I know what you’re thinking (because I’m a cynical bitch, too):
Who is this girl on the internet, and why is she writing some listicle about how to improve your mental health? Didn’t Dr. Phil and celebrity yoga instructors kind of corner that market already?
Well, first of all, hi. Before I get into who I am, and what my deal is, let’s clear up who I’m not.
- Your good-intentioned friend who genuinely thinks water will cure your depression
- Your old roommate selling magical unicorn happy supplements to pay off student loan debt
- Your doctor – medical, psychiatric, or otherwise
- Some girl on the internet named Meg
- A college grad with a psych degree and a nerdy streak, including a healthy love of research + words
- The lucky owner of a variety pack of mental health disorders (#blessed)
Why Am I Writing This?
I’m not a mental health professional, but I am a semi-pro sick person.
Long story short, stuff got pretty bad by the end of 2017. I was pretty much at that kill yourself or get your shit together point, which you might recognize as not the best headspace to be in.
But honestly? Things are getting better. Not on their own or anything easy like that. But because I’ve spent the last six weeks basically throwing potential solutions at the wall and hoping that something sticks. It’s a very scientific process.
So this is a list of a few things – big and small – that have helped make 2018 feel a little bit lighter and more hopeful for me so far. Because sometimes you need to make a big change to see a big change, and sometimes a well-timed craft coffee beverage can make you feel a little better for a little bit (even if it’s just the sugar rush).
10 Things That Might Actually Improve Your Mental Health (Because They Helped Me)
1. Getting sober-ish
Last year, alcohol was fucking everything up for me. Or, I was fucking everything up for myself using alcohol. But, either way, alcohol = not great when you already want to kill yourself. I was drinking way, way too much and everything felt really, really bad. I spent the better part of last year trying everything for my mental health but sobriety. Because priorities.
I finally got sober on New Year’s Day after a long time fighting the idea, and then I got un-sober two weeks later. Then I got sober again. For three weeks. Do you see where this is going? I don’t have a 90-day chip to show anyone or anything like that, but I’ve spent about 90% of 2018 sober so far and it’s actually been amazing.
What happened? Well, it turns out I don’t have an anxiety disorder – there was just a ton of alcohol messing with my nervous system on the daily. I haven’t self-harmed at all this year. I’ve scored closer to the “mild depression” side of things than the “severe depression – please get professional help, like, yesterday. What is wrong with you?” scale on screening tests.
But, mostly? I’m actually starting to remember what it feels like to like things, to want to do things, to feel alive and present and grateful and excited about the future. So, I mean, if you’re already your friends’ DD, that’s awesome, but if not, maybe try it out for a week and see what happens. It can’t be any worse than whatever you’re feeling already, right?
2. Essential oils
It’s hilarious that I’m so into essential oils because I have almost no sense of smell. Which comes in handy when half your job involves changing diapers. But there’s something to be said for the sensory experience of making your room smell like a boutique yoga studio.
If you’re a psych nerd like me, then you also know that there is a link between our sense of smell and our emotions. So, yeah, it is possible to trick your brain into feeling (at least a little) happier, calmer, more energized, or more relaxed with the right essential oils. Yay for quick fixes.
3. Getting a hobby (yes, for real)
By late 2017 my pool of hobbies was pretty much reduced to getting drunk and watching The Good Place on repeat. It turns out, not doing stuff tends to make you feel tired and sad. Who knew, right? My strategy so far this year has been to (try to) focus my energy on just a few hobbies so I don’t feel overwhelmed. Apparently, doing stuff you like is an important part of learning to like yourself and your life.
For me, what’s helped has been doing stuff that:
- Gives me the opportunity to learn and get better
- Requires a commitment in advance (I literally never go to drop-in classes, but I know I’ll show up to a class I already paid for)
- Makes me feel like part of a community
- Challenges me to do something I didn’t think I could do before
4. Reaching out to people
Does this sound familiar? You’re tired and convinced everyone hates you, so you don’t reach out to anyone because you don’t want to bother them, but then people stop reaching out to you, which proves that everyone hates you, and you continue not reaching out to people (because they hate you), and you continue feeling tired and convinced that everyone hates you.
Just for a second, pretend that the people on your contact list actually don’t hate you. Maybe some of them even like you (not Matt from that party freshman year. He hates you. Why do you even have his number still? Delete that.) In an insane moment of courage, text one of these people. Schedule a phone call (no, don’t just cold-call them right now. What are you, a monster?) Make plans to get coffee. Send them a funny picture of your dog. I’m not your boss.
You can also file this under the whole “doing stuff you like to build a life you like” category. Cuz friendship.
5. CBT (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy)
If you can get into therapy with an actual, real, flesh and blood mental health professional, do that. That’s what they went to school for. Most of them are really good at what they do (I’ve heard). For various reasons, actual therapy isn’t an option for me right now, so I did what any other somewhat fucked-up 20-something in my position would do: Online CBT.
If you’re not familiar with CBT, you can read more about it here, but basically, it helps you change your not-so-helpful thoughts and behaviors into more helpful thoughts and behaviors. As a result, you start to feel better and function better.
