I have been writing about some of my experiences with depression and anxiety the last several posts. During that time, I received several messages from people telling me that by opening up I have helped them, which was my main intention with sharing such personal feelings and emotions. With many of these messages, I am being told how brave I am for sharing. I am not brave, I am simply on a journey to bring awareness to mental illness and break down the stigmas that go with this disease. It’s a journey, if you will, of self-discovery and truth. This is my truth, and I am not embarrassed to tell it, so there really is no bravery involved. I have always said, “Take me for who I am, or don’t take me at all.” It’s as simple as that.
With saying that, I am happy that people are connecting with my thoughts, and I would now like to share a post on what I have done to cope and build resilience. I am not a counselor, but I can share a lifetime of experience discovering what works to help with my depression and anxiety. Please keep in mind that this is my journey and you will have your own, but sharing ideas about how to deal with the darkness in a healthy way is crucial. Building resilience, being able to bounce back from adversity, is a must!
Some of my writings may appear like I am constantly depressed or being drowned in fear by anxiety. That is not true. I am ultimately a happy person that is grateful for the life I have, even the mental illness that comes with it. There have been moments in my life where I do feel like I am lost in the darkness of my mind or in the whirlwind of fear that anxiety brings, but overall, I live a happy life. The reason for this is that I have found ways to cope and recover, always trying to move forward and learn from my depression and anxiety. It has taught me a lot about myself.
I’ll attempt to break down what has helped me in hopes it helps you, too.
Exercise: I am a firm believer that our physical self directly impacts our mental self. There is plenty of research that states how exercise can have the equivalent, positive effect of antidepressants. I have been exercising since I was a little kid. I remember when I was seven, my parents bought me a weight set. I placed the weights on the tiny barbell, lifted it over my head, and fell straight back on the kitchen floor. However, I was hooked on becoming more fit from that day on. The types of exercise that I enjoy are: Mountain biking, trail running, hiking, strength exercises (mostly bodyweight), functional movement, boxing, jump roping, and yoga.
Starting a new exercise routine can be difficult for many. To me, it is a lifestyle. I truly enjoy exercising, pushing my body to perform, and the feeling it brings when those endorphins come dancing. My advice to those that are new to exercise or getting back into it is take it slow. You do not have to workout every day for an hour to reap the benefits. Even twenty minutes, three times per week will bring plenty of rewards. However, once you find a form of exercise that works for you, and it becomes routine, along with the mental and physical benefits, I bet you will make it an integral part of your life too. Try walking in the woods. The Japanese call it Forest Bathing. Being among the trees and in nature will help you become calm, rejuvenate, and restore your mind and body. I often go hiking and do a bunch of calisthenics and isometrics along the trail. By the time I am finished, I’ve had the experience of walking among the trees while breathing deeply and doing bodyweight exercises. Inevitably, I feel better at the trail’s end.
There is one form of exercise that I will spend a little more time on because the benefits are almost magical, and that is yoga. I started to go to yoga with my wife years ago and then I stopped for awhile for various reasons. Recently, I started my yoga journey again. My goal is to incorporate yoga into my other workout routines. When I step onto my mat and start focusing on my breathing and movement, I relieve my mind from dark thoughts and fears or the annoying issues of my work day. Yoga is a respite from daily life, but more importantly, it’s now part of my life. I love how yoga often starts with setting your intention or dedication. When I do this, I realize what I am grateful for and hold that intention throughout class. I often dedicate my practice to those I love and often to those that I know are struggling. When I am done with class, I am soaked in sweat, tired from holding my bodyweight up for an hour or more, and euphoric. Yoga is a gift to my mind and body. I highly recommend anyone suffering from mental illness to try it. However, give your yoga practice time because it is a journey, and the journey is the destination.
Nutrition: What we put into our bodies is directly related to how we feel. I eat mostly plant based meals for my nutrition. What does this mean? No, I am not vegan. I simply make sure that most of the food I eat is vegetables and fruit, followed by some lean protein. For instance, I fill a large bowl with plenty of leafy greens, berries, avocado, carrots, and a lean protein (chicken, pasture raised eggs, grass fed meat). I also have smoothies for breakfast that are filled with greens like kale and spinach, along with celery and cucumber, and then plenty of berries, fermented beets, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds. I snack on nuts, dark chocolate, and fruit. I certainly have my vices like coffee and I enjoy red wine and craft beer. I love going out to eat, but I try to choose 90% of my meals in a plant based, healthy way. Again, what we put in our bodies is directly connected to our minds. Change your eating for a month and see the difference in how you feel.
