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Managing Mental Health

At different phases of my life, I struggled with depression and anxiety. Postpartum depression after both of my kids, especially after Hazel, was particularly difficult because it was around the same time as Maggie’s diagnosis. I’ve used antidepressants to help me through difficult seasons and stayed on them during smooth phases, just because it was easier. Today, I don’t take antidepressants. I’ve had the opportunity for self-reflection and I’ve been able to identify what makes me feel good and what doesn’t. I didn’t always have the self-awareness to recognize my triggers nor the wherewithal to take active steps to manage my own mental health, but I think I do today. I share this in hopes that my experience will help others.

When I was in my teens, I imagined there was a dark cloud that would follow me around, kind of like the soot that clings onto Pig Pen from the old Peanuts cartoons. The image of a dark cloud stayed with me through early adulthood. When things were going well, I could still imagine just beyond the horizon the dark cloud following my steps. It kept me on alert, often preventing me from just truly enjoying myself. When things weren’t going well, when I was drowning in life’s stressors, everything would be clouded over in a foggy mist. I felt heavy, like a wet heavy blanket covered over me, shielding me.

I know how to shake myself out of it, now. There are three factors that have the greatest impact on my mental and physical health more than anything else I do: sleep, exercise, and connection to my faith.

Let’s start with sleep. I don’t always enjoy good sleep. Many nights, like last night, involve interrupted sleep. In our home, we room share with the kids. We do this because if Maggie has seizures at night or if she simply needs us, we want her to find us. Both kids sleep in our room because it didn’t make sense to exclude Hazel if Maggie was going to share with us. Most mornings, I wake up to find Maggie between Andy and me. Sometimes but rarely, I wake up to Hazel snuggled next to me. On really great days, I wake up and both kids are sleeping soundly in their own beds and I’m able to have some time to myself with a cup of coffee before the house wakes up. I go to sleep early, by early I mean 9 p.m. and I’m usually asleep by 9:30 p.m. Going to bed later, especially if there’s a three a.m. child visitor on my bed makes everything much more challenging the next day. I drink two cups of coffee in the morning, but after that, I avoid caffeine. I usually don’t nap, but if it was a rough night, I will when the kids go down for their naps. I recognize the impact that deep uninterrupted sleep versus shallow interrupted sleep has on my mental and physical wellbeing. I may not always have the best sleep, but I certainly strive to with the habits I can control, like my bedtime and limiting caffeine throughout the day.

Exercise is also key. On a good week, I work out 5-7 times, typically in 30-minute sessions. I don’t work out to lose weight. I do it because adrenaline and endorphins are my antidepressants. In lieu of medication, my body synthesizes its own through physical activity. Biologically speaking, the chemicals in our brain impact how we feel. Our activities either promote or restrict the production of mood altering chemicals. There are numerous studies that compares and links the effects of endorphin production from exercise to the effects of antidepressant medication, which supports the idea that low grade depression can be treated through regular physical exercise. I don’t need a study to show me that. My own experience does that for me. When I get too busy to exercise, I feel a dip in energy and mood. The dark cloud returns. When I exercise consistently, I feel energized. My mood is lifted. My creative energy is inspired and my patience grows for life’s challenges.

I alternate my choice in exercise between strength and flexibility training. I use weights to target major muscle groups: lower body, upper body, abdominals, or whole body. I use yoga and Pilates for flexibility training. However, I am not a fan of cardio exercise. I’m asthmatic, so doing cardio can sometimes trigger breathing problems for me. I get short bursts of cardio chasing after my kids or bouncing on the trampoline. I don’t enjoy cardio routines nor do I feel the same sense of accomplishment as I do when I complete a rigorous strength training routine or practice yoga. I don’t think that matters. What matters is I found an exercise routine that works for me and what’s important is to find an exercise routine that works for you and makes you feel good.

Biologically-speaking, sleep and exercise are key for physical wellbeing. Emotionally-speaking, I practice connections to my faith which provides spiritual wellbeing. I pray daily, throughout the day. I read or listen to the Bible daily. During quiet moments, usually these days when I’m rocking my children to sleep, I’ll close my eyes and practice meditation. Breathe in. Breathe out. I feel my heart rate slow and I’ll find clarity to questions on my mind. I take time to notice evidence of God’s presence of my life, and I thank Him for the blessings my family experiences. I practice gratitude for little things, and this lifts my soul from focusing on the negativity of the world. Even though we have serious challenges, especially in tackling Maggie’s medical needs, I have faith and I pray for her and all of our loved ones. I pray for our country.

I know it’s difficult to find time to manage mental health needs. I also know that everyone is different and what works for me may not work for you. What I do believe is there are windows of opportunity to practice activities that helps you be the best you you can be. Go to bed earlier. Limit your caffeine. Find an exercise routine that’s fun and effective for you. Practice gratitude, mindfulness, and a spiritual connection. Take care of you: body, mind, and soul.



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