My sophomore year of college, I was really depressed. Within that year, there was a period of time where I was even suicidal. (If you’ve been following my blog for awhile, you already know that.) I remember, back then, searching the internet for how to not be that way. Whenever I read things like get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, and exercise every day, I was totally pissed off. Those simple instruction felt like impossible charges to climb a mountain with flip-flops and a broken arm. I really had so little in me back then. Eventually and for me personally, what really made the difference was deciding to regularly see a counselor and to take an SSRI (which I ended up taking for about eight months). The SSRI got my brain back to balance and my counselor helped equip me with strategies and new mindsets to help me pick myself up.
As I surfaced from that “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” year (as Alexander might put it), I became more capable of doing those very simple things every article about depression and anxiety on the internet suggested I should be doing. And I learned just how important it was to do them as much as you are capable of doing so.
They are part of your mental immune system.
Just like we have to sleep enough, eat well, and exercise regularly in order to help us avoid getting physically sick , we also have to sleep enough, eat well, and exercise regularly to help prevent our brains from getting wonky. Are physical illnesses bound to happen anyway? Yes. Occasionally a three-year-old with a cold sneezes right in your face or you catch the flu going around the office. Even then, having a strong physical immune system will make those illnesses shorter and less complicated than if you have a weak immune system. It’s the same way mentally. Wonky days or weeks are likely inevitable, especially if you struggle with chronic wonky brain. However, if we practice good preventative habits which keep our mental immune system strong, those wonky brain times can become fewer and father between and also shorter when they do occur.
From where I sit right now at 25, I believe there are six main elements of our mental immune system: sleep, food, environment, thought patterns, and connection.
If you’re anything like me, knowing that something is good for you isn’t always enough. It can be hard to implement beneficial practices into our lives without taking the time to reflect on the most practical way to do so. Without being introspective and intentional in setting new habits, we can set ourselves up for failure and the shame that often accompanies failure. (Boo, shame!)
I’ve created some guided questions that have helped me create/continue to improve my own mental immune system practices. I hope you will find them useful as well.
Because my attention span is only so long, we’ll split the six into two parts.Today, we’ll get the boring ones out of the way: sleep, food, and exercise. There are approximately a bajillion articles on how important these three are to mental health, so I’ll let you do the research. (Not because I’m lazy, of course!)
- How much sleep do I personally need? I need at least eight. My husband gets by with six or so; some people need more than eight. Figure out your sweet spot. Just because someone says you people your age need X amount doesn’t mean there are not exceptions.
- When do I have the most/least amount of energy? I’m a morning person. I can’t believe I spent so much of my life staying up late and then sleeping in. When I started to go to bed earlier and get up earlier, it was a total game changer. I’m more creative, inspired, and motivated early in the day and more anxious and fearful at late at night. It’s most efficient to create your sleep schedule, if possible, based on your natural energy cycle. Once I did so, I found my days felt more productive and meaningful, not to mention I was able to fall asleep much easier.
- How long does it take me to wind down and fall asleep? I have to start getting ready for bed about an hour before I want to fall asleep, if not sooner. Why? First of all, I’m a dilly-daddler. I have to leave buffer room for me to get off and back on track. Second, it takes me a long time to mental settle down even when I am physically tired. You might need to leave time to read a chapter of a book. Or, you might be one of those weirdos who falls asleep the second they hit the bed and need very little time.
- What hinders me from falling asleep and what could help? If I haven’t processed my day before I try to fall asleep, my brain will keep me up chewing on all the events and emotions we haven’t digested yet. Like my phone wanting to update, my brain needing to decompress will only accept “not now” as an answer for so long before it forces the procedure itself. So, taking time to process the day right after I get home makes going to sleep later a lot easier. Checking my phone or outside noises going on can be problem areas as well. I try to make it a policy to put down my phone once I turn off the lights, and I listen to a rainstorm through headphones to drown out other noise. Sometimes my anxiety it just not letting me relax. Luckily, my mom made me a weighted blanket and that helps on those nights.
- When/where have I slept best in the past? Why do you think that was? Was it how quiet or dark the room was? Was it the mattress? How safe you felt? How physically active you had been throughout the day? That you meditated? How at peace your mind was? Now, how can you incorporate those elements into your every night sleep time?
- What do my current eating habits look like?
- What typically prevents me from eating well? “I’m a lazy piece of shit,” isn’t good enough. Maybe you are (me too), but dig a little deeper. Why are you a lazy piece of shit? Are you tired from work, hate trying to find recipes, deplore searching for ingredients at the store, etc.? Once you’re aware of what is preventing you, you can figure out how to work around it.
