Mental Health Is Wealth
When we think "health," it typically seems that the body is the first thing that comes to mind, but what good is a healthy body if your mind isn't healthy too? I am very transparent with my mental health struggles, and to be honest, I have been struggling lately.
The COVID-19 outbreak has not only taken a toll on the physical health of thousands, but also the mental health of so many who are self-isolating and in quarantine. I may not be a mental health expert, but I can tell you from personal experience what is helpful and what is potentially harmful to mental health.
You don't have to have a diagnosis to experience anxiety. Heck, anxiety is our body's way of trying to work through a stressful situation. Stcientifically speaking, a lot happens when we experience anxiety triggers. Have you ever felt the blood drain from your face? Or a tingling in your neck or hands? Felt dizzy or lightheaded from stress? Heart palpitations? These are all your body's ways of manifesting the outside stress. One way to lessen these physical effects of stress is deep breathing. Yeah, I know, you've heard it before, but are you doing it correctly?
In an article I wrote a while back called "Breathing: The REAL Foundation" I explain :
One other mind-blowing thing about a proper breath pattern is that it actually helps you level out stress hormones on a long term basis. Here's some science for you: when you breathe deeply, it stimulates the vagus nerve. Your vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for your body's functions when it is at rest. The term "rest and digest" stems from the parasympathetic nervous system. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, your heart and lungs and digestive system functions at maximum efficiency. So yes, a deep breathing pattern can help you function better, how crazy is that! On the flip side, if you have a shallow breathing pattern, you may not be stimulating the vagus nerve, meaning the sympathetic nervous system can take control. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for "fight or flight", in other words, what your body does under stress or injury. If your body is unnecessarily functioning "under stress" while the sympathetic system is in control, that may cause cortisol levels to rise (the "stress" hormone) which can affect all sorts of systems in the body. It can cause muscles to contract and heart rate to increase.
Essentially, I'm saying that finding a DEEP breathing pattern, one that actually has proper diaphragmic movement, can actually have chemically altering positive effects on the body! This is why meditation, yoga, prayer, and other relaxation techniques are considered helpful, because they all tie back to breathing.
One technique I find helpful in the midst of a full-blown panic attack where I feel like I am completely spiraling out of control is the 4,7,8 breathing pattern. Deep inhale through the nose for 4 counts, hold for 7 counts, exhale slowly through the teeth (like a "shhhh" sound) for 8 counts. Repeating that for a minute or more can help me center my mind back to a more functional state. My recommendation is that you don't wait until you are mid panic attack to try these breathing exercises. Start the day with a few deep breaths before standing up out of bed. Take frequent breaks away from your phone or work to just take 5 min of silence and work on your breathing. Your sympathetic nervous system will thank you for it!
Some other helpful tools I use to keep my anxiety at bay are things like:
Meditative music and/or white noise
Five senses check
Talking through it
Boxing and dance for me are ways to channel that "pent up" energy and frustration or sadness. Any form of exercise will do, but these two are my favorites. When your'e just focused on reps, or choreography, or boxing combos, it's pretty difficult to think about the things that are stressing you out. Scientifically speaking, exercise also help lowers cortisol levels and is a proven mood booster. I recommend starting your day with exercise, especially if you've been dragging, so you don't keep putting it off until the end of the day.
Having a playlist of mood boosting music is such an easy way to change the vibe and set the tone as well. Do you have a song that will get you dancing no matter what? (For me, that song is "Don't Stop Me Now" By Queen.) While this is a great tool, it can also feel really overwhelming or "fake" to play songs that are opposite how you feel. If that music really can't pull you out of a funk, I would try some white noise and breathing. My go-to sound is rain sounds. You can play whatever sound you want, as long as it pulls you out of your own head long enough to take some deep breaths.
Each morning I wake up and journal. Now that we're in quarantine it's something I have more time for. I start with writing down 5 things that I am grateful for that have happened in the last 24 hour window. This helps me focus on the good things around me, and also keep my mind more open to finding positivity throughout my day.
If I'm going about my day and am caught in my thoughts, sometimes I pause and do what I call a "five senses check." In my head, I list off one thing I see, one thing I hear, one thing I smell, one thing I taste, and one thing I feel. This action can help pull you into the present. Typically an anxiety attack is caused by focusing on the future (fear of what will happen, worry, stress), and depression is dwelling on the past. By focusing on the "now" you are pulling your attention away from the things that are triggering you.
Last but not least, sometimes you just need to talk about it. Find a trusted friend or family member, a therapist or counselor, or even write it in a journal. Sometimes just simply voicing our feelings helps us put things into perspective. Just be clear about your intentions when talking to friends and family: Do you want advice? Do you just need comfort? To vent? To cry? Be clear so your tribe can support you in the way you need.
The biggest thing I can say is: don't ignore the feelings. Feel what you feel, but don't dwell. Allow yourself to experience sadness, anger, anxiety, but don't let the feeling consume you. Ignoring your feelings and pushing them down, finding quick distractions, that's just putting a bandaid on the problem. By acknowledging how you feel, you give yourself permission to move on and move forward.
As someone who is currently on medication for anxiety and depression, I also want to tell you that if you really need more help, if your feelings feel too far out of your control, speak up and don't hesitate to ask for help. There is no shame in medication or therapy or however you need to treat severe depression or anxiety. Medication helped me get to a place in my mind where I was feeling capable of managing my emotions. While that may or may not be the right solution for you, be sure to talk to a healthcare professional who has your best interest in mind if you feel you need more help. If you are in emotional crisis and don't know who to call, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is a great resource to call 1 (800) 273 TALK. They have crisis counseling and mental health treatment referrals.
As lonely as you may feel, you are not alone! Just take it one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time, one second if you need. Just keep moving toward the next right step. It's okay to not be okay.
Sending love and light to all reading this! Please share this with friends, especially in this time of global crisis. We will get through this!