I’ve touched on some of this in various posts in the past, but I’ve been asked to share an actual list of tactics I use to maintain my mental health.
First of all, I accept that PTSD and clinical depression are a part of who I am. Mental illness and the management of it are “my normal,” and this acceptance helps a lot.
It also helps to accept the fact that just as there are great days, there are horrible days, and days ranging between the two. Sometimes, all the meds and talk therapy and things on the list below just aren’t enough. When this happens, I try to recognize that “this, too, shall pass,” keeping it all in perspective. (I know that this is so much easier said than done. I can say it easily now, when I’m not at the bottom of the abyss of hopelessness and despair. All we can do is try.)
That being said, here’s my list… things I do to manage my mental illness:
1). I avoid alcohol (with few exceptions).
Alcohol is a depressant. It also counters or otherwise negatively interacts with medications taken for mental illness. Consuming alcohol on a regular basis is never advisable for the mentally ill.
2). I take medication and talk to my therapist on a regular basis.
Meds and talk therapy are basic, first-line tactics of controlling mental illness. It’s critically important to adhere to such a routine and to have my external resources at hand. I regularly visit my doctor at the V.A. hospital, and I know that I always have access to emergency help at a national veterans’ crisis line.
3). I work out and try to eat well (within reason, making sure to maintain a healthy balance).
Exercise heightens our mood by way of its effect on our brain chemistry. It leads to improved physical fitness, which improves our physical health. (For this reason, more and more companies are including gym membership coverage fees in their employees’ benefits packages.) Improved physical health reduces stress and makes us feel more energetic and better about ourselves, in general. Choosing healthier food options most of the time comprises the other half of this picture.
4). I have routines, and I stick to them.
Routines are underestimated and even sneered upon. We like to say that spontaneity is critical to quality of life, and there is certainly something to that, but the fact is that routine can provide us with mental health benefits, too. Routines are valuable. They can be soothing when everything else is chaos. Routines can give us a sense of control and accomplishment.
5). I eliminate toxic factors in my life (to the best of my ability).
The word “toxic” is overused in our current vocabulary (instigated, I suspect, by self-help gurus, but that’s beside the point) – and yet, it captures this point well. In a nutshell, a toxic factor is that which makes us feel badly about ourselves. It’s a negative and destructive force and presence in our lives.
Toxic factors can include situations, places, and/or people and relationships. It’s not always possible to eliminate such factors; when we can’t, we can seek out ways to lessen their negative impact. I recently liberated myself from an utterly demoralizing situation, and that leap hugely improved my mental health and quality of life.
6). I engage my creative energy to the fullest extent possible.
If you have creative juices, let them flow. If you have hobbies, indulge in them. If you don’t have a hobby, get one. Losing ourselves in the physical act of doing something we enjoy goes beyond mere escapism. It often involves honing talents with which we’ve been blessed. The act of doing something physical that requires the creative part of our brains is beneficial to our mental health. There’s a reason why occupational therapy is a part of an in-patient mental illness patient’s prescribed agenda.
7). I have cats.
Connecting with animals on an emotional level and caring for them has proven to be a powerful stress reducer, improving our mental and physical health. Our relationships with our pets can actually extend our lives, improve the quality of our lives, and even save our lives. I can’t think of anything that can compare to cultivating the love and trust of an animal. (I say “animal,” but this applies to birds and fish, too.)
8). I actively express my compassion for others in one way or another, however small.
Example: I don’t have time to physically go and volunteer at homeless shelters, so I choose to do my part by providing with water. I make sure to have one or two small bottles of cold water with me when I leave the house, especially in the hot months.
We buy generic water in bulk, keep the bottles in the refrigerator, and give them to the homeless when we see them on the street or at a red light. (Admittedly, I try to identify those homeless who are vets, though I’ll give water to any homeless person, of course.) Every time, without fail, the person takes the bottle of cold water with visible – sometimes overwhelming – gratitude and joy, which they express in such an open and heartfelt manner that I’m instantly put in empathetic touch with their plight. Water is never an unwelcome thing. The person usually opens it and chugs it immediately.
Kindness is invaluable for the human spirit.
Giving water to drink means and accomplishes much more than giving change or a dollar. Giving water with a smile is an act that says, “I recognize that you’re a human being and deserving of this basic, life-saving thing. Someone cares about you and your well-being.” I don’t think it’s necessary to explain how showing compassion to the needy can be anything but beneficial to all involved.
9). I set goals for myself and plan things to anticipate.
I believe I devoted an entire blog post to this. Having agenda items to look forward to is a pleasurable thing. It can also, in the worst of times, give us a reason to keep on keeping on.
10). I try to get 7-8 hours of sleep every night. (Still trying. Still mostly failing. But still trying).
This can’t be stressed enough: Adequate sleep and quality sleep are important for optimal physical and mental health and well-being.
11). I count my blessings and nurture my relationships with loved ones.
One word: Gratitude.
Being grateful for what we have – and who we have – is an incredibly powerful reminder that things could always be worse.
That sums it up: In addition to acceptance, meds, and professional talk therapy, I manage my mental illness by working on physical health, stress reduction, and gratitude. I try.