Each month within the Yellow Collective, we invite our members to take on a do-good challenge pertaining to the current theme. Last month, our November series, With, was focused on mental health, and having discussions for both those that struggle with mental health issues and those that want to care best for others that do. The challenge sent out in our monthly mail was to complete one mental health practice for 7 days in a row. So, to get the inside scoop on what kind on an impact this had, we asked Yellow Collective member, Amy Everhart, to share her experience taking the challenge on!
I used to think self-care was all about taking bubble baths and eating vegetables, but as my mental health deteriorated to the point where I could no longer ignore it, I began to think that self care might extend into the information I consume and the people I choose to interact with. As an extrovert, the concept of “social self-care” was foreign to me at first — more connection, more fun! But as my anxiety spiked, I found that engaging with social media, and even other humans, without boundaries left me feeling keyed up enough to set off a panic attack at the slightest provocation.
I developed severe anxiety after a particularly deadly school shooting in 2012. I was a classroom teacher at the time, and I had to hold space for my students’ fears while facilitating weekly intruder drills, so I had little space to process my own reactions and heal from the experience. On top of that, no one I knew seemed as affected as me. “What’s wrong with me?” I thought. “This didn’t even happen to me! Why am I so freaked out all the time?” After that, my nervous system never returned to normal. Not many people could see what was happening under the surface, and I tried to hide it, but the slightest sound or too-quick movement would send me into a full blown panic attack. Even when I intellectually knew I was safe, my physical body wasn’t convinced.
The physical embodiment of my anxiety isn’t new for me, but my awareness around it is. While I’m much healthier now, I still need to be mindful of creating boundaries around situations and people that elevate my nervous system and pull me off my center. So for this month’s Yellow Collective do-good challenge, I decided to try an experiment.
For an entire week, I checked in with my nervous system before accepting invitations, attending social events, interacting with people, or getting on social media.
- Before logging in to social media, I would place a hand on my belly, take three deep breaths, and ask my inner wisdom if social media would be fun or harmful in that moment.
- Before returning a text, email, or phone call, I would take a belly breath and ask my nervous system if I truly had the space to meaningfully connect.
- Before accepting an invitation or attending a social gathering, I would ask myself, “How grounded and energized will I feel after?” And then act accordingly.
- I wouldn’t change my plans or routines unnecessarily, but I would stand up for my nervous system if she got triggered.
At first, it was really tough to get off autopilot and remember to check in with myself. The first morning, I rolled over to turn off my alarm and immediately tapped the Instagram icon on my phone to stall and stay in the warm covers a bit longer. I scrolled for a few minutes before remembering my experiment and checking in with my nervous system. I was already feeling a little ungrounded by comparing myself to other people in my feed. I meditated for a few minutes and decided to take a break from social media for rest of the day.
By the second day, I remembered to check in with myself, but I started to feel guilty. I had a networking event that night, my sister was in town, and I was exhausted. I was already feeling frazzled about all I had to do, and when I checked in with my nervous system, her response was clear: “no” to the networking event, “yes” to restorative yoga. That response scared me a little because taking care of my mental health this way was new.
“If I choose to listen to my nervous system and take care of my mental health, will I lose out on opportunities?” I wondered. “Will I become a hermit who only goes to yoga?” If I weren’t doing this mental health challenge, I probably would have gone to the networking event and just felt overtaxed later. As it was, I chose to go to yoga, which felt much more expansive and grounding.
But first, I had to confront a few fears about what it meant for me to take care of my mental health.
It was uncomfortable, but important. By the fifth day, I was starting to get the hang of it. With boundaries, social media didn’t trigger me as much, my nervous system was calmer, and I felt more stable in general. Then I saw the sheer number of texts and emails I hadn’t answered, and the guilt came back. “What if my friends and family judge me for not replying instantly? Will they think I’m ignoring them or that I don’t care?” I did my check-in process, asking myself how I could both protect my nervous system and have integrity with my values of being a supportive, present friend. The answer was clear: communication.
I reached out to a girlfriend whose texts I hadn’t replied to and told her about the challenge. “I’m not ignoring your texts because you’re not important to me. I’m taking a break from replying until I can do so intentionally,” I said. We ended up talking about our mutual struggles: me with anxiety, and her with depression. Not only did she understand, she decided to do her own challenge.
Instead of us feeling mutually guilty and drained by our interaction, we both had support and permission to take care of ourselves and each other.
By the last day, I was feeling so grounded that I decided to institute a “nervous system check-in” ritual every morning. At first, I felt a little silly — like I shouldn’t need to set aside time to take care of my mental health, as if my mental health challenges weren’t big enough. But after practicing these check-ins for a few days in a row, I realized the truth: I set aside time each morning to brush my teeth, shower, eat breakfast, and otherwise care for my physical health, so why should my mental health care be any different?
My daily nervous system check-ins are basically the same thing: mental hygiene. When I made a practice of checking in with my mental health, I was surprised at how easy it was to understand what I needed: to speak up, take a break, ask for a hug, phone a friend, or schedule a therapy appointment. My experiment certainly wasn’t perfect. I still had moments of feeling destabilized and uncentered, but the very act of checking in served to reground me, and my connection to my mental wellness deepened in the process.
Want to join a community of other like-minded women on monthly challenges like these? Become a Yellow member!
Photos by: Liz Calka