Mental health triggers and managing expectations in uncertain times

Content warning: This blog post contains some personal accounts of anxiety and mental health struggles.

With the lockdown in Sydney being extended by a couple of weeks, I have just let myself accept that the lockdown could go on for more weeks – potentially even a couple more months. Managing my own expectations during the past year has been my best bet of avoiding an emotional meltdown, and this is just one small expectation among many others. I don’t think I have written a lot on my blog about the specifics of my mental health, but I‘ve recently found myself struggling with meltdowns and spiralling thoughts. I don’t know if it’s anxiety (for the record, I’ve never been diagnosed with anxiety), but I know for a fact that I have certain triggers that cause my thoughts to spiral – at speed – if I don’t manage them or even avoid them.

I’ve never known myself to struggle with anxiety or triggers, which leads me to think that I haven’t thought enough about what my triggers are, but I know I have them. This is something that has occurred to me recently, and I think I need to be more in tune with my triggers. I have a history of disordered eating, physical self-harm, gaslighting, and a couple of traumatic experiences. As a person, I believe myself to be optimistic – and so, so far from the depressed person I was in my teens and early twenties – so my reflection of my mental health at my current age is more matured, and I am also more in tune with my feelings.

I don’t really want to go into extreme detail about these things, but I wanted to write and share about my experiences during this pandemic in the hopes that it will help some people feel less alone.

Being separated from people or being alone

I am an introvert and I get my energy from being alone. Large groups of people overwhelm me and I’m usually the quiet one in the group until called upon to speak (then I love talking! 😀). I regularly need a break from gatherings or from hanging out with a lot of people. Sometimes I need to mentally prepare to face a crowd. In general I don’t mind being alone, but there is a loneliness I sometimes feel. I love my own company, but the presence of people keeps me going somewhat.

Before the lockdown started, when Nick went to work several days of the week, I would get a bit lonely, often finding ways I could Zoom call people at work to feel like I was still connected. When I physically saw people, or was with people, I had to prepare myself for their departure or know in advance when we would part ways. Finding a way to handle this seemed to conflict with my need for “me time”. I almost forgot about my own energy capacity because my feelings were so fixated on feeling sad about being separated from people.

Over the past year I feel like I craved human connection, but in the form of text messaging or messaging on social media platforms. I felt sad when it was quiet and when I got no interactions on my social media posts. This was not about a dopamine hit. It was not about getting noticed. I wasn’t searching for pity. I truly felt like even the brief connections – comments on my outfits, short responses to my posts – lifted my spirits and kept me going, and kept me from feeling lonely.

I know I can’t keep searching for connection every moment I’m not sleeping. It’s not that I’m not my own best friend, or that I dislike my own company, but finding okayness in being alone is something I have to work with so that I don’t just burst into tears and feel sad. Reflecting on my friendships and positive memories helps, but even that is a struggle with balance. If I think too much about it, rather than feeling grateful, I will start to yearn to spend time with people and then get upset that I can’t.

Adapting exercise and physical wellness

I got a personal trainer just before the current lockdown started. I was very keen to start my program and start getting stronger and learning new things. Now, I am still doing some sessions with my trainer but with limited equipment, and masks on, all that stuff. I’m also doing some exercise at home, but finding the motivation for it can be a little tough, even with some dumbbells available at home. This is a huge change from having gone to the gym six days a week to train.

A murky-looking pond with a couple of ducks swimming in it, and some weeds in the background
Spotting ducks, my favourite animal, on a walk 🦆 (I like octopuses too, in case you wanted to know, haha)

Between the lockdown last year, and the current lockdown, I lost the weight (mostly fat) I gained while at home, and when gyms were open and we had no restrictions, I adjusted my nutrition and exercise to help me lose the weight. I’m doing my best to keep moving and trying to remain active, trying to adopt the mindset that a little bit of exercise – even ten or fifteen minutes (compared to my usual 60–90 in one session!) – is a lot better than not moving at all. Exercise is really important to me and I have found myself missing the gym. If I think about it too much, I know I will get upset and angry. But I have recognised my privilege in being able to go to a very good gym in the first place. I have also recognised that I have the time, and it’s still possible, for me to exercise at home, even if it isn’t going to be with the same intensity and I am not going to be lifting anywhere near the same amount of weight.

I think the best thing for me to do is to work with what I’ve got and stay focused on what is happening in the now. Last year, I remember just being upset and finding a little too much comfort in food. I’m still doing something similar now – I’ve been buying doughnuts since lockdown started 🙄 – but I’m also trying to make more of my own food, healthier options, and am letting myself enjoy the doughnuts. 🍩 I’m trying to maintain a healthy relationship with food because that ultimately means a healthier relationship with my body, and I can avoid that negative behaviour of fixating on how I look, and avoid criticising my body for its flaws instead of focusing on how strong I am and the clothes I feel good in.

I’m trying not to get upset about the downward trends on my Apple Watch. Because I do not have the mental or physical capacity to be walking 8 kilometres a day, and the weather sometimes puts a downer on my energy. I have stopped obsessing about getting 12,000 steps a day. I’m happy to be able to get somewhere like 6,000 steps, and there are some days I will still hit 10,000 and other days where the weather will have such an impact that I only get 3,000. Whatever. It’s just a reflection of the times. For much of the past five years, I’ve been a very “live in the moment” person. This current moment is a tough one, and I can’t compare it to an obviously better time when we were not restricted to being at home.

