Balance and mental health

COVID-19 has made me pretty unhappy lately. I’m trying really hard to stay balanced, so I wanted to say all of this to make sure I have something to read later.

Back when I was in university, I was in a pretty deep spiral of anxiety and depression. I kept getting advice around that time that I should practice gratitude and positive thinking; for example, I should write down a list of all of the things I’m grateful for or all the ways that I’m privileged. That advice was infuriating to me. I lashed out at a lot of the people who gave me that advice and told them off for being insensitive because my mind was in such a bad state that I couldn’t think of anything positive or anything I was grateful for. At that time, I really wanted to say, I can’t stop thinking about dying all the time because I don’t want to have any of this life, so stop telling me to be grateful for the things that are hurting me.

I still think telling a person with depression to practice positive thinking is pretty insensitive and unempathetic. I don’t give that advice to people because I know how it made me feel even worse.

I switched to a new therapist a little while after that period of time in my life and her office was in Palo Alto. I started having to take a ~20 minute bike ride off campus to her office (I rarely left campus otherwise) and I started noticing things like children playing in the streets, or how beautiful it is that Palo Alto is covered in trees. Biking under the shady streets with light streaming through the leaves and blasting “Cool For The Summer” on repeat made me feel at peace. I didn’t really notice all of those small things before. I started feeling better and I guess now I’m here today.

I was talking to my therapist (the same one!) a few weeks ago about this period of time in my life and I said that I was scared because I couldn’t figure out the difference between the me of today and the me who was dangerously depressed. The me of today still feels anxiety and depression sometimes, but generally I feel really happy when I get to enjoy the small joys of life, like drinking a cup of tea or looking outside my window at some trees or doing some stretches. The me of today totally gets what it means to practice gratitude and positive thinking. I was scared of becoming like my old self again because I hadn’t ever found a “solution” for explaining what I felt or answering myself for how to get out of my depressive spiral. What was I going to do if one day, looking at some trees made me feel worse instead of making me feel better?

I think it’s some kind of engineering personality problem – I really was worried because I thought, if I was rational back then and I’m rational now, then it is impossible for me to have the same experiences and have such different reactions. Depression isn’t rational but I somehow am still convinced that my depression mind wasn’t wrong.

I’m writing all of this out to finally conclude with my therapist’s answer that relieved my fears. She said that years ago, I had spent too much time being out of balance with my mental health. There are small things people can do to keep their minds in balance (not overstimulated with too much joy, and not too much depression). For me, it’s keeping a routine, maintaining sleep/hygiene, and staying socially connected (against my own tendency to self-isolate). In my regular day-to-day, doing those things can help me maintain my energy levels and help me bounce back from smaller bouts of depression. But back then, I was so far off balance on the energy spectrum (extremely depressed) that I was lashing out at the suggestions that I do these small things to make myself feel better because they really weren’t working anymore to keep me balanced. The difference between the me of today and the me of back then was all of the months before that point and how much I was taking care of myself. I don’t know a lot about biology, but now I think of it as like, maybe my brain chemistry was thrown off and needed to reach healthy levels of “brain chemicals” to function properly. (This is a metaphor, not real science.) Now I know how important it is for me to have a toolbox of ways to keep myself balanced regularly because of how difficult it is to bounce back once it’s too late.

I know some people will ask how I “snapped out of it” if I’m saying that nothing was making me feel better at that time. I want to answer to give people who are in these shoes some kind of an answer, but I don’t really want to dwell on it, so all I will say is: through some intervention from friends, therapy, antidepressants, sleeping for about 72 hours straight, and withdrawing from some classes, I came out on the other end of that situation. It’s not glamorous or reproducible, but that’s what happened. I’m really grateful after all.

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