I have an approach to mental health that has helped me process both triumph and failure. It helps me move through rough patches on my journey and recurrences in symptoms I thought I had under control. It’s difficult for me to speak on disorders other than depression and generalized anxiety disorder, as I have not personally experienced those symptoms. This is my attempt to unify them. I feel a change in how we approach mental health will help speed up the “treatment lag”, or the difference in time between when symptoms present themselves and when treatment is accessed.
The way our society approaches mental health is as a moment or a concept that can easily be summarized through the binary “I’m fine/not fine.” We also treat it as a “problem” that needs “fixing.” While the widespread societal issue of ample mental healthcare is an important topic to discuss, on the individual level there is one bottom line: Mental health struggles are not problems to be solved or permanent check boxes that can be run down like a to-do list. They are ongoing in any capacity, and require you to be more in-tune with your emotions and actions — regardless of severity.
I’d like to suggest a new approach that treats mental health as a continuous process, a multifaceted evolution with certain imbalances trading off for others. We all have areas of struggle: public speaking, maintaining a schedule, sleep, self-esteem, exercise, irritability, optimism. Everyone struggles with certain areas to varying degrees of severity, and everyone has moments where each struggle has little triumphs and losses in smaller areas. For public speaking it could be finally figuring out what to do with your hands, but then you realize you were so focused on your hands that you picked up swaying, or you notice swaying more now. It’s a collection of different levels that come naturally to some, like breathing, and are problems for others — like when you think about breathing and suddenly have to consciously manage it until it becomes natural or until it’s brought to your attention once again.
Consider how you are feeling right now.
What emotions can you label? Can you assign a degree to your stress? How attached do you feel to reality or your situation right now?
This is your mental state, the moments that make up your mental health. States are units of health on a line moving through time. They are the current summation of all emotions and stress in that moment. Whole days are not units of your mental state. The largest unit is “afternoon” or “morning.” I challenge you to assess how you are feeling and why you are feeling that way, be it up or down. This helps to form an initial understanding of what general situations, places, people you source certain energy from. It prioritizes not the spectacle of the situation, but the reality of your emotional reaction to the stimulus. Answers to evaluations of your mental state can be reached immediately, or worked at through art of any form. It’s entirely possible to feel a color or like an abstract concept that is difficult to convey, maybe it’s a melody, a color, a scene, a single word, or sound. Whatever it is, you assign meaning to that and can recognize when you are feeling a certain way based on these associations.
I use test questions as an example of how evaluating your mental state proactively is better than retroactively (retroactive processing is better for big events or moments that require attention with no breaks) because if you are taking a test and are stumped on a later question after blowing through content you knew, it’s difficult to not “ruin” your picture of the whole test. Your mental state in that moment can’t be generalized to the whole test, yet generalization is what our reaction is. Think about all the times you generalize in life. Does someone else’s bad day make you forget the good parts of them? Does someone’s good day make you overlook all the bad effects they have on you? Generalization isn’t easy, it’s efficient. It boxes perceptions into absolutes in order to rapidly associate it with past responses to ensure that you are behaving consistently with past experiences. That reaction isn’t always the best.
A mental disorder is an irregularity in the composition of factors in your mental states. Fluctuating mood, constant worry, obsessions and compulsions, impact the makeup of your mental states. It makes imbalances more consistent. People can have mental disorder without a diagnosable “illness.” Consider it the larger “war” and causing smaller “battles” across different grounds with a different army from a common set involved in the conflict. A disorder is not your enemy, it is a part of you. Disorders are often spectrums. They are rarely constant in the beginning, which makes the onset subtle.
