Mental health is one of the few places the medical field has absolutely FAILED in the US. And when I say failed, I mean failed with a big fat ‘F’. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, exit stage left kind of fail.
The numbers don’t lie. The statistics of how we’ve failed, and continue to do so, are staggering. Over half of American adults with a mental illness do not receive treatment, even to this day. Teenage depression rates are rising. 43.7 million Americans struggle with a diagnosable mental health disorder, which is over 18% of the population. These numbers even EXCLUDE developmental disorders and over 8% of adults in America who report having a substance or alcohol problem!
How can this BE? We’re in 2017, people! We can’t IGNORE over a quarter of the population!
We HAVE GOT to do better at helping those with mental health problems. Not tomorrow – TODAY!
This really hit home for me in a one-two punch. My friend’s brother, who had been struggling with depression, committed suicide. The following year, I was diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t really soak in the hardship of my friend’s loss until I saw myself in a similar boat – struggling to keep myself afloat mentally and physically.
Mental health problems can affect any one of us. Our friends, our family, and ourselves. Just like breaking a leg or having cancer, treatment SHOULD be available to everyone. For any reason.
But it’s not.
No matter how you slice it, millions of Americans struggle with mental health…every….single….day.
I found myself struggling with anxiety and depression after my diagnosis. I couldn’t accept that cancer could happen to me. I became terrified of the sun’s UV “death rays” and scared of being in the sun (see my post about conquering that fear here). My entire career has been in healthcare, but I developed “white coat syndrome” – it’s a real thing – where before every appointment or scan, I would sit in the waiting room, sweating profusely with my blood pressure and heart rate skyrocketing. My dread and anxiety when seeing the doctor became the norm.
Does this sound familiar?
When I finally decided to take control of my thoughts and emotions, things slowly became better. I decided that cancer may take my body, but I wouldn’t let it take my soul. I became stronger mentally and started to bail out the sinking ship to weather the storm. I did this through mind-body connection methods such as mindfulness meditation and journaling that I discuss in this blog.
Many people can do this same thing and eventually bail themselves out. Many others, however, need professional help to lead them in the right direction through the storm.
BOTH methods towards mental health simply DO NOT have enough support out there. Those who want to take control of their thoughts on their own don’t have enough support. And those who need professional help don’t have easy access to professionals.
We HAVE GOT to help each other and ourselves. We need to acknowledge that America needs better access to mental health services. Ignoring this problem won’t make it go away. And every day, more and more people are struggling.
Mental health doesn’t have to be this way. If you see someone struggling, don’t ignore the symptoms. If you need help, please reach out. Anxiety, depression, anger, and fear don’t have to be a daily part of your life.
Let’s admit America has a mental health problem.
Because as the saying goes, admitting you have a problem is the first step in fixing the problem.
Since you’ve completed step 1, you have done a TON of research to prepare for your dreaded/terrifying appointment. I know it’s hard and I know it’s scary, but pat yourself on the back for being so proactive and not putting your head in the sand! NO ONE cares about your health as much as YOU, so Step 1 is crucial. This knowledge serves as the backbone to your health IQ and your healthcare plan, and will help you make all kinds of healthcare decisions in the future.
BUT! Your brain probably hurts, and your research has probably sparked almost as many questions as answers. Which treatment is best for me? How do I know it will work? What happens if it doesn’t? What about my family? The “What-ifs” come rushing through your mind, becoming your every thought…they keep you up at night and destroy your mood during the day. You may break down crying at random times, trying to hide your tears from your coworkers or the people in the checkout aisle of the grocery store. You DREAD going to your doctor’s appointment and just THINKING about getting in the car for your appointment terrifies you.
I know your anxiety all too well. I’ve lived it. I have felt the stress, the pressure of a heart wrenching diagnosis such as cancer. It weighs down your soul.
But it doesn’t have to.
I found myself with these obsessive thoughts. They took over my being and my attitude. My husband and I would fight over the stupidest things, and I was on the verge of mental breakdown. And then I realized that in order to face my disease (and face my oncologist without breaking down in front of him) I needed to change my thoughts.
So how did I change? The way I thought of it, the more your diagnosis takes over your thoughts, the more it wins. These negative thoughts weren’t me. I wasn’t going to be imprisoned by the ‘what-if’s’. I was not my cancer, and cancer was not me, nor would it take over my life.
I cannot tell you how to change your mindset. This is a very personal journey for all of us, and what works for me might not work for you. But I know that no one can concentrate on a vital doctor’s appointment when you can’t control your anxiety. There are tips and tricks that I’d like to share with you so you can have a better visit and a better journey.
