Mark: What has helped the most with taking care of your mental health?
Annie: When I was in the lowest point of my depression and anxiety, I tried pulling myself out of it through self help books and online articles about cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness, but the biggest breakthrough I made in my recovery was when I finally worked up the courage to see a therapist in person. Ironically, the way in which this happened was almost accidental.
A few years ago I went into a Planned Parenthood clinic to check on some cramping that I was worried about. During the intake session I was handed a questionnaire to fill out and one section asked me to circle any conditions or symptoms I was feeling. Within the rows and columns of ailments, two words stood out very strongly to me: “Anxiety” and “Depression.” I stared at them for a moment, then drew a circle around them.
When the intake person reviewed my form, she kindly and without judgement asked me if those two things were something I’d like to see a counselor for. I said yes and she gave me the contact info for two of the counselors they had on staff.
Because public dialog over mental health is uncommon, I had up to this point never seriously considered seeking out therapy. Additionally, my social anxiety had not only prevented me from calling or emailing a mental health professional, but had even inhibited my ability to formulate questions to ask about the process. Thankfully, this visit was a turning point because when I received the contact information for those counselors, it felt like a gate had been opened for me.
For the next few months, I worked with my therapist to understand the concepts of self care and value building. I stopped seeing her when I was on a good streak and then went back a few months later to work on some more issues that had surfaced. A really great bonus about the sessions was that they could be paid for on a sliding scale which made them affordable for my limited student budget at the time.
The main factor that enabled me to succeed with in-person therapy versus relying exclusively on the convenience of books was that my weekly sessions forced me to take my mental health more seriously. I had to schedule time and go out of my way to see my therapist. Rather than becoming a disruption to my life, it was nice to feel like there was one block of time during the week just for self care.
It was also nice to talk to another human being so openly about my mental health struggles. Whereas working on the CBT worksheets alone sometimes gave me the feeling that the thoughts I wrote down didn’t matter, talking with a specialist about these feelings and receiving feedback gave my thought process some validity and helped rebuild my confidence. I also learned a few useful mental fitness tools that allow me to identify why I might be experiencing low points (e.g. Have I been exercising enough? Am I working too much? Am I doing enough of the things I enjoy? Am I getting enough social time? etc.).
Mark: That is a useful accident! I know drawing circles is tough when I’m making cartoons so I can only imagine the difficulty of drawing a circle around anxiety and depression.
You mentioned tools for identifying why you might be experiencing low points–is there a tool or skill you can share that you’ve found especially useful for that?
Annie: Sure. If I had to sum it up, I learned to be more self-aware and accepting that I am not superhuman. In the CBT worksheets, I would write down a lot of “should” type thoughts stemming from my anxiety about wanting a successful career. I had developed a bad habit of mind-over-matter and getting down on myself if I didn’t think I was achieving as much as I should have.
To break out of this habit, I first had to understand the concept of “self-care.” Stepping outside of my anxious mind, I was able to see myself as just another human who deserved a little more compassion. I needed to give myself a break and learn to accept that I was doing the best that I could.
Since I had kept feeling like I “should” be doing so much to improve my professional skills, to get a good job, to make money, etc., I let other basic human needs like physical activity, nutritious food, sleep, friendship, and love fall to the wayside (especially SLEEP). Once I began taking care of my physical health and understanding its relationship to my mental health, I started to feel a lot better.
My anxious self had only thought about how to become a great artist and make great work, but I’ve since learned that anxiety/depression is actually the hugest blocker to being able to do those things. Now, I just tackle the anxiety/depression by taking care of my human needs first and it usually results in being able to open my mind up to creative pursuits.
Mark: Ah, yes, when I hear about researchers looking for genetic causes of mental illness, I always assume they’ll eventually just find a gene responsible for the “shoulds” that pop into our heads.
Taking care of our human needs and sticking to our values is so useful for mental health but, like you mentioned, it’s so easy to prioritize other things. I often ignored my basic needs and now I’d say the primary focus of my mental health practice is learning how to take care of my human needs more effectively. So when it comes to fitting in physical activity, nutritious food, sleep, friendship, love, etc, are there any techniques or tips you have for making it easier to stick to those helpful supports?
Annie: Fitting in a good amount of those basic needs is still something I struggle with, but so far I have found that being around other people that either support my goals or have similar goals themselves is a major motivating factor because it means I don’t have to tackle these things alone.
It helps when, for example, my boyfriend reminds me that it’s probably time to go to bed so I can get the sleep that I need. Though it hasn’t always been easy to remain receptive (and not cranky!) to that suggestion, I realize more often than not that sleep is more important than whatever to-do list task I’m trying to cram in late at night.
Another friend invited me to join her on regular hikes and it’s been a wonderful way to exercise and decompress. Not only does the physical workout make my body feel good afterward, but I’m also able to pick up some much needed social time.
I also started working for someone a couple of months ago that is very much into exercise and nutritious eating. She has her own health issues that require her to be very physically fit, but observing how dedicated and consistent she is about her body’s health is an inspiration.
This new type of lifestyle would have been harder to pull off a couple of years ago when I was neck deep in grad school surrounded by busy folks running around trying to finish assignments, eating fast food, and necessarily spending long solitary hours in a lab.
