Just as eating well and exercising is good advice for anyone, positive habits should be formed by all towards a healthier, happier mind. We’ve been told all our lives to take care of our bodies; I hope we make it a point to start consciously taking care of our minds too. After all. most—if not all—of the things in life are mind over matter.
Below are exercises I do to get a grip on what’s going on in my brain, especially when I feel like I’m driving off the rails a little because of stress or other factors. All of these helped me deal with the effects of anxiety and trauma, while nos. 3 and 4 helped the most during my bouts of depression.
Some of these may not be for you, but I hope you try them first before you decide. Just like the work you put into your physical fitness and health, building good mental habits is a process. Be open to the journey and patient with your mind. You’ll be surprised where it can take you.
Our minds are different just as our bodies are different, so please feel free to pick the approach for you and share habits you already have that aren’t mentioned below. 🙂
1. Overthinking? Catch your automatic responses with a thought record
This exercise was given by my therapist to help deal with my anxiety, but I can imagine this helping the overthinkers out there too. Writing down my thought process with the guidance of the table below allowed me to see when I was clearly jumping to conclusions and letting my imagination get the best of me.
These are some thoughts I had at the peak of my recent anxiety episode. I also included other examples of how this thought record can be used. I think it can help discipline the mind whatever state it’s in.
I know it may seem like a lot of work right now, but once it becomes a habit, you’ll be more level-headed and patient with yourself and others.
|Couldn’t sleep. It’s been like this for weeks. I fall asleep but always wake up throughout the night.||What’s in the bathroom? Is that someone outside my door? What if that noise is of someone climbing onto my balcony? Is that someone pushing my door?||Wary, rattled||Block doors with things that fall over easily so I wake up immediately. Keep a light on. Pepper spray under my pillow.||This is your brain on fear, Jean. Check all the entrances so you’ll have some peace of mind and think of something else to distract you. No one can climb onto your third floor balcony without noise. Your neighbors are the ones making noise; it’s not someone trying to kill you.|
|My neighbor and I saw each other for the first time (it’s a quiet building, people usually don’t see each other).||Oh my god now that he know what I look like and that I’m alone, he is going to break in at night and hurt me!||Legitimately terrified||Repeat above behaviors but with knife under pillow along with pepper spray. (What if he uses these against me??)||Jean, the man is trying to live his life. He likes privacy as much as you do. You’ve been living here for over a year, when did all your neighbors suddenly become murderers??|
|My friend doesn’t seem to be very talkative today. She seems distant and a little cold.||Was it anything I did? Did I say something that upset her? Let me recall everything I did since our last friendly interaction so I can figure it out.||Anxious, wary||I act the same towards her but don’t talk as much. Maybe she wants some quiet?||Maybe she’s not feeling well or is upset about something else. Not everything is about me! She usually tells me when something’s up so she probably will when she’s in the mood.|
|Facebook friend posts photo of herself going somewhere I’ve always wanted to go/doing something I’ve always wanted to do.||That’s MY favorite destination. Wala naman naglike nung picture!! Buti nga!||Envy! Envy! Envy!||Ayoko nga i-like hmph. Dedma.||Mature mo, ‘te?? Kumuha ba siya ng bundok doon na hindi mo na makikita at inggit na inggit ka? Tanda na natin para dito. I-like mo na yan dahil gusto mo naman talaga.|
2. Consciously identify your main sources of stress and what you can do to lessen their impact
Everyone does some kind of problem solving everyday. You do it for your job, school and friend’s love life. You should also do it for yourself on a regular basis.
Close your eyes and think of what bugs you the most right now. Acknowledge them, no matter how “petty.” (It’s okay to be petty, no one else has to know! 😉 We have to be completely honest with ourselves before we can deal with what bothers us.)
I suggest writing your stressors down because seeing something on paper makes them less abstract and, therefore, more manageable. This is probably the essence of to-do lists.
Alright. After lining up your stressors, decide how to realistically deal with them given your context and resources. The reality is snapping your fingers won’t make them go away. You can’t control people and you can control only so much of a situation, but you CAN control how you respond.
It’s important to remember that tough things take time, so don’t be hard on yourself and celebrate small victories.
Here are some examples.
“What bugs me the most right now is”
- I still think I look fat even though I changed my diet, and it makes me feel ugly. The exercises I prefer, like yoga, muay thai and aerial silks, cost too much. Jogging is free but I hate it and it makes my knees hurt. I’d walk more but I don’t want to be mugged again.
- I want to be with my sister for the holidays but my mother causes so much drama and makes everyone, even strangers, feel miserable. I am sick of her playing the victim, being entitled and mistreating others. Confronting her will just put my sister between us and ruin Christmas for everybody!
- This person at work is so pushy, loud and annoying. I have to see her everyday, ugh!
This is how I would deal with the above maybe-hypothetical situations.
