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6 Ways Having a Mental Illness Has (Surprisingly) Helped Me During the COVID-19 Outbreak

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Less than a week ago I wrote an article on the six ways the coronavirus has been difficult on my mental health. I promised a follow up article, though to be honest I expected it to emerge from my brain months from now. Surprise, I already have something I’d like to share! It turns out…

Having a mental illness is helping me stay well during the coronavirus outbreak.

How is this possible? Allow me to explain.

For close to 15 years, I’ve had a diagnosed mental illness of major depressive disorder, as well as some tag-on symptoms related to anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Prior to being diagnosed I was experiencing symptoms for close to 10 additional years. Therefore I have a collective experience of over 25 years, during which time I’ve been very active in my treatment.

Years of therapy, self-help, medications, advocacy, volunteering and so much more has given me strengths for this time, and I’d like to share them with you in hopes they can boost your resiliency as well.

Here are the six ways having a mental illness has helped me to stay well during this outbreak. The first one is a bit long, but its super important so please stick with me!

1. Basic needs must be met.

You may be familiar with something called “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” In a nutshell, it’s the concept that we all have particular needs, and that base needs must be met in order to progress to “higher” needs. Over time there has been some debate about what belongs where on this structure, but the base stays generally the same. On the base are what are called our physiological and safety needs; things like food, water, shelter, sleep and protection sit at this base. Everyone needs these things, and if you have a mental illness a lot of these base issues can come quickly into focus. 

When things are stressful we can mistakenly push some of these base items to the side. We’ve all skipped a meal or forgotten to go to bed during a difficult time, and if it’s a one off this is likely not a big deal. As a person who struggles with depression though, I’ve learned that by doing these fundamental tasks I give myself a fighting chance against my disorder. When days are particularly bad I know to not stress about “larger picture” things. Instead I choose to spend what little energy I may have on things like eating something, getting some rest, staying hydrated and so on. This gives both my body and mind a fighting chance while I simultaneously do not become my own source of hindrance.

As we make our way through this difficult time of the coronavirus, learn to focus on your base needs so you can stay well to do more.

2. Ride the wave.

Learning to “ride the wave” is a huge part of dealing with mental illness as well as chronic pain. What it supposes is that much like the sea, “waves” are always going to come. And that instead of fighting them, we can learn to “ride them.” Anxiety will come, what will you do with it? Bad pain days will emerge, how will you respond?

What this means in relation to this pandemic is accepting that we are going to be faced with a lot of emotions. Accept that as a fact. Then instead of denying or avoiding those emotions, take control by recognizing the power you have is what you do with those feelings. Name it, and do something with it. I’m anxious about the world, so I’m going to do a meditation. I’m depressed about isolation, I’m going to make three phone calls today. That’s how you ride the wave.

3. Fully embrace your quirky passions.

I am a 38-year-old woman with a LEGO collection that takes up around three book shelves. Think that’s weird? Too bad for you. I love it and it brings me joy and contentment. Whatever your passion is, embrace it! Don’t let anyone take that from you (you know, so long as it’s legal and safe). Are you a “Brony”? Watch those ponies all day long! Big into needlepoint? Great, stitch reminders to wash your hands!

Author John Green has a great quote about how calling someone a nerd is a bad insult, as all that means is that a person un-ironically and enthusiastically enjoys something. Sorting LEGO bricks helps me to calm my anxiety. Watching “Les Misérable” helps me embrace my dark feelings. Nerding out on anything Star Wars related brings me enthusiasm and hope. During any time it’s a great idea to enjoy your passions, especially so during difficult times. If what brings you joy happens to be somewhat unusual don’t let anyone rob you of that.

4. Small attainable goals.

During two separate times in my life I’ve needed to go on disability leave because depression made it difficult to function, let alone work. Much like folks are experiencing now, I quickly realized how hard it could be to fill my days in ways that helped me feel productive. One way I worked on this was developing small lists of daily goals I was really gentle with myself about. If it doesn’t end up happening, tomorrow is another day.

What is on that list really doesn’t matter, just so long as things that need doing. Some ideas might include quick, focused cleaning, organizing projects, paying bills, going for a walk (if safe to do so), starting a donate box, laundry and so on. In different times I would also highly recommend getting into volunteering, which for now is likely not possible or safe. If though you can find a way to do some volunteering right now, either virtually or otherwise safely within regulations this could be an awesome outlet! 

5. Appreciate the power of TV and movies.

This one is pretty specific to me I am a huge TV and movie lover, but they’ve really helped me get through periods of depression. Now is your time to watch those movies and shows you’ve always wanted to but haven’t. Now is your time to look at a list of: “Top 100 movies of all time,” and pick out the ones you’ve never seen. Now is your time to watch your favorite childhood series to see if it stands up to the test of time. Be imaginative with this. One thing I’ve done is create lists of movies that fall within a small but established genre, and then slowly watch my way through the list. Examples could be: “dystopian movies made between 1950-2000,” or “highest rated trilogies of all time.”

As a bonus we live in a world where doing viewing projects like this has become much more possible and accessible. If money is tight as it will be for many folks currently, be sure to research your options. Some subscription services give you a free trail period, see if your local library has a virtual movie catalogue and look on networks’ websites to see if they have free live streaming or particular shows provided at no cost.

TV and movies not your thing? No problem. You can also dive into books, music, museums, zoo tours and science experiments and so much more! All available free online via libraries, institutions, streaming services and wherever Google takes you. 

6. Embrace uncertainty. 

This last one is without a doubt the most difficult point on my list to do. This idea of embracing uncertainty is high on the list of things both theologians and philosophers discuss and try to understand. Therefore I am no expert, but as I mentioned in the beginning, I do have around 25 years of personal experience with mental illness. And what I’ve learned during this time correlates with the concept that “best laid plans often go awry.”

What does this mean? Well, I could plan to have coffee with a friend, and I’ve done so successfully 100 times prior. But that day could come and I might be absolutely unable to get out of bed. I might plan to go see a movie, again something I’ve done a 1,000 times. Then as I’m watching the previews I could have a panic attack and have to go home. Other folks with chronic illnesses will tell you the same thing; whatever they plan can be derailed by a flair, migraine or any other issue. What becomes certain is that nothing is certain, and you some how learn to live with that.

This doesn’t mean you don’t feel disappointment or sadness over changes or missed opportunities, it just means you recognize things might not go as you hope, but you can still make plans regardless. Right now the world is upended, and a common question on everyone’s mind is, “How long will this last?” The answer is, we just don’t know. You can become stuck by this uncertainty or learn to roll with it to the best of your ability. By no means is it an easy thing to do, and if you focus on some other areas mentioned on my list it may become easier for you.

Thank you for taking the time to read over my thoughts, I truly hope that what I’ve shared will be helpful. Please know that yes, even though I do have all this experience, I am not always able to follow my own advice, or claim that doing so is easy. But I do think some of us have a certain type of resiliency that is especially useful in regards to this crisis. Do you have a skill in relation to mental illness that is helping you during this time? Please share in the comments!

If you enjoyed this article, please take a moment to check out some of my other articles here on The Mighty. If you’d like to follow along with my journey, you can find me on Instagram as @mentalhealthyxe.

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Originally published: March 30, 2020
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