With the one-year anniversary of lockdown just around the corner, even mental health advocate Megan Gallagher admits she’s struggled in the past year.
“I’m naturally a positive person, but man, this past year was challenging. There were so many things that were just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know if I can handle this,’” she revealed on Ten Minute Talks with Meagan Lynn.
Taking the good with the bad
Gallagher, a TED Talk speaker, author, and host has struggled with anxiety since middle school and uses her own journey with mental health to advocate for others. Over the years, she’s developed a toolkit for anxiety as she shared in her interview. This year, in particular, Gallagher says she’s learning how to balance the good with the bad and take things as they come.
“I would say I have found the balance through allowing myself to feel what I’m feeling and to not judge myself when [negative thoughts] come up,” she said.
Gallagher says that all feelings start out as thoughts, and recommends a visualization exercise to pay closer attention to what you’re thinking.
“My therapist gave me this great metaphor where you imagine that your mind is like a river. And if you were sitting by a river, typically you would sit and just watch it go by,” she explained. “Imagine each thought is like a rock in the river; if you go in and pick it up, how long would that take to over-analyze and turn over every rock and be like, ‘Oh, this one is this color and this shape?’”
When you understand how long it would take to judge each thought you have, Gallagher says it helps you to realize that you don’t have to give time or energy to every thought that crosses your mind.
“You can just sit back and allow the river to pass; to let things just go through,” she said. “It’s really powerful to remind yourself that these are just thoughts and I am creating them, but I also have the ability just to watch them pass. I don’t have to get in an argument with myself. I don’t have to get frustrated or say to myself, ‘Oh gosh, why did I think about that?’”
Tools and practices for overcoming anxiety
One type of thought someone may be likely to experience is a “what-if” thought, which usually involves worrying about something negative that hasn’t yet occurred. Gallagher says it’s important to remember that any thought that starts with “what if” typically is anxiety manifesting as a worst-case scenario. When she finds herself catastrophizing, she uses a trick called positive replacement.
“Basically it means anytime that you have a negative thought, you’re replacing it with a positive one,” she explained. “Sometimes it can feel as if you’re being your own therapist and that you’re challenging your mind, but basically for all of the negative thoughts, you can come up with a positive replacement.”
“Let’s say I think, ‘What if Covid never ends?’ Instead of thinking ‘What if Covid never ends,’ I could flip it around and say, ‘What if this year is a lot better than last year?’”
Along with practicing positive replacement, Gallagher has three go-to practices she turns to when she feels anxiety creeping up. Firstly, Gallagher always prioritizes her mental health and well-being over anything else.
“I love to just put down the phone or whatever I’m doing right now, knowing that I can get back to it,” she said.
When anxiety comes, she’ll step away from her work and take 10-15 minutes to recenter herself. Gallagher says going outside is one of her go-to practices.
“Whether you’re hiking or walking, I think being in nature, you just feel cleansed,” she said.
In addition to taking a walk, Gallagher also likes to take some time to focus on her breathing through meditation or breath work.
“Anxiety can come from a lack of oxygen to the brain and it may sound crazy, but it really does make a difference,” she said. “For me, a really big telltale sign, if I’m having anxiety, is when I feel like I’m breathing from my chest, and shallow breathing rather than pushing out my stomach and using my diaphragm.”
For breath work, Gallagher recommends a technique called alternate nostril breathing.
“It’s really easy. It looks weird, but you put one finger on one nostril and you breathe out and then you hold your breath, and then the other side, and you just go back and forth,” she said. “Basically what that does is it balances both the left and right side of your brain; one side is creative, one side is more analytical, so it really does a good job.”
As for meditation, Gallagher says there are a plethora of guided meditations online and recommends searching YouTube or using an app like Headspace.
“You just feel so good after,” she shared. “Meditation and doing some form of breath work is really powerful and it really calms down your nervous system, and it helps you focus more on the present.”
Making 2021 better
As 2021 is just beginning, Gallagher says it’s important to keep progressing and not look back.
“Our minds can try to trick us into thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m never going to get out of this,’ or ‘It’s never going to get better, or ‘I’m always going to be the girl who does blank,’ or whatever story we have about ourselves,” she said. “But it’s really important to remember that we are moving forward. That’s a fact.”
“Congratulating yourself and just continue moving in that direction is really powerful because I think a lot of people throughout Covid have become really fear-based,” she continued. “When you feel like you’re just stuck like you’re stuck in the mud and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t even breathe. This is never going to get better,’ you just have to remember you can take it one day at a time, one week at a time, one month at a time.”
In keeping moving forward, even though 2020 may have been an especially difficult year, Gallagher says creating goals and giving yourself things to look forward to is essential.
“Tell yourself the inner dialogue of, ‘Yes I can. Today is going to be amazing. I’m going to do things that make me feel like my best self, and every single day I’m going to have a full day,’” she said. “Even if it’s as simple as going to a new coffee shop if they are open or joining a virtual book club, or things that just can get you excited about life.”
“At the end of 2021, you want to look back and say, ‘Wow, I did it for myself. And I did a really great job,’” she continued. “Whatever your goals are or resolutions–if it’s turning off electronics before you go to bed if it’s drinking more water or cutting out alcohol or hanging out with a new group of people, whatever it may be–just really making sure that you do it and are holding yourself accountable.”
While setting out to make this year better than last, Gallagher says it’s also important to give yourself grace.
“Be kind to yourself too, because it’s so easy to compare ourselves to other people, whether it be a famous person or someone with more money” she said. “But it’s important to remember that everyone is still a human being at the end of the day, and we all have had to adjust our lives. No one is immune to what Covid and all the side effects have created, so just remember that you’re not alone with how you’re feeling, someone has felt this way before, someone has overcome it before and you will, too.”
For more tips from Gallagher and updates on her upcoming mental health workbook for young adults, you can follow her on Instagram @meganwgallagher.