A lot can be learned in a quarter-century. Much of what we learn through school or work is beneficial. But what we teach ourselves can often be detrimental. Since an early age, I’ve experienced intrusive and unwanted thoughts and learned how to perpetuate and worsen these mental health challenges I was facing. Now, I’m on a journey to un-learn old patterns and re-wire my brain to support my self-growth and development. Here are some things I’ve learned during the past 25 years.
Let it be and let it go. A quote attributed to psychiatrist Carl Jung is “What you resist persists”. It is understandable to want to avoid any thought, image, or feeling that gives you fear or anxiety – I did this for many decades. But when you resist something, it tells your brain that this thought, image, or feeling has meaning, and you will find that it comes back over and over again. Try a different approach. Try to just let things be the way they are as they appear in your mind. Acknowledge. Embrace. Let go. Repeat. As you give these thoughts and feelings less of your time and attention, you begin devoid them of the meaning that they seek. Over time the wonderful supercomputer on top of your head (your brain) will learn and send you fewer of these stressful thoughts. No matter how crazy, ridiculous, or scary this might seem, you may find that when you embrace what troubled you in the past, it might get easier. Storms always pass, even the darkest ones.
You are not your mind! We have anywhere between 6,000-60,000 thoughts per day. That’s a lot. Imagine running 60,000 regressions – what strange results we would get (for those not trained in the dark arts of econometrics, what I’m trying to say is that crazy shit will happen). In the “Power of Now”, spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle encourages readers to dis-identify from the mind and simply watch it. What this means is that you are not the endless, ceaseless stream of thoughts and mental images that your mind is providing you. You are the observer. Imagine sitting on a porch outside your house. You don’t know what is going to happen on the street. Vehicles might pass by, of different shapes, colors, fuel efficiency, and capacity for noise. People may walk by – some may be your neighbors, others strangers, and others skaters. Squirrels, mosquitos, ants, birds, cats may all enter your line of sight. What comes before you is uncertain. Don’t let it take you over. Instead, sit on the porch, simply watch everything happen, and once it’s out of your peripheral vision, it’s gone.
You are the captain of your ship! The one thing you control is how much attention, time, and effort you dedicate to your thoughts. For decades, I spent hours upon hours every day stuck in my mind, spending scarce resources battling my thoughts. Not only was I miserable during these periods, but I was SO drained. I had no energy left for life. The more you embrace your troubles and simply watch your mind, the easier it is to move past stress. The less time you spend battling with your mind (spoiler: this is a losing battle!), the more time you have to engage more fully and presently with the world.
Call bullshit on the stories you made up. I think this is one of the MOST important determinants of our overall health that goes un-noticed. What are the stories that are swirling around in your mind all day? What narratives are you telling yourself about who you are and how you relate to the world? For decades, I told myself a story that I was a terrible person. Every day I would berate and hate myself. I believed it. No amount of reassurance from self or others was able to break this vicious cycle. My body was listening and it was no surprise I became physically ill. By reading spiritual books and going through therapy, I learned these stories are just stories I made up. They’re not truths. I called bullshit on my stories. Everything started to change after that.
Seek discomfort. This phrase is my phone background. I remind myself multiple times each day to seek discomfort. We all have a choice to either retreat to familiarity, or actively seek the discomfort we feel. Be in tune with your emotions and observe how you feel in different situations. Instead of avoiding the discomfort you feel in certain situations, actively seek to understand why you are uncomfortable and treat this discomfort as an opportunity to grow.
Not everything is a problem you need to fix. If you find yourself “over-thinking”, ask yourself: what problem are you trying to solve? For decades, I was trying to solve every problem I came across, change external circumstances, and change the behavior of people in my life. No wonder my mind was always running! It was trying to help me “fix” these “problems”. The more you try to resist reality and try to change external circumstances and other people, the more stress and pressure you put on yourself. Let go of this impossible burden of changing everything, everyone, and making life “perfect”. Accept things just as they are, not the way you want them to be.
Change yourself before you change the world. Related to the previous point on overthinking, my entire life, I’ve tried to change everyone and everything around me. This includes my family and friends, human behavior in general, and literally the entire planet having worked on climate change for almost a decade! Not only were most of my attempts futile, but I ignored my miserable internal reality. Over time, this led to a physical and mental health crisis which led me to take a 2-year pause from my PhD. Only now am I flipping the script – focus on myself first, then everything else. As Eckhart Tolle says, “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.”
