I am not a doctor. Nor do I work in a psychiatric hospital, as a school psychologist, or in another of the myriad formal settings in which mental illness study takes place.
Rather, I identify with a different cohort. A cohort, I believe, equally qualified to offer educated perspectives on mental illness and its various treatment options. One that can be aptly categorized as those with firsthand experience with mental illness.
As someone who is diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, I tend to steer away from the term “sufferer,” although my intention is not to undermine the suffering that mental illness brings about.
Of course there is suffering, quite often, each and every day. It is inevitable. To acknowledge the suffering is a deliberate, positive action that brings to light the experience of individuals with mental illness. It momentarily puts ourselves in their shoes to better understand their experience.
To identify as a sufferer, on the other hand, is an entirely different scenario. When we call ourselves sufferers, it becomes a part of our identity. Our selves become intertwined with our pain and negative experiences, making it harder to distance ourselves and grow from them. Sadly, this becomes akin to victimization.
Which is why it is important to acknowledge our suffering without identifying with it. Maintaining your identity apart from mental illness is crucial to regaining your mental health. Only then can we make genuine progress.
Does that make sense? Hopefully so!
Now that we understand the importance of not identifying with mental illness, we can start taking action to move forward from it.
This is where medication, therapy, and other treatment options come in. Now, I’d like to preface this discussion by acknowledging that many, many individuals do find relief from medication. Medications do have marked effects on psychological state and often are able to eliminate symptoms.
For some individuals, medication is the best option. Perhaps they have exhausted all other treatment options to no avail, or perhaps the hormonal imbalance in their brain (or whichever abnormal physiological state is causing their illness) is so severe that medication is the only treatment option.
Excellent! I will not disparage their positive experience with medicative treatment. However, this article is not about them. It is about everyone else, for whom medication seems a perpetually imperfect, often troublesome endeavor — perhaps they turn to medication simply at their doctor’s suggestion, or they pursue it as a last resort. Or maybe, they are unaware that they have other options.
Whatever your story, I understand the extensive implications of taking medication, such as antidepressants and anxiolytics. Antidepressants in particular have a broad range of unpleasant side effects, such as nausea, headaches, diarrhea, vomiting, insomnia, dizziness, fatigue, loss of libido, vivid nightmares, excessive sweating, dry mouth, weight gain, and a severe dulling of positive emotions.
Furthermore, antidepressant use can lead to an increased tolerance to these drugs over time, leading individuals to increase the dosage, further exacerbating uncomfortable side effects.
So while medication can effectively treat symptoms, it brings with it a host of new, sometimes worse, symptoms.
Which leads me to medication-free treatment. Treating mental illness without medication is by no means simple, but it can be extremely rewarding. It requires maintaining consistent balance amongst various lifestyle factors — nutrition, diet, exercise, social life, emotional wellbeing, relationships — and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
In fact, there are various ways in which one might pursue such a balance without medication. What works for someone else, might not work for you. What didn’t work for someone else might be precisely the solution you need.
Be open-minded. Be adaptable. Change your plan as needed. Constantly evaluate your progress. Find out what’s working, what’s not.
Once you adopt this positive growth mindset, get down to business and start experimenting. There are various lifestyle factors to address, and an endless combination of how to prioritize them, but the most effective way to find your unique plan is by trial-and-error.
Learn through experimentation. Experiment, assess, adapt.
Nutrition and Diet
First and foremost, take a critical look at your nutrition habits. Are you eating whole grains, fruits, veggies, and lean fats? Are you hydrating properly? Or are you skipping meals, eating processed foods and getting most of your nutrients from prepared foods wrapped in plastic?
Be honest with yourself and consider what a nutritionist would think about your diet. Most people know what to eat for a healthy, balanced diet, yet many don’t translate that knowledge into action. Perhaps they don’t know how to cook healthy meals, or maintain proper caloric intake.
Certain vitamins and nutrients have a crucial relationship with mental health. Yes, that’s correct. Malnutrition and highly processed foods exacerbate psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and mood instability. Like any other organ, your brain needs proper nutrition in order to be healthy.
