What I am about to write is one of the most difficult things I have ever expressed publicly, but I feel called to do so. The idea for this blog post started off as a simple list of things that have helped me combat my depression and anxiety, and I think they will help many others. These things should be easy enough to share; however, to start talking about them I feel I must first pass through the ordeal of publicly admitting that I struggle with mental health issues.
I’m not entirely certain why this is so hard for me to write. In part it is the stigma and shame that surround mental health. I worry about what people will think. I don’t want pity. I struggle with imposter syndrome – setting myself up as a person who can help others, while simultaneously seeing my life consistently disrupted by emotional turmoil, cloudy thoughts, and intense discomfort. I am afraid of re-entering a cycle I have seen several times in my life of other people looking to me for leadership, only to fall short and let them down.
The main purpose of this article is to break the ice and open up a dialogue in my own life and for others around me. I feel strongly that someone out there needs for me to share my perspective. It is for that one person that I write this. Simultaneously, it has been a big, productive step in my own healing process and I hope it helps many others.
I hope you never know what it is like to want to be with friends and family, but seeing that desire drown in wave after wave of anxiety that makes you feel like your skin is too small for your insides, like a heavy weight is crushing your shoulders and your heart, like the idea of navigating small talk will end in disaster. I hope that you don’t have to know that when you are able to push through in some of those instances your emotional batteries will be drained, and you know it is going to be extremely difficult to wind down, get any semblance of a decent night’s sleep, and when you do finally wake up the crushing burden of sadness and anxiety will settle over you before you can get dressed. I cringe at the thought of you or anyone else putting on a false front in order to get through the day – fighting to keep the inner turmoil tucked away as much as possible. I pray that you never have to feel the despair of being so fatigued by this struggle that you worry that even if you somehow miraculously make it through another few years of it, your relationships won’t be able to make it through unscathed.
The thing is I know that some of the people who read this will relate. They do know what it is like to lie awake at night, traumatized by the idea that they have already screwed up their relationships with friends and family or that they will never be worthy of success because of how broken they feel. Worse yet, I know that others have also found themselves in moments so dark they wonder if after the initial trauma of loss their loved ones would be better off without them.
Writing this in a public format makes me feel intensely vulnerable, but I hope that whatever I can share about my struggles with mental health will help someone else weather the storm and make it through safely. That hope outweighs my own fears and discomfort about the process – at least marginally.
Looking back on my life, I have dealt with depression and anxiety from at least my pre-teen years. I don’t think it was as intense or frequent early on, but it was there. I know I’m not alone. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that nearly 20% of adults experienced an anxiety disorder in 2018. Over 10 million American adults suffered severe impairment of their life because of Major Depressive Episodes. (That’s over 4% of all adults!) Over 5 million more suffered Major Depression without severe impairment of their lives.
Unfortunately, over a third of those people did not receive any type of treatment. Even with how common these issues are, a stigma persists about mental health that can make it hard for us to admit what we are feeling and to trust others to help us fight it. I know I have felt fear and shame that delayed my willingness to be open and seek help. Please join me in doing whatever we can to reverse this trend. A person suffering from mental illness has enough on their hands without adding shame or fear of how others will treat them.
This is where I need to say that I am not a psychiatrist or therapist. I’m not qualified to give you advice in this area. I plead with you to seek professional help if needed. Use medications if you need them. Make sure you have someone you can talk with who is professionally trained to help you be more successful in managing your life. Please get help.
DO NOT TRY TO DO THIS ALONE! One of the most powerful impulses we feel when we are anxious or depressed is the urge to isolate. This isolation can be both physical and emotional. We feel like we are uniquely broken. Somehow we are worse off than others, and that things that help other people won’t work for us. It’s not true.
I want to reiterate that if you are struggling with mental health issues you should seek out professional help and enlist the aid and support of loved ones.
So there it is. Like millions of other people I struggle with feeling worthwhile and feeling anxious and depressed. But I don’t allow myself to be defined by a diagnosis. I am not a depressed man: I am a man fighting depression.
I want to share a few of the things that I have noticed making a positive difference for me lately in that fight. Feel free to try them out. Let me know if they help or if you have ideas about modifications to my recommendations or even other things to try.
DO HARD THINGS!
Nothing changes while we stay in our comfort zones. Unfortunately comfort zones can be a misnomer as we are often not comfortable there at all, but we aren’t stretching when we stay there. For me, Jiu-Jitsu has been super valuable. The whole philosophy of it is failing forward. Get in uncomfortable positions, push through, mess up and be ok with it, because you just tap out, reset, and try again! It has been a lesson developing on the mat that I have noticed spill over into my life at times. A friend put it this way when he was struggling with test anxiety in college:
“It dawned on me that the test on that paper couldn’t choke me out. It couldn’t snap my arm, or hurt me in any way, and I was headed to the gym to voluntarily put myself in positions where those things could happen! Suddenly the test was not big deal, and I started getting good grades and got my degree!”
