Mental Health Bloggers Widen Their Support Systems on WordPress.com

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DeeDee:

What she said.

Originally posted on WordPress.com News:

When we start a blog instead of simply keeping a private diary, it’s because we want to connect with others. When you start to blog, you join a community.

It comes as no surprise that many bloggers are drawn to online communities as a place to work through challenges — to heal and process, find others with similar experiences, and seek (or offer) support. There are lots of supportive communities around WordPress.com: women dealing with breast cancer, people managing diabetes, parents of children with unique needs, and many, many more. Throughout January, we’ll be zooming in on how bloggers use WordPress.com to support their health and wellness.

Today, on the heels of the Blog for Mental Health 2014 kick-off, we’re focusing on mental health. Read on for a look at the many ways WordPress.com bloggers use their sites to improve their own lives, and the lives of others who have…

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A Week in the Sun

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I live in Central New York, which parallels the Pacific Northwest for gray skies and precipitation; we just get ours as snow rather than rain. For about 6 months out of the year, the skies are oppressive, with just 70 hours of sunshine on average in December. That’s about 2.5 hours a day, but sometimes we don’t see the sun for more than a week at a time.

View from my rainforest lanai, complete with a tangerine tree.

View from my rainforest lanai, complete with a tangerine tree.

So spending a week in the sun during January is a great way to recharge myself enough to power through the rest of the winter. Last year I enjoyed wintery sunshine in northern New Mexico, but this year I soaked up my rays in Hawaii on the “Big Island,” spending about half of my time on the dry sunny northwest coast near Waikoloa, and the other half in the rainforests of the southeastern coast in the Puna district.

Sunburn ensued, obviously. I didn’t mind at all; it felt good to get a little spanking from the sun. But I also spent some time under gray skies that still felt re-invigorating because everything around me was lush, green, and dripping with exotic vegetation. Well, except for the barren lava flows, but even there, the novelty of the moon-like terrain was refreshing.

The conference that took up my first 4 days on the island (and was my excuse for travel) had me a little overstimulated and feeling frayed at times. I tried to manage my needs to prevent a meltdown, taking alone time when I needed it and getting at least 6 hours of sleep a night. I still had a mini-meltdown (it really was a lot of stress) and a sinus infection flare-up, but did pretty well most of the time.

The end of the Chain of Craters Road in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

The end of the Chain of Craters Road in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

I’m glad I planned several days of vacation on my own to follow the intense professional interactions. The biggest drawback was that Mr. Chickadee stayed home, by his own choice (I have enough frequent flyer miles for a ticket to paradise) so I explored on my own. Although I saw a few sights and spent a lot of time at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, there’s still so much left to explore next time. I promised Mr. Chickadee that I’ll walk to the end of the road again when he’s ready to come with me.

I’m this writing from 37,000 feet (Tuesday), operating on about 3 hours of spotty sleep after getting up at 4:30 AM HST to see birds and boarding a 10:15 PM (Monday) plane in Kona. I won’t get home until 7 PM EST. Factoring everything in — sleep deprivation, Dramamine, Sudafed, missing my sweetheart, a 5-hour time difference, and the fresh dose of sunshine and greenery — I feel great and awful at the same time.

There’s no making it easier on myself; I’ve done all I can to soften the blow. Mr. Chickadee thinks it’s not worth it, but he wasn’t there. It was worth it. Nonetheless, tomorrow (Wednesday) will be very hard (it was) and the coming weeks will be more stressful than I’ve experienced in years as the job search intensifies. I’m grateful I soaked up some sun while I could, and I’m returning to face these challenges fortified by experiences that remind me that there’s more to life than the hard stuff.

Blog For Mental Health 2014

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BFMH2014Hey, kids – it’s that time again!

“I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.”

So…

What to say? I’m feeling less crazy than ever, which is pretty awesome. It seems that a lot of my insanity was really “just” an endocrine disorder, which merely goes to show how incredibly complex our bodies are. Last year, I officially gave up the bipolar diagnosis, and Mr. Chickadee said, “I told you so” because he never really believed it anyway. Despite some tough times here and there, plus a nonstop battle with my health insurance company, I also graduated from DBT and lost over 30 pounds, so a lot of good stuff happened too. I started keeping a gratitude journal, which has helped me stay more focused on the many things I have to be thankful for — and there really are so many.

May the Saffron Finch of Sanity be with you in 2014.

May the Saffron Finch of Sanity be with you in 2014.

But the coming year is full of change and anxiety-inducing things like moving and starting a new job, except I don’t know which job or where we’ll be living in 6 months — just that everything we have come to call home is going to change. It’s scary and it’s really hard for me to handle this level of uncertainty, but I feel like I’m doing pretty well with it most of the time. I’m trying to make strategic choices from a long-term perspective and focus on being realistic about what I need to succeed, which might mean a lower-ranked, lower pressure job, and I’m certainly OK with that tradeoff.

