When I first began seeing a therapist for my depression and generalized anxiety, I had a typical experience– sessions consisted of exploring past trauma, analyzing the present, and speculating on the future. I was given tools to deal with my symptoms, such as participating in my favorite activities, meditating, journaling, avoiding triggers, and rationalizing inefficient thought processes. After six months, my therapy journey concluded with much celebration from my friends and family. I felt like I had overcome my issues, and was prepared to get on with the rest of my life. But, after almost a full year since my last session, my symptoms began creeping back. Though I was utilizing my toolbox to combat them, my symptoms were still overtaking pieces of my new freshmen life.
Until one day, when I was sitting in Mom’s Cafe after a long lecture of Biology, I thought of my depression as being a sad puppy. Suddenly, the difference between my mental illness and myself was distinctive. My perspective shifted as I realized that if I thought of my mental illness as an unattached physical thing, I could manage my depression more efficiently.
Naming or characterizing your mental illness is not a new concept, but I am confident in saying that it is not a well-known tactic. If you are dealing with mental illness, I would highly suggest giving your mental illness or aspects of your mental illness a name, metaphor, or characteristic. To me, my depression is a pet with no species, name, or gender. The reason is I find it helpful to see it as a pet is that it shows the power balance between me and my mental illness. Though I love my pet and understand it is a part of my world, my pet does not make my decisions, I make the decisions for my pet. Your reasons for your name or characteristics can vary greatly; you may want to name it Cassandra, the name of your Pre-Calculus teacher in high school with bad fashion sense and poor handwriting, or may want your depression to be embodied by a cloud, as clouds come and go and can be near or close to you. Whatever it is, the key concept to naming or characterizing your mental illness is that represents something outside of yourself and your own head.
As I have continued using this technique, I have found three major benefits for my mental health using this practice that may help you:
It’s not you, it’s definitely them
When a symptom strikes, there’s always the thought of “Why are you like this?”, “Why can’t you be ‘normal’?”, and for those who have been dealing with their condition for longer periods of time, “Why have you not ‘gotten over’ this yet?”. There is a great deal of internalized shame when you deal with mental illness, but once you allow your mental illness to be an external problem, your mental illness is the issue, not that you are literally the issue.
2. Your mental illness is mobile
When you are constantly thinking that you and your mental illness are hand in hand, it is difficult to see yourself as ever being free from it. But, once your mental illness is externalized, your mental illness is allowed to “take a walk” in a sense. With a mobile mental illness, you then can become more aware of when your mental illness is ‘in’ or ‘out’ and can predict triggers, times, and situations that affect the likelihood of your mental illness being ‘in’.
3. It changes the power complex
As I have touched on previously, your mental illness being embodied in something separate from yourself puts you in the driver’s seat. You are the controller, not the pawn of your life. Though in weak moments this power can be hard to muster, putting a name to your mental illness and building your relationship to your mental illness in this structure will help you cope more easily during those dark times.
My last message to readers is that if you or someone you know suffers with mental illness, share this technique. I am no psychologist, doctor, life coach, or an inspiration-guru by any means, but I believe in the power of peers helping peers. If naming your anxiety Ted or seeing your Bipolar disorder as a tiny horse helps you see the world more positively and see your condition in a more positive light, more power to you.
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