This post is inspired by Bell Let’s Talk Day. I acknowledge it’s problematic, as Bell’s corporate culture does not adequately support mental health, and talking about mental health one day a year does not undo stigma and marginalization the rest of the year–but I also do think the hashtag should be utilized for the funding Bell gives to organizations devoted to mental health support.
Hi all! Let’s talk mental health! For those who have been following this blog for a while, or who know me personally, you’ll know that mental health is a topic dear to my heart–because I live it. My story is a long one, but the pertinent details are this: I’m on the autism spectrum, with resultant dyspraxia, anxiety, and depression. I showed signs of suicidal ideation as early as 8 years old, and I continue fighting against struggles arising from fear, despair, and shame in my personal life.
I’ve been in and out of counseling since the age of 10, and I’ve been on a variety of medications since the age of 8. So, given that I’ve been wrestling with these issues for most of my 28 years, I thought today would be the perfect opportunity to share some of the things I’ve learned in the hopes that they will be of some help to others. Note that I am by no means, saying I have all the answers–indeed, the mental health journey by necessity is unique to each individual and each treatment must be catered to the individual. By the law of averages however, my tips and tricks should be helpful to at least a few people out there. It is in this hope that I delve in now.
Nitty-Gritty: Things I’ve Learned, Things That Helped Me, Things That Have Helped Others I Know
If you take one piece of advice, I recommend this one. Given all of my struggles with mental health, as well as dyspraxia and gastrointestinal upset, I largely viewed both my mind and my body as enemies and felt my real strength came from my soul. However, over the past 10 years I’ve come to love my body and acknowledge the benefit of exercise, movement etc. I now do 40 minute walks and a nightly workout routine daily, attend weekly Tai Chi classes year round and do Tai Chi in the park on every clear day in the spring, summer, and fall, and also work in some running, swimming, and dancing when I have the time. I’ve embraced and explored my sexuality in ways that align with my values, and I’ve vastly improved my diet in an attempt to address blood sugar imbalances.
The biggest thing that was an obstacle in learning to love my body was my own fear of judgment and shame. As an non-athletic boy in rural Ontario, I was ostracized for many years precisely because my body didn’t perform to the expectations of others. I became afraid of putting myself out there, of trying to do anything with my body that would bring on derision. I thought that if I developed my mental capacities, I’d be able to will my body to do anything.
When I got to university though, I realized I needed to move, to be active–and indeed, I had not realized how active I had been. I still thought of myself as weak, especially compared to my brothers, but I realized I needed movement to keep my anxiety levels down. The summer after my first year of university, I told a counselor that I struggled with sitting meditation and much preferred moving meditation, and she acknowledged that made sense given how high my anxiety levels were. When I returned to university in my second year, I resolved to ignore the derision of others and just do my best for my own health. As I did so, I became more and more comfortable in my body. From there, though the journey was far from smooth at times, I continued along my fitness journey and reached the active state I’m in today.
So, my takeaway is this: get moving. Walk, run, dance, swim, skate–it doesn’t matter. Just get some movement in for 30 minutes to an hour each day, and see how your life and your relationship with your body begins to change. And what’s really amazing is that your mental health will be greatly helped too.
In the neurodiverse community, we know how important dopamine is. Our dopamine is connected to executive functioning, emotional regulation, motivation, organization and much more. Yet our dopamine is also produced at lower rates and depleted more quickly than the neurotypical community. Even if you’re not neurodiverse, extra dopamine is generally a good thing. The good news is producing more dopamine is super-easy: dopamine is a reward hormone, so whenever you do something that gives you pleasure, dopamine is being released. Now, obviously, you don’t want to do something pleasurable to the exclusion of all else–as addictions and obsessions will ultimately disorder your life if left unchecked. But if you’re feeling emotional regulation slipping, struggling with motivation, or organization, consider doing something pleasurable to raise your dopamine levels because it’s a good first troubleshooting step.
Come As You Are…Now
Perhaps one of the most important things to keep in mind in dealing with mental health is that, you, as you are, are of unique and infinite worth. Sure, there may be areas of your life you can improve in, that you want to change—but those hopes and desires for the future you do not invalidate the worth of who you are, right now–nor do the guilts and shames and failures of the past invalidate the worth of who you are, right now. My anxiety and depression and the old suicidal ideation all arose and arise from an excessive focus on the past and future, and an insufficient focus on the present. Having hopes and dreams for the future is normal and even helpful to an extent–as long as you keep your focus in the present, on taking the next right step towards those what you hope for and don’t despair if that hope seems far, far away from reality. Having regrets about the failures of the past is also normal and even helpful to an extent–if you realize that those failures do not define you, that you can use the lessons you learned to grow and achieve more than you ever thought possible and that you don’t lose focus on the present, on avoiding what missteps you can now, and taking responsibility and making amends when you do so–without shame, and with the acknowledgment that to be human is to fail again and again. The key is to pick yourself up and keep walking afterwards.
Find Your Purpose
This is the final bit of advice I’ll leave you with. Vulnerability and shame researcher, Brene Brown, has found that those who are most resilient to shame have a heavy dollop of spirituality in their lives. This does not mean one has to be religious–rather, they are part of something larger, something that they find worthy and even sacred. Finding something to fight for, to live for–a purpose in other words–can be of immense help to your mental health, because it gives meaning to one’s life and something to work toward.
I hope that helps at least someone out there. I leave you now with a verse from the Bible, my own faith tradition. I first encountered mention of this lovely poem when I was 10 in a moving scene from All The Weyrs of Pern by Anne McCaffrey. I later encountered them in an entire Star Trek: The Next Generation mini-series of novels set in the lead-up to Star Trek: Nemesis. I eventually learned of the greater context, and for some reason this lovely poem has been a source of repeated solace in difficult times and I have come to carry the message of these words deep in my heart:
“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time do dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war and a time for peace.”
–Ecc 3:1-8, NRSV