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Essays & Confessions / Mental Health In Quarantine

5 Important Lessons I Learned After 5 Years Of Therapy That Anyone Can Benefit From

By Friday, November 06, 2020

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of therapy: inpatient, outpatient, individual, group, CBT and DBT — you name it. It’s something I’ve put a lot of effort into, and the benefits have truly paid off.

When I started working with my first long-term therapist, I was terrified by the concept. Sit in a room with a stranger and talk about my feelings? No thank you. Truthfully, for the first six months, it was pretty uncomfortable. I was closed off and barely wanted to answer her questions. But over the years, I learned to appreciate the therapeutic relationship, whether with an individual counselor, group co-ordinator, or another mental health professional.

Now, I’m someone who relies on therapy as a major part of my treatment plan. In combination with medication, therapy has saved my life. I used to be in and out of mental health wards near-constantly, but I haven’t been hospitalized for over two years now. For that, I have to thank outpatient treatment.

Yet, my own personal history aside, I’m a firm believer that everyone could benefit from therapy. You don’t need to have a diagnosed mental illness to find value in the process — even if for just a few sessions.

“Personal history aside, I’m a firm believer that everyone could benefit from therapy. You don’t need to have a diagnosed mental illness to find value in the process.”

Just for clarity, I need to acknowledge that I’m aware therapy isn’t easily accessible to many people. Plus, it’s expensive. I’m fortunate enough to live in Canada where a lot of the therapy I’ve accessed has been covered by the government, but if you live somewhere like the United States and don’t have health insurance, it may be trickier (or rather, pricier), getting the proper help you need.

While I acknowledge that restrictions on access to treatment is both unfair and wrong, there are many practical lessons I’ve learned from therapy that I hope you’ll find useful even if you don’t have access to therapy right now. Not to mention, 2020 has been nothing if not a massive opportunity for putting our coping skills to the test.

Check them out below.

1. Boundaries are non-negotiable & they’re very necessary

When I first started therapy, I didn’t really have a good concept of boundaries. For instance, when it came to my mental health issues, I often thought that I should just pretend they didn’t exist and do everything that was expected of me, no matter what.

For example, if I really didn’t want to go to a family gathering, I would go anyway, because I felt pressured. After working with a therapist, I realized that my own needs mattered too, and if a certain environment or group of people made me feel really uncomfortable, it was within my rights to politely decline the invitation.

That’s just one example, and boundaries are valuable in pretty much any situation involving other people. Whether at home, in friendships, or in relationships, we all deserve to maintain boundaries. Having that level of self-awareness and courage to both recognize my limits and be vocal about them to other people, has been uncomfortable but well worth it. 

2. Self-care is not optional

I know, I know: the term #selfcare gets thrown around a lot these days. It’s used to describe anything from a fun workout class to a massive impulse purchase. But the concept itself is extremely valuable, and it’s another skill I’ve developed while in therapy.

You’ve probably heard the analogy: if you’re ever on a plane, and an emergnecy arises, it’s essential to put your oxygen mask on before aiding anyone else. Long story short, you can’t help others if you don’t help yourself. However overused, the lesson remains true, and we all deserve to fill our own cups up first. 

Self-care is a really individualized thing; it’s whatever brings you joy, helps you feel better, and benefits your well-being. As has been mentioned on TFD before, self-care doesn’t need to be expensive. Sure, I love to get a manicure to treat myself sometimes, but it’s not my only form of self-care. Free things I do for myself include: meditating, doing at-home yoga, going for walks, texting/calling a friend, or simply going to bed early. But you might enjoy cooking, riding your bike, or making a good cup of tea. 

As freelancer, I’ve learned the hard way that self-care isn’t optional, and it’s all too easy to burn out when you’re running a business by yourself and there’s no-one there to tell you when to take a break. I quickly realized that if I don’t invest the time to take care of myself, my productivity and quality of work will suffer eventually. Maybe not right away, but the fatigue always catches up to me. Making small efforts on a daily basis to find moments of joy — and taking time off when I need it — has been invaluable.

3. Planned social activities make a huge difference

As I mentioned in the previous point, deliberately making plans with my friends can be a massive act of self-care, and as an introvert, I know all too well how tempting it is (especially in quarantine) to just keep to myself and work away without ever really engaging with other people.

However, another lesson I learned in therapy is that it’s important to make a conscious effort to plan social activities, even if I’m not in the most sociable mood. And while quarantine life has made that process more difficult, it’s been more essential than ever.

So, I make a point of checking in with my friends throughout the week and, whenever our schedules allow, planning some phone calls, Zoom dates, or patio meet-ups (even if I’m not totally up to it). A lot of the time, dealing with my depression/anxiety means actively going against my urges, and social activities are no exception. My urge might be to become a hermit and never see another living soul again, but actively working against that has helped a lot.

“My urge might be to become a hermit, but actively working against that has helped a lot.”

4. Mindfulness is a lifesaver

If there is one skill that’s been the most useful from therapy, it’s probably mindfulness. I didn’t have a clue what mindfulness was when I started. But my therapist took one look at me — an anxious hot mess at the time, admittedly — and said, You should really take a mindfulness class.

So, I did. I took a mindfulness-based stress reduction (or MBSR) course, and it was a game-changer. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leader in the field, defines mindfulness as “The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” The program draws on many concepts from Zen Buddhism in a more secular way.

As someone with life-long depression and anxiety, the initial concept was inconceivable to me. The idea that I could live in a reality where I wasn’t obsessing over my anxieties about the future or ruminating on negative experiences from my past seemed impossible.

“As someone with life-long anxiety, the idea that I could live in a reality where I wasn’t obsessing over about the future or ruminating on my past negative experiences, seemed impossible.”

But through years of meditation and yoga, I’ve gradually become more in touch with the idea of simply living in the present moment, and it’s been transformative in the best way. 

Note: If you’re interested in MBSR but are on a budget, the website Palouse Mindfulness offers an entire 8-week online course for free. I’ve also found Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now, to be quite helpful (it’s pretty well-known, so it should be accessible at your local library).

5. Getting professional help should be normalized for everyone

As I touched on in the intro, something I’ve realized through doing so much therapy has been how useful it is for basically any and everyone. We all have to maintain our mental health, and access to therapy shouldn’t be limited to those of us who suffer from mental illness, only. We all deserve to feel heard; we all deserve the opportunity to have an objective third-party give us advice on how to manage our well-being. 

“Normalize therapy, normalize talking about your feelings and normalize taking care of yourself.”

Mercedes Killeen is a Toronto-based writer, editor, and social media marketer. You can learn more about her work, and read her blog, at mercedeskilleen.com.

Image via Unsplash

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