We need to talk about mental health. There’s too much of a stigma attached to anxiety, depression, and the personality disorders.
If any one of us is out of shape physically, we seek outside help for it. We go to the doctor, hire a personal trainer, or pop some ibuprofen or start eating more veggies. But when we are out of shape mentally, there’s a disconnect.
What’s the difference in seeking a counselor’s help for anxiety compared to a personal trainer’s help with obesity? Why not use an app for meditation? You already did for Couch-to-5K.
It took me years to finally get help for my anxiety, so I know how hard that can be. I want to share with you some of the strategies I’ve learned regarding self care that have made my life much happier and healthier.
Too often, the “health” part of mental health is disregarded. Wellness is not just about your physical health.
But First, Listen Up
This is a very long post. But I think it’s very important. We need to talk about this. This is the second episode of The Geek Fitness Podcast, and it is a very candid account of what happened down here. And why I think self-care is so important. Give it a listen and then read up. Or read and then listen. It’s up to you. Either way, press play and enjoy!
Open Up. I’ll Go First.
So mental health is a big topic for me right now, specifically anxiety disorder symptoms and treatment. I mean, pretty much all of my energy and focus over the past couple of year has been devoted to anxiety and getting better, honestly. I’ve been so debilitated that I have only recently been able to focus on my physical health at all because my mental health has taken such a precedent.
I have pretty severe anxiety disorder, and the docs think I have bipolar II. Until then, I didn’t know there even was a type 2 bipolar. But whatever. I don’t care about that diagnosis that much. I care about feeling better. And finally after a couple of pretty hellish years, I am.
Which is why I am doing this. I’m pretty sure there are some of you who have either dealt with similar situations to mine or are currently dealing with something similar.
In August 2016, I had what essentially amounts to a nervous breakdown.
I was pretty much unable to function, both personally and professionally. My co-workers (read: friends. nay, besties) covered the duties I wasn’t able to perform like champs. My wife worked harder than anyone to support me and help me through daily panic attacks and rage tantrums I couldn’t control.
I tried to deal with my anxiety disorder by self-medicating. Not with drugs or alcohol, but with video games to escape from my real-world feelings (World of Warcraft, specifically). I tried herbs and teas and supplements that were supposed to calm me down so that I would not panic over every small detail. That I’d not spike in blood pressure and heart rate whenever I saw my new boss’s name in an email (she hated me).
I was trying to get whatever exercise I could do between injuries to potentially keep myself grounded, but that fell apart quickly. And I made lots of superfluous, impulsive, and frivolous purchases of things I didn’t need.
It took months and months of dealing with my anxiety disorder symptoms before I sought help. I got to the point where one day, I just closed myself in my office, turned out the lights, and cried and cried and cried from panic and stress for a good long time. When I was able to collect myself and form real thoughts, I called my wife and told her “I can’t keep living like this.”
You see, at that point, my hair had starting to fall out from stress. My blood pressure was sky-high and entering stroke range. My adrenal system got kind of out of whack, and my entire body just felt like shutting down. It was one of the worst periods of my life.
When I decided to finally ask for help, my life began to change. It was a gradual change, and I have had to work my tail off at it. I’ve had to accept a lot of uncomfortable truths about myself and about life itself. And that’s okay. That’s how we grow and move through difficult times. It’s hard. Almost as hard as the difficult times themselves. But it’s worth it.
After a could of years of work, things are looking up.
Things aren’t perfect by any stretch. After that fall and a following hellish spring, I went on extended sick leave from my teaching job because of how severe my anxiety. I ended up resigning my positionw after my sick leave for a number of reasons, but the job exacerbated my anxiety to a point that I couldn’t be in that environment anymore.
It was honestly the best thing that I could have done. I freelanced for a year, doing web design and getting a few really awesome writing gigs, and then I landed a full-time blogging position at Elegant Themes. I write about WordPress all day long, at home, sometimes wearing pants. Most of the time not. It’s a dream job.
