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I was very young when I began to experience mental health problems. As a small child, I was often depressed, lonely and felt very unloved and misunderstood. That may be in part because I am autistic, but I suspect it has a lot more to do with the fact that narcissistic abuse has likely stained my family tree for centuries. I was 13 years old when I saw my first shrink and it was likely already a decade late. I remember suffering feelings of emptiness, loneliness and stress as a child.
I’m sort of a lifer when it comes to therapy and striving to improve my mental health. I went to a therapist for several years as a teen and again in my mid-twenties. My second attempt was much more useful than my first and I finally built a strong foundation of self-love and a number of tools I used to keep my distorted thinking, anxiety and depression at bay. It wasn’t until I developed chronic illness that I needed help balancing my chemicals.
Despite all the work I’d done to reject the codependency I grew up in and reshape my mind, I found myself struggling when my disability became severe enough to rob me of a life and career outside the home in 2008. Between the deep sense of loss I suffered and the onset of dysautonomia and MCAS, my old bag of mental health tricks crumbled. It felt like I was back at square one and I was suffering worse than ever before.
My mental health diagnoses include chronic depression, complex PTSD, anxiety, attachment disorder and should include ASD. I’ve also suffered such distorted thinking that I became paranoid and felt intensely alone. There were days, weeks, even months when I was convinced my husband couldn’t bear me and was planning to leave me. I was a total mess.
Since dysautonomia, MCAS and gastroparesis can cause anxiety and depression due to their impact on balancing our homes and affect the central nervous system, I was hit with a level of depression and anxiety I had never experienced before.
In this post, we’ll talked about addressing anxiety and depression through natural methods. Yes, there are many drugs a doctor or psychiatrist can prescribe, but as many know, it can take between 6 and 12 tries to find the right drug. If you’re like me, you may never find the right one. Psych meds either exacerbate the problems I’m trying to remedy or make me feel like an emotionless automaton.
Most importantly, these things are not your fault! The brain is wired to repeat traumatic experiences and how we are treated and cared for as children can have especially devastating consequences. With today’s issues around nutrition-loss in modern day foods and diets, it’s very easy for our brain chemistry to get out of whack, even if we’ve never experienced a traumatic event. This is doubly-true for anyone with chronic illness.
Not only is the blame game completely unnecessary, it’s really unhelpful. Harboring resentments about becoming mentally ill (which is just another form of chronic illness of the body) are unproductive and can hinder the important work we need to do to heal.
The strategies I’ll be laying out in this post have none of those complications, but it can take a little time to see improvements. Luckily, they happen gradually and even better, you’re in the driver’s seat, because you know best whether or not you’re seeing improvement. Let’s begin with ways we can improve these symptoms through addressing key chemical imbalances you may be experiencing.
Medication and Supplement Changes for Improved Mental Health
If you do have chronic illness, it can definitely complicate issues of mental health. It’s important to understand that with conditions like dysauntonomia, MCAS, and likely many others can make it difficult to achieve the proper chemical balance we need to maintain positive mental health. It doesn’t make it impossible: However, treating these conditions and keeping them under control can go a long way to improving things. Interestingly, everything I’ve done has improved both my mental and physical health.
- If you have dysuatonomia, be sure to supplement your electrolytes appropriately. This, and all of my recommendations moving forward, should be discussed with your doctor first. Remember, I am not a doctor and my advice does not constitute medical advice. However, I’ve had great success with Oral Rehydration Salts, which you can read about here.
- If you have a mast cell activation disorder such as MCAS, MCS, histamine overload or mastocytosis, it’s important to keep your reactions down and your histamine well controlled. Mast cells are responsible for regulating the chemicals that help us resist depression and anxiety. For tips on how to do this, this post is chock-full of possible medicinal and other therapeutic strategies.
- Another thing which can help to reduce anxiety is CBD Oil, but you have to choose the right one. These CBD Oils by EmeraldLeaf are what I take for pain relief, added relaxation and many other spoonie needs.
- Finally, it’s important to understand that many chronic illnesses, most especially autoimmune and neurological disorders can also affect mast cell dysfunction, so exploring this topic can be very useful to explore.
There are also a number of deficiencies that can affect our ability to achieve a positive mindset free from anxiety and depression. Many of these are not monitored regularly in our yearly exams. Working with your doctor for testing is ideal. For many of us, simply trying a small dose of these nutrients to see if you experience improvement is also a workable strategy.
- Magnesium – Not only helpful for muscle cramps, migraines and other forms of chronic pain, magnesium also plays an important role in mental health. It should be supplemented regularly. Taking the right forms of magnesium can help to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression, provide mental clarity and better concentration. Life Extension Neuro-Mag is one such product.
