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4 Things My Therapist Said That Changed My Life

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It is a beautiful bright Sunday morning. I am sitting on a comfortable sea-green couch. There is a soft board in front of me with various motivational quotes pinned on it. A thousand thoughts are racing through my head.

“Is this right for me? Will I be able to open up to her? What if she is judgmental? Oh my god, my stomach is turning. I should just leave. This was a mistake.”

As I get up from the couch to leave, someone calls out my name and asks me to go inside. Cursing the decision under my breath, I enter the therapist’s room.

I have been battling with anxiety for five years now. Initially, I didn’t even consider therapy as an option. I thought I could ride it out. I thought it was a phase. But one day when my friend witnessed me having a panic attack, she coaxed me to go to a therapist. It has been a life changing experience for me. Here are some of the things my therapist has said to me that have changed my life for the better:

1. Indulge in boring self-care.

Self-care sounds like the easiest thing in the world. After all, how hard can it can be to love yourself? Well, for some of us, it isn’t. Self-care means taking active steps to nurture yourself. The mainstream media has equalized self-care with fancy bubble baths, lone dates at fancy restaurants, or spending a day at a french salon. While all these things do help a lot, they aren’t enough. My therapist introduced me to “boring self-care” which means eating healthy meals, drinking enough water and getting regular sleep. While all this may sound too simplistic, people with anxiety and depression know these things are the first ones to get disturbed during a bout of depression. Maintaining a routine becomes the hardest thing in the world. All the self-love goes down the gutter. You don’t feel like eating, sleeping or drinking. The boring self-care isn’t a one time act; it needs constant efforts. And constant efforts are hard. Extremely hard. Self-care doesn’t mean being selfish. People often guise selfish acts under the garb of self-care. Mental illness is not an excuse to treat someone badly. Self-care means setting boundaries and saying no when you want to. Self-care means taking care of your emotional well-being first because you can’t pour from anyone empty glass. Self-care means dragging yourself out from the bed when all you want to do is hide away from reality. Self-care is eating broccoli when you want to eat cheese burst pizza because you haven’t had anything healthy to eat in a few days. You see, it’s more difficult than taking a bubble bath.

2. Your worth is not defined by your productivity.

With the rising number of life coaches and motivational speakers using this word like their life depends on it, it has become a word of common parlance. You can find a thousand videos and articles on this topic. They preach things like work during your commute, make use of every minute of your life, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against productivity. But when this urge to be productive all the time doesn’t let you relax, it becomes problematic. The voice inside your head constantly does the cost-benefit analysis of you spending the time out at parties versus you doing something “productive.” It makes you feel guilty for giving yourself a break. I have always had a very difficult relationship with it. I oscillate between the two extremes — from doing nothing for weeks to going nonstop. My therapist explained to me that it starts as a good thing where your brain tells you to do useful things, but once you get good results out of it, you want to feel that again and again. If you keep feeding the desire, then it becomes uncontrollable. The lesson is to give yourself enough breaks so that you can also relax and enjoy for a while. The lesson is to not let your grades/ productivity/salary package define your worth. Because honestly, you are much more than those things.

3. Healing is going to feel shitty.

Healing is a very tricky process. It begins after you realize that you are going through something traumatic and you can do something to cope with it. Healing begins after the realization that it is not anxiety that controls you, but you who will now attempt to tackle it. Healing feels shitty because it requires you to change patterns. Once you are in depression for a long time, the feeling of sadness and hopelessness is what you get used to. These feelings are what you know. They become addictive. To break that pattern through healing is an extremely difficult task. You aren’t used to feeling happy so you self-sabotage. If there is nothing to worry about, there is always one thing that you did 15 years back that will come and haunt you until you feel sadness and hopelessness. It is a vicious cycle. Healing is also not linear. You are good for days, weeks and even months but then there is one bad day and everything falls apart. You feel like you are back to square one…that all the effort you put in was for nothing…that you can’t escape it. But feeling shitty is a part of the process. You will have to keep feeling shitty until it stops being shitty. Healing is not easy but it is not impossible. You are allowed to have bad days but they don’t take away anything from your good days. Trying is all that matters.

4. Negotiate with anxiety, don’t dismiss it.

For most people, anxiety starts as this faint voice in the head which pushes them toward perfectionism. It gets stronger as you feed it more. My therapist had this interesting exercise with me where we did a role play and we talked to the “anxiety.” After doing that exercise I got to know it started as a good thing because a part of me wants me to achieve things and do well in life. So, it has good intentions. When the voice gets louder and clouds your judgement, then it becomes problematic. But, good or bad, it is still a part of you. It is an important part of you. Many a time, we are asked to just ignore it or not think about it. Suppression is not a sustainable option because it will catch up to you. Never ever dismiss your anxiety. You give more power to it when you try to subjugate it. Instead of dismissing anxiety, we should talk to it. Listen to what it is saying. Probe deeper into why it is saying that. Treat it as a friend. Acknowledge its existence. Be aware of its pattern. Take its hand, make it sit across the table and talk to it. Ask questions. Offer suggestions. Negotiate but never dismiss.

5. Anxiety/Depression is just a part of you.

The most important reminder is — you have anxiety, you are not your anxiety. My tendency to describe myself as an “anxious” person has risen over the years. What it does is that it sends a message to people that it is what defines you. Your anxiety or depression becomes your character. When you are deep into an episode, it becomes the only thing you know. Your other traits tend to get overshadowed by depression or anxiety. It is at this point that it becomes extremely important to remind yourself that you are much more than just being an anxious/depressed person. Your being is not defined by your condition.

Photo credit: YakobchukOlena/Getty Images

Originally published: May 13, 2019
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