Anxiety is an imbalance in the natural fear process in our brain. Without fight-or-flight, we would be ill-equipped to deal with physical danger. The imbalance of that process in relation to the stimuli the brain is presented with throws off other scales, and creates a wide array of symptoms. Some of mine are chronic muscle tension, irritability, focusing issues, stomach tension, and nausea. Anxiety manifests often in deeply physical ways. Panic attacks are most commonly recognized by elevated heart rate. They change how your body is behaving in that moment. Depression most commonly drains you of energy or interrupts your sleep cycle. All disorders have their basis in chemicals and processes the brain naturally uses, so they don’t make you any less human. That is the unity between taking care of your physical and mental health, they physically are inseparable. Your nervous system is expansive throughout your body, like your cardiovascular or lymphatic system. Dehydration doesn’t require drinking only water, you’ve also got to balance other chemicals in your body. Yet, when we attempt to solve mental health problems through drugs or by covering it up, we drink a lot of water. The chemicals remain out of balance. This does not mean medication is always necessary, but it is extremely helpful for those that require it, and research is ongoing into more effective medications
This attitude change was how I was able to change my mindset, the one factor in the progression of mental health that is under your immediate control. While it is important to combat the forces that advance and propagate the stigma around mental health, there are still lingering pieces left in my mind. It scares me to admit that I am not okay. It saddens me that I had to endure this, and continually have to struggle. The worst thing that the stigma does is make those affected search for the magic wand. It turns the speed up on life so that it appears to be difficult to pause and take action. But there is no magic wand to wave away the disorder, to find the right drug on the first try, to have hope. The magic comes from the connection to the immense strength within that appears when you convince yourself that living has much more worth, although it may be difficult at times, than finding a way out that dashes your chances.
It takes more work to change behavior patterns than it does to change your attitude. Changing your attitude is confronting the symptoms, the cycles, and interrupting them. It’s changing a lightbulb. Reframing your perception to influence your reaction is a ground-up process that is necessary, but more timely. It’s changing the energy source for the light. These are both important things to do. Taking care of only the symptoms or the base of the disorder itself is like plugging one leak only to have another appear. They reinforce each other. In order to confront a positive feedback loop, you have to interrupt it, target the two sources of momentum, and handle them with equal effort.
Even on the worst days, I was able to return home to my cat or eat a nice meal. There were still glimmers in the dark that did not discount the existence of the bad. Reminding yourself of that good helps to process the “bad” events because you have practiced processing emotions with something that leaves you happy in the end. Pushing off processing by watching a show or munching on comfort food can be soothing, but they are not healing. You neglect all parts of the day in that case. Reframing means reaching the understanding that panic attacks cannot be stopped once they begin, as you can’t run back in time on this linear progression. You can find ways to ride the wave, to ground yourself, to breathe deeply in order to take control of that response back gradually. Then, once it subsists, it’s important to consider what set it off, what did you feel beforehand (there is often a rise), what you felt during, and then you notice the signs the next time, and can apply the same techniques as aversion principles. This is how I stopped having panic attacks although the triggers were still there.
When I had mononucleosis in August of 2017, I felt, truly, like I was going to be sick for the rest of my life. I fell into a deep emotional rut while I was bedridden in the last two weeks before my tumultuous junior year. While that illness has relapsed, which is rare, I feel so much better than before. Just because you are in a situation does not mean you will always be there, and although it may sound like an “I Know” moment, check if you truly believe it or if you secretly treat it as the opposite. Do you truly support the statement with action?
Does an experience determine your future? No. You determine how you set yourself up to handle the future, and work through it as it comes. Sometimes that requires working through past trauma and experiences, but you can’t change them, only how you treat them and how you use them.
I do not believe that every individual is purely capable of all this effort from the get-go. It takes practice, counseling, reinforcement, gradual introduction, and sometimes medication to truly help. I hope I have been able to at least open your mind to considering this perspective, and that you find success in whatever way you can. It’s been one month since I released my book and I have had two depressive periods and four moments of heightened anxiety that I worked through and failed on. My first reaction was “you’re a published author, why can’t you just be happy?” And, had I let that thought continue, I could have been in a negative mindset again, one not oriented toward growth. But I worked through my emotions, had a good healthy cry, and remembered what I told myself on the release day of my book:
“Your depression is not cured, neither is your anxiety. This book is not the end of all of this emotion, but it’s the path that led to the progress you have made now. You are living the sequel, now. Don’t ever give up.”
The illustration represents the differences in journeys along this path. Sometimes you plateau, sometimes it’s a rocky climb to a good place, sometimes it’s a rounded curve, often it’s an amalgamation of several different progressions.
Thank you so much for supporting my work and my ideas.
Whoever is reading this, I hope that you take care of yourself by prioritizing the climate of your mental health, by advocating for yourself when others or you neglect your mental health, and never sacrifice your happiness.
Originally published at medium.com/tbjwrites