I’m hoping that after interview season in January/February, I can start weaning off the Wellbutrin XL that I’ve been on since 2001. I worry that my long-term use of these meds might mean that my body can no longer produce the right chemicals properly by itself, but I have to try. If I don’t really need this $500+/month prescription, it would be great to get it out of my life and save it for the next time a serious depressive episode rolls around. Because I know that’s likely – my standing psychiatric diagnosis is, for now, Major Depressive Disorder, Recurrent.

I haven’t been depressed in awhile, though I still have bad patches of dysphoria in which it’s like someone flipped a switch in my head and turned off self-esteem, confidence, and general competence, while turning on doubt, obsessiveness, and pessimism. Happily, however, those episodes are now less severe, more predictable, and shorter. Apparently my body really does need the progesterone boost for my brain to keep working properly!

And now I’m going to do the best thing I can for my mental health – put myself to bed.

Aloha ‘oe, friends – but just for now!

Amazing Daze

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I should be sleeping, but my day was so amazing that I have to tell the story, or at least bits of it.

First of all, I’m in Hawai’i. It’s beautiful and special and more awesome than I can describe. The feral cats really infuriate me, but I won’t go off on that rant.

Really crappy iPhone pic of a Yellow-billed Cardinal bathing in a resort hotel fountain.

Really crappy iPhone pic of a Yellow-billed Cardinal bathing in a resort hotel fountain. He was so frisky and comically soaked!

I got up before my alarm went off and took a bird walk during which I saw African Silverbills, Yellow-fronted Canaries, Saffron Finches, Wandering Tattlers, Yellow-billed Cardinals, and other exotic species. Some of these birds originate in Africa, India, South America, and Asia, and are exceptionally pretty, so it’s especially exciting.

I went to conference sessions and had intellectually stimulating conversations all morning – which sparked ideas for pulling a new paper out of my dissertation (bonus!) that I can submit to this conference next year (double plus bonus!) and started great discussions, plus new friendships.

I ate lunch with the morning session presenters; we talked all the way through the meal and the keynote speaker. I sat in the sun for at least two hours and succeeded in getting sunburned. The sting on my skin makes me happy because it’s so cold and gray at home; I need to store up enough sunshine to get me through the next 4 months!

I went to an afternoon session on biomedical informatics, partly out of curiosity, but also because the dean of Flyover State School was chairing the session. Afterwards, we sat down, munched popcorn, and discussed options. The short story is, they’d love to have me and could immediately offer a 1-year gig until a planned faculty position opens up for Fall 2015, at which point the job would be all but guaranteed. It’s not the top-ranked research university I’ve been groomed for, but a much more sane and sensible environment where I could have a reasonable work/life balance and sustainable career, rather than stressing myself to the point of burnout within 5 years. It was a very encouraging discussion.

After that, I called Mr. Chickadee and talked for 45 minutes – I was too excited to go back to attending paper sessions! While we talked, I watched fish leaping in the lagoon – leaping a foot or so out of the water, like spawning salmon in TV documentaries, except it wasn’t a salmon and it wasn’t spawning. Fascinating!

I spent a little down time by myself before the Pau Hana (cocktail hour) and went from there to the Women’s Networking Reception, which was good fun (plus two free drinks, which is worth $22.50 at resort prices…) The gay guys crashed the women’s reception — plus a few straight ones too — which was fine by all the ladies. Some of my conferences are 90% men, which makes you feel marginalized no matter how bold you are, so these women’s networking events are a really nice touch.

Among the brave fellas was one of my favorite conference pals. We talked and talked and talked and eventually wandered to dinner. I had Singapore noodles, which I basically can’t get at home because there’s no such thing as good Chinese food in upstate New York, so that made me very happy. It was just so much fun to catch up, and also great positive reinforcement to hear my colleague say that I have great stories from my research.

I’m in a daze; my head is spinning. After spending part of my day negotiating a potential mentor for a “backup” postdoc I don’t really want and sketching out a job application I probably won’t send, a dean I really like said he’d go way out of his way to make me a job.

I don’t want to jump the gun, since I have an upcoming campus visit (uber-intense 2-day on-site interview) and yesterday’s phone interview went very well. But my gut says second-tier Flyover State School may be the best choice, even before fully considering the alternatives: the environment is much lower stress, the dean and his management philosophy are exceptionally well aligned with my thinking, and I really want to be done with this excruciating “what’s next?” uncertainty.

But there are still two more days of the conference at this incredibly lush resort, after which I have a few days to myself to drink fresh Kona coffee, hike through rainforests and lava flows, visit live volcanoes, and chase down more exotic birds.

Amazing!