I was able to do this because of learning not to be afraid so much. Because I was driven by fear, I never thought about quitting. Never thought about taking a risk of being insecure like that. But my life was hell, and I sought help. And with the help of my counselor, I learned how to take small steps to not letting fear be my primary motivator anymore.
Self-care is the most important gift you can give yourself
I have been seeing a counselor regularly since the fall of 2016. With her help, I have been able to really move forward with my life. I’ve found calm, finally. She has really helped me realize how important self-care is, and because of her help in that area, I’ve made a number of life-changes that are honestly a long time coming.
And I am taking three medicines to help control the bipolar 2 and anxiety. Lamictal (a mood stabilizer) and Cymbalta (a SNRI antidepressant) are awesome, and most recently my doc threw Wellbutrin into the mix. It made a big difference. After a year of bouncing between Prozac, Lexapro, Buspar, and up-and-down doses of them all, I am very glad to have settled in on some that truly help.
I have been through two doctors to manage the medicine, though. I just stopped seeing the most recent psychiatrist because basically told me that I was just an impulsive, bad person and thought my anxiety disorder symptoms (and the bipolar II mood swings and hypomania) were all in my head. He took me off my medicines that were working, and prescribed me Prozac despite my protests, and my telling him I’d had an adverse reaction to it previously.
While on it, I basically couldn’t stand up for all of August 2017. I had my previous doctor (a D.O. which I highly recommend, btw) take me on again to manage my medicine.
All that said, this isn’t about me (despite the way it sounds). It’s about you.
I say all that so you guys know where I’m coming from when as I move forward with this post. I’m not a doctor, and I am certainly no expert. But I have dealt with crippling anxiety, sought treatment, and want to help other people know it’s possible to move forward with your lives.
I don’t think there should be a stigma attached to mental health. I have a severe anxiety disorder. I have bipolar II. It’s not because I’m weak, and it’s not because I’m crazy. It’s because there are chemicals in my brain that are physiologically different than in people who don’t deal with these issues.
Same goes for you. You’re not crazy. You’re not broken. You’re not weak. You’re having some anxiety. You’re dealing wiht depression. You’re sick, and that’s okay. So am I.
It’s no different from someone who has weak knees and has to wear braces, severe acne and has to use prescription skin-care, or Type-1 diabetes and has to inject insulin every single day. We don’t treat these people as though they’re Less Than.
The same should be true of mental health. It’s the health part of mental health that matters to me. And should to you.
Mental Health in the Geek Community
I know that a lot of people in the geek community suffer from anxiety disorder, be it social or generalized. I know depression runs rampant. There are lots of people who may deal with bipolar, borderline, or other mood disorders, and they may simply be incapable of recognizing that the mania (or hypomania) is just as bad as the depression (I was incapable of seeing it, so I feel ya).
But there is a lot of harshness and negativity toward people who exhibit anxiety disorder symptoms and manifest their issues in ways that others can see them. We’re called names, mocked, and shamed. The insular and toxic nature of many parts of the geek community feeds on negativity and outward projection of their own insecurities.
But that’s not on us. That’s on them. We can’t change them.
What we can do, however, is advocate for ourselves.
We can seek the treatment that we need. We can seek help. We can be capable enough of admitting that we have something to work on, and we can take whatever steps–no matter how small they may seem — toward getting ourselves into a healthier place.
The entire point of me putting all this out there is to let you know that you’re not alone. Despite the stigma (especially in our community of geeks), there is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to hide. There are lots of people out there who you probably interact with on a daily basis who struggle with the same symptoms of anxiety disorder you do. They may not speak up for a number of reasons — and many of them are probably the same reasons as you.
More than anything else, know that you’re not alone, that people are here for you, and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you.
Anxiety Disorder Treatment: what’s right for you?
Medication is not the answer for everyone. It doesn’t — and can’t — magically solve all your life’s problems. What it can do, however, is allow you to get into a better mindset so that you can deal with things that come up without losing your mind (pun only partially intended).
Different meds have different effects on different people, and they are often dependent on individual body chemistry, so obviously not all of them are for everybody. It can take a long time to get on ones that truly help. I had a lot of false starts over the past year. And they sucked.
