Category Archives: health

Inside the experience

It’s been awhile since I’ve written about mental health – my recovery process in particular. I think that is because my tendency towards perfectionism (be the perfect child, be the perfect friend, be the perfect employee) has meant I have also wanted to be perfect in my recovery. However, that is not the case.

Writing is a therapeutic tool for me and though what I am sharing in today’s post is a deeply vulnerable topic for me, I feel it is important to share. I know many of my followers and readers are people who struggle with similar mental health challenges and, like me, when you look to the online community for articles and stories to help you, they are few and far between. So I write this post not just for me, but for you too.


I recently got refitted for a bra and was politely informed my boobs had shrunk a full cup size. For a “barely B” you can imagine how horrified I was at the realization my body was reverting back to its preteen years. I mean seriously guys, MY BOOBS ARE SHRINKING. The same day, I reached my lowest weight of 114 lbs and though I didn’t make the connection at the time, it’s fairly obvious the shrinking boob epidemic is the result of losing weight.

More disturbingly, I failed to recognize that my weight was even an issue. The recommended weight for someone of my height is 120-155 lbs. From all outward appearances, I look normal and healthy even though the scale shows I am underweight. But if there is anything I’ve learned in working with my therapist over the last month on the whole ‘WHY AM I DOING THIS TO MY BODY’ thing, it’s that appearances can be deceiving, especially for people who struggle with disordered eating and eating disorders.

There were two frightening moments I encountered recently that made me pause and question my behavior and one revelation that prompted me to open up to my therapist about the extent of my disordered eating.

One of the frightening moments happened a few weeks ago when I weighed myself and saw the scale jump from 114 lbs to 117 lbs (the result of indulging in Irish food and Guinness). I had gained 3 lbs. You would have thought the world was ending. I was disgusted with myself and immediately put into action a plan to lose the weight, despite the fact I was still below the recommended weight range.

The second frightening moment happened just the other day when I got home from a three-hour workout and refused to eat because I had two cookies earlier in the day (it didn’t matter I had just burned 700 calories). My body was starving and screaming at me I NEED FOOD, I NEED FOOD yet I ignored those cries for nourishment and took a sleeping pill, hoping to sleep off the hunger.

At this moment, I knew my behavior and thinking was irrational. I was obsessively counting calories, restricting my diet, and over exercising. I kept telling myself to just stop it. Yet, I couldn’t. It was around that time I also began noticing that I was picking out my eyebrows more frequently – a habit I engage in when I feel anxious. It’s a disorder called trichotillomania, which leaves bald patches in my eyebrows. I’ve had it since I was about 14 years old and despite therapy it hasn’t ever gone away. With years of experience in dealing with the disorder, I know that when I engage in this behavior it’s a way of me dealing with stress. Having that understanding often makes me step back and look at why I’m anxious. And, this is where the big revelation occurred.

The source of my anxiety – and thus the eyebrow picking – was food.

It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing on my mind before I go to sleep. During the day, I count down the hours and minutes until the next “snack” because I can’t eat a minute sooner. Every night, I plan out my meals for the following day, record the calories, and determine how much I need to exercise to stay at just 900 calories a day. I take in 1200-1300 calories and burn between 500-700 calories. Any deviation from that plan immediately makes me anxious.

For example, on my coworker’s last day in the office we went to our favorite burger joint. I couldn’t not go so I made a deal with myself. I would order a cheeseburger but I would absolutely not eat the bun AND I would work out an extra 30 minutes on the elliptical that evening. To counteract the fries I would eat, I decided I would only have vegetables for dinner that way I could still remain within my daily caloric goal. The entire time I ate, I only thought of the calories I was putting into my mouth. I didn’t even savor the food. I stuck to my end of the deal, though, and my anxiety quickly subsided.

I described similar scenarios to my therapist (like the fact I skipped out on a happy hour last week because I knew I would drink a beer full of empty calories) and all I wanted to know is WHY the hell my mind was thinking this way. She drew me this:

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Food is my trigger. When I have to eat, my anxiety skyrockets. The eating disorder yells at me and says things like, “What are you doing!? You’re going to get fat if you eat that!” or, “That’s disgusting! Stop eating!” So, I make a deal with the eating disorder. If I eat this cookie, I will do XX amount of additional exercise. Or, if I eat this burger I won’t eat dinner. The eating disorder says OK and my anxiety plummets. Thus, “the deal” becomes a powerful reinforcer for the eating disorder to continue. It’s the coping mechanism for my anxiety.

I have not been diagnosed with an eating disorder. Partly because the primary diagnostic tool used is whether or not your period has gone away. I have an IUD, which means I don’t have my period at all. But I do have disordered eating, which is dangerous because it can easily lead into an eating disorder – whether that’s anorexia or bulimia. Not everyone who has disordered eating will develop an eating disorder, but everyone who has had an eating disorder started with disordered eating. This scares me and I do not want that to happen.

