‘Baby Steps’ I Took During My Anxiety and Depression Recovery
You undoubtedly have seen or read a lot of articles on New Year’s resolutions. Goals can sometimes be good things for people with depression and anxiety to focus on, as long as they are within reach. Otherwise, from my experience, unattainable goals can cause even more depression and anxiety.
I fondly remember a comedy movie from my late teen years, “What About Bob,” starring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfus. The movie was about a psychiatric patient who follows his psychiatrist on a family vacation. In the movie, Dreyfus advises Murray to take “baby steps,” which were small, attainable steps as a way for Murray to start to conquer his fears.
In late 2015 and early 2016, my anxiety attacks and major depressive disorder brought upon a re-evaluation of a lot of things for me. My conditions led to a leave of absence from work, partial hospitalizations, changes in therapists and medications. Ultimately, in late December, I began transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy.
Along the way, there were some resolutions, or “baby steps,” I found I could implement relatively easily. Yet, there were other steps, or breakthroughs, that came in their own time.
Some of the steps I could implement right away included:
Keeping a log or even just writing down my feelings was a necessary part of the partial hospitalization experiences I had. It’s a tool I continued to use on a pretty regular basis throughout the year. At first, I was afraid that by writing out my feelings, I would ruminate even more than I already did. However, by writing out my emotions, I felt like I was able to relay information better to different caregivers. I could also look back on the journal entries and see patterns, as well as fluctuations in my thought processes.
This is the concept and practice of being present in the here and now. This is another concept I gained an appreciation of in a partial hospitalization setting. There were (and sometimes are) times in my life where, for example, I would worry about work when I was at home and home when I was at work. Leading up to my leave of absence, I struggled with anxiety attacks in part as a result of worrying about “what if/worst case” scenarios. A few somewhat simple exercises assigned to me while in a partial hospitalization were mindfully eating a piece of chocolate and mindfully driving from home to a day program. These gave me a sense of peace if only for a few minutes. They were like mini-vacations, just existing in the present moment.
3. Simple positive self-reinforcement.
I spoke with my therapist about how I often put myself down. Negative self-talk, anxiety and depression have gone hand-in-hand for me. My therapist recommended that when I see myself in a mirror I tell myself something positive about myself. She emphasized the comments can be something basic, such as, “I got up and went to work today.” When I began doing this, and even some days still, my positive comments were basic. Yet, the simple positive self-reinforcement does help settle my nerves and reinforce that I can accomplish things.
A simple meditation practice I learned in partial hospitalization helped ease some level of anxiety. I often experienced severe heartburn and chest pain as a result of anxiety attacks. A social worker in a day program I attended gave us an exercise that stuck with me: Whenever you feel tightness/burning in your chest due to anxiety, hold your hand over that area of your chest. Keep reciting to yourself positive affirmations such as everything’s going to be OK, and breathe slowly in and out. This exercise helped get me through anxious moments when I returned to work from my leave of absence.
Those steps helped me begin to think of and deal with my anxiety in different ways. Yet, there were other steps I took throughout the year that had to come in their own time when I was ready. These included:
1. Downsize responsibilities.
My anxiety attacks and depression make me feel like I am overwhelmed with life. Four kids, a spouse, house, job, coach and appointments. The list seems like it goes on and on. Things I used to have a passion for brought on anxiety themselves. While talking to a friend and therapist, they advised me to simplify things as much as I could. I swallowed my pride in some cases and for the betterment of my mental health, I took a step back from a few commitments to simplify life a little bit.
2. Confide in family and friends.
As I entered my leave of absence and began a partial hospitalization, something inside of me told me to reach out. I felt like I needed to be authentic with select family and friends to begin the healing process. Most people I reached out to were kind and understanding. I felt like I could be myself (or my new self) to release some feelings. By reaching out, I found out I have a family history of mental health issues and that I wasn’t alone.
3. Social media, knowledge and stigma.
This was also inspired by my therapist. Based on my interests, she suggested I use social media to educate myself on mental health and be a proponent for mental health. This could be as simple as “liking”/”following” and sharing certain people/organizations on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets.
4. Listen to music.
At the peak of my anxiety, I found any type of music, as well as loud sounds, unsettling. From the beginning to middle of 2016, I became aware that the only thing I liked to listen to was monotone sports talk radio in my car. I became keenly aware of this during a music therapy session at my second partial hospitalization. The music therapy didn’t provide any relief. In fact, I had no interest in even listening to my favorite musical artists whatsoever. It wasn’t until my birthday, in late August, driving around in my car, that I had a sudden urge to listen to a favorite artist who I hadn’t heard in awhile. I took it as a sign of some sort, a step forward if only for the moment.
5. Group outings with kids.
With four kids, full of boundless energy, I often feel in over my head with my symptoms. In a group therapy session in early 2016, a fellow patient suggested a good goal for me would be to take all four kids out, by myself, for an outing somewhere. At the time, with my anxiety attacks, that goal seemed so out of reach. It wasn’t until after Christmas that I took all four kids out on my own for lunch and shopping. We somehow survived and had a little fun along the way.
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