World Mental Health Day: Meris's Tips on How to Deal When You're Struggling
by Meris Shuwarger BSN, RN, CEN, TCRN October 10, 2021 Updated: December 07, 2022 2 min read 1 Comment
For World Mental Health Day, Meris shares her experiences struggling with mental illness and her mental health, and she gives you some strategies that she has used to help her work with, instead of against, her mental illnesses and mental health.
Let go of perfectionism
If I can't write the perfect research paper, then I'm just not going to write it at all.
It's no use taking a shower because it will be another week before I have the energy to take a shower again.
If this sounds like you, give yourself permission to do things partially, halfway, or sloppily. Good enough is good enough.
It is better to eat candy than to eat nothing in a day.
It is better to brush your teeth once this week than not at all.
It is better to turn in a half-done paper than no paper at all.
Three non-negotiable tasks
If you feel paralyzed looking at a to-do list with ten things on it, try Meris's strategy: pick three non-negotiable tasks to accomplish each day.
On a great day, that might look like "Find six sources for my research paper, Submit my background check to the Board of Nursing, and Take 50 practice questions."
If you're in survival mode, your list might look like, "Get out of bed, Take a shower, and Eat some food."
Listing your three non-negotiables in a way that meets yourself where you are, is a way to see success and feel accomplished no matter what the day holds.
Seek help where you can
Therapy is a privilege, and if you can afford it, it's a great resource.
There are resources available for healthcare professionals; Meris mentions Emotional PPE (external link) for free counseling.
If you are not working in the healthcare field, see what resources exist in your community. There may be free groups where you can get group therapy, like for folks who have lost a loved one, or who have cancer, or who have had a miscarriage.
Reach out to the people who you know love you, and are in your corner. They might not be mental health professionals, but they can give a shoulder to cry on and allow you to share your thoughts. Naming our emotions can be therapeutic in and of itself.
If you are struggling with thoughts or actions of self-harm or suicidal intent, get help immediately. Tell someone who can help right away. Call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (external link) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to be connected to a trained counselor.
Hi, I'm Meris. And given that today is World Mental Health Day, I wanted to share with you some of my own experiences struggling with my mental illnesses and my mental health, and give you some strategies that I have used to help me work with instead of against my mental illnesses and my mental health.
So first up, I just want to say that you don't have to have a mental illness to have bad periods with your mental health. You don't have to be diagnosed with a clinical depression or bipolar disorder or anything like that in order to have mental health struggles. We all do. So I think that these strategies are universally applicable and not necessarily just for people with diagnosed conditions.
So to give you some background, I'm currently 32 years old. When I was in my early 20s, I was struggling severely. I was dealing with an undiagnosed chronic medical condition that was giving me daily pain, I was having surgery about every other month, and I had had to stop nursing school because I was too sick to continue. This was over a decade ago, but I can remember it like it was yesterday because it was such a dark time in my life. And at that lowest point in my life, I could not take care of myself. I was unable to do anything past the bare minimum of drinking a little bit of water, eating a few calories, and sleeping. I did not take a shower or really leave my bed for seven weeks.
I was sick. I was sick physically and I was sick mentally. I could not convince myself that there was a point in taking care of myself because I truly did not believe that I would ever recover. I thought that I had a death sentence and I thought that it was a waste of my time to take care of myself. I did not believe that I was worthy of self-care. So I also didn't have the physical energy to do those things. I truly was in survival mode. I was doing only the things that kept me alive and nothing else. So I just remember I was lying in bed watching Netflix on my laptop basically anytime that I wasn't sleeping. I would get up and go to the bathroom, drink some water, eat some food, and come back to bed. And that's the worst time of my entire life, undoubtedly.
My friends and family didn't hear from me, I was completely out of touch, and I did not think that I would ever survive that.
I clearly did. I went on to get married and have a family and do nursing school again and be successful and start my career. I did all of those things, and a lot of it had to do with seeking help and being in therapy with someone who is a mental health expert.