The program I’ve been using is called Learn to Live (they didn’t give me money or anything btw. I actually gave them money. That’s how commerce works), but there are definitely more programs out there if you’re interested in online CBT.
Oh, and CBT isn’t just for depression. Research suggests that CBT can help people dealing with anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, substance abuse, PTSD, bipolar disorder, BPD, phobias, insomnia, and even physical health problems like chronic pain or chronic fatigue syndrome.
I haven’t finished the program yet, but CBT is how I started this whole glowing up my mental health 2k18 thing. The skills I’ve been learning and practicing each week have actually helped me make tangible changes in my life (including most of the stuff on this list), so it’s definitely something to look into.
There are scientists who have devoted their entire careers to this stuff, so I won’t pretend to summarize all their research in a few sentences here. But from a personal standpoint, nothing makes me feel like I have my shit together more than a rock-solid routine.
Part of the magic of routine-building is thinking of yourself as someone who has, say, a skincare routine. That alone is a big self-esteembooster. Look at you with the three-step skincare routine – you’re practically an Instagram model! Another part – and this might be the depression talking – is the ease of doing something without thinking about it. I don’t need to deliberate over whether or not to moisturize or spend time feeling guilty for not doing it even though I really should do it. It’s just automatic.
I have routine-building drilled into my DNA, so I pick up new habits (both good and bad) like it’s nothing. If that’s not you and you’re more into doing what you feel like doing when you feel like doing it, just start slow. Pick up one new habit at a time. Choose something easy to start with, like drinking a glass of water when you wake up. When you get used to doing that, piggyback another habit on top of the other one. So drink a glass of water and then stretch for three minutes or whatever. You don’t have to get all your shit together at once. Just pick one habit that you want to work on for now, stick to it until it’s automatic, and then go from there.
At one point in January, I thought to myself, Fuck, when was the last time you read a book? Of all my depression-related revelations, this one really got to me. At one point in time, I used to read a few books a month, and, last month, I literally couldn’t remember the last book I had read or when I stopped reading. It was so weird.
It doesn’t really matter what you read. I love a good YA book (I don’t care. I have no shame left.) A book – any book – lets you look into other people’s heads (i.e. get out of your own head), exposes you to other perspectives and experiences, and teaches you new things. Also, books smell good. So there’s that.
8. Skin + hair care
When other, healthier motivations fail me, there’s always vanity. Like sometimes, I think about throwing back half a bottle of vodka on a Tuesday night, and then I picture my tired, dehydrated skin the next day and throw back some sparkling water instead. Hey, whatever works.
Your skin and hair are a window to your physical health in a way that the rest of your body isn’t. If you learn to pay attention to your body, you might notice that you hurt here or feel tension there. But I know that if I’m not eating enough, my hair will fall out in sexy little clumps when I shower. If I’m not drinking enough water, the eczema on my hands will act up and the skin on my face will beg for mercy.
In addition to tricking myself into taking care of my body as a whole, skin and hair care makes me feel good about myself. I feel more confident on a good hair day (which lasts about twenty minutes in the PNW). And it’s just straight-up fun to do a sheet mask on a random Thursday night.
A lot of people will refer to this kind of stuff as self-care, which it is, but think of it as a small piece of a big picture. So yes, throw on a sheet mask and some deep conditioner, but also do that stuff your mom said to do: Eat your veggies, be kind, and please, please, please wash your make-up off before bed.
9. The one-minute rule
If it takes less than one minute, do it. Every time. Don’t think about it. Don’t wait until later. Just do it now. This is 100% harder than it sounds when you have depression. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s easy. But when you force yourself to do it anyway, it helps.
For more than three weeks, I had this torn-up receipt sitting on the floor. It was just out of the way enough for me to ignore and forget about it until the next time I walked past. Then I would think really hard about throwing it away before eventually deciding nah, I don’t want to right now. It literally took me weeks and literal therapeutic intervention before I felt empowered enough to pick up this piece of paper and throw it away. And it felt amazing to do this tiny thing. After I took care of the receipt issue, I decided, hey, I bet I could also put my clean laundry away that’s been sitting there for a week, and, wow, I did that thing too! I did two things in the same day!
Just think of what you could accomplish if you shut up your inner but I don’t want to voice for one minute. You might not win a Nobel Peace Prize, but I bet your apartment will be much cleaner.
Muslim poet, scholar, and mystic Rumi wrote, “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder.” To me, coffee is all of these things. I get out of bed for Stok Cold Brew Iced Coffee and I get through the afternoon high on a mid-day Starbucks Doubleshot on Ice. Coffee is one of those positive sensory experiences that turn the dial up on the day. Sure, there’s something to be said for the natural high of physical activity or photosynthesis or whatever people who don’t drink coffee do for fun. But I won’t say it here.
Today I shared a few of the things that have helped me up my mental health game, but I would love to hear about what has worked for you. Feel free to share your secrets below (or just say hey).
Thanks for stopping by!