Monday, April 28, 2014

April Showers Bring.... Mental Health Awareness Month

May is the month of flowers in bloom, BBQs, and the unofficial start of summer. People throw parties, take vacations, and head down the shore.... excuse the beach.

May is also important for another reason. It's Mental Health Awareness month. While I personally think we should be watching out for the mental health of ourselves and others every month, I am glad to see a month selected to focus on mental health awareness, and I thought I'd take the chance to write specifically about what people can do to honor this.

  • Know that people dealing with mental health conditions are all around you, literally. One out of four people will be diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point during their lifetime. If you add in addictive disorders (now officially part of the DSM V), this number is as high as one in three. That means that you're virtually guaranteed to know someone that battles a mental health condition. 
  • Educate yourself. List a few negative associations/thoughts you have about mental health. Now challenge yourself to reverse those thoughts. Do some research to learn the facts - you can find information in scientific and psychology-based publications.  While I'll admit that these days it's tough to get an unbiased opinion, stay away from obviously biased media and look more for research.
  • Read a couple of mental health blogs (in addition to this one). Hearing what a condition is like from someone that's actually dealing with it every day helps to give a different perspective.
  • Stop using words associated with mental health disorders in a non-clinical or negative way. Saying things like "I can't focus, I must have ADD today" or "my boss keeps changing her mind about this project, it's like she's bipolar" only further to spread stigma and create ignorance. Rule of thumb: if you don't personally know what it's  like to suffer from the condition, don't describe someone's actions as such. If you're not sure if it's inappropriate, replace the name of the mental illness with "cancer" or "heart condition"and see if it sounds insensitive. 
  • If you know someone who has a mental health condition, reach out to them. It can be to offer help or support during a tough time, to ask them if they'd mind giving you a better understanding of their condition, or to ask how you can help spread awareness. 
  • Contact a mental health awareness organization, such as NAMI or MHA, to see how you can get involved in a local chapter. Perhaps it's participating in a fundraising walk or event, or becoming involved as a volunteer. If there's a particular condition you're interested in benefitting, you can almost certainly find an organization that supports it. (If you need suggestions, please feel free to contact me). 
If anyone has a great mental health awareness resource, organization, or event that you'd love to share, please feel free to leave it in the comments. Thank you for helping support mental health awareness!

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Confidence Blog

I've read that (almost) all children are born loving things like art and music, and that it's only as we go through the influences and demands of society that those things taper off and are conditioned out of many of us. I feel it's a bit the same with self confidence. Most little kids have no idea of their strenghts and weaknesses. They don't care if you think they dance badly or sing out of tune. If you've ever been to a kids holiday concert or play, you know what I'm talking about (trust me, I was in them). But I think that as we go through life, we not only learn our skills and talents, our positive traits and those we might need work on, but we also learn what other people think of all of these things - and often they don't coincide. I also believe that some of us are better "built" to handle these inconsistencies, while others, including myself, let them affect us much more. The reasoning behind this, I couldn't begin to explain. I just know that some people seem able to let nothing shake them, while others let even the most obviously blatant un-truths deeply affect them.

In my case, I believe that my cyclothymia predisposes me to be less confident - it's a bit tough to be confident in myself on a whole when I can't be confident how my brain is going to react life on a daily, or even hourly, basis. I also know that I take in too much of the negative from others' thoughts and opinions. Instead of seeing them as such, I see them as fact, at least if they even remotely could have any truth to them. Over the years, I've let these things ruminate in my mind, and, especially during my down times, I let it knock me down until my belief that I can't do or be something becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

The inability for the brain to distinguish between what it's told and actual truth is the reason that tools such as visualization and affirmations are thought to work so well. While I love affirmations, I find that they can sometimes be a bit generic: "I am loved" is wonderful, but it doesn't target who one is loved by. "I am loved by my cat" is not the same as "I am loved by my spouse", and in all honesty, while I'm sure in a perfect world we should just be glad to be loved, one of these probably matters more than the other (note this is a hypothetical example, as I have neither a cat or a spouse). So I thought I'd take a twist on the more generic affirmation, and suggest a more customized one that "attacks" a few areas personal to ourselves.  I suggest taking three to 5 areas in which you particularly feel you lack confidence, especially those in which this lack of confidence is rooted in other people's negative opinions. Then, create a positive affirmation that directly negates this contrary opinion. Write it down and place it where you'll see it. Read it - out loud if you can - at least once a day.

To get you started, I thought I'd share a few of my own. I'll admit that this isn't easy for me. It's putting my "weaknesses", areas that I'm sensitive about, right out there for everyone to see. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

  • I have the abilities, skills, and work ethic to have a successful, happy career that I love. 
  • I am fun, and people enjoy my company and want to be around me. 
  • I have the ability to relax and let things happen without becoming anxious or stressed. 
  • I am a strong person who can overcome difficulties and obstacles.
  • I deserve all of the positives in my life. 