And part of it was, of course, treating the underlying cause of my physical health problems. But as I got older and as I dealt with more life experiences and realized that my medical condition is a lifelong one, I have a genetic condition, I knew that I would have flareups and bad days and things going on in my physical health again for the rest of my life and that I needed to come up with some strategies to help me deal with those things when my physical health gets bad.
So one of the things that I want to share with you is I am a perfectionist and I was absolutely debilitated by the fear of not being able to do something right or well to some sort of imaginary standard. I had grown up hearing the philosophy that you had to do everything right, that anything worth doing was worth doing right. And I would propose to you that anything worth doing is worth doing partially or sloppily or half-done.
I look back at that time in my life and I thought, "Well, it's no use taking a shower because it'll be another week before I have the energy to shower again." And I get where I was coming from from that perfectionist standpoint.
But in retrospect, I wish that I could go back in time and say, "Meris, why don't you use a baby wipe and wipe your underarms and clean your face. You don't necessarily have to take an entire bath, but you can do something. You can clean up a little bit and that's still worth doing."
I couldn't brush my teeth. Again, like I said, I was in survival mode. And I remember looking at the toothbrush every now and then and thinking, "What's the point? I'm not going to be able to brush my teeth again for another couple of days. I won't have the energy?"
Yeah, but wouldn't it be better to have cleaned them once this week than not at all?
So if you are paralyzed by this feeling that you have to do something fully and completely right all the time, I want to tell you that that's not true and that it's okay if you want to do something partially or halfway or sloppily. It's better than doing nothing.
And that applies to your schoolwork as well. When I would struggle with my mental health in nursing school, I would sometimes find myself falling back into those same old patterns thinking, "Well, if I can't write the perfect research paper, then I'm just not going to write it at all."
What? No, absolutely not. If you can write part of it today, if you can find one source, if you can turn something in, some points are better than no points, right? That's always going to be the case and I think that applies everywhere in your life. It's worth doing something partially if that's the only effort you can expend. That's okay.
You are allowed to say, "I don't have the time. I don't have the energy. I don't wish to expend the effort to put forth the amount of work it would take to come up with a perfect finished product. Good enough is good enough."
So if that means feeding yourself, I would rather you eat candy today than nothing today.
If that means hygiene, I would rather you brush your teeth once this week than not at all.
If that means school, I would rather you turn in a half-done paper than no paper at all.
So I apply that everywhere in my life, anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, and I think that's okay.
So let me be the one to tell you to give you the permission that you don't have to be perfect, and the things that you do in your day-to-day life don't have to be perfect either.
Now another thing that I struggle with my whole life and to this day is being overwhelmed by the amount of things that I have to do. As someone with ADHD, I see a to-do list and I become truly paralyzed by indecision.
A to-do list is very good for someone with ADHD because it helps me to remember the things that I need to do since people with ADHD struggle with a working memory.
But, also, I have a hard time prioritizing if all I see is 15 things on a list. Where do I start? What's the most important? I really had a hard time with that.
So I came up with what I call my three nonnegotiables, and this is a philosophy that I have used to guide me ever since I was probably 25. I really struggled because I would say-- let's say I had 15 things to do and 2 of them were critically important and 5 of them were easy and not at all important, I would always end up doing the easy and not at all important ones, right? Always. Always. And so it's not that I didn't want to do the most important things, it's I didn't know what they were.
So every day, I would write down what my three non-negotiable tasks were for that day and it's going to change day to day.
So sometimes the three nonnegotiables for me were get out of bed, take a shower, and eat some food.
Pure survival mode but it helped me to prioritize, "You need to take care of yourself before you can do anything else." And if you do those three things, you have done the three highest priority items on your list today and you can call this day a success.
Sometimes that looks different. Sometimes it's, "I need to find six sources for my research paper. I need to submit my background check information to the board of nursing, and I need to take 50 practice questions today." That is a very different day than the showering, getting out of bed, and eating food, right? But that doesn't mean that one day is better than the other. It just helps me to guide my list for that day.
