Reflecting on Mental Health

October 10th was World Mental Health Day, a day to bring awareness to mental health and end stigma around treatment. Important in a normal year, 2020 has magnified all of the ways that people can struggle with mental health. Isolation, fear, anxiety… all of these have been brought to the forefront for people who may not have had any issues with mental health Before Pandemic, and have heightened responses from those that do.

Hi, my name is Anna, and I use a lot of techniques to help manage my mental health. I took anti-depressants for a period of time after experiencing two second-trimester pregnancy losses in a six month period. I have been in individual therapy on-and-off for five years (currently on) and also done marriage therapy. I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety with an element of PTSD (related to my pregnancy losses) and take daily medication, as well as take a fast-acting anti-anxiety med when needed.

I acknowledge that my physiological response to anxiety is not something I can control. My heart races to the point where it is uncomfortable. I feel shaky. I can’t sleep. I tried “all of the things” to calm down: yoga, epsom salt baths, essential oils, going for walks, drinking calming tea. Nothing worked. I could not calm down when hit with a bout of anxiety.

My “fight or flight” response kicks into high gear. So I take medication. It keeps me more even keel.

I started seeing a therapist the week after my daughter, Nelle, was stillborn in 2015. Finding the right therapist has been a challenge (I’m now on my 5th in 5 years), but when the therapist is good, the work is beneficial.

It’s not easy. I have to weigh taking my fast-acting medication when I’m feeling particularly anxious, knowing that if I overdo it, I’ll just need a higher dose and will have increased dependence. I have to watch my other behaviors that I know I fall into as not-so-healthy other alternatives when I feel stressed, like doom scrolling or drinking too much alcohol.

My brain doesn’t function the same way when I’m in the height of anxiety, even with medication. I cannot read or absorb anything new and will spend my time watching tv shows on Netflix that I’ve seen a hundred times. I over-function in other areas, and try to control everything around me – usually directly in my house. I’m short-fused.

March 2020 felt like the worst of my fears crammed into a few short weeks. Fear that I couldn’t keep my family safe. Trapped with no escape and no end in sight. Too much noise, too much information.

Eventually, it leveled off as the New Normal set in. I could take a deep breath and say “Ok, I’ve done New Normal Before. I did this when my daughters died.” But for many people, that grief and loss probably lingered much longer. I only had the benefit (?) of being able to recognize the various stages that I was going through mentally.

After months of feeling mostly level, the past few weeks have had an increase in anxiety again. Change in weather, the school year starting, anticipation about the state of the country… I can feel the impact.

And I know…. from years and years of needing to manage my mental health, that I have to take extra care of myself. The medication is doing its job. The therapy gives me an outlet. But during these days, I have to do more if I want to feel good.

I got back into painting – which I haven’t felt like I’ve been able to do since Before Pandemic. I’m drinking a tea called “Chill the F* Out.” I’m using a meditation app called Headspace to help with focus and calm myself before sleep. All of which incrementally help.

Not enough attention is given to mental health in the way that it is given to physical health. There are a million exercise programs and recommendations for healthy eating. There are medication options to help the body in thousands of ways – such as heart disease, diabetes, or thyroid issues.

The brain is insanely complex. And there is far too much stigma around mental health, that the person simply isn’t trying hard enough to “be happy” or is weak.

I don’t have any shame around what I do to take care of my mental health. Medication. Therapy. Other self-care options that I have found to work.

I like my brain. I want it to operate as best it can. And that means that I need to take care of it along the way.