(Originally Published on Medium)
The current international crisis is mentally taxing for everyone. But those of us with mental health issues are struggling even more.
Surely everyone feels a sense of anxiety when they walk into the grocery store and see what feels like miles of empty shelves. Maybe even a little depression. For most, it’s as simple as jumping in the car and running to the next store to see what’s available. For a person with an anxiety disorder, it can take minutes or even hours before a simple decision like that is made.
As a kid growing up, I watched my single immigrant mother struggle to provide for us and make sure we were in school every day. Some of those days were better than others. The worst days sometimes coalesce into a single memory that creates panic in my mind. A panic that is heightened by the sight of empty shelves and knowing that we must acquire food to feed our kids at home.
Now, instead of shopping every two weeks, as our family is accustomed to, we are shopping every couple of days or so trying to find food to carry us for a few days at a time. People are hoarding not just toilet paper, but meats, poultry, fruits, vegetables, frozen foods, diapers, you name it, they’re hoarding it. And nothing breaks my heart more than seeing seniors or parents struggling to find what they need just to get by.
Frankly, it’s depressing.
All of the same emotions regular folks feel are amplified by volumes for those of us who struggle with mental health issues. It’s not out of the ordinary for some of us to jump from panic to depression at the drop of a hat. Especially under these circumstances. Many of us have no semblance of balance during times like this. A senior citizen struggling to find food, despite our helping them, brings on huge bouts of depression that are sometimes tough to tackle.
I am a stroke survivor. At the age of 40, I suffered a stroke that amplified all of my mental health issues into what they are today. Although I have not been able to work for several years, I do not collect disability. My job is writing. And despite what some folks may think, I’m not exactly swimming in a pool of cash. In fact, I’m about as broke as it gets.
With so much uncertainty about the near future, I lose sleep wondering about being able to survive through this crisis; about ending up homeless; about being able to eat; about caring for our kids. I’m not saying these things will happen, but our family lives dangerously close to these things because of my health. However, with anxiety and depression, it’s entirely too easy for many of us to fall into the trap of thinking like this.
It’s a cycle of thinking that’s dominating much of our lives right now. So we struggle. But what can we do to cope during these times? I put together some ideas based on how I cope with my mental illness every day that have proven to be especially helpful in the last two weeks.
Hands down, meditation has helped me (and many others I know) manage wandering, seemingly endless thoughts about things outside of our control. Getting my brain to shut up about what may or can happen, rather than focusing on just getting things done, is arguably the toughest part of my anxiety disorder. Meditating has helped me calm those thoughts and increase my focus on doing what I should be doing rather than thinking in circles.
A study by Italian neuroscientist Giuseppe Pagnoni in 2012 found that meditation not only changes brain patterns, but it also shows improvements in mental focus that advance cognitive performance. When compared to non-meditators, meditators showed more stability in their ventral posteromedial cortex (vPMC), the region of the brain linked to spontaneous thoughts and mind-wandering.
While Pagnoni’s study suggests that our behaviors have an impact on our brain and our mental function, and provides some biological evidence for changes meditation might produce, we should not treat meditation as an alternative to receiving proper medical care. Meditation is simply a tool in our arsenal to help alleviate our respective mental illnesses. Especially, during a time of crisis.
Here’s how I made meditation a routine:
1. I started by finding a comfortable seated pose. I prefer to sit on the floor (outside if the weather permits) but you can also use a chair or whatever is most comfortable for you.
2. I placed an object in front of me at eye level (for me, a rock). You can set the object on the floor if that’s more comfortable (try not to let your head fall forward).
3. I settle into my preferred seated pose and I take several conscious, slow, deep breaths while maintaining a balanced seated position.
4. At this point, my body begins to relax as I focus on the rock. I quickly started to focus on any sensations I feel and intently focus on those that feel the most comfortable.
5. Whenever my eyes felt heavy, I slowly closed them bringing the image of the rock behind my closed eyes — focused on the point between my eyebrows.
6. If the image of the rock would fade, I slowly opened my eyes to get the visualization back.
7. I would continue the process of gazing at the rock and then closing my eyes and holding the image.
8. I eventually reach a point where I no longer open my eyes and sit comfortably with the image of the rock and getting comfortable with whatever I’m feeling.
