Navigating the world when your brain just doesn’t feel like it: How one YNPNer juggles work and mental health

*Disclaimer: This blog post represents the views and experiences of the author only. It is in no way an attempt to diagnose or treat!

main.jpgA day doesn’t go by where my purse isn’t fully stocked with either ginger candies or ginger mints – they are my go-to when I start to feel sick and my anxiety skyrockets. My dad’s phone is always on loud and right by his bed – he wakes up really early, which is usually when my panic attacks come on, so he wants to make sure he hears his phone if I call needing help. I just bought a super plush mattress topper – I don’t sleep much at night (regardless of comfort level), but for the days when I can’t muster the energy to get out of bed, it’s a lifesaver.

My story is like so many others – although my combo may be different, I happen to suffer from depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and emetophobia (a phobia of throwing up – who knew that was a thing?). Mental health affects so many, and I can’t imagine our sector is any different. And with many of our jobs requiring multiple hats, long hours, and tight deadlines, stress can only exacerbate it.

One thing I used to do when stress made my mental health go into overdrive was pretending like nothing was wrong. I forced myself to put on a front to the point where I would end up crashing. I was too embarrassed to talk to anyone about it – I felt like people would think I was making it up or that I was weak. So I just kept it to myself, quietly suffering through while pushing myself past my edge. More and more, however, the mental health conversations started happening. I read an article in Cosmopolitan written by someone with emetophobia (“My Fear of Throwing Up Is Ruining My Life”), and I saw videos done by people who were trying to kick depression and anxiety’s ass at the same time. I didn't just see these stories online – people I actually knew in real life were being open about their mental health. Suddenly, I didn’t feel as though I had to hide when I needed help. I started to discover what worked for me and helped center me. I went to a therapist. I opened up to friends.

I only share this because knowing I wasn’t alone in this helped me – I wasn’t putting on a front, I wasn’t hiding anymore  – so I want other nonprofit professionals to know they aren’t alone, as well. If you are someone dealing with mental health issues, maybe you’re reading this blog because you are looking for new ways to combat your anxieties. Maybe you have this down pat. Regardless, I know how I can handle the craziness that is the nonprofit sector all while dealing with mental health hiccups, and if even one thing from this blog post can bring a sense of peace to one person, I am a happy camper.

How I get by

First things first, I had to figure out how to bring myself a sense of calm and peace and still get all of my work done and done well. Before, I thought I was hiding my depression and anxiety well when I decided to push through it, but I now know it was affecting my work more than I realized. Now, when I’m feeling especially anxious or my depression is hitting me hard, I step back from my computer and do a few yoga poses. I go and talk to a coworker who is guaranteed to make me laugh.  Sometimes, I go outside and call my mom (she is pretty awesome). I’ve been open with some of my bosses about what I’ve been diagnosed with; that made it easier because we could work together to figure out what I need on my bad days to help center myself and get back to work.  

Second, I learned just how important it was to talk to someone! When I started, I was so anxious about seeing a therapist for panic attacks that I had a panic attack on the way there. Ultimately, she was great, but not a great fit for me (that’s ok too!), so I tried another one and figured out how to tailor my doctor for my specific mental health needs. When you think about talking to a therapist, remember, you wouldn’t avoid a doctor if you had strep throat, so don’t pull a Sarah and feel weird about seeing one for mental health.

Third, and this is the most important thing for you to learn, don’t think that struggling with mental health makes you weak. It doesn’t – in any way, shape, or form. During my most recent panic attack, a friend told me “Sarah, you have beat these before. You always get through it. It won’t last. You are stronger than this.” I channeled my inner Spice Girl (girl power), and eventually pulled through. You’re strong too. I’m being as cheesy as can be, I know, but sometimes for it’s hard for me to remember…. so, if you’re in the same boat, I wanted to remind you.

So what about you?

So that is what I do, but these things might not work for you. As they say, you need to figure out how “you do you.” Maybe yoga sounds like a disaster or maybe interacting with coworkers just makes you feel worse. Try a stress ball, listen to your favorite band, get some fresh air, make a cup of tea, go throw fruit at the wall (I did this in college with fruit that had gone bad – it was oddly stress-relieving). Basically, just try to find that short thing you can do to help you refocus and get back to your job when living in your own head becomes too much.

Also, don’t get discouraged if everything you try isn’t a magical cure, and know that, sometimes, your go-to answers may not work. Sometimes, my usual tricks aren’t enough for me, and I need to take a Lorazepam to calm my panic attack. Sometimes I need to go spend the night at my mom and stepdad’s, because being alone makes my anxiety worse (in fact, I’m writing this from their couch right now for that very reason). And ya know what? That’s ok. You know that cliché, “this too shall pass?”  Well, it turns out it’s true.

Mental health is something we could talk about forever – we should certainly talk about it more. As I’ve become more open with my own experiences, I’ve found myself connecting with people on something I never would’ve expected. I’ve also found that it’s much easier for me to re-center and get my job done to a much better level than I could before when I was pushing it down. Maybe you’ve had similar experiences to me, maybe yours are totally different.

This blog post comes from the perspective of one person, with one specific set of diagnoses (if you want to read about another nonprofit professional’s experience, see Commarrah Bashar’s recent blog). My experience and what works for me isn’t universal, but I wanted to share it in the hopes that it can bring one ounce of comfort to one person. Because, as I said earlier, reading someone else’s story helped me become more comfortable with my own. My hope is that if you’re struggling with mental illness, that you find what helps you feel peace and comfort, and that you have a safe space. And because I’m cheesy (see before), and like to leave things on an ever-positive note, remember that we’re all in this together.

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