Wellness Foundations (1-4)

       A common question from readers is about what activities I schedule and at what times I schedule them. Typically, the questions are aimed at finding out what exercise routines and schedules I've found to be the most beneficial for reducing my symptoms. Because no two people are in the same place on their journey, I don't believe that sharing my workout routines will be of much benefit. There is no one size fits all approach to better physical or mental health. Besides, I schedule an array of activities to reduce my symptoms, not just exercise. 

       Since this question does come up so often, I've decided to write about how I make my entire wellness activities schedule. The idea here is not to prescribe a regiment, but to demonstrate how I fit wellness activities into my life. I have a wonderful wife and two beautiful children that I want to spend as much quality time with as possible. To ensure that the time I do spend with them is quality time, I must take care of myself. To do that, I have to be creative with my time management. That means writing out a schedule.

       The importance of writing out a schedule cannot be overstated. Dean F. MacKinnon, MD, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital has talked about the importance of setting a schedule when someone has a mental illness. He stated, "If your life has no form to it, if you wake up in the morning with no idea of what to do with yourself, you're going to be miserable. Actually, that can make anyone miserable, whether they have a mental illness or not." I have learned the hard way that if I don't schedule my wellness activities out for the week, there is a good chance that I won't do them. 

       I understand the importance of a routine for those of us who suffer from mental illnesses, so while the times that I schedule activities rarely changes, the activities themselves do. Different activities relieve different symptoms, and that is one of the reasons I only schedule one week in advance. I can change what activities I do based on what I am dealing with at the time. 

       I am well aware that a quick internet search will deliver many exercise programs and classes that give step-by-step instructions for one, to as many as six, months. I love that concept. Knowing what I would be doing for a month or more would have some real advantages. However, I have found that every time I have tried to schedule more than a week in advance that I have failed in some way, however small. I may have an unexpected errand to run and have to change what workout I do that day, or one of my kids might get sick, or I may not have made quite as much progress as I thought I would, so the resulting workouts have to be tweaked. As John Lennon said, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." I don't like letting myself down, or feeling like a failure because "life" happened. 

       I also don't like focusing solely on results, which is often what happens with those long term exercise plans. I like to have fun while I exercise (I do this to reduce symptoms, not to become an olympian), and I can't do that if all I am focused on is how much better I may, or may not, be doing compared to the last time. I found that if I focus on results they rarely come, but if I focus on the process the results are sure to follow. 

       That being said, I sit down once a week and plan out what I am going to do and when I am going to do it. For me, the best part about this strategy, when it concerns exercise, is that I don't get bored. I can change running/walking locations each week if I want a change of scenery. I can add in a hike if I have time. I am able to add trips to the gym for circuit training to gain strength. If I have worn out my joints and need a low impact week, I can use an elliptical machine or bicycle. Each week I am able to get excited about exercise again because I ask myself two wonderful questions. What will excite me? What will keep me motivated this week? Those questions keep me actively engaged in my exercise therapy. 

       I ask those same two questions when deciding what other wellness activities to include in the upcoming week. There are so many things that people do to bring themselves joy and reduce symptoms. I don't pretend to know them all, or what is best for anyone. I know what works for me, and I schedule it. If someone hasn't found things that bring him or her joy or has simply forgotten, perhaps this short (incomplete) list of examples will help.

Painting, Coloring, Sculpture, Crafts,
Meditation, Yoga, Caring for a pet,
Gardening, Volunteering, Reading,
Listening to music, Long hot baths,
Support groups, Watching a comedy,
Deep breathing exercises, Journaling

       I don't know if other people have enough time in their week to do everything that they would like to, but I know I don't. So, I always have a plan to ensure that I get in as many therapeutic activities as possible. I don't have the luxury of skipping exercise, going an entire week without some form of meditation, not carving out some time to read, or deciding that I am not going to find time during the week to journal. These are things that I must do to stay well and keep my symptoms at bay. Again, if I don't schedule them, then I probably won't do them. That is unacceptable. 

       I am not trying to survive; I am trying to thrive. To do that, I sit down each week and make my plan. There are times when I find that I can do two activities at the same time to maximize the benefit from a therapeutic standpoint. Doing so also allows me to fit more wellness activities into the week. For example, I usually listen to my favorite music while exercising, painting and taking a hot bath. I love to listen to guided meditations on my walks. Reading while I eat lunch is one of my favorite things to do and, again, it allows me to kill two birds with one stone. I have found that if I am creative and deliberate about what I do I can accomplish a great deal, even during a busy week. 

