I’ve struggled with the debilitating effects of depression since I was 12. Even on days that it’s not running the show, it lays in wait just below the surface, bubbling. Days that it decides to emerge at the start of my day, it builds up enough steam to manifest a thick fog in my mind that turns the simplest of tasks into momentous chores. Perhaps the most difficult truth for me to come to terms with (and equally confounding for others to understand), is that even on seemingly perfect, stress-free days (or weeks), it can cloud my view of the world and can make it a dark, isolating place.
After years of trying to ignore what was happening inside of me, I finally started to take the steps I needed to in order to get healthier. I cultivated a support system: a network of incredibly patient people comprised of loving family and understanding friends. I found intelligent health care professionals who wouldn’t just throw medication at me and push me out the door, but instead listened to me and helped me work through my anxieties and triggers. While I made great strides, after making a big move post-grad school, I started spiraling again.
Each morning I lay in bed, my anxiety causing negative cyclical thoughts to race through my mind. Each night, I was kept up by the same thoughts and would chastise myself for wasting the day. I began to feel hopeless.
After a few weeks of this pattern, I took an inventory of what I was doing to combat the cycle, and I realized I wasn’t taking care of myself on a daily basis. I was ruminating on the negative thoughts, therefore allowing them to fester and develop, rather than combating them with positivity.
I changed the way I journaled:
From therapy I learned how powerful positive self-talk and mantras can be, but only if they are a constant part of your self-care routine. I already kept a journal to help let go of my haphazard thoughts, so I decided to add a few sentences each day to document the positive parts of my day. Ultimately, finding the positive in every day wasn’t as easy as I had anticipated, but I pushed through and gained both a powerful new perspective on my life and some solid coping mechanisms that I could put into place.
I noticed some patterns began to emerge:
Nights I went to bed happy were at the end of days during which I cared for myself. Days that I spent outdoors hiking, went to yoga, hit the gym, and prepared mindful meals, were days I felt most alive. Days I felt connected through meaningful conversations with loved ones, or even strangers, made me feel fulfilled. Writing, sketching, being creative — all of these activities came with a glorious side of inner peace.
On days when my anxiety told me to stay in bed, it was always pushing through to participate in these same activities that alleviated the heaviness in my chest and stilled my racing mind.
What wasn’t recorded? The hours I spent binge watching TV. The decadent dessert after a equally massive meal. The mojito… or three… from happy hour. Everything I told myself “I deserved” after long days of work, that delivered instant gratification, didn’t actually make me happy.
The benefits of this practice are two-fold:
First, it helps me see the beauty in each day of my life, even when my sadness distorts my perception. Second, it reminds me that there are people and activities that will bring me joy as long as I put in the effort to experience them.
Want to give it a try?
1. Decide where you will track your happiness.
Find a beautiful journal, use your blog, or keep a folder of random scraps of paper; these are your experiences — do whatever the hell you want. Just make sure you keep them in one place.
2. Dedicate at least five minutes to your reflections each night.
You deserve this time so take it! Write down a person, an interaction, an activity — anything that brought lightness to your soul. If you’re out, scribble it on a napkin or put it into your phone and transfer it to your log later.
3. Don’t chastise yourself.
If you are having a day where the happiness doesn’t come naturally, don’t be hard on yourself. Hateful self-talk only feeds the negativity. But at the same time, don’t leave the day blank. Find something, no matter how seemingly insignificant and write it down. Did you walk by some beautiful street art? Did you smile receive a smile from a stranger? Did your legs look particularly fierce? Anything will do — just locate and log your joy.
4. Re-read and reflect.
Look back through your entries, highlight and annotate. Find patterns and cycles. Discover what truly makes you happy and saturate your life with those people, places, and activities.
5. Praise yourself.
You are a beautiful soul who deserves more than to just exist under a haze of anxiety and sadness. You’ve taken the time to really understand what makes you feel fulfilled and integrated that into your anti-sadness arsenal. Celebrate your hard work with those people and activities that truly bring you happiness.
Despite years of work and the stable life I have built, my anxiety still lingers and my moods still swing. I still wake up feeling like my world is collapsing and struggle to sleep because I fear nameless, faceless things. However, this journal helps me on those difficult days.