Seven Months of Attempting Mental Wellness

By all accounts, the last year of your Ph.D. is expected to be, well, difficult. There are obvious challenges that come along with trying to wrap up six years worth of projects, write papers, plan ahead, all while continuing to teach and mentor students and trying to be a somewhat useful member of lab, department, and university communities. But for me, these challenges have all paled in comparison with working towards a long overdue goal–that of maintaining mental wellness.

When I started therapy, people were surprised that I felt I needed it. I guess from the outside I’ve usually seemed high-functioning, someone who has things in control. And it’s exactly this response that’s prompting me to write and talk more about mental health now, because it’s important to me that we all try not to assume that how someone appears on the outside is necessarily an accurate representation of their inner life.

But on the other hand I don’t quite know what to say or write. So as a start, I’m just going to describe all of the practices I use and have used in the past to try and maintain mental wellness. It’s a continual struggle that comes and goes, some days better and some worse than others. Some minutes better and some worse than others. Absolutely NONE of this is prescriptive, and none of this is static. I don’t have any of the answers, just a few things that have helped me. None of this is easy, and I don’t want to pretend it is. But I think it’s worth it.

Therapy: I lucked out, in that the very first therapist I saw last August turned out to be a perfect fit. Everyone recommended that I try someone who practices cognitive behavioral therapy, but I found myself veering away from those practitioners–it seemed too logical, too science-y for me. Which is an odd thing for a scientist to say, but I was realising that I had come to over-identify with the professional part of my identity, and I didn’t want that to permeate therapy too.

My therapist practices a model of therapy called Internal Family Systems wherein you conceive of yourself as a family of parts, all of whom interact with one another, and with the Self. The goal of this therapy practice is to bring decision making under the purview of the Self, leaving the parts to do the specific things they’re good at. It’s a lot like the movie Inside Out, except that the little people inside you are more complex than a single emotion. I love this model. It works beautifully for me, and I would be happy to tell you more about it if you’re interested.

Meditative Self-Inquiry: The basic process of IFS therapy involves “checking in” with your parts, seeing whether the source of your discomfort lies in some interaction between parts that the Self isn’t aware of. One reason I love IFS is that it gives me this tangible way to meditate. I still don’t practice this often enough, but it always resets my soul. Before IFS, though, I found these audio mindfulness meditation guides pretty useful too.

Dressing to Reflect How I Feel: Many of my anxieties are rooted in societal expectations surrounding appearance and attractiveness. I’m sure many women, and perhaps many men too, feel similar pressures. I’ve addressed this for the last few years by paying very careful attention to my feelings about my own body image first thing in the morning, and dressing to reflect those feelings as closely as possible. That way, I never feel like I’m dressing to adhere to a societal norm, and it helps me to feel comfortable in my own skin.

Gratitude Journal: To force me to direct attention outside of myself and remind myself of the good things in my life, I tried to keep a daily gratitude journal starting on my 27th birthday. The entries range from sappy (“I am grateful for the forgiveness of the people around me”) to cynical (“grateful for the small amount of self-restraint I occasionally display. I hate X.”). Some days, I had nothing (“not much today, right now. Let’s see how the day progresses”). I kept this on and off for five months, and my last entry was “grateful for the resilience that is allowing me to wake up happy so regularly.”

Hobbies that I suck at: I write bad poems. I play the guitar terribly. I draw mediocre charcoal drawings. I sing out of tune. I love all of these, because the only thing that counts with them is that I’m trying. I can celebrate improvement but don’t need to lament getting worse, because it *does not matter* one bit.

Cooking fits in here too, though I don’t suck at it. But it’s low stakes–I need to eat, and the consequences of a bland meal aren’t dire. I also love the repetitive ritual of making tea or coffee in the morning. Finding order in daily life helps me be calm, and I always look for new sources of such order when, say, in the field or travelling.

Finding exercise I enjoy: I despise the gym. So I take two dance classes, and have cobbled together a dance+strength training+yoga routine for days in between when I feel like a blob. I recently bought a hula hoop, which was a spectacular investment. It’s calming, repetitive and meditative,  and can take on different levels of energy depending on what music you play while hooping. I also used to hate running, before I came across the “run-walk” method, which works great for me because I love walking and can vary the times spent on each depending on how enthusiastic I’m feeling. I’m never running a race, but 20 minutes of daily exercise in the warmer months made me much happier.

Being open with friends: actually, more important was having friends who were open with me about their mental health struggles. That gave me the courage to go to therapy, and I know I can count on these folks to be a voice of reason when I’m overcome with anxiety and about to make silly decisions. Just last night when I couldn’t fall asleep, I was able to talk to one such friend (conveniently located in Australia) from 4:00 am to 5:00 am, else I wouldn’t have slept at all. The flip side, of course, is that you are there for them when they need to talk, and all of this normalizes the struggle and spreads the burden a little bit.

I think that’s all I’ve got for now. I’ll write more as and when I think of things. I don’t know if this is helpful–if anything, I want to highlight how individually tailored these practices are, though maybe something will resonate with you. I’m hoping this will broaden my community of people who feel comfortable talking about mental health.


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