Friday, January 28, 2022

The Three Best Things I've Done For My Mental Health In The Last Year

You know what I love? The concept of "leveling up" versus "getting older." Instead of focusing on the things we lose as we age - smooth skin, energy, the metabolism of a coked-up weasel - leveling up focuses on the things we gain. Things like skills, experience, and better armor for your body type.

When I was 20 the thought of making a healthy breakfast for myself every day was laughable, I had no idea why everything hurt all the time, and I believed everyone everywhere had to like me at all times or I might actually die. 

Now at level 43 I'm more comfortable with myself and others, I've had most of my broken parts diagnosed and treated, I feel a million times better, and I've learned hundreds of skills and coping techniques and routines that just make life better. Like how to make a healthy breakfast every day. It's awesome. Leveling up is awesome.

So in that spirit, I want to share three ways I've leveled up my mental health game this past year. I haven't mastered anything yet - and never expect to - but these are ways I can look back and see definite improvements.

1) Lean In To The Routine

This is obvious for most of my fellow mental health warriors, but it's gotta be said. Routine is our friend. Make lists. Set alarms. Schedule your week, your meals, maybe even your outfits if that helps. The less mental energy you spend making decisions, the more you'll have to tackle your day, your work, and the unexpected gremlins life chucks your way. So spend your precious, finite cache of mental energy wisely.

If this is a new strategy for you, let me recommend my post Routine Maintenance: 4 Ways I've Reduced My Daily Anxiety By Limiting My Choices.

And here are two tools from that post that help me stick to a routine:

- A pre-printed daily list:

(I erased all my strike-throughs so you can see my examples from yesterday.)

Note how the 2nd thing on my list is to make another list, ha. The things I do every day are printed, then I add day-specific tasks on the right. I've been using a dry-erase list like this most days for the last several years. I keep it next to me while I'm working, so every time I realize I'm mindlessly scrolling social media (which still happens a lot), I can check my list to get back on track.

Tuck your printed list into a page protector, and voila, instant dry-erase list! I also have an alternate list for Sundays on the back, so it's double-sided.

- My magnetic menu board

I've raved about this thing enough before, so let me just say again that it is a massive sanity saver. If you do the "I don't know, what do you want to eat?" dance every night, try this. Since I last mentioned this menu board I've leveled up to making the menus myself each week, instead of making John decide. See? Still baby-stepping my way up!

2) Volunteer and/or Donate To Charities

John and I've always loved working on projects for friends, but this past year we've started volunteering at an actual charity, The Sharing Center. We started small, just a few hours a weekend sorting clothes for their thrift store. That was so fun we decided to go bigger, and over the last few months we've replaced ceiling tiles, painted entire offices, laid over 1,200 square feet of laminate flooring, replaced sinks, and more. It's harder work than we've ever done for friends, but also vastly more rewarding.

If you watch my Stories you might remember some of these updates.

How is busting our butts for free rewarding? Let me give you an example. Two week ago as John and I were painting the Client Services building - where they distribute food, rent money, and more - I watched an older woman knock on the door and beg for a loaf of bread. "Please," she said, "Just anything." The office was closed at the time, but the workers still opened the door and handed over a bag of groceries. I was across the room painting out of sight, but that moment struck me to my core, gang. I felt incredibly humbled and grateful and sad and joyful, all at the same time. At that moment, you couldn't have dragged me away from the work I was doing.

Volunteering can give us life-changing, mind-changing, heart-changing perspective. It takes our focus off ourselves and our own hurts, and puts it on something tangible and helpful we can do right now. From a mental health perspective, that is massive.

Now, I know what you're thinking. "Sure, Jen, easy for you to say. You have construction skills! And time!"

You're right, John and I *do* have more time and abilities to give than the average person. Still, anyone can volunteer. Can you sort clothes? Hand out bags of groceries? Smile and greet people? Then you can volunteer. Some places even let you bring your kids, so you can make it a family activity. Right now the Sharing Center can barely keep their shelves stocked; they need people to sort the donations pouring in. Do you have 3 hours on a Saturday? They need you. And I promise you, I promise you, even a single afternoon volunteering can do wonders for your mind and mood.

