I have been pondering writing about topics around mental health, psychology, mindset, and their related offshoots for quite some time in addition to my own journey with these things. I’ve come by this desire honestly as a result of my own personal struggle to master the contents of my mind and the resulting search for a way to ‘fix’ the problem.
So here I am beginning that journey of writing about my experience, what I’ve learned, what I’ve implemented in my life as an antidote to the chaos and suffering that is an inevitable consequence of being human, and about what I continue to struggle with.
Put simply — to write about what it means to me to be human and live well in spite of that.
Rewriting the Rules to Live Your Best Life
Today more than at any other point in human history our brains are constantly bombarded by a litany of people telling us how we should go about ‘living our best lives’. The phrase sounds nice in a blog or Instagram post, but what does it mean to do this? And what are some simple ways that we can start to stand a little straighter, improve our relationships (with ourselves and others), and increase the chances that our own neurochemistry doesn’t betray us in the process.
I’ve realize not only that no one can tell you what the specifics of this looks like for you but also that living your best life doesn’t simply mean leading a freewheeling, structure-less life free of any rules, responsibilities, or challenges.
Quite the opposite, living your best life in my estimation is more a process of rewriting the rules you inherited in a fashion and manner that work best for you. It isn’t about throwing rules out the window entirely, although we may be tempted to do that and fair enough. Instead, it is a thorough and thoughtful process of questioning the rules we were programmed with and reforming them to fit the structure that suits the needs of the people we are today and, more importantly, the people we hope to become.
Most notably, I’ve found that rewriting the rules is especially critical in the following domains: how we treat ourselves, how we let others treat us, and the things we do daily (i.e. our habits).
Rising From The Ashes
I have thought long and hard about what are the first things I would suggest to individuals suffering from anxiety and depression in various forms and to various degrees. There is no one cause for these issues, at least not as far as I’ve found. My story is entirely different from everyone else’s story, and while the symptoms may manifest in similar ways as others, the root cause of these symptoms are unique to me and mixed inexorably with the distinct circumstances of my own life.
However, I think there are core elements that must be addressed if you wish to push yourself beyond your current circumstances into a life that is genuinely better. I’ve also found that these elements will likely not manifest in some sort of lightning rod moment where suddenly your perceptions of the world and your resultant motivation to change alters drastically in an instant.
More likely, and in the case of my experience, they change gradually through consistently prioritizing your mental health and well-being until one day you find yourself feeling miles away from the person you used to be. I am still deeply in process with this and as of yet am not sure what ‘there’ feels like or if there is even a ‘there’ to be reached.
What I can tell you is that while you might feel uniquely energized to begin this quest, you enthusiasm will wane in either a few days, weeks, or months as you realize the stark reality that actually feeling better consistently requires these actions to become a permanent feature of your personal landscape in whatever way works best for you.
The hardest part of being disciplined is, well, being disciplined and so I would encourage you to prepare thoroughly for inevitable moment when your enthusiasm for self-growth wanes and is replace by the mundane reality of consistently doing. This feeling will come as sure as the sun rises.
So what are we to do if we feel like we’re starting from square one? As a place that I know well, the following three suggestions are just a few simple things I’ve begun to implement in my life that I think can serve as a good starting point.
1 – Start saying “no” to people and mean it
So often in my own life I’ve found that my incessant need to be approved of or liked by others has prevented me from saying no to things, people, or situations that were objectively not good for me. Moreover, saying yes when I really wanted to say no hurt my soul a little bit, making me feel a little less like my authentic self and more likely to be pushed around in the future.
I understand that for some people the fear of losing a relationship because of the conscious or unconscious core belief that they are on some level unlovable can make confrontation a frightening thought out of fear that the relationship will end or change in some fundamental way — and yes, that is a legitimate possibility.
What I can say from the perspective of someone who is proactively trying to implement this in his life is that it feels infinitely better to stand up for yourself. People may leave, and that’s okay. But what cannot be replaced is the deep feeling of self-respect that pervades your entire Being when this is done properly and authentically.