Therapy: When I was thirty-one, I fell into one of the darkest depressions of my life. I had suicidal ideation, and if there is such a thing as hitting rock bottom, I was crashing into jagged boulders. This was the first time I decided to try therapy. I found a gentleman on the west side of Madison, met him once, and then decided therapy wasn’t for me. At the time, I had plenty of my own stigmas about therapy. I figured I was being weak if I sought help. I was a strong man after all and I could handle all of my problems myself. Well, this strong man ended up crashing harder, so I sought the same therapist out six-months later. I have been with him ever since. He has truly saved my life. He started to teach me about my schemas that he was recognizing, and now I am an expert on recognizing them myself. He also taught me about cognitive therapy, which gave me a deeper understanding of my thoughts and why I was having them. Recently, we have been working on acceptance and commitment therapy. Therapy was a gift that I gave to myself because it has made me more aware of who I am. I am now able to process the thoughts that bring darkness or fear to my mind and work through them in a rational way. I am thankful that I found therapy and thankful for my therapist. My wife has never met him, but she often states that if she ever meets him she will give him a big hug because she knows how much he has helped her husband. My suggestion to you is give therapy a try. Find a therapist and go several times, and then make sure he or she is a good fit for you and your needs. If he or she isn’t, keep searching. A good one is out there, waiting to guide you to your own deeper awareness of yourself. The hell with the stigmas of being weak if you seek help. My therapist is one of the reasons why I am stronger today.
Acupuncture: I started to go to acupuncture during the height of my anxiety. I was desperate to try anything and I read where a good acupuncturist may be able to help. I found a woman from Beijing, China who had an office close to my work at the time. She took a very different approach to helping me heal than my doctors did. I could certainly tell the needles were opening meridians and whatever else they did. I’m actually not entirely sure what she did to me but, like I said, I was desperate for relief. In truth, acupuncture did a lot to help with my depression and anxiety. It was also where I was introduced to tumeric, which I now take daily. I am a firm believer in taking a whole body approach to coping with mental illness. Give it a try! The needles don’t hurt.
Gratitude: During my horrible bout of anxiety a few years ago, the type of anxiety that made me feel like I was actually going to go crazy and end up in an institution, never to feel “normal” again, I started to keep a gratitude journal. I would wake up most days, read the writings of Thich Nhat Hahn (more on him in a moment), and write in a journal about what I was grateful for. I would hold my gratitude close all day long, remembering what truly mattered in my life. Being grateful can bring up all sorts of positive emotions, and wouldn’t that serve us all well?
Mindfulness: Again, during my months of intense anxiety I was desperate for relief. I happened to come upon a man named Thich Nhat Hahn. After I started reading his words and thoughts, I devoured and swallowed his ideas on mindfulness. It just made sense. Through his readings, I started to practice being in the moment because thinking of the past can bring depression and the future anxiety. The present is where we are currently living and the only thing we can control. Along with being in the moment, Thay (as the Buddist call him), taught me that we cannot have happiness without suffering, and if we deny our suffering we are denying ourselves, which will make it worse. Acceptance is key! We need to accept our suffering, be in the present with it, “say hello to it,” and then let it go. He also taught me how to breathe. Yes, I was breathing in and out daily, but I was not being mindful of my breath. I learned to breathe long and slow in and out of my nose, possibly saying, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” I have now learned to breathe long, slow, and deep while walking, running, practicing yoga, reading, working, and basically all day long. A simple thing like breathing correctly, has helped me be in the moment, relieve my anxiety and stress, and become more aware. If I am in a conversation with someone, I practice my breathing because it brings me into the moment and I am truly listening to them, and how often do we listen to one another with intent? One of the greatest gifts that I received from Thay’s readings and practicing mindfulness is the idea of impermanence. Nothing is permanent. Our lives, relationships, loved ones, health, age, the list goes on. This also includes our depression and anxiety. It may seem simple, but how many of you fear things that are truly not in your control because they are not permanent? Accepting this was key to coping with my anxiety and starting to live in the moment, which has enhanced the quality of my life. Mindfulness is a powerful coping mechanism and it will help you build resilience. I suggest reading, “No Mud, No Lotus,” by Thich Nhat Hahn. However, there are plenty of readings on mindfulness. I was lucky to find the master and be open enough to accept and learn from him. It’s amazing how someone that I have never met has become one of my greatest teachers.
