Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Allowing Happiness

It's my opinion that, ultimately, what we are all striving for happiness. When all is said and done, it's the "purpose" of life (with the caveat that I'm leaving religious beliefs completely out of this). We all have different things that drive us - our various types relationships, our dream home, traveling the world. But if not as an eventual means to happiness, why would we work so hard for these things? Now you might say, "I'm doing this for my kids' education, or I'm doing that to put food on the table, or I do this to help those less fortunate", and that's all true. But ultimately all of those things, if you successfully accomplish them, can make you feel fulfilled.  I'd like to clarify, I'm not saying that doing for others is selfish or inauthentic, please don't get me wrong. I'm simply saying that helping others - whether it be your kids or a complete stranger - is the motivation for many people to get up every day and do what they do, and if they do it to the best of their abilities, they (hopefully) feel good about themselves, as they well should.

With all the effort we put into reaching happiness, however, I've observed that many of us have a difficult time actually allowing happiness to take place. I'll admit, I'm sometimes one of them. I think that for some people, being happy can be a scary thing, especially if you're not used to it. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but there is some understandable reasoning behind it. First of all, many of us who have spent a long time being unhappy for one reason or another - be it life situations or  a genetic condition - are constantly looking for when the other shoe is going to drop, so to speak. It's tough to just enjoy the day to day because we are always trying to prepare for the future when something goes wrong. To us, it's inevitable. I'll use my condition as an example here. When I'm feeling "normal" or hypomanic, life seems generally pretty good (albeit a bit jittery with hypomania). But I know with absolute certainty, because it's the chemical nature of cyclothymia, that this will go away. One day, most likely without warning, I'll wake up feeling depressed, and there's not much I can do about it. In fact, the only thing I can do to make it more palatable is to prepare for it. If I get to used to things as they are, or get too comfortable with being happy, that will make it that much more difficult when the happiness is pulled out from under me. I don't try to think this way, it just happens subconsciously.

In addition, a lot of people don't believe they deserve to be happy. Low confidence and self-esteem, all too common in those with mental health conditions, can often make people feel that they aren't worthy of happiness. They don't believe they are "good enough" to feel good. If they are happy for more than a brief period of time, they feel guilty. This is exacerbated by anything or anyone that seems to support the theory. I can't count the number of people who have told me they've been called lazy or unambitious because their horrible depression and anxiety keeps them in bed during a bad bout. Even though it's untrue, this criticism only re-enforces the belief that they don't deserve happiness.

But here's the thing - we all deserve to be happy. There isn't a limited amount of happiness, either in ones own life or in the universe at large. My being happy (unless it's a direct result of something that hurts you) doesn't mean that you have to be any less happy. If I'm extra happy today, it doesn't inevitably pull from my happiness pool for tomorrow. Even with a cycling condition that's not the case. I'm going to eventually slip into depression whether I'm a little happy or extremely happy, because that's just how it works. But being afraid of happiness can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you're so worried about the future and when the happiness might get threatened, it can cause anxiety and stress, which can not only lead to unhappiness down the road, but can affect your happiness at the moment. Allowing happiness is not as easy as it sounds. I don't believe in "just decide to be happy", especially when brain chemicals come into play, like they do with a mental health condition. It takes a shift in ones beliefs about themselves, acknowledging that we do deserve happiness, and can eventually get there without the bottom falling out. It further takes a huge "leap of faith", believing that even if that bottom does fall out, we will be ok down the road. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Social Media and Your Mental Health

I love social media. In addition to the obvious benefit of being able to find old friends, keep in touch easily with family that live further away, and share 2,000 pictures of my dog with anyone willing to look at them, it's been a wonderful way for me to connect with those who I don't know personally, but who share a similar cause, situation, or goal. For instance, I have found a wonderful group of fellow women business owners on Facebook. The group is based in the U.K., so it's certainly not one that I'd have come across without technology. Furthermore, I was introduced to the group by a women I'd connected with on twitter previously. I've also made numerous connections with other mental health advocates, which has helped me both in sharing my story, and in educating myself - after all, there's always something new to learn and a new perspective to gain. I've found shared bonds with people I knew, but didn't know on as deep a level. I've had several people reach out to me to share their own mental health story, telling me how glad they are that I'm sharing mine, and here I was thinking all we had in common was being in the same class twenty years ago.

Social media, for all of its benefits, has its share of perils when it comes to mental health. First off, even those who spend every other status message complaining usually aren't sharing their real troubles. "Stuck in traffic again" or "the dog got up on the counter and ate my dinner" generally isn't the worst thing people are going through (and if it is, bravo! Now please stop complaining!). If everyone's lives were as good as they made them sound on social media, a lot of therapists would probably be out of a job. Now, I'm not blaming people. Even with how much I share, I am aware that nobody wants to hear every time I'm in a depression or have a panic attack or didn't make a phone call that I needed to because of my phone anxiety. I run a Facebook support group for that. I don't put it on my status message. That's not why people are on there. They're there to see the 2,000 pictures of my dog. Ok, maybe not all 2,000, but I'm willing to bet those are probably way more appealing than the negative alternative.

