There are many obstacles in the United States that keep the average person from tending to their mental health or pursuing any professional help in repairing their mental health—whether that be psychiatry or therapy. Much of this is lack of awareness about the accessibility, the lack of accessibility, and lack of knowledge about the benefits of said help. However, there are some affordable options for counseling services which I greatly encourage as even relatively mentally healthy and/or emotionally intelligent people have much to gain from guided self-introspection. To share some of the vast benefits I have gained, I will be sharing some helpful information I have learned during my experiences in counseling at my university counseling services.
First, however, I want to share some tips for accessing these services if you are not a student that receives these services for free. Many university’s offer some affordable options to the public in their area. For example, Oklahoma State University (each branch—OSU Stillwater, OSU Tulsa, and OSU Oklahoma City) offer services to the general public on a sliding scale based on income. This ranges from $5.00 per session for households with an annual income of $0-$15,000 to $50.00 per session for those earning above $85,001 annually.
Now, I’d like to touch on useful things I’ve taken away from counseling!
- Emotions are a tunnel
My wonderful counselor once used this example when I said that I was feeling stuck in my emotions. I explained that it was like sometimes I didn’t even know what exactly I was feeling, but it was impossible for me to convince myself to get out of bed or to do anything, and other times, I’d know that it was stemming from loneliness or anxiety or whatever else felt debilitating that day. First, he pointed out how important it is to listen to our bodies and determine what they need and what’s causing the physical symptoms I’m experiencing (like on those days where I cannot pinpoint the problem). Then he used a metaphor from Brene Brown that emotions are like a tunnel—they have a beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes we get so hung up on feeling the emotion and emotional stress that we forget that there is an ending to it, and we can make it out. What my main takeaway from this was hope and agency. I often lose my sense of agency when I am in a low place with my depression or stress, and I forget that I can work my way out of it by using coping mechanisms. For example, now, if I recognize it to be one of “those” days, I distract myself by making myself feel useful and accomplished. My go to is showering, a face mask, and cleaning my apartment. Additionally, by recognizing that I won’t always feel like this, I regain some hope and I’m able to tell myself that it will pass.
- Recognizing and getting myself out of a spiral
I don’t know how most people describe the feeling I am talking about, but I call it a “spiral.” This is when I start out with one or two things that are bothering me and those turn into five things and then ten things and so on until I start feeling useless, worthless, like a bad person, or whatever other catastrophizing thoughts that come into my head until I trigger a panic attack. However, through counseling, I’ve developed strategies to both bring myself out from a spiral and/or stop it before it starts. One of these ways is what I discussed above with reminding myself that I’m just stuck in the middle of the “tunnel.” However, I’ve also found that in order to recognize what will help me in that moment, I need to determine what kind of spiral I’m having. I’ve discerned that I primarily undergo emotional spirals and stress spirals. By doing this, I’ve been able to develop different strategies for each. For example, if I am having a “stress spiral,” I am best helped by making a plan of execution/to do list, and I’m helped by reminding myself of the other times I’ve had that kind of panic attack and how tiny that problem seems in hindsight. It helps me grasp the bigger picture and the larger importance in my life. If I am having an emotional spiral where I feel like I’m a bad person or that I have no friends or that I’m useless, I message the people in my life who love me and care about me, and I’ll tell them, “I’m having a real rough time tonight, and I could use some reassurance that I have people in my life who love me.” It sounds cheesy, but they are always helpful, and even if they don’t respond until the next day, simply sending the message helps serve as a reminder to me that I have people that I am comfortable enough with and confident that love me enough to try to help. Obviously, these strategies may not help everyone, but by doing some internal reflection before or after the event, you can ask yourself “What works best for me?”
- DnD alignment chart for decision making
Okay, this one is gonna sound out there, but stay with me. One time, I was discusiing with my counselor that I was debating getting a cat, but I was trying to decide whether it was a good or bad decision. He asked me, “Well, what makes any decision bad?” Which I responded saying that a decision is bad if it’s unnecessarily selfish or brings harm to myself and/or others. Then he asked, “What makes a decision good?” Which I responded explaining that I think the best gauge for that is if it betters the lives of those involved. Then, he asked me to think of the DnD alignment chart that looks like this,
Lawful Good Neutral Good Chaotic Good
Neutral Good True Neutral Chaotic Neutral
Lawful Evil Neutral Evil Chaotic Evil
He then asked me, “Does a decision have to be good or bad?” By doing this, it made me remember that all decisions live on a spectrum. They aren’t all black and white. I’ve started utilizing this chart in my day-to-day life more than I do for Dungeons and Dragons! It reminds me that my actions aren’t just bad or good, and they don’t define me as a bad or good person. For example, my getting a cat, I decided, may be more of a “Chaotic Neutral” decision. It may be a neutral decision as it brings happiness to me and a home for a homeless cat, but with my mental illness, I risk the possibility of being a little neglectful sometimes. And it may be a “chaotic” decision because at this stage in my life, it may be a little impulsive. However, this doesn’t mean it’s a “bad” decision.
- Create a list of reminders/mantras
This has been the most important lesson I’ve gained from my time in counseling. This is short and sweet and to the point. Come up with phrases that remind you of what you need to remember. What are some things that you need to remind yourself when you are in a bad state of mind? I’ll give some good starting ones, and I’ll list the ones I use myself.
1. Give yourself mercy—You’re doing everything in your power to survive and thrive right now.
2. Self-care is still exerted energy and worthy of your time.
3. Relaxation is just as important as work.
4. I don’t need to be able to see the final product (future me) in order to improve the current one (current me).
5. Who I am and what I’ve done isn’t who I have to be tomorrow.
6. I can be better tomorrow.
7. Everything will be okay because it always is, and it has to be.
These are extremely personal for each person. For me, googling and finding inspirational quotes has never worked. Working through my problems and discovering for myself what it is that I need to hear.
Lastly, I finally learned the importance of self-soothing. Typically, anytime I discuss my thoughts or feelings, I do it with for the sole purpose of sorting through them and processing them and analyzing them—I do it for the sake of problem solving. However, there was one day where I had session, and I was in a really exhausted and negative mental space. That day, we didn’t try to process how I was feeling or dig deeper into what was happening. Instead, I simply told my counselor about what was going on in my life and the different aspects of my day, and I discussed how I was feeling, but not for the purpose of working through it—simply to have it said out loud. While I did that, it amazed me how I was able to absentmindedly remind me of the positive parts of my life and progress in counseling by just saying these things out loud. For example, I mentioned to my counselor that I almost had a panic attack that day, and then I remembered that I had actually stopped the panic attack before it happened and brought myself out of a spiral which would have been unheard of a year ago. By recognizing my progress, it made my day ever so slightly better, and with each moment like that in my session, my day improved. This, in addition to other coping mechanisms I used that day, helped me self-soothe. I felt like I had more agency in my mental health because utilizing this practice on my own seemed possible. Now, I’m able to self-soothe without speaking out loud to my counselor or anyone else. I regained some power and control over my own mind that day.
I hope some of these things that I’ve learned may be applicable to you, but the real message of this article is to show the surprising ways that counseling can help people. Most of the things I’ve learned in my experience, I never would have thought would come up when I initially signed up. However, I have seen such great self-improvement over the past year all thanks to having a safe space to work through what I’m personally dealing with. And YOU CAN TOO.