Mental health and wellbeing is very close to our hearts, and while we truly aim to have an always-on approach to covering all aspects of mental health, we have chosen to shine an extra bright light on #WorldMentalHealth today, and for the rest of October.
We bring you The Big Burn Out — a content series made up of honest personal essays, expert advice and practical recommendations.
When Mariah Carey revealed that she had been diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, I admired her honesty and bravery for coming forward. The more public figures open up about their experiences with mental illness, the more we can help erase the unfortunate stigma attached to these disorders. As someone who was also diagnosed with bipolar II a couple years ago, I appreciate Mariah's shedding light onto an often misunderstood and misrepresented mental illness.
Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive disorder, is characterized by changing moods of depression (feeling sad, "down," or hopeless) and mania (feeling extremely "up," elated, and energised), according to the National Institute of Mental Health. With bipolar I disorder, manic episodes last at least seven days or are so severe the person needs immediate hospital care. With bipolar II, the manic symptoms are less severe, known as hypomania, and aren't as extreme as the mania found in bipolar I.
Before my bipolar II diagnosis, I was diagnosed with depression when I was a freshman in high school, so mental illness is a chronic condition I've worked half of my life to combat. Although some days are still better than others, I've been able to keep my mental illness under control through a combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle efforts. Here is how I keep my symptoms in check and live a happy, productive life:
I Exercise a Few Times a Week
One of the biggest ways to boost your mental health is through exercise. I'm by no means saying working out can replace medication or should be your only line of treatment for mental illness, but it makes a huge difference. I notice on days when I don't work out that I tend to feel more of my depressive symptoms: unable to concentrate, lack of energy and motivation, and feeling overall down. On the flip side, after I work out, I feel more invigorated, clear-headed, and positive. I prefer to work out first thing in the morning before work so I can get motivated for the day and carry that good feeling into the office.
Although strength training is an important part of any fitness program, most of my workouts focus on cardio since I find I get more feel-good endorphins from cardio. Regardless, I always try to do at least 30 minutes of cardio and then 15-20 minutes of weightlifting and strength training. Even on days where I don't feel great and am more inclined to sleep in, I'll at least take a walk in the park in the morning and get my steps in — anything that moves my body and helps me feel good.
I Get at Least 7 Hours of Sleep
Even though I prefer to get up at 5:30 in the morning and work out before work, if I happen to have a late night the night before, I will always skip my morning workout in the name of extra sleep and hit the gym after work. Sleep is one of the most important factors in your overall mental health, and I find if I don't get about seven hours each night (usually six and a half to eight hours, on average), it takes a major toll on my overall mental health. I used to go through large stretches of time on less than five hours of sleep a night, and it would always exacerbate my symptoms of depression and anxiety. Getting enough sleep every night may seem like a luxury for some, but I make it a priority — I take a bath, turn off my phone, read a book, and fall asleep in no time.
I Eat Mostly Whole Foods
Like with exercise, a healthy diet isn't necessarily a replacement for medication and therapy, but it makes a huge difference. When I'm eating whole, unprocessed foods, I feel better and have more energy. When I overdo it on the pizza and potato chips, I feel lethargic, which can trigger my depressive symptoms. I eat little sugar, avoid most processed food, and make an effort to load up on brain-healthy foods, such as antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies, and fatty fish for omega-3s. These foods also feed your good gut bacteria, and since gut health has been linked to mental health, I also eat plenty of probiotic-rich fermented foods. That doesn't mean I don't indulge in my favourite treats; I can never say no to pizza or chips and guacamole. But for the most part, I stick to the 80/20 rule and keep my indulgences for the weekends.
I Cut Back on Alcohol
There's no way to sugarcoat this: My social life revolves around alcohol. After-work happy hours, Saturday brunches, and weekend nights out in New York all involve booze. And while I genuinely enjoy a well-made craft cocktail or a good glass of wine, I know my limits on what I can handle. Not only can alcohol interfere with my medication, but it's also a depressant, meaning I'll most likely end up feeling worse the next day. If I've had too much to drink the night before, I tend to feel incredibly anxious the next morning and tired and depressed throughout the day. In an effort to avoid all the negative side effects, I try to stick to two drinks at a time and no more than one drink an hour.
I Take My Medication at the Same Time Every Day
Taking my medication every day is probably the single most important step in keeping my bipolar disorder under control. After 15 years of trying different prescriptions — including several years in between where I was completely prescription-free — and experimenting with half a dozen types of medication, I have finally found a pill regimen that works for me. I take a combination of mood stabilisers every night with dinner. I also supplement with fish oil, vitamin D, and a calcium, magnesium, and zinc vitamin in the mornings.
I See a Psychiatrist and Therapist Regularly
I have regular check-ups with my psychiatrist to make sure my medication is still working. Sometimes that means adjusting dosages, which is common after you've been taking the same medication for a long period of time. I also see a therapist about once a month; it's important to have an unbiased, non-judgmental person to listen to how you're doing and help you evaluate your behaviours, especially when you have a mental illness.