By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
There is so much going on lately. The holiday season is gearing up, winter is starting to set in, on top of having a sick horse, multiple traumatic (and horrific) client cases at work, and just the rest of life. Needless to say, my mental health is starting to look wonky. I think we are going to change things up for this post a bit.
Not going to lie, my brain needs a break. It is the time of year where my clients start to struggle with their own mental health and trauma. I bring out my empathy, smile, and science-based coping skills, almost like a script. When I am at home, it is the same each day: get kids up for breakfast, get the older two on the bus, do the horse chores, get my youngest up and functioning for the day, go to work, come home, initiate violin practice and homework, get the kids to bed, get my sick horse his medicine (again), and promptly falling asleep on the couch with the remote in my hand. I don’t even have to give it a second thought, it is that much like clockwork. In all honesty, it starts to feel like I’m running on autopilot.
Am I alone here? Am I the only one running on autopilot?
I know when this autopilot feeling happens, my depression tends to come out swinging with both fists. It brings with it the negative self-talk, and a tanking self-esteem. To boot, it zaps all of my motivation to do what I need to do to take care of me. As soon as that kicks in, then my favorite friend, anxiety, comes knocking. You guys know what that means: racing thoughts, a mom-guilt complex bigger than your to-do list, feeling like you could snap at the next person who says something stupid, that inability to fall (and stay) asleep, and the stress-eating anything chocolaty that I can get my hands on.
Don’t get me started on how this makes my ADHD go bonkers. It’s like I’m left spinning my tires while moving at the speed of sound, but not actually accomplishing anything. This leads to even more self-loathing, being cranky at the world, and wanting to disappear with each tear I cry. Ahhh, the joys of mental health!
Since I am feeling a bit, well, crispy, I want to talk to you guys about what I have to do when I am this raw, this spent. I’m going to talk about how I get my mental health back in check, and remind my brain that I am not my mental health.
I first catch on to the autopilot feeling when I start compulsively making lists. I make lists of my lists so I don’t get them mixed up or lost. I also tend to find myself repeating the questions I ask everyone. Heck, I’ve even caught myself asking my clients the same question right after I asked it. As soon as I notice these hallmarks of my autopilot, I know I have to take action (do I though? Not as soon as I should).
The first action I take is closing my eyes, and start crying. Yup, you read it right. I cry. I allow myself to acknowledge that life really sucks right now (go internal validation!) and let those tears flow. Depending on how far I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of despair and anxiety, this crying might happen just once, or it may happen multiple times in a day. When the tears happen, I try to let myself let the tears happen, and I repeat to myself “It sucks being an anxious basket case.” As the tears dry (typically on the neck of one of my horses or after a warm shower), I know I have to take action.
For me, action comes in various ways. Depending on the season, my action changes. Since we talked earlier about winter, I will talk about what I am doing now. Right now, I am allowing myself to get back on track on journaling what I am grateful for. Even the stupidest littlest thing, I write it down. Journaling is usually the one skill that goes out the window when my autopilot kicks in, and I don’t even notice it. As I write down these things I half-heartedly believe, I remind myself of the why (you know, “I have to do this so my brain gives me some sort of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin”).
Once that is done, I get outside. Yes, in Wisconsin, it is cold here right now. I know, for me, getting outside allows me to take time away from the chaos going on inside my home (and in my head). When I am outside, you can find me doing many different things:
- riding or working with one of my horses
- playing with my chainsaw, an axe, or saw mill (I enjoy believing I am a lumberjack)
- sitting in my hunting stand, even if it is just to observe the morning frost falling on the ground
- decorating the outside of my house for Christmas before the snow gets too deep (I wrap all the trees in my front yard with Christmas lights. This year, I added a homemade 12 foot tall deer covered in white lights).
- walking in my woods and recognizing the silence and stillness that comes with it
- laying in the snow, in my woods, just focusing on staring at the branches above me and feeling how the cold hits me
This list right here is the self-care I know I need to do to get back in touch with the activities that make me, me. Not a mom, or a wife, or a therapist, but who I am as an individual. These activities are specific to me. I’ve learned I’m someone that needs that physical outlet for self-care. Don’t get me wrong, I love to sit and crochet and read a book. If I were even to try those things now, I would end up aggitated, frustrated, and not able to focus. Your self-care will look different than mine. That is okay.
After I have let myself get lost in the activities I love (and release those feel-good neurotransmitters), I slowly reintroduce self-care activities that I know allow me to bond with the people I am closest with. Now, there is a very specific dance to this. If I go all in, I burn out quickly and retreat into the self-loathing patterns. Typically, I start small. I start with asking if any of the kids want to help me do something. Whether it is outside, or baking something, or even cleaning up the chicken coop, I ask one of them for their help. This insures me that I’m not over doing it and each kid gets some much needed one on one attention with me (hello dopamine and oxytocin!).
After I do that, I turn my attention to my husband. I tell ya, he is one of the most understanding people out there. He seems to know when I need that space and when I am ready to check back in to life. We engage in conversations about future plans for our land, our dreams for our finances, trips we want to take, and food we are craving. It’s like we can have a conversation about things besides the kids and animals!
Now that I feel connected to the most important people on my life, I can re-engage with friends. Maybe we go out for lunch, take a hike, plan a riding day, or even just return their texts (true story, if I’m too overwhelmed, I won’t return texts or calls). It is about this time I start to really feel the oxytocin release and, dare I say it, can recognize the serotonin floating around in my head.
As these things start to become part of my daily life (again), I can say I start to feel better and back in control of my mental health. On average, when I follow these steps, I typically start to feel better within two to three weeks. You heard me right: two to three weeks. When we are trying to get our mental health back-on-track, it takes longer than just over night. It takes time, practice, and kindness to yourself. It is pretty common for me when I start to feel like this to take one or two days off of work, typically a monday and/or friday (so I have a long-weekend).
This process is unique to me. it has taken time for me to learn what works for me, and what doesn’t. I chose to share this with you so you can see:
- Therapists are human and struggle, too
- it is okay to talk about your mental health
- These things work to help your brain return to thriving mode, and not stay in survival mode
I want to thank you for taking some time and accompanying me on my mental health journey. It isn’t my normal post, but it is one that hopefully helps you see that we all can use some self-care and down time.