This post has been modified from it’s original guest appearance on My Anxious Life. It now includes links to relevant posts on Upcycled Adulting. I am grateful for all of the support I’ve received since the original publication of this piece. Most frequently people comment that they had no idea that I suffer from mental illness and many have been encouraged and inspired by my journey. Please consider sharing this piece. We have no idea who around us may be suffering or may be helped along their path to mental illness recovery.
My Mental Illness Recovery
I’m so excited and happy to share that I am officially (according to me anyways) in recovery from my mental illnesses. I don’t mean that I have recovered or that I’m cured. I don’t believe that actual mental illness can be entirely cured. In my experience, the symptoms can be treated using many modalities and people with mental illness can live life to the fullest. But being cured? Well, I think that’s a stretch.
That said, I am living my best life and I’ve found ways to mitigate the effects of my illnesses. I work very hard to stay in recovery and I’m completely mindful of my status. It is imperative that I remain very attentive to myself. I am always aware that because I’m not cured I could need medical intervention at some point. My journey has been complicated and challenging and a lot of trial and error. Hopefully my years of research and work help you find something that brings you closer to recovery and freedom!
So to give you a little background I was diagnosed in my mid 20’s with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and more recently with PTSD. I’ve spent more than half of my life in therapy and several years on various medications. I have had stints of recovery in the past and then relapsed. Usually after a triggering event. But I’ve also had very unexpected onset as well.
I even had a depressive episode that was completely unrecognizable to me. I had everything I wanted and wasn’t feeling blue at all, but, I had no motivation, struggled to get out of bed and really didn’t care about a thing. Turned out it was just a different presentation of depression. The meds they put me on that time worked great and I loved them until I ended up having panic attacks and suicidal impulses. At that point I obviously had to change my medication and also started making several lifestyle changes.
A Real Disease
Before I go any further let me just clarify that not only do I believe that MDD, GAD and PTSD are real diseases, I KNOW they are! I know that I am physiologically different in some way from others that don’t have these conditions. I know that this isn’t just being sad or stressed or overwhelmed. I’ve grieved, deeply, I’ve been overcome by sorrow and I’ve been overwhelmed, frustrated and stressed. That can certainly trigger an episode but it actually doesn’t feel the same as the fully expressed illness. This isn’t about being sad or feeling depressed or anxious & snapping out of it!
That being said, I’d like to share with you how I’ve managed to get my illness into recovery so I can live the full life I’ve always dreamed of. I’m hoping you may find some nugget here that might help you in your journey too.
Like most (all?) people who suffer from mental illness I’ve been on meds… a lot. I’ve tried several antidepressants and antianxiety meds. Since I’ve never had any issues with addiction, and I have no medication allergies I have access to every med on the market. Some of them have worked ok, others not so much. I’ve gone through many trials and I have a couple of go-to meds if I am in a season where I need them. But, I’ve been medication free for over 7 years now.
The Purpose of Medication
My therapist gave me a great analogy regarding medication. She compared it to a pool noodle when you’re panic drowning. It helps you get your head above water and buoy you until you can swim on your own. Some people can’t swim and likewise some can’t go off of meds. It depends on the individual. I currently only have rescue meds and I use them once or twice a year. In order to get to this point I had to create a lifestyle that supports my recovery and I have to be very mindful about my circumstances and mood.
I also had to discuss this choice with my doctor and therapist. If you are contemplating going off of meds you NEED to do the same! But, whether you’re on medication or not, these lifestyle changes will help. Even, if not with your mental illness, they’ll help you live a better life.
Affirmations, Mindfulness & Meditation
Changing the way you think can make a HUGE impact on your mental health! No, it’s not all in your head but when you replace negative thoughts with affirming ones and take control of your mind it’s a lot easier to make choices that lead to a better, healthier life. You finally feel empowered to change your situation.