- Am I more likely to cook a little bit multiple times or a lot at once? I’m more likely to do a bunch of cooking at the beginning of week that I can reach for or warm up as I get hungry the next six days. I can’t rely on myself to do it every morning and I’m too tired or have other commitments after work. If I don’t already have something prepared, I’ll find myself in the McDonald’s drive thru.
- What kind of nutritious food do I like? What do I hate? Avoid the stuff you hate for now. One time my husband decided he wanted to try to start eating a little better and thought starting with the vegetable he hated the most would be the best plan of action. After forcing spinach lasagna down our throats (okay, I picked out the spinach out because it for real tasted like grass from our front yard), we were waaay less inspired to keep trying new healthy recipes. Get some successes under your belt before you try to tackle the nasty stuff. Or never tackle the nasty stuff. It’s your life!
- How can I simplify the experience? Awhile back I decided to keep recipes under five ingredients instead of complicated recipes with multiple dishes. (What was I even thinking?) Since doing that, I have a good stash of easy recipes I actually like which I can rotate through rather than constantly finding new ones. It also means I usually have most of the ingredients already or know where to find them in the store. No more wandering aimlessly and googling what very basic vegetables look like or trying to follow long new recipes (I always forget at least one step).
- What usually prevents me from exercising or sticking to my goals? When my goals are too complicated or require me to do something every day or for too long (or both), I simply will not stick to it. When my goals are flexible and simple (like, exercise at least three times a week for at least 20 minutes), I’m more likely to keep going and even exceed my goals. Another huge thing that prevents me from exercising is boredom. I don’t find weight lifting, training programs, or anything that requires “reps” of any kind fun in the slightest, even if I have Netflix on. I’m just counting down the time until it’s over. And the more negativity I associate with exercise, the less likely I am to do it. I find yoga, dancing, and walking more postive experiences.
- What days of the week and times of the day am I most likely to exercise? I’m way more likely to exercise before work or on the weekends, because I have more motivation.
- Do I want fellow exercisers or to fly solo? I don’t like the pressure of trying to keep up with someone or gauge whether they can keep up with me. Other people need that sort of “competition”. Not me. I want people to leave me the hell alone!!!
- Do I want instruction or to do my own thing? I’d rather do my own thing or watch a low stress instructional yoga video. Maybe you would be more motivated in a class, with a coach, or with an intense workout video.
- Do I want to go somewhere to exercise or stay at home? I bought a gym membership once and went twice the whole year–refer back to me being a lazy piece of shit. But in all seriousness, having to remember everything I need to bring (and I’ll inevitably forget something), pack it all up, drive to the gym, talk to the front desk person (they’re just doing their job but I want people to leave me the hell alone, remember?!), obsess about people watching me struggle to run for more 30 seconds or lift the smallest weights possible, and then drive home is a personal nightmare. So I’ll put it off until I realize I’ve wasted a ton of money and still haven’t exercised. You might like getting away to exercise or feel a healthy push with an audience. I don’t understand you, but you do you. I’d rather stay in the privacy of my own home or take a walk on a trail.
- How do I want to feel? I want to feel like people have left me the hell alone!! Haha, just kidding. Well, not kidding, but to take this question more seriously: I want to feel connected to myself or others. Yoga and solo walks help me feel connected to myself. Walks with a friend (who better not even THINK about being a slow walker–I will leave you in the dust) help me connect with others. I also like to feel strong. Not p90x strong, but I-could-feel-my-muscles-shake-a-tiny-bit strong. Power yoga and longer walks do the trick for me. Sometimes I want that out of breath sensation (less I-ran-all-the-way-around-the-track-without-walking out of breath, more I-gave-zero-shits-because-no-one-was-watching-me-play-Just-Dance out of breath), like I’m shaking the stress out of my body. You might want to feel strong, graceful, or adventurous. You might want to push your limits or you might want to stay comfortably far from your limits while still increasing your heart rate. Determining how you want to feel from exercise will help you make a better choice about which type of exercise will benefit you the most.
There you have it. I hope these questions helped get you thinking about how you can improve your mental immune system in a practical way. If you feel like I’ve left any insights out, let me know. I’d also love to hear what your sleep, food, and exercise structures look like and why they work for you! Seriously, I’m nosy like that.
Finally, please remember: there is absolutely no shame in tailoring your routines to YOU. In fact, that is the wisest thing you can do, because the best routine is not the one some guru has perfected. The best routine is the one you’ll actually do. And you are the expert on what that looks like, not that well-meaning guru who uses essential oils and shamelessly takes pictures at the gym and has a perfectly clean bedside table with a healthy plant on it.
(Okay, but the bedside table part is #goals amirite)
Next time, we’ll cover: environment, thought patterns, and connection. So stay tuned!
But, Alissa, how can I stay tuned? I’m so glad you asked!
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