Men often struggle with mental health concerns in silence because of public, individual and developmental perception of what it means to be a “man”, the ability to be strong and the stigma (and perceived weakness) around mental health concerns.Learn More
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me”
Through the last two years, we as therapists have noticed an increase in folks who have sought out therapy for the first time in their lives, because “they don’t know what’s wrong”. This has been a refrain for all of us at various times during the pandemic. It is upsetting, frustrating, overwhelming…(all the feels) to not feel like ourselves, and to have no idea how to pull out of it because everything that usually helps does not seem to be working.
When we are feeling unwell and our coping skills are depleted, our minds can spin out of control with “what ifs” around possible chronic mental health issues, diagnoses, dependence on medications and the need for professional intervention. It is a scary reality to think we are stuck and unsure if these feelings will ever relent.
As I sat down to write this blog, I decided to google “Am I depressed or…?” to see what popped up. Here is a small sampling: Am I depressed or sad, lazy, tired, bored, burned out, bipolar? WOW! What a laundry list of inquiries, ranging from questioning and attempting to label emotions to querying mental health and diagnosis. We as therapists are pleased that people are becoming more aware of their emotions and mental health, and how they both impact their day to day habits and quality of life. We also worry that the feelings of hopelessness and the overwhelming volume of information on mental health that is all over the internet can actually exacerbate symptoms, rather than providing comfort or relief.
There are literally thousands of tools, therapy interventions and medical treatments used to assess, diagnose and treat depression that need to be utilized by a trained professional. There are also many valid informational and educational pieces on depression out there that you can use to first sort through the symptoms you are experiencing, gain an understanding of the severity of them, learn how to assess and incorporate day to day habits that may help ease symptoms, and finally help you to make informed decisions about seeking professional support.
Here is one, from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), that provide useful information on depression, diagnosis, coping and treatment. Remember that this is not to be used as a substitute for professional advice and support, but it is from an accredited, professional organization that aims to educate so that you can self-assess before making decisions about reaching out for support.
I think I am depressed…now what?
One of the most studied and supported treatments for depression comes from psychiatrist Aaron Beck, called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). To put it very simply, one of the pillars of CBT is the Cognitive Triangle. This triangle helps us examine the intertwined relationship between our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. When you are doing CBT with a trained professional, you are learning how to identify negative and intrusive thoughts that impact how you feel about yourself, your situation and your relationships, which in turn impact the choices you make about how you behave or respond. Again, professional support to help with this triangle is just one of the keys to managing depression, but doing a self-assessment check-in on your own can be a powerful way to understand whether or not to seek professional support to confirm a diagnosis, or treatment to help manage these thoughts and make some changes for the better.
Check Your Thoughts
Many of us resort to googling information on any issue we are faced with, whether it be a leaky faucet or our mental health. We do this because it feels safer to “DIY” our problem, so that we don’t have to say it out loud (because that makes it more real), and so we can hopefully find a solution that we hope will be an easy fix. The other reason we often start with Google is because we are feeling some shame around the issue and the act of even asking for help. Many of us hold longstanding and firmly planted beliefs around the concept of admitting to a problem (think perfectionism) and asking for help (think “weakness”, “incompetence”, and feeling “less than”).
Challenge yourself to really identify your thoughts around what you are experiencing, and how these thoughts may be roadblocking your ability to manage your moods, relationships and overall functioning. It is so easy to believe everything that pops into our heads. The truth is, a lot of what we think about ourselves is hyper-critical, and is driven by fear and shame. Newsflash: we don’t have to listen to these messages!
Check Your Feelings
As therapists, we hear clients using “negative self-talk”, whether it be out loud, or in their heads to put themselves down, name call, and shame themselves for experiencing what are actually normal and healthy feelings. Throughout the pandemic, many of us have resorted to “numbing behaviours” such as scrolling through our phones or Netflix bingeing because we have just not had the will or the energy to identify feelings, much less actually feel them! If this sounds like you, try to get into the habit of asking yourself “what am I actually feeling right now?” Identifying the feeling and actually naming it will help you manage it, rather than pushing it further within by seeking quick fix and feeling-numbing behaviours that actually take us into a perpetual shame spiral of negative self-talk.
Check Your Behaviours
Here comes your mother’s, fitness instructor’s, therapist’s, doctor’s voice: get plenty of sleep, drink lots of water, eat your vegetables, go for a walk, and practice mindfulness. “YUP, got it,” you are saying (me too). The issue for most of us is not that we need this knowledge, it is ensuring that we actually practice these behaviours.
Let’s go back to the thoughts part of this cognitive triangle. When we are feeling depressed, our minds generally block out these simple, yet challenging habits which we know in our heads will help us feel better. Depression can almost act like a magnet that keeps us attached to our bed, sofa, phone or computer screen, thereby blocking out the will to incorporate habits that will naturally increase the happiness chemicals in our brains and will contribute to us feeling even a little better. Again, the shame-spiral of knowing that you already know what to do to feel better but not being able to push yourself to actually do it is activated, thus leaving you feeling further down and depressed.
Just having a basic understanding of this cognitive triangle can be helpful to become more self-aware of our feelings, moods and behaviours. The smallest bit of self-awareness and the tiniest of changes is progress. Drinking one glass of water instead of none, reaching out to a friend to walk and talk, or getting into bed 15 minutes earlier than usual is all part of living the change.
