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How to help a loved one who is struggling with an episode of mental illness

When someone you love is struggling with an episode of mental illness, it can be hard to know what to do. Here are some things that most people in an episode like this will appreciate. And moreover, it will remind them that they have people that are wonderful and beautiful in their lives who care about them.

1. Remind them that you love them, exactly as they are in this moment. And you think that they are brave, courageous, and you think more of them for having the willpower to struggle through it.

When an episode hits, we don't feel like ourselves. We feel broken, and that makes us want to change it even more. But the more you struggle to change how you feel, the more trapped you become. Accepting yourself exactly how you are is so important for coping with an episode of depression or anxiety. The best thing you can tell them is that you think the world of them for going through it and you love them for who they are, and having an episode doesn't change that.

2. Make them food and bring it to their house.

It is hard enough in an episode to go to work, and do the daily necessities. Many times other things fall by the wasteside. There just isn't enough energy to get it all done. That energy has already been expended with fear, dread, sadness and worry. But we also don't like knowing that we're letting that part of ourselves slip. It can be a huge help to have someone get some food to bring to the house. I know I tend to rely on microwave meals during those times. When I'm anxious, it's really hard to eat. See, your body is in fight or flight mode, so you are nauseous about eating, and you're basically shitting out everything you eat anyways (anxiety poops, it's a thing). Liquids are easier though, so ensure, milkshakes, and oatmeal are easier to get through and eat. You can also bring them some tasty greasy food, since they probably need the calories at the moment anyways and the tastiness of the food might entice them.

3. While you're there, clean up the house a little. Do the dishes etc. 

This is easier if it is a partner, or roommate, but you can try with a friend too (you just don't want them to feel deficient). A messy house can be a reminder to someone in an episode that they aren't feeling normal. Tidying up (even if it is their mess) can help their mindset and make them feel less crazy.

4. Text them, as frequently as you are willing, to just say hi.

Asking how someone is doing is okay, but it can also make them wallow in how they're feeling. However it's nice to check in. I like to ask people, on a scale of 1 - 10 where 1 is really bad, and 10 is good/normal/feel like yourself, what's your number. And then daily I ask their number. Just a simple, "hello, thinking about you" can be a bright spot in their day.

5. Ask them what emotions they are feeling in the moment, then give them a hug.

It can be hugely helpful to have someone ask you how you are feeling. We are dragging around so many negative feelings and trying to act normal, that to just be real for a minute is really relieving. It's important that you say you want to know the emotions, not all the worrying, depressing thoughts, because it can quickly get into wallowing. Ask what emotions they are feeling. Offer them a hug and say that you know they'll cry and that's the point. Tell them you want them to get it all out. Many times we'll stifle our tears because we don't believe we have permission. But don't get us wrong, a big hug cry probably sounds amazing to anyone struggling. Try not to get too sad if they cry really hard, it's that emotion coming out and it will make them feel better.

6. Ask them to come on a walk with you.

Walks help a lot of people who are struggling. It gets them out of the house, where they associate some negative emotions. It gets their body moving which can help release a buildup of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. The movement and conversation can be distracting. Make sure to point out pretty flowers or peculiar things. This can really help them focus on the outside world a bit. There's also some research to support that just being in nature can boost mood levels.

7. Try a little cognitive behavioral therapy with them

If they are open to it, this can be a great approach to someone who likes to wallow and look to you for reassurance. Ask them what emotion they are feeling. Then, ask them what thoughts are driving that emotion. What's the thought replaying in their head over and over? From there, ask for an exhaustive list of the evidence they have to support that thought. Then, ask them for an exhaustive list of evidence they have that is contradictory (proves the thought is not true). Finally, ask them to come up with some more realistic thoughts. It's important that you make them come up with the positive thoughts themselves. You can help, and maybe you can go back and forth creating positive thoughts, but they have to do it too.

Here's what this might look like

What are you feeling?
sad, scared, hopeless

What are you thinking?
I'm afraid my depression is going to come back, I can feel it and I don't want it to happen.

What evidence do you have to support that?
I feel it in my body. Last time I felt this way I got depressed.

What evidence do you have that goes against that theory?
I have felt this before and it didn't get that bad.

What are some more neutral or realistic thoughts?
I can't tell what the future holds, so I have no way to know if it will get worse.
I have enough to focus on in the moment, so I don't need to focus on that too.

Going though an episode of anxiety or depression is taxing and difficult, but knowing you're not alone can go a long way. In some of my worst times, I've also seen the most beauty in people who were willing to be there for me. It gives my life meaning in a way I would never have had without anxiety or depression. Be that beauty for someone else :)


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