Managing Anxiety & Depression Naturally
In this post, I share what I've found to be the most effective coping mechanisms, habits, behavioral changes, strategies, and tools for naturally managing and promoting mental illness (and overall mental health). If your just interested in the list, skip to the bottom of the post. If you wish to learn more about my own relationship with mental illness and understand where I'm coming from in this post, keep reading!
I'm pretty open about my mental health - while it's been a constant in my life, my mental illness is constantly evolving. It has caused many obstacles in my life, and will forever do so, but I like to think of it as a blessing rather than a curse. I am a better trainer and nutritionist because of it, am able to empathize with others incredibly well, and am mentally and physically tough as I am so used to most everything being a challenge. I have learned so much from my mental illness, that I have recently come to a realization that I will pursue a master's degree in psychology so that I can be an even stronger resource and support to others.
Since 19, I've been on a variety of medications as a part of my mental health management. I want to be very clear: not everyone with mental illness needs medication, and every body responds to different medications differently. Additionally, over time, some medications that have worked may stop working or work in different ways. Psychiatric medications must be constantly managed by the patient and and psychiatrist - taking an anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, upper, downer, what-have-you, is not an immediate cure. While medications may help a patient tremendously in managing their symptoms, it is not a cure-all-end-all.
My point in saying this is that even though I am medicated, the work does not end there. In addition to taking different medications based on my mental health at the time, external stimuli, and a variety of other factors, I have also been consistently in therapy and developing my own "toolbox" of coping mechanisms and skills.
I can't say enough about therapy. However again, it's not a cure-all-end-all. It's important to "shop around" with therapists. Find someone who you feel understands you, listens to you, and works WITH you. Therapy is hard work. You get out of it what you put into it. If you just show up, sit there, don't say much, and don't think about it again until your next appointment, not much will happen.
The best thing that therapy has done for me, is proveded me with a sounding board and someone to problem solve with. Constant discussion of thoughts, feelings, symptoms, and obstacles with a third-party has allowed me to experiement with so many different coping mechanisms.
Coping mechanisms are imperative to managing good mental health - whether you have diagnosed mental illness or not. Getting to know yourself, your mind, and how you respond to different stimuli, is probably the most valuable thing you can do. Because once you become familiar with how you tend to "work", process, and respond to information, you can strategically prevent and combat negative responses by using effective coping mechanisms. Some are more long-term preventative, while others may be used in-the-moment to avoid crisis.
All of the coping mechanisms, strategies, "remedies", and tools I'm sharing today are what I've found to be the most effective in my life and in the lives of others that I coach. None of them are medication. These are natural, behavioral, and habit-based strategies. As scienctific research has slowly begun to recognize the holistic nature of human health and the strong relationship between physical and mental health, most of these strategies are not merely conjecture - but have concrete scientific basis. So before you pass this off as "woowoo" give a few a try with an open mind, and see what happens!
Coping Mechanisms, Strategies, & Tools for Managing Anxiety & Depression, & Promoting Overall Positive Mental Health:
Sleep is one of the most important items on this list. Getting an adequate amount of quality sleep each night is imperative for good health, and especially mental health. The human brain requires an immense amount of energy to not only keep the body alive, but to be cognitally active. The only time the human brain is able to really process, sort, and discard information is while asleep. So if you are not giving your brain enough time to perform these important processes, your overall health, and mental health, will suffer. It is no coincidence that insomnia and sleep problems are common in mentally ill individuals. If you are ever concerned about inability to sleep at night, are sleeping during odd hours of the day, or are kept awake and energized despite physical exhaustion, contact a medical professional immediately.
Did you know that secondary to the brain, the human gut has the most neurons in the entire body? The food we eat is directly related to cognitive function, mood, energy, hormone regulation, and overall health. If you don't believe me, just give it a try. Eat your usual diet for a week, and then eat a diet comprised of whole grains, healthy fats, fiber, fresh fruits and vegetables, and limited sugars for two weeks. Not only will you have more energy and feel better physically, but your ability to focus and ability to manage emotions and mood will be greatly improved.
Strength training has been huge in my ability to manage anxiety. What we have suspected for a long time, a positive link between anxiety/depression and resistance training, has finally been confirmed by research just a few months ago. When I am consistently strength training, my overall mental health is SO much more stable vs. when I am not. When I was in college, I would even strength train right before final exams to reduce my test-taking anxiety, and my grades were significantly better than if I hadn't.
This is a really big one for mental health. The absolute WORST thing you can do is to ignore, push away, or blow past emotions. In order to overcome, we must experience and "go through" what we are feeling. Experiencing and observing your emotions, keeping a mental record of what may or may not trigger different emotions, how people and places make you feel, etc., are all important in developing self-awareness. Being self-aware makes you better able to overcome obstacles as they arise, feel more in-control of your mental health, and mentally "get through" tough times. This is especially important if you have a diagnosed mental illness. Being able to differentiate when things are "right" vs. "off" is helpful in catching mania before it gets out of hand, or knowing when it's time to seek help from your doctors to manage medications and symptoms.
