Forming Habits while Struggling with Mental Health

The discomfort of struggling with mental health can bring about strong desperation for change. When searching for ways to feel better, the top recommendations are often lifestyle habits that can feel utterly impossible when the mere act of getting out of bed is overwhelming. What is often overlooked is the difference in creating change when we are struggling with mental health.

I often held myself accountable to the recommendations and expectations generated for those with stable mental health, placing me on an unfair playing field, ultimately setting myself up for disappointment. 

Willpower is suggested to play a role in habit formation but its depleting nature is the crux for those suffering with mental illness. Willpower levels are high at the start of the day and usually depletes with every decision thereafter (to reach for a cookie or apple; to reply to emails rather than check your phone). That is why it is recommended to do the things with the most resistance at the start of the day to take advantage. However, when struggling with mental illness, willpower can be depleted within the first hour of your day simply from getting up, daily hygiene, and nourishment. For me, some days it has taken all my willpower just to set one foot out of bed. This can be difficult and a constant conflict between the deep desire to change— knowing how to but feeling stuck in implementing these changes. This cycle can lead to hopelessness, which I would cast as the most powerful villain if my life was a graphic novel.

So how do we break this cycle?

First, be aware that it is a different playing field 

When consuming self-help or researching habit formation, question if these findings or suggestions take into consideration the mental state and ability you are currently experiencing. Be honest and kind to yourself about the state you are in and whether it is fair to expect the same standards for your situation. Think about it similarly to how those with a broken bone undergo a completely different prescribed exercise regimen than recommended for the general public. 

Second, break the recommendations down 

When you come across a list of how to climb out of depression or anxiety and the lifestyle changes seem impossible, break it down. If one thing you want to tackle is better nutrition, make that goal smaller, specific, and more digestible for you. Change it to eating more fruit, or drinking an extra glass of water a day. Still feel overwhelming? Break it down some more, change the suggestion to eating at least one fruit a day, or carrying a water bottle with you wherever you go. If the recommendation is 30 minutes a day, start with 5 minutes. Try to focus only on one goal at a time and make it as small as you need. 

And plan for your lowest peak 

Usually, when we make goals, we are in a high-motivation state of mind where anything seems possible with high energy and loads of time. In reality, these states are not long-lasting. With this discrepancy, our goals often seem too big when it comes time to put them to action. So, make goals that fit your lowest peak: moments of low motivation and lack of time so that habits stay consistent. Consistency is more vital in your habit formation than the number of things you do. 

Third, don’t beat yourself up for making small changes

Long-lasting changes are small and slow. Our bodies are wired to keep coming back to homeostasis—back to the same habits, states of mind, and coping mechanisms. Therefore, true long-lasting change is small and slow. This can feel disheartening when all you want is to feel better. I certainly felt this way and sometimes still catch myself discouraged by how much farther I have to go. In Martha Beck’s book The Way of Integrity she says, 

“Positive transformation happens more quickly when we do it in small steps rather than heroic leaps.” 

On this podcast, she speaks about the power of one degree turns using the metaphor of the airplane—if there is a long flight ahead, and every half hour the plane turns one degree to the right it will never feel like it is turning very far but you will end up in a completely different place. It is important not to discredit the power of small changes.

This way of looking at habit formation is a lot kinder and will not only help in looking forward but also looking back at the progress made. Instead of focusing on the lack of big changes you have formed, you will be more cognizant and appreciative of the smaller steps and changes made, knowing the power they hold. It is courageous to utilize the discomfort of mental illness as fuel for change and even more courageous to guide that change with kindness and patience. As always, if you are currently struggling and would like to talk to someone about it, book a session with Vent Over Tea!

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