This was the last thing I added but it made the biggest difference and also made everything else so much easier. It was very important for me to dig up my recurrent negative thoughts and try to shut off my hyper vigilance. These were necessary coping mechanisms in the past. So, I didn’t allow myself to be angry or frustrated by them. I approached them with a spirit of gratitude. They had served their purpose and now needed to be given the heave ho! Throughout my adulthood they became like a hamster wheel I couldn’t get off. They were holding me back.
When you eliminate negative thoughts and hyper-vigilance you need to replace it with something else. That way you keep your mind occupied with what you want it to focus on. I HATED it but I started doing affirmations and writing positive present tense statements. It seemed silly and I struggled mightily to create an affirmation practice but it made all of the difference! I talk about my struggle with building an affirmation practice here. Overtime I actually started to believe my affirmations and it made me feel much better and helped me to accomplish a lot more!
I then had to focus in on being mindful and self-controlled. I started to observe my thoughts and reactions to things. It was very important to me to separate my own feelings and perceptions of situations from those of others. I realized that I needed to set better boundaries in my relationships because I was far too impacted by the needs or wants of others and my perception of how they saw me or whether they liked me etc. This was contributing significantly to both my anxiety and depression! Mindfully choosing not to be swayed by the opinions of others was very helpful.
What Do I think?
Instead of worrying about what others thought of me I started to consider instead what I thought. Every time I left a social situation in the past I would wonder if I had made a bad impression or if the people I had met liked me. Reframing this to be more concerned about my own feelings and thoughts about the interaction was very helpful! Afterall, I should care most how I feel. I’m only responsible for myself!
Social Media Cultivation
I had to cultivate my social media and sometimes just take a break all together! What we spend our time looking at reading and watching can really impact our mood. Comparison can be so detrimental to self esteem. And the likelihood of ending up in a full anxious or depressive state once I was struggling with self esteem was just too high!
Being mindful not only of how you feel but also the choices you’re making, situations you’re in and what you’re exposed to can be very helpful in the recovery process! Keep yourself focused on positive things that make you feel good about yourself and your life. Build yourself up!
Spending time meditating every day has been a tremendous help. Here’s the thing though… meditation seems like it would be easy but it’s actually really, REALLY hard. If you’re going to start meditating 2 minutes once a day is a real accomplishment. There are also several free apps that might help. When you spend time meditation you become more self-aware and confident and it’s very soothing. So, I highly recommend it!
Clearing limiting feeling and thoughts out of my mind eased my burden a lot. It also made it far more difficult for me to perseverate. Spending time convincing myself that I love myself and love pursuing things that make me healthy helped me break down the door to making consistent healthy choices. Mindfulness and meditation help me to stay in touch with myself. They have bolstered my self confidence and helped tremendously to keep my anxiety at bay! I highly recommend all three and this is an excellent starting point!
So… here’s the thing, these illnesses aren’t in your head. All of the positive thoughts and meditation in the world isn’t going to help if you don’t put them to use doing something that actually changes your body chemistry! I’m guessing that you may not know that there are several nutritional changes that have been scientifically proven to be as beneficial or more beneficial than meds. I didn’t until I put my mind to researching natural remedies and started seeing professionals in the field!
Here’s a basic overview of my nutritional changes.
Eating a good variety of plants is extremely important to your mental health! Most of your neurotransmitters are created in or triggered by the microorganisms in your gut. When they aren’t being fed you aren’t getting enough of them. They eat insoluble fiber (also known as fruits and veggies)! Now I’m not suggesting that you become a vegetarian (I’m Paleo). There can be a place for meat and eggs in your diet but having a plant first diet helps your body produce ample neurotransmitters.
It’s also important that you consume a broad variety of fruits and veggies so you get a good mix of vitamins and minerals. Many vitamin deficiencies can exacerbate or even present as mental illness. There have even been many misdiagnosis related to this. I wish I was one of those people but even though I’m not I do find that managing my diet helps a lot.
I seriously can’t stand salmon but I eat it a couple times a week anyway! I also take a lot of fish oil! Why? Because I want my brain as healthy as possible so that all of it’s neurotransmitters and neuroreceptors are working properly!
