How I’m fighting chronic depression and anxiety
Hello, friends! I have four money articles in progress, plus I'm editing several guest posts for future publication. But today I want to give a brief update on my mental health. My depression and anxiety have been tough this year but it feels like I've turned a corner, and I want to share what's helped.
Each week when I go to therapy, I complete a survey regarding my recent mood and attitude. It's about what you'd expect. There's a list of maybe a dozen statements, and for each I fill in a bubble indicating how strongly I agree (or disagree) based on my experience during the previous seven days.
From memory, sample statements include:
- I feel nervous and/or my heart races.
- I feel anxious in social situations.
- I have friends and family I can ask for support.
- I have trouble finding motivation to get things done.
- I'm able to complete everything I want to do.
- And so on.
At my first therapy session in April, my score on this assessment was awful. I felt anxious all of the time. I was having trouble with increased heart rates. (Thanks, Apple Watch, for constantly flagging that.) And by far my biggest problem was getting done everything I wanted to get done. I wasn't doing anything. I was too deep in my anxiety and depression.
Last week, I visited my therapist for the first time in a month. As always, I completed the mental health inventory before our appointment started.
“Whoa!” my counselor said when she saw the results. She pulled up my past scores on her computer. “This is the best you've been since we started working together. You marked that everything's fine except for your ability to get work done. That's great. What happened?”
“What happened is that I got out of my routine,” I said. “I've been on vacation. Plus, I've been doing a lot of the things you and I have talked about. They've helped. Right now, the reason I can't get done everything I want to do has nothing to do with depression and anxiety. It's just that I have so much on my plate that I can't figure out how to prioritize it!”
During our time together, my therapist and I have explored a variety of steps I can take to improve my mental health. When I actually implement these things, life is great. (I have a tendency to talk about making changes without actually doing so. This was especially true early on.)
Here are three changes that have helped me cope with my depression and anxiety.
Spending More Time with People
When Kim and I lived in a condo in the city, I got plenty of social interaction on a daily basis. Now we live in a house in the country. Unless I make an effort to reach out, I can go a week without having a meaningful conversation with anyone but Kim.
Plus, I lost touch with many of my old friends when Kim and I embarked on our fifteen-month RV trip around the U.S. When I returned home, I didn't resume the relationships (and my friends didn't either).
Some people have social interaction built into their lives. They're surrounded by co-workers on weekdays. They attend church on Sunday. They take their kids to school events and/or participate in community organizations. I don't do any of this.
For many years, I had a built-in social group because I took Crossfit classes. I got to interact with my fitness friends several days each week. But I haven't attended classes in a long, long time, so that network has vanished too.
This summer, I've deliberately taken steps to reconnect with old friends. I invite them to join me at Portland Timbers games. I have lunch or dinner with them. We walk dogs together. Although I haven't joined any community groups, Kim and I are both looking to do so.
There's still more work to be done here, but I feel as if I'm moving in the right direction. It feels good to reconnect with people.
Exercising and Eating Right
Speaking of exercise, this is another area where I've let things slide.
I used to be fat. I ate poorly and I didn't exercise, so naturally I gained weight and then maintained it. My poor choices were reflected in my (lack of) physical fitness.
In 2010, I resolved to change. I reduced my calorie intake and made better food choices. More importantly, I started cycling and discovered Crossfit. Within two years, I was the fittest I'd ever been in my life. I was lean. I was strong. It felt amazing.
No joke: Being fit and knowing that you're fit is one of the best things you can do to boost your confidence and to fight depression. I'd always heard that. For a few years, I lived it.
I maintained my fitness until 2015. When Kim and I left for our RV trip, however, my health began to erode. At first, she and I made time to exercise but gradually our motivation vanished. At the same time, we were eating more unhealthy food (we wanted to try the regional cuisine!) and drinking more alcohol (we wanted to try the regional wine and beer!). We packed on the pounds.
Since returning to Portland in 2016, I've made intermittent attempts to exercise and eat right but nothing has stuck. “I had to buy fat clothes for our trip,” I told my therapist before we left for Italy in August. You can bet she had a chat with me about (a) my word choice and (b) my inability to follow through with fitness.