Because of Sara Lomas

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I like to give credit where it’s due. Sara Lomas of Laments and Lullabies is definitely due some credit, but today it’s not for her more profound or hilarious writings — no, I’m afraid Sara deserves the shout-out for a post that was about making do and making awesomeness with a little styrofoam, paint, and moxie.

This now-classic post captured my attention because I like making stuff. And owls. Also, it’s funny, like most things Sara writes. Admittedly, there’s not much evidence of my love of making stuff on this blog, but I thought I’d share a couple projects that were made possibly by Sara and her funny how-to instructions.

When I graduated from DBT, I decided to give everyone in the group a small gift. And for once, I knew just what it should be: a print inspired by my DBT doodles on the “Wise Mind” Venn diagram. I drew stems on the circles for “rational mind” and “emotional mind” and turned them into flowers. When I made them into prints, I discovered that if I turned them upside-down, they became fruit! Is that awesome or what?

If you turn your computer upside-down, you'll see how very fruit-like my flowers can be!

If you turn your computer upside-down, you’ll see how fruit-like my Wise Mind flowers can be!

I tried using some old copper metallic paint that was lying around, but it was lumpy. The acrylic paint leftover from turning our house from a beige eyesore into a brightly-colored nest worked much better. Lesson learned: use paint that doesn’t suck. Needless to say, everyone at DBT loved the prints! I still have a few left, if anyone wants a copy enough to send me a mailing address.

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I got predictably bored, so I made holiday cards to send out for 2013. The effort was inspired in part by the acquisition of an envelope-making template, which I used to make pretty envelopes out of freebie calendar pages. Better to reuse that Sierra Club calendar before recycling it, right?

So I enlisted Mr. Chickadee to cut and fold cardstock into blanks, and then spent the weekend making prints. Toward the end, I got fancy and even tried a two-tone version, but most of those didn’t come out all that well. On the whole, the cards were a success — my mother-in-law said they looked “special” and asked if they were handcrafted, and Sara Lomas herself seemed pretty darn pleased. :D

The design is a "Holly Hornet" -- a pair of holly leaves for wings with "berries" making up the hornet's body.

The “Holly Hornet” has a pair of holly leaves for wings with “berries” making up the hornet’s body.

The styrofoam “block” is shown at bottom left, next to my original sketch, which I simplified for the final product by omitting the legs. However, Sara mentioned one tip that I have yet to figure out how to follow — avoiding getting paint into the cut edges of the master to keep the lines clean. I just can’t seem to get that to work out, so I still have a pretty high failure rate of unacceptable prints. Nonetheless, I’ve been pleased with my handicrafts, which have been well received, and will likely ply my hand at printmaking again in the future — all because of Sara Lomas.

DBT Debrief: Emotion Regulation

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The final module in DBT, Emotion Regulation, was the turning point at which I got with the program, because it really worked when I really needed it.

The goals of emotion regulation in DBT are to understand emotions, reduce emotional vulnerability, and decrease emotional suffering. Hands-down, the most valuable parts for me were learning to observe and describe emotions, and also to accept them, because fighting your emotions just makes the hurt worse. Those skills built off the mindfulness components of DBT and gave me the evidence that it was all valuable if I could be brave enough to accept it.

Describing and Understanding Emotions

The Great Wave by Hokusai makes a great metaphor for emotions.

The Great Wave by Hokusai is a great metaphor for emotions.

DBT uses “wave” model for describing emotion:

  1. Prompting event: something (shit) happens.
  2. Interpretation: how you understand what happened <- YOU CAN CHANGE THIS: it’s a judgment, not a fact.
  3. Emotional experiences: changes in the brain, face, body, sensations, and action urges <- biological, involuntary, automatic, and autonomic reactions to your interpretation.
  4. Emotional expressions: body language, facial expressions, words and actions <- YOU CAN CONTROL THIS: expressions are intentional because you do not have to act on your urges, and at this point, you can also use your physical experience to recognize and name the emotion.
  5. Aftereffects: consequences of your actions — memories, thoughts, physical functioning, behavior, and secondary emotions, e.g., shame in response to expressing anger inappropriately. By exercising control at steps 2 & 4, you can have positive aftereffects, like pride for having acted like an adult instead of a spoiled child. This can lead back into step 1 by creating vulnerabilities to react again; for example, a shame reaction means some trivial thing can become a prompting event when it otherwise wouldn’t.

At first, I didn’t believe that I had any control over any part of my emotions because they had run rampant over me for so long — a very common belief among DBT newbies. It all happened too fast for me to respond deliberately, or so I thought.

I didn’t actually know what emotions I was experiencing… If you’re avoiding your emotions, it’s easy to be clueless about them.

