By Keira Lusby
During the summer of 2016, I spent several weeks struggling with overwhelming anxiety and depression. It took months to admit to myself that I needed help, but once I did, the grueling journey of seeking wellness began.
My counselor was stern but patient and knowledgeable. We discussed cognitive behavioral therapy techniques and eventually, my sessions ended with my counselor agreeing I would no longer need her services. I left feeling on top of the world. I had done it. I had achieved wellness.
When we talk about mental health, our society often focuses on the mechanics of things like anxiety and depression and general maintenance gets forgotten. I had a conception of wellness as the peak of a mountain, rather than the path that wraps around it. When I left my counselor’s office for the final time that summer, I thought I was staking my flag on the peak of the mountain. In actuality, my journey had just begun. What I had achieved was more like the top of a hill in a vast range of valleys and peaks.
For the next few years, the path seemed smooth. I often recalled the lessons I learned with my counselor when I was feeling overwhelmed and anxious, but my mentality remained the same: I had conquered anxiety and emerged victorious. If I used my new tools, I could remain on top of the peak.
The problem with this mentality was that I was unaware that I was slipping into old habits. My concept of mental wellness—that I had already done the work and achieved wellness—prevented me from acknowledging that I was pushing aside genuine feelings of depression and anxiety that can cycle in throughout our lives. While I thought I was on a smooth path, I was descending into a dark valley.
On the journey of mental wellness, getting well is only half the battle. Staying well is just as important.
Staying well presents its own unique challenges and benefits. When on the journey to getting well, there is oftentimes a clear goal; it is easier to identify our obstacles and what our “better selves” look like. Staying well, however, is more vague and, quite frankly, less exciting. When staying well, we think about the day to day such as what we eat, what we think, and how we are. It requires us to keep in touch with ourselves, as well as face uncomfortable truths about our habits and tendencies. The journey toward getting well feels like scaling a mountain; staying well is a lifelong journey.
I sought counseling again this year, and by that time I had been stewing in a dark valley for a while. My new counselor suggested I was dealing with severe anxiety, but I scoffed at the suggestion. I dealt with that in the summer of 2016, I reassured her. I had staked the flag and conquered Mount Anxiety.
My counselor gently insisted I reconsider my mentality. She explained that anxiety, along with depression and the concept of wellness, aren’t singular entities stemming from one issue; they are embedded together, just as complicated and intricate as our brains.
I am no longer in counseling, but I remain on my journey of mental wellness. Below are three tips for staying well, taken from www.mentalhealth.org
Regular exercise produces endorphins in the brain, which are the brain’s natural painkillers. Endorphins have been shown to elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and decrease tension in the body. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, psychologists studying the link between physical activity and mental health suggest “a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout … although the effects may be temporary, they demonstrate that a brisk walk or other simple activity can deliver several hours of relief, similar to taking an aspirin for a headache.”
Simply taking a 10-minute walk around the block or to the mailbox can work wonders on a depressed mood. The same study showed that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression.
This two-pronged approach requires us to keep in touch with ourselves as regularly as we keep in touch with our loved ones. Acknowledging our emotions can be challenging, but regularly checking on your state of mind is important to maintaining mental wellness.
The key to checking on your state of mind is to be mindful of not invalidating your feelings. For example, I try to avoid saying to myself “you’re just being crazy” when checking in with my feelings. My unchecked anxiety causes me to double, sometimes even triple, and quadruple-guess myself until I start to lose touch with my instincts. Even with my anxiety in-check, my gut reaction is to berate myself when I start to go down that path again. If i feel that happening, I try to think about it as though I were comforting a close friend in the same position. I wouldn’t call a loved one crazy, so it is counter-productive to treat myself that way.
Keeping in touch with ourselves helps us be aware of the valleys in our path, which allows us to maintain control over our wellness during difficult times.
This was by far the hardest step for me. I struggled for a while with feeling like I had a dysfunctional brain, and that my life would be less challenging if I was someone else.
Truth is, we all have unique challenges in our lives. Wishing for a magic pill to fix our brains, or turn us into something else, presents a vast roadblock on our paths; I can’t keep in touch with myself if I don’t like myself, and the motivation to stay well won’t last for long. Accepting yourself makes the journey to stay well a much gentler experience.
Keira Lusby is a senior at Colorado Mesa University, where she is finishing a major in Mass Communication and a minor in Writing. Her long mental health journey has impacted her education heavily, but she hopes her stories will not only impact others in similar situations but contribute to a larger dialogue about everyday mental health. She hopes that someday mental health will be treated with the same compassion as physical health.