I suffered from depression since I was a child so it seemed logical that this was due to a chemical imbalance. That wasn’t the case. I’m 41 years old now and I’ve been free of depression for a couple of years. I’ve realized that the true cause was situational depression, coupled with not having healthy coping skills, in addition to lack of nutritional and physical care for my body.
Even though I eventually managed to get out of a situation that caused me to experience depression, I held onto the baggage and didn’t heal before I found myself in yet another bad situation. I didn’t have the tools to cope so my thoughts and decisions put me in more difficult situations. In addition to that, life has just thrown some pretty awful and unavoidable stuff at me.
When I was 21, the depression became so bad that I developed Depression Induced Narcolepsy. That’s when I started taking anti-depressants. This helped me a lot at first. Then, as anti-depressants do, they stopped working so the doctor would increase the dosage until it was maxed out, then switch to another one and increase that one until it was maxed out, then add another one and another, and on and on until finally- I was inundated with debilitating side effects and still severely depressed.
I learned that medication can be helpful if it’s used as a booster. I needed something temporarily to get me out of a depression that was so heavy that I would physically shut down. I’d fall asleep anywhere to avoid feeling what I was feeling. I fell asleep while at work and a couple of times at stoplights.
When I was first given medication, it worked so well that the doctor thought that was the only thing I needed- job done. It wasn’t. It was a Band-aid- a much needed Band-aid. I'm not saying there aren't people who need continual medication, but I do believe that a larger amount of people experience what I have. If I had been given the tools to change how I thought and lived during the time the medication was actually working, I would have been well on my way toward mental health.
This would include CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) as well as taking inventory of my life and working through all of the pain I’d experienced with God Who Heals. Eventually, I did the work with God through a National Christian 12-step program called Celebrate Recovery. This program is for anyone who needs emotional healing. On some level, we all do.
Unfortunately, it took almost twenty more years of battling severe depression and side effects to figure out how to live well, free of medication.
I can say that while I don’t experience depression any longer, I still have to be vigilant in practicing daily habits that keep me from falling back into it. When you’ve had a lot of pain in life, you have to prioritize mental health more than others do, which means making it your job to care for yourself every day.
What we spend our time doing is a key component to creating and maintaining mental health. Here are six things you can do regularly to support your emotional well-being.
1. Find a hobby that incorporates as many of these as possible:
a. physical activity
c. produces something of value and/or beauty
An example of this would be making barn doors. This is physical- there’s lifting, moving wood into place, screwing in bolts, etc. It requires your unique creativity. There are so many different ways you can design these- colors, style (rustic, modern), layout, hardware. These doors are both beautiful, and they serve a purpose. You could install them in your house, give them as gifts, or sell them on Etsy. At the end of each project you complete, you’ll have something of which you can be proud. It's an accomplishment. You created something wonderful and unique, and it gives joy to you and/or others.
You don’t have to know how to do something to do it. There are plenty of YouTube videos that show you how to do things. You’ll find a bunch on building barn doors, for instance.
It’s thrilling to learn how to do new things and the thrill is what keeps us moving forward. It's what makes life feel worth it. So you may want to keep switching projects if the excitement of your hobby starts to wear off. This leads me to the next thing.
2. Always have something to look forward to.
This is really important. Several years ago, I noticed that I would only feel happy when I had something to look forward to. Unfortunately, the only thing that I looked forward to was vacationing. Of course, we couldn’t afford to vacation all the time so I’d spend a lot of time planning vacations and trying to talk my husband into going on more than we could afford. What I realized is that I needed to find other things I could look forward to in addition to vacationing, so I didn’t put us in another bad situation.
Here’s how you can do that: try to think of something that you can look forward to in increments of 1 week, 3 months, and 6 months-1 year. If you don’t already have something, then create it.
Your 1-week could be going on a date, going to a community-league sporting event, playing volleyball, having tea in a beautiful garden, feeding the ducks at a local pond, etc. If you can’t think of anything that brings excitement, look on Groupon and try to find something that you’ve never done before. Plan to visit a nearby town or restaurant that you haven’t been to, or do something that scares you (and is safe). Try attending a Toastmasters Club and practicing public speaking or climb an indoor rock wall.
Your 3-month could be a massage, a manicure, a trip to a neighboring state. This should be bigger than you can do on a weekly basis but that doesn’t take a noticeable chunk out of your savings.
Your 6-months to 1-year can be a vacation or something that is a big treat for you.
If you have these short- and long-term things to look forward to, life seems a whole lot sweeter, and you don’t deplete your savings.
3. Volunteer in a way that allows you to experience the joy it brings to others.
Depression is an inward-facing disease. It causes us to focus on ourselves which causes even more pain. We were created to focus on others so when we help people, we just feel better. There are many ways to help others, positions behind the scenes- meaning that you don’t see the people you help. If you’re suffering from depression, it’s important that you don’t serve behind the scenes. You need to be able to experience the joy that your service brings to others.
Serve food to the homeless or the elderly. Walk dogs at a shelter. Sing, read, bring your dog to, or play music at a retirement home. See the faces of the people or animals you’re helping.
4. Work out.
I can’t express how important this is. We were made to move. People who experience depression especially need the endorphins that working out creates. These are natural anti-depressants (without the nasty side-effects) that are released when our blood starts pumping.
5. Spend some time in nature.
We were created to be in nature. I’m not an outdoors person but there is healing in the beauty and serenity that nature provides. Engaging our five senses is a proven way to ground ourselves. This is what Psychologists say to do to bring you out of a panic attack, but it helps with depression too.
Engage your five senses by looking around. Try to notice the smallest details. Watch animals to see how they behave and try to imagine why they’re doing what they do. Listen to the birds and animals, and the leaves rustling in the breeze. Take your shoes off if you can and think about how it feels to stand in the grass or dirt. Touch the trees. Smell the flowers, the grass, and the air. There may not be something you can taste, but feel free to bring a couple of strawberries or other fruit you enjoy.
6. Unplug from social media.
This is something that helped me tremendously. There are some really good things about social media. Unfortunately, it's impossible to fully avoid the unhealthy comparisons and expectations that it creates, as well as the conflict and strife that's looming just beyond the next swipe.
I took a one-year hiatus from social media and noticed that my mood lifted within days of unplugging. If you do choose to get back on or stay on, I’d recommend choosing only a handful of people to follow who post only positive, encouraging messages, and work hard to keep your posts positive and encouraging as well.
I understand how depression can steal your motivation to do anything.
This is a battle. To win, you must fight like your life depends on it- because it does. You have to decide to push through and do these things even if that means that you don’t feel any joy in them. Just doing them is moving forward in changing the way your brain thinks which eventually changes how you feel.
Nutrition is an important factor in healing our brains. Dr. Amen is a Clinical Neuroscientist and Psychiatrist who has written many great books like Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, that explains how environmental factors change our brains, complete with pictures of brain scans to prove it.
Dr. Caroline Leaf is another good one to follow for more information. She has podcasts and books that discuss the daily practices that result in mental health and brain function.
Of course, it’s important to find a counselor who can work with you in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and I hope you’ll find a Celebrate Recovery near you to attend. This program was the biggest catalyst for change for me. I would not be where I am today without it.
Look to the God Who Saves. He is the God who gives you strength and hope to push through until you find the light again. He has pulled me out of a hopeless pit of darkness. Living for Him has shown me how to be fully alive. He’ll do the same for you if you seek Him fully.
Be well, my friends. You've got this!
What are your go-to activities to keep you going strong in your mental health? I'd love to hear about them in the comments!
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