- L-Theanine – Helps increases the synthesis of G ABA. Increased GABA, in turn, increases brain levels of dopamine and serotonin, resulting in general feelings of calm and well-being. An average dose of theanine ranges from 50mg-200 and some people require as much as 800mg per day to achieve full improvement. It is also a nootropic and can increase cognition and focus, as well as aiding in sleep. I use Purisure’s powdered version so I can raise or lower my dosage as necessary.
- Of course you can also take GABA directly, however I have witnessed personally how much better it works to support synthesis instead. Still, every person if different. This is the GABA brand I used to take before realizing Theanine was a better strategy for me. DO NOT TAKE BOTH GABA AND THEANINE TOGETHER!
- Glutathione – Supplementing Glutathione can also be very helpful. Glutathione neutralizes free radicals, which in turn helps reduce chronic inflammation and prevent cell damage. Without healthy levels of glutathione, oxidative stress can build and possibly lead to depression or other mental disorders. Bipolar disorder and psychosis have been linked to low levels of glutathione in studies. The best way to supplement Glutathione is to take N-Acetyl Cystein, alpha lipoic acid, vitamin C and selenium, which will provide the building blocks for producing your own glutathione in sufficient amounts.
- Acetylcholine – Decreased Acetylcholine production can also increase our anxiety levels, cause mental confusion (brain fog) and affect our central nervous system. Much like glutathione, the best way to support acetylcholine production is to take the building blocks that will allow your body to make your own. To achieve this, take acetyl-l-carnitine, thiamine and huperzine A.
If all of this feels a little overwhelming, not to mention expensive, my recommendation is always to begin with one thing at a time and add on as necessary. Consider what you need to address most and begin there. Once you’re at the right dose for you, consider if additional help might be needed. If you aren’t seeing any success with one type, you can also discontinue it and try another. For me, supplementing my glutathione and acetylcholine production, along with taking magnesium and l-theanine seems to provide me with everything I need to experience little to no anxiety or depression. Of course, this can be different for everyone, so try to be patient and take your time finding the right combination for you.
Other Techniques for Improving Anxiety & Depression
To heal and maintain positive mental health going forward, we must go beyond treating these chemical imbalances (which we’ll come back to), it’s important that you address any codependency, distorted thinking, or other unhealthy habits that work to exacerbate your symptoms.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Codependency and Distorted Thinking are only a few issues tied to abuse and how we incorporate the scripts our abusers used to manipulate and control us. I had to address both through talk therapy and cognitive behavioral techniques I learned through individual exercises I still utilize today.
For example, here’s a great exercise to help you identify patterns of distorted thinking and see them for what they are, so we can begin to eliminate them.
While working with a therapist is probably my number 1 recommendation, there are a variety of ways you can work on these issues alone. Buying workbooks like those I got these exercises from is a great way to get started. I always learn things from these books. Here are a few that I’ve read or completed and recommend:
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond – 2nd Edition – By Judith Beck
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple: 10 Strategies for Managing Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Panic, and Worry
- 10 Days to Self Esteem by David D. Burns, MD
There are many, many workbooks to help with a variety of issues. For example, if you or your homelife was/is affected by chemical dependency, you could try one of the workbooks listed on Amazon for:
No matter the situation, you should be able to find a workbook to fit your situation. There are also many great books that can help introduce you to the basic concepts and known issues that arise from physical, sexual or mental abuse, grief and loss, and a wide variety of mental health disorders.
Another psychological tool that’s been invaluable to me is practicing mindfulness meditation. Meditating can be tricky for people with anxiety, but mindfulness meditation, in which you are asked to concentrate on something rather than nothing, is usually much more attainable. It sounds complex, but it really isn’t. You just have to choose an easy task—crafts, arts, coloring, a guided meditation, tapping, gentle exercise or simple movements—and discourage any distractions or outside thoughts. Anytime you feel your mind wandering, you just observe the thought without judgement and bring your thoughts back to the task at hand.
With chronic illness it can get even more complicated. Most of us utilize mental blocks to help regulate our pain whether we’re conscious of it or not. Because of this, when we open ourselves fully in a meditative state, we get flooded with pain. Active (mindful) meditation is also good for this. The only case in which is might not be a good idea to sink too deeply is if you have a connective tissue disease where extreme relaxation could result in a dislocation or injury.
You can find a wide variety of apps, programs and websites to help you learn how, but I will also write about this in more detail, later. Here are a few great books on mindfulness and active meditation to get you started ,now.
