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I have put off sharing my experiences with mental illness for a long time because I wanted to be “fixed” before I could feel like I was in a place to be giving advice to others.
I would have felt like a fraud to be telling others how things can get better, when I kept taking the odd step backward with my own mental health.
But here’s the secret: there is no “fixed,” and that is OK.
There isn’t a black and white divide between being happy and struggling through. And that is why we need to learn to give ourselves a break when we stumble or have a bad day, or a bad month. It’s OK.
I have always been a deeply private person; feeling more comfortable listening than holding the attention of others.
However, when I see others suffering, I feel that there is a greater need to do what I can to give those people out there some advice, and a bit of hope. So I’ve decided to put my privacy aside for this article.
That’s why I’d like to share my experiences with mental illness, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I hope it helps even one person feel less alone.
It’s thanks to my own support network as well as a much-needed push after reading Navah Hopkins’ great article on Search Engine Journal which inspired me to finally show this post the light of day, after years of going backward and forward between writing out my thoughts only to back out and scrap them.
My Experiences with Clinical Depression & Anxiety
I started experiencing symptoms of severe clinical depression at the age of 15.
As someone well-versed in hiding my emotions, I have always noted the surprise on doctors’ faces — both on the day of my diagnosis and on multiple occasions over the years — when I would come into their office with the most convincing smile and politeness I could muster, and then score in the mid-20s on the NHS Depression in Adults questionnaire.
Alongside depression, my anxiety levels soon started creeping up and I have been struggling with a combination of both for more than 10 years now.
Depression and anxiety are a really difficult combination to deal with.
The depression will sap you of your drive and energy, and the anxiety will be sending you waves of panic because you aren’t being as high-functioning as you could be.
The two are at constant war with one another. You’re sinking further underwater and losing touch with the world around you, but also feeling alarm bells ringing inside at the same time.
This is something I still struggle with, but where I am now compared to where I was 10 years ago is astonishing when I stop and think about it.
I was a very unhappy and lost teenager who couldn’t see a way forward for myself. I felt that applying to university would be dishonest because I didn’t see a future for myself, and I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time as I didn’t think I’d be around long enough to actually go.
I did apply, however. And with a combination of multiple visits to the campus doctor, a course of strong antidepressants and postponing my final year and graduating a year later than expected, I made it through with a degree to show for it.
My journey into technical SEO hasn’t been all smooth sailing, which I have written about previously. However, I have now reached a point in my career where I’m really proud of what I have achieved.
I have developed the internal strength and mental control to face new challenges, such as publishing articles and research pieces to wide audiences, as well as delivering technical talks at digital marketing conferences around the world.
By no means has this journey been easy; my progress has been down to a number of different factors that I have had to work really hard at over the years.
That’s why I’ve decided to put together some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned through my own experiences, in the hope that they can help others.
1. Open up & Talk
This is the first and most important step to getting better.
I know it can be overwhelming to consider letting someone else know how you’re feeling inside, because they’ll never understand and they’ll think you’re ‘crazy,’ right?
The people who matter will want to help you, and they will not judge you or see you any differently.
I’ve been surprised by how understanding people have been when I’ve told them about my illness, whether that’s family members, friends, or even bosses. It can be scary to strike up that conversation, but you’ll feel so much better once it’s out in the open.
Choose a few select people to tell about your illness and build your own support network of people who will be there to check in on you.
This will help to start clearing those feelings of loneliness, and your network will also be able to provide you with the support you need to go and talk to a doctor who will be able to help you plan out your recovery strategy.
2. Practice Mindfulness
This has been one of the most effective methods that have helped me over the years.
I’ve attended a variety of different types of therapy sessions in my time, but something really clicked for me in one particular CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) session.
I was given a thought sheet, which is a piece of paper with different columns where you write down your worry or negative thought, and then fill in the following details:
At face value, I thought this was a basic method that wouldn’t be useful. I initially thought I would humor the therapist by trying it out.
However, the first time I filled it out I was able to see how unwell I really was and how unhealthy my existing mental processes were.
