Late last year, I wrote an essay in which I revealed my longtime – and ongoing – struggles with depression and anxiety. In concluding that post, I asked for suggestions from readers about how to stay sane in the midst of chaos and how to experience more happiness, peace, and fulfillment on a daily basis. Quite a few readers chimed in, either in the comments section or via email. I will share what they had to say in my next post (and will also include responses to this article), as well as links to some helpful resources you may be interested in checking out.
Today’s post includes some of my personal “essentials” that I use to help keep myself on solid ground in terms of my mood and sense of overall well-being. These essentials are practices that may seem quite simple at first glance. However, they are also powerful in that they are helping me to manage crippling anxiety and preventing me from falling into the abyss of depression.
My Thoughts on Medication
Before I dive into sharing my tips, I’d like to say a few words about the topic of medication. It’s a well-known fact that many people who struggle with depression and anxiety have benefitted from the myriad pharmaceutical solutions available today. Such drugs can be a helpful tool, especially when used as an adjunct to psychotherapy and other modalities that get to the root of the problem. I’ve taken a number of medications for depression and anxiety in the past and they were lifesavers for me at the time. They helped me to carry on with the tasks of daily living and be more capable of working with a therapist on my core issues. The same thing might hold true today as well, but my current chemical sensitivities and worries about side effects have stopped me from pursuing this path in recent years.
Although I’m not taking medication for anxiety and depression myself, I don’t knock drug therapy and I know it can be instrumental for many people. I may take medication again in the future, but I’m currently doing my best to manage my symptoms through non-drug options. Most of my suggestions below are straightforward in nature, but they can also be extremely helpful when used on a regular basis. Even if you’re taking medication and/or working with a psychotherapist, you can still benefit from incorporating some of these practices into your lifestyle.
Practice #1 – Introspection
I believe that we can all benefit from slowing down and looking within, especially in today’s always “on” and hyper-connected world. Keeping a journal was something I did regularly throughout my youth and young adulthood, but I hadn’t done so for decades. I started journaling again last fall and it has been a positive addition to my life. Journaling is especially helpful because this type of writing is just for me. I like having the freedom to write about whatever arises in my consciousness without worrying that anyone else will read my words and judge what I have to say.
I’m now doing a type of free association journaling that has been shown to have healing capabilities, particularly for those who struggle with chronic pain (check out this article or this YouTube channel). It’s still relatively new for me, so I can’t speak definitively on that part yet, but I do feel a sense of release when I’m done journaling. I’m also not as “tightly wound” and tense as I used to be, which is a positive change for me. My journaling sessions are typically twenty minutes long and I don’t save what I write, as it’s more about getting my thoughts and feelings out than it is about holding on to what I’ve expressed.
I follow each journaling session with a short meditation (I’m using the 10% Happier app), which I find to be a soothing accompaniment to the writing. I’m relatively new to meditating and I’m still working on becoming more consistent with it. I often meditate as a way to help me fall asleep, but I’m finding value in doing it during the day as well. These two introspective activities don’t take up all that much time, but they are well worth it in terms of improving my sanity. I have come to look forward to my daily “timeout” for reflection, release, and centering.
Practice #2 – Creative Expression
I thrive on creativity and I suffer when I go too long without some form of creative expression. I haven’t had as much time to publish blog posts lately with my online program, but I don’t want to let this blog lapse. I try to focus on quality rather than quantity in terms of what I publish and trust that I’m still adding value even if the frequency has declined. Not only do I enjoy sharing my thoughts with all of you and interacting in the comments section and through email, writing also helps with my depression and anxiety.
I have also let my photography practice lapse – and I miss it. A big part of my reason for stopping was because I had an overabundance of photos on my computer and I found it overwhelming. I also felt that I had so many photos from my “usual haunts” that it wasn’t worth my taking more. But since I enjoy the process of taking photos as well as the results, I want to get back into it. I have new places to visit now that I’ve moved and I can choose to save just a few photos from each session instead of the whole lot.
I also find clothing and fashion to be a creative pursuit, but I don’t need to keep shopping and buying a plethora of new pieces in order to indulge this passion. I know that I can get a lot more creative with what I already have and put together more inspired outfits that I will enjoy wearing. I remember having fun doing outfit creation sessions from time to time, so that’s something I can revisit now that I’m more settled into my new home. Doing periodic wardrobe challenges (like this one) also helps to spark my sartorial creativity, so I’m going to figure out another one to start soon (I’m open to suggestions…).
