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How To Share With the World, Even About Mental Illness

How To Share With the World, Even About Mental Illness

My hand jerked back, as if the computer mouse had turned into a real mouse. Would they think I am crazy? Would they whisper behind my back? Would they never trust me again? These anxious thoughts ran through my head as I was about to make a post revealing my mental illness to my Facebook friends.

Whenever the thought of telling others about my mental illness entered my mind, I felt a wave of anxiety pass through me. My head began to pound, my heart sped up, my breathing became fast and shallow, almost like I was suffocating. If I didn’t catch it in time, the anxiety could lead to a full-blown panic attack, or sudden and extreme fatigue, with my body collapsing in place. Not a pretty picture.

For 6 months, I had been suffering from a mood disorder characterized by high anxiety, sudden and extreme fatigue, and panic attacks. I really wanted to share much earlier. It would have felt great to be genuinely authentic with people in my life, and not hide who I am. Plus, I would have been proud to contribute to overcoming the stigma against mental illness in our society, especially since this stigma impacts me on such a personal level.

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My Own Anxiety

Ironically, the very stigma against mental illness, combined with my own excessive anxiety response, made it very hard for me to share. I was really anxious about whether friends and acquaintances would turn away from me. I was also very concerned about the impact on my professional career of sharing publicly, due to the stigma in academia against mental illness, including at my workplace.

Still, I did eventually start discussing my mental illness with some very close friends who I was very confident would support me. And one conversation really challenged my mental map, in other words how I perceive reality, about sharing my story of mental illness.

My friend told me something that really struck me, namely his perspective about how great would it be if all people who needed professional help with their mental health actually went to get such help. One of the main obstacles, as research shows, is the stigma against mental health. We discussed how one of the best ways to deal with such stigma is for well-functioning people with mental illness to come out of the closet about their condition.

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    Well, I am one of these well-functioning people. I have a great job and do it well, have wonderful relationships, and participate in all sorts of civic activities. The vast majority of people who know me don’t realize I suffer from a mental illness.

    Forcing Myself to Think About It

    That conversation motivated me to think seriously through the roadblocks thrown up by the emotional part of my brain. Previously, I never sat down for a few minutes and forced myself to think what good things might happen if I pushed past all the anxiety and stress of telling people in my life about my mental illness.

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    I realized that my mind was just flinching away, scared of the short-term pain of experiencing anxiety and stress of sharing about my condition. This flinching away prevented me from really thinking clearly about the long-term benefits to me and to others of sharing my story of making the kind of difference I wanted to make in the world and being authentic with people in my life. I recognized that I might be falling for a thinking error that scientists call hyperbolic discounting, a reluctance to make short-term sacrifices for much higher long-term rewards.

    To combat this problem, I imagined what world I wanted to live in a year from now – one where I shared about this situation now on my Facebook profile, or one where I did not. This approach is based on research showing that future-oriented thinking is very helpful for dealing with thinking errors associated with focusing on the present.

    In the world where I would share right now about my condition, I would in the short term be anxious about what people think of me after they find out. Anytime I saw someone who found out for the first time, I would be afraid about the impact on that person’s opinion of me. I would be watching her or his behavior closely for signs of distancing from me. And this would not only be my anxiety: I was quite confident that some people would not want to associate with me due to my mental illness. However, over time, this close watching and anxious thinking would diminish. All the people who knew me previously would find out. All new people who met me would learn about my condition, since I would not keep it a secret. I would make the kind of difference I wanted to make in the world by fighting mental stigma in our society. Just as important, it would be a huge burden off my back to not hide myself and be authentic with people in my life. This would be a great benefit to me in the long term.

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    Imagining the Alternative

    I imagined a second world. I would continue to hide my mental health condition from everyone but a few close friends. I would not be making the kind of impact on our society that I knew I would be able to make. I would always have to keep this secret under wraps, and worry about people finding out about it. I would always be stressed about hiding my true self, always worried about people somehow finding out, always and feeling like a hypocrite. Always regretting the chance to make the kind of impact I knew I could make. Moreover, likely people would find out about it anyway, whether if I chose to share about it or some other way, and I would get all the negative consequences later.

    I shuddered when I imagined that kind of life. With that shudder, I knew that the first world was much more attractive to me. So I decided to take the plunge, and made a plan to share about the situation publicly. As part of doing so, I made that Facebook post. I had such a good reaction from my Facebook friends that I decided to make the post publicly available on my Facebook to all, not only my friends. Moreover, I decided to become an activist in talking about my mental condition publicly, as in this essay that you are reading. I also published articles about my condition in prominent academic media channels (Inside Higher Ed and Diverse: Issues In Higher Education) to challenge the stigma against mental illness in academia. I also shared my story with a local newspaper, to raise awareness of mental health and deal with stigma against mental illness.

    What can you do?

    So how can you apply this story to your life? Whether you want to come out of the closet to people in your life about some unpleasant news, or more broadly overcome the short-term emotional pain of taking an action that would help you achieve your long-term goals, here are some strategies.

