Mental health & trying to keep it together

photo by j parker photography

This post is for when you feel like life is getting the best of you.

I ran into a colleague of mine recently while I was working at a coffee shop, and he encouraged me to write this post on mental health – how to keep it together when it feels like you have too many things going on (he’s getting his doctoral degree). I’ve written about that sort of thing before, but I’ve never really written a “how to” post. I certainly don’t have a magic recipe or a button to push to make all of life’s hard things disappear.  But I’m always happy to share my own experiences and give advice, so this post is about what always works for me when I’m feeling way too overloaded. These tips have gotten me through graduate school, juggling several jobs, heartache, loss, and more.

This new school year is already proving to be a challenge for me. I can’t seem to keep my head above water and every day is a constant to-do list that doesn’t even get halfway accomplished. Clubs, department chair, budget, committees, lesson plans and grading – I have never been this behind on grading so early on. On top of that, add a second job, keeping up with this blog, trying to exercise, 2 dogs, friends, family, etc…you get the picture. I’m sure you also have your own list! I really started to feel overwhelmed this week and even as I sit here, I’m trying to squeeze in writing a blog post after school before leaving for my second job at the pub. SO. I am also writing this post as a reminder to myself of the steps I need to take so I can keep my sanity and not completely fall apart.

People frequently ask me how I’m always so positive, happy, upbeat, etc. or tell me that I always seem “put together.” I’ve gotten that comment (compliment!) a lot in my life, and I can guarantee you that I do not always have it together – I’m just really good at faking it ’til I make it! But I do tend to stay pretty positive and I try to look at life’s hardships as a growing process and as problems with solutions, rather than letting them ruin my life. Here are the steps I take when life is really sticking it to me and I feel like I’m about to explode:

1. Take a breath. The cheesiest, most overused cure on the planet – but if people would just take a second and actually breathe in and out a few times, the world would probably definitely be a much better place. Breathing does a few things, and there is a lot of science behind it, but I’ll save that for another time because I know I can get long-winded (see what I did there?). Breathing gives you a few moments between stimulus and response:  The moment something “happens to you” and however you decide to react to it. If you’re taking a few moments to just breathe in and out, you are saving yourself from overreacting, saying something you’ll regret later, breaking something, etc. You have a few seconds to think about how you want to respond. Doing this simple task – breathing – and being aware of it, has literally changed my life and my whole outlook on it.

2. Allow yourself to wallow – but not for long. It is okay to feel overwhelmed and upset. It is okay to feel like life isn’t fair sometimes, or like you don’t deserve “all of this,” whatever “this” is for you. I get it. So take that time to really get a good “Dang, this sucks” moment in for yourself, and then remind yourself that you are done feeling sorry for yourself because you have mountains to move. At some point you have to dust yourself off and start making a plan. You just have to. Otherwise, you’ll get stuck in the dark place, and that is a hard place to pull yourself out of.

3. Distance yourself from whatever you need to. Give yourself space. Remember up there in #1, where I talked about stimulus and response? We often respond too quickly to a situation, a conversation, or a moment of frustration without giving it some time and space for thinking about it. If it’s school, work, social problems, whatever it might be, give yourself some distance. Physically walk away from whatever it is and take a break. Get some air, think about your feelings, all that good stuff. Weigh your options and then respond/act once you’ve been able to process everything. I wrote more about that here.

4. Vent to a non-judgmental ear. Sometimes we just need to get it out. Find that person that can listen to you without reminding you later what you said when you were stressed out. A sounding board that can understand you’re just having a moment and need someone to say, “I hear you,” and not, “I told you so.” Typically in these moments we aren’t looking for advice – we just need to be heard and validated. There is value in that. I believe there is true healing in just getting bad things out of your brain and into the open, whether that’s in writing, talking to friends or family, or even talking to a trained professional.