I’m not saying this is the best way or the only way to achieve meditative practice. While it may be the process that worked for me, you may find alternative methods work better for you. Some folks find that keeping their eyes open and focused on the rock works better for them. Either way, practicing meditation is helpful for breathing exercises and relaxing the body and mind.
Once done with a meditative session, take note of how you feel. If it helps you in calming the mind and body, adopt it as your own. Keep playing with it in the way that works best for you. Then, find a way to use it in your everyday life. Let the practice be fluid, freeing, and fun. In the Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, the Dalai Lama says that meditation is about seeing your “natural state of your consciousness”:
“Generally speaking, our mind is predominantly directed towards external objects. Our attention follows after the sense experiences. It remains at a predominantly sensory and conceptual level. In other words, normally our awareness is directed towards physical sensory experiences and mental concepts. But in this exercise, what you should do is to withdraw your mind inward; don’t let it chase after or pay attention to sensory objects. At the same time, don’t allow it to be so totally withdrawn that there is a kind of dullness or lack of mindfulness. You should maintain a very full state of alertness and mindfulness, and then try to see the natural state of your consciousness — a state in which your consciousness is not afflicted by thoughts of the past, the things that have happened, your memories and remembrances; nor is it afflicted by thoughts of the future, like your future plans, anticipations, fears, and hopes. But rather, try to remain in a natural and neutral state.”
Making meditation a part of your everyday life may seem complex on paper, but in practice, it’s actually quite simple. The hardest part is actually sitting down and doing it. Finding time can also feel problematic at first. However, once you realize that it takes much less time to meditate than we typically spend focused on things outside of our control, you’ll find potentially life-altering value in the practice.
Grounding has become a very important aspect of my life. Particularly when anxiety or panic starts setting in. Grounding, or earthing as it is sometimes referred to, is the practice of having skin contact with the surface of the earth “such as with bare feet or hands, or with various grounding systems.” Grounding helps bring me down from extreme panic attacks and anxiety.
According to the Journal of Environmental and Public Health, “grounding appears to improve sleep, normalize the day/night cortisol rhythm, reduce pain, reduce stress, shift the autonomic nervous system from sympathetic toward parasympathetic activation, increase heart rate variability, speed wound healing, and reduce blood viscosity.”
For me, grounding usually comes by default with my meditation since I sometimes meditate outside. However, when I’m having an anxiety attack or I’m feeling exceptionally depressed I take a walk outside barefoot. Other times I garden, trim plants, pull weeds, or just sit in the grass staring at the sky for just a few minutes. The results from that alone are quite the contrast from the condition I was in prior to going outside. It does help. A lot.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “grounding produces changes in sleep, pain, and stress (anxiety, depression, and irritability).” Aside from these benefits, their study also showed vast improvements in “inflammation, immune response, wound healing, and prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.”
If grounding sounds a lot like magic, well, that’s because it kind of is. The NIH hypothesizes that connecting the body to the Earth (grounding) enables free electrons from the surface of the Earth to spread over and into the body.
So get out there and let those electrons run free!
Journaling is one of the better mood stabilizers for me. Oftentimes, I do what I call Rage Writing with no intention of publishing anything I jot down. The idea behind rage writing gives me a place to vent on a super angry level, thus allowing me to release much of what’s affecting me the most at any given time. If you’re an empath, like me, this is arguably one of the best methods for clearing your mind and letting go of things affecting you.
Writing for me has always been therapeutic. I believe that’s why I rely on it so much since suffering a stroke. It’s one of the best ways for me to feel like I’m still capable of accomplishing anything I set my mind to. It’s a way for me to continue being social, entrepreneurial, and meet new people while expressing myself through the power of words.
Which is one reason I write about politics and racism. The topics I cover are largely the result of my rage writing (without the rage). Police brutality and bigotry have personally impacted my immediate family (wife and kids) along with my extended family. When I touch on those subjects (and politics), it’s me expressing what came out as a result of venting my anger, my pain, my depression, my anxiety. I leave the rage behind clearing it all out — easing my mind.
I typically get my rage out on paper and do some grounding and some mild meditation. From there I can tune into what is really driving my mood. Once I understand what is precisely behind how I’m feeling, I can then shift focus on drilling down on the issue and sharing what I find with all of you. When I focus on trying to be informative in my work, I’m already ten steps from where I was when I started the rage writing exercise.
