Okay, so this blog entry has been in my drafts for…months? Years? Honestly, it would have been more helpful to post this last spring, when we were all reeling from the new pandemic-y world we were living in, but I was also reeling so it’s getting posted now.
VERY IMPORTANT DISCLOSURE: I AM NOT A THERAPIST. I am not an expert in mental health. I’m sharing the things I’ve learned from years of being IN therapy and living with Major Depressive Disorder, studying brain/nervous system function because I’m a nerd, reading books, and following a bunch of Instagram accounts about mental health. None of this should be considered professional advice. I’m only sharing what is helpful for me, and the reasons behind those things. If you can afford it, I highly recommend speaking with a professional.
I also have to recognize the irony of me posting this at a moment when my own mental health is not great, but whatever.
Okay. So here’s one of the most helpful things I’ve ever done for my mental health: have a cheat sheet. I’ll share mine, and also a “blank” one for your own use, and you’re welcome to adapt it in any way you see fit! Here are the details on mine, and the reasons behind making it.
When we’re in crisis, big or small, it’s really hard to think clearly. Our brains are too busy trying to keep us safe/alive to be able to do some higher executive function task like make a list of what we need and then figure out what to do to meet those needs. So in moments of non-crisis, you can pre-make that list and keep it handy for when the crisis moments hit.
I’ve organized mine into linear steps, because most of the time, this “order of operations” works really well for me. Here's my "life buoy"/mental health cheat sheet:
Step One: Breathe. Breathing intentionally and deeply helps calm your nervous system down when you’re feeling anxious or stressed, and definitely won’t hurt if you’re feeling depressed. For me, breathing is a good way to sort of tune back in to the present moment, and primes my brain for whatever else I need to do.
Step Two: Check in on the basic needs. Have you eaten, slept, and/or moved your body recently? I can’t tell you how many deep emotional crises I’ve had that were solved with a snack and a nap. BECAUSE WE ARE ALL TODDLERS. At least I am. And even when the crisis wasn’t SOLVED with a snack and a nap, those things always help shrink the crisis down to a more manageable size. Our brain function is impaired when we don’t eat or sleep, so providing it with those things helps us get the right neurons firing again. As far as moving your body, a 20-minute walk or 10-minute yoga session can also help calm your nervous system. There’s this crazy cool thing where bilateral stimulation (left-right movement) calms the vagus nerve, which sounds woo-woo but is actually true(-woo). If you’re not able to meet those needs for food, sleep, and movement right away, then remind yourself that these things are probably exacerbating whatever crisis is happening.
Step Three: If breathing, snacking, sleeping, and moving aren’t helping quite enough, move on to the more specific needs. Some of the questions and answers on this list are pretty specific to me, but some are more universal. Sometimes waiting a few days is the best thing to do. And while my reminder about hormones is specific to menstruation, most humans experience hormone fluctuations regardless of gender or sex. If you’ve recently made a change to your meds, that may also affect your mood.
Step Four: If it turns out that there isn’t anything specific going on, or if you’re not able to fix the circumstances making you unhappy (*cough* pandemic *cough*), or your brain just isn’t making the helpful chemicals, then move on to the go-to self-care activities. Feel free to take suggestions from my list, and add your own!
Step Five: Get some professional help. If you’re consistently in “crisis,” or if the crisis is deep enough that none of the other things are helping, turn yourself over to the experts. As a reminder, crisis hotlines aren’t just for those who are contemplating self-harm in the moment—it’s for those who just need some help through whatever’s going on. And sometimes the hospital is the best choice to help get you on your feet again. I stayed in a psychiatric hospital for a few days back in 2017, and it was challenging but truly one of the best things I’ve ever done. It saved my life. Having info on your local psychiatric unit on hand is helpful because if you’re in crisis, you may not be able to think clearly enough to look it all up.
Thought that’s not included on the mental health cheat sheet, but that I think is really important: There’s a difference between distraction and processing. Both have their place, but it’s really helpful to note which you’re doing, when, and why. Distraction is doing something in your mind/body that helps regulate your nervous system and bring you down to a kind of “stasis.” Sometimes it’s intentionally moving away from whatever the issue is, but for me it’s helpful to think of it as calming yourself enough to process later. Processing is doing something in your mind/body that allows you to work through an issue. (I’m learning, much to my dismay, that if something needs to be processed, I can do it now or I can do it later, but it’ll need to be done at some point, and if I don’t do it now, it might affect my relationships and self-worth in the long run, so if I can, I might as well do it now. Even then, I still sometimes need some time to calm down with distraction.)
Please feel free to take what works for you from this, and disregard the rest! (And also, please please please remember that I’m not a therapist! I’m only sharing what has been helpful for me. I cannot speak for others, and I definitely cannot speak for the psychological community.)
Here are a few other resources that have been helpful for me!
BOOK: “Burnout” by Emily and Amelia Nagosky
BOOK: “The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook” by Edmund Bourne
BOOK: “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk
APP: Calm Harm
APP: Yoga Studio (by Gaiam)
IDEA: Attachment Theory
And here's a blank version of my print out! It's 11 x 17 inches, because that was a standard printing size that was also big enough to write things clearly and largely enough.