For the times when you genuinely can't give your time, I recommend giving your money. It doesn't have to be much, even $5 matters. But here's the key: first find a cause you're passionate about, read about what they do and how they do it, and then give. Then find another cause, read about what *they* do and how they do it, and give. Repeat. Make it part of your weekly routine. Get invested in every sense of the word. Don't just give, learn what they do and give. Take ownership, recognize that your dollars are making these good things happen. When you help a cause that's bigger than yourself, you may find a renewed purpose in everything you do.

Even if you prefer to give to the same place each time, I recommend you keep researching new charities. Keep looking, keep learning. Find a new amazing organization every week. Tell your friends about them. When the news is so full of hate and horror, it can help renew your faith in humanity to see how much good is being done out there in the world. Mr. Rogers said, "Look for the helpers." I would add, "... then go help the helpers."

3) Scheduled, Forced, Socialization

If you're a house hermit with introverted tendencies like me, this one's tough. That's why I call it "forced." That's also why you really must schedule it ahead of time. Don't wait for the spirit of socialization to strike; I promise you, most times, it won't. If you give yourself the option it is always easier to stay in your jammies and binge another season. Continued unchecked, though, we all know where that path leads: isolation, insomnia, depression, anxiety, loneliness, hopelessness.

Brené Brown changed my entire perspective on the meaning of life, and this is it, in a nutshell:

"Connection is why we're here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering."  - BrenĂ© Brown

Think about that for a sec. Without relationships we will suffer. No matter how much of a loner you are, no matter how fiercely independent, you are wired for close friendships and loving relationships. I believe that's why we're here, what we were made for. Learning to love others - and to receive love -  is the highest level skill of all.

My own forced socialization is every Friday night, when John and I host a few friends for alternating Craft Nights and Movie Nights. John makes dinner, and we all sit and talk and laugh together. Most nights there are only 4 or 5 of us, but even visiting with a single friend is enough. In fact I have another friend who visits me every other Monday night, when we sit and talk for 3-4 hours straight. Julianne is the busiest person I know, so we have to schedule visits or we'd never see each other.

Do I often feel like cancelling my forced Friday socials? Heck yes. Have I ever regretted hosting one anyway? Nope. Even when I'm tired and drained afterward, I always find myself in a better headspace. Being around friends drags me up. No matter how surly or depressed or awful I feel going in, by the end of the night, I feel better.

This will look different for everyone, but an easy way to start your own forced socials is what I did: tell your friends you'll be hosting movie/game/craft night every weekend. Or every other weekend. Don't depend on just one or two people, either; invite as many as you can. Make a private FB group or text chat to keep them all updated. My own group has about 10 people in it, but we average half that or less with everyone's conflicting schedules. In fact a couple times it's been just me and one other person (who isn't John, ha), and that was just as lovely as a whole house full.

Obviously mental health is a many-sided battle, but I hope this gives you a new strategy or two to consider. I'm trying more new things to level up this year, including yoga and screen-free Saturdays, so if you found any of this helpful and want more, let me know! I'd be happy to keep y'all updated on how those go.


Can you believe January is almost over? This month has felt like forever and also not, somehow. But on the plus side, that means I get to pick 3 more Squeegineer winners! So if you haven't entered yet, be sure to do so by midnight on the 31st.

The Squeegineer give-away lets me pass on all sorts of little treasures from my personal collection to you readers. The current prize board has everything from original art to geeky costume pieces to that hysterical Worf gnome doll John made.

How someone hasn't snatched this up yet I'll never know.

You can enter for free by e-mail, details here, or if you've donated any amount this month via Paypal then you're automatically entered. I have a few more treasures I need to photograph and add to the prize gallery, so this month's winners will also get to choose from my White Rabbit clock corset and a Figment tail skirt bustle, aww yeeeeah.


  1. Thank you for the reminder about how socialization is good for me. I made an effort this week to make specific plans with a few different people that I had been talking about "getting together with" for months. And honestly, after I set the plans I felt super anxious and drained. I've already met up with one, and we had a great time. I'm still super not looking forward to the one next week, but I think I will enjoy it when I'm there. Thanks for the motivation to do the thing even though I almost always feel like backing out.