Professional life and boundaries

My personal and professional life have so much crossover. In all honesty, it has been a bit of a bad thing over the past 18 months. 😩 I am very grateful that I can still work during this time, and that I work for a very supportive company with awesome folks – but I am also feeling a delayed onset of the frustration associated with the “hey, I made my hobby a job” reality. I work as a UI engineer, but my life on the computer and communicating with people from work has somehow merged with my personal life because I forgot about my own boundaries.

Part of my professional life has seeped into my personal life because I don’t have a great deal of commitments outside of work. My colleagues, who have families, children, or who are carers, struggle a lot more than me, and I fully respect that this is an even tougher time for them. Since I have no commitments, I feel a great need to help out more at work and forget to separate my work from non-work things, and I keep doing the thing where I forget to take care of myself before addressing my desire to help people. 😞 I used to change my physical setup at my desk when I was going between personal and work stuff, but I don’t even do that anymore.

There are incidents in my professional life that I try to laugh about (“if you don’t laugh, you’re going to cry”), but at their core, involve discrimination, traumatic events, or make my feelings of impostor syndrome go off. Some of these relate to my struggle with trying to learn JavaScript after feeling “forced” to (even though many years on, I’ve been coding with JS professionally and am so much more proficient!), or front-end gaslighting and front-end engineers being made to feel like their profession is “easy” and worthless – and frankly, this is the kind of shit that I feel in my downward spirals.

This is the kind of shit I want to avoid. Upsetting conversations at work, or about work, can trigger these negative feelings about myself and about my profession, even as much as I love the work I do, and as much as I don’t need to feel like an impostor. I don’t dwell on the past, and specific incidents don’t make me upset or angry, but thinking about them makes me feel an overwhelming amount of, just, sadness. Just a big amount of sadness. I’ve found these thoughts so much harder to control, and harder to stop, and also a bit hard to pinpoint triggers for, because the triggers often occur ad-hoc. In meetings, in conversations, or whatever.

One way I think I can handle this is by having as healthy a relationship as possible with my work life. If I have a healthy mental relationship with my work life, then it means I am working at my best. If I am working at my best, I am better equipped to handle situations of conflict, and to handle topics of conversation that I would normally find upsetting. It would probably stop this negative train of thought from even leaving the station.

I mentioned being burned out recently, and this past week has been a lot better – I deliberately started late on some days, took longer lunch breaks, skipped meetings I didn’t feel like I had to attend, and didn’t beat myself up for being “unproductive”. One might argue that it was to make up for the burnout that I experienced. Yeah, maybe it is making up for it a little bit, but it’s these small things that I feel are important to have a healthy relationship with “working from home”. It was nice to have that flexibility again, that I feel like I did have more of last year. Whether this kind of stuff happens regularly or as a result of feeling the need to get back on track after burning out – I don’t think it really matters. I think it should be happening as much as makes you feel like you are balanced and well. 🙏 It is going to look different and be different for everyone.

What does managing expectations look like?

I know it’s easy for me to say, oh yeah, “be prepared”. I feel like that is basically what I am saying. But “be prepared” is not easy for everyone. My husband, Nick, doesn’t experience anxiety or mental health struggles, and the other day we had a conversation about how he has never felt like he needs to be mentally prepared for anything. We came up with a few scenarios. Like a surprise birthday party that my friend Dylan had organised by his partner. He wasn’t mentally prepared for it so it was a bit overwhelming at first. Like the mental preparation I have to do, before getting up on stage and doing a talk. Nick said that he would just do the task, but has never felt the need to mentally prepare. For him, preparation for something probably just looks like a bunch of logistics and organising things.

For someone like me, some situations need me to be more mentally prepared. I’ve had a couple friends tell me to mentally prepare for a longer lockdown and for more restrictions, and for COVID case numbers to go up. It might seem funny to some people, but it’s a legitimate reminder for me.

Managing expectations, on the surface, can sound silly and not very involved to some people, but for me it has been about finding what works for me. It has been about that mental preparation. It has been about planning a little bit. Planning for grocery shopping so I don’t have to be anxious when I run out of food or food options (like if takeaway is no longer allowed). So that I don’t get anxious about frequenting the supermarket for more occasions than is necessary. Planning for exercise and healthy so that I don’t start to spiral into negative thoughts about my appearance and weight. Remembering boundaries and expressing those boundaries so I don’t fall into a trap of saying “yes” to everything, even shit I’m not capable of.

Plan a little, plan a lot. Maybe some stuff is going to require more planning. I don’t know. In these uncertain times, I think that taking things day by day, moving slowly, and taking small steps or making small changes is the right way to go. I think the past 18 months has taught us how to adapt and handle things as they come. Today probably looks heaps different from yesterday, and tomorrow is probably going to be heaps different from today.

But whatever. I’ve got this. We’ve got this. 💛

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Over here we haven’t had to lock down again yet, however there are some states who already have/are talking about doing so. Being from the second largest state in the USA(Texas) I imagine it’ll come soon for us too, honestly. I still went to work all through the pandemic, as I work in a very small leasing office, but other than that I went straight home after due to the restrictions here. Our gyms just opened back up too, though with extremely limited hours in comparison to before, and I get quite angry with paying for something I can barely use due to its operation hours conflicting with my work hours. On top of that I feel like I am “wasting money” on it due to being on extremely limited funds after paying utilities and such.

It’s a viscous cycle, and I think it has taken a toll immensely on a lot of our mental health. I’ve been seeing a professional bi-weekly due to the increase of my anxiety. I’m most calm at home, as I am quite the homebody, but when I DO get out and about its just stressful.

Hopefully your lockdown will be short this time around, but you know we are all here to help if we can <3

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