anxiety

How to Talk to Loved Ones About Mental Health

A friend asked me for advice recently. Since I’m hardly the expert on, well, anything, I was humbled and flattered that she wanted my opinion.

Basically, she asked me how to talk about mental health with loved ones.

How do you explain your feelings of sadness, anxiety, or hopelessness to someone who hasn’t dealt with those feelings themselves?

How do you justify having a good day when you’ve told someone you regularly deal with mental health issues?

I can imagine it’s confusing to see someone you love go through the ebbs and flows of depression, anxiety, or even the occasional blues, especially when they can’t really point to one thing as the root of all those feelings.

When you catch a cold, you have very noticeable symptoms: stuffy nose, coughing, sneezing.

When it comes to depression and anxiety, however, it isn’t so obvious. Symptoms of these mental health disorders vary and will often be mistaken for being lazy or tired. So unlike someone saying they have a cold, saying you deal with depression or anxiety (or both) might just sound like an excuse.

We’ve been conditioned to believe we have to show physical signs of illness to be taken seriously. But why? Just because you can’t see mental illness doesn’t mean it’s not there.

So how do you tell that to your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your spouse or your family?

Well, first off, let me just say I know it’s not an easy thing to talk about. So even doing any of the following is courageous of you. I should also note that these aren’t end-all be-all solutions; even if you haven’t been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, we all know that talking about feelings can be really difficult. These are just some things that have helped me.

Remind them that it’s not their fault.

Maybe you’ve acted distant, standoffish, or just very much unlike yourself. To your loved one, it may feel like they’re the culprit. If we’re talking about romantic relationships specifically, your significant other might feel like they have something to do with your unhappiness.

But it’s not them. It’s the way your mind is wired. And though they might not believe it, you need to remind them that you’re not trying to make them feel bad. They didn’t do anything to make you feel this way, and they shouldn’t take it personally.

Ask them for help.

Even if it’s as simple as asking them to be patient with you or asking them to give you a little breathing room, let them know they’re on your team and that you need them. There will be times when there’s nothing they can do but ride it out with you. Just ask them to listen and be there when you need it.

Talk about it.

Sometimes it helps to have an honest, open conversation about it. Give them the chance to ask any questions they may have. You don’t have to have an answer or get to the bottom of anything, but just talking about the way you feel can be therapeutic if you’re comfortable with it.

For me, my anxiety can appear unannounced, but it’s usually triggered by my worrying mind and the fact that I agonize over things that haven’t yet happened. In those cases, it helps to talk about a specific scenario and walk through potential outcomes. Think about what feelings might come up and how you can squash them or avoid them altogether.

I’ll give you an example. In October I took my first trip overseas to attend a wedding in Scotland. When I first booked the ticket early in the summer, I was SO excited. I was visiting Europe for the first time! I’d be with friends! At a wedding! But as the trip got closer, I started getting really anxious.

I worried about the dynamic of the friend group. These girls are all my friends, but they share a special bond from living in Chicago for several years. Will I feel left out?

I was worried about logistics. What are we going to do once we arrive? I’m not good at taking the lead. Will someone else make decisions?

I was worried about having a good time. (I know. Crazy, right?) I can’t hang like I used to. What if I get sleepy and can’t party like everyone else?

Before the trip, my therapist and I talked through some of these scenarios. She told me to visualize arriving in Scotland. Getting off the plane. Walking through the airport. What would happen next? And then what? And what would you say/do? And what if [insert a situation here] happens?

Most of my answers were some variation of, “well, we’d be really excited to be there…” or “I just know I’m going to have the best time.” It sounds kind of silly, but after talking it all out I realized that my anxiety was NOT reality; it was completely unfounded.

Whether or not visualizing and walking through each step helps you find some clarity like it did for me, simply talking about it with a loved one (or a therapist!) might help.

 
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So here’s a little serving of some cold hard truth: They might never understand why you feel the way you feel. They can empathize, sure, but it’s one of those things that’s difficult to fully understand unless you’ve lived it.

Just remember: you’re not alone. SO MANY PEOPLE are on your side and know how you feel.

Anxiety Hacks: 6 Ways to be Productive While Working From Home

Some of the best lessons are the ones you learn the hard way: disappointing people who rely on you, facing complete burnout, and retreating to your parked car mid-workday because you literally don’t have the energy to do anything else.

All true stories.

And what did I learn? I learned that I’m not cut out for corporate America or stale desk jobs. That buzzwords like “low-hanging fruit” and “circle back” are my version of nails on a chalkboard. That I’m the worst version of myself when forced to work within constraints. And don’t even get me started on corporate policies...

