Coping with Anxiety and Mental Health - by Mikkel Bondesen
I decided to go on a Mental Health “Diet” 30 days ago. I wanted to see if changing my habits and focusing on my mental health would have an affect on not only my Anxiety, but my general well-being. Now that I am 30 days in, I think it’s worth sharing some of the results...
This idea behind this experiment partially emerged because I looked at how much time, energy and money we spend taking care of our physical health in order to look better, and how little we spend on our mental health. Given my struggles with Anxiety, I think there’s real merit in looking at mental health on equal footing with physical health, so I was curious what would happen if I followed a “mental diet” for 45 days. I wanted to see if taking the same structured approach, as I would take to losing weight, could have an effect on my mental well-being.
So towards the end of August I began putting together a “diet” plan. I took a lot of inspiration from Barry McDonagh’s The DARE Response, but also looked at all the comments from my previous post on June 9th, and the many subsequent conversations that came from that.
In the end I settled on a daily protocol that looks like this:
Workout Daily. 7 Days/week.
Only vigorous workouts that gets the HR pumping count. Since my main anxiety is around Open Water Swimming, I have increased my time in the pool and ocean dramatically, in order to know that I am strong in the water. I have also been biking and running which I have been doing for years. On average I have been working out 1-1.5 hours per day. It’s proven over and over again that prolonged physical exercise is one of the single most helpful things when struggling with Anxiety and Depression. Thankfully working out comes very natural to me so this was fairly easy to accomplish.
Get up Early.
I getup around 4:45am on weekdays and 6am on weekends in order to get my workouts done before work begins. This has been my routine for years, so didn’t require any notable change.I like getting my workout done before my wife and kids wake up, and before I go to work.
Meditate 2 x 20mins daily.
I always knew that this was important. The science behind it is undeniable, yet I never really took it serious until now. I have been doing Mantra based meditation (similar to TM - Transendental Meditation) which my awesome friend and meditation teacher Andrew Barrett taught me. I also do guided meditations from DARE and one that my thetapist gave me. I either meditate right before or right after my morning workout in the car. That way I am nice and tired from working out, and my mind is already quite calm. My second meditation occurs right after lunch. Same drill. In the car before my next meeting. On the weekends I will get up early so I can meditate before working out and will do it later in the day when I find time. There has only been one day out of the 30 where I only did one meditation.
After working out, af the end of the shower, 30 secs of cold water to get the blood pumping. It boosts your immune system and it’s great to clear your mind. It also sucks.
Affirmations - lots of them.
Whenever I am driving I will be going through a list of affirmations. I also spend a lot of time being self-compassionate. I am a Type A personality and therefore used to beating myself up. By being self-compassionate and spending a lot of time telling myself “I love myself” I am working hard on changing that one.
During the day. When I run, when I drive, when I walk. I like to think that I am probably one of the only drivers in LA who’s actually aware when driving and can remember my entire drive from A to B. I like to do Mindfull breathing and 5 Senses.
I have been writing almost daily. Observations about how I feel, the realizations I have had, the breakdowns that have occurred and so on. It’s a great record of the journey, and I like capturing the key insights that have occurred.
Before falling asleep I will spend time thinking about my day and all the little things I am grateful for.
Drink Lots of Water
Trying to get between 1/2 to a full gallon per day.
Sugar is a stimulant and can spike my mood. Not smart when you are trying to calm your mind.
I switched to decaf, and didn’t really suffer. I can get pretty wired from coffee, so this had to go.
I am not a drinker, but I do like having an occasional beer. I decided this one was important as I want to be present and experience my emotions, and not have anything that can suppress any of my emotions.
Take my vitamins, including Magnesium
Magnesium is naturally calming.
Open Water Swim
Every Wednesday Morning with TOWER 26 Triathlon Swimming. Not a hard workout, purely a mental workout.
It may look like a lot, but it’s actually very doable and didn’t take much to integrate into my daily life. The biggest challenge was getting regular with meditation, but now that I have the system down, it’s not a problem.
So how I am doing 30 days into this 45 day experiment???
I am simply doing amazing. The change to my well-being is incredible. Seriously. I had a feeling it would have some modicum of an effect, but I did not know that I would have an effect to this degree. I also didn’t know that it would affect almost all areas of my life in a positive way.
I am way less anxious when swimming in Open Water, and my friend David Lee and the folks at Tower 26 have been fantastic in helping me get out in the ocean every week. I still have work to do, but that’s just going to take time.
However, my general level of anxiousness is completely different. I still get anxious around Open Water Swimming, but my general anxiety is at an all-time low. Whereas I used to be anxious a lot of the time, it now surprises me when I am anxious because I experience so little of it.
My mind is a lot calmer and quieter. I worry much less than I did 30 days ago. My “what if” thoughts are fewer and further apart, and my reaction to most of them completely different.
I am much less afraid of having Anxiety attacks. In general I have much less fear about many things,
But the area where this has experiment has had the biggest impact for me is with my family. I did not know the degree to which I wasn’t present in my relationship until I began this experiment. As a consequence of this “diet”, I am present in a way I haven’t been for many years. I am not struggling with myself to the same degree, so I am able to be in the moment with my wife Sabine Boas Bondesen as opposed to be in my head fighting my anxiousness.
It’s incredible. I did not see this coming. It’s transformed my relationship with Sabine, and it’s BY FAR the single best thing that has come out of this “diet”.
Random Benefits include losing some weight, being way fitter than I was a month ago, and less aches and pains as I am swimming more.
I am also learning a lot along the way…
1. There is no Silver Bullet for Anxiety. There is not “one thing” you can do that will cure you. You can absolutely be cured, but the combination of dedication and time is what will make it happen.
2. Focus on the process, not the outcome. While my desired outcome is being free of anxiety, I cannot put it on a timeline like a traditional goal. It will take the time that it takes and in the meantime it’s all about the process and focusing on that every single day. I know deep down that I am going to heal fully, but it’s just going to take time.
3. It’s all about giving up resistance. I am learning that whenever you feel anxious, bad or down, it’s because you’re resisting something. You are not accepting whatever situation you are in for what it is. You are resisting the moment or the experience. You have to stop resisting and accept the situation without judgement. This one takes real practice, but when I am able to do it, it makes me calm instantaneously.
At the risk of sounding like hyperbole, I have to say that I am extremely grateful that I have been struggling with Anxiety for the past 6 years. I wouldn’t have gone on this “diet” if it wasn’t for my Anxiety, and because of this my relationship with Sabine has been transformed.
And THAT makes it all worth it, because at the end of the day, my relationship to my wife and kids is the single most important thing.
My “diet” lasts for another 15 days, but once the 45 days are over, I may make some small modifications (I may start having a beer every now and again). However, there is more work to do to cure my Anxiety, and since I am feeling better than I have in years, I see no reason why I should stop it.
Like all great “diets” you need to make it a lifestyle choice if you want the changes to stick, so I may just choose to see what happens if I follow this mental health “diet” for a full year. Should be very interesting...