       Two tips I have found that help me immensely are to always use a pen, and always follow through. The reason I use a pen is that it prevents me from erasing activities during the week when I may be in a funk. Once an activity is on my calendar it is there to stay. The reason that I follow through, even when I know that there is no way that I will be able to finish, is because the times that I want to skip things on my list is usually when I need to do them the most. 

       Ironically, I have found that the times when I have forced myself to start activities, that I absolutely did not want to do, are the times I have ended up enjoying them the most. Obviously, it comes from the fact that when I'm done, not only do I feel better because of the therapeutic affect, but I get an additional boost from knowing that I overcame the desire to hang my head in defeat and crawl into bed. There is a great deal of satisfaction and beauty in overcoming my inner demons that tell me to just lay down and give up. 

       In case there is anyone that is unable to get a weekly calendar, for whatever reason, I designed a simple one that works well and put it below. It is in Jpeg format so that it can be clicked on, and then printed. It prints very nicely in black and white as well. 
Receive A Weekly Update by email
Follow on: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Google+
(click links on left)
As always I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click this link and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource, and is staffed by wonderful people. 
Feel free to send your questions or comments to:

       The following two lines from last week’s post prompted many requests for me to write about my priorities: “I began to write down strategies for a wellness plan, not a symptom management plan. I wrote down everything I could think of, and then I began reassessing my priorities.” Just like when I was frequently asked about my specific workout routines, and I wrote Scheduling Wellness Activities in response, I am going to take this opportunity to write about how I assess priorities. I don’t think it would be of much benefit for me to write about my personal priorities. The reason is simple. While the priorities for achieving better mental and physical health will be similar for those of us with mental illnesses, each of us are unique in where we are on our journey, our experiences, our preferences and our needs. I do believe the sheet I made to assess my priorities can be universally used though, and it’s simple.

       I use a chart with a four-point scale to assess what my priorities are and where I should focus my attention. I realize that some people enjoy getting into the minutiae of this whole process. I think that is wonderful, but I don’t have that calling. I have read many books on the subject over the years, and I have learned much from each one. In the end, however, I have found it is best for me to keep things simple and straightforward. Otherwise, I can quickly overcomplicate a rather simple process.

       I should mention that because my symptoms have been severe throughout my life, I do put my mental/physical health on the top of all of my lists, no matter what area of my life I am focusing on. It may seem, at first, that this is selfish, but nothing could be further from the truth. To be of any service to others, I must first take care of myself. If I neglect my mental/physical health, then all bets are off. If I am unable to function because I am overrun with symptoms, then it is hard for me to be of much service to anyone. Putting my mental/physical health as the number one priority in my life is what allows me to have a life. It allows me to participate and to make a difference in the world. Caring for myself is not self-indulgent. It is what is required for me to live life. Realizing that simple truth allowed me to start filling out my charts correctly. I have put a blank one in Jpeg format below in case anyone would like to print it off.

       I completed one of these sheets for each area of my life. Some may have mental/physical health, family, social, work, etc. Others may have mental/physical health, volunteer work, social, school, etc. Whatever the areas of focus a person may have in their life, I have found that making a sheet for each one allows me to zero in on what is truly important. Being able to clearly focus on what matters allows me to live a wonderful, fulfilling life.

       When I filled out these charts the first time, I found it was critical to seriously think through every activity I do in a month before putting them into a category. I also realized I had to be completely honest with myself. For example, does television fall under (3) Nice to do or (4) Able to eliminate, for me? It is according to what list I’m working on. If I am doing my mental health list, I actually put it under (2) Important. I found watching a funny show or movie can be extremely helpful  (Television: The Good & Bad post coming soon). Truly thinking things through and being honest with myself is the only way I have found to make these sheets effective.

       I like to pay close attention to (1) Most important and (4) Able to eliminate. Deciding what are the most important things to focus on in my life is the only way I know of to give myself a sense of direction and purpose. Eliminating things that are simply taking up time, and failing to give me a return on my time investment, frees me up to fill my schedule with things that do. Making sure not to skimp on these two areas, by assuming I know what should go in them, has been an enormous help to my progress.