Any writer will tell you that stepping away from your work, even briefly, will allow you to come back to it with fresh eyes. The process of rage writing is not so different. Instead, I go from angry, anxious, or depressed to finding my center through grounding and mediation to focusing on the reader and providing the most insightful work I can produce.
Rage writing isn’t just for those moments when you’re mad at the world (as I often find myself), it also works when I’m anxious or depressed. One day I may sit down and write about everything that’s driving me crazy while writing a depressive tear-jerker the next. For me, pounding out a few hundred words of nonsense really does help make sense of things sometimes.
Knowing I’m never publishing it allows me to get extra rowdy too.
Gardening has always been a passion of mine, that’s why I have a degree in Horticulture. I’m a horticulturist at heart. I’ve always loved plants and nature. My mother is a botanist so I’m pretty sure that’s where that came from. One of the main reasons I love plants is because it’s how we connect with nature. By nurturing and caring for plants in our gardens, we feel a sense of accomplishment and pride.
In my yard, we have fruit trees, shade trees, and a variety of shrubs, ornamental trees, and perennials that are just about to come into bloom. Many times, when weeds need to be pulled or something needs to be trimmed back, I try to get out there and do it as best I can (physical limitations be damned) because it’s an opportunity to ground myself.
When I try to work in the yard, I find it hard to focus on anything other than what I’m doing. It’s meditative in its own way. Although my physical limitations restrict what I can do and for how long, going out there for a few minutes makes a great difference. And it’s rewarding. I can chill outside and take pride in how good everything looks and well it’s doing.
If you don’t have a backyard, you can always buy planter boxes or window boxes and order some seeds. Most of what’s available is easy to grow and can add a little something extra to keep you grounded in times of need. You’d be surprised how therapeutic caring for a few little plants can be. Grounding can occur in many ways. Caring for and coming into contact with plants is another great way to accomplish it.
Remember that next time you get a chance to stop and smell the roses.
Cooking as therapeutic as gardening for me. In our house, we have generations of recipes that tell stories. Cooking the traditional Cuban and Jamaican dishes of our families is about so much more than just the food and it makes the food taste so much better. If you don’t have these traditional types of dishes, don’t sweat it. Cooking can still be quite comforting in times of need. Just look online for whatever delicious recipe you want and start your own tradition.
There are millions of recipes out there. Many of them are traditional family recipes that have been around for decades just ready for the taking. We’ve found several dishes online that have become part of the rotation in our list of dishes for dinner. No shame in that. Every one of those has a story attached to them too (usually tales of how horrible the first attempts turned out).
The beauty of any recipe is fine-tuning it to suit your tastes making it your own.
It is also very rewarding to cook your own food. The health benefits and cost savings compared to eating out are the more obvious gains. But getting recipes together, making a list of what I need, and following through with cooking a meal has its own rewards in that it keeps me focused, clear-headed, and looking forward to a delicious meal.
Gardening and cooking aren’t an everyday thing for me. The most important aspect of my daily life revolves around ensuring my mental health is taken care of. In order to do so, I found meditation, grounding, and writing to work for me in conjunction with medications that also help me manage my mental health.
There are no all-encompassing solutions to cover all of our needs during times like this. But we can get through it by helping each other with ideas or suggestions. I have made these methods the keystones for getting through every single day in my life. And that’s where we all are right now. Just trying to get through this worldwide crisis one day at a time. At least we have each other to lean on.
Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Share them in the comments.
Listen, If you are on medication, take it as prescribed. None of these methods mentioned here should substitute for whatever care you may be receiving. These ideas are meant to help ease the mind in concert with whatever care you are receiving or medications you may be taking. Always consult your doctor before doing anything that might adversely affect your treatment. This is not to be considered medical advice in any way.
If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, reach out to the Crisis Text Line.
Arturo is an anti-racist political nerd. He is an upcoming author, journalist, advocate for social justice, and a married father of three. He is a top writer on Medium and a regular contributor to several news media outlets. He writes educational and informative material about systemic racism, white supremacy, and racial injustice. He collaborates with many in Academia in discussing the issues mentioned here. If you’d like to learn more, follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. You can also support his work here.