The people we sourround ourselves with have a significant impact on physical and mental health. Learning to recognize healthy vs. unhealthy relationships, setting boundaries, and communicating effectively with those in your life will not only improve your health, but could even help theirs as well. Lead by example, and never feel guilty for protecting yourself and your health. That being said, be mindful of the way you treat others, and try to see situations from their perspectives before quickly passing judgement.
Everyone can agree that stress can take a huge toll on the mind and body. Some stress is a good thing, but where you have to be careful is when it gets to be too much. This is where self-awareness is important. You can learn to recognize when stress levels become too high, and what to do when that happens so things don't spiral out of control. Exercise, a healthy diet, and sleep are also important factors in managing stress levels.
Taking care of yourself, no matter how busy you may be, is always important. The concept of prioritizing self-care is especially challenging for parents, individuals with high-stress jobs, and students. If this is you, think about it from this perspective: how can you possible be the best possible version of yourself - as a parent to your children, taking care of your parents, working to climb the coorporate ladder, get a promotion, get straight A's - if your not healthy? Making your health a priority will allow you to be the best possible version of yourself, which will then translate into you being ever better at what is most important to you. Carve out the time, you are worth it.
Work & Commitments
Every few months, take the time to do a mental check of all of your projects, jobs, and comittments. Are they all helping you to get to where you want to be? Is anything taking more out of you than it is providing? Are you over-comitting your time? Streamlining your life significantly reduces anxiety, and helps to preserve energy for what is most important to you.
Breathing exercises are great in-the-moment coping mechanisms for anxiety. One of the most common techniques, and my favorite, is deep belly breathing. Because of poor posture, weak diaphrams, restrictive clothing, and stress, many people breathe only with their chest. Deep belly breathing is a technique involving actively expanding your diaphram to promote very deep breathing that, no surprise, causes the belly to expand. This technique is especially effective for reducing anxiety. Full breaths reduce the anxious-inducing feeling of shallow breathing, encourages oxygen exchange in the lungs, can help to slow the heartbeat and lower blood pressure, and overall aids the body to move away from a "fight or flight" stress-induced response. Read more about deep belly breathing and it's benefits here.
Meditation is not for everyone, but can be very helpful in managing both anxiety and depression. A common symption of depress that I experience often, is a feeling of isolation - physically and mentally. Isolation from others, isolation from the world, but also a feeling of being removed from your body. I like to refer to this as feeling "floaty" or "set-back". For those depression-related symptoms I find meditation to be really helpful, as it promotes feelings of being "one" with the world. With anxiety, it is a great way to slow down racing, axious, thoughts. It is also helpful in preventing axiety because it helps you to put things in perspective. There are a bunch of great apps and books that help with getting started with meditation, and provide guided meditation soundtracks. Headspace, Brain.fm, and The Urban Monk are personal favorites.
I spoke above how seeing a therapist regularly is great for getting your thoughts out to a third-party and processing them together. Another great way to do this is journaling, or as I like to call it "word vomiting." It's exactly what it sounds like: just write everything and anything going through your head. Get it out. Once you get everything written down you might feel great and not need to look back at it. Or if you feel you need more, take a few hours, take a look back, write some more, and see how you feel then. Physically writing thoughts down - no editing or grammatical correctness needed - is helpful in processing and sorting through information. This is also a great tool to use if you have a hard time falling asleep at night due to too many thoughts and worries.
Getting outside, especially in cold and dark winter months, is incredible for depression. Sunlight provides to body with much-needed Vitamin D, being outside combats Seasonal Affective Disorder, and fresh air and cool temperatures help to protect your body from illness. When feeling isolated, disconnected, or anxiety-ridden, being outdoors is also powerful in helping you to feel more grounded and connected to your body / others.
With any mental illness, it is SO important to communicate, especially with those most important in your life. Whether it be a significant other, parent, or friend, they may understand what you are feeling more than you suspect, or may be a great person to share your thoughts and feelings with. Communicating how your feeling, what you need, and being open to the feelings and needs of that other person, is imperative to maintaining a healthy and sucessful relationship. Keeping open lines of communication allows for both parties to express their concerns, questions, observations, and feelings. Remember that your mental health doesn't only affect you, it affects those closest to you as well. "As a wonderful client of mine puts it so well, "It's great to be working out your shit, but don't work it out on other people."
My final point is one of the most important; practice self-love. Mental illness is one of the most frustrating things in the world. Especially if you are an a-type person like me, having a hard time getting done what you think you should be able to get done, or feeling badly when you know there is no logical external stimuli to blame, is hard to deal with. Frustration feeds itself, intertwines with anxiety and depression, and that frustration compounds until eventually you might hate yourself. Being able to take a step back, and REALLY love yourself, allows you to give yourself a little bit of slack. It also helps you to be more strategic in your day-to-day life based on how you are feeling. For example, if my mental health is not in a great place, I know not to overload my schedule or set a big deadline. This may seem tedious, but it really makes a difference in reducing overall frustration, stress, self-loathing, and ability to cope in a healthy way.
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