When I entered graduate school, I couldn’t get out of bed. I had never felt this way before. But, in this new place where I knew no one, far away from home, and in a competitive environment where the goal was to constantly produce, suddenly I felt like I was without a safety net and didn’t know how to cope. I would go on campus for class, and then come home and collapse in bed, even if it was the middle of the day. After a year, I decided to drop out.
At the time, I felt alone. But, it turns out that I wasn’t. Over 16 million Americans have had at least one depressive episode. I went to a see therapist and discovered that my depression is subclinical, which means that I don’t need medication, but I did have to develop new habits and routines to help me stay focused and healthy.
I first decided to focus on my physical health. While this may seem counterintuitive, I found that eating fresh food and regularly exercising could help improve my mood. Maintaining my emotional health also required a shift in how I viewed myself and my priorities. Just like my physical health, I needed to remain vigilant, monitor my progress, and establish routines to help me stay on track. This was a difficult time in my life, but one that forced me to develop practical skills that continue to help me manage my emotional health today.
· Identifying and committing to my purpose: I have identified a personal goal that I want to reach and dedicate time every day to achieving it. For me, that goal is to write a novel. I wake up early every morning and write for two hours before I begin work. This routine helps me not only stay purpose-oriented, but also gives me something that is completely outside of work, family, or other obligations to focus on just for myself.
· Permission to relax: I reframed relaxation from an indulgence that I did only if I had time, to a regular habit, something that I tried to incorporate often and not feel guilty about. Sometimes, this is a mindfulness practice or taking a long walk. Other times, it’s something silly like enjoying a television show. I try to identify opportunities where I can just let go.
· Understanding and respecting my own limits: This has been the most difficult for me. I know what my boundaries are, but there is often tremendous pressure to over-commit. I try to quantify my commitments to align to my boundaries. For example, I limit my networking lunches and after work get-togethers to once a week, so I continue to carve out time for exercise and relaxation. I’ve learned that I’m the only one that can identify and maintain what feels right to me.
These practices didn’t come easily. Maintaining my emotional health is similar to my physical health. I try to exercise daily, just like I try to take some time for relaxation. While physical health is easier to see and discuss, emotional health is just as important, and can take the same amount of effort to maintain.
Luckily for me, I had an opportunity to complete the degree, with the support of my organization and managers, through an online program. I graduate soon and will be proud to say that I have finally earned my master’s degree. But it’s not just about the diploma, it’s also a confirmation of how far I’ve come and how much I’ve learned–not just from school, but also from caring for myself.
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