I have been living with Bipolar Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder for about 14 years now. Along the way, I’ve learned that the taboo around talking about mental illness needs to end. It does not further growth, healing, or self-love, so let’s just go ahead and throw it out the window.
I’ve found a few tricks to ease the blow of my depressive episodes and dark mood swings. Maybe some of them can help you too!
1. I change my alarm clock ringtone
It’s hard enough for me to wake up early when I’m not in the midst of a depressive episode, so getting out of bed feels virtually impossible when the world weighs heavy on my mind, heart, and body.
A few months ago, I discovered the magic of the Hamilton musical soundtrack. It was all I listened to for about six weeks straight: the first thing I put on when I woke up, what was playing when I was writing, the last thing I listened to before I went to sleep. We can safely say I was (and still am) quite obsessed with Lin Manuel-Miranda’s work.
There was one song in particular, “Wait For It,” that gave me chills and made me feel awake and very much in my body. I decided to make the moment the beat drops my alarm clock tone. So, everyday, the thing that woke me up was this thing I loved. It made me want to get up so I could play the whole thing. I now wake up smiling and singing.
What sounds or songs make you happy, calm, and confident? Why not let that be the thing that stirs you the moment you awake?
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The same logic can be applied to your ringtone. I recently changed mine to the “Sherlock” (BBC) theme music. It’s so random that I find it strangely hilarious. Even if I’m not emotionally capable of answering the phone and talking to someone, I feel less anxious about ignoring or screening calls when I hear music that calms me, makes me happy, and makes me laugh. Sometimes, this effect makes answering the phone easier because, for a second, I’m distracted away from my depression.
2. I take a shower
I know, I know. This is probably the hardest thing to do, especially when getting out of bed is an uphill battle in and of itself. The thought of getting up, stripping, turning the water on, waiting for it to get warm, the act of washing yourself, whether to wash your hair or not, feeling the water hit your skin, drying off. During a depressive episode, every step of this task feels like a battle.
What I like to tell myself is that if I just get in the shower, I won’t worry about the act of cleaning. Just get in the shower. Stand under the water. If, when I get there, I have the energy to do more, I will. If not, I let that be enough. What showering does, besides the obvious, is make you aware of your body, your senses, and your surroundings.
If you can handle it, take a colder shower than usual. Cold showers have been shown to relieve depression symptoms due to the intense impact of cold receptors in the skin, which send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from the peripheral nerve endings to the brain. Thus, it produces an antidepressive effect and boosts your mood.
Showering can ground you when you feel like you’re floating, like your mind is an entirely separate entity from the body that contains it.
3. I put on “real” clothes
One of the first things I do after I get up is go to my closet and pick an outfit for the day. Even on days when I don’t leave my house. Actually, especially when I don’t leave my house. Putting on clothes I’d wear out in the real world helps my productivity. I’m sure we’ve all heard the saying, “Dress for the job you want.” Well, I like to dress for the day I want to have.
If I put effort into choosing an outfit that fits my mood or aesthetic for the day, it helps me put effort into other things. I get more writing done, reply to more emails, and eat real meals because I present myself to myself as someone who is at work and is capable of working.
When I stay in my PJs, it’s harder for me to get anything done because I’m still in the mindset of someone who is perpetually asleep. Personally, PJs means staying in bed, watching TV, taking 8 hour naps, and wallowing. And there are days when I need to do all the above, when this kind of rest is self-care and not self-sabotaging. But, a few days in a row of sedentary behavior can lead to getting stuck in a rut and feeling a loss of control over your life.
4. I put on “fake” clothes
Now, “fake clothes” are a bit different than PJs. The difference, for me, is that there is still an element of choice, of putting effort into getting dressed for the day. For instance, if I know I’m not going out, and I still want to be productive, but I’m not in a mood for pants and a nice shirt, I’ll put on my Stitch onesie.
Yes. My Stitch onesie. As in “Lilo and Stitch.” This is an active choice I have to make: am I willing to spend the rest of the day taking off this whole thing every time I have to pee, am I willing to deal with the fact that sitting on a tail can get uncomfortable, will I get distracted by taking amazing selfies?
So, maybe you don’t have a Stitch onesie. That’s okay. Do you have a t-shirt with a weird catchphrase? Do you have multi-colored arm or leg warmers? A hat with a million pompoms? Today is the day to break those out! Feel free to get silly.
If you have a job or some other reason you have to leave your house, and you can’t get away with wearing a “Vote for Pedro” tee, find something small that gives you joy and put that on or carry it with you. Socks with marijuana leaves on them. Underwear with unicorns on them. A funny souvenir from your last vacation.