       I have been asked in the past, “Isn’t that a lot of work?” No. What is a lot of work is lying in mental wards or experiencing crushing symptoms. This is nothing. Improving one's overall well-being doesn't happen by accident. It happens with careful planning. Setting priorities to achieve better mental and physical health is the key. Besides, I wouldn’t think twice about spending hours planning for a vacation. This is my life. I take the time to plan for it.

       Once I figured out what my priorities truly were, all I had to do was start scheduling them into my week and sticking to my schedule. If I’m ever torn over what I should schedule, I think back on what Stephen Covey said, “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically, to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.” That has proved to be true for me. For more in depth information on scheduling you can visit the Scheduling Wellness Activities post.

       A quick side note: I add to, and subtract from, my charts as new circumstances arise and information comes in. They are not static. I go over them at the beginning of each month to make sure no course corrections need to be made. Updating them is a wonderful way to keep me on track, and it reminds me of what I want for my life. The thirty minutes I invest in reviewing them at the beginning of each month pay me back in untold hours of improved mental/physical health, contentment and overall well-being.
Receive A Weekly Update by email
Follow on: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Google+

(click links on left)
       As always, I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click this link and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource and is staffed by wonderful people.
Feel free to send your questions or comments to:

As I studied my heroes’ lives over the years, I realized that not one of them spent their lives worrying about their futures or regretting their pasts. Every single one of them planned their futures, learned from their pasts and then lived in the moment. They didn't simply write down a few ideas; they were all meticulous planners. Because of that, they were able to live in day-tight compartments. In other words, they were able to stay in the moment and not become overwhelmed. I decided since it worked for them, I was going to try it as well. I am forever grateful for the examples they set.

   Learning to live in day-tight compartments helped revolutionize my experience of life. Since learning how to do this, I have found I am significantly happier, more content, less anxious and experience fewer symptoms overall. As with anything worthwhile in life, it does require effort, but the rewards are incredible.

To be able to start living in day-tight compartments and receiving the benefits, I had to start doing three things. I had to begin analyzing my priorities, scheduling my week in advance and then sticking to that plan as closely as possible. That hasn't always been easy, but it isn't complicated. In fact, it is nothing if not straightforward. Most people can do those three things.

   The first thing I had to do was to begin analyzing what I wanted my priorities to be.  Knowing exactly what I want for my life and what I hope to become means I am no longer wandering through life aimlessly. Not having a clear direction in my life often led to confusion, anxiety and a feeling of being spread too thin. Knowing what I want to become and what I want to achieve allows me to focus on what is truly important in my life. If anyone would like to read/re-read the post on a simple way to analyze and set priorities click here.

   Knowing what my priorities are allows me to do the second thing that is required to live in day-tight compartments, which is to schedule my week in advance. There is magic in this step! Meticulously planning out my week allows me to relax and live in the moment. Before I began writing out my plan for the week, I would often find myself worrying about future events. By taking 1-1.5 hours on Sunday morning to write out exactly what I will be doing in the next seven days, I eliminate 90% of those worries. I can catch myself now if I begin worrying about what I am going to do later in the week. I simply remind myself that I'm not there yet, and I do have a plan for it. That allows me to relax and refocus on the task that I am currently undertaking. What a relief that is!

   By having my week planned, I am also able to avoid spending unwanted time looking back on past bad experiences. Unless I were spending time working through issues with a trained therapist, I want the time I use looking back to be used as a reference for what has and has not worked, as well as to measure how far I've come. I am not defined by my past, but by what I do about it. If I allow myself to look back too often, I can easily become overwhelmed, depressed and lose the preciousness of the present moment. If I catch myself looking back on past bad experiences outside the time to schedule my week, I can remind myself that this is not the time. I can look back on these things when the time is right--when I am making course corrections and planning what to do next. That frees me up to live in the moment. Denial never worked for me. The past comes up. However, knowing that I have a time in my week that I look back allows me to refocus on the present because I know that I will address it. I am not repressing anything or living in denial.

    Finally, planning my week in advance ensures that I incorporate exercise, healthy meals and wellness activities as often as possible. The likelihood of me doing all of those things without a plan is slim to none. I can't afford to lose focus. If I don't take care of myself, all bets are off. My overall well-being depends on me making time for self-care.

   I have written about how I schedule my week in the past. Click here if you would like to read/re-read that post. What I am going to add here is an example of what a hypothetical week of someone who uses this technique might look like. I use a detailed calendar like the first one pictured below. However, I put up the other one below it in the previous post in case anyone doesn't have access to one like I use. An unused copy can be printed off at the link provided above.

