By the time we’ve become adults, we’ve gotten a lot of messages about how to take care of ourselves. There’s the basic maintenance stuff – exercise, brush your teeth, eat vegetables. Then there’s coping with stress – talk to your friends, ask for help, focus on the positives, etc. We’ve all got some ideas about how our minds and our bodies work, and what we can do to fix them up.
Unfortunately, some of those things just don’t work, or actually make them worse. So let’s all go to our “safe places”, a couple of shots, and focus our mental energies on the ways that we’re unintentionally ruining our mental health.
1. Avoiding Triggers
I’m going to be real brave and take a strong stand here: being in pain sucks.
Fear is painful. When you have a triggered disorder like PTSD or anxiety, it makes sense that you aren’t going to dive headfirst into whatever situation sets you off. If you’re afraid of snakes, it makes sense to stay away from snakes. The problem is negative reinforcement. This is a way of increasing the likelihood of a response by removing a noxious stimuli. Think of a crying child who is refusing to eat her broccoli. If you take away the broccoli, yes she stops crying for a moment but you’ve just taught her that crying works. Next time she sees the broccoli she’s only going to cry even harder. Now replace a crying child with a fear or panic response, and broccoli with a trigger, and you see the problem.
The hard truth is that yes, you need to face your fears. Exposure therapy is still active ingredient in treatments for Social Anxiety, Phobias, OCD and PTSD. Now, does that mean that you should be sneaking up behind combat veterans and popping balloons?
Obviously not, these exposures need to be carefully controlled. So no, I’m not advocating against trigger warnings. And importantly, there are some times when avoiding triggers is the right move, like when you’re quitting smoking and you avoid triggers for cravings, or you have bipolar disorder and avoid triggers for manic states. But for anxiety and fear, avoidance is the problem.
It’s 2am and you just can’t get your mind to shut off. You know that alcohol helps you to relax, so you think why not have a few drinks to just settle yourself down enough to sleep. Or your anxiety is totally out of control, so you have a few drinks then. Maybe your depression is sapping your energy and your will to live, so you start drinking Red Bull to give a boost to get to the end of the workday.
There’s a point for all of these when they stop being good coping and start being part of the problem, and generally that’s about the time that you feel like you can’t get by without them. Caffeine and even alcohol have been shown to actually improve health in moderate amounts, but it’s that moderate amounts piece that’s a kicker. It’s easy for a daily drinking habit to turn into a full blown alcohol problem, especially when you have the original issue that you were trying to self-medicate still there kicking your ass.
The other problem is that you’re not learning how to cope with this yourself. You can go to sleep or be social at parties without alcohol. You can get through your work day without Red Bull. There are plenty of ways to learn how to do that, and you can come up with your own ways, too, but not if you never budge away from your go-to solution. Part of the problem with drugs and alcohol is that they work, just with the minor side effect of screwing up your whole life.
I put “meditating” in quotes there because actually meditating is one of the very best things you can do for your mental health. The problem is that a lot of people who think they are meditating are actually doing the exact opposite. Mindfulness meditation is the hot form of meditation recently, and mindfulness is all about coming into contact with the present moment, accepting (rather than avoiding) your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations as they are at a given instant.
Unfortunately, what a lot of people do when they meditate is unproductively ruminate on a problem, or try to use meditation as a distraction from some uncomfortable present sensation. This would be “going to your happy place” rather than experiencing momentary distress.
So now once again we’re Avoiding (see item 1). So in addition to once again negatively reinforcing whatever response is causing the distress, you’re exhausting all of your cognitive abilities trying to construct this elaborate fantasy in your mind.
This isn’t meant to be a dig at guided visualization, which is a technique that does involve constructing images in your mind. This technique works because it starts with an acceptance of the given problem, rather than using the visualization as a way of distracting from it. So you might visualize your pain, but in order to do so you have to accept that you are feeling that pain.
4. Trying to Figure Out the Problem
“The first step towards getting help is acknowledging that you have a problem.” Well, you’ve nailed that first step.
This is one of the hallmarks of nerd mental illness, the tendency to overthink and overanalyze data. Again, like all of these, there is some intuitive sense here. In order to figure out how to solve your problem, you have to look at all of the evidence. You need to see what the problematic patterns are in order to disrupt them. You might even manage to convince yourself that the situation is hopeless, because after all you’re a pretty smart person, and if you can’t find the solution then maybe you think there isn’t one. The problem is that the mechanism you’re using to try to fix the problem is also affected by the problem.
Depression is like a good computer virus in that one of the first targets is your antivirus software. Your concentration, attention and decision-making abilities are all impaired in depression, and rumination is one of the primary symptoms. You are not in a frame of mind to make the distinction between rumination and productive problem-solving, but here’s a hint: if you aren’t solving the problem, you’re probably not problem-solving.
This is where it’s helpful to move things outside of your own head. Whether it’s onto a piece of paper, or into an app, or into somebody else’s head (like a friend or therapist), enlist some outside help here.
5. Spending “Me” Time
Maybe you’re just a little overwhelmed and need to take a break. Do some self-care. Just take some time to yourself.
You know you’re not going to be good company, so you don’t invite anyone else. You want to relax and recharge, so you don’t do anything strenuous. You aren’t feeling up for any of your normal hobbies, so you take a break from them, too. It feels good, so maybe you do the same thing the next day. Two weeks of this kind of self-care and you’ll officially meet criteria for a Major Depressive Episode.
For all of these, moderation is key. No, you don’t have to barrel into your deepest darkest fear right away. It’s ok if you drink some coffee to get through your day. Thinking about a pleasant memory when you’re feeling down is a great way to cope. You need to think about your problems in order to solve your problems. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking some time to yourself. However, you have to remember that these are short term strategies. If this is what you are spending all of your time doing, then they’re clearly not helping. It’s time to try something else.