5. I find ways to hold myself accountable
One way I hold myself accountable to take action is through making pinky promises to myself. This kind of only works if you consider pinky promises unbreakable vows, which I do. I can’t not follow through on pinky promises. And, because it’s such a simple and small gesture, I can do it before I even have time to think about it. I have a thought — “I should make myself breakfast” — and wrap my pinkies around each other before I tell myself I can’t or don’t want to do the aforementioned task. Now, I have to do it. This is just one way I choose to hold myself accountable.
But often, making promises to yourself doesn’t work when experiencing a depressive episode because the last person we’d care to fulfill our promises to is ourselves. At a time when we already feel unworthy and/or helpless, abandoning self-care just seems to be par for the course.
In that case, you can find an accountabili-buddy, a friend you trust to hold you accountable to get things done. This should be someone you trust, who knows you well enough to be able to tell when you’re not okay. Have a conversation with them about what to do when you’re in a funk and set up a plan. For example, they’ll call you at noon to ask if you’ve eaten or come over at 2:00 PM to open your blinds and whip your comforter off you if you haven’t responded to three of their phone calls in a row.
Similar to an accountability system, you can create a rewards system for yourself. For example: if I take a shower, I get to watch one episode of a TV show; if I do my laundry, I get to have GrubHub for dinner; if I go grocery shopping, I get to take a nap. Here are a few ways you can indulge in self-care and self-reward without spending money.
6. I engage in a creative activity
You don’t have to be a Claudia Rankine, Jimi Hendrix, or HGTV star to be creative or make art. When I was a teenager and prone to DeviantArt binges, I used to draw. I was no Rembrandt, El Mac, or Maria Folger, but it kept me centered and grounded.
I was particularly interested in portraits of faces and hands. I’d spend hours figuring out how to shade in collarbones or get lifelines and wrinkles to look realistic. With all that focus on such minute details, there wasn’t room in my brain for anything else, much less my depression. I was busy. Making something tangible, a thing I could hold and touch and watch change, was crucial to me at that age.
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As I got older, I grew out of drawing and moved towards musicianship. I got a guitar and spent hours everyday teaching myself chords and songs for beginners. Not only did this keep my mind occupied, but, like drawing, I could feel my progress, I could hear it, and my fingers proved my work was not for naught. This filled me with pride and made me want to continue learning the next day.
You don’t have to like drawing. And playing instruments might not be for you. Maybe, instead, you can take up writing, knitting, crocheting, scrapbooking, teaching yourself to sing, cook, do makeup, do hairstyles all via YouTube, or create DIY clothes and decor. The possibilities are endless!
More than the art itself, it was important I found something to do that had a final result — a finished drawing or poem, a song I could play from memory — but also had levels of expertise I had to work longer than one day to attain. Go forth and create!
7. I talk to a mental health professional
One of the best decisions I ever made was going to see a psychiatrist and psychologist when I was 18. I had been living undiagnosed for about seven years — childhood depression believed to be teenage angst. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and prescribed Lithium.
After about six weeks, I started to feel an incredible shift. My mind felt less foggy, my mood swings were regulated, I behaved less recklessly, and I found joy in places I couldn’t before. Therapy has helped me dig myself out of ruts and to open my mind to the possibility that the way I see the world isn’t the only way to see that world, especially if my way lends to self-hate.
It’s always hard at first. One of my least favorite things is starting over with a new doctor, having to re-tell my family history, my traumas, and my relationship to self-harm. But it has always ultimately been worth it. I’ve always learned something new about myself, and that new wisdom helps me understand and change my behaviors and perspectives.
The one lesson I come back to over and over again is to take note of myself. That whenever I see myself engaging in a behavior I’ve learned is damaging, not to force myself to stop doing it, not to judge myself for doing it, but just to notice and take stock. This way, I can find a pattern as to when, where, and around whom I behaved this way and implement a plan to change it.
This has gotten me out of cycles of substance abuse, disordered eating, reckless sex, and emotionally draining relationships. I’m still alive because of it.
Two resources I look to when trying to find treatment are Zoc Doc and Psychology Today. You can find a doctor near you that accepts your insurance. If you don’t have insurance, here and here are a few places that will help you find no- or low-cost treatment.
The most important lesson I’ve learned living with depression, anxiety, and trauma is that I don’t have to go through any of this alone. And neither do you.
[Feature Image: An up-close photo of a person’s face against a white wall. They have short curly black hair and are looking upward and to the left with a serious expression. Source: Powell Burns]