- I feel fat: In my opinion, am I fat? Yes. Am I healthy? Yes. Good, I at least have 50% of the situation dealt with. So how do I feel good about my appearance? My preferred exercises are too costly while the free ones are not activities I enjoy. My current solution is I can do both and see what works. I’ll cut back on unnecessary spending so I can go to classes I’m excited about then invite friends to jog so it will be more enjoyable. I can take walks in safe areas, like UP, and not too late in the day (while carrying a whistle, just in case). I swept and mopped so my apartment can be conducive for practicing yoga at home and I’ll have no more excuse. I also bought a yoga mat since I keep my old one at work.
To form good habits you need will, yes, but also strategy. A habit sticks when you’ve made it as convenient as possible to do.
- Family drama: At this point you already know that you can’t fight fire with fire. Your mother hasn’t changed in decades so just take the high road. What’s important is to make sure your sister knows she can talk to you and that you are a positive presence in her life. Your mother is her mother too, so how you respond affects how she responds. Your mother is a human being, and human frailty is something you can discuss with your sister openly as she is old enough. There are reasons why your mother turned out this way and understanding those reasons is key to, hopefully, changing her behavior. Doing the right thing is always hard. Treat everyone kindly but know when and how to call them out on their shit. In this case, I’ve done both—just depends on the year.
- Annoying colleague: Case to case basis, my friend. I would just reduce exposure as much as possible. If her attitude disrupts my productivity and mood but doesn’t necessarily hurt anyone, I’m on the losing end here. Don’t say things about her that you wouldn’t say to her face. The world is small, and offices more so. Earphones are great. Other rooms are even better. Look at puppy pictures on the internet.
3. Refocus obsessive thinking by setting goals
Disclosure. My dogged goal-getting started in earnest as a matter of survival (as in, if I don’t work three jobs I will have no food, home and tuition) and, when life improved, turned into a coping mechanism. Having goals makes me feel not-lost. It makes me feel in control, which, in turn, keeps me sane.
Start setting small goals towards the best version of yourself. Do you want to learn three more languages before turning 35? Aim to practice one language for 20 minutes everyday on Duolingo. Considering a new specialization for grad school? Explore related free courses online to see if it’s for you. Want to go to Japan for the cherry blossoms? Set realistic saving goals. Want to lead a more sustainable lifestyle? Try weekday vegetarianism, carry reusables and reduce unnecessary purchases to one a month.
When I find myself having obsessive negative thoughts, it helps to focus on my goals and next steps. If that doesn’t work or I just want a break, I imagine myself having already accomplished those goals so I can revisit my purpose and stay motivated.
On a related note, I tend to be high-functioning even when experiencing mental illness. I know there are plenty out there who are the same. If you’re one of them, PLEASE do not let anyone invalidate what you’re going through because they think you are perfectly okay. Most of the time, your loved ones—even if well-intentioned—will be the first to say you’re too happy/functional/okay to need help. It felt like a compliment at the time to hear I was okay from someone else, but I made the mistake of listening to them more than to myself. I first felt I needed help way back in 2010. It took me 7 years to take myself seriously. If I didn’t wait that long, maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alone when I needed support the most.
4. Find calm through gratitude
If there’s one thing that saved me from depression and suicide, it’s gratitude. It didn’t stop the shadows, but it kept me fighting.
Sometimes goal-setting and rationalizing your way through stressful situations just won’t cut it. Sometimes I just feel like shit. Why? Because I’m human. We’re human. When I hate myself most or when I’m angriest at the world (which often happens after hours of reading the news… or after elections), I find balance in gratitude. I force myself to think of good things in my life or in the world. Sometimes I even say it out loud. I read about people doing good, brave things. I look out the window to appreciate the trees and birds. For worst days, I’ve assigned my partner to sit me down and ask what I’m grateful for (he often also shows me puppy pictures). Gratitude is a muscle so it will take time for it to feel natural, but when it does, you’ll feel stronger for it.
I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that being online all the time has a way of distorting our perception of ourselves, the world and others. Looking at other people’s “perfect” lives all day and being barraged by our daily dose of bad news made me feel so discontent with my life, and I didn’t even realize it until I disconnected.
The first time I went to therapy, I shared that reading the news made me feel more anxious, angry and afraid. The string of senseless killings triggered my anxiety like never before. I know it’s my responsibility to be informed and involved. I know not caring about current events is a privilege. I didn’t want to be perceived as apathetic, but it was driving me so crazy I didn’t recognize myself anymore. When I said it out loud to my counsellor, it was like I was stating the obvious—being connected doesn’t mean I’m being a productive member of society. What is the point of going to a battle I am unfit to fight? Nonetheless, I needed her to tell me it was okay for me to stop and take care of myself until I was ready again.
“But what about my friends?” I asked. Having to reply to people all the time was making me so tired and cranky. Helping with problems is part of being a good friend and I have wonderful friends, but I am just so exhausted. I feel like I’m about to crack. Again, it felt like I was telling her something I already knew. If constantly replying to my friends was making me cranky and no longer present and thoughtful in my conversations with them, wasn’t I replying for the sake of replying? What was the point? It’s like meeting up with a friend to catch up but they’re just on their phones the whole time and replying in grunts. Nakakainis.
Nowadays disconnecting sometimes isn’t a choice, but being present is.
