It's been three years since I've dined in the community room of a psych ward with some fellow depressives...trying to slice a piece of rubber turkey with a plastic knife while wondering what I had to do to get out of there. I would like very much not to return. I came up with these steps to help me. But they are good sanity tools even if you've never made it to the community room.
1. Keep a consistent rhythm.
I'm not talking about rap, or your tempo on the drums. I'm referring to your circadian rhythm, the internal biological clock which governs fluctuation in body temperature and the secretion of several hormones, including the evil one, cortisol.
Here is how you establish good rhythm that assists you with the whole sanity thing: you live a boring life.
You have to go to bed at the same time every night, and wake up at the same time. Preferably with the same person. You can't befriend Australians, or if you do, you can't visit them. Because travel, in general, and especially travel to different time zones, will throw off your circadian rhythm. During the fall and winter months, I stare into my HappyLite for an hour a day because, fragile creature that I am, my brain mourns the sunlight that it gets in the spring and summer.
Folks with seasonal affective disorder and bipolar disorder have to be especially careful to prevent disturbances in the circadian rhythm in order to keep their friends and their jobs. And long-term disruption can actually do mega damage, like messing with the peripheral organs outside the brain, and contributing or aggravating cardiovascular disease. Chronic disruption of the circadian rhythm can suppress melatonin production, too, which has been shown to increase the risk of cancer.
2. Don't be a cooking frog.
Psychologist Elvira Aletta recently reminded me of the lesson of the cooking frog: You put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it jumps out to preserve its life. You put the same frog in cold water, turning up the heat gradually, and he stays in there...acclimating to the temperature. Until, that is, he boils to death.
I can feel the temperature rising in my pot lately, so I've just ordered a bunch of ice-cubes -- a vacation, vitamin D supplements, extra therapy -- to cool things down.
3. Team up.
Think of the buddy system from Boy Scouts. Teaming up with someone means that you have to be accountable. You have to report to someone. Which lowers your percentage of cheating by 60 percent, or something like that. Especially if you're a people-pleaser like me. You want to be good, and get a badge or checkmark or whatever the hell they're passing out, so make sure someone is passing out such reviews.
Also, there is power in numbers, which is why the pairing system is used in many different capacities today: in the workplace, to insure quality control and promote better morale; in twelve-step groups to foster support and mentorship; in exercise programs to get your butt outside on a dark, wintry morning when you'd rather enjoy coffee and sweet rolls with your walking partner.
4. Squeeze in some downtime.
There is another kind of rest that is almost as crucial to your mental health as sleep: downtime.
What is that? I don't have a clue but my sane friends tell me it's great.
Downtime lives in quandrant II of Stephen Covey's time-management matrix I talked about in the video I published awhile back. This kind of rest is important but not urgent. So we say "fuhgedaboudit." But we really shouldn't "fuhgedaboudit," because downtime is our cushion against stress. If your body is without a cushion for too long, the pieces tend to fall apart. Like Humpty Dumpty. And, I hate to bear the bad news, but sometimes the doctors can't put you back together again.
5. Know your triggers.
After twelve years of therapy and 21 years of hanging out in twelve-step groups, I think I have finally located my triggers: Irish bars loaded with inebriated folks, super-sized Wal-marts with over 100 aisles of products manufactured in China, Chuck-E-Cheese restaurants with life-sized rodents singing melodies to screaming children, and conversations with people who think mental illnesses are like mermaids -- not real -- and that absolutely every health condition can be fixed with the right thoughts plus a little acupuncture.
6. Preserve your willpower.
Managing your emotions is like being on a permanent diet. If you start off eating celery with hummus for lunch every day, your diet will last approximately six days. At least that's when I threw out the bag of celery and reached for a BLT.
No. You have to pace yourself -- throw in a small piece of dark chocolate...or a pound -- so that you keep the momentum of eating right.
Science supports my claim here: Humans have a limited amount of will power. It's like coal. So don't even try to quit smoking when you're eating veggies, or abstaining from your Pinot Noir if you're de-cluttering your house.
One character defect at a time.
I'm not talking about reciting the Stations of the Cross on your knees or praying the rosary in the back of church with the over-80 crowd on their way to an early bird special. I mean the process of "waking up to God" that Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rost writes about, or that Barbara Brown Taylor describes in her book, An Altar in the World:
When I look up from feeding the outside dogs to see the full moon coming up through the bare trees like the wide iris of God's own eye -- when I feel the beam of it enter my busy heart straight through the zipper of my fleece jacket and fill me full of light -- I am in prayer.