But the end result has been worth it for me because I am in a much better place than I was. There’s no guarantee that medicine will be that for you. I hope that it can help you in some way, though, if that’s what you’re looking for.
If you think you may need medication, I urge you to go to the doctor as soon as possible.
Today, tomorrow. This week. Next week. Please don’t put it off. I am begging you.
It is that important. Not only can the doctor get you on the right path in terms of diagnosis and medication, they are also capable of referring you to a counselor or therapist, which has been every bit as important for me as a my regular doctors.
Be aware that not every doctor can diagnose mental health issues, either. Be aware of that. I didn’t really know that.
While even nurse practitioners at walk-in/urgent care clinics can prescribe antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds, they are not mental health professionals. They’re a good first-step until you can find someone who is capable of helping you long-term. (I was given my first stopgap meds from a nurse practitioner the same day I called my wife to move forward with treatment).
And just to point out, some doctors and counselors just won’t work for you. I adore my first doctor, but hated my psychiatrist. I fired him after a few sessions and considered it a learning experience.
And when I first started seeing a counselor, I despised her. When I told my doc the reasons we didn’t get along, he referred me to a truly amazing woman who I just click with and has helped me more than I can even say. She has changed my life. In fact, I’m seeing her tomorrow (as of me writing this.)
Being Mindful: not just buzzwords
Meditation and mindfulness have become buzzwords over the past few years, and I can already see some of your eyes rolling so far back into your heads that I want to offer you some aspirin. But hear me out. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to be mindful and meditate. You don’t have to make your own transcendental granola. You don’t have to chant, bend yourself like a pretzel, or burn incense.
I know that geekdom is not the most spiritual and touch-feely group in the world. I know we’re all big on facts and figures, and we pride ourselves on our cynicism and logic and skepticism. So let me point you in the direction of the science behind the benefits of meditation and mindfulness (this article contains links to the peer-reviewed studies as well). You’re welcome.
Meditation is simple. You just have to sit. See? Simple. But simple very much does not mean easy. A big part of dealing with anxiety in particular is being able to sit with your own discomfort and realize that it’s a temporary situation. Meditation is essentially practice at learning to be okay being uncomfortable. Sometimes that means boredom. Sometimes that means racing thoughts. Sometimes that means a fast heart-rate. Sometimes it means enough stress all you can do is rock yourself for comfort. But through meditation you learn to deal with that discomfort and allow it to pass.
You learn the difference in response and reaction. Remember when I said that my anxiety disorder often manifests its symptoms as anger and rage? Well, that’s reacting. I would react to events, feelings, pretty much every stimulus without thinking about my actions or their consequences. By taking up meditation, I have learned I have the ability to take at least a moment to form a response. I have learned to sit (and not 100% successfully) with my discomfort and not allow my instinctual rage to erupt.
There are a number of ways to get started with meditation practice.
The one that has affected me the most was Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier. Written from the perspective of someone who self-medicated with cocaine after having PTSD-induced anxiety attacks, there is no hippy-dippy side to this book. The subtitle is “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics” if that gives you an indication of the book’s tone.
This book got me to the point where I regularly practice meditation, and even subscribe to the monthly new guided meditation courses being released through the 10% Happier app. It has a delightful free trial, which I highly suggest you give a shot.
If you want additional mindfulness apps, definitely download Headspace and Stop, Breathe, Think. I have both of them on my phone, and they work for me in different ways. I think between these three options, there will be something that you will like enough to give 10 minutes of your day.
Additionally, I listen to the Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast. While it’s not about mindfulness in particular, it’s about being in the right mindset to embrace positivity, which I have found helps keep me in a good headspace more than almost anything else. Other podcasts in this vein are 10% Happier (have you figured out which one is my favorite yet?) and my wife recommends The One You Feed. Both of which I think you should check out.
Now, like I said before, this has been my specific experience and what works for me. I’m not a doctor. I’m just a dude. But I’m a dude who has been through some really dark times and came out the other side with a smile on my face, and I want you folks to know that’s possible.
