Struggling With Mental Health Issues
I struggle with mental health issues (anxiety and depression) and find it difficult to interact with people sometimes. I just don’t have the energy to hang out with friends or be around family much – even going to the grocery store can seem too daunting. But I get lonely and feel even worse when I am not around others – I end up isolated and alone, and it triggers my MH issues to spiral out of control even more. Any suggestions?
Signed: Can’t Win Either Way
Dear Can’t Win Either Way,
I was perusing some research today about the neurobiology of Collective Efficacy – the article was specifically focused on how important unity and convergence within a community is for every human being – how the human feeling of connectiveness feeds each of us in a very necessary biopsychosocial way (and without it, we struggle). We are hard-wired to crave attachment – we are designed to be pack animals, even if our roles within our greater packs have varying degrees of engagement. Where we fall on the spectrum of being introverted and extroverted plays a huge role in our level of interaction with those around us. But finding the way to achieve this feeling of connection while still respecting the limitations stemming from a mental health issue can definitely be a bigger challenge.
One of the best ways to feel connected to others (and therefore be able to experience the neurological and emotional benefits of this connection) is to be a support to or provide a service for someone other than yourself. When we allow ourselves to step outside of our own struggles and focus instead on the basic needs of other people, we trigger numerous chemical reactions in our brain that actually helps to reprogram our emotional processing and our reward processing/pleasure responses. All of this allows us to override the more negative and less helpful responses that tend to stem from our MH issues, and retrains our brain to seek out and want the positive responses instead. It creates an upward spiral of the biochemicals in our bodies like oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine, which elevate our happiness and our energy levels (and lessens issues of depression and anxiety). Our physical health improves, our mental wellness increases significantly, and our ability to manage and find a healthy balance in our day is exponentially strengthened.
Being connected does not mean you have to over-extend yourself. Even small acts of kindness can produce this positive chemical chain reaction. Depending on how difficult the struggle is with your MH issues, try these ideas for expanding your Collective Efficacy:
Find a way to show appreciation to others for what they do/bring to your life – on a personal level (a loved one, a neighbour, your child’s teacher), or on a more generalized level (for example, to the many groups of people who have been working tirelessly throughout the COVID crisis). You can offer a comment, send an email or a card, have a small token of gratitude delivered – there is no end to the ways you can help remind others of their worthiness.
Celebrate (or create) important milestones in other people’s lives – bring attention to a birthday or anniversary, or to World Smile Day (Google can help you find a reason to celebrate almost any day!).
Make a phone call or have a video chat with someone, if you do not have the energy to have an in-person visit (you don’t even need to shower or get dressed if you don’t have the energy for that!). Talk to others about their own lives – make them the centre of the conversation, and allow yourself to feel the peace that comes with stepping away from your own struggles for a while.
Join a support group (you don’t have to have all the answers or be in crisis when you do this). Just sharing your own life experiences is a fantastic way to offer strength and hope to someone else – to walk along side of them and to let them know you understand their pain and they are not alone.
Volunteer (find options that don’t require you to be around others), foster an animal (especially an older or dying one), plant a garden and share the spoils, bake or create a special item and drop it on a random porch with a little note (explain, so the recipient knows it’s safe). Smile with your eyes and say a friendly hello (the conversation does not need to go any further) as you pass someone on a walk or in a store. There is an endless number of ways to share goodness in this world, within the scope of your own capabilities – we just sometimes forget that the simple things really mean so much to others!
Whatever we feed ends up dictating what we will feel. Make a point of incorporating these positive connection moments on a regular basis in your week – at least once, but maybe up to 3 or 4 different times, in different ways. The more you re-wire your brain to focus on something beyond your own challenges, and the more you trigger the development of these positive new biochemical pathways in your brain, the better you will feel. The research also shows that there is a 3-1 multiplier effect for altruistic acts – meaning that our efforts have a contagious impact for 3 degrees of separation (like the butterfly effect). That’s power we didn’t even realize we had – and evidence shows that the emotional/biopsychosocial impact of our acts comes back to us just as much as it is impacts others!
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