In all honesty, I didn’t really want to talk about mental health today. Which is weird, because this is the day to talk about it. But right now, in this moment, I’m happy. Happy being slightly relative because the pandemic has us all swinging back and forth like pendulums when it comes to mood. Cabin fever comes in and out, I get irritable pretty quickly and although I feel energised by small victories, small losses can set me off. (I cried the other day when I couldn’t find a parking spot, it wasn’t my shiniest moment)
And this is one of the hardest things about mental health, to keep working at it even when things are good. Mental health is like eczema. You have to constantly work to maintain a status quo. I know this because I have eczema. I’ve had eczema since I was a baby, I knew the names of topical steroids before I knew my parents’ birthdays. So, after 22 years, I have a fine-tuned, regimented system to keep my skin under control. Creams and ointments and moisturisers keep me looking like a human rather than a scaley crocodile. And occasionally I have flare ups when the weather changes, if I forget to fill a prescription, if I have an allergic reaction to something that leads to a bigger rash. But I still work at my eczema everyday.
Which is why I’m writing this. Because even though I’m happy right now, tomorrow and the next day and the day after that are unpredictable. And if I don’t keep working, don’t keep managing, I could get a mental health flare up, which is so much more difficult to manage than day to day maintenance. Similarly, to eczema, there are things that I do regularly to help manage my mental health. So, I’m going to take you through my favourite coping mechanisms.
Stuff I do regularly:
You’ve heard it, I’ve heard it, we’ve all heard it, but I swear to God it works. I try to have 3 “active days” every week, two of which I seriously get my heart pumping. So usually that’s one walk and two days where I kick my own ass and scream at Chloe Ting on my computer, telling her how much I hate her.
Don’t come at me and say, “But I don’t know how to sing” because anyone can sing. At least once a week I make sure to sing for fun. In the shower, in the car, in my room, I sing at the top of my lungs and let out all that pent up anxiety. Yes, I still do my warm-ups and sing more technically 3-4 times a week on top of that, but at least once a week I make sure to get all my jitters out by…well I guess it can be described more as screaming than singing but you get the point.
3. Making To-Do lists:
Anxiety and spontaneity are not friends. Anxiety lives in “I don’t know” so I make to-do lists and set alarms and arrange plans. Of course, my definition of “plans” has changed over the last year. Whereas a year ago plans involved seeing other people, currently my plans involve going to the grocery store. Still, I create structure when structure is sparse, and it has calmed my nerves.
Stuff I do occasionally:
1. Strip down:
Sometimes I when I feel overwhelmed, it feels like I am coated in anxiety. So, I go back to basics. I take off my makeup and my nail polish and shave my legs and cut my nails and clean my cuticles and wash my hair. Think about resetting yourself, putting everything back at square one, that way you can rebuild the way you see best. A hot shower can fix a lot of problems. P.S. Put on clean pajamas afterwards, it really seals the deal for me.
2. Have a dance party:
By yourself, with your roommate, with your friends. I have a playlist called “Health Coping Mechanisms” and it is all the songs that make me want to dance. It ranges from Motown to Rap to Musical Theatre, which I understand is a weird combination. I would suggest creating a playlist of songs you find irresistibly dance-y and keep it in your back pocket. Sometimes you just need to get out of your head.
3. Give something a deep clean:
Maybe you’re being triggered by your environment. A clean, organised environment can lead to a clean, organised brain. You’re likely a lot more influenced by the space around you than you’ve realised. Sometimes taking a couple hours and scrubbing your stove and washing that glass plate in your microwave and sorting all the random condiments in your fridge can give you that piece of mind you’ve been looking for.
Stuff I do when I’m going to have a panic attack:
Anxiety is an attention-whore. The more attention you feed it the bigger it gets. Time and time again I hear people referring to panic attacks as a spiral, but what if you cut the spiral? It has nowhere to go. Like cutting off the oxygen to a fire. Next time you feel a panic attack coming on, try to distract yourself before you start to feel out of control. It takes a lot of practice, and I’m still learning how to do it, but here are my go-to distractions:
a. Investigate an object:
My doctor told me this one. When you get really anxious pick an object around you and analyze every detail of it. What does it look like? How many colours are in it? How many shades of every colour? What size is it? Try to measure it. What are all the different ways you can use it? I once counted every ridge on a bar napkin when I was nervous at a bar. Pick an object and study it like you’re writing a PhD thesis about it. Like you’re trying to explain it to a sketch artist.
b. Number patterns:
When I get anxious my dad tells me to count to 62,357. In sevens. I’ve never gotten to 62,357, but the point is I’m focused on counting. 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49 and so on. Try counting to 100 and clapping on every prime number. Do long division and try to go as many decimal places as you can. Do BEDMAS equations. Solve basic algebra. Math being math makes it perfect, because it requires focus and energy. All of which you have to take away from your anxiety, therefore not giving it the attention it needs to blow up. And don’t use your phone as a calculator, that’s definitely cheating.
c. Play a game on your phone:
Download one or two games that, similar to the other two examples, take some serious brain power. You want it to be more complex than 2048, and more fast-paced than Words with Friends. My go-to’s are sudoku, Tap Tap Revenge (yes, I’m bringing it back) and this game I have with a kiwi bird (it’s kind of like Flappy Bird). You want something that takes extended focus, because the point is distraction.
Exercise, singing, cleaning, distracting, all these tricks took time to develop. The list has shuffled with time, and I am still fine-tuning it – it’s no eczema-routine. As you all know, exercise just recently made the list this year, whereas singing was a coping mechanism before “coping mechanism” was a term in my vocabulary. And I’m guessing in the next year this list will change again as vaccinations allow us to live a life that resembles normal.
I know that accommodating the change can be exhausting. I know it’s tiring and frustrating and working at this everyday feels like an uphill battle. Sometimes mechanisms that used to work start failing, and sometimes it feels like nothing works. Like every tool in Batman’s tool belt is broken or in the wrong place or missing. But I promise you’re doing a lot better than you think you are. Just trying, just working at it at all is a step in the right direction. You’ve got this, and remember I’m always in your corner, with an ear to listen, a shoulder to cry on and a very weird playlist to dance to.
From me, with love, to you,
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