We all know mental health is a critical piece to leading a full, productive life. Yet maintaining good mental health isn’t always as easy as it might seem. More than 18 million adults in Canada and the United States suffer from depression and/or anxiety—and I am one of them.
It took me 10 years of trial, error, struggle, success, and more trial and error to reach a place of wellness, a place where I know how to recognize the warning signs of an impending depression episode and practice my now tried-and-true techniques for staying healthy, in balance and at peace.
Here is the checklist I use. And remember: No one item is more important than any other!
1. Replace negative thoughts with neutral thinking.
Situations don’t have to be black or white. In fact, most are not. But when you’re heading into depression or anxiety, the brain thinks they are. But that’s the brain’s mistake, and you don’t need to buy into it. Yes, you can transform those thoughts into something neutral, probably something closer to the truth. Eventually and with practice, you can even change your thoughts to lean toward the positive.
2. Be creative.
Indulge your soul and make meaningful use of your hands. It is so important to engage your beautiful hands in making things from a creative place. Play the piano or strum your guitar if that’s your interest. Or make something from wood, cloth, leather or papier mâché—it doesn’t matter what you pick or whether what you make is pleasing to look at. What does matter is that you are engaging that part of the brain that likes to play. Let it play often. The act of being creative releases helpful chemicals to the brain that feel good. Try it once or twice. You might not feel like it at first, but you will like the effect.
3. Establish a daily routine with a positive focus.
Having structure in your day is not only healthy, it is crucial when navigating depression or anxiety. A daily routine prevents you from having to think too much at a time when your brain isn’t at peak capacity. A routine also provides a sense of security; at least for today, because your plans and activities are taken care of, you will be OK. Design a routine that supports your need for positivity. It might include creative time, an extra nap, physical exercise, and / or an hour spent cuddling a pet or a young child. Whatever you choose, the positive activity saves you from going down the magnetic path of negativity.
4. Connect with Spirit every day.
Make connecting with Spirit—your own and the source spirit—part of your daily routine. You can try meditation, prayer, walking in the woods or your own preferred technique. Spirit is intertwined with creativity, one feeds the other. Connecting with Spirit is a way to ground yourself with the universe’s life force; it ensures you have the personal power you need to make changes in your life and to get yourself unstuck from depression or anxiety.
5. See personal discipline in a positive light.
Find small ways to employ self-discipline and notice how it lifts your mood. It’s uncomplicated, easy to remember and super-gratifying when you are able to stick to even a small intention. Be sure to make a note in your journal each time you are successful at any act of self-discipline. (Example: I said I would walk for 30 minutes today, and I did!) Just watch the energy it creates for you.
6. Practice self-care.
You know best what you need, and you deserve the care. If life is especially hard for you right now, then you especially need the care. Be as good to yourself as you would be to your best friend. Do not feel guilty about your needs—ever!
7. Visualize your best self, with intention.
Spend real, devoted time to imagining who you want to be. How do you want to react to things? How do you want to treat others and yourself? How do you see Your Best You handling challenging situations? Repeated, dedicated visualization will help you become that person in real life.
8. Exercise at least three times a week for 30 to 40 minutes.
There’s no replacement for vigorous exercise. It releases your brain’s endorphins, those feel-good chemicals that can change your day from terrible to great.
9. Spend time in nature.
Especially where there are mature trees, running water or mountains nearby. Nature soothes your soul and quiets your mind. Embrace the sights, smells and sounds, and simply enjoy the stillness of it all. When your soul feels good, the rest of you is likely to follow.
10. Connect with people.
Social contact is important to being well and staying well. You might not feel like socializing, but try to do so anyway. Kick yourself out of the house and meet a friend at a coffee shop. The change of scenery helps pull you out of your downward state into a more neutral place, and that is a healthier place for you when you’re struggling with depression and anxiety. Committing to a coffee run with a friend is a perfect way to practice your new personal-discipline skills.
11. Create a high-five book to compliment yourself and record your progress.
Notes in this book will serve as written high-fives to yourself, so to speak. Only you know what warrants noting, and only you need to see your book. Make it as joyful as you can! Use colors, stickers and doodles. Make it visually engaging—a great way to practice being creative.
12. Write down a plan.
If you feel stuck, take charge of your situation by writing down a plan to get yourself moving again. Even the start of a plan will do! Note one thing you want to do today to start making a positive change. Then plan for two things you’ll do tomorrow. A plan empowers you when depression is trying to control you.
13. Talk with your doctor.
Remember: Depression is a physical condition. The chemicals in your brain are misfiring, and your doctor can suggest medications that can help regulate those chemicals. Your doctor also might recommend various other therapies to support your wellness. It probably will take some time and effort to find the right combinations of treatments, but when you do, you’ll see that the effort was well spent.
Michèle Swiderski is the author of A Joyful Life: How to Use Your Creative Spirit to Manage Depression. When not weaving, spinning, sewing, or knitting, she enjoys connecting with nature at her cabin in the woods. Over the past 15 years, Michèle has struggled with depression and feels she is a better person for it. Recently retired from a career in public service, she is dedicated to raising awareness for mental health and shares her insights on her blog at micheleswiderski.com.