Ways to Function Under Stress

Thoughts on Mental Self-Care for our Generation | Part II

In my last piece, I shared my experience with going to therapy and using it, not only as a tool for healing, but also a tool for empowerment. Throughout this time, I noticed a variety of cognitive dissonances and misperceptions in my approach to day-to-day life. On a micro-level, it was interesting to recognize when and how I was being unreasonable towards my own mental strength and capacity. On a macro-level, I developed a new appreciation for how millennials have collectively navigated the mental health space and matured within a perilously hyper-connected world. I’m very much still figuring out how to best take care of myself for health, productivity, and fulfillment. In the meantime, here are some findings that I’ve formulated so far — not necessarily from original thinking but through personal experience — that I’ve found to be particularly powerful.

1. Stop compartmentalizing or linearizing yourself as a human being.

One of the first dissonances my therapist called out was my tendency to approach objectives with an all-or-nothing mentality. I had a pattern of setting a particular goal, going “all” in to meet it, expectedly stumbling along the way, but then — instead of accepting slip-ups and continuing incrementally towards the goal — giving up and reverting to old habits, derailing any progress compounded up until that point. Way too much of my young adult life has been this yo-yo action: all, nothing, all, nothing, hyper-motivation, hyper-demotivation. There’s also a mental fallacy that if you put in m amount of effort for x amount of time, you must be able to get y output because y=mx, obviously. The assumption behind both mentalities is that one is able to neatly trifurcate mind, emotion, and body simply because one thinks it. What a lovely concept. And a pipe dream. This assumption only makes sense if we were robots with our minds downloaded into perfectly engineered robot bodies. Without such neat separation, every thought and action is influenced by interconnected physical, mental, and emotional factors. Therefore, it’s a bit ridiculous to maintain such strict expectations of one’s mental strength without accounting for emotional and physical influences (well maybe if you’re a sociopath and therefore devoid of emotion, which explains why sociopaths are often so high-functioning #sherlock). It’s great to get into the hustle and “rise and grind,” but maybe also to breathe and feel things, because again, not robots. By understanding your variances as an internally rich human being (~we are all made of starstuff~), you give yourself the ability to sustainably accomplish your goals through consistency and grit, rather than sporadic spurts of motivation. How often did you actually retain the information you crammed the night before an exam after taking it? Were you able to keep off the weight you lost from crash dieting? Did that business idea actually become a reality after the initial excitement wore off?

2. Consider headspace management as an alternative to time or energy management.

Time management is not a new concept. I’ve also heard of people thinking in terms of energy management — prioritizing tasks and activities based on what gives them energy versus what takes energy away. Being in my own head a lot, I’ve found a third approach to be helpful for prioritizing activities — headspace management. Headspace is as valuable as time — it’s limited and easily squandered on less meaningful tasks. To optimize my headspace, I’ve tried to make it a point to offload thinking about subjects that excessively occupied my mind and caused stress. For instance, I’ll defer to an app or trainer for a workout plan rather than trying to consistently plan them myself — all I’d have to do is show up and listen. Another example is that I try to take an hour each Sunday to block out and plan my entire next 1.5 weeks (I prefer 1.5 to 1 week, so that Mondays don’t catch me by surprise), considering all milestones, projects, and tasks. That way during the upcoming week, Tuesday Amber can trust what Sunday Amber planned and just do what she says, saving some headspace from day-to-day “operational” planning. Consideration of headspace has also impacted where I choose to spend money. Sure, buying x number of pre-prepped meals is more expensive than buying the ingredients myself to cook. But the time and headspace I saved that would’ve gone into planning the meals, purchasing the food, then preparing the meals? Priceless aka totally worth the extra money for me.

3. Recognize what skews your perception of time.

How is it that days feel so long, but weeks/months/years fly by? Though the passing of time is linear, our perception of it is not. I’ve been experimenting with slowing down time by learning to tolerate it, specifically the time in transit or between distinct moments. For instance, if I’m waiting for transportation, rather than mindlessly scrolling down my Instagram feed, I’ll put my phone away to deliberately observe my surroundings. I’ve realized that literally the minute I put my phone away after distributing likes across my social media feeds, I won’t even remember the majority of what I just spent minutes (or even hours) of my time emptily consuming. Time passed, but I have nothing to show for it. The present totally just skipped right to the past. So, I try to be present by tolerating vacancy and embracing pause, taking them as opportunities to breathe and slow down time. Another key thing is to recognize escapism vs restoration. Everyone needs leisure time to decompress, but how are you using that time? Are you using it to truly restore and rejuvenate yourself for diving back into your work, or are you trying to escape your reality? Restorative activities could be catching up with friends, cooking a home-made meal, or working out. Some escapist activities include playing video games, drinking, and smoking. Now, there’s definitely no moral label on any of these activities. Everyone needs to both restore and escape reality at different times. The key is to be cognizant of the balance between the two. Consistently engaging in escapism can lead to feelings of emptiness or stagnation in the long-term. Tbh, can’t really think of any repercussions for consistently engaging in restoration (except for maybe being annoyingly righteous and no fun), but it’s unrealistic to hold a person to such an absolute standard of how to live life (see Finding 1).

4. Appreciate memes.

I am completely serious when I say that I believe memes are one of the greatest contributions to society from our generation. Why do we love memes so much? Why can people build entire online brands by curating memes for mass consumption? Why has tagging a friend in memes become a significant indicator of the level of that friendship? Because by relating to a meme, you realize that someone out there gets you. Someone out there relates and shares your quirks, flaws, and/or idiocy. Usually, it’s thousands or millions who get you per meme. Is that kind of connection not what all humans seek at the end of the day? Memes have made it cool to own up to our shortcomings and voice our struggles. We derive validation and comfort from knowing that we are not alone, weird, or psychotic (or knowing that everyone is actually all of those things). Like, how does Arthur’s fist embody my internal complexities so much more eloquently than actual words?? Amazing!!! Memes are a language we can use to openly communicate traditionally difficult topics, such as stress and insecurity. They’re almost therapeutic in their ease of relatability and dissemination, gratifying in their pithy brilliance, wholly conceived and evolved by our generation for our generation. Ugh, genius.

Preach

Where humans find meaning and joy hasn’t changed since the beginning of time. At the end of the day, humans still value relationships, acceptance, purpose, and autonomy. The difference is the world we live in, and therefore the ways we have to go about pursuing those things in a landscape only increasing in complexity, pace, and confusion. How could we not feel lost or overwhelmed sometimes? Who cares if we’re called lazy, coddled, or entitled snowflakes by older generations (never mind that it’s a bit ridiculous to pinpoint millennials anyways, given that we were raised by and have been passed on a world constructed by said generations, but I digress). These are the societal cards we’ve been dealt, and we need to take ownership of how we navigate forward. Solutions are progressively catching up to the problems as millennials increasingly shape companies and consumer markets that are making mental health benefits, services, and products more commonplace, but there’s still significant progress to be made. In the meantime, only you (and the friend that tagged you in that meme) can truly understand yourself and take the action to give yourself what you need.

Do not be afraid of prioritizing self-care. Understand that you are a wholesome, complicated, nuanced human being and not a robot engineered to meet a set of expectations. Understand that your headspace is a precious resource and should be treated as such. Be thoughtful in how you take breaks. Indulge in some memes. Because really, we’re fine. This is fine.

:3
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