How to: Mental Health Warrior
from a recovering mental health pacifist
I am twenty-eight years old and I have finally leapt into my life. About time, right? Let me tell you how.
In accordance with plenty of stories that turn out great, it all started with a girl. It's the classic "I had to lose myself to find myself" journey wherein I invested all of myself into a love. Nothing happened the way I hoped it would so I chased and chased and chased trying to force it into existence because I believed it's what I deserved. However, I didn't. Because I pursued it so much, I basically hunted it to extinction, and when I didn't get what I was after, I was scorned. I let that hurt spill into her life and interfere with her growth. It reached a point where she threw who I was being into my face, and I needed that confrontation with myself. It was in the moment of our last interaction that I understood something: I had lost my way. I had ventured into another's story and forgot myself. I strayed from me.
I started asking how this happened, what led me here? The answer was within the very nature of the questions I was posing to myself, I was examining the present, finally. This launched me into a complete assessment of how I was living every day. As you may surmise, it was far from wholesome. It should be noted that I had a stable job, I ran during the week, I tried to eat right, I had social connections, I read (for fun!), but I was never present in any of it, not truly. I had happy moments, but I wasn't happy. I was always looking backwards and forwards, those directions were so much easier to see. Remaining in the here and now, a Sisphyean task. The past and future, those were my closest friends.
Realizing this became the great liberator of my mind. I delved into what living wholesomely meant. My searches were saturated with the key words "mental health" because I knew I was not nurturing that in me. I was a drifter, a simple exist-er (sorry, I had to), and I wanted to do as Henry David Thoreau had set out to do and "live deliberately." I wanted to be a warrior of the mind.
To me, being a mental health warrior is all about approaching how you care for your mind with some ferocity. Taking care of yourself IS a battle and for a period time, whether it be months or years (years, in my case), the supply lines to the positive dimensions of the psyche have been disrupted and the other side has been allocated the majority of the resources. For example, criticizing myself was really easy. Levying harsh evaluations of who I was and would ever be came so naturally. I only needed one little voice to whisper something deconstructive and I became that, while in order to bring myself up, it's like I needed a robust team of mental lawyers to make even the most minimally convincing argument to myself. Why is that? I took the truth value of the derisive comments as a given, but they're not. What I want to convey is that if the comparison of self-care to war is overwhelming, just realize you have already been at war, now it's just time to switch sides.
I found that mental health can be broken down into five key dimensions:
Let me take you on a brief journey through each.
Haven't we all been told when we messed up or were clumsy to be more mindful? I sure have. Innumerable times. That's mindfulness is: being here, mentally. Our minds are great travelers, they harbor a tremendous capacity for wanderlust. We allow them free reign and we lumber after them instead of establishing governance over the path they take. The first and most crucial aspect of solving a problem is to recognize there is one. My problem: I was transported elsewhere all the time. That shook me and was the catalyst for changing, but how? How do I corral these unruly cerebral misadventures?! First step, catch yourself, each and every time you do it. When your mind follows a thread of thinking away from where you want to be, stop right there and gently acknowledge that it is happening and then bring yourself back. I can't guarantee how frequent this will be but safe to say if you haven't practiced this... well, be glad you don't have to buy your mind a ticket every time it takes a trip. It's going to drift, constantly, and that is all right. Do not chastise yourself for this, it's not a bad thing, it's just thinking, and that is all you have to tell yourself when it happens, "I am thinking." The second step is to meditate. Don't stop reading! That's basically what the first step is but in a more applied setting. Meditation is simply taking that behavior and setting aside time to do only that: to be in the moment. There is so much variety in how to achieve this. You can sit, lay down, walk, whatever! It's just about reserving time to purely exist in the moment. When you have found a setting for this, find an anchor that will keep you here. The anchor can be your breath, feelings throughout your body, or the contact of external world on your skin. Just pay attention to that. Like before, you will lose your focus to an alluring thought, the mind loves to play, but just repeat to yourself that you are simply thinking and then return. Eventually, you'll realize that you can meditate anywhere doing anything such as working, eating, brushing your teeth, washing the dishes, calling someone, listening to a YouTube video, or writing. All the time there is opportunity to fall in love with the moment. It's a beautiful skill to hone, and there is research that speaks to the correlation of happiness and mind that does not wander, whether it be towards negative or positive impressions. An engaged mind is a healthy, happy mind. Personally, I use a guided meditation app, Balance, that facilitates the practice and helps you build key skills (breath focus, body scan, awareness) across foundational plans. I have been using it for a couple months now and find that I can take the reins here and there for ten to fifteen minutes. Still, towards the end I sometimes find myself wondering when it will be over, but then I follow the aforementioned guidance and bring myself back. I supplement my meditation training by studying Stoic philosophy. Marcus Aurelius's Meditations has essentially become my bible because many of his entries were recognitions that the present moment is what truly matters, and he's right.
