Back to the basics

10 things that helped me become a functioning human being again

Photo by Olivier Guillard via  Unsplash .

Photo by Olivier Guillard via Unsplash.

Last week, I talked about the three factors that brought me to a place of joy and, more importantly, emotional regulation: taking care of my basic needs, learning self-soothing techniques, and community. This week, I’m going to talk about taking care of the basics: the foundation of living a stable and healthy life. 

As I described in a previous analogy, I see my life as a house, and the basics are part of its foundation. Each day, I’m assessing my foundation and looking for the weaker areas and trying, gently to improve them. This keeps me sane and my “house” safely grounded.

When I was in the outpatient therapy program, we had to come up with a plan for how we would fulfill our basics each day, to get us in the habit of really taking care of ourselves. When I started the program, I noticed something: these areas were wildly out of balance. I was over-compensating with some of the basics and others I wasn’t doing at all. While a perfect balance of all ten basics isn’t possible, it helps to take a look at the list and see which areas might be in need of improvement, and which are areas of strength. So, let’s take a look at each of the basics and reflect on them a little.

1. Food

Are you eating healthy, balanced meals each day? Are you in control of healthy snacking between meals? We all know how easy it is not to follow these guidelines — and I won’t provide a lecture on that. Rather, I think it’s important to be proud of ourselves when we’re eating well and, when we’re not, grace with ourselves is crucial. Shame and guilt only leads to further negative behavior, and that goes for all of these basics. 

2. Sleep

Are you getting enough sleep at night? Are you sleeping too much? When I feel depressed or anxious, I do the latter. I use sleep as an escape when the world seems too overwhelming. So, my goal has been to reduce my sleep — not to nap during the day, and limit my sleep at night to nine hours. 

3. Laughter

I love that this is included and just as important as any of the other basics. While the full benefits of laughter are still being studied, it can have some profound effects on our physiological state. A simple search on WebMD will tell you:

“We change physiologically when we laugh. We stretch muscles throughout our face and body, our pulse and blood pressure go up, and we breathe faster, sending more oxygen to our tissues.
People who believe in the benefits of laughter say it can be like a mild workout — and may offer some of the same advantages as a workout.”

So those breaks you take to watch funny YouTube videos? Totally justified.

4. Exercise

We all know how important exercise is…everyone tells you to exercise! And yet, this was completely lacking from my life when I was feeling my worst. But, when I started taking dance classes, that’s when joy appeared in my life again. It’s still a struggle to drag myself to dance class sometimes, but I do it anyway. And, I know I’m forming a positive habit — one that will increase the amount of joy in my life. With a change that profound, it’s worth mentioning the importance of exercise...even if I risk sounding like a broken record. 

5. Spirituality

It’s really easy to put this basic in a box and think that it’s about subscribing to a particular faith or organized religion, but it’s not (although that’s a perfectly fine way of fulfilling this need). Spirituality can mean going for a walk and being mindful of your surroundings; taking in all of the beauty around you and being thankful for it. Or, it can mean doing something like meditation. Meditation was kind of a scary concept to me at first…it seemed a little “woo woo”…and I had a lot of preconceived notions about it. But, when I actually practiced it, I found that I felt much more calm during the days in which I meditated. 

Meditation doesn’t have to be intimidating or cheesy. Personally, I use a great app called “Headspace” to do my meditation. The soothing voice of the narrator leads you in simple meditative exercises that makes the ten minute sessions go by quickly. The app has ten free sessions that you can listen to as many times as you’d like, but it has bonus paid content, as well. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

6. Medications and/or vitamins

I know this is probably the most controversial item in the basics. There’s a lot of stigma around taking medications for mental illness. But, we have to look at treating mental illness like treating any other illness. Sometimes, it requires medications to re-balance chemicals in the brain. Sometimes, all people need are vitamins or supplements to balance those chemicals. From my own experience, finding the right combination of prescribed medications and vitamins has made a huge difference: on par with the effects of exercise. It’s another factor that has allowed me to feel joy — allowed me to feel alive — and I feel no shame in that. 

7. Relaxation

What makes you feel relaxed? What can you do each day to practice relaxation? This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Twin Peaks, delivered by Agent Cooper:

“Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.”

I think it’s sound advice. I’ll diverge from it just a little and say, if you’re a planner, then plan it. But, whatever it is, make sure you do something positive each day for yourself to relax. 

8. Journal

Keeping all of our feelings bottled up never leads to anything good. We either explode, or it wreaks havoc on our health. Journaling is about finding positive outlets for those emotions. It doesn’t have to be writing. It can be drawing, painting, or sharing your feelings out loud with with a safe person who will really listen to you. Which leads me to the next basic…

9. Reaching out

This is another area that I wasn’t very good at before going into the therapy program. I had isolated myself so much that I was afraid to even tell my boyfriend when I was feeling low or needed help. But, reaching out to people on a daily basis is essential to our mental health — even if it’s just a few text messages. Humans were built for community (which I’ll talk more about in a later post). We need each other. We need positive people around us to remind us that we are people worthy of unconditional love. 

10. Affirmations/positive self-talk

Even though we need other people in our lives, we cannot fully depend on them to validate our self-worth. We have to learn how to do that ourselves; to believe that we are worthy of unconditional love and all of the beauty the world has to offer. This comes from recording over all of the negative “tapes” we play in our head and replacing them with positive messages. We’ve all been told shitty stories about ourselves (or to ourselves) but, I assure you, there’s a different story out there. 

I know it seems really cheesy to say positive things to yourself, and it may seem foreign at first. But, you don’t need to get all “Stuart Smalley” about it. You could simply write a few of your favorite affirmations on a note card and carry it with you to look at when you need encouragement.

A few of my favorites are: 

  • I have as much brightness to offer the world as the next person.
  • I choose friends who appreciate me and love me.
  • I choose to fully participate in my day.
  • I am safe and sound. All is well.
  • The past has no power over me anymore.

So now that we’ve gone through the basics, which of them are strengths for you, and which could use some work? Assess them for yourself and make gentle corrections, if necessary. Remember that getting all of the basics down takes time, so don’t worry about changing everything all at once. Focus on the small changes you can make each day, and give yourself grace as you build your foundation. 

Next week, I’ll talk about some self-soothing techniques that were seriously life-changing for me. But, for now, here’s the song of the week — an affirmation dedicated to you.