5. Prioritize. Make lists! Even if making lists isn’t your thing and it doesn’t bring you satisfaction like it does to me (which I can’t even begin to understand), making lists is the number one way to make sure you can accomplish all you need to accomplish – and in the order that it all needs to get done! So you’ve had your time to feel sorry for yourself, and now you have to make a plan on how you’re going to make it through. I usually keep several lists – for to-dos at home/errands, things I need to do at school, a list for the blog, a list for pictures I need to take for the blog, a list of workouts and groceries for the week, etc. You can do this easily on your phone, too. I set a million reminders a day and Siri always comes through for me if I don’t come through for myself. There are tasks that have to get done RIGHT NOW, and things that can always get done later, so put dates or times next to your items. Prioritize and then get to work. Focus on one thing at a time. Then the next thing. Then the next. And let me tell you, life doesn’t stop, so your lists will keep getting longer, but as you start crossing things off, it balances out. Even people who fly by the seat of their pants have to have a plan of attack if things are ever going to get accomplished.

6.  Do not be too proud to ask for help. I cannot stress enough that we are only human. We are not magical superheroes with more than 24 hours in a day or limitless energy and peppiness. If someone asks if you want help with something, or if you want to split something up, and you’re about to seriously go off the deep end, let. Them. Help. You. Give up the control and let someone know you are overloaded. There is no shame in admitting that you have a lot going on and could really use a little help. Then, the next time you’re feeling more on top of things, maybe you can pay it forward and help someone else who’s fighting to keep their head above water. It feels good to know we are needed, so let someone know you need them!

7. Be physically active. This is so key to keeping it together, and it is usually where I fall short, so I get it. You’ve heard the saying, “A tired dog is a good dog?” The same applies for humans! You may not be chewing up your favorite pair of shoes, but without releasing your negative energy, tension, and stress from your day-to-day life, you are going to be bottling up some pretty serious stuff, and when it has no outlet, it starts to leak like poison. No matter what you believe, you can’t deny the scientific proof that exercises releases endorphins. It also helps give you some head space and clear your thoughts. I know – you’re busy. You don’t have time to exercise, you’re too tired to exercise, you’ve got a million other things to do. But I promise you the payoff is so worth it. You can read all about how yoga changed my life here, but I also love to walk my dogs, do tabata circuits, and lift weights! Anything that gets you moving is better than sitting around feeling too overwhelmed to be productive. You will never regret it afterwards.

8. Check in with yourself throughout the day. Something that makes a huge difference for me is being mindful and aware of how I am feeling. That sounds so obvious, but a lot of us don’t stop to think about the why. We just go through the motions without thinking about what’s going on in our bodies or minds. Am I tired? Cranky? Does something just not feel right? Did something happen that made me feel this way? Am I clenching my teeth or wrinkling my forehead or tensing up my shoulders? Throughout the day I have to constantly remind myself to breathe deeply, unclench my teeth, and relax my shoulders. Those are the three biggest ways I can quickly just feel calmer. Make sure you’re checking in on yourself and taking care of your needs.

9. Fake it ’til you make it. My high school students can’t believe that I am “always in such a good mood.” What’s my secret? The secret is I’m not always in a good mood! But I DO believe that moods are contagious, and if you can fake it and put on a good face – even if it’s just to yourself – you can really help frame your mood, your day, and the moods of those around you. I’m not saying you have to act like Little Miss Sunshine, but even little things like not complaining when someone asks how your day is going can make a huge difference. Smile and tell yourself that you can handle this and have this covered, and then remind yourself of that as you start to take one thing at a time.

10. Celebrate. Life is short, and adulting is hard, and if we don’t give ourselves things to look forward to or celebrate our accomplishments, then what’s the point? When you cross a big thing off your list, or when you complete something you’ve been working on for a long time, do something that you enjoy, buy yourself a new something, treat yoself. Make plans with people you love and just go celebrate the fact that we are all making it through somehow. I think that’s something we deserve to celebrate, don’t you?!

Finally, and I think maybe most importantly, is to just be realistic with yourself and know when too much is really too much. Everyone has a different threshold level for how much they can pile on their plate. You have to be able to admit to yourself when your metaphorical food is about to splatter all over the floor. If you are focusing on too many things at once, you can’t do everything well. Sometimes you have to look at what’s really important and let go of one or two other things – even if it is only for now, until you can clear some space in your life. I continue to re-learn this every so often, but at least I’m really good at telling other people what to do 😉

 

I really hope this helps even one person out there who may be feeling overwhelmed like I am right now. We are going to be okay – we have to be! The world keeps on turning and life keeps on going. The sun will rise tomorrow and it is up to us to choose the tone of our days. Today, let’s choose joy.

Oh, and if you’re wondering…I didn’t get the post finished before my shift. That’s life! 🙂 

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