  2. Our family has always tried to volunteer on a regular basis. A while back we found a charity we love, and learned they help repair and donate wheelchairs to 3rd world countries. Back then each donated wheelchair cost $50US dollars, which frankly, seemed like a steal. How to raise the money? We set up a jar, then 2, then 3...and so on by the front door and just daily dropped any loose change we had, and boy did it add up! We began on January 1st, by June we had other people join in at their homes, eventually some boy scout decided this was a good Eagle project so he jumped in, and then 2 others, September brought in a church that had 11 congregations, by November someone decided to have a Christmas donation dinner at their congregation. By the end of December our individual personal family had donated 53 Wheel chairs ->from change. It was super easy and didn't hurt at all, and we made it a tradition from then on.

    Another tradition is after shopping at Costco, I take whatever is left of my budget and buy up their $1.50 hot dog meals. Originally I asked for condiment cups, but they no longer do that so I purchased my own at Smart&Final. The dogs are already wrapped, so I just fill up the drink and condiments. I put a little triangle of ketchup, mustard, and relish and snap on the lid. Some days I only have 2, other days I have had as many as 18 meals and drinks. (I saved drink carriers from Del Taco runs to hold my drink and just keep them in my car) Before I go home I drive around the area near our Costco and there are always hungry people laying in parking lot. I drive up slowly, roll my window down and ask "Are you hungry?" if they say "yes" Then I tell them I have a meal for them. I hand it to them out the window and drive away. I never park and get out, I never drive where I put myself in danger or without a quick exit if needed (in 20+ yrs, I have never needed to leave quickly or from fear, and I'm 63) It has been one of the easiest ways to serve and I have never. gone home with unwanted hotdogs.

    ->Shove a clean pair or two of underwear, stretch gloves, knit hat, etc. in cotton tube socks
    ->Place small hotel products and/or other travel size grooming items in a large ziplock
    ->Fill a ziplock with a box of tampons, baby wipes, and a chapstick
    ->$5-$10 fast food gift cards
    all the above are easy to pass along or donate to any shelter.
    ->canvas totes, new or gently used blankets, coats

    1. What a wonderful idea about the Costco runs! I always try to have wool socks or cotton socks in my car at all times ready to hand out depending upon the season. Usually quite needed and so important for keeping folks feet healthy and warm. I kept sanitary supplies in my car for quite a while but didn't encounter folks on the streets who needed them as much so donated them to women's shelter instead.

  3. Because of Covid, my 30+ Saturday dinner with 2 other families has been disjointed. And we all suffer for that. My 30+ Cross Stitch group of 4, call every Monday if we can't meet outside. And I am eternally grateful to be back making Costumes for my local H.S. Theater Dept.

  4. I love to garden, but I always have more than my little family can eat. I found out last year that my local JCC had a food bank and would take fresh garden produce. I can't wait for spring/summer so I can start donating cucumbers and tomatoes and fresh herbs :)

  5. Love this post! I live by my routine - don't know what I would do without it. I can be pretty irritated on Sunday when I'm organizing all my clothes for the week and doing all food prep, but when I wake up on Monday and everything is just there and ready to go - game changer for my mood for sure. I need to work on the forced socialization. Probably need to stop using Covid as my convenient excuse. :) Love your blog - thank you for being so real.

  6. Thank you Jen! These are good reminders.

  7. So much good! Volunteering with church is my thing, I get you there. Really need to work on scheduling myself better though... Love the info on your leveling up, and advice for the rest of us!

  8. I'm a firey and list maker so I've got those 2 covered, but lately I've found myself pulling back from more and more social stuff. Covid makes it morestressful and awkward, but I should still make opportunities. Thanks for the reminder, Jen!

  9. I can wholeheartedly recommend boxed meal kits like Hello Fresh or Gousto. I used to be the primary cook in our household until I got sick. Suddenly my poor wife (who suffers massive food-related anxiety) was responsible for cooking. We ate so much takeaway - terrible for our waists and wallets! But now meals are a together project - I choose the menu in advance (which is great because you don't have to think about what you want NOW, just what sounds tasty in general) and then we split the cooking - she chops and I cook (my fine motor skills are garbage and she's afraid of dealing with fire) and we eat so much healthier now :) We spend way less as well. I can't recommend them highly enough as a strategy. If you're struggling with meal planning, pick whatever service you can get the best discount on and give it a try.

    I struggle with volunteering thanks to my health, but I always set aside 10% of my monthly spending money to donate to a good cause. It makes each month a fun scavenger hunt looking for a worthy cause, and the process helps me be more grateful for the luck that I am blessed with.

