I'm suffering. Now what?
Highly Predictable Disclaimer:
I’m not a therapist. These are my thoughts and reflections from going through the process of admitting a problem and devising (improvising?) a solution. Nothing more, nothing less.
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’ve recently admitted to yourself that something isn’t right. It might be hard to describe, but you know, on some level, that something in your mind and thoughts is not okay. If you’ve ever felt this way, know first and foremost that you’re not alone. And hey, by the way, well done. You’ve just done something that takes courage and humility: you’ve noticed a problem, articulated it, and taken a step towards fixing it.
That said, if you’re anything like me, you might also be stuck at the question of what to do next. I certainly felt that way when I first confronted my symptoms. I’m a firm believer in accessing qualified professional help for any form of significant mental struggle, but I also know that that wasn’t my first thought when I first noticed consistent mental health symptoms creeping into my day-to-day life. So, in an effort to help you (or someone you care about) find your own path, here is a list of my personal ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ for anyone confronting their mental health struggles, all collected from my very real (and very clumsy) first attempts at self-help.
Write your distressing thoughts (and other symptoms) down.
I can’t stress this enough. Write everything out; all the unpleasant thoughts, all the self-judgements, all the worries, everything. I talk about this a lot in my book, and with good reason. In psychology circles, writing out your thoughts is one example of a process called cognitive defusion. Essentially, it means getting distance from your thoughts so that you can study them instead of just thinking them. Another way to phrase it is thinking about your thoughts, rather than thinking from your thoughts. Regardless of what you call it, the point of writing is simple: it gives you the distance you need to get a sense of what’s going on in your head.
‘Alright,’ you might ask, ‘I’ve written out my thoughts. Now what?’
Study Your Thoughts
In addition to writing out your thoughts, study your thoughts. To start, ask yourself three questions: how often am I experiencing this thought(s)? How much stress does it cause me? How much (and in what way) does it impact my day-to-day functioning?
The reason I like these questions is because they turn your thoughts into data. Emotions can easily cloud our judgement when it comes to confronting difficult truths about ourselves, but numbers offer clarity and consistency in the self-study process, as long as we record our observations regularly.
To quantify the frequency of an unwanted thought, record when and how often the thought occurs using a medium that works for you. To quantify your stress, you might try using a Subjective Units of Discomfort scale, or SUD scale. A SUD scale is a tool that helps you rank your thoughts according to how much distress they cause you. You can read more about SUD scales here.
Next, assess how, and to what extent your unwanted thoughts are impacting your life. These are the questions I used when I first started out:
How, and to what extent are your intrusive thoughts affecting your most important personal relationships?
How, and to what extent are your intrusive thoughts interfering with your ability to earn a living and provide for your loved ones?
How, and to what extent are your intrusive thoughts keeping you from engaging with healthy hobbies, habits and decisions?
Remember: these questions are just a guide for getting thoughts and observations out of your head. Don’t put too much pressure on this exercise. As long as you write honestly, you’ll express something of value. I can’t tell you exactly what to do with your answers, but I can say with certainty that if you find yourself writing out anything you find seriously distressing, or anything that feels insurmountable, it might be worth accessing some form of support.
Adjust your expectations for a while.
Taking a deeper look into your mental health takes time and effort. There’s no sugar-coating it. Your time is a pie chart. You can’t grow one section without shrinking another. I’m not telling you how to divide your time, I’m just saying it wouldn’t be fair to anyone, especially you, to expect change by keeping everything the same. Keep this idea in mind if you ever feel yourself doubting whether you have enough time for your mental health.
Reach out to others in whatever way you feel comfortable.
It’s important to reach out, but your first reach doesn’t have to be for a friend or family member. It might be, but it doesn’t have to be. Don’t feel guilty about that. Everyone has their comfort zones, and your immediate family may not be yours. Instead, reaching out to others might look like this:
A community psychology clinic, or your family doctor (both are required to maintain confidentiality, and they have access to vetted resources)
A parenting or mental health support organization (check online for local chapters of larger organizations in your area, such as the International OCD Foundation. There are more suggestions on the ‘Resources’ page of this website)
A local hotline or call center
Local clergy (subject to your beliefs and comfort levels, of course)
Remember - the worst place for intrusive thoughts to live is in your head, and the worst way to manage your mental health is by yourself. Don’t reject the idea of reaching out just because you’re not comfortable with the first contact that comes to mind. Think about a setting that you can manage with people you can handle, and go there. Don’t suffer alone. Help is out there.
Don’t spend too much time on the internet.
In my book, I refer to research as the ‘frenemy’ of the anxious parent, and I really mean it. Research is a helpful tool, but it can quickly cause more problems than it solves. In the world of mental health, the biggest issue with research isn’t facts, it’s that you can’t bounce your interpretation of those facts off a qualified professional who knows you and your background. Have you ever looked at the criteria lists for ADHD, for example? All of us satisfy at least some of those criteria, some of the time, but a good professional can always tell you. Speaking of which…
Try Not to Focus On a Diagnosis.
The main reason why it’s not good to obsess over a diagnosis is because it can make you focus on what your thoughts mean, rather than how they affect you. Don’t get me wrong - a diagnosis can be useful. In my case, learning that I had OCD brought me profound relief. For the first time in my life, I knew what was going in my head, and I realized that my unhealthy thought patterns were so common that a whole bunch of really smart people had studied them and created ways to help. That was pretty amazing…life-altering, really. Still, my diagnosis was only one step in my journey, and the purpose of it was to understand myself, not to recreate my identity. Ultimately, my advice for anyone who’s suffering is this: don’t focus too much on what it is. Focus on how it affects you. Then, take those observations to someone who has the education and objectivity to guide you in the right direction.
Don’t ‘suck it up’
…or ‘man up’, or ‘deal with it’, or ‘think less’, or ‘bottle it up’, or any other inflated, unhealthy rejection of your legitimate and pressing needs. I’m sure you’ve been told that before, but as someone who tried to fight through severe OCD symptoms while parenting twins, let me tell you why you should listen: first, ‘toughing it out’ just doesn't work. For one thing, it depends on a finite resource: your energy. When that resource runs out, so too does your ability to cope. Here are a few other reasons why toughing it out doesn’t work, all learned from personal experience:
Over time, it erodes your self-esteem. Without proper treatment, mental health symptoms get worse, no matter how hard you try to control them. When that happens, it’s easy to feel like you’re slowly failing yourself, or that something is wrong with you that can’t be fixed. It’s a very risky thought pattern; one that should be avoided if at all possible.
Toughing it out prevents you from digging deeper and discovering the source of your problem. Again, take it from someone who knows first-hand: you can’t address your symptoms if you’re spending all your energy trying to force them out of sight.
It takes a lot of energy to suppress mental health symptoms, which leaves less energy and patience for the other people and commitments in your life.
The bottom line here is fairly simple: if you’re suffering, you’re suffering. Everyone deserves help, and no one can manage without it. Get help. It’s one of the strongest decisions you’ll ever make.
So, there you have it. A small, but hopefully helpful list of ideas that might help you get started on your own mental health journey. If nothing else, I hope that reading through my experiences and suggestions has helped to clarify what’s happening in your life, and what you can do about it. More than anything, I encourage you to pursue dialogue; with good resources, with others, and with yourself. If this article has made even a small contribution to those processes, it will have done its job.