Another way I have seen lots of people do this is by taking freezing cold showers in the morning. It changes the way you face things during the day when you can relate them to the misery of showering in icy water. J
For me it has been a Godsend to have a loving, patient, supportive wife. Ashlee doesn’t understand a lot of what I’m going through, but she tries. She has learned to lend support or give space. We have figured out things like when I need to drive separately to social events to I can take off when I’m hitting my limit. We’re learning to deal with less than ideal situations. I love that when I’m not feeling well I know that at least she loves me.
This one can be dangerous though, because if we are looking externally for happiness or fulfilment we are giving away our control and we become victims. Also, not all of us have loved ones who get it. Everyone has different levels of understanding and patience. Some of us have people who are toxic in our lives, and that creates a stressful situation all of its own. But look for people who will be supportive and who can check your thinking. Don’t accept those who wallow in misery with you. If you are comfortable complaining nonstop with someone, that is not a healthy relationship. Surround yourself with people who are positive and solution oriented. Find professional support if you need it.
PHYSICAL WELL BEING
I struggle with pain. I injured my ribs almost a year ago, and often since then it has been difficult to sleep, continue training Jiu-Jitsu, or even get through a work day without severe spasms and pain. It’s hard for me to explain the level of frustration and emotional fatigue I feel when sleepless nights happen back to back and the days between are full of discomfort. It affects my thoughts and mood dramatically.
I have learned that stretching, drinking lots of water, making sure my electrolytes don’t deplete, and getting adequate sleep help a lot! Massage therapy is also helpful. I have also tried pain meds, physical therapy, cryotherapy, and chiropractic adjustments, but these therapies haven’t been as helpful for my pain.
Mitigating the pain is important, but at least as equally important is exercise. The endorphin release that happens when we exert ourselves to the point of breathing hard, stressing our muscles, and sweating has been shown in research to be as effective as some anti-depressant medications. I know that it is important for me, and even though I often experience a strong wave of depression and anxiety while driving to Jiu-Jitsu, I know that as soon as I start training my mind clears and I feel a peace that I don’t feel any other time.
While in nursing school I was introduced to art therapy during our psych rotation. I loved it! There is something very therapeutic about tasks that keep our hands and minds busy enough to keep attention, but also allow us to think and process. Some examples are painting and drawing, sewing, leatherwork, and gardening, and there are so many more! They have the added benefit of afterwards being able to look at something and realize I did that!
Sometimes I wake up with the weight of depression heavy on my heart and shoulders. It is physically uncomfortable and can be difficult to push through. During a recent streak of days like that, I woke up one morning and lay in bed feeling badly. I had an epiphany and said to myself “I need to create something!” That spurred one of my periods of artistic activity, working on sketching and inking. It helped me with my depression, but had the additional benefit of providing an opportunity to bond with my kids.
It is difficult to logically and productively process things when we are overwhelmed with stress and anxiety. But there is benefit in cycles. For example, productive body building by demanding more of our muscles than they are used to doing, but the actual gains happen when we rest and recover.
It is important that we find activities we enjoy, that help us decompress, and give us a break from the stress of pushing out of our comfort zones.
Be careful though! This can be another dangerous one, because it is so easy to slip into avoidance with entertainment instead of a beneficial, leisure activity that recharges. I know I’m simply avoiding the work of processing my emotions and moving forward when I’m done spending time doing an activity, but there is no lasting improvement in my mood.
There is a big difference between mindless entertainment and true leisure activities. For each of us the types of activities that provide the healthy breaks we need will be different, so find yours. And make sure to reassess afterwards to see if you truly feel recharged or if you feel a sense of emptiness or a desire to immediately dive back into the escape of that activity.
Often the things that will help most are the hardest things to do in the moment. Still, almost every time we make the right decisions in spite of our emotions, we will see an improvement in how we feel. This process develops our emotional “muscles” and helps us get stronger.
Like I mentioned earlier, I often struggle a lot when I am driving to Jiu-Jitsu, even though I know I will feel great during and after, I have to force myself to decide to keep driving even though depression and anxiety are kicking my butt.
Go out. Do something. Be with people. Move!
Thanks for reading! It means a lot to me. I hope and pray that this entry will help someone else out there, and I would love to hear from you if it does. This will be a topic I write about often, so I’ll add more as I continue to work on this facet of my life. Let me know if there’s something you would like me to look into and share my experiences with you as I do.
And remember: If you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other mental health issue – you are not alone! This illness does not define you – it is just something you are going through. You are amazing and the world is better with you in it! You are loved!