And guess what? It strengthens you to do it again in the future. You might even make a habit of standing up for yourself long enough for the magic of neuroplasticity to take effect and it actually change how you view yourself and what you believe you’re capable of and deserve from others.
2 – Wake Up, Get Up and Stay Up (And Make Your Bed!)
One of the hardest things for me to do to this day (including this morning) is to get up immediately, not lie in bed and endlessly hit the snooze button when my alarm goes off in the morning. This habit of lying in bed is particularly destructive for people like myself that struggle with anxiety and depression because it is precisely these types of people who tend to get lost in thought spirals, negativity, and endless self-criticism. Being in bed with these thoughts, unable to fall back asleep only makes this worse.
When I was in my darkest places, the last thing I wanted to do most mornings was get up and face the day.
And the reason I wanted to stay in bed wasn’t because I was lazy, it was because I didn’t feel like I had a sufficiently good reason to get out of bed in the first place. Life is messy, people hurt you, stuff goes wrong and sometimes terribly wrong. Given all that, and especially if you’ve had some particularly bad stuff happen to you, why would you want to get out of bed and face the day? It’s entirely understandable and I know that feeling well.
What I can tell you from experience is that what lies on the side of the door you currently occupy in that cozy, warm bed is perhaps far worse and far more destructive than anything you might face by getting up and going. This is because on your side of the door is the prison of the mind that enslaves so many dealing with the daily struggle of anxiety, depression, and mental illness.
So while we may tell ourselves that we are tired, that we need more sleep, that we literally cannot even. Our Being knows that we are falling short of our potential. It knows that we have more to offer the world and, more importantly, ourselves. It knows that by facing the eternal tempest that is Being we become more resilient, better able to manage, and stronger in the face of the inevitable adversity that life throws our way.
Staying in bed may keep us warm, but it also renders us soft and vulnerable to hurt and pain. We think that we are safe by staying in the confines of our own bed, but in fact we are making it more (not less) likely that we will suffer the indignities of life. Staying in bed and blinding yourself to the truth doesn’t make the truth go away. It may prolong your having to face it, but eventually the knock at the door will come.
As the saying goes “there are only two things certain in life. Death and taxes.” Staying in bed won’t prevent the rent from coming due or your body from getting hungry or a relative or close friend getting very sick. All staying in bed does is soften you such that when those things do happen, you are ill-equipped to deal with them. This makes all these inevitabilities of life more difficult to bear, not less.
By getting out of bed and staying out of bed (by the way: make your bed while you’re at it), you are actively choosing to face the day and whatever may come from it. You are voluntarily choosing to put yourself in the arena, which is much better than sitting in the stands. You are hardening yourself against the cruel realities of life and being and, as such, you are better preparing yourself so that when these things happen (and they will) they will affect you LESS than if you’d stayed in bed.
3 – Take A Cold Shower, If You Dare
I am going to start by saying that taking a cold shower is going to suck.
Like really going suck. Like a lot. Especially if you’re the type of person that only gets out of bed because there is a warm, refreshing shower waiting. Trust me, this practice is getting increasingly less pleasurable especially in the midst of the Canadian winter that is about to hit.
But what I can also say is that it’s also going to be one of the best things you ever do for yourself. It will strengthen your mind, increase your metabolism, make you happier, build your resiliency as well as myriad other benefits that are too numerous to list here.
First, the physiological benefits.
When we get in a cold shower we are eliciting what is called a hormetic response in our bodies, which is essentially that we are putting our bodies into a state of stress. This stress at low levels and for relatively short periods of time produce favorable biological responses that actually make us more resilient. The cold, when first exposed to our body, will naturally produce a gasping response that will activate the body’s natural fight-or-flight mechanism.
This stimulus or stress has a couple interesting effects. First, it produces a surge of nor-epinephrine in both the blood stream and the brain. In the brain, the surge of nor-epinephrine has significant affects on a person’s mood, attention span, and level of vigilance.
In the body, nor-epinephrine has the effect of being anti-inflammatory. And while inflammation is the body’s way of eliminating the cause of cell injury, most people today are significantly and perpetually over inflamed (due to diet, stress, and environmental toxins) which is increasingly being shown to be the leading cause of most age-related diseases.
Inflammation can also inhibit the brains ability to effectively release the happiness chemical serotonin.
If that’s not enough for you, exposure to the cold also has the added benefit of increasing your metabolism. The reason is because when you expose your body to cold its natural response is to produce heat (smart little machines our bodies are!). To do this the body increases its metabolism in a process called thermogenesis to heat the body back up.
In addition, cold showers increase your white blood cell count, elevates cold shock proteins, and activates very potent antioxidant systems in the body that are significantly more powerful than what can be achieved through supplementation. What does this mean? Basically, that taking cold showers can help you defend against cancer and buttress against horrible neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s.
And now, the less scientific mindset benefits of a cold shower.
This part is more speculative and based on my own experience and observation. But when you decide that you’re going to get in a cold shower you are intentionally exposing yourself to stress. When you expose yourself to stress, you must necessarily make the effort to work with the fight-or-flight mechanism of the brain so that you can endure and even begin to enjoy the cold.
This may involve the type of conscious breathing that engages your parasympathetic nervous system and slows down your heart rate. This also involves feeling the cold, accepting it, and teaching yourself to regulate what otherwise might be an overwhelming, automatic response.
Interestingly, going into a cold shower and the subsequent reaction of the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) is much the same response on a biological and neurological level that we experience when we have anxiety or worse a panic attacks. By intentionally putting our bodies into that state and learning to calm our systems through breathing, you are training yourself to do the same thing in the event of anxiety or a panic attack.
The mechanism is identical and I’ve found that I’m significantly better able to handle the daily anxiety that use to rule my life. I’ve also noticed that I experience less anxiety generally from repeatedly putting myself through this intentional ‘stress’ experienced during a cold shower.
Making a habit of getting into a cold shower for at least a period of time during each shower (I suggest 30 seconds to start) is in essence a mindfulness practice. When the cold water hits you, you have a choice — either squeal and run away or brace yourself against the cold, slow your breathing, and embrace the cold and all the benefits it is bringing you.
Indeed, much like the second suggestion I give above about getting out of bed, getting in a cold shower is an intentional exposure to what is naturally uncomfortable for us and that which we would rather avoid. By intentionally putting ourselves into those physiological states we learn that they are really just that, states that can be controlled and changed with the active engagement of our breathing and minds.
In this way we cease being victims of our thoughts and instead transform ourselves into the masters of them. We start to notice when we are feeling the beginnings of what is actually a physiological response and we can start to take action before we are overwhelmed by both the uncomfortable body sensations often associated with anxiety and the resultant thought loops that become inextricably linked to them.
Pulling It All Together Beyond a Cold Shower
While this is certainly not an exhaustive survey of the ways to combat anxiety, depression, and their related symptoms, I have found that the points discussed above are at the core of this battle.
Understanding what you deserve and defending that vociferously in addition to investing time into building a set of routines, practices, and self-care rituals that support you mentally, physically, spiritually, and neurologically are absolutely essentially to the process.
And while I only mention three small things above there are myriad other things one can do in the ongoing maintenance of their mental state. Other options include more care with your diet, exercise, community organizations and groups that resonate with your interests, meditation and other spiritual practices, journaling, as well as many other activities, events, and practices directed towards this end.
The list really does go on endlessly and it is more a matter of finding what you feel connected to and can commit to doing consistently, especially in the beginning.
What works for me (taking a cold shower) may not necessarily work for another and then there is also the stark reality of practical resource limits for many people.
So while this is not an exhaustive survey, what I’ve attempted as best I can is to provide a few ideas I believe are accessible to everyone that can begin to provide the forward momentum that so often results in a virtuous, positive feedback loop that leads to greater resourcefulness, better relationships, higher levels of self-worth, and improved mental health.
And know that if this article finds you at the bottom, that is a great place to start.
About the Author
tethr is the first mobile, peer-to-peer community that connects men for open conversations about life issues and mental health in a safe, barrier free environment. To join the conversation please request to join the private Facebook group: Mental Health Support Group for All Men.