Rules for Mental Health

I don’t have a picture of Corey, but this is Jackson, a proper gentleman who crosses his paws.

“Do you ever feel like you’re just holding on by a thread?” my friend Corey asks me as she pulls her front door shut behind her. Jackson, her 8-ish-year-old black lab who has a perfect white beard, is walking down the porch steps with his tail at 180 bpm: he knows a 45-minute walk around the ‘hood is up next. I kind of want to laugh at Corey’s question; after all, hasn’t she walked with me—kinda neurotic, usually controlling, regularly anxious, moderately depressed me—for the past five or so years?

“Um, yes, pretty much every hour on the hour,” I say, and I do laugh. “What’s going on?” And we’re off in both respects: passing dried-out, bleached lawns of a Colorado March as we roll through our respective updates on families, partners, work, parents, life. “I definitely want your opinion on this,” I will say prior to launching into a tricky situation; “I totally needed to hear that,” she’ll say when I offer a different perspective on something that has her prickly.

Corey is not a runner, and I’m grateful for that; our weekly walks don’t have any tinge of a replacement run. Instead, they have their individual texture, filling me with Vitamin D, and the honesty only a close friend can offer. They are a key feature of my mental health, so when I get a can u walk? text from her, I’ll pretty much do anything to make it happen.

Both IRL and in our books and podcast, I have not been shy about airing the mental hurdles I regularly hit. So as we come upon my 50th birthday in May and my third set of 10 tenets that I’ve learned along the way, I’m taking a deep inhale, an even longer exhale, and sharing 10 Rules for Mental Health—or what I do when things aren’t as rosy as I’d hope for them to be.

[Read Dimity’s 10 Rules for Workouts and 10 Rules for Running Injuries]

1. Talk to a willing ear.

I can spin stories in my head faster than a tilt-a-whirl. Similarly, I can easily lose a sense of perspective: how truly horrible is that situation that has me spinning? (Chances are, not super horrible.)

Having at least one person who will listen without judgment but offer insight is non-negotiable. That may be a therapist, a BRF, a co-worker, a walking partner like Corey. (It may not be your closest childhood friend, and it’s likely not your mother or partner.) I hit a wall in December 2020, and recommitted to talk therapy. I was thrilled to find my best fit for a therapist ever. I adored her. And then she retired.

It’s a grind to find a new therapist. Plus, I would rather spend money on new shoes, good food, or even a chin wax, but I know I need to get back to it. (As does Corey, who gently recommended to me the other day that it’s probably time to start the search again.)

2. Realize that what worked two—or five—years ago may not work now.

OG’s will know that I have been on anti-depressant meds since Ben, almost 16, was about one year old.

I can’t lie: I look forward to the day that I may not need them—and admitting I still do need them still elicits tears from me—but I’ve come to a reluctant acceptance of them. Partly because of this exchange I had at a January 2020 check-up (read: two months before everything changed):
“Everything is really good. I think I’m ready to wean off the meds,” I said.
“You just said everything is really good,” my smart nurse practitioner replied, “Why would you change it?”

Anyway, in 2016, I had the courage to reevaluate the prescription I had been on for the previous nine years. And now, in 2022, I am firmly perimenopausal (see ya, estrogen!) and, after one particularly rough string of weeks, I made an appointment with a OB/GYN who specializes in perimenopause. Her first suggestion was seeing a psychiatrist to see if my meds are still working. She followed that up with some thoughts on hormones and iron. I’m supplementing both of those now, and am ready to see what else we can improve.

Over time, my boobs sag more, my hands sprout new wrinkles. Why would I pretend my brain doesn’t change too?

3. Limit stimulation, Part I.

When my mind feels like I’m standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, I make a conscious effort to not look down—or rile things up further.

If I need to drive somewhere, I’ll leave 10 minutes before I normally would to alleviate the anxiety of potential traffic, parking, getting lost, etc.

If I’m at home, I’ll take a break and go outside and scoop dog poop (if it’s not frozen into the snow). Odd, I realize, but there’s something strangely cathartic about both the picking-dumping pattern and admiring a clean lawn afterward.

Baths with a beach-worthy book are great, as is watching a TV show and ONLY watching IT. (No phone in hand, no laundry folding, just concentrating on one screen, ideally with a blanket over your reclining body.) I just watched Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, & Greed. Despite the last two aspects, it was suitably soothing.

