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These Are the Things That Actually Helped My Mental Health

If there's one thing I wish all of my clients knew, it's that I regularly practice the skills I teach in therapy. In fact, every time I experience a bout of anxiety, a relationship conflict, or a strong punch of Imposter Syndrome, a part of me is bizarrely happy that the opportunity has presented itself to see how effective different mental health strategies are in the moment.

Since new years tend to bring new habits, I thought I'd share the main lessons and skills that have genuinely made a difference to my mental health. Know that it took years of practice for me to actually accomplish these tasks and that I'm still a work in progress, but I hope that some of these make a positive difference in your life somehow :)

  1. I accepted that suffering is a part of life and stopped pursuing happiness.

To greatly simplify one of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, life is suffering. This might sound depressing to some people, but I actually find comfort in this. You see, Western society has programmed us into thinking that we can achieve eternal happiness... as long as we have a slim body. A fast car. A big house. A lot of Instagram followers. And we're taught that if we just. work. hard. enough. we, too, will find true happiness forever.

If endless happiness is our goal, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We're participating in a game where there's no winning. In fact, as I've mentioned in another blog post, studies have confirmed that placing excessive emphasis on happiness reduces our ability to savour positive experiences and makes us more prone to experiencing depressive symptoms.

Rather than pursuing happiness, I strive for being content—achieving a state of satisfaction and ease of mind. To use a metaphor, I don't expect or strive for every dish to taste like one from a Michelin-star restaurant; if I'm decently full at the end of a meal, I am content.

This links to the idea of radical acceptance, which is another concept that has enormously helped my mental health. Radical acceptance is about wholeheartedly accepting things as they are rather than using your energy to feel frustrated about how things ought to be. When you can radically accept that eternal happiness is neither possible nor sustainable, you free your mind up to focus on things that are simply more important and achievable. This also means you can stop putting so much pressure on yourself! If you're not happy all the time, it doesn't mean you're defective or "not trying hard enough." It means you're a human being, just like the rest of us :)

2. I stopped judging my emotions.

^ my new response to my emotions

This one was HUGE for me. I've learned as a human being and therapist that so much of our suffering isn't due to our initial emotions, but from our reactions to them. Feeling depressed is hard, but it's not debilitating. Reacting to your depression by over-analyzing it, wondering how long it will last, dissecting it, calling yourself a "loser" for experiencing it, and the like is debilitating.

Another harmful myth that exists is that we can be in control of our emotions at all times. This is not only false, but a very problematic concept to perpetuate. The truth is that our emotions actually stem from the lower parts of our brain (specifically the limbic system), which are very automatic, fast, and illogical. Trying to control our initial emotion about a situation is also a losing game. Saying "I don't want to feel anxious any more" is no different than saying, "I never want to get a cold again." These things happen and are a normal part of life.

Once again, the only thing we can do is change our reaction to our initial emotions. Instead of judging ourselves for feeling depressed, we can show ourselves some compassion and take our depression for a walk outside. Instead of telling ourselves that we "shouldn't" feel anxious before giving a work presentation, we can acknowledge that these feelings are totally normal (and helpful), accept that we might sound a little shaky at first, but have faith that if we practice enough, it will get better.

Never forget that all emotions have useful functions, as I discuss in this blog post. It's important that we appreciate them rather than hating on them or wishing they didn't exist.

3. I learned that too much self-awareness doesn't do anyone any good.

Self-awareness is certainly a positive attribute, and it's even one of the five pillars of emotional intelligence. That said, there can al