I am not cured
I don’t want you to think that I am. I am coming to grips with the idea that I may be fighting and struggling with this until the day I die. And while I can’t say I am even remotely okay with that, I am coming to the point where I can accept it. It’s my reality and nothing can change it.
I can make the choice to deal with the anxiety disorder symptoms in a healthy way, using healthy mechanisms and practices, or I can ignore it and recede back into the darkness that almost consumed me and ruined my life.
So I am putting that forward to you. Not as a challenge, no. But as a plea. From one geek to another. From one friend to another. Make that choice. Seek help. Seek treatment. Advocate for yourself. It’s not that no one else is willing to — it’s that no one else able to.
We can’t take that first step for you. If I could go to Google and type in “anxiety disorder treatment” and your hometown and get you an appointment today, I so would. I’d get every one of you in touch with as many mental health professionals as I could. But I can’t.
That one is entirely up to you. After that, though, I promise that we, as a community of geeks, will be here for you. There are good people here. There is far more positivity and friendship in geekdom than pretty much anywhere else in the world.
Because being a geek is about one thing: love.
We unashamedly and unabashedly love what we love. We love stuff and movies and media and games. And more importantly, we love each other.
Geeks band together constantly for things we feel are important. We’ve seen the community save TV shows, start charities, and stand up for the oppressed. Now, I am asking you to let us love you. Let us band together so that we can be here for you.
Let me be here for you. I’ve set up a specific email account (anxiety at geekfitness dot net) so that if you need to know that someone is here for you and cares about what you’re dealing with. Like I said, I’m just a dude, but I want you to know I’m a dude who understands.
Also feel free to message me on Twitter or drop by the Geek to Geek Discord or Slack, where there’s a positive community of geeks who absolutely want to get to know you and be friends. We have a #geekfitness channel on them as well.
I here for you. We are here for you.
Seeking treatment for an anxiety disorder isn’t easy or simple. It takes time and energy and focus. It takes work, self-awareness, and commitment. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable for a little while. But you can do it. I believe in you.
You got this. And we got you. I promise.
Some Things to Keep in Mind and Try
Finally, I want to give you some things to think about. Some things to try. These are simple ideas that have really made my life a lot better over the years. You’re not going to be able to do all of these all the time, but just keep them in mind. As you remember to incorporate them mindfully and purposefully, I think you’ll see as much difference in your life as I have.
Respond, Don’t React
Remember what I said above: when faced with stress, try to respond to it rather than reacting. Reacting is automatic, while responding is calculated. It can only take a moment to determine what the right response is, and meditation can really help you learn how to take that moment and thoughtfully respond instead of automatically reacting without thought.
Recognize your motivator
I am motivated by fear, and I react to fear with rage. I get mad. Like “Hulk Smash!” mad when I’m scared of anything. Knowing that, I can now be mindful of how I respond to fear (going back to the mindfulness of response versus reaction).
I know I briefly mentioned this on an episode of the Geek to Geek podcast, but doing more than one thing at once is a recipe for disaster when it comes to anxiety. By being present in the moment and just doing whatever it is that you’re doing, you eliminate a lot of added stress. Your brain can focus on a single task, limiting the amount of energy you’re expending.
For me, it’s silly stuff like playing Hearthstone while pooping or checking Flipboard and Twitter while eating breakfast. Maybe even texting or chatting on Discord while I’m watching my favorite TV shows. Doing one thing at a time makes you slow down enough to really engage in that activity.
Try leaving your phone at home some time when you go out. Or just don’t take it out of your pocket when you’re waiting in line or at a traffic light. I love my screens as much as anyone, but it’s impossible to do two (or three or four) things at once to anything resembling the best of my ability.
And if you constantly have that kind of stimulation, you’re always on. It’s exhausting to just be thinking about something all the time. Wondering what the next cool thing you can see will be. Craving that next, tiny dopamine hit.
Taking a little time for yourself during the day where you allow yourself to be disconnected from external stimulus is absurdly important to dealing with anxiety and depression.
The idea of self-care and wellness needs to move out of just being applied to the body. People need to start realizing that taking care of your mind is every bit as important.