So I did start out by writing these things down, where every day, I would write out, "What are my three non-negotiable tasks?" And then it became just sort of an unconscious part of my daily practice where now, when I think about what I have to do in the day, it's just kind of a thing that pops to mind, "All right. What are the three big nonnegotiables for me today?"
You are the one who decides what the nonnegotiables are, but I think that it really helps you to reframe your thinking.
"What are the three things I must do today for today to be considered a success? For me to go to bed at night feeling as though I have accomplished the things that I need to do?"
Yes, I usually accomplish more than the three nonnegotiables, but it helps me get those big ticket items out of the way quickly and be done with them. Anything else after that is gravy and I can be proud of myself for accomplishing 4 or 5 or 10 things today.
So those are two strategies that I use to help me work with instead of against my mental health. Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly and planning out my three nonnegotiables.
Now, of course, I want to encourage you that if you do not already have someone who is a mental health expert who you trust and who you can talk to if you are struggling with your mental health, I would encourage you to seek that kind of help.
There are lots of resources out there for healthcare providers right now. So if you are a healthcare professional who is struggling because of the pandemic, I would encourage you to look into resources such as Emotional PPE which provides free counseling to healthcare professionals.
If you are an individual who is not working in the healthcare field, I would encourage you to see what resources exist in your community. Getting therapy is absolutely a privilege, therapy is expensive, therapy is not always accessible to everybody, and therapy is predicated on the idea that you have the time, the money, and perhaps the insurance to seek those kinds of resources.
So please do not misunderstand, I am not suggesting that everybody go out there and find a therapist. I think in an ideal world, that would be fantastic, but I know that that is not always the case.
So look into your community and see what resources exist. There may be free groups where you can come and have group therapy, like for people who have lost a loved one to murder or who have cancer or people who have lost children to miscarriage or infant death.
There are lots of groups like that in the community. Usually, they take place in hospitals as well. So look into those sorts of resources which are free and available to you.
I would also encourage you to just reach out to the people who you know love you and are in your corner. Because they may not be mental health professionals, but they may be willing to listen to you and to allow you to share the thoughts that are inside of you to the outside.
Sometimes just naming the emotions that we are feeling can be really beneficial in helping us to unpack and detangle those complicated emotions.
But, of course, if you are struggling with thoughts or actions of self-harm or suicidal intent, please get help immediately. You may call 911, you may go to your nearest emergency room, or you may call the suicide hotline.
I also would like to just take a moment here and say, please do not ever call the police on somebody who is having a mental health crisis. The police are not an appropriate resource for treating mental health. That's a medical problem, not a criminal problem. So I would encourage you to reach out to social services in your area to encourage that person to go to the hospital or seek the help of a physician or other healthcare provider, but to avoid calling the police especially if the person who is struggling is a person of color or a minority or someone who is marginalized in a different way.
Above all, I want you to know that it does get better and sometimes it gets worse again, and that's okay.
Happiness is not the default. Happiness is not a thing that the majority of people are experiencing every single second of their day, and I operated under that misconception.
I truly thought that the opposite of what I was feeling was happiness, but it's not. It's contentedness. It's neutrality. It's just not feeling bad. So you don't have to feel happy all of the time. There will be times that you do feel happy and joyous and excited and overcome with that happy emotion, and there will be times where you just are living your day-to-day life and that's okay.
And there will be times where things will get bad again, and that doesn't mean that you haven't made good forward progress. The most important thing is to figure out the coping mechanisms that work for you before you have a tough time again. You want to have those strategies in place before things get bad again so that you are well prepared and equipped to deal with those bad times.
I really appreciate you taking the time to listen today. I hope you know that I really am in your corner, that I have been where you are in some way. Obviously, not exactly the same circumstances, but I know what it is like to be in nursing school, to be struggling, to be having a really hard time.
And I just want you to know that there's nothing wrong with you if you are having a hard time. I hope things are going well for you right now. But if they aren't, I hope that they get better soon.
I'm sending you all the love in the world and all of my best wishes for things to look up soon.
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October 29, 2021
Bless your heart! 💔🥺 So happy to hear you turn your trials into a testimony, this will help others ten-fold!