Continuing on with our baseline assessment, we’ve worked on our tech addictions and our physical bodies: now it’s time to dive into the mental and emotional realm. Maintaining the right mental headspace is vital- not just for your creativity, but for you as a person. Recognizing your natural rhythms and giving yourself the tools you need to keep that little ship sailing as evenly as possible are crucial. For some this section will be a piece of cake; for others, it is probably a fight you have already spent many years waging.
For me: mental health is always going to be a trickier subject. I am pretty open about the fact that I have spent years struggling with anxiety and intermittent depression, and I have found myself drowning a time or two. My particular brand of anxiety requires me to keep a pretty good pulse on the situation at all times, and as such I’ve developed some steady personal insights and internal warning systems. It used to make me angry, but I’ve reached the point where I can accept that this is just one of those areas I will always have to work a little bit harder on than others. It happens to be the way I’m wired; it’s not something I can really separate myself from because it is so intrinsically ingrained in who I have become as a person- and all things considered, I am actually pretty happy with who I am.
So, as someone who has to constantly keep track of my mental health, lets dive into where I’m sitting with it right now- what is my baseline as we move forward with this creativity challenge?
Let’s begin with the obvious: the pandemic was not all that great for my mental health. I am pretty sure that 99.9% of people are in the same boat on that one. Collectively we went through a lot this past year, and nearly every piece of my mental health took a hit that is going to take some time to recover from. My social skills weren’t all that grand to begin with- and now they are particularly rusty. We went through this interesting thing where my anxiety triggers suddenly became acceptable things to avoid: social situations, shopping in large crowds, doing anything where I didn’t have a very specific game-plan in mind- these were all things I forced myself to do pre-pandemic, and then I got a year long pass. While this seemed like the silver lining to an awful year, all it really did was entrench and reaffirm some bad habits I had spent a lifetime trying to overcome. Suddenly I want to avoid things that were once easy, like going to a grocery story, even though I feel perfectly safe going. I’ve been able to spend an entire year cocooned in a comfort zone of sorts (I mean, as comfortable as you can be during a global pandemic), and now my anxiety spikes any time I have to do something that used to be normal. So I am slowly inching my way towards a bit of exposure therapy. Forcing myself to do uncomfortable (but safe) things until that shot of adrenaline starts to dissipate and I don’t feel so unreasonably anxious. Not a quick or easy task, but I do feel good knowing that I’ve been slowly getting better without pushing myself too hard. Baby steps for the win!
I’ve been working really hard to keep up with some of the mindfulness techniques I’ve experimented with over the years. The main one that stuck: gardening. It’s been fun, and very educational. Honestly, I think the main reason it didn’t fall by the wayside is for the simple fact that I have all of these living things counting on me. Do I have green thumbs? No. Am I learning most things by experimentation? Yes. Do I say “Oops, okay, I won’t do that next year”? Every single day. While some of my plants have struggled, and others have bolted before I ever got to taste the fruits of my labor (RIP spinach, I guess I’ll keep going to the store for you), I do have a few little beauties that are looking pretty awesome. I name them and talk to them when it’s time for them to be watered or pruned. I am particularly fond of my underdogs: like Mojito, Lemony Snickets, Kuzco, and Bluebell (lime tree, lemon tree, coffee bean tree, and blueberry bush, respectively) who all had a rough time in transit, and didn’t look like they would make it when they got here. Two of them are still glorified sticks in the dirt, but I have hope that their leaves will come back with time.
I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve managed to journal this past month, and I unfortunately skipped over some pretty large events. But I’ve been trying to get myself back into the practice. Right now I’m trying to give myself a realistic goal: once a week. Once I start hitting that, I can work up from there. I struggle finding the time and energy; and when I do find some, I would rather be working on my more creative projects. So it’s a balance I’m still trying to strike.
I’ve been really good with my breathing exercises and walking to help with my anxiety. But to be fair- those are habits I’ve had built into my life for a while now, so they won’t ever really disappear. They’re the first line of defense in my anxiety struggle; the kind of thing I can do casually without drawing attention, something that will get me from one moment to another until I can get away from other people and deal with whatever I have going on in my head. I haven’t been as good keeping up with my meditation, yoga or exercises, which tend to be more on the anxiety-prevention front, as opposed to the defensive response styles (like the breathing and walking).
I’ve been pretty good at food and drinks; believe it or not all those experts are right, the things you put into your body can have a huge impact on your state of mind. I know it sounds cliche, but too much caffeine and sugar are going to amplify some of those anxious bad feelings. I feel like I am particularly seasoned to warn others against these foes, because I was a huge addict. Caffeine is one of my favorite things: I was a coffee in the morning, energy drink in the afternoon, tea in the evening kind of girl. I never stopped. And I have a pretty strong sweet tooth to boot. I knew that stopping (or at least slowing) my consumption would probably help me, but I didn’t have the willpower. It wasn’t until I was contemplating trying to get pregnant again (after a few miscarriages you start to take every suggestion and rule as gospel and don’t cheat on anything), I cut caffeine cold-turkey and worked really hard to improve my diet. Holy cow, the change in my anxiety levels was a night and day difference. While I still have to keep tabs on my internal mood, I don’t feel like a runaway rail car anymore. I switched primarily to decaf because I am not willing to give up the ritual of morning coffee yet, and I do allow myself a little bit of actual caffeine during the day, but it’s pretty closely monitored. Seriously- it was hard, but probably one of the best decisions I’ve made for my mental health.
So: where do we stand on mental health?
My score: 7/10
While I am a lot better at managing my anxiety once the ball starts rolling, I do need to work on more preventative measures. Mainly: exercise, meditation, and journaling. I need to constantly remind myself to give my brain enough room to think. I am no longer locked in that traumatic flood of anxiety where I need to do anything I can to keep my head above water. I am in a better place than that, and my daily habits need to reflect it and build on it.
The Creativity Challenge
- Pick a mental health challenge you face (anxiety, depression, anger, etc). Draw it as a living thing (a monster, creature, part of yourself).
- Bonus points if you write a story about it or a letter to it
- Make a collage of the thoughts going on in your head- it can be words, sentences, pictures, drawings, scribbles, magazine cut-outs.
- Bonus points: do this for a couple of days in a row or a few random days in a week. Are there any patterns?
- Journal as though you were a character in a book- how does this change the way you view yourself?
- Write anything in your head for three minutes. Stream of conscious thought, anything goes. Don’t worry about style, spelling, content, just write. Engage in a mindfulness activity of your choice (meditation, yoga, go for a walk with no distractions/music, garden, create). Get a new sheet of paper and write stream of conscious again for three minutes. Do you see a difference in the trend of your thoughts?