Mark: What has helped the most with taking care of your mental health?
Josie: I find this question difficult to answer because I can’t think of a singular entity that has helped my mental health the most overall, I think different issues are helped by different things. I suppose if I had to narrow it down to one it would have to be mental health professionals. I have seen a wide variety of mental health workers in different settings for about 9 years now and getting suggestions and a fresh perspective on things from them is usually helpful. This is somewhat limited because I don’t feel entirely comfortable opening up to them to the fullest capacity but the homework and ideas I have gotten are generally beneficial.
Mark: It is a bit like building a jigsaw puzzle without any picture of what the puzzle is supposed to look like. Were there any specific homework exercises you enjoyed doing or maybe didn’t enjoy so much but found to be especially valuable?
Josie: I don’t think there were any exercises that I enjoyed doing, I found most of them really difficult to do and apply by myself. The majority of them helped my anxiety the most, I didn’t find that they did as much for my other illnesses.
The most difficult but most beneficial homework I was given was completing thought logs, reframing thoughts, and learning to identify distorted thinking. It took a very long time to become rooted and easier to apply but I think in the end it was a very important recovery tool for all of my diagnoses.
For my anxiety I found several exercises helpful. Radical acceptance is one, coming to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t necessarily feel better by applying techniques or taking medication and that it was okay to just watch the feelings come and go instead of having to make them go away was beneficial while dealing with severe anxiety.
Another helpful one for panic attacks and severe anxiety was learning to ground myself. The one technique that I use most often is grounding with senses – either picking a colour and counting how many things I can see in the immediate environment with that colour or finding five things I can see, four I can hear, three I can touch, two I can smell and one to taste.
When dealing with catastrophic thinking and anxiety over situations the exercise that has helped me the most is thinking of the worst possible outcome, the best possible outcome, and the most likely outcome. It helps me cut down on the amount of time I spend mentally rehearsing and/or dreading events coming up.
Mark: It’s easy to sometimes think we just need to try one thing and it’s going to handle everything but the reality is that it takes a big toolbox and some flexibility with using different tools.
Let’s delve deeper into one of those tools: radical acceptance. Can you explain a bit more about what that is and how you developed the skills to watch feelings come and go?
Josie: Radical acceptance is the act of completely and totally accepting what is happening in the moment. It means that you stop struggling and fighting against reality and instead allow the situation you find yourself in to be as it is, whether you enjoy it or not.
When I was first introduced to the concept of radical acceptance I fought against it. I didn’t want to suffer, I didn’t want to feel bad, I wanted all those sensations to go away and I didn’t see how embracing them would help anything. I was recommended the book “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle and after reading it I thought that all of it was hogwash.
A few years later I came back to the book and decided to delve a little deeper. I started reading about Buddhist philosophy and meditation. In therapy I was given a few exercises in this nature, such as watching thoughts go by as if they were clouds and I was the sky. I started a small meditation routine and tried to become more mindful in my daily life. I have a long, long ways to go yet, but the few moments that I do manage to be mindful of unpleasant experiences and simply allow them to be as they are have brought me the most peace.
Mark: That experience you described of finding something, discarding it, and then coming back to it is one that I think a lot of people have on the journey of recovery. It’s awesome you’re finding ways to incorporate meditation and mindfulness into your everyday life. Do you have any tips for anybody else that’s getting started on bringing those supports into their lives?
Josie: I think what I wish someone would have told me right from the get-go is to not label anything about the process or experiences. If your mind wanders a million different directions during meditation, that is normal, and it is neither good nor bad. If you skip days or don’t feel like doing it or have a really hard time with it, that’s neither good nor bad. It’s a process that’s unique to everybody, and it doesn’t need to be labeled as ‘progressing at x speed’ or ‘helpful’ or ‘good’. The whole point is to learn how to watch your thoughts and find out how your mind works, so all of those judgements just get in the way and cloud up what you’re trying to see and find out in the first place.
Mark: Learning not to judge those things is so important. For some reason, with physical fitness, we recognize struggling as part of the process and it’s expected that you’ll probably fall over in a puddle of sweat when you first get started and maybe every time. But as a society, we don’t seem to take that same approach with mental health.
For a last question, I was wondering if there was anything else that you wish somebody had told you from the get-go?
Josie: I had a lot of trouble with this question!! I really had to rack my brain because I couldn’t think of anything else that I wish someone had told me from the start that would have been helpful/that I would have actually listened to. I guess it would be to make a note of the non-judgemental, analytical side of things, to write things down without emotional language to really get a good look at what’s going on and train my brain a bit quicker to default back to neutral.
Josie is a 23 year old Canadian who spends approximately 23.5 hours a day lurking on the internet trying to figure out what she wants to do when she grows up.
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.