   Once I have planned my week, I can focus on the final step, sticking to the plan as much as possible. Of course, things come up. However, making myself follow through if at all possible is crucial to all of this working. If I know what my priorities are, schedule them into my week but then don't follow through, I would have been better off skipping the first two steps and saving myself the time. The relief comes from taking the actions, not in planning them. I have cried through workouts, painted wild pictures when I was too manic to take my time and listened to guided meditations when I was barely able to breathe due to overwhelming anxiety. Why? Because it's at moments like those when self-care is critical! I can't imagine any diabetic deciding to not take their insulin when their sugar levels get off. That's when they need it the most. The same principle applies here.

   An excellent tool to help me follow through is a to-do list. Each morning I write a quick list from my plan. It's simple, and it works. For instance, if the schedule above were mine, I would take thirty seconds on Sunday morning to write down what I needed to do on a small piece of paper (like the one pictured below), stuff it in my pocket and cross things off as I completed them. A simple list like this one makes my day more gratifying, and it keeps me on track.

   I should note that if the week shown above were mine, it would be much more detailed (I kept it generic for illustrative purposes). I wouldn't write art. I would write painting or coloring. I would have written in the type of exercise I would be doing each day. I would have written in where I would be volunteering. Also, I would have specific meals written in the appropriate time slots. Others may be in a situation where they can easily eat healthy meals and snacks without prior planning. I am not.

   During the time I use to plan my week, I use the sheet below to plan what I will be eating in the coming week. I have written a post about planning and preparing healthy meals before. Click here if you would like to read/re-read that post. The great thing about this sheet is it also allows me to prepare our grocery list. I typically go to the grocery store after I do my weekly planning, so I know exactly what I need to grab while I'm there.

   All of this may seem like a lot of work. In a way, it is. It's hard. Taking 1-1.5 hours each Sunday morning to plan my week is not an easy task. There are many other things that I would rather do. However, if I don't, I won't be doing much of anything else, because symptoms will surely not be far behind. Taking a little time to plan out my week, and forcing myself to follow through, is a small price to pay for better mental and physical health.

   I am aware of the movement that the backlash of modern living has created. The constant hustle and bustle have caused some to believe that not having a plan or "just being" is the best way to get through life. Perhaps that philosophy is the dubious luxury of average people without mental illnesses. I refuse to be average, and I have mental illnesses. Obviously then, that philosophy did not work for me. I do believe in a slower pace of life and taking care of myself. That is why I do all of this, because in the modern world if I don't, the likelihood of me being able to live at a slower pace and taking care of myself is slim to none.

   The funny thing is many people who ascribe to the "just be" philosophy of life are the same ones who revere The Dalai Lama or Pope Francis. They seem to be symbols of the "just be" movement. Please realize that, like all great people I have ever studied, these two men have their weeks meticulously planned. Both of them even have assistants to make sure they stay on track. They do not wander through life. They have a mission and a plan. I will too.

      In case anyone is like me, and likes to take the occasional adventure, fear not. I simply schedule them. I write on my calendar: ADVENTURE! These times are reserved especially for not having plans. Traveling out in the world is one of my favorite things to do. It is an invigorating experience every time. Planning out my life allows me to have those adventures. If I were spread too thin or overrun with symptoms, they would never be a part of my reality.
Receive A Weekly Update by email
Follow on: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Google+
(click links on left)
   As always, I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click this link and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is an excellent resource and is staffed by wonderful people.
Feel free to send your questions or comments to:

       I have been using a wellness technique a great deal this past week, and I realized I haven't covered it yet. Sometimes the most obvious things are the ones we forget. This is one of my favorite strategies, and it's crucial to my well-being when things are stormy in my life.

       Things were quite stormy recently. Two weeks ago my doctor and I decided to change the dose of one of my medications, due to headaches I was getting. That slight medication change turned out to have a significant impact on my mood and overall well-being. Then I found out I had bronchitis, which means I haven't been able to exercise like I normally do. Needless to say, the past week was tough.

       My emotions were all over the map. I was scared when we made the medication change because making any changes to medications can get ugly. I was depressed. I'm sure it had to do with my medication levels being slightly off, lack of exercise and anger. I've been angry because I'm doing my best and I'm still getting knocked down.