But it's tough to reason with our brains when we're seeing others' status messages. As happy as I am for my friends having children, I'll admit that when I see five statuses in a row about pregnancies and new babies, I get a little "woah is me, I'll not experience that" and click off for a bit (if you're unfamiliar with the backstory, you can read about that here.) I'm sure the same that goes for the person who just went through a breakup and sees all of their friends getting engaged and married. To sum it up, social media makes it easy to compare others' triumphs with our struggles and see our lives as unfulfilling or ourselves as less adequate. When you're prone to depression, anxiety, panic, or mood cycling genetically, the effect is magnified further.

Social media also allows us to know "everything" that everyone else is doing. I've personally had the experience of being left out of plans and finding out on social media. We can see when people have read our messages, and know when they aren't replying, leaving us to wonder why. The flip side is, social media makes us feel all-knowing, even when we aren't. Maybe someone didn't reply because they were waiting for a doctor's appointment and got called back to the exam room right after they read our message, and then forgot all about it through the course of a busy day. Maybe I wasn't included in the plans because two of my friends had had a disagreement and were trying to talk it out over a drink, and it wasn't the big night out I thought it was when I saw the picture. But for those of us with anxiety or depression, those who battle self esteem and confidence issues (they don't always go hand-in-hand, but it's not uncommon), any reason for us to feel anxious, upset, less important, or unworthy, sets us in motion, regardless of how accurate it is. The brain can have a difficult time sorting out real from imaginary - it's why techniques such as mental imagery can be so powerful for improving performance, and why nightmares can be so terrifying even after we wake up and know that they weren't real.

In addition to the way it affects our emotions, social media can take away personal connection. Regardless of how many "friends" or "followers" I have, when I'm really feeling bad, I need to feel a real connection with someone I'm close with. And no, a like or retweet doesn't fulfill this need. I'm not saying this connection has to be in person. If you live far away and give me a text or email or call (ok please don't call me, I really do have phone anxiety) that's fine, because you've personally reached out to me and we're having a one on one conversation. Social media makes it easy to forget this. It's easy to invite friends out and then they spend half their time looking at their phone. It's easy for people to forget to contact to you to see how you really are because they've seen your status updates and figure they know all there is to know. It's easy for friends to share as much with virtual strangers as they do with you. For people who need that personal connection in a time of struggle, social media makes it easy to feel forgotten.

So use your social media. Enjoy it, have fun with it, connect with old friends and new ones. But know your limits. Understand when you need to take a break, when you must stop comparing, when you're literally letting it get to your head. Then, go outside and get some fresh air, or snuggle your dog (that would make a cute profile picture for later!), grab a drink with a friend and make a rule to not look at your phones during that time, or partake in a favorite non-electronic activity. Like everything else in life, it's about balance.

Just for good measure, here's a cute picture of my dog. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"Just Decide To Be More Confident".... And Other Myths

A few months back, I wrote a post about how I'll never be cool girl.  If you read that post, you probably gathered that I may never be super-high-self-esteem-girl either. Self esteem, along with confidence, is an art form. Like artistic talent, or a good singing voice, or having a great memory it's something I feel that we're born with a predisposition to.... or not. It doesn't mean that you're stuck in that plot of confident or not, high self esteem or not, for life. But I don't think it's as easy as so many misconceptions make it sound. So for all of you who struggle with confidence and self esteem and are sick of people telling you to just try harder or be more grateful or "stop and smell the roses", this one's for you.

First off, let me address the "just decide to be confident" stuff.  It's a whole heaping pile of BS. I know the people who say this are trying to be helpful, and I can see the underlying truth of it, but after that it goes terribly wrong. Here's the thing: if I could just decide to be confident and have a high self esteem, I would! Do you honestly think I sit around thinking, "I wish I could just hate this and that about my personality; Gee if only I thought everyone was better and more worthy than me; It would be great if I couldn't see any of my talents or gifts; I'd love to miss opportunities for advancements and promotions because I don't have the confidence to go for them."?  Of course I don't. Now, I can decide to try things that could help to eventually raise my confidence. Like I could apply for that position even though I don't think I'll get because I don't feel qualified enough. Or I could try that hobby or activity that I have always wanted to do because learning something new usually makes me feel better, at least for a while. But I can't just wake up, click my fingers, and be confident. It's not because I'm lazy or have no ambition. It's because that's not how I'm made. It's like wanting to wake up one day having lost 20 pounds because you decided to. You might make baby steps, and wake up a pound lighter one week, two the next, etc. But if you do manage to wake up one day massively lighter - say from some sort of unhealthy cleanse or something - it's probably not going to last.