At that point, I had gone through 23 years of my life by letting my mind run completely wild with negative thoughts, never once pulling them up and questioning their validity.
But once I could write them down on paper and see a blank column for “facts that support the unhelpful thought” and a full column for “facts that provide evidence against the unhelpful thought,” everything changed.
Writing down your thoughts is step one, the next step is to practice this process internally, which is also known as mindfulness.
Restructuring the way you think is a challenge, but it’s essential to be able to live a happier, healthier life.
It can feel really alien at first to monitor your own brain for negative thoughts and then work through them one at a time, but it does work and starts to become a normal part of the way you think.
It takes practice and perseverance. Trust me.
Thinking about your own thoughts can feel exhausting at first. Training your mind in this way can feel like exercising a muscle that you’ve never used before.
But over time it gets easier, and the process becomes more immediate. When negative thoughts crop up you’ll be able to cut right into your internal dialogue with questions such as:
- “Is there any evidence that I’m doing a bad job?”
- “What about the time that x complimented me on my performance?”
3. Find an Exercise Routine That Works for You
When I’m feeling down, the last thing I want to do is leave the house, let alone physically exert myself.
But I always feel so much better once I’ve forced myself to go for a run or attend a gym class. It helps you push the reset button on your brain and return to the rest of your day with a calmer mind.
I’m someone who is really motivated by seeing progression, so signing up to a gym near my house has been great for me.
There are some classes that run through similar combinations of moves each week, and I’m able to see myself progressing as certain moves get easier for me each session, which gives me a real sense of accomplishment.
Push yourself to get out of the house a few times a week and go for a walk, a run, or a swim, anything. Just go and do something that can get your endorphins flowing. You’ll thank yourself for it once you’ve finished.
4. Give Yourself a Break
Don’t beat yourself up for having a tough time. This is where having anxiety can be a real problem when you have a low mood, as it fills you with overwhelming thoughts that you don’t have time to feel sad and that you’re letting yourself and everyone else around you down for not being at your best.
First of all, stop and breathe.
Whenever I feel like this, I practice a simple breathing exercise. Three slow, deep breaths. That’s it. This always works wonders for me and helps me reset.
Secondly, this is perfectly normal. Every single one of us struggles from time to time.
Recognize when you’re feeling overwhelmed and just take a step back and practice some self-care until you feel like yourself again.
Take some time to rest as well as doing some of the things you enjoy. I know that depression can rob you of your ability to enjoy things, but taking a break to rest first really helps to open me up to more positive feelings.
A “self-care” day will look different for everyone.
For example, my ideal rest day would probably involve a lie in, playing video games, a yoga session, a bubble bath, and a walk in nature where I can pet some dogs.
If I’ve had a tough day, my partner will take me out on a walk to our local park to look at dogs. It’s simple but it works every time!
5. Give Back
Nothing can pull me out of a dark place like seeing someone else hurting. Helping someone else with their problems can transport you away from your own darkness.
Make a note to check in with the people you care about every now and again and see if there’s any way you can support them.
We all like to brush things off and say that everything is fine, so instigating a genuine conversation with someone about how they’re feeling can be incredibly impactful. It’s important that we all take the time to acknowledge and check in with each other on a deeper level.
As well as helping people in your immediate network, think about other ways in which you can use your own experiences to give advice and support to others struggling with mental illness. It might be starting a blog on mental health, or raising money for charities like Mind or Samaritans, for example.
As painful as it can be to suffer from a mental illness, I believe that it gives you the superpower of enhanced empathy.
You know what it’s like to hurt, so you have a heightened sense of the pain in others and wanting to help them feel better so they don’t have to experience the kinds of things that you yourself have felt.
Embrace your powers and share them with the people around you.
I’ve made a lot of progress with managing my mental health up until this point, but I’m not completely “fixed,” as this is an unhealthy idea that isn’t realistic.
Instead of striving for a place of perfection, we need to keep working toward being more understanding and forgiving of ourselves over time.
This post originally was published on Medium, and has been republished with permission of the author.
Screenshot taken by author, August 2019
In-Post Image: Max van den Oetelaar/Unsplash