I’m online 24/7 so people can reach me but I make sure I am in the right state to give them my full attention. They deserve it. I deserve it. If you get annoyed when people are on their phones around you and want them to be present and paying attention (because that’s what good relationships are made of, ano ba), realize that you deserve the same treatment from yourself.
Checking in regularly with yourself, listening without judgement and being protective of this me time is the backbone of true self-care.
6. Rethink what is important
This is the one habit that freed me from the unnecessary pressures of life. It came to me so unexpectedly just a few months ago and has been instrumental in finally finding peace of mind. Sit tight, it’s story time.
It started with a conversation I had with my partner S on careers. He’s mentioned a couple of times that all he wants career-wise is to have enough money to retire quietly with me in a house we built ourselves. I always thought of myself as a career-oriented woman, so I thought he was joking. Having to fight so hard all my life, I came to look at Not Trying, or at least not wanting to, as despicable. I thought people just had to push, to climb, to beat the odds, to want to—because that’s how I got to this point after my ugly past. I believed everyone could work for success, so S was a surprise to me.
At first I felt concerned that he was not ambitious but then I thought, and so? Is that a bad thing? It dawned on me that, in many cases, ambition is the hunger to inflate one’s importance, to achieve more, climb higher. But for what? What is success for? What is success? I consider myself a wise person but, in this regard, S looks at life with clearer eyes. So I asked him.
He said the same thing. He said success is having enough money to cuddle with me forever and maybe travel a little bit here and there. What was this? I thought success was getting a master’s degree and helping save the world and not having to be hungry and scared anymore to boot.
How dare this person suggest that success was to be… happy?
In the age of social media and being exposed to the friends I admire most constantly (many of whom are working for environmental protection, social justice, development, etc.), I honestly thought that what I wanted most was to be relevant– a change maker! I planned my last few years in pursuit of becoming an environmentalist who will contribute much to society. Though I love animals and the environment more than anything, I’ve always known that what I truly want for my short time on earth was to be safe and happy. I was ashamed to admit that I wanted a quiet, peaceful, normal life. I wanted to not be scared, to be loved and to take care of creatures.
Upon realizing this, a new question came to me that has become a source of such comfort and direction: what is the point of it all? We’re all going to die, and it could be sooner rather than later. What is the point of trying to have so much money, so many things, attention, admiration, envy, approval? What would you be doing if no one else could see, comment, like? What would you be doing that would make your life truly worth it all?
In the end, what S told me is that he wants a life of loving and being loved. This perspective on life has noticeably made me more practical, less entitled and more aware of my motivations for doing and saying things. It made me realize that few things in life actually matter. (For someone with anxiety, this has been a massive relief too to be honest.) I’m not saying I’m going to pack up my bags and elope to the mountains.
But in every step of the struggle, I know I’ll now remember to ask, what is the point? Am I doing this for what really matters?
There’s a reason communication seems to be the solution to every problem. It’s because, more often than not, it works. There are many ways and reasons to communicate. Through communication you can receive/give support and reassurance, solve problems, entertain, build intimacy, etc.
The question isn’t whether you should, it’s how and who.
The reality is we choose things to tell specific friends and family members. Maybe friend A is great at love advice but can’t tolerate talking about sex. Maybe friend B is not the one you come to for feelings but can be depended on to be there when you need drinks at 2:00 AM. Talk to people you don’t feel judged by. Try therapy if you’re not comfortable yet in being vulnerable with those close to you. Talk to strangers on the internet! (Reddit is great.)
(Related anecdote: I only remember one thing clearly from high school religion class, and it’s when my teacher said, “a problem shared is 50% solved.” Okay, so the real world taught me the percentage can vary depending on the problem, but my teacher wasn’t wrong.)
It’s easier said than done, I know. Many just aren’t “good” at talking. I say about 9 out of 10 words in my conversations with my partner (obvious ba, ang dami kong sinabi dito), but that doesn’t mean we don’t communicate well. We do long distance 11 months in a year and being apart does not at all affect our love for each other. (So I know what I’m saying here. Haha!) It took time to get to this level, but we did because we were both willing to be honest, mature, patient and non-judgemental (the maturity bit can take time too).
He and I have a lot of differences in culture and perspective, and it can be quite easy to feel upset when you feel judged or misunderstood. What I’ve learned is blocking communication with sulking isn’t going to do anyone any favors. Once you’re capable of calmly communicating, explain what a situation made you feel before blaming them for being ______. You can feel unappreciated/ jealous/ offended/ uncomfortable even when others don’t. Everyone’s feelings are valid but, remember, that doesn’t always mean you are objectively right.
Like I said, tough things take time, but they are so worth it.
Phew! That was a long one. It took me ages to write. It’s a little late, but I didn’t want to get it out there for the sake of posting. I truly hope some of my suggestions above work for you and add goodness to your life.
Come over for a chat anytime! Comment below or send a message/email. Growing Up MNL is also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @growingupmnl.
Ingat! Have a good week ahead ♥
Thumbnail photo: Own; taken in Germany 2015