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Why My Mental Health Has Improved in 2020 (Despite Everything)

Editor's Note

Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

If a year could be a trigger for depression and anxiety, you would think 2020 would be that year due to the coronavirus (COVID-19). But it has been the best year of my life in regards to my mental health. Why? It has given me time.

Previously, I was commuting a five-hour round trip three days a week to my job as a student welfare officer. But when the university moved to off-campus delivery in April, I gained 15 extra hours a week. And this allowed me time to get a better handle on my mental health.

I’ve never taken medication for depression or anxiety because it has not yet stopped me from doing the everyday things I need to do: get up, shower, feed my child, etc. It’s more been the “raven at the end of the bed” variety. My morning companion and sometimes middle-of-the-night monster.

To manage my depression and anxiety, I tried to: eat better, exercise, meditate, practice good “sleep hygiene,” pursue the things that give me joy and connect with my family, community and others who have depression and anxiety. But these practices have not always been accessible in the mad-dash that is life in the West in the 21st century. I’ve often felt guilty trying to pursue them all, feeling too high maintenance and a burden on my family. But this year, having more time has enabled me to pursue them regularly sans guilt.

In regards to eating, previously I only planned dinner. This would always include vegetables and sitting down, but breakfast and lunch were lacking. I rarely took the time to prepare, enjoy and savor these meals, which meant I was burnt out by the end of the day, jittery from too much coffee and the sugary 4 p.m. pick-me-up. Now I’m eating three proper meals a day and benefit from the additional energy this provides.

My exercise has also become more varied and consistent. I’ve never been a runner — I don’t have the lungs for it. Instead, I’ve used regular walking to ease depression and anxiety, but I’ve always craved the runner’s endorphin boost. Someone told me I’d get it if I did high-impact walking with lots of steps. Now, I walk with a group of mums once or twice a week. We go down Furber Steps and into paradise and then sweat it back up again, talking about books and films and podcasts and family life.

My favorite exercise, though, is to ride to school with Ned and Clint, a 10-kilometer round trip with lots of hills. We’re three ducks in a row, baby duck sandwiched between us in his giant, bright green helmet. There’s something about the whirr of the wheels, the flashes of color (particularly in autumn and spring) and the pace of it. And, of course, there’s the buzz after doing it.

As for joy, for a long time I was a workaholic who thought joy was just for kids. Adults needed to get serious: With great responsibility comes great seriousness. Or that was my motto anyway. But gradually, I started to notice that I had nothing to talk about other than work and whatever series I was binging, slumped on the couch in a torpor at the end of another non-stop day.

Now I do a range of things just for joy. I got a keyboard for my last birthday and am slowly getting through “Alfred’s Basic Adult Piano Course Level 2.” I have a vegetable box and I am excited when it produces anything. (The yellow squash gave me a particular joy).

And I’ve started writing again.

The lockdown meant I had the time (and we had the money) for me to do a short course in freelance writing with the Australian Writers Centre. And then, a little flower of hope was born: perhaps I could write for money. Part-time student welfare officer, part-time freelance writer. I still don’t quite believe this could ever be my life.

Connection has been the biggest challenge. But after being denied it for a time, people generally seem more interested in it. There’s more eye contact on the block and in the supermarket. I’m taking the time to check in with a phone call to friends and my parents.

I’m an introvert, so I don’t need as much social contact as some. But now that I’m working from home, I have more energy for socializing. We have dinner with my parents more and a group of us started a book club. We go camping and bushwalking with friends.

I’m thinking about volunteering with a bush regeneration group once a month and I’m looking forward to the return of music festivals and concerts.

This year has allowed me time to reset, and that has been a gift.

Image via contributor

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