       Helping others and reducing stigma means being honest. And that's what I'll always be, honest. I took my medication as prescribed; I ate healthy foods; I exercised as much as I could; I meditated, painted and helped others. Still I was scared, depressed, anxious and mad at the whole situation.

       Even though I do my best, sometimes I still get the wind knocked out of me. That is the truth of mental illnesses. If there were a cure, we would all be better by now. What I want to point out is that I didn't lose hope. I knew I was experiencing a temporary dip and that I would come out the other side stronger and wiser than I was before. My focus stayed on mental health, not on managing temporary symptoms. If I had focused on the symptoms, I would have gotten more symptoms.

       My point is, if your wellness journey isn't always sunshine and rainbows, I hope you will realize that you are not alone. The symptoms that accompany having a mental illness can make life seem difficult, but those difficulties can also bring a great deal of compassion, love, strength and joy. The key is to hold on, to get back up and try again. When things seem hopeless and I feel I've tried everything possible and nothing is working, I like to remember what Thomas Edison said: "When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: you haven't." How true. In a world of infinite possibilities, there is always another opportunity, another chance. I'll never give up because there's always hope! If there's still breath in me, there's still hope for me.

       This past week was nothing more than a learning experience. I have already turned the corner. I feel considerably better than I did a week ago. Depression, anxiety, anger and fear are no match for a fantastic wellness plan. The research is clear, in the vast majority of cases, healthy foods, exercise, wellness activities, and medication can allow those of us with mental illnesses to live a wonderful life. This blip on my radar was not some sort of personal failure in my wellness journey. It was a sign that I deal with mental illnesses. I did my best, and thus will walk with my head held high!

       With that being said, the wellness technique that helped me so much this past week was calling forth my mental health team. Obviously, this is not a team in the traditional sense of the word, but a team that comes together in my mind. I call on my heroes to help pull me through. I call on amazing authors who have written inspiring books. A few that I turn to can be found in the Bibliotherapy post (here). I call on composers who have written music that moves me. I call on poets, athletes, coaches, leaders, etc. These are people who I respect and who inspire me. I look to their life's work to guide and direct me. For example, I have read Maya Angelou's work so many times that I feel like I know her. I can ask myself, "What would she have had me do?" I can do that with most of my heroes. I read their work, listen to their speeches, watch their clips, and I find strength.

       When I call forth my team, it's important that I can get to them. Having amazing books, music, clips, articles, etc. readily available is a necessity. It wouldn't do me much good to try and assemble a team if I was already experiencing symptoms. I keep them on call, ready for action as soon as needed. I have my favorite inspirational authors set aside on my bookshelf. I have inspiring articles bookmarked on my computer and phone. I have all sorts of playlists of music saved for different situations. To read The Amazing Effects of Music post click (here).

       I also have playlists on YouTube full of inspirational clips. Different things inspire different people, but I'll give a few examples of what's on my inspirational playlist to illustrate what I am talking about. I have an enormous number to choose from. Different situations call for different members of my mental health team. Here are four I picked at random.

Dylan Thomas: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
I like to imagine that the light is my good mental health. I will rage against the dying of the light!

Maya Angelou: Still I Rise
I like to pretend she is speaking right to my illnesses when she recites this poem. I will forever be in awe of this woman.

Stephen Fry: Speaking about self-pity
Sometimes I have to remember that a best friend is someone who will tell me what I need to hear, not necessarily what I want to hear. As a man who also deals with mental illness, he delivers beautifully.

When I want an instant fix or wish some grand act would solve all my problems, I have to remember that small positive steps each day lead me to where I want to be. I often use this clip to remind myself of that.

       When I realize that it's time, I like to walk in front of a mirror, look at myself and loudly announce that, "It's time to call forth your team!" Instantly, I'm not alone. The greatest minds, athletes, coaches, leaders and writers gather beside me, ready to do battle. Again, because I am NOT my illnesses, I am not battling myself. I am gathering a team, the likes of which the real world will never see, to slay the beast that I am facing. With exercise, healthy foods, wellness activities, medication and a mental health team like mine, depression, anxiety and/or mania don't stand a chance for very long.
Receive A Weekly Update by email
Follow on: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Google+
(click links on left)
       As always, I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click this link and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a fantastic resource and is staffed by wonderful people.
Feel free to send your questions or comments to: