How Powerful Are Our Thoughts?

“I think, therefore I am.”

This famous quote, first uttered by Rene Descartes, is something that’s been on my mind this week. I recently started listening to an NPR podcast which is all about the invisible things around us that affect our daily lives. The very first episode was about the ‘secret history of thoughts’ where the hosts asked a question: are my thoughts related to my inner wishes, and do they reveal who I really am?

All my life, I have been told that what I think is important, that my thoughts matter. They do, and so do yours! But not every single thought is important. Not every single thought needs to affect your life. Learning that – and accepting that – has been one of the most important tools when it comes to how I approach my thoughts.

Think, really think, about the insanely high volume of thoughts you have every day. Thoughts can come from anywhere and be about anything. How often do we get sidetracked by our thoughts, or get distracted by thinking of something completely different from what we’re doing? Anxiety or not, depression or not, I know this happens to everyone.

I have intrusive thoughts that pop up every single day, most of which are negative. And I obsess over them. Some days they are all I can think about. And I get stuck.

But what if I didn’t give these thoughts so much power? What if I took them for what they are? It would not be easy, but it’s not impossible. As I have been told by several therapists who specialize in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), one way to reframe my thought process is that instead of trying desperately to ignore the negative thoughts in my head, I can acknowledge them for what they are – thoughts – and move on with my day.

I tried that, and it proved to be very difficult. I still gave importance to every thought that popped into my head, and I was getting stuck on the negative thoughts. I’d like to take a new approach that takes my thoughts beyond the base level of acknowledging them and moving on. I’d like to address those thoughts and tell them what I think of them – that they won’t last, that they aren’t important, that they aren’t me.

I am not my thoughts. I am not a collection of the thoughts I produce. I am a complex person who will have millions of thoughts in his lifetime, and not all of them count. I am going to try to pay more attention to the ones that matter and can make me a better person. As for those intrusive thoughts? Those can go right in the trash.

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Reading and Mental Health

As a kid, I loved to read. While I had favorite authors and genres, it came to a point where it almost didn’t matter what kind of book it was – if I hadn’t read it before, odds were that I’d give it a shot. I’d guess that I’ve read hundreds of books in my lifetime, but the vast majority of them happened before I went to college – and I had to deal with my mental health.

When my mental health worsened, it became hard to read. I had difficulty concentrating on one task at a time, and the result was many years of multitasking. I would have music on while studying, or stream a show on Netflix while doing some writing. I could not focus on a sole subject or interest because I could not develop a one-track mind. Instead, I would have two thought processes running in my head: 1) the normal thoughts and feelings about what it is I was doing at the time, and 2) the negative thoughts and self-talk that seemed to be popping up more and more every day.

By multitasking, I was occupying both thought processes and keeping my mind fully occupied and away from the negative thoughts. But reading a book meant that I would have to develop a one-track mind that concentrated on the words on the page – a near-impossible ask for my anxious self.

This meant that over the course of my college career, I read very little outside of what was required for school. After college, I tried to get into reading a little more, but it proved to be too difficult. I thought that I had to be busy all the time in order to combat the negative thoughts, and the result was an unhealthy lifestyle that definitely didn’t make me feel better about myself. So, like in many other aspects of my mental health and my life, I took a new approach.

First I started rereading books that I’d enjoyed in the past. Some were easier to read than others, but it helped me get on a good schedule of reading consistently because even if I didn’t enjoy it, I’d already read the book before so it wasn’t a total waste.

When 2019 started, I decided to take a chance and really get into reading again. I started by making it a goal to read only 10 pages a day. It was a small chunk, but it was manageable and made me feel like I’d accomplished something. Soon, I started reading during my lunch break at work, which satiated my need for multitasking while helping me learn how to focus on reading.

It’s taken a few months, but I’ve finally hit my groove. I’ve read four books so far in 2019 and I just started my fifth, and while I’m not in love with reading like I used to be as a kid, I like it a whole lot more than I have in recent years. I hope that as my mental muscles grow stronger I can read not only as a coping mechanism but because I genuinely enjoy it.

Has your mental health affected a hobby or activity that you love? Let me know in the comments!

Fear of the Unknown – And the Known

When I was a teenager, I would feel…off. You know how it feels when something is off. It’s like having a pebble stuck in your shoe, or that last bit of corn in your teeth. Of course, those situations have solutions. Take the pebble out of your shoe. Get a toothpick. Now imagine feeling that way but being unable to change it. That was my reality before knowing what was wrong.

Fear of the Unknown

So when I first saw a therapist, when depression and anxiety were first mentioned, I assumed I would be relieved. But I wasn’t. Instead, my anxiety grew, and I was more nervous about my situation than before, when I didn’t know what was wrong.

There’s a lot to be said for fear of the unknown. It makes sense. I’m not saying you should or should not fear the unknown (maybe I’ll tackle that subject another time), but I am saying I had that fear, and I understand why. But what I didn’t understand was the fear that followed. Even though I knew what was wrong, I was still afraid. In many ways, it was worse than not knowing.

Fear of the Known

I was shocked. I was unprepared. I didn’t think I’d be that much more afraid of knowing something than not knowing something, but I was.

I’m not sure why I thought that fear would go away. Maybe I thought I would be a braver person now that I knew what I was dealing with. In many ways, I was. But as those close to me could attest, in many ways I was not. I let fear of my mental illness dictate what I did and did not do. I let fear in, and it won. For a long time, it won.

These days, fear wins less. Every day I get stronger and learn new ways to attack my mental health. But one of the biggest changes was recognizing the role fear played in my life and trying to minimize that as much as possible.

Whether you’re afraid of something you know or something you don’t, fear is fear. When you battle it, you won’t always win. It would be naive of me to tell you that I’m no longer afraid of my mental illness. But for every bit of strength I gain, that fear, every so slightly, shrinks.

Like many things in life, mental health is a marathon, not a sprint. Each day is an opportunity to be better. And since we’re honest here, it’s also a chance to get worse. And sometimes, it will be worse. There’s no way around that. But letting the fear of mental illness dictate what you can and can’t do? You can fight that. You can fight back. And you might not always win, but you will get stronger. And the stronger you get, the better you can fight. And my hope for you is that the fear you have, of the known and the unknown, slowly fades into nothingness.

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I Want to Meditate. How Should I Do It?

Meditation has never come easy to me. I’ve done it off and on for years, but I have never been able to get into any sort of consistency when it came to meditating on a daily, even regular, basis.

But it’s so simple, you’re probably thinking. And as a concept, you’re totally right. You sit still and let your mind wander. You focus on your breathing and develop heightened awareness. Most people end meditation feeling way more at peace than they did when they started (I’d say all, but you never know!). But not me.

Meditation for an Anxious Mind

Part of my meditation problems are due to my anxiety. GAD means that thoughts are filling your head constantly. They don’t give you time to pause and process – it’s just one thought after another, flooding your brain with both important and unimportant thoughts. Since my best approach to dealing with anxious thoughts is to keep my mind busy with other creative outlets (writing, work, etc.), being in a situation where my mind is free to roam has never really helped. Thinking all through meditation makes that meditation pretty counterintuitive, so it’s hard to gain any momentum from repetitive meditation.

Not Having the Right Goals

Like other tools in my mental health toolkit, I think I’ve been looking at meditation all wrong. I expected every session to end with me feeling refreshed, happy and better about myself. When that didn’t happen, I blamed meditation as being something that ‘didn’t work.’ I was looking for meditation to have some sort of instant impact that made my mental illness go away. As with any habit, my skills would undoubtedly grow stronger with time as I meditated more. But I didn’t have patience, and I didn’t have the right goals. No wonder it didn’t work out.

Like exercising, journaling and everything else I do to be mentally healthy, meditation can be a tool in the chest rather than the be-all and end-all of my mental health. This new outlook might be what I need to make it work this time.

I Need Your Help

I’d like to start meditating on a daily basis. I think that, with the right approach and with the right goals in mind, meditation can be something that I incorporate into my daily routine. But how should I meditate?

In the past I have used several apps, including Headspace, but they didn’t work for me. However, now that I have this new approach I am willing to try things that didn’t work for me before. I’m open to suggestions, so let me know in the comments how you meditate. I need all the help I can get!

Pema Chodron

Owning Your Story

I’ve said it before: I’m not sorry about my mental illness. It’s a part of my life, it’s a part of who I am, and it influences a lot of what I do. But it’s not the only thing about me. 

I have a story. We all do. From when we were born until right this minute, your story’s being told. There are tons of things that make up your story. Where you grew up. The friends you’ve made. The family you have. Your hobbies and interests. Your job. Everything and anything can make up your story – whether you want it to or not.

Today isn’t about my story – it’s about encouraging you to tell yours. How this looks is different for everyone. For instance, I’m a writer so this is how I’ve chosen to share my story. I also write creatively, which contains part of my story as well. Some people find it in other forms like photography, art or music. You can find it in things like yoga or meditation, or push yourself to the brink physically by competing in marathons and other physical activities. There’s really no limit as to how your story can be told – what’s important is that you own it.

What does it mean to own your story? It means that you are not – and should not be – ashamed of it. It means that if someone questions it that’s their problem, not yours. It means that you should be unapologetically yourself because it’s who you are – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

It’s taken my awhile to own my story. If I’m being honest, I can’t say that I’m even completely there. I got in my own head and got in my own way, and that made it difficult to own up to who I am and what kind of person I am. But I’m doing my best, and it’s made me better. There is a special power in owning your story – in not shying away from who you are. When you own your story, it’s hard for people to hurt you with it.

I will not shy away from who I am. That includes all parts of me – scars and all. We shouldn’t claim to be perfect and without flaws, but we also should not be ashamed of being flawed – it’s led us to where we are today. And while I might not be where I want to be, I’m proud of where I am, and I hope you are too.

Owning my story has been a big step in my personal growth, but I had to get through plenty of mental setbacks before getting there. What’s stopping you from owning your story? If it helps for me to share more, I’d be happy to!

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My Journey to Setting Monthly Goals

Like any other day, I was scrolling through social media when I came across an interesting article. Apparently, you’re more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down. This is not just some cliche – it’s actually backed up by science. I was a little surprised, but then I thought about all the goals I have for this coming year. To be honest, they’re quite vague, and that isn’t helpful. How can I achieve something if I don’t really know how to get there? Continue reading

Life Update – Taking Steps Toward My Dreams

So I know it’s been a long time since I updated you guys on what’s going on in my life, but I wanted to share some of what’s been going on with me recently.

Last year I mentioned my TEFL certification course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and I am happy to share that I am now a TEFL-certified teacher! I have had plans in the works to move to Europe in 2019, and I am making that dream a reality. I settled on returning to Prague, where I studied as an undergrad. In fact, I’ve already found a place to live in advance of my move, which I am extremely excited about! Next thing on the list: finding a job. While I’m a writer at heart, I’m really curious to see what effect a year of teaching English has on me and my personal development. As the son of two teachers, I can only hope some of those genes have rubbed off on me.

I’m still busy at work, learning the ins and outs of what it’s like to work on a Communications team. In May I will have worked at my organization for two years, and I am proud of myself for the fortitude and strength to stay at this position for so long while maintaining my mental health. That’s not to say every day is easy, but I’ve gained knowledge and put more tools in my chest to succeed at my job despite my mental illness.

I also have some big plans for the basketball website that I run (Ballers Abroad – shameless plug, I know) as well as this blog! The tagline for #MBNB is “living with mental illness and promoting mental wellness” and while I think I’ve done a good job of sharing my experience living with mental illness, I have not done as good a job as promoting mental wellness. Next month, I hope that you see more than one post a week from me as I delve into what it really means to live and be mentally well. I’m always open to ideas on what to write about, so please let me know what you want to read!

The next stage of my life is slowly beginning to take shape, and I am excited to share it with you. The positive response to this blog over the past year and a half has been so amazing, and I cannot wait to continue to share my experience and continue to be a true mental health advocate. Much love to you all!

Being Decisive While Having Anxiety

By nature, I am an indecisive person. Whether that’s a genetic trait or something I’ve taught myself over the years, it’s true. Painfully true. Whether it’s a massive decision or the tiniest little thing, I overthink just about every single thing in my life. From deciding where to live or what to eat for lunch, each moment of decision comes with a thousand other thoughts. I weigh all possible outcomes, and think about how they will effect me now and in the future.

Being indecisive isn’t fun. It’s even less fun when you have GAD. While I do think my indecisiveness is a personality trait, I know having an anxiety disorder doesn’t help things. So how do I make decisions? There seems to be a simple answer (you know, make them), but it’s taken me years to figure out a way I can – somewhat – be decisive.

The most important decision I make every day is to get out of bed. It might be a reflex for some people, but for me it’s always a choice. I choose to take on the day and its challenges. Some days, it’s easier to leave the bed than others. A symptom of my depression is a severe lack of energy. On days where it’s particularly difficult, I don’t – I can’t – leave my room. This symptom used to be much more prevalent in my life, but it doesn’t hold as much power over me as it used to.

So I make the decision to get out of bed. I make the decision to get dressed. I make the decision to be a person that day. And that changes everything.

Those decisions at the beginning of the day are the most difficult ones for me – but they have the most impact. After that, all my other choices seem easier. What to wear, what to eat, what to get done at work. Those choices pale in comparison to the massive one I’ve already made that day to be me.

Before you get the wrong idea don’t worry, I’m still indecisive. I can’t change overnight! But the decisions I make don’t have as much staying power as they used to. I still agonize over the decision but once it’s made, I move on. Because by being here, by choosing to be a person and interact with the world, I’ve already made the most important decision I can make. Nothing really tops it.

Making decisions while living with an anxiety disorder isn’t easy. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that it is possible. I make the decision every day to get out of bed, put some clothes on, and try to be my best self. And to me, that’s the most important decision I’ll ever make.

 

 

 

Holding on to Hope

I know, I know, I didn’t write a post last week. I was out of town at a time when I usually write these posts so I decided to take a week of from the blog and get back to it this week. But wouldn’t you know it, there was more than one thing that happened this past week and a half that I need to share with you, even though that wasn’t my intent – funny how that works, eh?

Two weeks ago, I went on an Out of the Darkness Community Walk, put on by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It was an incredible experience and meant a lot that I was able to raise money and awareness for suicide prevention, a topic I am very passionate about. Before the walk, some words were shared by the people hosting the event and people who had lost others to suicide, and someone said one thing in particular that stuck with me. Two words. Hold on. I’ve heard those words many times before, but this time they hit me harder than ever before. Hold on, she said, for the future. For the life you’re going to live, the relationships you’ll make and the person you’ll become. I’ve always been told to hold on, but I’ve never been told why.

Then I attended a wedding last weekend. It was a wedding between two friends that are near and dear to my heart, and I was fortunate enough to be a member of the bridal party as a groomsmen. I won’t go on and on about how amazing the weekend was (even though it was!), but instead I’ll tell you what happened because of it. It gave me hope. Hope about what? A lot of things. But it wasn’t important what those things were as much as it was that hope existed in the first place. Because I lose hope fairly frequently. Hope that I’ll ever lead a normal life. Hope that mental illness will not define me. Hope that I can be happy with the life I lead.

But this wedding, it gave me hope – in so many ways more than the obvious. And it gave me an answer to the question, why? Why hold on? Hope. Hold on for all that I hope for. I want to hold on to the hope that my health, and consequently my life, will get better. I want to hold on to the hope that my life won’t always be this way, both in and outside of my head. There’s so much hope I want to hold on to that I don’t know what to do with all of it.

So I’ll hold onto some hope for you, too. Whatever it’s for, whoever it’s for, I’ll hold onto it. Because people have been holding onto hope for me my entire life, and it’s time I return the favor.E.B. White

A Vacation from My Mind

A few months ago, I went on vacation. Or at least, I thought I did. I wasn’t at work, I didn’t have a set schedule, and I was sleeping in (well, as much as I could). But did I feel on vacation? From what I understand about vacations, it didn’t really line up.

On vacations, you’re not supposed to be stressed out. You’re not supposed to be worried about things, back home or otherwise. Vacation is a break from all of that.

But I was stressed, anxious and yes – depressed. Though I still had an incredible time on my vacation and enjoyed myself immensely, I didn’t have a break from one thing that I had really hoped I could take a break from – my mind.

Imagine being trapped somewhere you don’t like. No, I won’t paint this imaginary place as the worst place on Earth. But let’s say you don’t like it very much and would rather be elsewhere. Now it’s easy enough to get up and leave – in fact, that would be my first piece of advice to you. But what do you do if you can’t?

If you have a mental illness, you’re all too familiar with this imaginary place. It means different things for different people but for me, it’s my head. There are days – plenty of days – where I wish I could take a vacation from the thoughts in my head. The song “Migraine” by Twenty One Pilots is something I think of often when I can’t take that vacation: am I the only one I know, waging my wars behind my face and above my throat (I really like Twenty One Pilots. I’ll have to write about them one day!).

How do I combat it? I choose to stay busy. Whether it’s working on this blog or doing some other type of work, writing keeps me very busy and my mind very active. So I do that a lot (arguably too much, but that’s another story). When I’m not busy is when things can become frustrating and often, quite sad. I mean actual sad, not pathetic sad. I long to one day take a vacation from the negative self-talk, and constant anxiety, but I also know that I am fortunate in that I know how to fight against this – though it took years to learn.

If you’re like me and can’t really take a vacation from the thoughts in your head, don’t worry, you definitely aren’t alone. If you can do that, let me know what it’s like, because I’m curious about the experience!

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