- Meditation Interventions to Rewire the Brain: Integrating Neuroscience Strategies for ADHD, Anxiety, Depression & PTSD
- Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying
- Wake Up to the Joy of You: 52 Meditations and Practices for a Calmer, Happier Life
Deep Breathing Exercises
Another technique which sounds really simple, but often isn’t for people with anxiety and/or dysautonomia, is deep breathing. Deep breathing exercises are only helpful if you know how to utilize the technique and your central nervous system and muscles aren’t so locked that it’s physically impossible to take a good, deep breath. The 90/90 balloon exercise below will help you learn how to breathe deeply and will actually help you to build your core and helps to address several musculoskelital concerns:
Once you’ve been practicing the 90/90 for a little while taking a good, slow deep breathing exercises should no longer be a problem. When you begin to feel anxious taking several slow and measured breaths helps to switch the autonomic system and park it in rest mode.
Doing this several times a day can be very helpful in maintaining peace. Be sure when practicing breathing exercises that you’re engaging your diaphragm and most importantly, going very slow and steady so you don’t hyperventilate. You can try the breathing exercise below first to see if you need to practice the 90/90 exercises.
Anxiety and Depression Management Through Exercise
Exercise has many powerful attributes which are beneficial to spoonies, when done gently and with healthy consideration given to avoiding post-extertional malaise (PEM) and joint injury. Spoonies should exercise regularly despite pain and other problems unless your doctors tell you otherwise (for example people with NMH need to be evaluated before they take on exercise). It is important that you go slowly, pace yourself and protect your joints. For more information, visit these guides specific to POTS and EDS (the EDS one is probably good practical advice for most connective tissue disorders, but I would consult with your medical team to be sure.
Participating in a regular exercise program can improve overall mood by balancing hormones and raising endorphin levels, providing an overall feeling of wellbeing and happiness. It can improve sleep, something else which is essential for positive mental and physical health. Exercise can also help to loosen tight muscles and help us relax and feel less anxious. It can also help get things off of your mind, especially if you work to stay present and focused on the tasks at hand instead of letting your mind wander to less pleasant ideas.
The activity doesn’t necessarily have to be “exercise” in the traditional sense. Anything physical that gets your heart rate up a little, blood circulating through your body and good deep breaths into your lungs is a great way to combat anxiety and depression. If you prefer to take walks, hike, garden, bowl, canoe or rent paddle boats, go for it! So long as it’s safe for you to perform that activity (see the articles above for some tips).
Self-Care: Do What You Love
Spending time doing anything you enjoy is always a great way to turn around poor mental health and help you maintain positive mental health. Just consider, what makes you feel calm, but energetic? What makes you smile the most when you do it? Whether it’s spending time with friends and family, reading a book, taking in the fresh air and flowers at a nature preserve, practicing a sport, or working on crafts, make sure you leave room in your life to participate in this beloved activity.
One final thing we can do to help maintain positive mental health is to “check in” with ourselves regularly to reflect on how things are going. Ask yourself these questions:
- How do I feel today?
- Overall, how did I feel this week?
- What really bummed me out this week and what’s still on my mind?
- Could there be some distorted thinking attached to this problem? If so, do the work necessary to identify it and work toward new understanding of the issue.
- What other ways can I work to address these feelings?
- What did I enjoy most about my week?
- What did I do for self-care?
- What are my plans to meet my goals next week?
Just like psych meds, it can take time to find the right combination and dosage of supplements to improve your mental health. Once you do get to a place where you’re confident you’ve nipped these problems in the bud, you may need to occasional adjust your doses to accommodate new symptoms. And don’t be discouraged if a flare causes some instability. It doesn’t mean the supplements are no longer working. It means you might need a little more help than usual. Making adjustments are fairly normal.
It’s important to remember during these times that we have to do the work of changing our habits through cognitive behavioral therapy and other tools, as well as address any chemical imbalance at play.
I hope you’ve found these tips helpful and that they’ll have you on your way to addressing your own issues with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia! If you have additional suggestions, please share them with us in the comments! As always, thanks so much for reading! Please share this post on social media and let them know what you found most hopeful in this post. Sharing is caring.
References and Further Reading:
- University Health News – Supplements to Treat Anxiety and Depression Yourself
- Health Prep – How Daily Exercises Helps Mental Health
- Consumer Lab: Which Supplements Help with Depression and Anxiety
- Psychology Today – Cognitive Behavioral Techniques Work
- University of Michigan Health – Stress Management: Breathing Exercises for Relaxation
- PubMed: The Role of GABA in Anxiety Disorders
- The Sleep Doctor – Understanding GABA
- Ferguson, Sian. Magnesium for Anxiety. Healthline
- Lake, James, M.D. L-Theanine Reduces Symptoms of Anxiety. Psychology Today.