The most important thing to me right now is recognizing I need help and getting it before it gets out of control. I am going in for weekly metabolic screenings. I have scheduled more frequent therapy visits. I’m working with my psychiatrist to re-address my medications. We’ve made goals to incrementally decrease the amount of exercise I do and increase my calories to at least 1500 a day. I know it won’t be easy, especially since I’m already fighting it.

To the family and friends I have talked about this struggle with, it’s difficult to grasp. As they say, I’m the sanest person they know and when I feel that kind of anxiety, it doesn’t visibly show to them. They don’t know I need help because I hide it well. Though I may look healthy on the outside, my thinking and behavior to maintain that image is not.

Of course, there are deeper seated issues behind the behavior besides anxiety. As my therapist pointed out, the emotional and mental abuse I went through in the last four years by the hands of someone else seems to have been replaced with emotional and mental abuse at my own hands. I have a lot to work through still. Thus is the wild ride of recovery for me.

 

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Filed under anxiety, depression, eating disorder, Food, health, mental health, mental illness, pefectionism, recovery, therapy, vulnerability

Using mindfulness as a tool in recovery

A few months ago I was stretched thin and not handling anxiety well. I wasn’t sleeping, my mind was constantly racing, I couldn’t concentrate at work, I was (at that time) barely scraping by in my last graduate class, and in working on my book, I was reliving all the devastation I went through in the last year. All of that together meant I was always worried about my performance – or lack thereof. Then, I started worrying about worrying.

Though I have anxiety medicine to help with these feelings I use it sparingly, partly because it is addictive and partly because my treatment goal is to be on as few medications as possible. Always looking for alternative coping mechanisms, my therapist suggested I enroll in a mindfulness group over the summer. I’ve heard mindfulness is a great therapeutic tool to handle stress so I decided to give it a shot.

I was attracted to this particular group mostly because the curriculum didn’t center around meditation. Though I’ve always been curious about meditation, it also seemed to me like a bunch of mumbo jumbo for hippies. So when the facilitator interviewed me to see if I would be a good candidate, I was intrigued when she said mindfulness is not meditation. Meditation is just a tool to become mindful, but it is only one tool of many out there.

She also commented that many people misconstrue mindfulness with reaching a state of relaxation when in fact the true intent is to just be aware of what you are feeling in that moment without judgement. Though she did state the more you practice mindfulness the more relaxing it becomes, she was also realistic in the sense that as a beginner you will find it uncomfortable and frustrating and you will most certainly find your mind darting every which way. If my intent was to reach relaxation then I was not going to be an ideal candidate for the program. However, if I was willing to just observe my emotions and practice using different tools to divert my attention from negative thoughts, then I might actually find it useful.

Her candidness and honesty sold me. I didn’t feel like I was walking into some misguided spiritual practice. All I needed to do was be open to learning and committed to practicing. I felt more comfortable knowing it was okay that I wouldn’t always be successful and that of the eight tools she would teach, if even one of them proved to be helpful then at least I found a healthy way of dealing with anxiety instead of cutting or pulling out my hair.

So far, I’ve completed two of the eight classes. The first week we focused on deep breathing exercises and this past week we learned about body scanning. What helps me buy into the tools (which is probably intentional on the part of the facilitator) is that she explains the science of how each tool positively impacts our brains. Like how deep breathing engages the Vegas nerves in our back and stomach that release serotonin and dopamine into the body (aka feel good neurons). Though I consider myself spiritual, it isn’t in the traditional sense you might think. So, if you try to convince me to do something for the sake of being connected to a higher being or even to my inner self, I’ll probably brush it off. Actually, I might roll my eyes.

Of the two tools I’ve learned so far, there is no doubt I prefer body scanning over deep breathing, which is essentially bringing awareness to every part of your body and feeling the sensations that awareness brings. I will say, though, that bringing attention to the breath has been more useful in moments where I feel anxious.

Last week I had severe chest pain, numbness in my body, and difficulty breathing – a side effect of a medication I was taking (it’s really difficult figuring out the right combination of meds that work for you). When the panic set in, I took a couple of deep breaths and the only thing I focused on was inhaling one, two, three and exhaling one, two, three. My heartbeat slowed and I found it easier to breathe as time went on. I know during that moment, body scanning would have done me no good. I understand now why we learn so many different tools – because some may be more helpful depending on the circumstances.

Compared to deep breathing, body scanning is more time intensive but it is so helpful at night when laying in bed – the time when my mind is constantly darting back and forth between the events that happened that day, what I didn’t get done, and what I still need to accomplish. It can take me hours to fall asleep or, as is the case many nights, I sleep very light. With body scanning, I have found that I actually do reach a state of relaxation and it’s easier for me to fall asleep quickly. Perhaps because of that, it’s why I like it so much more.

I won’t say I love every part of the mindfulness workshop, but I do feel it’s important to give alternative methods of treatment a chance. As someone who believes people are over-medicated it’s important to me to make sure I’m not solely relying on that to get better. We’ll see what these next few weeks bring but I’m definitely looking forward to learning more.