Writing: I am a writer. It took me a long time to say this because I thought I had to be published to be considered a writer. This simply is not true. Even though I am now published and my book is launching in March, I have actually been a writer since my twenties. Writing short stories and poems and essays has always been a way to express my thoughts and ideas. As an educator, I have encouraged our young people to write and have tried to convince them that they have a voice and should get their thoughts out. Writing and expression are powerful! However, now that I have a book coming out, I do feel vulnerable. I am sure there will be critics but it is my story and my characters that I brought to life, so the vulnerability is worth it. Put pencil to paper or place your fingers on the keyboard and get those thoughts out of your mind. They want to come to life. Carpe Diem!
Work: I have tried to place myself into a job where there is less stress. Every job will have a level of stress, but I have been in some positions that the intensity was unbearable for the long-term. As an educator, I always need to emphasise that my stress is not often student related. My kids actually help my mental health because of the joy they bring and I feel like I am doing something worthwhile with my life by helping others. However, in education, you can run into many toxic situations and people, and that obviously can happen in any career field. Stay away from them as much as you can! The negativity of others will drain you and cause your schemas to go wild.
Simplify: I strive to keep my life as simple as possible. Material things have never mattered to me. Having too much shit, I believe, can add to your stress and hinder your mental health. After all, it’s just possessions that are impermanent. Declutter your life and it may just declutter your mind.
Travel: Experiencing new places can show you the beauty of life. Not all that wander are lost.
Love: Love as much as you can. Being in love can be exhilarating! When you find someone that loves you for who you are, it’s a blessing and will automatically make you grateful. I hear and see people in our society today, and I worry because I think that many have forgotten what love is about. It’s not about controlling another person, having a financial partner so you can buy a bigger house, or staying with someone because it’s better than being alone. When you find a true love, you will be excited to wake up in the morning to see them. You will want to experience life together and not just muddle through your days wishing for retirement. You will have your own language and know every contour of each others shape. You will know it’s a privilege to grow old together and appreciate the wrinkles as much as you appreciated their youth. You will want to be in their presence because you know that with them you are a better self. With love, brings greater awareness, mindfulness, and enhances your mental health.
Pets: Dogs and cats can be incredibly calming. If that’s your thing, get a furry companion. Dogs live in the moment, and if you pay close enough attention, can teach you about mindfulness and living.
Emotional Intelligence: Emotional Intelligence is how well a person can read and monitor their own emotions as well as the emotions of others. There are proven benefits to increasing one’s emotional intelligence, including improved mental health, better job performance, and better relationships. Emotional intelligence can be closely linked with empathy and allows us to better express ourselves and be mindful of others. I am a feeler. I have also been told that I am an empath. Because of this, my therapist has warned me to be careful when interacting with others, politics at work, and secondary trauma and compassion fatigue. Still, the number one trait of a good leader, spouse, friend, and educator is emotional intelligence. As I mentioned, it can do wonders for your mental health because you bring awareness to your emotions. For some, emotional intelligence comes easy. They are the ones with a great deal of empathy. However, there are others that will struggle to develop their emotional intelligence and become more aware of their feelings and others. These are the people I would be careful around because they will never understand you. I recently had a conversation with someone who said, “I was surprised how much of a feeler you are.” It seemed, at the moment, that they thought being a feeler and having emotional intelligence is a weakness. If anything, it’s helped me connect with others on a deeper level and understand myself more. As important as emotional intelligence can be, approach with caution because you will feel the world, everything that is good and bad, and it can drain you.
Sleep: I am still working on good sleep hygiene and insomnia affects me as it does many with depression and anxiety. Getting adequate sleep is crucial for coping and having the mental capacity to work on everything else on this list.
I have managed to build resilience and keep moving forward through all the muck in my life by practicing the coping skills that I have shared. There is a hard truth with depression and anxiety, and life in general, and it is that no one is going to come save you. You can have all the support and love in the world, but you have to be the one that picks yourself up and keep going. You are the one that has to put the work in to help yourself and seek help. I have always said that my depression and anxiety has allowed me to build incredible resilience, become more emotionally intelligent, and stronger. In many ways, I am thankful for the darkness because it’s taught me how to get to the light and be grateful of the times when I am happiest.
I will end with this, build your toolbox, your coping skills while you are feeling good because it can be extremely difficult and emotionally taxing when you are in the midst of depression and anxiety. If you practice your coping skills on most days, it becomes muscle memory and you will more likely be able to reach for the things that help you when your mind is telling you to fuck off. Instead, you will survive, and even thrive, knowing that you managed to pull yourself through an extremely difficult situation. Building your coping strategies gives you confidence to endure. Peace!