Practice #3 – Getting Enough Sunlight
The fall and winter months can be difficult for many people, including me. The weather is cooler and it gets dark much earlier. We experience less time outside in the sunlight and the shorter days can be disheartening even for those without a history of depression. I know I should force myself to go out for a midday walk or even sit outside while it’s still light, but I rarely do so. In fact, unless I have an appointment outside of the house during the day, I rarely venture out before dark on the shorter days of the year. But I vow to turn that around, even if it’s just sitting out on my deck with a book for twenty or thirty minutes during the day. I will get much-needed vitamin D from the sun and also feel more connected to the world around me. It’s easy to do and a little goes a long way.
Last week, I forced myself to take a walk at lunchtime and it felt like a game-changer. I loved feeling the sun on my face and the brisk air blowing through my hair. That walk ended up being a long one that included stopping for coffee, but I’m sure a shorter jaunt would have a similar effect on my spirits. I plan to go for a midday walk at least weekly and will include it on my calendar based upon my schedule for the week (this week, it will be on Thursday). Small practices like this one can have a strong impact on our moods and our outlook. It usually doesn’t take big changes in behavior to produce meaningful shifts.
Practice #4 – Spending Time in Nature
I used to live very close to the water. In fact, the San Diego Bay and a gorgeous waterside trail were located just two blocks from my apartment. Back then, a highlight of my days was taking a walk at sunset to enjoy the changing colors of the sky and to check out the beach birds that were often active that time of day. It was so easy to do this back then, but since my move last June, I now have to get in my car and drive in order to experience the same type of outdoor enjoyment. Consequently, I don’t do it as often.
Convenient or not, I can’t recall a single time when I’ve regretted getting out in nature. That’s a pretty powerful statement and it’s important for me to remember. Even small doses of nature can be calming and life-affirming. I need to make sure to get outside most days and experience the natural world, as it enriches my soul. This is a lot easier when my husband is around and we’re able to go together, but I need to push myself to go alone if necessary. It’s not good for me – or anyone really – to be cooped up all day and all night long. I can still enjoy my walks by the water, and driving ten or fifteen minutes in order to do so isn’t that long. Nature feeds my soul so much that it should be a “prescription” for me to experience it at least several times per week.
Practice #5 – Daily Pleasurable Activities
It’s very important that I do something fun and enjoyable every day. I think pleasure and play are critically important for all of us, but we don’t always realize this or prioritize such activities. I know that I frequently become so mired in my to-do list that I forget that my life isn’t all about getting things done. As I like to remind myself, we are human beings, not human “doings”! Thus, we need to allow ourselves the time and the space to be, as this is equally – if not more – important than whatever we’re focused on doing and accomplishing.
To decrease anxiety and improve my moods, I need to regularly step back from the “shoulds” and just do something that makes me happy. It may be taking a walk (which can also satisfy my sunlight and nature “essentials”), going to a movie, watching a television show, reading a good book, petting my cats, or cuddling with my husband. I think it’s important for all of us to remember what brings us joy and to make sure we include those things in our lives, no matter how busy we are. As with sunlight and nature, a little pleasure can go a long way. I know that I feel a lot better when I take the time to do something that makes me laugh or smile.
Practice #6 – Enough (But Not Too Much) Routine
Being the rebel that I am (see Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies framework – read a summary here or get the book here), I resist routine tooth and nail, but deep in my heart I know that it’s good for me. It doesn’t need to be extremely rigid, but if I just leave everything loose and open, I tend to waste a lot of time and feel discombobulated. My problem is that I tend to be “all or nothing” with the way I do routine. I’m either a fierce taskmaster with a to-do list a mile long or an unruly child who gets so lost in doing what I want that afternoon can roll around and I’m still searching the internet in my pajamas. What I need is a “happy medium” and that often starts with a good morning routine and a rough framework for how to spend the day.
I remember the analogy of the “big rocks” as presented by the late, great Stephen Covey (see this short but illustrative video). The gist of this concept is that if we don’t schedule the most important things (the big rocks) in our lives, they often won’t get done because there are always lots of urgent activities and interruptions (the small rocks) that will get in the way. I’ve long been good at including regular exercise in my life because I usually do it first thing in the morning. Not everything that’s important to us can be done in the early mornings, but if we schedule those things and give them a defined place on our calendars, they’re far more likely to get done.
I’m continuing to experiment with the right amount of routine, scheduling, and tracking for me. I want to experience freedom (my word for 2019), but I also understand that structure can bring about freedom in the same way that minimalism and simplicity can end the paradox of choice and analysis paralysis. If we have too much freedom in how we spend our time, we may not end up feeling that free at all. This is something I will write about in the future, as it’s an ongoing struggle for me, but for now I will say that some level of routine helps to improve my state of mind and reduce my anxiety.