Rules for Mental Health

“Gus and his four favorite teeth.” Seriously, you need We Rate Dogs in your IG feed.

5. Limit stimulation, Part II.

We all know our phones are a double-edged sword.

Yes, I love my Wordle and texts from friends, but Lordy, sometimes it’s just too much. Probably not surprising to anybody, but the news cycle is particularly gifted in getting me to spiral. On blah days, I limit my news consumption to just one scroll through the Associated Press app and possibly watching one 30-minute nightly national news broadcast. Those 35 minutes are plenty to hit the major news without getting too deep into the details.

Similarly, I listen to classical music or a benign audio book in the car. My nervous system doesn’t need NPR or murder podcasts.

Finally, I’m not your mother so I won’t yell, Get off social media! like I do to my kids, but I will say this: set a timer or only go to places and pages that make you smile. (We Rate Dogs, anyone?)

6. Organize your day.

I know, I know. On days when you’re either drooling in bed or pulsating like a raw nerve, the idea of being structured feels suffocating.

But I’m here to say, a to-do list is a really helpful tool. Take a few minutes to write down what tasks are on your whirring mind for work/family/home. And then—this part is key—star (*) the ones that absolutely must get done today. Ideally, you * no more than three things. Starting with your *s makes things feel much more doable and possible.

Plus, there’s momentum in checking boxes, and you may just get five or six things done. (Woohoo! Look at you!)

Rules for Mental Health

Diversions for when I’m at my (grossly grimy) keyboard.

7. Assemble a self-care kit in key places.

When you’re needing to hustle to get out a report (read: no time for scooping the poop) or in a rush, grab for easy soothers. Could be an Altoid in the car (I love a minty mouth!) or delish hand lotion above the sink.

On my desk is pu pu platter of grab-and-breathe gems that are, not coincidentally, mostly gifts. Two crystals from a family trip; Pym Original Mood Chews (a gift from Ellie the dietician); locally-made Crystal Clear oil (a gift from my sister); the Cottage Greenhouse Cucumber + Honey Lip Repair (yes, $8 on lip balm is excessive but I love, love this stuff); and a Native Nectar candle (also a gift).

Does the oil really,”release anyone’s energy that isn’t mine or for my highest good” like it claims to? Not sure. Do the mood chews make a difference? Hard for me to tell. But I do like taking a concrete action in service of shifting my mood. Placebo or not, I’m happy with the results.

8. Nidra instead of nap.

During January and early February, I found myself taking a short afternoon nap. (Yay for WFH!) While I’ll never criticize a nap, I am also very aware that my post-nap state isn’t super productive, even when I limit it to a 20-minute disco version.

I saw a mention of Yoga Nidra on the Insight Timer app, and was reminded of the first time I tried it about 15 years ago on a floor of a hotel room during family spring break. My mom recommended it when she noticed I was wiped from “vacationing” with toddlers.

Yoga Nidra literally means Yogic sleep, a state in which the body is completely relaxed and your mind is focused on a set of inward instructions. To me, it feels more refreshing than a nap, and it’s my current choice for a midday break when I need one.

Want to try it? I love this free 20-minute Yoga Nidra Meditation on Insight Timer.

9. Change the scene.

This theme has already kind of emerged: walk, scoop poop, take a nap, but I wanted to state it more clearly.

When I’m headed a little too deep, I consciously try to change something physical.

I’ll take my laptop to the kitchen table and work there, instead of in my office. Or I’ll go move the laundry. Or put water on the stove for tea and stay in the kitchen until it’s ready. Intentionally moving my body—and, along the way, trying to feel my feet on the steps or my hand lifting the kettle—shifts my focus just enough to slow the fixating.

My best smiles are when I’m in fresh air and moving forward.

10. Exercise.

Shocker, I know: letting my pores pour is still on my top-ten list for managing my mental health.

The lack of any visual/audio stimulation in the pool is lovely, while the competition during a Zwift race requires all my focus and energy. Whether I’m breaststroking to cool down or on a 10% hill climb on the bike or downward dogging on a yoga mat, I know this to be true: a workout will always benefit my mind as much as it does my body.

We would love your thoughts; what are your rules for Mental Health?