What would bring you happiness? Billions of dollars in your bank account? Maybe the latest sports car? What about your dream job? I pondered these questions as I reflected on the life of Anthony Bourdain who looked like he was living his best life, traveling and experiencing this world on a level that some of us could only dream about. Then there was Kate Spade, who had built a fashion empire that was worth $2.4 billion (which is more money than I would know what to do with) and created designs that infused elegance and simplicity to form aesthetically pleasing creations that had designers and consumers scrambling to get a piece. Yet last week, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, two brilliant minds and personalities in their respective industries, died by suicide.
You've probably heard this before, but looks are truly deceiving and it reminded me of a time several years ago when I was hanging out with a close group of friends. We were playing a game of truth and truth because we were too lazy and tired to pick dare and I was asked the question, "Gloria, what are you insecure about?" Before I could answer, another friend of mine made a comment and said, "I bet you are not insecure about anything." The others laughed in agreement with their own comments and I remember sitting there shocked! I thought my insecurities would be obvious to everyone! How could they not see the dark thoughts about myself even though I masked them with jokes and a winning smile? Or the pain that I covered with a forced confidence and a loud personality? To those that knew me, or thought they knew me, I seemingly lived a great life with many people telling me they envied my life and wish they could do some of the things I had done and experience some of the things I experienced. If they only knew....
I felt guilty for feeling the way I was feeling which only made the feelings worse. I thought those who committed suicide to be cowards and yet at my darkest hours, I contemplated ending it all myself and the guilt and shame would intensify because of this paradox. I knew that something needed to change if I was going to hold on to my sanity and by extension, my life. I needed to be surrounded with positive energy and distance myself away from the things, places, and people that were slowly sucking the life force out of me. Sometimes you don't realize how dark it gets until you make that conscious shift in your perspective and shed light on those dark places.
Last year, I remember stumbling across a series called 13 Reasons Why while I was scrolling through Netflix and ended up binge-watching the whole season in horror and by the time I was done, I recall feeling disturbed and unsettled. If you haven't watched the show (I won't recommend it by the way), 13 Reasons Why is about a high school girl who commits suicide and leaves behind a tape with 13 Reasons Why she committed Suicide to the people she deemed responsible for her death. How many kids who struggled with mental health watched this show and started viewing suicide as a glamorous way to go? I recall thinking that if I watched this in my rebellious teen years, I shudder at what I would have taken from the series. In fact, I was so disturbed that I went online to look at what other people were saying about the show. I am not going into details about it here, but needless to say, I was among the majority of people who felt the exact way, including mental health experts.
So with content like that out there, I created my own 13 Reasons why list of practical steps we can take to help us make that conscious positive shift no matter where we are in life or who we are. But remember, the path to mental health is not static, it is a continuous journey and something we should be mindful of. You will have good days and bad days, but hopefully, if you practice some of the things I am going to list below you will have more good days than bad ones.
1. Give yourself permission to take a mental health day when you need it.
You know when you need one, and you know you'll be more productive (and just generally easier to be around) if you take one. So why do we all feel so selfish when we do it? Try to think of it as preventive medicine—by taking a day to relax and recharge now, you're giving your body (and immune system) some time to catch up, which could help prevent an actual sick day in your future.
2. Tell yourself something positive.
The mind is a battlefield and we can sometimes be our own worst enemies and I can't stress enough about how important it is to be aware of our thoughts and not only what we are feeding our mind but what we are telling ourselves. Research shows that how you think about yourself can have a powerful effect on how you feel. When we perceive our self and our life negatively, we can end up viewing experiences in a way that confirms that notion. Instead, practice using words that promote feelings of self-worth and personal power. For example, instead of saying, "I'm ugly" or "I am unworthy of being loved" look in the mirror and say, "I am beautiful and worthy of all the love". Tell yourself this every day while looking in the mirror.
3. Write down something you are grateful for.
Journaling is a form of therapy for me and a way for me to sort out everything I am feeling. But something we sometimes forget to do is to not take for granted the things and people in our lives. Gratitude has been clearly linked with improved well-being and mental health, as well as happiness. The best-researched method to increase feelings of gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal or write a daily gratitude list. Generally contemplating gratitude is also effective, but you need to get regular practice to experience long-term benefit. Find something to be grateful for, let it fill your heart, and bask in that feeling.