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Filed under anxiety, healing, health, meditation, mental health, mindfulness, tools

6 apps that can help your mental health

Although the use of technology in mental health treatment is relatively new there are many apps out there that can be a complement to individual therapy. These apps are especially useful for those who don’t seek out help because of the stigma attached to mental illness.

Over the last few months my psychiatrist has encouraged me to try out a lot of different apps as a way of helping me sleep and to manage my stress and anxiety. For me, lack of sleep is a trigger for hypomanic episodes while high levels of stress and anxiety can spiral me into a depressive episode. Here are the ones I’ve found to be most helpful to my own situation.

ReliefLink. This is a self-harm and suicide prevention app that helps you track your moods, tweets you regular affirmations, and helps you make a safety plan. It also puts you in touch with nearby resources, including support groups, therapists, and treatment services. I especially love the daily affirmations and the relaxation exercises you can use to help distract yourself.

Deep Sleep with Andrew Johnson. Sleep is crucial to your mental health. This particular app guides you through muscle relaxation and deep breathing exercises in 20 minute intervals. You can set how many times you want the exercises to repeat and whether you want to wake up or continue sleeping. My psychiatrist encouraged me to use this particular app when I had insomnia and recurring nightmares and night sweats. While I don’t have to use Deep Sleep as often now it was really effective in helping me get to sleep and stay asleep through the night.

Personal Zen. Warning: this app is highly addictive! Personal zen is a game that trains your mind to focus away from the negative and towards the positive. Not only is it fun but studies show it’s effective at reducing stress and boosting well-being. Essentially you trace a trail as quickly and precisely as you can. Get in enough turns and your “mellow yellow” mood can turn into laid back.

HeadSpace. This apps teaches mindfulness and meditation techniques to train your mind. You can test it out through their “Take 10” program which teaches you the basics of meditation in 10 minute exercises. If you want access to more content then you’ll have to subscribe but it’s well worth it! There are hundreds of exercises and you can choose ones specific to your area of interest. For example, happiness, relationships, or work performance. Many treatment programs are beginning to incorporate the practice of mindfulness as a complement to individual therapy.

Optimism. This app is super easy to use and was really helpful to me in understanding my mental health. It’s mostly intended for people with depression and bipolar disorder but anyone can use it as a self-help tool to maintain good health. In this app, you’re basically keeping a journal of everything that can affect your mind (e.g. triggers, symptoms, notes, stay well strategies). By charting these over time you can begin to identify patterns in your life and even some of the negative influences impacting your mind. What I love the most about this app is that it notifies you based on your responses if you’re potentially headed towards depression or mania. If you are, then it will remind you to take action and will even give you coping cards like “go take a 15 minute walk” or “call a friend”.

Talkspace Therapy. The frustrating part of setting up appointments with a therapist or psychiatrist is the amount of time you actually have to wait to get in. When I was in self-harm mode they told me it would be at least two days to see a psychiatrist (not good). Then, after my stay in the psychiatric unit, I couldn’t get into my new therapist for two months. Although I haven’t personally used Talkspace Therapy I nevertheless wanted to highlight it here for those who don’t seek help out of fear, judgment, and stigma. By using this app you can get guidance and advice from licensed therapists immediately. It’s confidential AND it’s free!

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Filed under health, meditation, mental health, mindfulness, sleep, suicide prevention, therapy

Why 20-somethings are most vulnerable to mental health issues

Many 20-somethings spend so much of their time preoccupied with planning for the future that they often neglect what’s most important in the here and now: their health. Not just their physical health but their emotional and mental well-being as well.

In our twenties we face significant life changes that can create a lot of stress. Changing jobs, moving to new places, increasing financial burdens, and going through devastating breakups are all examples of significant life stressors. Sometimes these events can happen all at once (as was the case in my situation) and other times they happen independently. Although these are fairly common events they can also be triggers for mental health issues.

Some of the most common mental health issues that pop up in your twenties are bipolar disorder, major depression, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety. Many studies show that these disorders lie dormant in our brains for extended periods of time and manifest only when triggered by major stressors in our lives. Many of us experience these major life stressors for the first time in our twenties.

When we lack healthy coping mechanisms, we may begin experimenting with drugs, alcohol, hypersexuality, and even self-mutilation as ways of dealing with the stress. Although experimentation is a normal part of our college years, continued use of hard substances and engaging in risky behaviors may speak to a larger issue that you need to deal with. This is particularly true if the behaviors are uncharacteristic to your personality. When others around us chalk up seemingly minor changes in our behavior to natural experimentation we may miss out on getting the help we need.

Many people don’t seek help out of denial, fear, and judgement. Others worry about the stigma attached to having a mental illness and whether insurance will cover psychiatric visits and medications. However, 20-somethings have the most access to mental health resources. College campuses provide services for free and most health insurance premiums cover basic mental health care services. If you don’t have health insurance and meet certain income thresholds, there are a variety of community services available to you at little to no cost. Use them!

Finding the courage to speak out about your difficulties and seek help if you feel like things are spinning out of control is a difficult task. I know this from experience. But confiding in someone you trust means you don’t have to suffer anymore. It puts you on the track to a healthier you that much quicker.

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