This is a tricky one because what constitutes a meaningful connection is so subjective. I don't think I could discount anything from having the capacity to be a meaningful connection to someone. The goal here is determine what your connections are and involve yourself in them more. Strengthen them and rebuild deteriorated ones. Personally, I have always had a modest inner circle of family and close friends, but they existed in my peripherals. The infrastructure was there, I just needed to water those plants. So, that's what I did. I became a part of their lives more. That hasn't meant seeing every person every week, it just meant keeping the fire of the relationship burning which surprisingly doesn't take much. For example, I became more involved in family group texts, I called my mom, dad, and sister more, I sent direct messages on Instagram to friends. I reached out to more extended family, I kept note of their birthdays and sent well wishes the day of. It's tiny actions that reap large rewards. Beyond this first circle of relationships, I started finding connections in other ways. I found groups with similar interests as mine online through Meetup. I posted on Reddit and responded to other users which occasionally evolved into a private conversation. I spent more time with my dog. I reached out to my high school accounting teacher whom I really admired and we grabbed lunch. The interactions don't have to be deep or blossom into long-term relationships, just speak with someone. Find some way that makes you feel connected and harness it. There are infinite ways to have connections, I am still surprised by how seemingly small an interaction can be and yet make me feel so alive.
I am an introvert so I have social batteries that need recharging which I do through meaningful solitude. For me, being an introvert means I am natural at being alone, thus incorporating more socialization was a little alien to me. I didn't want to do it at first but then I began seeing the benefits of tending to the connections in my life and it has really become a critical component of me being content with life.
This is one of my favorite aspects of mental health. This is the fuel for the fire that propels your mind forward through the years. Not only does it help stave off the deterioration that inevitably occurs over time, learning connects you with the world and helps you find your place in it. Learning can take place anywhere at anytime through a multitude of mediums. My advice is to start with what interests or intrigues you. With the advent of YouTube and online advocates of the intellect such as Coursera, Masterclass and the like, investigating a new field is a mere click away. Ponder what you like to do and see if you can gain a more granular understanding of it. It's really about exposing yourself to new material every day. It doesn't have to involve PhD level concepts, it can be simple as taking a European country map quiz and learning the location of each. One I thing I noticed is that there is already so many learning opportunities taking place, I only needed to engage myself in it. Revisit Mindfulness above for help with this. Below are some random ideas/advice on how to engage this area of mental health more.
As part of your learning experience, please read! Don't solely use videos. While those have there advantages, so too does the written word, and it's one of those things you should intentionally include in your life whether you love it or not. If you really just loath reading, listen to an audiobook instead!
Buy a brain training workbook. They have dynamic games and puzzles that train your brain in different ways while preventing the process from feeling stale.
Lose yourself in a Wikipedia article.
Study epistemology. It's an entire field dedicated to understanding how we think and what knowledge is.
Another excellent method for learning is actually trying to teach something to someone else. The conveyance process from you to another helps solidify what you already know and gracefully exposes the areas in which you can learn more about the topic.
My last piece of advice here is to proceed with a childlike curiosity for things. If you try and approach everything with wonder, you will grow. I promise.
This area I have the most challenging time fulfilling in my life. Give what? To whom? These questions swirl around inside my head. I've learned that it doesn't necessarily mean money. While that is a noble item to give, it's not the only thing in your arsenal. Time is just as valuable. If you live in the world, and since you're reading this, you do, I bet you have noticed the despair and squalor that is ever present. Once you do see it, you can't forget it. It's not the most uplifting realization, but it is a humbling one. Once I began looking, I discovered there were limitless ways to be an asset to society through volunteerism. Help at a food bank, apply for Big Brothers Big Sisters, teach a foreign speaker English, create care packages for people without homes. For the truly adventurous, apply to the Peace Corps. Pretty much anything you can think of has an advocacy group whose needs always outweigh what it has, so your time will always be in high demand. You could donate ten dollars every week to an organization who supports a cause that resonates with you.
When you find a way, whether it be volunteering time or money, you will experience an amazing sense of joy. Additionally, you will remedy any lack of gratitude for your own situation. I could end this with a million quotes from timeless thinkers about the benefits of giving but the essence of everything everyone has ever said is: if you want to help yourself, help someone else. Give it a shot. The main idea here is to try and be a part of something larger, grander than yourself. Most the content in this article focuses on the individual aspects of protecting your mental health, but there is a balance between being an individual and a member of the world. Try to find what connects you to others in the world and pursue it.
This dimension was saved for last as it means the most to me. Being active is foundational to overall health and will truly call upon you to brandish your mental health weaponry, especially if you are not accustomed to an active lifestyle as it is the most demand physically. From a psychological standpoint, vigorous activity is just as effective as, if not more than, mild to moderate antidepressants. I can vouch for that. The central tenet is this: move, more. You don't necessarily need to be doing daily high intensity interval training, but as a society we have fallen out of love with movement: we park as close as possible to where we want to shop, we preference elevators over stairs, we binge-watch, everything is delivered, I could go on and on. Expediency, instant gratification, and lethargy have become somewhat of a plague on our society. To fight back, restore activity to your life. Walk or jog in the park, go to the grocery store, stand outside, park in the outer most parking spaces, take the stairs, cook your food, make your bed, do chores. There are so many opportunities to move more and your mind and body will thank you for it. A great benefit to stoking this area is that it build its own momentum really well. Because you are being more active, you will feel better, which in turn grants you more energy, and more energy means more activity, and so on! It's self-perpetuating. As you reintroduce more movement into your life, you will crave it.
Gratuitous relaxation has a sweet embrace, but don't let yourself idle for too long. Attack your desire to simply do nothing sometimes and opt for the alternative. It's a service to you in the long run.
Personally, I joined Krav Maga gym and I go conditioning four to five times a week, self-defense classes, and yoga. I do not always look forward to this because I too am drawn to having sedentary days, but I have gotten more adept at making myself do these activities as I know the end result is that I am happier and healthier.
To conclude all this, turning your mental health around will be a challenge, the degree of which depends on your starting point, but just know that there is no perfect formula and we are all subject to the capriciousness of our minds. Tough days will take place and that is ok. Tell yourself that this is an opportunity to train your mind harder. As you work on yourself, the implementation of mental health strategies will improve and luckily it's self-perpetuating. Each step in the right direction pays it forward to yourself. When things get bad, you'll be able to rebound faster because you know good days are possible, thus they can be reclaimed. Take back your mind. A favorite quote of mine from Meditations goes like this, "Concentrate on the subject or act in question, on principle or meaning. You deserve what you're going through. You would rather become good tomorrow than be good today." I had to chew on "You deserver what you're going through" for a bit but what this means to me is lose your fixation on the destination versus the process. Focus on every moment, invest your attention in that.
Here are my last tidbits of wisdom gained through my own training:
- take it one day at a time, small steps become long journeys
- remember: it only takes two days to undermine two months of work so don't become complacent in your behavior
- congratulate yourself and write down how you took care of yourself at the end of every day
- when you find yourself slipping, tell yourself "you didn't come this far to only come this far"
- keep in mind someone who you believe lives well and remember them when you need motivation
- figure out ways to add more positivity to your life, make yourself see it. Follow mental health accounts on Instagram, ask friends or family to send you motivation, listen to comedy, etc.
The content of this article is not meant to substitute any professional help you are receiving or believe you should look into. My intended audience here is that person experiencing more of a mental health challenge and not a mental health illness. Whereas the former is when life becomes disrupted by a change in mood, thinking, or behavior, the latter is a diagnosable condition that requires professional help. Mental health challenges can be combated through proper self-care assuming there is no underlying illness. If you think you need to seek professional help, please do that. In that case, this article would at most complement any strategies put in place by a professional.
Whoever reads this, I truly hope the best for you. I believe you can change your life for the better because even when I didn't think it was possible, I did it for myself. If you want to connect or even ask me questions, you can find me on Instagram: @p_to_the_nunn. :)