Next, there's the "you're using your condition as an excuse" thing. Well, I think you're using your heart condition or severe asthma as an excuse to not run a marathon. Yes... it's like that. Think of self esteem and confidence as the marathon of mental health. For many people, it takes hard work, long hours, ups and downs, failures and successes. Even after all of that, some may never run a marathon. Maybe they'll make it to a 10K, and that's totally ok. They made progress! I have a condition, which affects the hormones which regulate my moods, my happiness levels, and overall the way my brain works. I'm predisposed to have brain events that are confusing and frightening. Every day can be a struggle to feel "normal". If it's not obvious, this is not a confidence builder. When you can't have confidence in your brain functioning as you'd expect it to, it's tough to have confidence in yourself overall. One day I may become as confident as possible, given my predisposition not to be, but I may never have super high confidence and my condition is not a "crutch" for lacking it. And just because Mary Smith with a similar condition is more confident,  that means nothing other than perhaps a little hope that it's possible. People with heart conditions and asthma are each affected in different ways. Some may run marathons, others may never be able to. (Please note here, I'm certainly not picking on anyone with either of these conditions - I have neither, and have still never run a marathon!).

Trying to shame me into being more confident doesn't work either. I already feel bad enough about myself. Don't make me feel unconfident about being unconfident. Telling someone with confidence and self esteem issues that you really want to be around people who are more confident (or anything to this effect) only makes it worse. We know that "confidence is sexy", but there's such a thing as trying to hard and putting too much pressure on ourselves. The most likely way to feel bad about oneself is to constantly try to be someone you're not. So while it's great to do things to try to improve your self esteem, play-acting as a super confident person doesn't address the underlying issue, which may very well be a medical one.

If you've never dealt with low self esteem and confidence, you may not understand how serious and damaging they can be. If you were born with confidence and self esteem, I'm truly happy for you. If you weren't but worked very hard and have gained it, I'm even happier for you, and incredibly proud. If you're not there yet, you're not alone. Don't listen to people who make it seem like it should be easy or natural - it may be for them, but it isn't for you, and there many others out there who are feeling the same way. Keep plugging along, know that it's ok to have set backs, and most importantly, be you. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

On Particularly Rough Days...

I haven't written in a while, and it's not because I've been too busy or put the blog on the back burner. Quite simply, 2014 has hit me hard and I have been battling a confusing month or so with more depression than usually (hypomania is normally my trouble, depressive cycles are rarer for me). And I honestly thought, "who wants to read about this shit?". As in, why does anyone want to actually read about how depressed I am. But today I realized, that's kind of what this blog is about. Not my depression per se, but my journey with this disorder. The reason I started this, in addition to just getting my thoughts out of my head, is to help others. Sometimes, that means trying to provide some inspiration and motivation. Other times, it's just letting others who go through this type of thing know that they're not alone. To do the latter, I have to share some of my story, pretty or not.

I want to be clear about what my depressive cycles are like, as I think they're often misunderstood. I don't wake up every day hating the world. I don't feel like my life sucks or it's so hard. In fact, if I did feel my life was so hard, I'd understand why I feel the way I do. But that's not the case. I know I "shouldn't" be feeling this way. It's not my life that sucks. It's my brain. Period.

Right now, I feel very lost. I lose a sense of myself. Some days, I couldn't even tell you what I like and what I don't, what my hobbies are and what leisure activities I enjoy. I wouldn't be able to state for sure what I I feel my best and least favorite personality traits and characteristics are. I don't know where I want to be, or what I want to do with my life. All I know is that I don't like how I feel, and I want to get out of it, but I'm not sure how. Think of how it feels when you lose a close friend, not to loss of life but because they have stepped out of your life. Now imagine, if you can, how you would feel if that friend was your own self. That's the best way I can describe it.

Because what I'm feeling is a sense of loss, it means that I can't just look on the bright side or think positive or smile and feel better. I can pretend I'm not dealing with it and tell people I'm doing well or at least ok, to not feel like such a downer. Indeed, where I feel appropriate (ie business contacts, clients, people I'm not particularly close to) I usually do just that. This doesn't mean it goes away. It just means I'm professional enough to cover it up accordingly. But I can't do that forever, and eventually, I have to admit (if only to myself) that it's still affecting me.

I'm not sure what caused me to lose myself. I know it wasn't something that happened all of a sudden. I didn't wake up with emotional amnesia one day. There wasn't a big incident that changed everything (which I am grateful for - I don't do super well with "surprises"). In fact, it's quite the opposite. I've been blaming a bunch of different things, and certainly each of these things on their own would still bother me. But it occurred to me recently that the underlying cause, the thing that's behind probably 90 percent of these incidents, is the loss of myself. If I could get that under control, I could figure out the rest.

I'm not too sure where to start, but I know that I have to start. Sometimes, the only thing you can know. As my grandma used to say, put one foot in front of the other. Today, I saw a quote that I need to remember as I muddle my way through all of this (it was a quote superimposed on an image on FB, so sadly I can't give proper credit).

"On particularly rough days when I feel that I can't possibly endure, I have to remind myself that my track record for getting through bad days is 100% so far."