Now, I have a plan. My crazy summer schedule becomes less crazy on October 15th. After that, I have no travel planned. I will sign up for Orange Theory classes and attend them early every morning. (I have to exercise first thing or it won't get done.)
In the meantime, I've already begun reducing my calorie intake and making healthier choices. My goal is to lose weight this winter instead of gain it.
Lowering My Expectations
Perhaps the biggest change I can make to improve my mental health is this: lowering my expectations for myself. I am a perfectionist. But perfectionism leads to both procrastination and disappointment.
“J.D., why are you forcing yourself to publish so much when you know that doing so is stressful?” my therapist asked in June. “This is an expectation you've placed on yourself. Nobody else has done this to you. You are making yourself unhappy.”
Good point. And, you know what? This was one of the primary reasons I sold Get Rich Slowly back in 2009. Ten years ago, I was deeply unhappy because of the publication schedule I had imposed upon myself.
So, Tom and I have been s-l-o-w-l-y transitioning to a different model here at the website.
- I will write when I want to write (about what I want to write).
- He and I are working together to revise and expand older articles. We'll publish new and improved versions from time to time.
- We've been publishing articles from guest authors and from places like NerdWallet.
- We're in the process of hiring a staff writer. (Maybe more than one?) If you're interested, you should apply for the position.
But it's not just here at the blog that I have to fight my high expectations. It's everywhere in my life: my relationships, my health, my home — even my expectations of what I do in my spare time.
Yesterday, I was talking with my former Crossfit coach about returning to the gym. “J.D.,” he said, “I know you. And if I could offer one piece of advice, it'd be this: Set your bar for success very low. If you go in and expect to be where you were six years ago, you're going to give up. For now, you should count it a success if you simply show up.”
“Showing up” seems like a low bar indeed, but my coach is right. If my expectations are too high, there's no doubt that I'll fall short. And when I do, I'll be discouraged. It'll stop me from starting! So, my first fitness goal will simply be: get to the gym each day.
It's going to take some time for me to shed all of my expectations. (And, truthfully, I'm not sure discarding all expectations is even desirable.) But that's why I'm working with a therapist.
Here's an example of my expectations in action. Although I've agreed with my counselor that I should not adhere to a publication schedule at GRS, I begin to get antsy as days pass and I don't have something new ready for readers.
In fact, this very article is a result of that. For the past seven days, I've been working almost non-stop even though there's nothing new to show for it. It's been a week since I published my last piece and it's stressing me out.
When I sat down with my coffee this morning, I started writing a journal entry about how this expectation was making me unhappy. That journal entry turned into this article. I still have work to do on this haha!
Everything I Already Know
The funny thing about therapy (to me) is that my counselor's advice is stuff I already know. I have a psychology degree, after all, and at one time I intended to become a therapist myself. The things she says and does are all very familiar to me. (She's always telling me not to worry about things I cannot control, which is hilarious because that's what I'm always telling you folks.)
But there's a difference between knowing and doing. You can have all of the book knowledge in the world, but if you don't put that knowledge into practice, what's the point? My counselor's job is to move me from words to action.
Honestly, I feel great right now. This is how I used to feel most of the time — and how I want to feel in the future. I'm enjoying life and getting shit done. The darkness is currently at bay. All I see is light.
Yes, I feel overwhelmed by how much work I have to get done — next Thursday, I leave for another 20 days on the road! — but instead of shirking the work, I'm doing it. And the workload isn't due to negligence on my part. It's just a perfect storm of deadlines and travel.
But in the back of my mind, I'm worried about what might happen this coming spring. The past few springs have been miserable for me. I'm dreading a return to the days of lying in bed, the lack of desire to talk to anyone about anything. I don't like myself when I spend all day in my underwear playing videogames. Yuck.
I'm making the right moves now, though. I'm being proactive. I'm being a grasshopper, not an ant. While everything seems rosy and bright, I'm working to lay a foundation for future success, working to create systems that will help me maintain a positive direction even when the depression and anxiety come creeping back next year.
Fingers crossed that all of the preparation pays off!