4. Take literally five minutes to meditate and don't you roll your eyes at me.
Yes, meditation seems like a thing that only yoga teachers do, but it doesn't need to be a whole thing to be effective. Whatever your belief or religion, plug into what or who you believe your source to be and don't worry about accomplishing anything or reaching some sort of enlightenment when you do it; just the fact that you're taking a few minutes to calm down and focus on your breathing is huge. If you don't know where to start, just sit quietly and focus on breathing in and out, slowly, for two minutes. Then work up to five minutes the next time you do it.
5. Try to limit refined sugar and add more magnesium in your diet.
This is something that helped me tremendously because I was a self-certified sugar addict. Cutting back on added sugar (think: sodas, candies, pastries) won't cure depression, but it can help keep blood sugar levels stable, which can help balance your energy levels throughout the day. And while there's no such thing as stress-fighting foods, magnesium has been shown to help alleviate headaches and fatigue, as Despina Hyde-Gandhi, M.S., registered dietitian at New York University Langone’s Weight Management Program, previously told SELF. So adding dark leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, avocados, and figs to your diet isn't a bad idea.
6. Focus on one thing (in the moment).
Sometimes you actually need to stop and smell the roses, I know that sounds very cliche but it sometimes comes down to the simple things of life that can bring us so much joy. Being mindful of the present moment allows us to let go of negative or difficult emotions from past experiences that weigh us down. Start by bringing awareness to routine activities, such as taking a shower, eating lunch, or walking home. Paying attention to the physical sensations, sounds, smells, or tastes of these experiences helps you focus. When your mind wanders, just bring it back to what you are doing.
Exercise has become another form of therapy for me, though there are some days I dread it, however when I get to it and through it, the feeling afterward is so satisfying. Your body releases stress-relieving and mood-boosting endorphins before and after you work out, which is why exercise is a powerful antidote to stress, anxiety, and depression. Look for small ways to add activity to your day, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or going on a short walk. To get the most benefit, aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise daily, and try to do it outdoors. Exposure to sunlight helps your body produce vitamin D, which increases your level of serotonin in the brain. Plus, time in nature is a proven stress reducer.
9. Eat a good meal.
I use to think that taking time to prepare a good meal for myself was a waste of time, so I would whip up something unhealthy or order out. Sometimes I still do that but what you eat nourishes your whole body, including your brain. Carbohydrates (in moderate amounts) increase serotonin, a chemical that has been shown to have a calming effect on your mood. Protein-rich foods increase norepinephrine, dopamine, and tyrosine, which help keep you alert. And vegetables and fruits are loaded with nutrients that feed every cell of your body, including those that affect mood-regulating brain chemicals. Include foods with Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (found in fish, nuts, and flaxseed.) Research shows that these nutrients can improve mood and restore structural integrity to the brain cells necessary for cognitive function. So don't feel guilty when you take the time to prepare a well-balanced meal for yourself and take the time to enjoy every delicious bite.
10. Open up to someone.
This is something I still struggle with because finding someone you trust and can bare your innermost thoughts to can be very difficult. But having someone who you can talk to can be life-changing and knowing you are valued by others is important in helping you think more positively. Plus, being more trusting can increase your emotional well-being because as you get better at finding the positive aspects in other people, you become better at recognizing your own.
11. Do something for someone else.
Research shows that being helpful to others has a beneficial effect on how you feel about yourself. Being helpful and kind—and valued for what you do—is a great way to build self-esteem. The meaning you find in helping others will enrich and expand your life.
12. Take a break.
One of the things that was affecting my mental health was that I was trying to do too much and setting impossibly high standards for myself and I was getting close to burning out. In those moments when it all seems like too much, step away, and do anything but whatever was stressing you out until you feel a little better. Sometimes the best thing to do is a simple breathing exercise: Close your eyes and take 10 deep breaths. For each one, count to four as you inhale, hold it for a count of four, and then exhale for another four. This works wonders almost immediately.
13. Go to bed on time.
I have struggled with sleep for as long as I can remember and sometimes still struggle with. A large body of research has shown that sleep deprivation has a significant negative effect on your mood. Try to go to bed at a regular time each day, and practice good habits to get better sleep. These include shutting down screens for at least an hour before bed, using your bed only for sleep or relaxing activities, and restricting caffeinated drinks for the morning.
Start today. You have the power to take positive steps right now to improve your resilience and emotional health. Don’t wait until you're in a crisis to make your mental health a priority. Besides, it is easier to form new habits when you are feeling strong. You can then implement those habits when you need them most. Pick something from this list that resonates with you and try it. Then, try something else. Slowly putting in place routines, habits, and regular patterns will help you feel better through gradual change. Also, don't be afraid to seek professional help no matter who you are.