Recently, during my fortieth birthday dinner, my husband commented on how much I’ve changed over the 15-plus years he’s known me. “You were pretty depressed when we met,” he said, “I wasn’t sure if that was something we’d be dealing with forever.” He commented that I’m not at all that way now. And he’s right. I still have anxieties, sleepless nights, and occasional minor meltdowns, but I would no longer say that I’m dealing with a day-to-day mental health issue like I was in the past. I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life learning what wellness looks like for me and how to battle a tendency towards depression and anxiety at various points in my life. And in the past ten years in particular, I’ve been very successful in that battle — despite having a major health crisis and losing my mother.
I grew up in a house with anxiety and depression. My mother, while a lovely and loving person, suffered from both disorders for as long as I can remember. Knowing what it is like to grow up with a depressed parent, I knew I needed to make changes when I became a mom.
I’ve found some things that really help me, and particularly for people who are planning to have kids or early in parenthood and struggling, I want to share those things with you. I fully recognize that each person dealing with depression and anxiety is different, and what worked for me may not work for you. AND, while taking and eventually going off of antidepressants was right for me, some people truly need these medications for the rest of their lives. That’s ok too. All of the things I suggest help with or without medication. Here are the things that helped me.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT.) When I recognized my depression, my first therapists were psychoanalysts. But eventually I felt like I was done rehashing my childhood. It wasn’t helpful. I needed help dealing with the everyday. I needed to know how to address the negative thoughts I had. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has a really strong evidence base, it is solution-focused (meaning you aren’t in therapy forever, just for a short period to develop needed skills.) If you put in the work, it leaves you with the resources to get through rough times. Find a therapist who practices CBT and get yourself The Feeling Good Handbook, an invaluable text and workbook that helps you understand how the brain works, and how to reframe negative thoughts. And along these lines…
- Know that our thoughts are often meaningless. I know, this seems like it wouldn’t be the most helpful thing, but it is. Our brains are complex electrical instruments and there are misfires. A misfire that says you are worthless. That says you’ll never be good enough. That people don’t like you. Our brains fuck up all the time and it is on us to recognize that those destructive thoughts have no truth in them, to recognize that we have the power to ignore them and choose to believe something else. A helpful resource for a quick lesson about this is the first episode of the podcast Invisibilia. It’s a really intense story about a man dealing with very dark, violent thoughts, but it provides a helpful understanding of the history of psychology’s understanding on what our thoughts mean, and pathways to leaving negative thoughts behind.
- Learn to meditate. So much of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is akin to mindfulness meditation. You recognize your thoughts, label them for what they are (fear, worry, sadness), and let them go. Beyond a therapeutic relationship to learn this process, a lot of the work needs to happen on your own, at home, at work, and in the moments where anxiety or depression rears its head. In these moments, meditation is helpful. I’ve never been good at sitting down in silence and doing this myself. I find that I need a guide. So I tend to use the Headspace app, and Tara Brach and Live Awake podcasts to keep grounded. Meditation is truly an exercise. It is something that needs to happen even when you are feeling good (and I find that when I’m feeling good, it makes me feel even better.)
- Find the (physical) exercise that works for you. In my twenties, I only exercised to try to fit some physical ideal that wasn’t particularly realistic. I didn’t connect exercise to mental health. But good god, does it help. Our bodies need different exercises depending on our moods and the seasons. For me, I find when I’m down or in the winter, I crave slower, gentler movement like yoga. And as the sun peaks out or when I’m anxious, I crave the pavement-pounding feeling of a good hard run. I also walk or bike most places, so sometimes my exercise is built into my daily life. The important thing is that you find what works for you, and move your body every day.
- Mindset matters. Every emotion, at some level, is a choice. I don’t deny the validity of any emotion, go ahead and experience it. But negative emotions may not be useful or helpful in the long run. I like the metaphor that Elizabeth Gilbert uses in Big Magic when addressing fear. She likens her emotions to being on a road trip with her. Fear is a passenger in the car, but it definitely doesn’t have the wheel or even control of the radio. She acknowledges its presence, how it is there to protect her, but says to fear that it isn’t needed right now. It can just go ahead and ride along in the back seat. I like to think that we can address any negative emotion that way — it’s trying to help you in some way, but letting it rule you won’t be helpful. Just saying, “I see you, but I’m going to go with a different emotion” can be very powerful.
- Prioritize sleep. I’ve always been one to go to bed early, and especially after the sleepless nights with infants, I see the impact of sleep deprivation so clearly. As an entrepreneur, I find the sleepless nights of a busy mind taxing. So I try to do things that help me have a better night’s sleep. Meditation and exercise are part of that, as are going to bed early and drinking magnesium supplements. Often people say (or act like) they are too busy to go to bed at a reasonable hour. But if Arianna Huffington can get 7 hours of sleep a night, so can you. None of us have a real excuse to not prioritize sleep. And frankly, our days will be more productive if we all sleep more (and naturally, it is easier to respond to sometimes frustrating kids and partners with kindness when we’ve had a good night’s sleep.)
These are things that have helped me, and it is an ever evolving list. I’d love to hear from you, what works for you as you try to get a handle on depression and anxiety? How do you prioritize your wellbeing?