Avoid Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates
I avoid almost all processed foods. I don’t trust the chemical cocktail that they contain. But, I make a special point to avoid sugar and refined starches. These can harm or displace the microorganisms in your gut. Also, both cause blood sugar spikes which drastically impacts mood. And… sorry but artificial sweeteners are neurotoxins so those aren’t a good idea either.
Alcohol and Other Substances
I’m a big fan of a glass of wine every now and then! I think many of us are! The problem is that alcohol is a depressant and it can interact with meds. All mind-altering substances can interact with your meds and you can also have a very bad reaction to them. Your brain chemistry is different from others and it is not wise to tamper with these substances willy nilly. If you are using any mind altering substances you MUST be honest with your doctor!
Here’s the thing… we all NEED sleep! I mean 7 – 9 hours of quality sleep every night! Set up a sleep routine and a waking routine and stick to them! If you aren’t getting enough sleep, you are going to feel miserable and it is going to make it very difficult to get into or stay in recovery! Plus, your brain and body need this rest and re-boot time! It is not uncommon for people who suffer from mental illness to struggle with too much or too little sleep. Don’t self-medicate with your rescue anxiety meds to get to sleep. Speak to your health care provider if you are struggling with this!
I know! This is everyone’s least favorite. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of well-meaning friends and family members suggesting a walk or taking up yoga to a person who suffers from depression or anxiety. Yeah… it doesn’t really work that way. You can’t just walk it off!
That being said, once you feel up to it. getting into an exercise routine can really help you stay in recovery and feel amazing! Yoga is great because it kills two birds with one stone… mindfulness / meditation and exercise! However, don’t be all stringent about what “counts”. Moving your body counts! At first you might be counting getting out of bed and going into the kitchen as exercise and that’s ok. Try to work up to moving 30 minutes a day, every day. You could be cleaning or gardening, going for a walk or taking a fitness class. It all counts! Exercise stimulates your endocannabinoid system and makes your body produce endorphins even when you don’t run marathons! This makes you feel amazing!
In addition to the items listed above, here are some random odds and ends that I have also found very helpful.
Having a purpose or a place to be is very beneficial. Whether you have a passion project, volunteer your time or hold down a job, being expected somewhere or by someone can really help you stay on track! It can also help break you out of a funk. Find something to do with your time so you have something else to focus on when you’re having a challenging day.
Support and Community
It doesn’t matter if this in in real life or online. Knowing others who have struggled and overcome can really help. Consider this like your meeting or sponsor. Let some people in and be accountable to them.
And, If you have the resources hire a good quality therapist! They can be the key to safely staying in recovery. Don’t underestimate the value of therapy!
Humans NEED to be touched! As in, we can die without it! You need to be touched! I think this is especially important for people with mental illness! Snuggle with someone, get a pet or schedule massages! Just make sure that you’re being touched! It causes your body to produce oxytocin which is a bonding hormone and it feels AMAZING!
Last but not least is spend some time in nature! Get yourself outside and sometimes forgo the sunscreen so you can soak up some vitamin D! Spending time outdoors has been shown in studies throughout the world to dramatically improve the symptoms of several mental illnesses. It is especially beneficial if you spend time in a green space but even if you live in a city and that’s not an option getting outside is still beneficial.
Live Your Best Life
Yes! I know that this is a lot and it might seem overwhelming. Here’s what I’m going to say though… it’s worth it! Do NOT under any circumstances take on this whole list at one time! Choose the thing that is most approachable for you and do it until you have a consistent month under your belt. Then add another component. Repeat this process each month and you WILL feel better! Even if you don’t get into full recovery, even if you don’t get to everything on the list, you’ll be living a richer fuller life!
When I started this process I just wanted to be able to enjoy my family and be as healthy as possible. I didn’t have the intention of going off of medication. Most of my family has some form of mental illness they are medicated for, so I didn’t have any shame or different expectations. To be honest, I just wanted to live the best life I could and now I do!
When are you going to start making strides toward living your best life? Check out the related articles highlighted in blue and linked.