Don’t fall prey to the “I’ll be happy when” syndrome. This one is SO common. I’ve been doing it my entire life. I’ve thought when I achieved something, I’ll be happy. Some examples: “When I publish this paper, I’ll be happy”; “When I get a job, I’ll be happy”; “When someone responds to my texts, I’ll be happy”; “When I buy this shirt, I’ll be happy”; “When the premier league starts again, I’ll be happy”. And on and on. If these things didn’t happen, I was miserable immediately. But when they did happen, I happy for five minutes, but soon became miserable again! Forget about the outcome. Try to enjoy the process of whatever you do. If you aren’t enjoying what you are doing, try something else until you find what brings you enjoyment regardless of the outcome.
Meditation is not about stopping your thoughts. Let me say that again. Meditation is not about stopping your thoughts. It’s about acknowledging them, letting them be, non-judgmentally letting them go, and returning to your anchor (commonly, your breath). It doesn’t matter how long you were away thinking about something. Could be 10 seconds. Could be 1 minute. Could be 5 minutes. I find my mind wandering for more than 10 minutes WHILE I’m meditating. That’s ok. Once you realize, you return to the anchor. That is victory. Realizing that you’re wandering and returning to presence. Doesn’t matter how long it takes. Every time you return to the anchor and return to presence, a flower blooms in nature (this might not be scientifically accurate, but sounds right!).
Forget about being selfless. Be selfish. Be very selfish. If you are selfless, you end up having none of your self to give to others! For decades, I thought the goal was to be “selfless” and help others all the time. It wasn’t sustainable. They say that you can’t pour from an empty cup; not only was my cup empty, but it had holes in it! Forget about being selfless. Be selfish. Be very selfish. Take time for yourself and do the things that make you happy. You’ll find you have more of yourself to give to others when you give to yourself first.
10 thoughts on “Lessons learned from 25 years of mental health challenges”
Thank you for sharing! These are valuable lessons and give me a helpful starting place as I do my own un-learning.
Thank you so much Janya for the kind words and your reflection. I really appreciate it! Look forward to learning more from your journey 🙂
Thank you for all you shared and congratulations on your courage to do so!
I also suffered from depression during my phd and also later on until i was diagnosed with atypical depression and was prescribed a treatment that helped.
But I never had the courage to speak about it openly at my phd/postdoc work place as I feel I would looked at as being less capable than what I was meant to…
I was curious to ask something about what you mentioned in another piece that you were diagnosed with OCD. Would it be possible for you to share a bit about that manifested in your life, and whether it was related to perfectionism? (I am asking as I am a perfeccionist myself and sometimes wonder if it may be some sort of OCD..)
Wishing you the very best!
Hi Miriam! Thanks so much for reading the piece, writing a comment, and for your kind words! Good to hear your treatment has helped. Would be more than happy to chat with you about how OCD manifested in my life. Here is my email: M.Bangalore@lse.ac.uk. Look forward to chatting! -Mook
Love your article. It reflects so much courage, insight and thoughtfulness. Whoever reads it will find something they can identify with and find it helpful. Thank you for writing this article. Vasudev Makhija, President, SAMHIN
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Thanks so much Doc for the kind words! I really appreciate it and thanks for being a big part of my journey!
Your article was very insightful you may like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. That’s where you accept the present situation as it is and take the next step right step. It’s not analyzing the past or future but staying in the present. Thank you and I’d be happy to chat anytime.
Hi Stephanie, thanks so much for taking the time to read the blog and leave a comment! I’ve been in the mode of analyzing the past & the future my entire life, what you write about ACT seems very appealing. Would love to learn more – my email is email@example.com Thanks! -Mook
It’s very brave of you to share your journey with all of us Mook. I am also a PhD student working in environment and development, and find your research works very impressive. My PhD has also been a struggle throughout, possibly in different ways, but all I’ve learned is one shouldn’t give up on their dreams. It’s easy to fall by the wayside and let “life” take over, but it’s worth it to carry on, even if silently.
Wish you all the best for your future and hope to connect with you at some point to discuss climate change and development 🙂
Hi Raavi! Thanks so much for your comment and kind words. It sounds like your phd journey has cultivated a resilient spirit within – wonderful accomplishment and life skill :). Happy to chat – my email is M.Bangalore@lse.ac.uk 🙂