1. Breathing exercises
Breathing exercises help to lower your heart rate and calm your physical anxiety. These exercises work by slowing your breath, thus calming your body’s fight or flight response to stress. Websites such as this one at Time Magazine and another from Harvard can educate you about types of breathing exercises. There are also apps you can use on your phone for breathing exercises on-the-go, such as the Breathe Strong app.
These exercises can easily be done while waiting on that dreaded piece-of-paper-covered table in the doctor’s office or even in the waiting room. This will help you concentrate on the visit at hand rather than your “what-ifs”. And whenever you begin to feel your anxiety rising, remember to breathe!!
2. Meditation and Confidence
Meditation takes a bit more work than breathing exercises. There are all different types of meditation, and hundreds of books available to read on the topic. I personally relate the most to mindfulness meditation. This doesn’t require any crunchy “ohms” or patchouli oils. You simply have to live in the moment you are in, and increase your awareness. Becoming aware of your surroundings, opening your senses all at once, helps to clear your mind from all those scary thoughts. Living in the moment helps me absorb the beauty of the world around me and release the craziness in my mind.
Many people also feel vulnerable and insecure throughout their doctor’s visit. This inhibits your ability to ask questions or speak up about your treatment. For an instant confidence boost, strike a pose. A power pose, that is!
Amy Cuddy has a great Ted Talk on how your body language can literally make you more confident. You can watch the talk here. In this talk, she explains how certain poses can increase your testosterone (aka your confidence juices) and decrease your stress response. I have done this many a time before an appointment or an interview – and it truly works!
3. Find your faith
I suggest this tip because I truly believe that it helped me. Nothing I have ever read suggests this as an anxiety technique, which I find surprising. But stick with me here, and I’ll explain myself.
Many of my fears and anxieties circled around the “what-ifs”. I feared the future. I feared the unknown. But I didn’t know how to address what I didn’t know. I’m not much of a religious person, but I felt as though I had to find my meaning in life…my purpose. But again, this is something we may never truly know unless we search for the answers.
I truly believe that facing our own mortality makes us realize we NEED to have some answers. Realizing that one day, death is our destiny…this is a huge change in our outlook on life. What happens when we die? I think this larger unknown adds to the weight of our health situation, and makes it too heavy a burden for one person to carry.
In order to face this question, and ultimately face our fear, you have to find your faith. Find your beliefs in what life means, the reason you are here on this earth. Find what you TRULY believe. Find your faith, and you will find inner peace. I find this incredibly powerful.
4. Attitude of gratitude
I’m pulling this out of the book of Tony Robbins. I’ve read quite a bit of his stuff, and he speaks openly about his morning routine. In this 10 minute routine, he fills his heart with things he is greatful for, and uses his senses to feel deep gratitude. You cannot be fearful and grateful at the same time. I find this incredibly true and helpful. You can see the video here.
While you’re waiting to be called for your appointment, close your eyes. Put your hands on your heart, and think of 3 things you are grateful for. Don’t just THINK about these things, FEEL these things. Feel the moment. If one is your wedding day, for example, put yourself back in the moment, standing beside your spouse, feeling the excitement and love of the moment all over again. Use these deep feelings of gratitude to fight your feelings of fear and anxiety.
5. Bring a funny buddy
Have you ever been upset about something to the point of tears, and the person you’re with cracks a joke… and you can’t help but laugh? You’re upset, angry, or sad one moment, and the next, you’re laughing through your tears. You can’t even stop yourself from laughing and stay mad! (I’ve tried this…it never works!) Laughing pulls you out of your emotional hardships and instantly boosts your mood. How can you POSSIBLY be stressed when you’re laughing?
So bring a funny buddy with you to your appointment. Someone you trust to be there with a hug and lift you up during your darkest times. This could be a family member, a spouse, or even a co-worker. They don’t have to see the doctor with you, but they should be there to help you through that dreaded and stressful waiting period. A few giggles helps the waiting time go by faster and it keeps your mind free from the “what-ifs”. As Mary Poppins said, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!”
Whatever you do to combat your fear and anxiety, please do so with all your heart. You deserve to LIVE your life to the fullest. Do not let your fears keep you from doing everything you can to have the life that you deserve. Something like a cancer diagnosis is a mental battle as much as a physical battle. Fight the good fight and curb your fear. Take control of your thoughts, and take control of your health with the best visit possible with your healthcare team. Every moment makes a difference in your future and your health!