I realize this makes me sound like a rebel without a cause, but it has everything to do with my anxiety and how my mind works. There are plenty of people—from entry-level associates to high-earning execs—who struggle with mental illness but still manage to be successful in the corporate world. I’m just not one of them.

It took me eight years and six jobs to realize this, but I’m happy to say I’m now in a good place. I get to focus on Loose Leaf while mostly working remotely as a part-time writer. It’s a dream scenario that I’m grateful for every single day.

But just because this is my ideal situation doesn’t mean it’s easy. I’m learning that working from home is a true test of self-discipline, motivation and accountability—traits that can sometimes be hard to come by when dealing with anxiety.

Through trial and error I’ve discovered how be the most productive version of myself while working from home, whether it’s for my calligraphy business or my writing gig. They’re not entirely foolproof solutions, but they work for me and might help you, too.

1. DESIGNATE A WORK SPACE (THAT ISN'T YOUR COUCH)

I used to think, very naively, that I could park myself on the couch with my laptop. It’s a good strategy if your goal is to see how many YouTube videos you can watch in a day. Not a good strategy for getting work done.

That’s why I’ve conditioned myself to instantly equate my home office with work, just as if I were in an actual office. That means everything else—social media, videos, entertainment, cats—lives outside those walls.

I realize not everyone has an office or spare room. You might even be working with nothing but a kitchen table. If that’s the case, make sure the space you choose isn’t anywhere you sit regularly. For example, don’t work in the same spot you eat. The idea is that you want to separate work from home as much as possible.

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2. MAKE A (SHORT) TO-DO LIST

Here’s the thing about to-do lists: you actually have to DO THE THINGS on your list.

I used to aim way too high, filling my day planner with multiple tasks I knew I couldn’t accomplish. I’d end up with a lot of sad, empty checkboxes and to-dos that I’d carry over into the next day. And then the day after that. It was an endless cycle of little productivity.

As simple as my to-dos were, it was the number of them that was overwhelming (hello, anxiety). I focused too much on what I wasn’t getting done and knew I needed to make a change. That’s when I decided to make shorter to-do lists with 3 to 4 tasks I knew I’d be able to check off. Every checked box meant I was getting something done, which feels GOOD, which then leads to MORE productivity. Win win win.      

3. LET YOURSELF REST

This idea goes hand-in-hand with making a to-do list, but I wanted to separate the two because scheduling time for NOT working is just as important as blocking off time for all your to-dos.

I tend to keep my schedule pretty loose and allow plenty of time for mental breaks. THIS IS IMPORTANT. Maybe your thing is getting a big chunk of work done in one sitting. Or maybe you’re like me and can only work in 30-minute intervals before going stir crazy. However you work, make time for NOT working.

4. WEAR WHAT MAKES YOU FEEL YOUR BEST

There was a very short-lived period of time when I thought feeling my “absolute best” was wearing my pajamas all day. Turns out wearing my PJs actually makes me feel like I should be sitting on the couch flipping between The Price is Right and Jerry Springer.

That’s not to say you need to put on a power suit; for me it’s wearing something that would, at the very least, be appropriate in public. (Yes, that includes a bra.)

5. GO OUTSIDE

GO. OUT. SIDE. Breathe the fresh air. Walk around. Loosen up. Sometimes it’s a quick break to the great outdoors that makes all the difference in how you spend your workday. I’ll often take my laptop outside to respond to emails or write (weather permitting). Or I’ll bring my iPad and Apple Pencil outside to doodle. I’m a lover of nature and like to take full advantage of the fleeting warmer months here in Ohio. I recommend you do the same!

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6. BRIBE YOURSELF

There’s a caveat to this one: bribe yourself ONLY if you’re honest. There have been many times I’ve told myself, address these 20 envelopes and catch up on all your emails and THEN you can treat yo’self to [a glass of wine/ice cream/mac & cheese/Netflix] – only to say “screw it” and skip all the work. THIS IS NOT HOW BRIBES WORK.

I’ve gotten much better, though. How? I just remind myself that at the end of the day, enjoying my vices without having done anything to earn them is not rewarding, and it only prevents me from accomplishing anything.

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These aren’t end-all, be-all ideas; living with anxiety and depression means dealing with the occasional “nope, not happening today” moments. But these strategies have become crucial to me being the most productive version of myself.

So tell me, entrepreneurs, freelancers, and work-from-homies: how do you stay on track while maintaining your sanity? I’d love to hear your suggestions!