06/16/2015 01:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Put Your Oxygen Mask on First: 5 Tips I Learned in Therapy


Last month I graduated from therapy! It felt really good to finish something. To learn new ways of acting and reacting, and being told I worked hard and was a good student.

I have been open about being in therapy. I don't think therapy is anything to be ashamed of or embarrassed by. If I am not sure how to do something, I turn to the experts. I have a bookkeeper, a web designer, a business coach, a housecleaner, a tax accountant and I had a therapist. I am a photographer, I know how to take pictures and create safe spaces for my clients. That is my specialty. I turn to others for help in the areas I am not as skilled.

Last October things in my life got to be very low. I was depressed and there became a point I didn't think I could go on. I didn't want to live. I am grateful that the amazing team that was treating a family member's depression, found a therapist to help me with mine. The first evaluation session was painful. I sobbed the entire hour. I felt hopeless and could not see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I started seeing Dr. Anita Lungu at UCSF, on a weekly basis. It quickly became the highlight of my week. Her approach was very hands on and tangible. It was based on DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) skills. We would discuss the challenges of the previous week and what was coming up in the week ahead. We made a plan to deal with the issues I was facing week to week. Ironically, one of my biggest obstacles was me.

I was told I was burned out. It was hard to hear those words. I felt like a failure. I couldn't be burned out! I was strong, I could handle whatever was thrown at me. In my mind burnout = failure. No, not really. What it meant was that I forgot about my needs. I put everyone else's needs first, and by neglecting myself, I was burnt out. I had to put my oxygen mask on, so I could take care of those around me later. We hear the flight attendant say this before a flight. We have heard it quoted in self help books and magazines, and still we ignore this advice.

Here are my top five takeaways from therapy --

1. Accumulate Positive Experiences
I scheduled time to see friends, to read a book and to run. I added in more sleep...I know it seems silly, but I was not sleeping enough. I started eating at regular intervals through the day. Again, silly but some days I would only have a protein bar, because I was too busy, even though I had made lunches for the kids. Sound familiar?

2. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation
I know, totally San Francisco hippy dippy. I scoffed at the idea that "mindfulness" could help me feel better. I have to say, it's real. Mindfulness is one of the easiest, yet hardest things to do and has such a positive effect on our minds and bodies. Mindfulness is deliberately paying full attention to what is happening around you and within you-without criticism or judgement. You can do mindfulness anywhere, anytime. It can be as simple as using your non dominant hand, taking deep breaths, noticing smells, describing what you see, and doing them without judgement. I got a book called Mindfulness on the Go . I highly recommend it. I try to be as mindful as I can throughout the day. Especially when I notice I am getting flustered or anxious. I stop and notice and at the least try to do three mindful breaths. I know it sounds too easy to work, try it!

3. Check The Facts
When you are depressed and running on empty it is easy to skew the facts. Someone not taking out the garbage can turn into "they must not love me or they would have taken out the garbage". In hindsight it sounds ridiculous that I had those thoughts, but I did. Now I can check the facts, and ask myself, is it really true? The kids not doing their homework when I want them to, is not a war against me, they just want to do it later. Or not at all, but it is not a reflection of their love for me. This has been a powerful tool.

4. Break Down Big Tasks
I started making realistic goals for my day and week like plan meals for the next three days, versus thinking I had to plan for the whole month. I would set my bar so high, it was impossible to achieve my goals. Being able to accomplish small tasks gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment.

5. Let Those Around You Find Their Own Answers
I find myself doing lots of things for lots of people, mainly my own family. Many times it feels easier. Right? Someone is in crisis and I jump in to fix it. Wrong. They need to learn to fix it on their own. I have tried to take a step back and try to guide them. There are life lessons to be learned by failing and succeeding on your own. I was afraid to let them fail. I have learned most of the time, they will succeed without me. And if they fail, they will learn. As hard as it is for me, it has been freeing. To leave for the weekend with my friends and not leave lists for everyone, with schedules and meal plans is a great feeling.

I am a work in progress. I have the tools I need to keep depression at bay and to be my best self. I know I will have setbacks and that is OK. I encourage everyone to try some of these tools. I find them very helpful. If you think you need a therapist, look for one. Most of all, put your oxygen mask on first. I promise you are worth it.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.