  10. This helps a lot and I am definitely going to steal some of your tools! I struggle with days when I can't get out of bed (chronic vertigo/imbalance/nausea for over a decade), sometimes for weeks at a time. Totally unpredictable, which makes ANY routine or commitment that requires me to schedule in advance problematic. So even after all these years looking for ideas and tools that will help me function as much as I can when I can. I like the menu planner - I tend to buy ingredients for cooking when I feel well and then they rot in the fridge after a couple of weeks of being bedbound. Doing this I can plan stuff my darling and overworked husband can cook as well. Breaking up the cooking into tasks that we can both do could help as well. Can't wait to try some of these.

  11. Regarding volunteering - something else folks can do when they, like me, are not able to commit to a schedule. Use your skills and knowledge to help others online. Fans of Epbot is a great group for doing this very thing. Maybe it is micro-volunteering. My background in hospice and geriatrics means that I am able to help out in the Elder Care group that spun off of FoE. You have skills or knowledge that can help others, too!

    1. Yessss, such a good reminder! The internet really does let us share so much more. From volunteering to re-touch old family photos to being a mod on a community page, there are so many ways we can help others without even leaving the house.

  12. I volunteer and have forced socialization at the same time by coaching a youth STEM/robotics team. I don't have kids of my own but like to hang out with other peoples' kids....which is creepy UNLESS you're doing it in the form of some sort of educational something or other. For me, that's FIRST Lego League (did I mention also I get to play with Lego? And build and program robots? I mean, the kids have to do all the actual work, but I still get to do some. And I can justify building with Lego has "research and practice" for working with the team.). It's a good bit of time and not for the weak of heart (these are kids ages 9-14...4th-8th grade...which includes all of middle school) but it's incredibly rewarding. This is my 10th season and while the last couple have been hard (stupid global situation which shan't be named), it's still worth it. We had a tournament today (in person!) and it was so amazing to see my kids and all these other kids and all these adults, including some who have become friends). I'm crazy tired (it was a long day), but it was so worth it. Also, I received an award as an outstanding coach/mentor which I'm still trying to wrap my brain around. I just hang out with kids and build robots with Lego and help them learn how to think a little bit more like engineers.

  13. Really, really great post! I always appreciate mental health discussions that are solution-oriented rather than just venting (even though that can obvs have its place too). Thanks for sharing! Glad you have found some habits that have been helpful for you!

  14. I love your ideas! Many of my mental health helps are religious: prayer, and scripture study being big ones. I also echo everyone else saying that service is so very fantastic for helping get out of your head!

    I often go on "news fasts" where I don't check the news for several (or more) days. I think it is important to know about the world, but I don't need to know about everything. I can't help with everything and if I try to know about it all I just get too stressed to do any good.

    I would definitely be interested to hear how your new things go! I love yoga, not because I am flexible, but because to do it right you have to relax!

    My personal help for the endless scrolling is to make sure I have a physical book (digital works okay, but physical is best) that I can read when I am wanting a brain break. That way I don't scroll and scroll, I read for a bit! I also try to leave my phone out of reach, that way I can't get sucked in as easily.

    Hooray for all of us leveling up, and taking better care of ourselves!

  15. Here's something that cheers me way up; "Fraggle Rock" IS BACK AND IT IS EXTREMELY AWESOME! The Doozers have a MONORAIL! Yeah, I'm 53 years old, what's your point?!

    Your Pal,

    Storm the Klingon

  16. Sometimes I find that being around people is really draining. And I feel frustrated that spending what little time I have actually zapped my energy. Another issue I have is that good friends of mine live out of state, as my husband and I lived in Wisconsin for many years and just a few years ago moved back home to California. Making new friends in this Covid age has been difficult, I will say that leaning in to routine has been helpful. We make regular meal plans with an app called Paprika. Sometimes we go overboard and make everything from scratch, which is tiring, but also delicious. :)

  17. don't forget to check and see how much of your donation each charity actually goes towards their work and how much is charged to "administrative costs" Susan G Koman charges almost 90% of your donation to admin costs. ie. paying the CEO and board. as does the bloodbank in Central Fla. be aware of how your money and time are used by a charity. most are honest but there are some that aren't.


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