I had to dig deep for these. These are not things that, if you asked me to rattle of my top qualities, I would say about myself. I would say "I'm a good person. I really care about others. I'm loyal and honest".  I wouldn't say "I'm great at being chill and not getting anxious." Because honestly, I wouldn't need anyone to laugh at me - I'd laugh at myself.  But I know that I have the ability to do this, somewhere deep down inside, and that's the way I wrote my affirmation.

If you were to create customized affirmations, what would they be? As always, feel free to share them in the comment section or a private message. If you'd like a little inspiration, or just a smile, here's a fun clip from the movie Cool Runnings to get you started.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What It's Really Like To Have (Hypo)Mania - Part 1

This blog was inspired by a post on another blog about what it's really like to have ADHD. Many of the symptoms and experiences described are similar to how I feel with hypomania, and I thought I was about due for a post to explain in plain words how it feels to have this condition.

If you are diagnosed with a mood cycling condition, such as cyclothymia or bipolar disorder, you've probably at one point or another heard someone describing another person as "bipolar" because their mood changed quickly or they were a little temperamental. You've probably also wanted to call them an ignorant SOB and tell them that they should get their facts straight before they start diagnosing people with mental illness. Ok, maybe that's just me that wants to do that. The point is, society seems to be ok with taking serious health conditions and brain disorders and using them to describe every day moods and activities, almost as a cliche. Quite honestly, this pisses me off.

So let me tell you what it's really like to be hypomanic, at least for me. You wake up with literally at least twenty things going through your head at once. You fervently make notes, set alarms and reminders, tell someone to remind you, tattoo it on your arm, to make sure that you don't forget. It could be anything from "don't forget to pick up milk" to "don't forget to pick up your loved one at the airport" and each one is, or feels, of equal importance and urgency. Why? Because if you don't pick up milk you won't be able to make that dish you planned to for the dinner gathering and everyone's expecting it and then you'll disappoint them and you hate to disappoint anyone because maybe this is just the tip of the iceberg and you'll be a disappointment the rest of your life. And the person at the airport? Well they're relying on you, and what if you forget, and they're standing there for hours, in the freezing rain, and they catch pneumonia. Can you imagine their fear and hurt and anger that you've forgotten them? They must be so cold (it doesn't matter that it's 60 degrees and sunny out), how awful! Then you put yourself in their shoes in this created scenario and make yourself feel even worse because now you're thinking of how you'd feel if that happened to you. Do you see where I'm going with this?

Now before I continue, let me point out - we are not just "glass half empty", negative, drama queens or kings. These scenarios truly, genuinely seem feasible, even likely, because the hypomanic brain is constantly on overdrive. Logically, I know it's not likely, but that doesn't matter. The "what ifs" are torturous. Think about it this way: if your boss at work were yelling at you that if you don't refill the coffee pot now, you'll be fired (and sounded serious about it), it probably wouldn't matter how ridiculous this seemed - you'd probably not want to chance getting fired and would move "coffee" to the top of your priority list.  Now, imagine this happening with everything that crosses your path - any task, anything anyone asks you to do, any thought that suggests a potential action. Not only do these things all seem to require serious attention, but they require it now. Prioritization takes a ridiculous amount of effort, and I often find myself double (or triple, quadruple) checking and doubting myself. Days when I'm hypomanic are truly exhausting, despite the extra energy one tends to have in this mood state.

What's particularly frustrating is that people don't understand. They tell you to just relax, chill out, calm down. They'll call you over-reactive, dramatic, hyper, annoying, and a whole host of other things. They think that you, for whatever reason, choose to be this way, and that if you just put your mind to it, you could change. Honestly, given what I just described above, who the hell would choose to feel this way? I can't even imagine.

Maybe, with a lot of practice, I could learn to stop and take a breath and say "logically, nobody is going to die or leave me or kick me out of the family if I don't get milk today, and no matter how urgent it feels, I have to remember that it's not". Maybe. With A LOT of practice. Maybe I need a buddy system, someone to seriously text and say "getting milk today isn't urgent right? Or is it? Please confirm this for me," just to make sure I'm accurately assessing this. I'm not sure. What I know is that every single day I work and I struggle to learn how to prioritize, chill out, "calm down" (my least two favorite words in the English language), but I don't feel that most people see this. They don't see all of the times that I don't react as I usually would, and they don't see the tremendous effort. They only see the times that this effort fails.

I hope this post offers a little insight into what my brain is like in hypomania. I'm not offering this up as an excuse, but simply as an explanation. It's my belief that the more we try to understand each other as people, the less conflict, confusion, and miscommunication we'll have with others, and even in my jumbled brain, this seems to make sense.

As the subject indicates, this is a part 1. In the next blog, I'm going to discuss what I call the "fixing" compulsion - the inability to walk away from or let go of issues or difficulties that is so prevalent in hypomania.