicate with any partners I have and they will often schedule things on nights I need my me time so that I can have the apartment to myself. If you are co-living with a significant other I highly suggest asking for the same if solo time helps you.

 

Reevaluating my Relationships. Sometimes you create relationships that take more than they feed you. Growing up in a family of seven made me very co-dependent and I know that I need to be in friendships, relationships, and groups of people I feel I can rely on to truly relax. If I feel like I am consistently stretching myself for one particular friend or group I will carefully vet how often I let them in my life. Especially if I’m having a “rundown week”. I prioritize the things and people that will feed my happiness and keep my mind clear.

 

 

For more strategies, check out this post.

 

xx