The idea of “people” or a “community” as a support network is one that still feels relatively new to me since I had struggled for many years with social anxiety and shut myself off from a lot of friends and potential friends. But after experiencing deep loneliness and the burden of feeling like I had to do everything on my own, I slowly opened up and allowed myself to be a little vulnerable, a little uncomfortable (sometimes very uncomfortable), and have begun to nurture those relationships that are valuable to me.
At this point, I think my brain is now able to see that, “Hey, this technique for living is way more effective than the other thing,” haha.
Mark: Boyfriends have so many uses! Tapping into a support network through our friends, family, and broader community is so important but you touched on a paradoxical challenge that can sometimes make support complicated: connecting with supports for overcoming mental health challenges, like social support, often requires us to overcome mental health challenges, like social anxiety. How did you open up and allow yourself to feel vulnerable and uncomfortable before your brain had seen that this was a more effective way to live?
Annie: Haha, that’s a very simple question with a complicated answer! I guess the first step took place when it felt like I hit rock bottom with my depression and anxiety. It became obvious to me that I was living very ineffectively by avoiding people and uncomfortable situations so it just made sense to do the opposite of that.
Easier said than done. This was a very long, gradual process for me. First I had to understand why my brain was working the way it did. Luckily, because of my prior research on anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy, and mindfulness, I was equipped with an understanding of how pliable the brain is which gave me hope that my anxiety was fixable.
Next, there was a lot of news coming out around this time about introverted personality types and these ideas finally made me feel comfortable and accepting of being a quiet person. Years of my shyness, quietness, or seriousness being constantly pointed out to me as a child had made me feel weird and self conscious. The fact that now there were books and articles that basically said, “Hey, some brains just work this way and it’s not weird that they do!” made me feel like, ok, even if someone DID notice this thing about me, and even if they WERE judging me for it, WHATEVER! I’m ok with that because I’m certainly not the only one. There are many ways to be a person.
So, once I sort of conceptually understood these things, I had to test them out in the real world. I initially used my professional goals as a guide to push me into uncomfortable social situations. When I went back to school to pursue a Master’s Degree, I knew that part of my long term success would depend on being part of a network. I was studying Animation and that is a kind of art form that is almost always collaborative because it would be way too much work for one person to do alone. Because school was an environment where I had easy access to other like-minded creators, I was determined to not waste this opportunity by giving into fear of social situations.
In a way it started out as kind of selfish goal- I needed to learn how to be friends with other people in case they could one day get me a job. But it did at the very least give me a reason to force myself to attend events, go to parties, and talk to people which I would normally be too anxious to do. My brain would always tell me, “you’re gonna hate this!” and I would have to tell myself things like, “this is not going to kill me, it might be cool, there’s a chance it could be fun.” And honestly sometimes I would hate it, or I might not relate to anyone at a party, but I would still count it as a small victory because I got out of the apartment and I had an opportunity for self reflection to learn what kind of things I liked or did not like. My studies on CBT had taught me how to evaluate my experiences and the result always, “you didn’t die! Good for you!” Eventually after practicing a lot of saying “yes” to social events, the “you’re gonna hate this voice” got quieter and the “who knows, it might be fun and interesting” voice got louder and it no longer felt like such a huge risk to go out.
This took roughly 5 years for me. Nowadays, I don’t just go out with the intention of professional networking because I found that to be able to go out with friends and share your life with other people is just a really nice part of living. My friends always give me some valuable perspective and insights that I would not be able to gain on my own and it’s nice to also feel like I have something to offer them as well.
My therapist and I came up with a metaphor to describe the various parts of my mental health to take care of. I think of the human needs I mentioned before (love, social activity, physical activity, sleep, etc) as plants that need tending to. These days I try to water all these plants as consistently as possible and if I do, they naturally bear fruit or flower and everything is good.
Mark: Tending to your plants is such a useful metaphor. Your investment in saying yes to social events over several years is a great example of that. Wanting to get over anxiety challenges instantly is like planting an apple seed in the morning and expecting to have a fully grown tree dropping apples into your hands by the afternoon.
From where you are now, where would you like to take this relationship between you and your brain that you’ve been working on?
Annie: I’d simply like to keep going with it. Now that I understand a bit about what my mental and physical needs are, I know I can address them while working on my personal goals. I’d like to continue trying new experiences and tackle things I have avoided due to anxiety. Some examples are: building a better relationship with my family, building a better financial system for myself so I have less anxiety about money, and doing more exploration of the city I live in.
I used to feel like there was no higher goal for me than being a super amazing artist. I put so much of my identity and energy into that pursuit that developing my craft came to be my sole obsession. Today, I am more concerned with becoming a well-rounded human being.
Annie Wong is an American artist specializing in painting, art direction, and stop motion filmmaking. Her work is often a mixture light and dark humor, color, and quirkiness. You can follow her brain’s visual adventures on Instagram @headexplodie
Mark: I love to compare mental illness symptoms to farts so it’s only appropriate to leave you with this cool animation from Annie:
Follow Annie on Instagram!
5 Questions is a regular series of interviews on everybodyhasabrain.com with people that have mental health. We start by asking: “What has helped the most with taking care of your mental health?” and the interview continues from there for four more questions. If you’d like to participate, become a contributor to Everybody has a Brain by clicking here to submit your info.
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