Activate yourself

This post is a little different in that it is about mental health so I just want to make it clear that I’m not a mental health professional and everything here is either something I learned from a mental health expert or is based on my personal experiences.

If you feel like your mental wellness could use some work, you might start with a mental health hotline or visit to your student health clinic or campus counseling center.

I’m a graduate student living in 2022 so naturally I suffer from a few mental health disorders. Not that we all do, but research suggests I’m not alone. Also, sadly, it’s not something that many programs or supervisors address effectively.

So what is one to do? That’s a hard question: one I’ve been trying to navigate for years but I’ve been taking a few steps focused on improving my mental health recently and I’ve made a lot of progress in the last few years so I thought I might share some of my experiences in case others can benefit. Now, I’ve had a lot of support: family, friends, colleagues, mentors, and of course – professionals. The roles of these people can’t be overstated; however, there are some things that I’ve had to figure out independently – the first of which was how to utilize resources available to me. So if you feel like your mental wellness could use some work, you might start with a mental health hotline or visit to your student health clinic or campus counseling center.

Through my mental wellness journey, one of the tools I picked up along the way comes from a type of therapy known as CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s called behavioral activation and it has to do with the way actions impact emotions, or in CBT-speak: how behaviors impact feelings.

See, I was having this problem – brought on by my clinical depression – where I couldn’t find the motivation to do the things I enjoyed, which included both recreational activities and work activities.

I told my therapist about this and we tried a few things but the one that really worked for me in the end was behavioral activation. So here I’ll describe what it is and how to use it.

I’ve often equated behavioral activation as a clinical term for the adage: “fake it ’til you make it” but that doesn’t really capture the entirety of the concept. There are many layers this tool which are outlined in a way that makes sense to me below. But, if you’re interested in the TL;DR version: behavioral activation is simply the practice of initiating a task prior to achieving the motivation to do it. Essentially, you start doing the thing and the motivation follows.

Here’s how I see it:

1. Engage your self-awareness

In my opinion, the first step is to learn about yourself and what really makes you tick. This may seem like an easy task, but for me it took many years of practice and trying different tools to find what works. I know it can also be really scary for a lot of people to look inward and those of us with past traumatic experiences might risk retraumitization so make sure you have a good support network in place before attempting this.

The tools I mention include mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga, grounding techniques, affirmations, observations (internal or external), and even online assessments. There are other therapeutic techniques that I’ve tried under the supervision of professionals as well. I suggest you contact one if you are interested in trying those.

Of these techniques, my favorite one is journaling; specifically, bullet journaling.

Bullet journaling works for me because it is quick and efficient but it also gives me an opportunity to be creative. I’m not the type to sit for hours and reflect on every aspect of my day: every event that occurred, emotion felt, thought generated, etc. But with bullet journaling, I can make aesthetically pleasing lists or charts that I quickly fill in each day to keep track of things in my life like habits, goals, tasks, how I spend my time, and what my moods are. When I look back on my entries and spreads that are separated into days, weeks, months, and even years, I can analyze the trends and more clearly see what’s going on with me.

2. Identify your core values and set goals

A core value is a fundamental belief: a personal priority or foundation for conduct. Examples include honesty, integrity, justice, community, inclusion, the list goes on… By taking the time to figure out what your core values are you can then focus on ways in which to initiate actions that incorporate those values into your personal and professional life. Core values are important because they assist in making meaningful changes that actually persist.

In order to do this, it is helpful to set goals. Goal-setting can be tricky but common guidance suggests that goals should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound). Basically, you should write details about your goal, include metrics to target, ensure they are possible for you and practical to achieve, and have built-in deadlines.

3. Make a plan and carry through

Planning basically consists of taking a big-picture goal (aligned with your core values of course!) and breaking it up into smaller specific actions with their own dedicated timelines (mini-goals if you will).

Once you’ve made a plan, carry through with it. This is the most important step in behavioral activation. You must do the task whether or not you have the motivation to do it. Many of us think that motivation will come to us if we wait for it. But, the foundation on which technique is built is that we should begin to feel better after performing actions. Therefore, the action will likely precede the motivation.

4. Reward yourself for achievements and use setbacks as lessons

Make sure you make explicit efforts to reward yourself for your achievements as it reinforces positive behaviors and negates some of counterproductive thinking associated with things like depression.

On the other hand, if at first you don’t succeed: try again (with a different approach maybe). Make sure you reflect on what didn’t work and perhaps modify your plan if necessary. What matters most is that you keep trying.

5. Practice makes progress

Like many things in life, these techniques require practice to achieve mastery. Skills develop over time and you shouldn’t expect that results will be immediate. You can try to gauge your success based on whether or not you feel you are working towards living a life of value. Your emotions may ebb and flow and your motivation may go through cycles as well but if you keep at it, you should notice slow changes for the better!

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