When you starve it of proper nutrients and wholesome foods, it malfunctions. You feel restless and anxious. You experience mood swings, hopelessness, and depression. Happiness becomes a distant memory. You get it. Eat right, feel better.
Physical Activity and the Outdoors
It is hardly a surprise that getting outdoors and being physically active is beneficial to mental health. A myriad of studies have been published in recent years stating that both being outdoors and being physically active (independently or together) triggers the release of endorphins and increased production of dopamine and serotonin.
Endorphins are often known as “happy hormones,” while serotonin and dopamine play a crucial role in anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and clinical depression.
Several medications that target depression and anxiety disorders play directly on boosting free serotonin and dopamine in the brain. In other words, going for a run at the park could have a similar effect on the brain as taking Prozac or Zoloft.
It’s better to get vitamins from natural food sources than a pill, so isn’t it better to get a serotonin boost from natural brain activity than an antidepressant?
Social Life and Relationships
A Harvard study has followed 724 men throughout their lives since 1938, tracking their mood and wellness, quality of life, and overall happiness. The purpose of the study is to uncover the secret to a happy life.
What the authors have found is that relationships are the single most important factor in one’s happiness. Supportive, healthy relationships with lovers, children, friends, parents, and family members have an invaluable impact on one’s overall life satisfaction. Likewise, toxic and abusive relationships take years off your life.
A study from the New York Times has found similar results in patients with mental illness. According to the authors, social interaction and a positive, engaging social life is crucial to maintaining mental health. Health socialization reduces anxiety and depression and naturally boosts your mood.
So prioritize your friends, family, and loved ones. Socializing isn’t only enjoyable, it’s good for you and your mental health. Likewise, be deliberate about ridding your life of toxic friendships and abusive relationships — they will sap the life out of you, leaving you feeling drained and exhausted.
Using Music to Improve Mood and Happiness
Another technique that can potentially improve mental health symptoms is known as binaural beats therapy. It is a form of soundwave therapy that uses musical tones at particular frequencies to arouse certain physiological reactions in brain.
Most often, the triggered physiological reaction involves boosting serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins — the hormones necessary for a positive state of mind.
Binaural beats have been published widely on Youtube, as well as various other websites. Each audio is intended to induce particular brain frequencies, thus having a particular effect on the brain: relaxing, stimulating, meditative, deep sleep-inducing, etc.
There are audio clips for depression, social anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, phobias, self-consciousness, and several others. Personally, I find them beneficial to listen to for 15–30 minutes daily.
Aesthetics and Creativity
Lastly, aesthetics is one of the most-neglected human needs. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, humans have a distinct aesthetic need for the presence of beauty, such as in art or nature.
It is no secret that humans enjoy beauty. Beautiful people, beautiful scenery, beautiful artwork. While some prefer to soak up the beautiful aesthetic of nature in its trees, sunsets, and birdsongs, others prefer to visit an art museum. For me, I like to work facing the window, with the shades wide open. Whenever my mind wanders, I look up from my laptop and I’m greeted by green grass rippling in the wind, and leaves rustling on the trees.
Whatever works for you, devote time to it. Preferably each day, even if only for 10 minutes. A 10-minute walk in the park, or a 10-minute classical music session. Maybe you decorate your office with artwork and soak it up all day long. Aesthetics matter, and they play a significant role in boosting mental health.
Finding Your Balance
What I want you to take away from this article is that mental illness treatment is complex, multifaceted, and unique for each individual. Personally, I am still designing my ideal plan to treat OCD unmedicated, and while it isn’t easy, I feel optimistic and I am making progress consistently.
I am constantly adapting, and even when it feels like I’ve been knocked way off-track, I know it’s only a matter of time before I find my way back. My hope for myself is that I will achieve an effective, consistent treatment plan and never have to depend on antidepressants again. My hope for you is that you stay positive, experiment freely, and always keep in mind the following words of wisdom:
Straight roads do not make skillful drivers.