I quickly realized that I didn’t actually know what emotions I was experiencing. They just felt “bad” and I couldn’t differentiate between them very well. Doing the post-hoc analyses helped me learn to associate my physical experience with the emotion I was experiencing, so eventually I recognized that feeling sick to my stomach meant I was afraid. It sounds very basic, but if you’re avoiding your emotions, it’s easy to be clueless about them. Once I was clued in, I could make conscious decisions about how to handle the situation instead of acting on autopilot and regretting it later.

Here’s a rather dramatic example from one of my worksheets, on the second time through the module, which shows that I had actually learned the skills quite well:

  1. Prompting event: Husband got stung by a bee and started having an anaphylactic reaction.
  2. Interpretation: He could die. We have to go to the hospital right now.
  3. Emotional experience: Heart racing, hands shaking, sudden loss of appetite, felt sick to my stomach. Wanted to rush out to the hospital immediately.
  4. Emotional expressions: Calmly said, we’re going to the hospital now. Put food away, made sure I had the stuff needed (wallet, insurance card, book, snack), took my meds, left the house. Dropped husband off at ER, parked car, and then just stayed calm and kept him company.
  5. Aftereffects: Proud that I managed the emergency so well. Relieved that husband was seen right away and quickly improved with medicine. Thankful I knew what to do and didn’t hesitate. Affection for husband.

It was also really useful to have the huge range of words we use to describe emotions boiled down to a few basics: love, joy, anger, sadness, fear, and shame. By reducing the range of emotions I was trying to understand, I started recognizing that frustration is actually anger, anxiety is fear, etc. That might not sound very profound, but by simplifying things, I could associate the physical experience with the right label and then match it to an appropriate response.

I had no idea that I was so afraid so much of the time until I slowed down and took a closer look.

Most people probably don’t need to process emotions so deliberately, but I really did need help to figure it out. I had no idea that I was so afraid so much of the time until I slowed down and took a closer look. At that point, I could start asking myself what I was so afraid of, what was the worst thing that could happen, and whether I was OK with letting fear control me (yeah, not so much.)

Letting Go of Emotional Suffering

Aside from developing some shockingly basic emotional literacy, the other big win for me was applying mindfulness and acceptance to my emotions. This wasn’t easy — no, actually, it’s very easy — but it was terrifying at first.

Surfing is more fun than suffering! Image from Athens Counseling.

Surfing is more fun than suffering! Image from Athens Counseling.

This is one of those things where it sounds like voodoo bullshit and you have to initially take it on faith. First, observe the emotion: recognize it’s happening and don’t engage, just observe. Then experience it. Just let it happen; emotion comes and goes like a wave (the analogy really works here) but if you struggle against it, you’ll exhaust yourself getting nowhere. Likewise, if you let yourself get sucked in, amplifying and embracing the emotion, that also makes it worse. You know what I’m talking about — we’ve all done that, especially with “righteous” anger.

It’s hard at first, but you have to stop trying to control and understand the emotion, and just let it be. At the same time, remember that you don’t have to act, and it will get better. Biochemically, your body can only produce freak-out hormones for 45 minutes before the supply is completely depleted, so things will get better in 45 minutes or less. Yes, it might feel like forever, but if you stop resisting and just let yourself experience the emotion, it probably won’t even last that long!

I discovered that when I was extremely upset, if I just laid down and let myself feel miserable, doing nothing else — not feeding it or struggling against it, literally just focusing on being miserable — I’d get bored within about 20 minutes. At which point, I’d mop up my tears and get on with things. After doing that a couple of times, I realized my emotions weren’t going to kill me and it’s really OK to just let them be what they are.

The last part is to “love” your emotion, which basically means this: don’t judge yourself for being emotional, but be willing to experience it — it’s a big part of what it means to be human. Accept the emotion: you feel what you feel, like it or not, and that’s OK. It’s actually much easier than wasting your energy uselessly resisting reality, which will only make you feel worse. Accepting emotions is very powerful because it’s also validating, and it became part of self-compassion for me. When I felt so rotten that I had to just lay down and cry, I’d tell myself, “It’s hard to feel this way, but that’s just how it is right now. Letting yourself experience your emotions is brave and you will be OK.

And that’s how I handle it today: when I’m overtaken by emotion, I just let it be. I’m self-aware enough to understand what I’m experiencing and I’m strong enough to experience difficult emotions. Sometimes that means excusing myself to the ladies’ room and crying my eyes out in private, but at least I’m not running away from myself anymore.

Pain is a problem of the moment, but suffering is letting the problem cause pain for longer than necessary.

As I learned from another group member, pain is a problem of the moment, but suffering is letting the problem cause pain for longer than necessary. We’re much more in control of our suffering than we’re led to believe. If you can accept your emotions instead of wanting things to be what they aren’t and never will be, you’ll suffer a lot less for it. And if you’re not busy making yourself suffer needlessly, you can be joyful instead — which I highly recommend!

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