So if you are reading this and still asking yourself whether or not you need help to cope with this post-pandemic reality, the answer is YES! We all do. The past two years have been a harrowing and traumatic experience for every single one of us. For some, emotional and mental health issues that existed before the pandemic have increased in intensity and severity. For others, the current set of circumstances has led to new and uncomfortable emotions that have taken a toll on quality of life.
Seeking the support of a qualified, experienced therapist will help you sort through your own cognitive triangle and make choices around the next steps to take to alleviate the symptoms on one end of the spectrum, to seeking out more intensive and long-term interventions on the other. Regardless, reaching out for professional help will ensure you are getting outside of your head and that you are not walking the path to feeling better all alone.Learn More
Nobody Is Perfect. End. Of. Story.
So while you’re at it, abandon perfectionism. Be kind to yourself and your family. The house will be messy, people will have to be convinced to bathe, you will eat junk, those long-standing house jobs will not get completed as quickly as you envisioned, if not at all. That’s alright. Go back to the values. I can safely guess that NOBODY came up with “Do All The Things” as their top family value.
Start with today. Look at these tips and take one hour at a time. Take it slow. Be forgiving. You can have do-overs. Each day is it’s own. Motivation will go up and down, moods will set in, energy levels will fluctuate. Find what works and do more of it when you can. Do less of what doesn’t. Know that what works one day will not work on another.
Alternate between doing what works and pushing the comfort zone to try new things, ways of coping and communicating… and then give a high five, regardless of the outcome.
Remember: your family WILL come out of this stronger, more connected and victorious. Surviving will mean thriving.
Recognize that this is hard. These days may seem long. Making all the lists in the world does not help the work get done, the structure implemented and the values applied. Some days will just suck.
Moods, loneliness even when amongst the family, loss or reduction of connections with peers, sports, teachers, co-workers will take its toll. Recognize this and take a break. Pyjama days, Netflix marathons or extra screen time will be necessary. And that is ok. Fatigue will set in. Neither parents nor kids are required to be perfect. Just stop doing for a while.
These days are a gift (even though some days that feels like a stretch). Never before have we collectively had such a large chunk of time where we are ALL at home, without the normal day-to-day pressures being applied. It takes a while to get out of the achievement headspace (I MUST do something, I NEED to do this, I HAVE to get this done). Relax. Forgive yourself. We have NEVER BEEN THROUGH A PANDEMIC BEFORE! This is a choose your own adventure kind of thing!
Keep an eye out for emotions and talk about them. It will not be uncommon for many people (adults and kids alike) to feel sad, lonely, depressed and hopeless. This will happen, even in a house full of people who love us. Encourage connections with friends, co-workers and extended family. Ride the waves of emotions, and remember, that professional help is still out there, offered virtually.Learn More
Team Building: Your family is a “We”. End of story. Even when you disagree, you fight, are hurt or overwhelmed, your family has your back. Talk about how each family member likes and needs to be supported. To borrow from John Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, learn the ways each member of your family wants and needs to feel appreciated and loved.
- Words of affirmation: showing love through how you speak, using words of encouragement, gratitude, positive reinforcement. How you speak to someone who needs words of affirmation can go a long way toward helping them feel appreciated.
- Quality time: Showing love by giving someone your full attention, by making an effort to spend time doing things they love to do. Carving out time shows you are interested and attentive.
- Receiving gifts: Showing love through small tokens of appreciation or gifts, such as a cup of tea, some flowers, chocolate…something that shows that person you know what they like. Making this person feel special will help them know they are in your thoughts.
- Physical touch: Hugs and kisses, hand-holding, a back rub all go a long way for someone who needs physical touch to feel loved and appreciated
- Acts of service: Doing nice things to help the other person out such as unloading the dishwasher, putting gas in their car, taking the garbage out. This person needs help with the overwhelm to know you care.
The biggest mistake most of us make is assuming our partners, kids, friends, etc. speak the same language as we do. We think we are doing nice things to show we care, and they seem to fall flat. That is because we are doing what WE would like to have done for us.
This applies to both adults and kids! Talk about what each of you needs and wants in order to feel heard, special, appreciated and loved! It is amazing how relationships can be strengthened when you speak the other person’s love language.Learn More
Think about how your family communicates. Do you listen to respond, or do you listen to really listen? Think about it.
Learning how to be a good listener means shutting your mouth. Enough said. Try it. Interrupters unite! I come from a long line of interrupters. If you need a “talking stick” (or hockey puck, stuffed animal, etc), get one! Whoever holds the speaking object has the floor.
Next, think about how you show others that you are listening. Do you nod, paraphrase their statements, state your understanding, empathize? The ways in which you show family members that their stories, their experiences, their feelings are important will begin to cultivate understanding, create connection and attachment.Learn More
This is the hard part. Start by acknowledging that NOBODY is perfect.
Parents will screw up, and kids will screw up. When we are hurt, angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, we are ripe for screw-ups. Think about this (and teach your kids to as well). When you are feeling like you are “losing it”, ask yourself these HALT questions:
Am I Hungry
Am I Angry
Am I Lonely
Am I Tired
I also add an “O”…Am I Overwhelmed!
If you are any one, a few, or ALL of the above, walk away and don’t try to hash it out. Talk about this, and think about the concepts of emotional regulation and forgiveness. Can you make it acceptable and even encouraged to “walk away” from a disagreement or conflict without being accused of avoiding? Calmer heads prevail. How families manage conflict is a life-long lesson that will foster communication, connection and will serve children well outside of the family.