    1. Consider the world where you want to live a year from now. What would the world look like if you take the action? What would it look like if you did not take the action?
    2. Evaluate all the important costs and benefits of each world. What world looks the most attractive a year from now?
    3. Decide on the actions needed to get to that world, make a plan, and take the plunge. Be flexible about revising your plan based on new information such as reactions from others, as I did regarding sharing about my own condition.

    Featured photo credit: Coming Out via flickr.com

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    Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

    Cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist; CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts; multiple best-selling author

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    Last Updated on July 3, 2020

    30 Small Habits To Lead A More Peaceful Life

    30 Small Habits To Lead A More Peaceful Life

    In today’s world, true peace must come from within us and our own actions. Here are 30 small things you can do on a regular basis to increase your overall sense of harmony, peace, and well-being:

    1. Don’t go to every fight you’re invited to

    Particularly when you’re around those who thrive on chaos, be willing to decline the invitation to join in on the drama.

    2. Focus on your breath

    Throughout the day, stop to take a few deep breaths. Keep stress at bay with techniques such as “square breathing.” Breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, then out for four counts, and hold again for four counts. Repeat this cycle four times.

    3. Get organized and purge old items

    A cluttered space often creates a cluttered spirit. Take the time to get rid of anything you haven’t used in a year and invest in organizational systems that help you sustain a level of neatness.

    4. Stop yourself from being judgmental

    Whenever you are tempted to have an opinion about someone else’s life, check your intentions. Judging others creates and promotes negative energy.

    5. Say ‘thank you’ early and often

    Start and end each day with an attitude of gratitude. Look for opportunities in your daily routine and interactions to express appreciation.

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    6. Smile more

    Even if you have to “fake it until you make it,” there are many scientific benefits of smiling and laughing. Also, pay attention to your facial expression when you are doing neutral activities such as driving and walking. Turn that frown upside down!

    7. Don’t worry about the future

    As difficult as this sounds, there is a direct connection between staying in the present and living a more peaceful life. You cannot control the future. As the old proverb goes, “Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.” Practice gently bringing your thoughts back to the present.

    8. Eat real food

    The closer the food is to the state from which it came from the earth, the better you will feel in eating it. Choose foods that grew from a plant over food that was made in a plant.

    9. Choose being happy over being right

    Too often, we sacrifice inner peace in order to make a point. It’s rarely worth it.

    10. Keep technology out of the bedroom

    Many studies, such as one conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital, have connected blue light of electronic devices before bed to adverse sleep and overall health. To make matters worse, many people report that they cannot resist checking email and social media when their cell phone is in reach of their bed, regardless of the time.

    11. Make use of filtering features on social media

    You may not want to “unfriend” someone completely, however you can choose whether you want to follow their posts and/or the sources of information that they share.

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    12. Get comfortable with silence

    When you picture someone who is the ultimate state of peace, typically they aren’t talking.

    13. Listen to understand, not to respond

    So often in conversations, we use our ears to give us cues about when it is our turn to say what we want to say. Practice active listening, ask questions, process, then speak.

    14. Put your troubles in a bubble

    Whenever you start to feel anxious, visualize the situation being wrapped in a bubble and then picture that sphere floating away.

    15. Speak more slowly

    Often a lack of peace manifests itself in fast or clipped speech. Take a breath, slow down, and let your thoughtful consideration drive your words.

    16. Don’t procrastinate

    Nothing adds stress to our lives like waiting until the last minute.

    17. Buy a coloring book

    Mandala coloring books for adults are becoming more popular because of their connection to creating inner peace.

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    18. Prioritize yourself

    You are the only person who you are guaranteed to live with 24 hours a day for the rest of your life.

    19. Forgive others

    Holding a grudge is hurting you exponentially more than anyone else. Let it go.

    20. Check your expectations

    Presumption often leads to drama. Remember the old saying, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.”

    21. Engage in active play

    Let your inner child come out and have some fun. Jump, dance, play, and pretend!

    22. Stop criticizing yourself

    The world is a hard enough place with more than enough critics. Your life is not served well by being one of them.

    23. Focus your energy and attention on what you want

    Thoughts, words, and actions all create energy. Energy attracts like energy. Put out what you want to get back.

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    24. Assign yourself “complaint free” days.

    Make a conscious decision not to complain about anything for a whole day. It might be harder than you think and the awareness will stick with you.

    25. Surround yourself with people you truly enjoy being in the company of

    Personalities tend to be contagious, and not everyone’s is worth catching. Be judicious in your choices.

    26. Manage your money

    Financial concerns rank top on the list of what causes people stress. Take the time each month to do a budget, calculate what you actually spend and sanity check that against the money you have coming in.

    27. Stop trying to control everything

    Not only is your inner control freak sabotaging your sense of peace, it is also likely getting in the way of external relationships as well.

    28. Practice affirmations

    Repeat positive phrases that depict the life and qualities you want to attract. It may not come naturally to you, but it works.

    29. Get up before sunrise

    Personally witnessing the dawn brings a unique sense of awe and appreciation for life.

    30. Be yourself

    Nothing creates more inner discord than trying to be something other than who we really are. Authenticity breeds happiness.

    Featured photo credit: man watching sunrise via stokpic.com

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