Practice #7 – Regular In-Person Connection
I spend a lot of time connecting with people virtually, as I’m in an online training program and several online communities. I value and benefit from this type of connection, but I’ve also learned that regular in-person connection is critical for my well-being. I like to be able to give someone a hug and sit across from them and look into their eyes while we’re communicating. There is value in physical proximity and this is why so many people who are ultra-connected via social media still experience intense loneliness.
As an introvert (INFP on the Myers-Briggs – you can take a similar online test to find your type HERE), I don’t need a large amount of in-person interaction, but I do need more than what I’ve been getting in recent years. I think the “sweet spot” for me is one or two times per week. It can be coffee or a meal with a friend, attending a Meetup event, or even doing volunteer work, but I know I need to connect with people in person more often. This can feel challenging when one is dealing with depression and anxiety, however. I often feel like I’m not in the mood to spend time with others, but when I push myself to do it, I’m usually glad that I did. I don’t love meeting new people because of my introversion and insecurity, but since so many of the people I care about aren’t local, I need to manage my discomfort and move forward.
Practice #8 – Adequate Downtime and Sleep
I mentioned earlier that being a slave to a to-do list can contribute to my depression and anxiety. This is why I find it critically important to prioritize both downtime and sleep. I used to stay on my computer late into the evening to try to “catch up,” but that was detrimental to my physical and emotional well-being. Consequently, I now make a point of having a hard stop to my computer activities around dinnertime. I do better when I use my evening time for social and leisure pursuits and confine the majority of my tasks to the daytime hours. If I take some time in the middle of the day for a walk or a break sitting in the sun, I may extend my computer time a bit later, but I no longer “burn the midnight oil” except on very rare occasions.
Limiting evening computer time also positively contributes to sleep, although prioritizing sleep is still a challenge for me. I think I need to also limit my nighttime use of my smart phone and tablet, as the blue light from those devices adversely affects circadian rhythms and sleep quality. We’ve long heard that we should endeavor to get eight hours of sleep per night, but I’ve frequently shrugged that off as an “old wives’ tale” and insisted that I was fine with my longtime nightly average of six hours of shuteye. I now believe that my lack of sleep has been contributing to my depression and anxiety (this article sheds some light on that), as well as my other health problems. There are lots of wonderful articles available that highlight why sleep is so important, including this one and this one.
As I write this, it’s mid-afternoon. My energy is dragging and I’m experiencing brain fog. This is a regular occurrence for me and a clear sign that I’m not getting enough sleep at night. I know that I need to do better in this department! If you’re in a similar boat, you might benefit from the following articles about “sleep hygiene” (I know I’ll be picking a few tips to try myself!):
- Healthy Habits: Prioritizing Sleep (Sleep.org)
- Sleep Hygiene Tips (American Sleep Association)
- Sleep Hygiene (Tuck)
Practice #9 – Grace
My last practice is something that I’ll simply call “grace.” It involves my efforts to be kinder, more patient, and more compassionate toward myself. As long as I can remember, I have been a perfectionist and extremely hard on myself. Nothing I ever do is good enough for my unreasonably high standards – and this is exhausting and demoralizing. I’m a lot more forgiving and understanding towards others than with myself, and I have paid a high price for this.
I’m tired of being mean to myself. I’m tired of playing a losing game that only leaves me feeling more anxious and depressed. I don’t want to be this way into my senior years and old age. Life is too short for this craziness! I don’t really know how to change, but I have set the intention to do so. My journaling and meditation have helped, and I think if I incorporate the other practices mentioned in this post on a regular basis, that will help as well. I have been alerted to the self-compassion meditations and exercises by Dr. Kristin Neff, but I have not yet explored them. I also noticed that she has a workbook to help cultivate self-compassion, which seems like a good thing to add to my list. However, I need to make sure not to be a perfectionist about my working toward self-compassion!
Conclusion and Your Thoughts
So those are my personal “essentials” for cultivating more happiness and peace in my life. Some of them are firmly entrenched into my daily and weekly routines, while others are still very much a work in progress. I still have a lot of ups and downs, but I believe that if I regularly incorporate all of these practices into my life, I will be in a much better place and a lot less anxious and depressed. I still may need to work with a therapist as well, and this is something that I’m considering doing. I’m a big believer in psychotherapy and have taken advantage of this useful tool a lot over the course of my life. There is no shame in seeking help and I’m a big advocate of seeking therapy for both personal and relationship issues.
There are many paths we can take to improve our well-being and I’m open to learning more about what has helped others, including my wonderful readers. My next post will feature tips I received in response to the first post in this series, as well as some other resources I’m aware of that people may find beneficial. I welcome your sharing your suggestions and resources in the comments section below or directly with me. Stay tuned for part three soon, as well as future posts on personal development, wardrobe management, and other topics. Happy Spring – or Autumn for my readers in the southern parts of the world!